DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY What killed Canada's military? Years of refusing to take ourselves seriously as a country
March 16, 1997, Ottawa Citizen
The murder of Shidane Arone in Somalia on March 16, 1993 has led to the military becoming a major political issue in Canada for the first time since the uproar over unification of the Forces in 1966. The focus on the Canadian Airborne Regiment led to the exposure of extreme hazing practices and racist infection in the regiment and its disbandment in January 1995. The Somalia Inquiry was given terms of reference broad enough and went about its work with such ambition that no aspect of Canada's military leadership, training, equipment or organization seemed likely to escape its attention.
The commissioners have been preparing to point accusing fingers at several individuals. They have also been preparing a sweeping analysis of what is wrong with our military. The cut off of the Inquiry in its prime will prevent it from addressing the most important issues it was set up to investigate. It is unlikely to be able to pin blame on any but a handful of secondarily involved individuals. Brigadier-General Ernie Beno's success on February 19 in having the Federal Court ban its chairman, Mr. Justice Gilles Letourneau, from passing judgment on him is just the start of the inquiry's troubles on that front.
One Minister of Defence, David Collenette, and one Chief of Defence Staff, Jean Boyle, have fallen victim to the surge of public attention focused on the military. Opposition politicians and much of the public may be satisfied if more individuals can be found to take the blame for the messes that have been revealed.
Commentators on military matters have argued that the roots of the problems go beyond the individual failings. One school, best represented by Tarnished Brass, Scott Taylor and Brian Nolan's crisply depressing account of careerism and venality amongst the officers and bureaucrats, blames the top brass. Others have condemned the bureaucratization of National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa and the lack of political leadership. No one from Master Corporal Clayton Matchee, who beat Shidane Arone to death, to Perrin Beatty, whose relatively long stint as Minister of Defence in the heyday of Mulroney's government led to nothing but a mountain of white paper for recycling can be excused from their individual responsibility. The fault, however, is finally with ourselves. Canadians have not paid much attention to the military until it has forced itself on their attention and the mess we see is the result of decades of public indifference. If Canada took itself seriously it would have no problem maintaining a serious military and not be just discovering a military with serious problems.
Close to two million Canadians served in the the two World Wars and over one hundred thousand gave their lives. But even in World War II, despite the one week delay in declaring war observed to mark Canada's legal autonomy, we were following Britain's lead. Canada had never assumed responsibility for its own defence. We assumed we were safe if Britain was safe and in peril if Britain was in peril. In peacetime the military was little more than a poorly equipped skeleton force backed by a militia that was as much a social institution as a serious potential force.
On the eve of World War II Canada had less than eight thousand men in uniform. In the fiscal year before the war, defence spending, despite some steps towards rearmament, was under thirty-seven million dollars or about 0.6% of Gross Domestic Product. In four years it would rise to $4.6 billion or over 38% of GDP. After the war the military establishment collapsed almost as fast as it had risen. The army shrank from half a million to fifteen thousand troops in two years. By 1949-50 defence spending was down to $385 million or about 2% of GDP. The military looked set to return to its prewar token status. The Korean War and the building of NATO's forces in Europe combined suddenly to reverse the decline. In 1952-53 defence spending peaked at just short of two billion dollars or about 7.5% of GDP.
Canada's involvement in both Korea and NATO reflected its conscious post-war middle power status. With Europe only slowly recovering from the war and most of what came to be known as the Third World still colonial dependencies Canada had for a decade after the war an international status it has never had before or since. Led by Lester Pearson, Canada's clever and self-confident new diplomatic corps sought to take advantage of Canada's place at the relatively small tables. Its first and most important role was in the founding of NATO. In this role, still the most important that Canada has played on the world stage since the war and the keystone of our foreign relations ever since, Canada was acting in its authentic historic tradition. We helped formalize the links between our traditional allies and acted as the bridge between Britain and Western Europe and the United States. There was no pretense of a special vocation for peacekeeping or being the friendly disinterested country that could help with everyone's problems and be looked up to and walk with righteous pride around the world. We acted to protect our interests by joining with allies with whom we had an historic basis of trust and who shared our interests.
Our joining NATO expressed our continuing interest in the security of Western Europe, for which we had already made great sacrifices in the two world wars, and put our necessary alliance with the United States in a comfortable multi-lateral context. With memories of the war still fresh and many of those who served in the war still of military age the rapid resurrection of the forces from 1950 was relatively easy and uncontroversial. Korea was an anomalous war in almost every respect, but Canada's participation seemed both a restoration of the wartime alliance, with Canada joining in a Commonwealth Brigade, and a first serious use of the United Nations in which we placed such hopes. A volunteer force was recruited, lead by officers all but the most junior of whom had served in the war and remained in the regular army or the reserves.
