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Book Reviews

Saints, Sinners, And Soldiers

by Jeffrey A. Keshen
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004, 389 pages

Reviewed by Colonel (Ret’d) Randall Wakelam

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Book coverMost historians of the Second World War deal with its great battles and great men, some with its origins, and a few with its aftermath. The subjects of these studies are most often concentrated in the theatres of operation and the halls of power and touch largely on the strategies, doctrine and tactics employed by the fighting forces and those who supported them. But there is another way to examine the war – one that focuses on its impact on day-to-day life. Jeffrey Keshen of the University of Ottawa has taken such a perspective in Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers, examining a range of societal issues that influenced how Canadians at home, as well as overseas, lived during the war years. The volume also examines how these issues influenced post-war trends. Indeed, it does not take too much imagination when reading about such topics as women in the work place to follow these themes through to life in Canada today.

Keshen begins his analysis by reminding the reader that the Second World War has, for many reasons, been seen by most as a ‘good war’: the defeat of Hitler, the rising prominence of Canada on the international scene, the growth in the domestic economy and the establishment of many enduring social programs. But, equally important, he argues, was the ‘not-so-good side’ of the war: profiteering, strikes for higher wages, moral decline, and breakdown in family values and structures. He concludes that as the war ended, Canadians were firmly convinced that they needed social remedies that would bring stability after years of depression and conflict. Specifically, Keshen looks at patriotism and how it played out in politics; volunteerism and home defence, not to mention conscription; economic expansion and the strains of growth – price and wage controls, the black market, and profiteering; morals as they played out in marriage, infidelity, drunkenness and sexual activity – with these moral issues, he is as much concerned with civilians as with service personnel, both at home and abroad. Sexual activity segues into an examination of women’s roles and status, both in uniform and in the work place. And if mothers and fathers could not be at home to raise youth, then youth could and did run to delinquency. From all of these stimuli, Keshen argues, came the desire by Canadians generally to make a better post-war Canada.

Whether the author has captured all of the influences at play is perhaps debatable, but his work does unquestionably establish a comprehensive grid upon which individuals can undertake further reading or upon which other researchers can build. Indeed, as Keshen indicates, his is not the first examination of these issues, but this is the first Canadian attempt to synthesize what might be seen as contrasting influences into a coherent paradigm. In building his model, he draws upon a range of previously-published sources, both international and Canadian. He adds much original material to this framework, taking it from archival sources as well as from period newspapers and magazines. If there are two detractors in this work, they are the lack of a bibliography, or bibliographic essay, to allow readers to easily review sources – instead they must work through a complex series of endnotes – and the somewhat impersonal nature of the text, given that the book does not focus on a few great personages, but rather, gathers evidence from a broad range of experiences.

These small criticisms noted, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers is well worth the read. The value of this book may not be immediately apparent to military personnel focused on learning operational lessons from history. Yet, one has only to remember that our military ethos is based upon Canadian societal values and morals to see that in understanding how Canadians lived through the Second World War, we can better recognize and deal with those forces that influence all Canadians today, in uniformed service or not.

Randall Wakelam, a Canadian Forces pilot and staff officer for many years, is now a doctoral candidate in military history at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.