Canada’s Dying Army

By January 10, 1999 No Comments

He [Prime Minister Pearson] didn’t want NATO to break up, but was unwilling to accept the concept of an ‘effective’ Canadian contribution.

— Sean Maloney, citing ex-Defence Minister Paul Hellyer, War Without Battles, Canada’s NATO Brigade in Germany. 1997

To say that Canada’s military has not fared well in recent decades is an understatement. The Armed Forces, particularly the Army, are in desperate shape, and worse is coming. Few national governments seem as distinctly hostile to their own militaries as Ottawa. Why?

In early October 1998, Canadian Army units (regular and reserve) were told to start training for Operation Abacus, and that this operation is to be the highest priority for both. Training for it will supersede all other activities. Operation Abacus is a massive aid to the civil power operation planned to cope with humanitarian emergencies — as well as possible unrest – in the aftermath of the Y2K event.

For those who are still unfamiliar with Y2K hysteria, this involves the reasonable assumption that many computers may begin malfunctioning because of an inability to cope with the calendar change on January 1st, 2000. As virtually all aspects of our lives are now computerized to one extent or another, there is some reason to be concerned. The Canadian Forces, judging from the reports leaking out of the officer corps, is being told to anticipate total failures of power, water, sewage, banking services, traffic control systems, ad infinitum.

Indeed, these things may happen. They probably will not, but a military is meant to be an instrument to handle contingencies.

It is the purpose of a military to stand by and be the instrument of last resort. Humanitarian relief is a useful and welcome task for the Canadian military. It is the rightful business of any military to be considering the worst case scenarios and to be prepared for them. This last is something the Canadian Armed Forces have not been allowed to do for many years. For decades, mobilization plans have been sketchy at best, operational readiness is usually poor, and Ottawa has refused to even consider some contingencies. So why the urgent preoccupation with Y2K now?

One of Canada’s senior generals is alleged to have said that the Y2K virus will be the “saving of the Canadian Army. ” After all the bad ink lavished on the military in recent years, National Defense Headquarters was exceptionally pleased by the good coverage Canadian soldiers earned in the Red River and Ice Storm disasters. To them, massive humanitarian operations in the aftermath of Y2K (provided of course that the worst case scenarios are realized) can only be to the betterment of the Canadian Army – and they couldn’t be more wrong.

Of course, in modern thinking, trying to protect the image of an organization while watching its substance be destroyed is not all that unusual. Indeed, an attitude like this is typical of the civil service mentality that has supplanted the military ethos in much of the Canadian Forces. And this is exactly what Operation Abacus will do — it represents one of the final nails in the coffin of the Canadian Army.

First, a military exists as an instrument of national defence and of physical security. Its primary raison d’etre is to be a tool of force. The characteristics of this tool should include a disciplined pool of healthy manpower and an organized set of resources. As it so frequently turns out, these make a military useful for such affairs as disaster relief and humanitarian operations — but only as a sideline to its real purpose.

Since the early 1990s, the Canadian military has been living off its capital — its declining stocks of equipment, a dwindling budget, and the memories of those who were properly trained and experienced before the crunch came. However, with a full year (or two) of refocusing all our military efforts on a major aid to the civil power operation, the transmission of this experience will probably be fatally interrupted.
Moreover, if the “success” of involvement in Operation Abacus is a public relations victory, it is likely to further the conditioning of the military that disaster relief is good, while more traditional activities are not. This trend is not a healthy one.

However, the Armed Forces, and the Army especially, have been too starved of resources to do much more than this sort of task. With the end of the Cold War, the last requirement for the Army to have a valid modern operational role was widely assumed to have vanished – in flagrant disregard of the escalating violence around the world. The Army put its emphasis on peacekeeping, but this has also proven to be a dead end, as the military’s resources were cut still further, and Ottawa (like many other capitals) seems to lack the resolve to push the job through.

Yet the Army’s demise almost appears to be driven by an unspoken malevolence. At the close of the Cold War, it rapidly found itself staring down Mohawk gangsters at Oka, and then stretched across the World. In the early 1990s, more Canadian troops were in immediate physical danger (and in real combat) than at any time since the Korean War. One might think that in a rational country, this would be the time to expand an Army’s resources. Instead, Ottawa took the opposite tack, and quite literally expected fewer people to do more with less for each new mission.

In short, the Canadian government’s approach to its Army has not been rational. Clearly, some other process must be at work.

There is a political antipathy toward the Canadian military. One might think it is so self-evident as to require no comment, but it is largely true that Canada’s political leadership is almost devoid of military experience. There are exceptions — some splendid Canadians such as Georges Vanier, George Hees and Barney Danson (who happily remains in public life at the time of writing) who all fought for Canada in wartime. However, the vast majority of our political classes never served in the military in war or in peace.

While the number of Canadians who have ever worn a uniform is dwindling, military experience of any kind is even rarer among our politicians. By way of comparison, look at the last ten Prime Ministers of the UK, of Canada, and the last ten American Presidents.

Of the past ten Presidents of the United States, (Clinton to Truman), nine served in the military and three (Bush, Kennedy and Truman) fought in battle. Eisenhower was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Admittedly, the military service of Reagan, Nixon and Johnson wasn’t all that arduous, but they did volunteer in wartime. American veterans’ organizations have immense pull and have recently fretted that only some 75% of congressmen and senators have a military record.

The last ten British Prime Ministers run from Blair to Churchill, who served again as PM in the 1950s. Of these, six (but perhaps seven) served in the military and five saw action –Churchill did so repeatedly. Margaret Thatcher is not excluded from the ten, although one ’suspects that the auxiliary role of women in her youth did not appeal to her, and so the “Iron Lady” never wore army boots. Britain’s experience with war is too long and too strong to ever allow its Army to weaken too much, and its army has roots that extend into almost every British institution.

