A few weeks ago I opined that the Canadian Army is, in the 21st century, something of a Potemkin Village: a face of formations and units that are all “in the shop window” and have nothing to provide the weight and depth that a fighting army needs.
I have also explained that in my view the problem is “decades of darkness,” not just one but, rather, five of them, going all the way back to 1966 when Paul Hellyer tried, and ultimately failed, to tame the tiger of inflation that was eating away at the defence budget, forcing ministers, officials, admirals and generals to make do with fewer, albeit always more capable, ships, weapons systems, aircraft and people because the voters of Canada were (and still are), not unreasonably, unwilling to pay more and more for defence when they cannot see any existential threat to Canada.
But still, if the Canadian Army, at least, is, indeed, a Potemkin Village then it begs the question: how was it allowed to happen?
I think I might have part of the answer.
Things went from bad (as they had started to become in the early 1960) to worse, in 1968, when Pierre Trudeau came to power intent, if he could, on disarming Canada. He could not but he began the process of hollowing out the military and, because of his reckless spending on social programmes of poor design and dubious value, there was never, not for Joe Clark, not for Brian Mulroney, not for Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, not for Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau any fiscal “room” to rebuild the military when resources had to be devoted to staving off something akin to national bankruptcy ~ remember when the Wall Street Journal dubbed the Canadian dollar the “northern peso?“
But the worst thing about what Prime Ministers Trudeau and, later, Chrétien did was to bend the military leadership to their political will ~ to a culture of complicity in which they were not only required to make cuts that should have been their hard choices but were, instead, dictated by political staffers in pursuit of partisan political ends, but who were, also, forced to speak out, publicly, in support of political objectives …
… it was not that they were bad or weak military men (although some had been promoted a rank or two or even three over their level of capability) and it wasn’t only the officers pictured, it was a “system” that pervaded the upper ranks of the civil service and the military. It began in the mid 1970s when Pierre Trudeau’s Clerk of the Privy Council (later Senator) Michael Pitfield introduced an excessive dose of partisan politics into what had always been a fairly non-partisan but politically very, very astute bureau and into the most senior ranks of the civil service and, by extension, the military. Do his discredit, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appeared, to me, to have done little to remedy this situation and Prime Minister Chrétien made it worse, in my opinion, with appointments like Jocelyne Bourgon who, it always seemed to me, was more politically connected that qualified and proven leaders. I’m not sure prime ministers actually wanted a toadying military … but, that’s what they got, as we saw when (1999) General Maurice Baril blamed his own air transport people for being unable to fly the prime minister to Jordan to attend King Hussein’s funeral when a) that was demonstrated, by several media outlets, to be untrue, and b) it was pretty clear that Prime Minister Chrétien simply didn’t want to interrupt a skiing holiday with his family.
The disease was something I call “don’t embarrass the minister” or, at the highest levels, the prime minister. I recall quite well being briefed on the fact that we were never allowed to disagree with any published directive or with anything that the MND or any minister or, especially, the PM said in the House of Commons. But admirals and senior officials and generals did speak out, in fairly “closed” fora, on matters that were still being discussed. That changed in the late ’70s, and by the 1990s commenting in anything but glowing terms on any government proposal was a firing offence ~ as Admiral John Anderson, the Chief of the Defence Staff in 1993, discovered when Jean Chrétien took office and fired him for having been critical of a proposal made during the campaign. No secret was made about why Admiral Anderson was fired: there would be no disagreement with Prime Minister Chrétien.
By 1997, when I retired, the culture was all pervasive in the bureaucracy and within the senior ranks of the military. It’s why it became fairly easy for the government to tell the military leadership to eat its own seed grain … and it’s why the military complied. Oh, there was the occasional “rebel,” like Vice Admiral Chuck Thomas in 1991 ~ under Mulroney ~ who complained that the CDS of the day, General John de Chastelain, was “cooking the books,” and telling the MND and PM what they wanted hear … but the lesson learned inside National Defence was that nobody, not the media, and certainly not the public, cared one little bit if the very defence and security of Canada was being sacrificed in the name of some partisan political objectives.
There were, of course, many, many very good officers who “soldiered on,” doing the best they could, keeping their mouthes shut, as good sailors and soldiers ought to do, and did their best to translate political direction into the least harmful programmes for the Canadian Forces … but there was, also, and unhelpfully, a large group of (also very good) officers who used to delight in announcing that they had risen to e.g. major general without ever serving in HQ in Ottawa. They were, in fact, agreeing that there was a problem but suggesting, to other good officers, that it was possible and even “career enhancing” to not help solve it. The politicized, careerist culture was, literally, driving some of the “best and brightest” out.
What the ministers did do was allow some admirals and generals ~ especially army generals ~ to fiddle with the organization charts while, figuratively, “Rome was burning.” The result was that many officers who were mightily impressed with the United States military came home, after extended tours in the upper echelons of the US Army, with new ideas about command and control structures ~ and they imposed on the CF a command and control (C²) superstructure which is inappropriate: too large, too high ranked and, possibly, actually destructive. But it “serves” the minister well. Meanwhile the Army went from four large, well staffed and adequately equipped brigade to three, but with only enough combat and combat support soldiers for one … the Army has more than enough generals and colonels and chief warrant officers, but it is desperately short of corporals and privates to fire rifles and mortars, drive trucks, build bridges, cook meals, fix radios and drive tanks. The whole system is out of balance and the leadership knows it but the C² superstructure is so cumbersome that I suspect that the Chief of the Defence Staff cannot impose his will on it. And will is what is needed … will and a bit of political cooperation.
There are people in Justin Trudeau’s team who understand the problems and, I believe, want to fix them. the solutions to some of them do not need more money but they do need some political cooperation and even some political leadership …
… the question is will Prime Minister Trudeau and his inner circle allow for the necessary actions? Or are we in for yet a sixth decade of darkness?