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Legion Magazine – March/April 2001 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – March/April 2001

This is my first column for Legion Magazine since the voters of Canada gave Jean Chrétien and the Liberal party a majority grip on Parliament for the third time. As I read it the Chrétien ministry, supported by its parliamentary caucus, has known the issues regarding war veterans and been moderately constructive in its responses to requests about them put forward by The Royal Canadian Legion and kindred associations.

On veterans matters I have been more critical of the first two Chrétien governments; that is, on recent and current defence policies because of the strains and failures which have been happening in a military which seems continually overtasked as well as being saddled with politically correct requirements such as recruiting female combat soldiers. Chrétien has seemed ever ready to send small- to middle-sized groups abroad when asked by the United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the president of the United States. Of course, aside from the fighter planes doing sorties in Serbia, those assigned are not to enter battle but to neutralize, buffer, patrol, inquire, lift mines, look for bodies, and re-establish broken communications. Repeatedly, there have been disasters as in Rwanda, or serious breakdowns in troop discipline, as in Somalia, Croatia and Serbia. Further, in implementing the terms of engagement and prime duties like policing, giving disaster relief and doing social work, what is called for by and large is not highly trained combat troops but jacks of all trades.

In these commitments, generalized as peacekeeping rather than peacemaking, our military seem more and more to be moving away from the core requirement for a national defence force: that it be trained and equipped to fight, and have the means and esprit de corps to go into action. Why not train police, social workers, electricians and sanitary engineers for such highly manned duties abroad?

While chatting recently with several young reporters about our over stretched military one of them was blunt with me. She said: “You are still back in WW II. Are most old men of your era that way?”

Alas I did not trust myself to speak for such old men but since then I have wondered about the answer. This is why I would welcome views on a sensible military for Canada from Legion readers of my vintage.

If any reader wanted to drop right into the hard and messy dilemmas of our military task forces abroad in peacekeeping and peacemaking I would recommend two quite compelling books, each by female authors, each about such missions, and each controversially judgmental.

The first, already a best-seller, is by Carol Off, a familiar by voice from her work on CBC Radio news; her book is titled The Lion, The Fox, And The Eagle, published by Random House.
The lion is Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire of Rwanda notoriety—brave and noble. The fox is Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, tricky, scheming and articulate, and surely the most noticed Canadian soldier since the Korean War, sometimes described as the saviour of Sarajevo. The eagle is Madame Justice Louise Arbour, now in our Supreme Court, woman of the year 2000 for many, and recently the war- crimes prosecutor, based at an international tribunal in Holland, and sometimes tracking and indicting war criminals in Serbia and Bosnia. In a nutshell, Off portrays the fox as a macho, tough-talking pragmatist, pro-Serbian, and not a genuine hero whereas the lion has earned respect and honour from the nations. The eagle? She symbolizes the passionate determination of Canadians to make a better world.

The other book which illuminates the Canadian intervention in Rwanda under UN direction, has had more favourable comment, in particular in the United Kingdom and in the U.S. Its title is long but brutally direct: A People Betrayed; The Role Of The West In Rwanda’s Genocide. The author is Linda Malvern, and her publisher is Zed Books of London, U.K. This paperback has even more on Dallaire’s terrible burden of undefined responsibilities and inadequate means in both military and supplies than one gets in Off’s book which focuses rather less on the UN inadequacies and more on the those of the Canadian military and its leadership. Malvern gives a clear, harrowing account of dreadful cock-ups and misjudgments over many months by the UN leaders responsible for executing the decision of the UN to stop what seemed a developing civil war but became a massive genocide.

These books are enlightening on how our military gets into such duties and handles them but they pushed me harder to ask: What sort of a military ought we have to take and fulfil such missions? And how vital is it any more that the military be trained essentially for modern warfare?

Now, let me turn to other reading, not all of which will interest all Legion readers but each book should captivate some of them.

Two of the new books pivot on happenings or issues which were controversial and eminently political, domestically speaking, at the close of WW II. Since then, however, each has slid well down the ladder of remembrance and references to them are rare. The first is Canada’s Newspaper Legend: The Story Of J. Douglas MacFarlane, by Richard MacFarlane, a son, published by ECW Press, 200-2120 Queen St. E., Toronto, ON M4E 1E2. The late Doug MacFarlane was a top reporter or editor from the mid-1930s to the 1980s with newspapers like the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Telegram, and the Toronto Sun, but he came to repeated national notice as the army officer in WW II who ran the Maple Leaf, the tabloid-size newspaper created in 1943 by orders of the defence department for the interest of Canadian forces in Italy, Northwestern Europe and the U.K.

