Book Review: The Vimy Trap

From the Catalyst, Summer 2017

The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War
By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift
Between the Lines, 2016

Reviewed by Debbie Grisdale

April 9, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge where 3,598 Canadians died and 7,000 were wounded, with an estimated 20,000 casualties on the German side.

In this timely book , MacKay and Swift focus on the evolution, over the past century, of the remembrance of WWI, and in particular the battle for Vimy. Canada has moved from seeing it as a battle in a horrific, pointless, and costly war to a romantic myth that Vimy in some way represented the “birth of our nation.”

They coin the term Vimyism, a “network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada’s Great War Experience somehow represents the country’s supreme triumph—a scaling of a grand height of honour and bravery and maturity, a glorious achievement— …and not least because it marked the country’s birth.” The seeds of Vimyism, they assert, were planted in the 1960s, became more pervasive in the 1970s and 80s, and remain prevalent today. They argue that the real history and tradition—one of sadness, loss, and a determination that it never happens again—has been overshadowed. Not mincing words in a radio interview, Swift said that “the way we talk about Vimy Ridge is a patriotic bit of mythology fantasyland.”

It is a very readable book—with the occasional injection of wry wit (witness the full title)—and an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of the myths of militarism. In full disclosure, I admit that this book speaks to my own pro-disarmament and peace sensibilities.

The book was short-listed for both the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

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