Canadian political figures appear to shirk hazards — which may not come as any particular surprise. Mackenzie King scuttled off to the US at the beginning of the First World War, and only returned in 1919. He was 40 when the war started, but a huge number of his contemporaries in other walks of life volunteered. Of the other nine recent Canadian Prime Ministers, only Diefenbaker and Pearson served in the military. Both served in World War One, and both were sent home for medical reasons without seeing action.

Beyond a real scarcity of military experience in Canada’s inner government circles, a claim might be made that a political aversion exists towards any Canadian who has had a superlative military career. For example, Arthur Currie was widely recognized as one of the most talented commanders in the British/Dominion forces in the First World War. He was an excellent general, an innovative pioneer, and a detailed planner. Under his leadership, the Canadian Corps emerged as one of elite forces of the war. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives appear to have made any attempt to recruit this talented man after 1918. Instead, Parliament was used as forum for spurious attacks on Currie’s reputation and integrity by a notorious crank.

Likewise, Rear Admiral Leonard Murray was the only Canadian to command a theatre of war during World War II. From April 1943 (just before the tide turned against the U-Boat) onwards, he was the Commander in Chief of the North West Atlantic Command. His reward for years of hard work (and the dreary dangerous labours of so many Canadian sailors and airmen) was to be blamed for the Halifax Riot on VE-Day. Disgusted with the overt politics behind this awarding of blame he left Canada. General Crerar who commanded the Canadian Army Group (and the American, Belgian, British and Polish troops attached to it) seems to have likewise been overlooked for a post-military career in politics.

By contrast, successful American generals and admirals are constantly being importuned to run for office. One only need think of Presidents Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower to recall how many winning generals have headed the US government. While the last British general to serve as Prime Minister was Wellington, rafts of senior officers have floated into the House of Lords as peers. Others have become vice-regal governors, including two Governor Generals of Canada — Lord Alexander of Tunis (who commanded Allied forces in Italy in 1943-45) and Viscount Byng of Vi my (who led the Canadian Corps before Arthur Currie).

One might wonder if Canadian politicians feel frightened by talent and ability.

Nobody can claim that military service is a reliable barometer of leadership potential – but it certainly helps. At best, in a proposition advanced by the author Robert Heinlein, military service might be seen as an indicator of a self-sacrificing willingness to assume responsibility for the collective welfare. Remembering, of course, that even a peace-time soldier has placed him or herself under the authority of others in a situation that can result in real discomfort and deprivation. Heinlein, in his classic sci- fi novel on the military ethos Starship Troopers, suggested military service was the most reliable basis for enfranchisement.

By way of Classical comparisons, in Republican Rome, a credible military record was essential for a citizen with political ambitions. In Athens, all citizens were not just expected to exercise their franchise, but also to fight alongside their peers in wartime.

But in Canada, one might suspect that many in our political culture have had a loathing for soldiers and their leaders for some, perhaps unexpressed, but deep-seated personal reason. P.J. O’Rourke, the former radical turned Libertarian humourist, once mused that the visceral contempt of the university educated protestors of the 1960s for American soldiers stemmed from childhood insecurities. Soldiers often come from lower-middle class/blue collar backgrounds and tend to be more physically oriented. The core of the radicals — to O’Rourke — came from those who didn’t get picked for the sports team in grade school or got picked on in the school yard. Now, having focused on a more cerebral life-style, the radicals may have felt, at some subconscious level, that it was time to get revenge for old slights and insecurities.

O’Rourke’s musings have echoes in some of the hierarchical sociology that has been reviewed by Brian MacDonald, the former director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies and a media consultant. MacDonald was examining elite attitudes in Canada and noticed what appears to be a profound sense of insecurity.

Canada’s political/cultural elites lack the roots and strengths that attend their counterparts in the US and Britain, and cannot afford to be very exclusionary for a number of reasons. Indeed, in government circles, the elite status of Canadian technocrats is based on proximity to power and influence, and the position is not very secure. The primary “leg-up” for a technocratic career is education … and there is a preponderance of lawyers and academics in Canadian civil service and government circles. As a result, there is a dislike for other routes to the centres of power.

One can note that entrepreneurs, engineers or scientists, and soldiers are consistently underrepresented in Ottawa. Entrepreneurs are the very model of self-made men, and so are seldom welcome. Engineers and scientists, like good soldiers, tend to have characteristics and values that are alien to most technocrats — a disciplined mind-set that remembers concrete values. Successful soldiers also tend to read history. This is a sinister trait in these postmodernist days as it leads to the recollection of unpalatable truths. Finally, good soldiers and entrepreneurs tend to have leadership qualities, and a few actually have charisma. Again, those without such qualities (including the author) tend to feel inadequate in the presence of those who do.

But the final sin is that a successful military career (like the other ones cited above) provides an opportunity for someone who does not share an elite value-set or background to reach for the brass ring. Within Canada’s political structure, this may be intolerable, and it seems that a sullen hostility is directed towards the successful. However, an entrepreneur, scientist or engineer can go elsewhere in the country or abroad. A military career does not have these advantages. A soldier also tends to hold loyalty as a cardinal virtue and really can only have one employer. They are the most exposed.

Could it then be so simple? Could the Canadian military have been slowly starved of resources, of talented leaders, and of opportunities to achieve prestige because, at some deep-seated level, Canadian politicians and civil servants feel inadequate or threatened? There are grounds for exploration here … but as things stand now, the issue might only be relevant at the Army’s post-mortem.