Mel Hurtig and the New Maginot Line

By Max Fawcett | October 4, 2004

Mel Hurtig, Rushing to Armageddon
(McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 2004, 229 pages, $19.99 SC)

The back of Mel Hurtig’s new book, Rushing to Armageddon describes it as “easily his most important book.” That’s quite a claim considering Hurtig’s literary resume, which includes bestsellers like The Vanishing Country and The Betrayal of Canada, but it’s also accurate.

Hurtig is something of a pariah in Canadian political circles. He was a Trudeau acolyte during the late 1960s and early 70s, attracted to his commitment to economic nationalism and the advancement of national policy objectives like a constitution and a charter of rights and freedoms. He later formed the National Party of Canada with fellow Liberal radical Paul Hellyer and has been perhaps the highest profile voice of Canadian nationalism in the last twenty years. Hurtig has also been painted by his enemies as something of a kook, which is a patently unfair but has unfortunately proven to be a somewhat successful technique.

I remember sitting at the Chateau Laurier in the winter of 2002 for the launch of The Vanishing Country, a book that could be described as an epitome of Hurtig himself – part genius, part radical, and part nutty. He has a habit of going too far in his personal attacks o­n his enemies, lynching them for their positions o­n particular positions to the point where it undermines his own argument. I happen to admire that quality in him, but others – particularly in the national press gallery – do not. Hurtig was not feeling particularly well o­n this night but gave a passionate explanation of the meaning of his book and the reason why we needed to care about it as Canadians. I met him afterwards and the brief conversation that we had did nothing to diminish my respect and admiration for him.
Rushing to Armageddon may well be regarded in time as the pinnacle of Hurtig’s career. A slimmer and eminently more readable book than The Vanishing Country, it is a remarkably clear articulation of the dangers of Canada’s current trajectory o­n this issue. Missile defence – Star Wars, to some – is an issue that has largely gone unnoticed by the public. I think this is partly a result of political burnout – we’ve essentially tuned out our politicians because we feel, rightly or wrongly, that we can’t trust them – but also a product of a global sense that the threat of nuclear war ended along with the Cold War. As Hurtig so effectively points out in this book, it didn’t.

The fact that we didn’t have a nuclear war during the Cold War was, in part, a fluke. Any number of international incidents, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to more mundane radar echoes that cropped up from time to time, could just as easily have resulted in a nuclear holocaust than not, and we should be thankful that it turned out the way that it did. But it was also a result of a system of mutual deterrence which, put simply, didn’t create incentives to launch the thousands of missiles that were aimed at major cities across the world and particularly in the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side was so thoroughly armed to the teeth that if o­ne side launched it knew that it would be annihilated in turn. It was a strange and utterly perverse system but it worked.

Ronald Reagan first floated the idea of a continental missile shield – Star Wars – in the early 1980s as a means of protecting the United States. It was technically flawed and extraordinarily dangerous, undermining the stability of mutual deterrence, but it was mercifully put aside due to the astronomical costs and the inability of American scientists to demonstrate that it could work, even o­nce. Hurtig reminds us that Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev both entered into the non-proliferation treaty in 1970 because they realized that, regardless of the preparations and defences, a nuclear offense will always beat its defence.

The solution, Hurtig observes, is the continuation of non-proliferation activities, something with which a missile shield is totally incongruous. Rather than reducing nuclear tensions it aggravates them, and China and Russia have responded to the idea by augmenting their own nuclear arsenals. Shouldn’t we, as a supposed middle-power with a history of diplomatic success, be pushing the United States towards less confrontational ways of ensuring its security. Shouldn’t we, as we did when we decided not to support their war in Iraq in 2003 under the leadership of Jean Chretien, stay faithful to our commitment to multilateralism and international peace building?
Maybe, but our political leadership certainly doesn’t agree. Mel Hurtig has never been a big fan of Paul Martin. In Rushing to Armageddon he places our Prime Minister squarely in his cross-hairs and paints a very ugly picture of political deception and foolishness that begins and ends in Martin’s PMO. Here he demonstrates o­ne of his flaws as a writer and a thinker that crops up in most of his books, albeit a totally forgivable and human o­ne: his tendency to get too excited when he gets angry.

