November 21, 1996

Getting Canada's armed forces back on track

by Diana Grier Ayton

Retired Canadian Forces general Lewis MacKenzie

Kathryn Bindon, member of the Advisory Board on Gender Integration in the Canadian Forces

Canada's armed forces have taken a beating in recent years--not on any foreign battlefield but in the sometimes brutal arena of public opinion in this country.

The unfolding Somalia inquiry has revealed a disturbing lack of leadership at the highest levels, and reports of violent and racist behaviour have tarnished the image of the ordinary soldier. A couple of experts were invited to McGill last week by the Institute for the Study of Canada to assess the damage done to the military and to suggest causes and cures.

Kathryn Bindon, principal of Sir Wilfrid Grenfell College in Newfoundland, is a graduate of the National Defence College and a member of the Advisory Board on Gender Integration in the Canadian Forces. She declares that since the 1960s the Canadian Forces have undergone "institutional trauma to match any industrial restructuring or re-engineering experience." In her view we are reaping today the consequences of a series of disastrous decisions imposed on the military by the federal government.

She says that the forced unification of the armed forces, rather than creating a single, cohesive service, "established a stronger ethic of separation within the institution than had existed previously." Over time that sense of separation "complicated leadership, mitigated attempts to establish institutional standards and generated lines of communication and spheres of interest that are adversarial and exclusive."

To compound the error, Ottawa went on to reposition the military to ensure that it would serve the government's interests "in a framework much broader than that of defence or sovereignty. It was the redefinition of the military as a Crown corporation."

Bindon says the government then began to use the armed forces to achieve political aims. In the area of procurement, for example, the forces became "a kind of national invisible hand that could deliver industrial, technological, administrative and economic benefits to Canadian corporations."

The federal government could directly affect the economies of regions by opening bases or shipyards, but it used money from the defence budget, not from regional industrial development funds. It's not surprising, says Bindon, that with the blurring of military/government objectives, the Canadian Forces lost focus.

"Its leaders appear to have decided to learn how to play the game and in so doing, forgot some of their own rules. Military integrity must seem a little distant in the world of Ottawa's practical politics."

Retired Canadian Forces General Lewis MacKenzie traces the military's troubles to the same source. "When we put the generals and the politicians and the bureaucrats in bed together, we in the military were mesmerized by the 'buttons and bows'--the rankings, the colour of the uniforms, the design of the buttons--all this stuff we thought was important. Meanwhile we lost control and we lost our privileged platform of giving advice to the government."

Although working together as "alleged co-equals," MacKenzie says the military's representatives in Ottawa began to lose ground to the bureaucrats. "Our personnel are rotated into different jobs every year or two, while bureaucrats stay on. Gradually, corporate knowledge and influence shifted to the civilian side." The military fought to regain power in a way that would have grave long-term consequences for a further loss of leadership, according to MacKenzie.

"They bastardized their ranks. Work that used to be done by a colonel was now being done by a two-star general, because in Ottawa, to have equal influence you need equal pay. Pay is everything. We elevated the rank structure in the military to compete, and the military started to play the political game." Those who did it well were kept in Ottawa, thus losing credibility with those they were responsible for---the men and women in the field.

Bindon says the effects of this preoccupation with power politics have been clearly shown recently. "The Somalia enquiry has given us a graphic illustration of responsible military men who appear not to have taken decisions--indeed, not even made the appropriate arguments--because they didn't think the politicians would approve. Worse still, some did take decisions because they thought someone on the civilian side would approve or actually wanted them to act in distinctly unprofessional ways."

Despite the murder in Somalia, which he calls "a totally unacceptable, disgusting breakdown in discipline," MacKenzie insists Canadian troops acquitted themselves well during that mission.

"The Canadians established law and order. They were the ones who went out and built the schools and purified the water and put the police force back on the street. They couldn't give them weapons, so our guys would walk behind them about 10 feet to give them security. We weren't told any of that."

And he claims that Canadian troops are among the best trained and most respected in the world. "As a UN commander in Bosnia in 1992, I picked the Canadians because they were well-disciplined, well-led soldiers, two-thirds of them from Quebec. They were picked because they were the best and the international community--32 nations in that force--absolutely heaped praise on them."

To cure the malaise afflicting the military, Bindon urges re-establishing a clear mandate for the armed forces in a national defence framework, not a political one.

"The time is right for establishing a role for military leadership that involves expert advice and participation in the planning process, that integrates their perspective in the preparation of national defence policy in terms of strategy, tactics, doctrine and ethos, and (in decisions about) force structure and fiscal management."

She would like to ensure that ugly incidents are not repeated and that money be spent in future not on inquiries, but on "truly effective" training and education.

For his part, MacKenzie would like to see money invested in creating a self-contained and capable, division-size fighting force. He says we have "a lot of really good folks and some really good equipment but it's all in the shop window. We would fight like hell for about 12 hours and then we would be blown away because we don't have much in reserve. To get to a place like Zaire, I would like to see a Canadian force that could go as a package, get itself there, look after itself while it's away, get itself back and be sustained and supported from home.

"Inside that circle (in Ottawa), there are some problems that have to be resolved. Outside the circle, I don't think there are any problems. And that's not me being naive or blind, but as far as the folks in the field go, there are no more serious problems now than I've had in my career, and I've watched soldiers do outstanding work for 33 years."