With this background, the late 1950's were the heyday of the peacetime Canadian military. By 1960 regular forces strength was touching 120,000 and spending, though down from its Korean War peak and a declining share of a growing GDP, was over $1.5 billion, a healthy 3.8% of GDP. The army got Centurion tanks, the navy was getting first rate Canadian designed St. Laurent and Restigouche class escorts and the air force, despite the cancellation of the Arrow, had its all Canadian predecessor the CF-100 and was to get American Starfighters and Voodoos.
Since the 1960's it has been downhill all the way. Paul Hellyer was an ambitious minister who did not serve over four years as Minister of Defence to weaken Canada's defences. His work eventually and predictably had that effect. One of his goals in unifying the forces was to save money. Any savings were achieved by the integration of headquarters and support operations prior to unification. Hellyer's ambition expressed itself in a kind of policy wonk conceit. He thought unification was such a clever idea that he forced it through in the face of the reality of obviously distinct land, sea and air roles in the military, which had to survive unification.
Unification cut off the forces from their history and confused their purposes. For the public it became more like abolition as soldiers, sailors and airmen disappeared into their parking attendant uniforms. Real defence spending declined to about 2% of GDP, around which it hovered for twenty years until the public expectation of a post Cold War peace dividend and the search for politically palatable spending cuts to eliminate the deficit sent it towards 1%.
Unification was a mistake, but it was a mistake that occurred and would not be corrected because Canada was losing its way in the world. The United Nations, which had 59 members in 1950 had 127 by 1970. The former great powers like Britain and France had sunk to the status of middle powers and Canada, despite its economic strength, had fallen into other ranks. The memory of the war receded and Canada's political and military leaders had less and less experience of our role in the war or even the immediate post-war world.
Canada's neo-nationalism and opposition to the American role in Vietnam made Canadians increasingly reluctant allies of the United States. An entirely home grown peacekeeping mythology boosted by Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize fostered an fantasy image of Canada as a peacekeeping country without interests of its own or alignments. The inconsistency of this image with Canada's great military history and continuing membership in NATO never seemed to matter. As Canada agonized over its identity and fretted about its independence, the problem of Quebec and national unity came to dominate national politics. Despite Trudeau's invocation of the War Measures Act and calling out the army in the 1970 October crisis, it was always evident that the military could play no role in holding Canada together. The application of bilingualism to the forces led to a healthy participation of French-Canadians in the forces without answering the question of what country in the long term they would serve.
Trudeau had shown his contempt for the military during the war. Canada's place in the world never meant more to him than an excuse for foreign travel and a chance to indulge his intellectual musings before a diplomatically polite but usually indifferent audience. An attempt to strengthen ties with Europe as a balance to the United States, described by Trudeau himself as banal, North South dialogue, and the 1983 peace tour only obscured Canada's interests and relationships, premised an exaggerated appreciation of our power and dissipated our influence and obscured our alliances and our commitment to Western security.
Canadians took little interest in all of this, apparently satisfied by a series of photo opportunities that Canada was playing its rightful role in the world. They took even less interest in military affairs. Apart from press releases from disarmament lobbies the principal press coverage of military matters was as business news. When big purchases could be delayed no longer without a conscious decision to abandon defence entirely, as with the 1976 purchase of Lockheed CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft or the 1982 purchase of MacDonell Douglas CF-18 Hornet attack fighters there was business to be done, either directly on the projects or as offset purchases negotiated by the government as part of the acquisitions deals. The only political controversy was over who, or which province, was to get the work. The 1986 decision to have the Hornets maintained in Montreal rather than Winnipeg was never forgiven the Tories in the West.
Equipment purchases were always too little too late, but political support could generally be found for billions in spending as a questionable mix of industrial strategy and regional job creation. The price of big purchases was always inflated by the need to arrange production in Canada or offset orders for what could not be built in Canada. When the decision was finally made to order new frigates for the navy to replace ships nearing thirty years in service, the result was a massive $6.2 billion dollar order for twelve of the most expensive ships of their size ever built. The order had for political reasons to be split between New Brunswick and Quebec. There were several European designs that could have been adapted for and largely built in Canada for little more than half the cost and in less time. Instead the industrial strategists entertained vain hopes that having revived a warship building industry that had been neglected for decades we might be able to sell warships abroad. The prospect never grew serious enough that the political complications of such major arms sales had to be faced. Even when we decided that we had more frigates than we needed we were unable to negotiate a deal with the Saudis to sell ships from our production.
