5 Public History Projects with a Canadian Military Connection

I’ve been interested in the military history of Canada for most of my life. Even through the years when classical reception was my primary research focus, I followed the field with interest. And obviously, given the subject matter of this site, I turned to military history – with a Canadian connection – once my classical reception work came to an end. Now that I’m moving away from the academy, I find myself drawn to what might be called public history projects in the field. Here are a handful I think are worth pursuing.

Canadians in Vietnam. Aspects of this story featured in a ‘Peace’ exhibit at the Canadian War Museum from 2013-4 and the CBC did an episode of Rewind on the subject, but surely it could warrant a stand-alone exhibit at the CWM or perhaps a multi-episode History Channel-style TV treatment. It would provide a perfect way to interrogate the contemporary issue of Canada’s military engagement with in the world, and in particular its ambiguous and multifaceted response to the foreign policies of the superpower to the South.

Special Operations. This too isn’t entirely virgin territory. There are monographs and the CWM has touched on the topic. But given the changing nature of warfare and in particular Canada’s military role in Afghanistan and now the conflict with ISIS, it seems a good time to explore the long history of ‘unconventional’ warfare in Canadian history and the moral issues it raises. Security might be an obstacle in terms of recent and contemporary events but it’s probably not insurmountable, particularly if the project focuses on the strategic, moral, and policy dimensions of special operations rather than their technical or tactical intricacies.

PTSD.  PTSD occupies a prominent place in both popular and scholarly engagement with Canadian Military History. It was part of the 2011 exhibition at the CWM entitled War + Medicine. It’s featured prominently in media coverage of the Great War Centenary But again, given the importance of PTSD in the present moment and its long history in Canada, it warrants more attention. In particular, I’d like to see some real attention paid to pre and post First World War manifestations of PTSD.  I think that longer perspective might help to illuminate the interaction effect that has made PTSD such a huge problem more recently. And wouldn’t it be great if the project  tackled the social and cultural impacts of PTSD, particularly with respect to substance abuse, self-harm, and domestic violence?

The Environment. This one’s close to my own heart as even a quick look at this website will reveal. It’s also more or less an open field in terms of Canadian Military history. I see two ways to approach the issue within the Canadian context. First, there’s the colonial perspective, in which Canada supported the war-making capacity of the British Empire with bases, manpower and strategic resources. Second, the impact of war on perceptions of nature, particularly surrounding the Great War is an area ripe for deeper exploration.

War and the imagined community. This one is a bit more challenging. I think it’s time some institution offered the public a critical exploration of the narratives of national awakening and heroic self-sacrifice that characterize popular understandings of Canadian Military history. Such narratives – though not without some foundation – inhibit deeper understandings both of our national history and soldiers’ experience of war. Addressing the whys, hows and wherefores of the stories we love to tell (and believe) about our military history could offer profound insights on questions of collective memory and national identity.

Two common themes link these projects (beyond Canadian Military History). The first is cultural relevance. Each project addresses an issue of contemporary importance where a historical perspective can provide important insight. Secondly, each offers an opportunity to challenge the public in ways that might help us develop a deeper, more critical perspective on not just our history but also our present and future.

Of course, brainstorming ideas is the easy part. The real trick is to come up with creative and engaging ways to disseminate the research at the core of these projects. But that’s a post for another day.

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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