MY WAR WITH THE ARMY
You can fight uniform depression only so long
More than 20 years after the last battle, it is hard to be a soldier — the country seems to have forgotten just why you exist. Instead of fading away, as every good soldier should, you continue transformed: the arm of the state becomes its appendix. In 10 years as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, I found out what it was to be the appendix of the social body, usually forgotten and, if remembered, too often seen as a curious hangover from a dim and bloody past. To some, you are a political necessity but a financial embarrassment; to others you are an unpleasant reminder of human barbarity.
Both my father and my grandfather were career soldiers: my grandfather retired as a colonel, having served in France and Siberia in World War I, and as Director of Internment Operations in World War II; my father graduated from Royal Military College in 1937, served in France, East Africa, North Africa and Italy with the British Army, and later as the Canadian Contingent Commander in the Congo (UN), retiring as a colonel in 1969. It was natural, then, that I regarded the military profession as a fine and honorable one, allowing me to serve Canada according to a code of ethics that had set the pattern of life for my family since the turn of the century. I took this old-fashioned belief with me to Collège Militaire Royal in September of 1964; ten years later I buried it with a bottle of scotch and with hair grown long in honor of the occasion.
During my military career, I saw both the death of my ideals and the slow destruction of Canada’s once proud armed forces. This decay has been well hidden from the public by a program of information management orchestrated by politicians and public relations men; even career military men have been blinkered by false promises and deceit originating within their own crippled organization. When I left last year, the Armed Forces had reached the point where they were clearly unable to fulfill the roles demanded by the government because of sadly inadequate manpower and equipment that is decades out of date. Attempts to improve the situation were hamstrung by the politicization of the officer corps, many of whom sold their principles for better pay and rapid promotion.
I remember my first contact with the Big Lie technique as practised by defense headquarters. It was just at the time that Paul Hellyer was masterminding the unification of the three armed services into one green machine. An article, which originated in the office of the Minister of National Defense, appeared in a Montreal newspaper discounting the disputes within the military over the changes taking place, and said a survey of the cadets in military college had shown that they — the forward looking generals of tomorrow — fully supported unification. The generals and other senior officers then resigning or expressing opposition to Hellyer’s grand design were, by implication, “Colonel Blimps.” I was a cadet at the time and we were never surveyed for our views — if anything we were just as divided and probably much more confused by what was happening as our senior officers.
At the time it was easy to believe that this was an isolated case, the product of some public relations man’s overdeveloped imagination. As the years passed, it became obvious that it was part of a pattern of deliberately feeding false information to the press, the public, and even members of the forces themselves. The pattern continues today. Last November the Toronto Star, again using information from defense headquarters, reported that we have “more than 300 World War II British Centurion tanks,” giving the impression that we can produce 300 tanks in battle. In fact
The vitality of the Armed Forces Tattoo of 1967 was a cruel joke, a requiem for the very pomp and color it exhibited
we have only two operational tank squadrons totaling 32 tanks, and one squadron of tanks located in Gagetown to train men for the other two. The remainder are in storage, rusting and often missing parts such as turrets and engines, or are hulks cannibalized for spare parts. There are also approximately a dozen tanks that are held operational as a meagre reserve for the two overseas squadrons. With the article was a photograph of a “machine gun crew” in training — the fact that the weapon they were using predates World War II was obviously not mentioned to the writer of the article.
I firmly believe that it is both the right and the duty of the government, the civil power, to control the military. It must decide what the country needs in the way of an armed force and what roles that force should fulfill. And, although I think it would be a disastrous mistake, the government also has both the power and the right to abolish the military altogether if it so chooses. I feel just as strongly, though, that while we are maintaining a military force both the people serving in it and the Canadian public is entitled to some consistent policy from Ottawa that will not be reversed a week or two later on some politician’s whim.
Defense headquarters in Ottawa went through at least five reorganizations during my short military career; in that same time we had five different Ministers of National Defense — Paul Hellyer, Léo Cadieux, Donald Macdonald, Edgar Benson and James Richardson.
With the headquarters and the minister changing with such frequency, it’s probably not surprising that there have been few logical and rational decisions about the future of the forces. It’s true that the forces are shrinking rapidly, but the ministry is still a complex one, and no man, not the cleverest politician, can be expected to understand fully what is happening if the cabinet continues to play musical ministries, and if the generals providing the expert advice cannot decide how to organize even their own headquarters.
The heyday of the false promise and Big Lie within the armed forces was in the late Sixties. We were told we would get new equipment and more men doing the real work of piloting fighter aircraft, sailing fighting ships, or driving tanks and carrying rifles. The Armed Forces Tattoo of 1967 seemed, at the time, living proof of one promise close to my own heart; none of the regiments would be abolished and I would not lose my corps (Royal Canadian Corps of Signals). The tattoo paraded on, displaying the history, skills and martial music of Canada’s military, but even while the massed bands played decisions were being made that would prove that promise false. Over the next two years regiments disappeared, and my cofps died. The vitality of the tattoo had been a cruel joke, a requiem for the very pomp and color it exhibited.