After V-E Day the matter of getting the troops home and discharged became controversial. Where was the shipping? Which of those who enlisted voluntarily should have priority? Strong differences of opinion developed between the Canadian commander in Europe, General Guy Simonds, and the editor of the Maple Leaf. MacFarlane refused to alter his advocacy of what should be done and Simonds fired him. Editorial freedom lost out to the power of command over even such an unusual agency. MacFarlane couldn’t win and he himself was soon home considering employment chances. Of course, more shipping cleared away the cause of contention but in the course of it MacFarlane was somewhat of a hero back home—though not with the ruling Liberals or the Department of National Defence. The rumpus also spread around Canada, the contribution which the paper had made, notably through news from home, to good morale, self-awareness, and postwar aspirations of those fighting in Europe.

The MacFarlane biography also illuminates what went on in the Canadian army as seen by its band of reporters and photographers and by other Canadian press correspondents, all restricted by a fairly heavy-handed censorship. If one is also interested in the development of Toronto dailies since 1940 or in journalism schools, Doug MacFarlane had much to do with both.

The second book addresses even more thoroughly than the first an incident regarding military manpower at the close of WW II. It is by a retired chief petty officer of the Royal Canadian Navy, James W. Essex, and titled “Mutiny”: The Odyssey Of HMCS Uganda. The publisher is Highway Book Shop, RR 1, Cobalt, ON P0J 1C0. This account is by one who took a lead role on the ship during a contretemps which miffed many senior naval officers, riled politicians in Ottawa, and drew harsh tags from the American press about the ship whose crew voted to sail for home from the war before it was over.

The Canadian crew of the cruiser Uganda did not vote to come home but it did turn for home on orders from Ottawa less than a fortnight before atom bombs brought an end to Japanese resistance. The ship had seen several months of action at sea with a force of U.S. and Royal Navy vessels attacking Japanese targets in the summer of 1945.
What caused the return and the tale that it was the result of a vote?

A month before V-E Day Mackenzie King, the prime minister through WW II, happy because the reinforcement crisis had faded away, opened up the matter of Canada’s participation in the Pacific theatre after the now pending defeat of Hitler. King announced that Canadian military personnel who had not been asked to volunteer specifically for service in the Pacific would not have to remain in service for war there unless they chose to re-volunteer for it. And if they did so, they first were entitled to have 30 days leave at home.

Although what developed after V-E day on the Uganda was far from a classical mutiny as one finds such in histories, novels, and movies, King’s ukase was very confusing to the Canadians already warring in the Pacific. Aside from this confusion, the body of the crew had been somewhat dissatisfied with living conditions on their ship and the attitudes of some of their officers.

CPO Essex’s account is frank, homey and joyous in its overlying theme of reconciliation and good, shared memories. In the decades since the Uganda came to the dock at home right on V-J day, the rifts in the crew and beyond it in the RCN generally have healed. The solidarity of the crew in comradeship and pride has been re-established and celebrated in reunions. “Mutiny” has been a labour of love by the author, and this shows in its handsome format and the plentitude of photographs.

Norman Christie, the moving force of CEF Books, a publisher producing books and pamphlets about Canadians during WW I, has had reproduced two more memoirs of battlefield soldiers.

One is really a major feat, a long, thorough recall of his time in the army by a very fine writer of prose with a descriptive bent which goes beyond mere journalism. The other book is slighter but fascinating enough, despite its sad denouement in the suicide of its author after his discharge and return to his American roots.

The title of the latter book is factual enough: Best O’Luck: How A Fighting Kentuckian Won The Thanks Of Britain’s King. The author was Alexander McClintock, DCM, a sergeant, 87th Battalion Canadian Infantry, Canadian Grenadier Guards, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1915-17. The grander book is by Victor Wheeler, an Albertan who came home from the Great War, became an increasingly important civilian, and wound up in a senior capacity in North American procurement of war materials in WW II. His title was The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, by Signalman Wheeler of what was known as the Alberta infantry regiment.

The narrative was drawn together long after the war but closely based on voluminous diaries which Wheeler kept—illegally it seems—through the war. He was wounded severely on several occasions. As a highly trained signalman he had a far wider range of experience than most soldiers in a variety of locales and duties. His many brushes with death and the loss of so many comrades are vividly dealt with but leavened with his personal interests, for example, a musicianship which had him searching and finding fellow players, singers, and concerts in the oddest places.

The author loved his regiment, he cherished his comrades by name and qualities, and right to his death in 1979 he was working to keep them and their service and sacrifice known and valued. Believe me this is a superb story, and much more complex and exciting than its title suggests. It is sad that Wheeler died a year before this masterpiece was first published.

Both books are published by CEF Books, Box 40083, Ottawa, ON K1V 0W8.