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Legion Magazine – January/February 2003 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – January/February 2003

Last fall I was in despair after the last speech from the throne under Jean Chrétien revealed there would be another overall review of our defence and foreign affairs policies, not an awaited, long-needed boost in defence spending to salvage both the capabilities and the credibility of our military.

Serious questions leapt to my mind. Could it be too late to build a military competent enough in training and equipment to operate overseas in the 21st century? And why did the government continue to overstress our Armed Forces with too many tasks? Such have led me to ask an ultimate, somewhat rhetorical question: In this review, why not put the disbanding of our Forces on the table for national consideration?
Why carry on with a sham that costs over $12 billion a year, a sham which has been created slowly but relentlessly through three decades of penny-pinching the forces while continuing to give them global chores?

The military’s decline became apparent during Pierre Trudeau’s regime when our brigade and a fighter-plane group in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were brought home. It accelerated after the advent of the first Chrétien government when it tackled huge deficits with big cuts in spending. The major cuts to achieve an end to 30 years of big annual deficits were reductions in spending on the military and medicare.

I believe it would be possible, given enthusiastic leadership, to rectify the military’s loss of numbers, skills, competence, diversity, and lift capacity in four or five years but only by unprecedented boosts in spending. But how much backing might there be for such an increase?

Little to none, in my opinion. Even the Jack Granatsteins and Lewis MacKenzies who have persuasively put the case for resurrecting an able military seem to hesitate setting high budget increases to turn around the military and make it a larger, respected force among our allies. Just $2 or $3 billion a year more would not cut it.
You may have noticed a general public disinterest in the military. Set this alongside the noticeable surge in the last few years among socially aware activists of the left to greater and greater, thankful praise that Canada has a kinder, more caring society than the United States.

So many people have either parked or have never known the once well-ingrained belief, inspired by the lessons of two great wars, that a self-respecting nation must always be ready to defend itself and its allies.

It seems to bother a very small proportion of Canadians that our military has been over-tasked for its numbers, skills and equipment. Canadians aren’t seized with the niggardliness behind our military weaknesses which suggests itself in such simple evidence as that Canada is spending less than 1.15 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on defence, as against Britain’s 2.32 per cent, France’s 2.57 per cent, and the U.S.’s 3.85 per cent.

So often pleas by retired generals, war veterans and journalists like myself for more for our army, navy and air force are jeered as mere “more toys for boys.” Pointed questions on why we don’t spend more on our military from NATO officials, British generals and American politicians have had little effect. Sometimes this indifference to outside criticism is expressed in a more moral preference that Canada be a global exemplar. This piety has a grand history of its own, rooted largely in Lester Pearson’s emphasis four decades ago in diplomacy, peacekeeping, and international co-operation, preferably under the aegis of the United Nations. We have turned for our identity in today’s world to idealistic roles, roles which many Canadians believe have won us worldwide respect far more worthwhile than making our NATO allies impatient with our decayed military establishment.

So why not pack in the traditional, fighting military we have downgraded into ineffectuality by reduced budget?

Neither the military’s political masters nor the most politically significant cadres in our electorate care to have marked increases in federal military spending. And yet, what we have had unto this year have been missions strapped without lift and their supplies abroad provided by the Americans.

Since my time in “other ranks” overseas in WW II I have favoured a strong, up-to-date military, kept up to date and capable of operations almost anywhere, one prepared for the ultimate—battle! That is a military which fulfils much more than the ceremonial needs or the more serious requirement that when asked the federal government must provide aid to the civil power to cities and provinces, to deal with riots, terrorists and natural disasters.
Though favouring a far stronger military than we’ve had since the end of the 1950s, I have come to accept that I, like most other veterans, am a remnant from the past to most younger Canadians, particularly those interested in politics. So many of them want more distinctiveness within our identity and culture and our world roles and not for us to be mere shadows of our powerful neighbours.

If the majority of Canadians care so little for a brisk, effective military why not look at the obvious corollary? Get out of play-acting, particularly at the expense of the service personnel we do have. There are other things we can do with what has gone to the military.

We could strengthen our coast guard, our fisheries and environmental patrols, and our police and intelligence services. We can demonstrate to Americans we are not going to permit bases here for criminal or terrorist organizations seeking to operate in their country. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police could be expanded to assume anti-terror functions or a new, purely domestic force could be created. We could investigate with the Americans the efficacy of contracting our air defence and long-range maritime surveillance by them, including in the deal, access to our military facilities on a full-time basis. The aim would be to maintain a strong, very secure North American perimeter. Much of today’s military spending would go to such measures but there would be much in savings. We would no longer be spending to replace or maintain clapped-out equipment. No more antiquated battle tanks or decrepit helicopters. Few, if any, fighter planes.