The losses might not have hurt so much if the promised benefits had appeared. It would have been possible to rationalize even the tremendous drop in
manpower from 120,000 in 1964 to 105,000 in 1967, and finally to the present force of less than 80,000 as a necessary price to pay for modernization, if that modernization had actually taken place. A few high visibility items such as Boeing 707s and helicopters (without the necessary weapons) were purchased but we in the land forces waited and waited for our prewar machine guns, wartime tanks and antique trucks to be replaced. When I left the forces last year, we were still without them.
I was serving then with our tiny NATO contingent, which was — and still is — trying hard to make a credible fighting force out of two undersized battalions of infantry, backed by an understrength regiment oftanks — kept running on cannibalized parts and rebuilt motors — and a small regiment of artillery. (This force is so undermanned that it is supplemented with militia for NATO exercises, and generally beefed up with armor-heavy units by our allies.) Before leaving this force I saw a final example of “modernization.” There had been rumors for some time that our armored personnel carriers were to be reequipped with more modern weapons. These fairly modern armored infantry vehicles, purchased in the Sixties at great expense, were fitted with an outof-date .30-calibre Browning machine gun modified to take modern 7.62 NATO ammunition. Our allies are now equipping their personnel carriers with such weapons as 20 mm cannon or, at the very least, with modern types of machine guns, and we hoped that we might get something similar. What we finally received were old .50-calibre machine guns from storage where they had been placed as obsolete years before.
Not all the blame for what has happened to the forces can be placed on politicians. It must be shared by the officer corps of the armed forces, of which I was a part. Our principles were too often bought with pay and promotion. When I was in the senior class at the Royal Military College in 1969, we were assembled one morning to hear a pep talk on officer careers and training by Major-General William Carr, who was then in charge of Training Command. He read a disjointed speech that was an appeal to pure self-interest: we had before us a career in which we could make a lot of money quickly; we could climb to the top in a very short time; and we should learn to play the bureaucratic power game as well as any young executive in industry. He said nothing about the good of the country, or the best interests
In the Sixties, many officers resigned
of the Canadian forces, or the welfare of the men many of us would soon be commanding.
At the end of his address I questioned Carr on several major contradictions in his speech. Other cadets followed with questions that grew steadily more pointed, until a Navy man ended the session by describing the speech as a “load of garbage” and implying, in strong sailor language, that the speaker was a liar.
The malaise began spreading throughout the officer corps in the middle and late Sixties, when a number of generals, admirals, and other senior officers resigned from the Canadian forces. These men exercised the only option open to a regular officer who opposes the policies or actions of the forces, and, in effect, resigned rather than go against their principles. Defense headquarters moved quickly to counter the defections with a flood of promotions and a high-powered public relations campaign. For many of us it was a confusing time, and it was difficult not to suspect the motives of those suddenly promoted.
Later, as a junior officer, I found out through older officers just what had happened behind the scenes. Senior officers were promoted in return for public support of the unification policy, and in at least one case a “friend” of the minister was jumped several ranks to a position of power. I was told of another officer who had changed everything from his opinions to his circle of friends to gain promotion. Another spoke out strongly against the new policy until offered promotion on the condition that he change his view. He did and was. There were those, of course, who stood by their principles. I know of one case where a respected, old school general was offered promotion and a vital position, but refused angrily: it was a job for which he felt he was not suited.
The upper levels of the officer corps were fragmented and politicized; the lower levels were damaged by appeals to self-interest at the expense of principle, and by the view of what was happening at the top. We were further mangled as a result of fratricidal disputes that grew out of a new organization constantly reorganizing. Each officer fought to keep his own unit alive in the face of cuts in both personnel and money. This is a normal impulse, probably a healthy thing in a healthy organization. In our armed forces, cut off from traditional roots and without firm direction, it was destructive —men trying to
save their favorite trees at the expense of the forest. I did it myself in a small way; in the Airborne Regiment and,, latér, in Germany, I argued for men and equipment from the limited pool available, a pool too small to do the job. Commanding officers of units, generals and bureaucrats within multiplying headquarters did the same thing. Unfortunately this infighting, friendly at my level but often fierce at higher levels, did nothing about the problems of the military as a whole, and muted any unified voice we might have had.
