Noble Illusions and other summer reading

Stephen Dale, Noble Illusions
Stephen Dale, Noble Illusions

Early every summer I collect books which I plan to read during the long solstice days that lie ahead but  by late August or early September I find myself feeling frustrated by how much of that list remains unfinished. Here, then, is that list for this summer. I can’t claim to have completed each of these four books. I am part of the way through some of them and have had to content myself with knowledgeable reviews of the others.

Noble Illusions, by Stephen Dale: Ottawa-based writer Stephen Dale has written a polemical book about the First World War. Dale has discovered a boys’ annual called Young Canada and he examines its use of propaganda to glorify the racist colonial wars that preceded the so-called Great War. Dale writes that a publication whose stated purpose was to instruct young men in the cultivation of everyday virtues was used to glorify brutal wars as being valorous and righteous.

Young Canada, Dale says, helped to persuade a generation of young Canadians to head eagerly for the deadly trenches of Europe. He worries that politicians today are using the centenary of the First World War in a similar way by attempting to revive a sense of military duty embodied in the generation that served in the trenches. Some of our leaders want to instill that same unwavering and unthinking loyalty again.


Peacemakers, by Douglas Roche:  The 85-year-old Roche his written his 21st book, a herculean feat for someone who has also been a Member of Parliament, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations and an independent Senator. Roche has made a career out of harnessing Parliament and international fora, most notably the UN, to find political and diplomatic roads toward greater peace and justice in the world.

Roche claims that, despite what we observe on the television news each day, there are remarkable developments occurring that promote peace.  Despite vicious wars in Syria and elsewhere and the violent standoff in Ukraine, Roche spoke of his cautious optimism in an interview with The Catholic Register newspaper: “There is less violence now,” he said. “There are fewer wars. The economic and social development of people in Africa and Asia is on a steep up curve. There are many things happening that have increased the prospects for peace.”

Roche says that this will be his last book and certainly he deserves a time of rest and leisure, but it is also poignant news because he has contributed so much.

The War that Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan:  We are observing the centenary of the catastrophic First World War and MacMillan, a Canadian historian, had it timed right with the release of this book late in 2013. MacMillan, in the tradition of the American historian Barbara Tuchman, is a master at characterization and anecdote, all based on exhaustive research. So we see the weaknesses and foibles of Europe’s monarchical leaders at the time — Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the British king, George V, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and others, not to mention their various ministers and advisors.

The questions which have been long debated are how did it happen and who was at fault? MacMillan does a masterful job of providing the context and rounding out the characters involved but ultimately shies away from coming down on any one side in the blame game – there is plenty of that to go around.

Jimmy Carter: A Call to Action

A Call to Action, by Jimmy Carter: Perhaps Douglas Roche should engage in a friendly competition with Jimmy Carter, the former American president who is approaching his 90th birthday. Carter has just written his 28th book and in it he continues to be outspoken on theme of gender. Carter says that the most serious challenge facing the world today is the subjugation and abuse of women and girls. He provides detail from his own travel and experience about the continuing incidence of  sexual assault, rape, lack of education and equal pay, the genocide of female fetuses, female genital mutilation, honor killings, dowry deaths and sex trafficking.

Carter takes aim at leaders of the world’s religions as often condoning and even encouraging the subjugation of women. He even severed his lifelong ties with the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue. Carter writes in A Call to Action that religious texts are interpreted “almost exclusively by powerful male leaders within the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other faiths, to proclaim the lower status of women and girls. This claim that women are inferior before God spreads to the secular world to justify gross and sustained acts of discrimination and violence against them.”

There are those who say that Carter has spent the latter decades of his life attempting to redeem the reputation of his one-term presidency and his subsequent loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. One commentator, writing for the Religious News Service, says that religion functions better at the margins of society than in the halls of power, and that Carter exemplifies that dictum. Once out of office, Cater was no longer limited by political considerations and he has been free to speak truth to power, even that of the U.S government, and to act righteously – in the best sense of that word.

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