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Political Science General

What We Talk About When We Talk About War

by (author) Noah Richler

Goose Lane Editions
Initial publish date
Apr 2012
General, Civics & Citizenship, Security (National & International)
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2012
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Apr 2012
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An Editor's Pick for 2012 and a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of 2012
Shortlisted, Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction, Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, and John W. Dafoe Book Prize
Longlisted, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction

A provocative examination of how communications has shaped the language of the media, and vice versa, and how rhetoric shapes how Canadians thinks of themselves as a nation and Canada's engagement in peacekeeping, war, and on the international stage.

According to Richler, each phase of engagement in Afghanistan has been shaped not only by rhetoric but an overarching narrative structure. This topic is very much in discussion at the moment. With the withdrawal of Canadian troops (at least in part) from Afghanistan, it becomes clear there had been a rhetorical cycle. Where once Canada wielded the myth of itself as a peacekeeping nation, the past decade has seen a marked shift away from this, emphasizing the Canadian soldier as warrior. Yet now, as the country withdraws, the oratorical language we use steps away from heroes, able warriors, and sacrifice and back towards a more comfortable vision of Canada in a peacekeeping/training role.

In recent years, Canada has made large financial investments in the apparatus of war — in a manner it hasn't in a very long time — and as the realities of war are brought home (the losses, the tragedies, the atrocities, the lasting repercussions that come home with the soldiers who were on the front lines), Richler contends that it's crucial we understand our national perspective on war — how we have framed it, how we continue to frame it.

Using recent events to bolster his arguments, including the shooting of American congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the earthquake in Haiti, Richler argues that very possibly the epic narrative of Canada is winding back down to that of the novel as we slowly regain our peacekeeping agenda.

About the author

NOAH RICHLER produced and hosted documentaries for BBC Radio for many years before returning, in 1998, to his native Canada to join the National Post. He has worked in bars, mines, newspapers, and the theatre; as a prospector’s assistant in the Yukon and on a lobster boat in Nova Scotia. He is an author, journalist, cultural critic, an occasional broadcaster and, since 2014, the Literary & Ideas Curator of Toronto’s Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity. He has won two gold National Magazine Awards and is the author of This Is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, which won the 2007 British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and was picked in 2010 as one of the Top Ten Books of the Decade by Macleans news magazine, and What We Talk About When We Talk About War, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing.

Noah Richler's profile page


  • Short-listed, Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
  • Short-listed, John W. Dafoe Book Prize
  • Short-listed, Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction
  • Joint winner, Editor's Pick for 2012
  • Joint winner, Globe & Mail Top 100 Books of 2012
  • Long-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction

Editorial Reviews

"There is a wealth of information here that is designed to wake us up to the dangers of accepting war as a part of the Canadian psyche just because the government says it is so ... Richler's eloquent review of the history of a nation forged in trade, treaty, compromise and peace refutes this presumption."

<i>Catholic Register</i>

"A hard-hitting polemic aimed at the new 'philistines' laying siege to Lester B. Pearson's legacy of liberal internationalism and peacekeeping ... Richler's War catapults him to the front line of the ongoing Canadian culture war. He brings to the task the unique talents and perceptions of a novelist. It's rare to find in Canadian political discourse precise references to Homer's The Iliad and the Trojan War."

<i>Chronicle Herald</i>

"Provocative and well-researched ... [Richler] has raised some important issues that have not been, and should have been, fully debated in Parliament and in the rest of the country this past decade."

<i>Ottawa Citizen</i>

"A scathing attack that won't sit well with veterans ... [Richler] urges readers to cut through the 'epic' talk that surrounds war and see it as it truly is: hell."


"Richler argues that the Canadian public has not been all that supportive or interested in the war in Afghanistan. He offers proof in the huge outpouring of sympathy and aid to Haiti. ... a great book for the peace movement to use. ... What We Talk About When We Talk About War lays the ground for what we must be talking about when we talk about peace."

"Noah Richler has raised serious questions about how Canada's elites, including major newspaper columnists, have embraced a more warlike national identity, less peacekeeping, and a more aggressive Canadian military."

<i>Georgia Straight</i>

"It may be a polemic, but Richler's book is a decidedly literate one ... Richler's argument is backed by a mind-boggling amount of literary references. Using everything from ancient myths to modern literature about war, the author shows how storytelling shapes a nation's identity."