As the ships entered service the complimentary helicopter project necessary to make them the effective anti-submarine platforms they were designed to be fell victim to politics as the price tag, inflated by provision for Canadian assembly and customizing and offsets, for the EH 101 helicopters ordered by Kim Campbell became politically indefensible. The experience showed that political support for any large defence expenditure had disappeared. Canadians were grudgingly prepared to accept, largely out of thirty years habit, the small burden of Cold War commitment to NATO. With the end of the Cold War Canadians were incapable of imagining a true military threat or an interest requiring military commitment.
Peacekeeping had become the only acceptable political justification for Canada's armed forces just as Bosnia and Somalia were about to expose the phoniness of the idea. It ran directly counter to the purpose of having armed forces. The military exist to be ready to kill and be killed in defence of the country's interests. For a country like Canada their use has always been in concert with our historic allies. Peacekeeping premises having no interests and no alliances that might imply partiality between warring parties. Peacekeepers are not supposed to kill anyone and no one is supposed to want to kill them. Over one hundred Canadian soldiers have been killed in peacekeeping deployments, but they were not supposed to be. The level of mortality is not much higher than what results form peacetime training accidents and would not have been accepted if it had been.
Canada's infatuation with peacekeeping set in deeply after Pearson's succès d'estime in the Suez Crisis. Diefenbaker's government was prompted to overcome initial reluctance to send Canadian soldiers to the Congo in 1960 by public enthusiasm. Peacekeeping proved to be habit forming. Canada has managed to achieve an almost unbroken record of participation in UN peacekeeping missions since Kashmir in 1948 and claims to have unique expertise in peacekeeping. The unveiling of a monument to peacekeeping next to the National Gallery on a scale to rival the National War Memorial and the issuance of a peacekeeping loonie in 1995 marked the climax of Canada's celebration of its peacekeeping prowess. The extent to which peacekeeping had come to obscure our historic role in the world was strikingly evident when Jean Chrétien devoted much of his speech on the 50th anniversary of the Canadians embarkation for D-Day at Gosport, England, to Lester Pearson and Canada's peacekeeping.
Foreign leaders and diplomats are too polite to say it, but the truth is that Canada's peacekeeping efforts amount to no more than a few footnotes in the history of international politics since Suez. Whatever may have been the case in the 1950's, there are now scores of countries ready, willing and able to provide more than enough peacekeepers for any number of conflicts. The only problem is who will pay.
We hear little of other countries' peacekeeping roles. Canadians were always one of the smaller contingents in the former Yugoslavia behind the Dutch and the Ukrainians, of whom we heard nothing. A total of 35 countries had peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia in 1994. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is now made up of contingents from Fiji, Finland, France, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Nepal, Norway and Poland. So long as Canada has any armed forces it can continue to contribute to UN peacekeeping missions. But it is not needed and it will not impress anyone but Canadians by making peacekeeping the principal purpose of its armed forces.
With the end of the Cold War most Canadians have been at a loss to think what need Canada could have for armed forces beyond peacekeeping. But the circumstances of the Cold War, when the battle lines were drawn for a war that happily never took place, were unique. For most countries throughout history there are a range of more or less remote possibilities of conflict, some of them remote precisely because they are ready for them. For Canada, as for most advanced countries, there is little prospect of having to face a hostile power alone and little chance that it could do so successfully. But in seeking security in common with other countries, formally in NATO, and less formally beyond NATO, we must be prepared to bring our fair contribution to facing any threat. Without a serious military capability we cannot expect to be heard when any question of the use of force arises. We cannot call for a forceful response when we have nothing to contribute. We cannot urge restraint when we cannot exercise restraint ourselves but are merely impotent.
Canada's inability to shoulder properly an important military role can be seen plainly in the state of our navy. We now have sixteen modern or very expensively modernized surface warships. There principal purpose is anti-submarine warfare. After some difficulties in the early years Canada played an important role in anti-submarine warfare in both world wars. The threat posed by submarines is now greater than it has ever been. The volume of ocean going trade is vastly more important than it was sixty years ago. More importantly the capabilities and elusiveness of modern submarines, whether nuclear or conventional, make them effectively a new weapon system compared to the submarines that nearly strangled Britain in the two world wars. We have practically no experience of what they can do. The sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war was one of only two occasions when a submarine sank a ship since 1945.
