Back when Canada still had troops stationed in Lahr and Baden, Germany, I spent a week touring both bases. As I’ve often found with our military people in informal encounters, they were, in general, terrifically impressive: keen, smart, sometimes fluent in several languages, and thoughtful about their role in a rapidly changing world. It was the dying days of the Cold War, and they were preparing for the simulated battle operations that they and other NATO troops regularly undertook. One Canadian officer took me to see their tanks—two of which were disabled. When I asked about plans to fix them, the officer smiled wryly, and said that would depend upon their success in scrounging parts from their host and ally. The Canadian tanks, he said, were the same make as those the German army was using—but ours were of a vintage about 25 years older.
My guide may or may not have been stretching the truth, but you get the point: no matter how much the world changes, complaints about Canada’s military being underfinanced, undermanned and illequipped remain the same. Through the 1980s, critics complained that we didn’t have the offensive capabilities to pull our weight within NATO. Now, we appear lacking the tools needed for peacekeeping missions. Consider the way in which other countries coughed and looked the other way when we offered to send troops to Afghanistan. That reluctance was shared by some in Ottawa who felt that sending even 1,000 troops would strain our resources too much. That’s why we found ourselves discussing—surprise!—a classic Canadian compromise: sending a bare minimum of 700 troops.
At various times, politicians from different parties will agree that our armed forces are in a mess. But who says so, and why
and when they do, depends on circumstances. In opposition in the ’80s, the Liberals decried cuts to the military: in power, in the ’90s, they cut deeper. The Canadian Alliance is no more consistent: some of its MPs have previously criticized our peace activities with much the same vehemence with which others last week denounced our apparent exclusion.
No improvement will happen unless all sides acknowledge several unspoken realities that confront any governing party. Since the end of the Second World War, money allotted to the Department of National Defence has been based more on economic than operational considerations: maintaining bases across the country doesn’t always make military sense, but provides proof of Tax Dollars At Work for local residents—and a reason to re-elect their MPs. And it’s easier to cancel capital expenditures than to close bases, which is why our equipment is out of date. That’s not new. What has changed is that others now view our military with the same dismay that we have, for far too long.
As part of plans to open Macleans to different voices, we begin a new feature this week. The Back Page will showcase columns by well-known guest contributors offering their views, in words and images, on things that move them—and, hopefully, you. The first effort is by Calgarybased author and humorist Will Ferguson. Allan Fotheringham’s column, which will now appear biweekly, moves from back to front of the magazine. He’ll alternate with fellow longtime contributors Barbara Amiel and Peter C. Newman.
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