<i>Calgary Herald</i>

"It's a rare accomplishment to write a book in which even people on the author's side can find something to quibble with on every second page. That outcome, however, is not only inherent in what Richler wrote, but is the chief achievement of this densely textured work. For his argument is as literary as it is political: it's about words. ... As Richler points out, Canadians want an idealistic motive (building schools for girls, say) for war. The result is incoherence about our presence in Afghanistan, and much of the nation simply turning its face away. Six years after the Prime Minister famously promised never to 'cut and run' there, we are about to do precisely that. Time, Richler says, to talk about it honestly."


"Richler assembles his evidence from a dizzying array of sources ... [His] opponents should welcome this new, sharply framed chance to make their case over and against his passionate polemic, about what Canada — which has both fought wars and kept the peace — has been, is now, and ought to be in the future."

<i>National Post</i>

"Definitely a book that will get people talking and turn a few heads, I couldn't recommend it more."

"Anyone looking for an argument about something important would be well served to pick up What We Talk About When We Talk About War, Richler's provocative and ambitious new book."

<i>National Post</i>

"An epic tale in the style of Greek mythology ... I'm glad to have read it. It won't likely resurrect Pearsonian peacekeeping, but it may help us imagine an alternative more suited to the 21st century."

<i>Globe and Mail</i>

"The eloquent writing studded with unusual, but 'stressing' words makes this book a page-turner for those who believe that peace leads to advancement of civilization and prosperity. ... This is an invaluable and erudite book that should be in every public and private library."

"Richler traverses the boundaries of time and space in his thoroughly researched and polemical non-fiction."

<i>Canadian Literature</i>

"What We Talk About When We Talk About War is an eloquent meditation on the nature of modern warfare, and one of the best books I've read about Canada in years — not the surprisingly colourful, forgotten history of, but a biting analysis of who we are in the twenty-first century. and why. ... So we are living in epic times. By identifying a sea change in the Canadian political psyche, Noah Richler identifies the spirit of our times, opens an important discussion. ... Don't leave this one to the critics. Buy the book, sink back, get mad and enjoy."

"It is heartening, then, to find a book such as Noah Richler's that connects the dots between government policies, media attitudes and public ceremonies, and asks several uncomfortable questions about whether our country has permanently abandoned its previous stance in the world as peacekeeper for the more aggressive status of a 'warrior nation,' and if so, what the consequences will be for our civil liberties and freedom of expression."


"Richler's points are thought-provoking and perceptive ... well worth considering."

<i>Toronto Star</i>

"A book worthy of joining some of the greatest examinations of human behaviour."

"Richler's important and very readable book deserves high praise for showing us in detail how language is constantly misused by this government and its supporters. And Richler may well have enabled us to see, for once ahead of time, how a legitimate love of country can easily be distorted for narrower, partisan ends."


"The book offers considerable meat to chew. ... I can't agree with all of Richler's analysis, but I am grateful he has raised some important issues that have not been, but should have been, fully debated in Parliament and in the rest of the country this past decade."

<i>Ottawa Citizen</i>

"Richler must have anticipated polarizing his readers ... One can't agree with everything in it, but with its challenging ideas and provocative theme, it's worth the effort. If this book does not fire a debate, then it will be because we are not up for it."

<i>Winnipeg Free Press</i>

"Richler's description and analysis of how and by whom such an epic story has been promulgated in Canada is nothing short of masterful. ... It must be said that this is an important contribution to the ongoing struggles of peace and violence within the hearts of individuals and the political ethos of a nation."

<i>Winnipeg Review</i>

"In this thought-provoking and erudite work, Richler explores what he sees as a fundamental shift in Canadian politics, discource and identity ... [Richler] reveals that in the aftermath of Afghanistan, Canadians may once more need to rethink who we are and what we believe."

<i>Canadian Military History</i>

"Richler wants to make us think and then talk about what we've learned. There is a wealth of information here that is designed to wake us up to the dangers of accepting war as a part of the Canadian psyche just because the government says it is so. ... He wants us to realize it is too easy to create a false image of the glory of war which leads to acceptance of its inevitability and appropriateness. ... This book is not just criticism, it finishes with some realistic and positive suggestions for establishing an effective peace. It would be a worthwhile read for any concerned Canadian."

<i>Catholic Register</i>

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