The conventional opinion is that at the end of the Cold War submarines ceased to be a threat. But Russia continues to build formidable submarines: the 11,000 ton Akula II class and the 16,000 ton Oscar II class. The first of a new Severodvinsk class could be ready in the year 2000. The keel was laid in November for the first of a new Borey class of ballistic missile submarines. How many of Russia's 120 nuclear submarines could put to sea in time of war is anyone's guess. Older ships are steadily being scrapped. New warships have their problems. The crew of the Akula II Vepr struck in August over back pay. But the Germans had only 21 submarines at sea at the beginning of World War II. Russia can do a lot better than that. Its newer submarines have been regularly deployed in recent years, coming close to North America a times. They are the most heavily armed and reportedly the most stealthy submarines ever built. If, in their present state of disarray, the Russians think it worthwhile to build and deploy such ships, it surely makes sense to prepare seriously to defend against them.
Nor are the Russians the only threat. China has a growing fleet of submarines of all kinds, conventional, nuclear and ballistic missile carrying. It bought some from the Russians but makes its own in all categories. A large number of countries of varying degrees of responsibility have modern conventional submarines including Iran, Algeria, Syria and Libya. The submarine threat is large and growing. Who knows what these ships may be up to early in the next century? By that time Canada will still not have replaced its over 30 year old Sea King helicopters with the modern ship-borne helicopters necessary to make its new City class patrol frigates effective anti-submarine warfare systems.
The best choice would be an off the shelf purchase of a smaller number of the Anglo-Italian EH101 helicopters we agreed to buy in 1993. But for political reasons we are not likely to make that choice. We seem likely to have no submarines as the political will cannot be found to replace our three 30 year old Oberon class diesel electric submarines even with their near perfect replacements, the basically mint condition British Upholder class on offer at a bargain price after the Royal Navy decided to go for an all nuclear submarine fleet.
Ecuador, Portugal and Venezuela will keep submarines younger than those we are retiring. Australia, no more obviously threatened than Canada, is already replacing its six younger Oberons with six bigger Swedish designed and Australian built submarines at a cost of close to $5 billion dollars from a defence budget about two thirds of Canada's. Meanwhile Canada's frigates, according to recent reports are having trouble keeping their grocery and laundry bills within budget, while showing the flag in Europe.
All writers on Canada's military pay fulsome tribute to the dedication and professionalism of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. Generally this is deserved. Particularly praiseworthy was the courage of Canadian soldiers in Croatia and Bosnia who found themselves in the middle of a real war, taking casualties and being humiliated by the forces of those they were supposed to be helping when they could not understand, any more than Canadians generally, what purpose their being there served. They have reason to be proud. Canadians should be ashamed that they have not been ready to assume the burden of preparing our forces to fight, but sent them vainly where they had to fight anyway. Somalia was the other side of the coin.
One immediate reaction to Somalia was that we were training killers in the army and should stop. But armies do not train their men to beat defenceless teenagers to death and have no need of recruits who would. It is an old saying that their are no bad soldiers, only bad officers. The implication is that the quality of recruits does not matter. Canadians have signalled in their indifference to the military, their unwillingness to pay to equip and train it properly, and their smug self-satisfaction with our peacekeeping that they do not want to recruit men ready to kill or be killed in the service of their country. Many step forward anyway and make the best of it. But along with those who are looking for training in a skill useful in civilian life and those who look forward to a cushy bureaucratic career it is not surprising that some delinquent characters are recruited and not weeded out or reformed. In Croatia and Bosnia Canadians were killed when they were not supposed to be. In Somalia they killed when they were not supposed to.
Canadians have to face the question of whether they are prepared to have armed forces ready to go abroad to kill and be killed in defence of their country's interests. All the evidence, from the infatuation with peacekeeping, to their low tolerance for defence spending and their recoil from the harsh facts of even limited involvement in minor real conflicts such as those in Bosnia and Somalia, is that they are not.
On Canada's present readiness to support its military and give them not only the money but the direction they need, we should do better to give up any pretense of assuming responsibility for our own defence. But it is a hard world and force and the readiness to use it are as much a part of it as ever. A nation that cares enough to survive will have to face that fact. Despite our experiences in the two world wars, we have evidently not grown up enough to do so. We are heading back to our prewar impotence. We have not learned to see long range or long term threats and forearm against them and thereby possibly forestall them. We have not learned that in collective security there are shared burdens as well as shared benefits. We have not learned to treat defence as a permanent part of our national life in which we all must take an interest.
The lesson of the last four years is that Canada's military require our constant attention and support. If we turn away when the present scandals have worked themselves out, lay the blame on a few individuals and refuse to support forces adequate to the tasks we may give them, new scandals will surely arise. We shall be powerless to defend Canada's interests abroad and our friends will not help. We shall have only ourselves to blame.