It was difficult to have faith in our senior leadership when we could not be sure whether the latest policy statement or attempt to sort out a problem was self-serving or truly good for the forces. In such an atmosphere of suspicion even the efforts of honest men are suspect. It was openly admitted that the forces had gone wrong, particularly the land forces (this was the area in which I worked, so perhaps I did not have as good an understanding of similar problems in other areas). There were enquiries and reports made on the conditions of service for both officers and other ranks. Committees investigated, and teams of officers from National Defense HQ visited us regularly looking for the reason why. Publications and newsletters, aimed at the individual soldier, were showered on us but they dealt with minor points, never major problems. The forces magazine, The Sentinel, is now little more than a PR rag; a thing called the Personnel Newsletter deals with grievances regarding pay and allowances and promotion, but tends to be little more than the party paper of the personnel bureaucracy. Nowhere did the whole picture receive a sober second look.
Despite all the frustration and despair, there are still dedicated men in military service, but they are rapidly losing hope. Shortly after I resigned I had a long conversation with a group of these men, old friends from the Airborne Regiment. They told me of a newsletter from General J. A. Dextraze, Chief of Defense Staff, stating there would be no further cuts in forces personnel. The letter was dated in September; our conversation took place in early October, just after James Richardson, cornered by the press and the Opposition, stated that the forces would be cut again, and at one point suggested the possibility of a force of only 50,000 or 60,000 men. I believe that in an earlier time, any defense chief repudiated in this way by the government would have felt compelled to resign. But now repudiation has become such a part of military life that no one expected Dextraze to step down.
Even the UN operations of which Canada seems so proud are blighted.
Men who had only fired a rifle once a year since early training were expected to work in an area where bullets were flying
The forces, stretched painfully thin by politically fuzzy domestic commitments, to say nothing of NATO, are now supporting contingents in Cyprus and the Middle East. The public sees “our boys” doing their bit for peace; I, as an ex-soldier, have another view. Cyprus is an operation that has gone well despite massive problems. The Canadian Airborne Regiment, basically unsuited to the task, cobbled together a force for routine duty on Cyprus, and when war broke out on the island it was reinforced by the remainder of the regiment from Canada. The result was a cohesive, highly trained force that was accustomed to working together. Both before and after the reinforcement they performed well. I would like to think that it was the presence of tough soldiers from my old regiment that saved the day when the Turks were about to take over Nicosia airport, for example. Unfortunately, the truth is that without the support of modern British tanks, artillery, antitank weapons, antiaircraft weapons and modern jet fighters their task would
have been impossible — a Canadian support group could not have provided the same up-to-date equipment. The spirit was definitely there but the big guns had to be borrowed.
The Middle East is a different case. 1 have spoken with several officers and other ranks who have returned from service there — all men whom I have known for several years. According to them it was, and still is, a classic case which displays many of the ills that afflict the forces. Troops were scraped together from all over Canada, and thrown into the middle of a war that could turn hot again at any moment. They were to support the operations of other UN forces with such things as logistics and communications. Unfortunately, the trades necessary for this type of work have not been considered “combat” trades since the reorganization of the Sixties. Thus, in digging for personnel, many men were recruited who had scarcely any experience in the field. Men who had only fired a rifle once a year since their early training were expected
to work in an area where bullets were flying. A radio operator who had never worked outside a regulated base environment might have to provide the communications in a forward area littered with minefields, and work with the combat troops of other nations. At the beginning even the simplest aspects of field hygiene were botched: the initial camp was set up by the UN with too few latrines for the hundreds of men arriving, all of whom could be expected to come down with a nasty local form of diarrhea for 48 hours (at one point. I was told, 400 men were using 10 latrines). Rivalries between those experienced in field operations and those with rank but little experience prevented the implementation of procedures learned from past operations. Some officers were too busy seeing the local sights, and enjoying the privileges of rank, to properly look after the men they were supposed to be commanding. In many cases it was a matter of the unqualified leading the untrained. The recent decision to send women to the Middle East is, I suspect, less motivated by considerations of equal employment than by a critical shortage of qualified manpower.
The two UN operations simply illustrate the problems of the Canadian Armed Forces as a whole: too little modern equipment and too few personnel in an organization that is fragmented and confused. For every man in the 1,000-strong Airborne Regiment, there are 10 in Ottawa; as field units shrink, headquarters seems to grow — in the civilian world this would mean all management and support, without production. A senior officer once summed it up this way: it is easier to sell one new general’s position to the politicians than it is to sell five new privates’jobs. Chiefs sell better than Indians, just as it is easier to convince the government to buy a multimillion dollar computer or communication system than new tanks or machine guns. The fact that the only reason for the existence of the general, or the computer, is the support of privates with machine guns seems to get lost in the bargaining.
Understanding what has happened in the past, perhaps you will forgive me for doubting the latest words of the current Minister of National Defense. He sets up a new air command and speaks of the need to cut back on manpower in order to create a better equipped, elite force. I’ve heard that one before. Elite means small; better equipped means nothing but the further application of spit and glue to what we have now. C?