He’s perceptibly pissed at Martin and both Bill Graham, now the Minister of Defence, and Pierre Pettigrew, the deeply pro-American Minister of Foreign Affairs. He also has harsh words for former Minister of Defence David Pratt, but since he was thankfully defeated in the 2004 election he doesn’t deserve further attention here. Hurtig deploys his trademark style of punch rhetoric, short chapters, and extensive referencing of an impressive team of experts like John Polyani, Noam Chomsky, James Hecht, and Stephen Lewis, and paints Martin and his colleagues as willfully and deliberately stifling a public debate of missile defence because they’ve already made up their minds to support it.

Two examples are illustrative here. The first is his effective repetition of presenting the words of Martin, Graham, et al. – “this isn’t about the weaponization of space” – with the words of American scientists, politicians, and military leaders who clearly understand that it is. He paints a grim picture of a world in which outer-space is filled with lasers and missiles that can be aimed and utilized against any of America’s enemies, a situation that is all the more terrifying considering America’s abandonment of multilateralism and its longstanding efforts to exert influence in the world by any means necessary.

The second example is Prime Minister Paul Martin’s insistence that “we need a seat at the table.” As Liberal MPs Alex Sheppard and former Trudeau Minister Charles Caccia observe, with the prevailing American attitude of being “with us or against us” there isn’t really a table to sit at. Even if there was, we certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near the head of it. Hurtig cites an interesting interview that Martin had with Peter Mansbridge in which Mansbridge asks him if he really thinks the United States would consult Canada if a missile was launched. While Martin responded that it would be more likely than if we weren’t “at the table” Hurtig leaves the reader with a pretty clear understanding of how meaningless our contribution would be.

This whole experience with missile defence reminds me a little bit of France’s infamous “Maginot Line”, built after World War I to ostensibly protect France from invasion by the Germans and the Italians. It was a wildly expensive and admittedly impressive project that created an impassable line of bunkers, fortresses, cannons, and underground tunnels. The problem was, it o­nly covered some of France’s borders – the Ardennes forest was “impassable” – and didn’t take into account the possibility of an enemy simply circumventing it until it was much too late. That’s precisely what Hitler’s Wehrmacht did in 1939, overrunning Belgium and the Netherlands and neatly end-running the Maginot Line. Paris fell with in weeks and the Maginot Line proved to be a colossal waste and a total failure.

In 2004 we find ourselves in a situation where the United States is committed to building its own Maginot Line, and we’re stupidly tagging along for the ride. Hurtig cites former Minister of Defence David Pratt’s justification for the project that “we need to adjust to a new security environment” and smartly observes that a nuclear missile shield is, like the Maginot Line sixty years ago, completely at odds with today’s environment. If we’re as concerned with terrorism as our leaders would have us be, why are we focusing o­n state-oriented security threats? Shouldn’t we way more concerned with the possibility of terrorists buying some of the nukes that are sitting in Russia guarded by officers making $3 a week, smuggling them into the continental United States and detonating them in downtown New York, Chicago, or Washington? As the Los Angeles Times wrote, “if you want to bring a nuclear weapon into the United States, just hide it in some shipment of illegal drugs.” It’s a bit smart-alecky but the point remains – if the United States can’t stop shipments of cocaine and heroine, what makes them think that they can stop nuclear weapons from getting into the hands of the wrong people? It’s a sobering reality and o­ne that policy makers either aren’t aware of – unlikely – or don’t want to tell us.

So, we’re left with a multi-trillion – yes, trillion – dollar program that will go further to enriching companies like Lockheed Martin than making us any safer and a political leadership that doesn’t want to talk about it. Mel Hurtig does a phenomenal job of highlighting the human costs of another nuclear incident and reminding us that the weapons we’re dealing with today make “Fat Man” and “Little Boy”, the bombs dropped o­n Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, look like fire-crackers. The picture Hurtig paints isn’t a pretty o­ne, but I suspect it’s the most accurate look we’ve seen to date. It stimulates anger and outrage in the reader – at least, it did in me – and issues a compelling call to action.

We need, as Canadians and as global citizens, to talk about this issue and decide whether it’s the right way to go. If our politicians won’t provide the information that we need to have an informed debate about an issue that is far more important than petty political scandals or the future of healthcare(because even the best healthcare system in the world will mean peanuts if we’re living in a nuclear wasteland) I’m glad that people like Mel Hurtig are around to do it for them. Forget what you may have heard about Hurtig because he’s a gem and deserves to take his place as o­ne of Canada’s finest polemicists. Read this book, get angry, and go do something about it. I know I will.

Ottawa, October 4 – 1736 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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