Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

 “We Stand on Guard [not] for Thee”


October 2004 

 Canadians have understood through most of our history that military power is the necessary price of inhabiting a world with real enemies and real evil….”

(Richard Foot, National Post, September 27, 2004) 

What a Shame. Our defence policies are in serious need of review. And until reforms are implemented, our military will be at risk of losing it's best and brightest.” (Major-General Lewis MacKenzie (ret.), National Post, Sept. 2, 2004)

Many of the senior readers of this publication have fond memories of the Canadian army’s part in the liberation of Europe. It was the Canadian army that fought its way into the northwestern corner of continental Europe after landing on Normandy’s beaches on June 6, 1944. Canadian soldiers were jubilantly welcomed in the Dutch villages and cities with the completion of the liberation in May, 1945. 

You had to have been there (I was) to sense the depth of elation and the gratitude for the Canadian liberators. The many graveyards in the Netherlands are mute testimony of the ultimate sacrifice of Canadian soldiers. The Dutch will not forget the unpayable debt they owe to Canada and its W.W. II warriors. (More than115,000 Canadian military have been killed overseas, most of them in the two World Wars.) 

Canada’s contribution to the defeat of the Nazi war machine that had rolled over Europe was astounding.  With a population of 11 million it had managed to raise a military force of 1.1 million. By the war’s end it had the world’s third largest navy, and the fourth largest air force. Canada was a force to be reckoned with and a major player on the international scene. 

A Story of Neglect

But that was then, and this is now. The story of Canada’s military since the end of World War II is not pretty. Who has not heard the countless anecdotes of failing 40-year old equipment and of thinly stretched and stressed out military personnel. Here is just one stark example of political mismanagement. 

Prior to its defeat in 1994, the Mulrony government had signed a contract to replace the Canadian Armed Forces fleet of 30-year old helicopters. One of the first decisions of the newly installed Chretien government was to cancel this contract. This brazen, politically-inspired decision, allegedly motivated by cost-saving consideration, cost Canadian taxpayers  $500 million in penalties. 

What is even worse is the added risk imposed on helicopter pilots and crews who have to operate the aged machines that are prone to break down. Ten years have gone by. The process of acquiring the new helicopters appears to be winding its tortuous way to a conclusion, accompanied by bitter recrimination of more political interference and mismanagement. 

The now retired Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, after serving 36 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, has been an outspoken critic of government defence  policies. In December 2002 he described the Canadian military as  a bankruptcy in progress.” 

The Chretien government  dismissed  Mackenzie’s call for added funds and resources, as well as similar recommendations from members of his own government,  as self-serving pleadings from the arms industry. 

Who are the Culprits?

Professor J.L Granatstein, is a Distinguished Research Professor of History Emeritus at York University in Toronto, who has written extensively about Canada’ participation in the wars of the past century. His most recent book, Who Killed the Canadian Military?  (Harper Collins) provides a detailed account of how the Canadian Armed Forces arrived at what Lewis Mackenzie called an “entire miserable state of affairs.” 

Granatstein minces no words in fixing blame. Not for him the ambiguity and nuances of polite diplomacy. You might say that he takes no prisoners – rhetorically speaking. He writes that all the prime ministers since Lester B. Pearson killed the Canadian military. But he also makes a number of sensible and practical recommendations to fix what is broken. 

One of the sacred tenets of contemporary correct thought is the belief that Canada’s military is best suited for peacekeeping not for waging war. This   assumption began to take hold after Canada’s Secretary of State Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in UN’s first major peacekeeping operation during the Suez Crisis in 1956.   

Granatstein has no objection to peacekeeping, but he thinks that in a dangerous world an army needs to be capable of fighting wars, which requires superb training, equipment and sufficient numbers. He argues that our active involvement in a number of major wars, including the two World Wars, belies the new emphasis. In short, he thinks that the emphasis on peacekeeping, especially when coupled to the “soft power” approach of the former Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy is a “fatal distraction.” 

He writes that this approach has had “a devastating effect” on the Canadian military with the result that a combination of “a compliant public and the eager politicians they elect have run the military into the ground, all the while prattling about peacekeeping as the most important role for the Canadian forces.” 

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1957-63) had the misfortune to cope with the issue of nuclear weapons and Canada’s defence alliance with the U.S. The Cuban Crisis (1961) happened on his watch. He did not shine during this dangerous standoff, and his waffling about Canada’s role vis-à-vis the U.S. caused a lot of hard feelings on the U.S. side. Granatstein thinks that our relationship with the U.S. requires a neat balancing act, something that John Diefenbaker, and Jean Chretien after him, got “hopelessly wrong.”   

