Thursday, November 25, 2010

Trauma's Twins: Interview with Tim Cook (The Madman and The Butcher)

Author and Great War historian Tim Cook, who won the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book, Shock Troops (2008), a book that examined the horrific impact World War One had on Canadian fighting forces in the battles of Hill 70, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, returns to both the horror and that defining conflict in The Madman and The Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie (Penguin, 2010). Where Shock Troops delved into the emotional trauma WWI exacted on our troops, The Madman and The Butcher looks at two key figures who embodied its aftermath.

The Madman and The Butcher is basically a double biography, with contrasting chapters, about the relationship between Sam Hughes, Canada's War Minister during the first 2 1/2 years of WWI, and Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corp commander who was recognized as a great general, one who doggedly sought to solve the challenges of fighting trench warfare. With deft precision, Cook compares the conflict between Hughes (the madman) and Currie (the butcher) while leading up to one of the most famous libel trials in Canadian history. Where Hughes was brash and outspoken, attacking Currie's reputation, Currie was quiet, thoughtful and traumatized by what he witnessed. After the war, Hughes accused Currie of being a butcher of his own men and he took the full brunt of Hughes's accusations despite being a superior tactical officer.

While talking to Tim Cook at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, I wanted to first understand what drew him to these two vastly different personalities.

kc: What most interested you in the lives of Sam Hughes and Arthur Currie?

Tim Cook
tc: I was struck by one event in particular. And that's where I begin the book. It's when Sam Hughes stands up in the House of Commons in March of 1919 and accuses Arthur Currie of being a butcher, of having callously killed off his own soldiers. Now the war is over but it has been a titanic, tragic affair where Canada had over 60,000 dead. Currie, of course, was the commander of the overseas forces and well-respected by the British and considered one of the finest generals in the war. Why did anyone listen to Sam Hughes? That's what drew me into this story. I was interested in beginning with that event and then telling the story of these two Canadian figures set against the backdrop of this terrible war.

kc: What I find compelling in your book is that no matter how at odds both Hughes and Currie are they are also drawn together as if one were the other's doppelganger. What distinguishes these two men for you?

tc: Sam Hughes is the elder of the two and more successful. He was already the Minister of Militia and Defense and already made his mark on history. If the war hadn't happened, and the world sidestepped it, we would have probably known Sam Hughes as a footnote in history because he was very eccentric and slightly off his rocker. Hughes would have predicted a war that never came and then the Wilfred Laurier Liberals would have been swept back into power in 1914-15 and Hughes would be gone. On the other hand, Arthur Currie would have been completely forgotten. He was a failed real estate developer from Victoria. It was WWI that brought both men together. But they are very different types of men. Where Hughes is bombastic and feels right about everything …the madman …Currie is quiet and reserved. He's not a great intellectual but he's a thinker. He thinks through his problems. On the Western front, though, there are no easy victories. It's a battlefield with rows of trenches surrounded by barbwire. There's no easy way to fight on this battlefield. Currie keeps trying to process the lessons, but these are lessons learned in blood. Since Hughes was looking for somebody to blame for the casualties, in his mind, Currie became responsible.

Sam Hughes
kc: When you look at the impact this war had on the national psyche, you establish an interesting parallel with Currie and Hughes. If Hughes acts out the insanity that the war inspired, Currie internalizes it. He's somebody who lives out the anguish. The war ages him dramatically. How deeply did the war consume both of these men?

tc: The war consumed the nation just as it did both of these men. When you have 60,000 dead young Canadians from a nation of 8 million, how does a country deal with that? It's unthinkable. Don't forget, too, that today's wars are fought by professional soldiers. WWI was fought by civilian soldiers and that's a key difference. Both Currie and Hughes are civilian soldiers who come from that militia background. I wanted to examine these men in the context of their time -- especially Sam Hughes who over time was understood as nothing more than being a caricature. I didn't want to explain away Sam Hughes, but instead, I wanted to understand him.

kc: Well, he's certainly the more conflicted of the two. It's easy to be sympathetic with Currie, but Hughes doesn't earn your sympathy because of his bombastic qualities. He not only looks for enemies, he deliberately sets out to make them.

Arthur Currie
tc: He does that with everybody. In the end, even the Conservatives turned on him, but he does have some redeeming qualities. Hughes was overwhelmed by the war. He didn't have the right mentality of how to delegate authority and to know when he was wrong. But I wanted to bring some nuance and complexity to his character in my book. He struggles with questions that the whole country was struggling with. How do we come to grips with this war? What we would do in our outpouring of grief across this country was to build memorials that are still there today. The cultural legacy of the war is also strongly represented through our poetry, plays, novels and films. The war has always had a grasp on our imagination which is why this is an interesting story to tell.

kc: Besides the number of dead, this war also left a lot of ghosts.

tc: The ghosts of the war continue to haunt Canadians. It's 1929 when you have All Quiet on the Western Front which opens a floodgate of powerful new writing from veterans who are showing a very dark and disillusioned war. It's not the war of memorialization, but the war of madness and the slaughter. That experience then gets shaped by circumstances in the world such as the Depression and the rise of new dictators in the world like Mussolini and Hitler. This was supposed to be the war to end all wars and we paid this terrible price, but now we step into something worse.

kc: Do you see any relevancy of your story today given the conflicted opinions about our current engagement in Afghanistan?

The Battle of Vimy Ridge - April 1917
tc: Much has changed. The geography, the weapons, the enemy are different. But what hasn't changed is that in the end it's still humans pitted against humans. To me, that's a key part of the story. Whenever we commit soldiers and armies to war, there is the war and then there's the aftermath. And the aftermath can stretch out for decades. We see that in all wars. But Canada was only 50 years old in 1917 and that is a key year for us. This is the year of our success at the Battle of Vimy where we experience a rise in Canadian nationalism that unifies the country, but it's also the year when the country begins to fall apart with the Conscription Crisis, when farmers are pitted against the city and we experience enormous labour strikes. Canada is never the same after the Great War. We became a harder country to govern. We became a harder country to hold together. So that, too, is a legacy that is tied up in this story because Sam Hughes and Arthur Currie are at the heart of what can tear it apart.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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