Some money could be assigned to the contemplated, permanent United Nations peacekeeping force, perhaps by paying the salaries of our ex-service people who would choose to bring their hard-earned expertise to such a force.
In the mid-1990s I sought a talk with the minister of defence at the time, David Collenette, for an explanation why there seemed such minor interest in our forces around Parliament Hill, and why Ottawa gossip portended thrifty times ahead for the troops. He was abrupt with my emphasis on the deepening decline of our military, particularly ground forces and air transport. He told me I was an enthusiast for a vigorous defence policy, probably because of wartime experience. He wished he had 60 or 70 Liberal members of Parliament behind him who felt the same way. This wasn’t the case. Few of his colleagues gave any primacy to military needs. They weren’t hostile so much as disinterested. They had other imperatives for federal spending. He would hold out no hope for what I wanted.

At the time I appreciated Collenette’s frankness. Now some four defence ministers later I think I would get the same frank admission from the incumbent about a tepid to cool attitude to the services in the majority party caucus, and little countering enthusiasm in the other four federal caucuses.
Now to some brief suggestions of new books to read that have a military aspect.
First, two Canadian books centered somewhat on the Royal Canadian Navy in the 1939-45 war.

Guns Above, Steam Below, In Canada’s Navy In WW II, by A.G.W. Lamont; an illustrated paperback of 174 pages, published by the author at Picton, Ont. (lamont@magma.ca). This is a humorous, richly informative, cleverly written treat for those like me who know little and have heard little about the life of stokers in sweepers, corvettes, and destroyers. Lamont was an engineer officer aboard RCN ships in action late in the war.

Sailors, Slackers And Blind Pigs: Halifax At War by Stephen Kimber, from Doubleday Canada, 326 pages. The author has written books of popular history and is director of the King’s College School of Journalism in Nova Scotia. The best yet of background reading on the relations between sailors and the city of Halifax, Kimber makes the causes and the costs of the victory riots in 1945 understandable.
Farley Mowat has written much wonderfully well in his books about his war as a young, very small infantry officer, beginning with the splendid regimental history of the 1st Division Hasty Ps. And there is much on Mowat in WW II and about Angus, his father, in WW I in this biography of Farley. Farley: The Life Of Farley Mowat, by James King, has been published by HarperFlamingoCanada. It runs to 398 pages. It is more a popular, than an academic, study of one of our most successful writers in terms of sales and national notice. My admiration for Mowat has much to do with his lucid candour, particularly in And No Birds Sang and My Father’s Son, about his fears and failings under the stresses of action.

Next I found much to think about in two recent books about two of the most brilliant performers in Hitler’s Germany: Albert Speer, master architect and administrator; and Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer and space-prober.

Speer: The Final Verdict, by Joachim Fest, a paperback released by Phoenix Press, 2003, follows upon both Speer’s own bestselling autobiography and several well-researched biographies which have also dealt with the disappointing paradox that such a superb mind and so magnificent an administrator could have been so close and strongly backed by Adolf Hitler without questioning so many murderous and diabolical acts. Fest is an authority on Hitler, and his work on Speer is a measured and solemn account bearing down on the contradiction between such acumen consorting with and ignoring such evil.

The dilemma of coming to terms with a tendency to show too much respect for the brilliance of Speer, ignoring his Nazi participation, is just as difficult with Von Braun, a genius who from his youth was obsessed with rockets, and he did become the prime figure in getting earthlings into space in the 20th century.

Blast-Off: Wernher von Braun And The Making Of The V-2 Rocket, by Brian Howald, is a substantial paperback, published by Bookwork Literary Productions, Kingston, Ont., K7L 5J8. I received a copy from the author’s father, a Legion member. The book has some amateurish aspects in syntax and vocabulary, leading me to think Brian Howald has been a self-taught journalist, impelled by space science enthusiasm. Yet, after finishing the book with much flinching at oddities, I concluded that anyone who wants the story of the German rocket and missile programs in WW II and their basic contribution to both the American and Russian postwar obsession with space and its military implications gets it here.

Finally, a nudge about the third novel of a trilogy whose first two books I had recommended. Lucifer’s Gate, subtitled A Novel About The Canadian Army In The Great War was written by David B. Clark, and published by General Store Publishing (1-800-465-6072). The author is a practising psychiatrist in Barrie, Ont. This last in the trilogy has been the most fascinating to me: the central romance is more plausible, and the battle scenes more realistic, notably in an evocation of comradeship and tenacity among the soldiers. The most captivating interest of the author for me is his awareness of social levels and regional values in Canada in both wars. He is still a distance from it but I could conceive him eventually writing a Canadian War And Peace.