The Pearson years (1963-68) were trying years for the Canadian military. Paul Hellyer, the new Minister of Defence was a take-charge person who undertook a major unification project of all three services, renamed the Canadian Armed Forces. It resulted in some sensible savings and efficiencies but at high cost in morale among the officers and enlisted men and women. 

Prime Minster Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-84, interrupted by a brief interlude during Joe Clark’s ill-fated regime in 1979), more than any other politician, was a catalyst for radical change in the country. 

Granatstein calls Trudeau “the most intelligent Prime Minister of the modern era… [who] had not the slightest interest in or appreciation of the Canadian Forces. His indifference and his anti-military attitudes typified the views of most Canadiens and a great many Canadians.”  Thus Granatstein concludes: “Over sixteen years in power, he succeeded in making the Canadian Forces as weak and irrelevant as he left Canadian foreign policy.” 

The nine years of Mulroney’s prime ministership beginning in 1984, at first appeared promising for the military. Mulroney pledged to increase the military budget and manpower, but then concern about large deficits took over, and defence spending was cut back again. The 1987 White Paper on defense policy contained more promises of better days to come, but instead there were more cutbacks and disappointments. Granatstein writes that Mulroney raised the military’s hopes repeatedly “but failed to deliver.” 

The chapter about Prime Minister Jean Chretien is tellingly called “Last Rites.” This is how Granatstein grades this administration: 

“ Chretien’s Liberal regime had handled defence questions shamefully in its nearly eleven years in power, and virtually all the unhappy trends of the last half-century came to their apogee during his time in office. He failed to fund the Canadian Forces adequately, ran down its strength, and allowed major weapons systems to fall into obsolescence, often at risk to the soldiers, sailors, and aircrew who operated them. He let down Canada’s major ally and practised anti-Americanism as policy in ways that had not been seen since John Diefenbaker held power four decades ago. He and his ministers pandered to neutralist sentiments, not least in Quebec. He continued to lust after kudos at the United Nations, and his government used Canada’s fighting personnel to the point of exhaustion.” 

A New Vision?

In the final chapter, “The Way Ahead: Resurrecting the Canadian Military,” Granatstein lists a number of specific suggestions needed to turn around long-term policies that have come perilously close to making the Canadian Armed Forces irrelevant. It will require in the first place the determination among our political leadership to devote a great deal more resources to the military.

I want to emphasize that the men and women in the Canadian military are serving with distinction while being under-appreciated and overworked. They are known for their professionalism and dedication and for doing a superb job, as they have again shown in Afghanistan. They are putting their lives on the line in many dangerous trouble spots, while coping as best they can with the failure of their political masters to give them the recognition and resources they deserve.

Granatstein realizes that Canada will not have a Cadillac military. His suggestions in my view are reasonable and practical. But since we have fallen behind so far by years of neglect, it will take many years to replace the worn-out and outmoded equipment of the Canadian army, navy and air force.

What are the chances that Granatstein’s compelling and highly readable analysis and recommendations will be heeded? I am not very optimistic in light of the calibre of political debate in this country.

For one thing, there is a sizeable category of liberals in Canada who think that the current sad state of our military is just fine. Abetted by a vocal contingent of pacifist church leaders, they believe that we need to focus on removing the “root causes” of war, notably the huge gap between the rich and the poor nations.

Many of them are therefore convinced that even the Islamist terrorists who have declared war on the West must be met not with force of arms but with a willingness to listen to the grievances of the Arab world. That’s why they look to the United Nations as the instrument for building a peaceful world. Conversely, they think that the Americans are all wrong in fighting the Islamist terrorists with military force. 

It’s not hard to see how we have arrived at the current state of our military, fed by the dual sentiments of anti-militarism (we are peacemakers not warmongers) and anti-Americanism. This mix is reinforced by Quebec sensitivities, all of which make for a powerful, in my view perverse, anti-military mindset.   

This is of course not the whole story. Besides, there are still those who are convinced that we need to reckon with the reality that some very determined people hate us and want to do us harm. It is foolhardy to think that the horrific crimes committed against innocent citizens all over the world in the name of a hate-filled Islamism do not affect us. I fear that some day we will be in for a rude awakening. 

It is my conviction that military preparedness is a given necessity in a world where evil is still rampant. And Canada has a long way to go before it raises it’s military to the condition needed to cope with the ugly reality of the world we now inhabit. 

Granatstein has presented us with a forthright articulation of what ails the Canadian military and what is needed to restore this vital institution to robust health. It is a topic that cries out for a full-scale and honest public airing. This book is a very good place to start. 

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