Volume 29 - Number 10 - Thursday, February 13, 1997

No job for mealy-mouths

by Daniel McCabe

It's a subject that has lately made for endless newspaper copy--what's wrong with Canada's military?

Anxious for answers to that question--and for solutions to the problems they'll raise--Defence Minister Doug Young has turned to four university-based scholars. The four--arguably Canada's top academic experts on the country's military--will each prepare a report for the minister. They are to review the state of the armed forces and propose solutions for improving the leadership structure of the military.

Facing a March 15 deadline to complete their reports are York University's Jack Granatstein, the University of Calgary's David Bercuson, Laval University's Albert Legault and Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

In a recent interview on CBC Radio's Morningside , Granatstein explained that he and his three colleagues were selected because "we all have the reputation for being loud-mouthed and for saying what we think. This minister doesn't like mealy-mouthed advice."

Appearing on the same Morningside segment, Morton commented on the armed forces' overall sense of mission--or lack thereof. He claimed that the Canadian government has commissioned a series of official policy papers throughout the years on what the role of the military should be, "and we got it wrong each time. For instance, one called for the armed forces to focus on the Soviet threat just as the Soviet threat was in decline.

"We've been remarkably unable to predict the future," says Morton. "We haven't been able to sit down and assess what sorts of missions the military should take on. Take Rwanda--it was largely felt that the forces shouldn't go there, that we didn't have the resources for that kind of mission. But the Prime Minister had a very strong emotional reaction to the situation over there and he decided, 'Yes, Canada's forces should be there helping out.' Nobody inside the military could have expected that or would have advocated for that."

Morton is reluctant to speak in specific terms about what he will recommend--the reports are supposed to be confidential and for Young's eyes only. But as a graduate of Royal Military College and a military historian who has penned several best-selling books about the armed forces, he is quick to defend the military. There are plenty of problems to address, he says, but Canada's armed forces generally do good work in trying circumstances.

"The Canadian forces have been assigned to some very different missions since the end of the Cold War--ranging from overseas peacekeeping to Arctic sea rescue missions to the Oka crisis a few years ago. While it's true that individual members of the forces have occasionally acted in shocking and totally indefensible ways, the forces as a whole did a consistently good job."

Morton argues that the military should perhaps be designed in such a way that it "can respond to the unexpected" and receive the sort of wide-ranging and flexible resources it will require in terms of manpower and equipment.

Declining resources have spawned an "all against all" atmosphere between the services. "The submariners, the tank people, the rocket people--you'll find high-minded people in every area of the military who all believe passionately that they are vital to the enterprise." Each "tribe" has its advocates who are quick to plead their case to a media that thrives on the resulting turmoil, says Morton. The overall result is internal dissension. "One way to solve that is to shake the money tree. But is that feasible?"

As for morale problems, Morton points to specific areas that require attention. "What would improve soldiers' morale? A system of promotion that they could see as fair, adequate income levels and some predictability in their lives.

"There has been a salary freeze since 1989, but the Treasury Board looks at the economy each year and decides that one way to raise money for the government is to hike up [soldiers'] insurance premiums and to charge them more rent. Their salaries are on a stalled elevator, but their cost of living is on a government-regulated elevator that keeps going up and up. It's human nature to feel bitter about that kind of thing and the soldiers are directing their frustration at their military superiors. But the superiors are as helpless as the troops are when it comes to this--they don't have the power to affect government policy."

Another issue relates to command--Morton was one of Jean Boyle's few defenders when the former chief of Canada's military was assailed by press commentators for his testimony before the Somalia Inquiry.

"If we want the chief of the defence staff to fall on his sword for every indiscretion committed during his command--all that guarantees us is an endless series of defence chiefs." Morton thinks the lower ranks ought to be given more authority.

He also believes Canadians should consider what they want from their military. "We want them to uphold the law, but they can't get too rough. We want them to feel free to express themselves, but we expect them to display an absolutely strict obedience. I think, overall, we get a better military than we pay for or deserve."

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