January 28 1991


January 28 1991

The proud force of a passive nation


There are many Saddam Husseins; Canada may have to become more military as the cost of survival in this dangerous age


It began as a joke. When Ottawa dispatched the Protecteur, Athabaskan and Terra Nova to the Persian Gulf, the ancient ships’ sailors claimed that they only had one worry: that Saddam Hussein would bombard them with paint remover. (The oldest of the vessels dates back to 1959, and they have been repainted so often that what seems to be holding them together are all those coats of grey.)

But something important happened on the way to the war, so that instead of laughable rusted hulks, we now have rusted hulks that work, whose crews have been judged among the best trained and most efficient in the Western flotilla. Vice-Admiral C. M. Thomas, Canada’s vice-chief of the defence staff, who returned from the Gulf just six days before the war started, is a stern, unemotional disciplinarian. Yet even he was moved by what he saw. “I’m quite shaken at the pride I feel in the job all our people are doing,” he reported. “They seem to know that what they do and how they do it is important. They make one very proud.” The senior sailor on the spot, Commodore Ken Summers, conveyed the same pride in a signal he recently sent his crews. “The fleet team in the Gulf is doing a tremendous job, and the credibility of the Canadian navy has never been higher in recent times,” he stated, adding, “Events here will dictate a different navy, one more modern in both thought and substance.”

The notion that Canada can produce effective fighting men and women has always run counter to the image we prefer of ourselves as citizens of a “peaceable kingdom.” We fought no wars of independence, and our homegrown rebellions in Lower and Upper Canada, at Red River and Batoche, hardly ranked as major military actions. “Canada is an unmilitary community,” wrote the historian C. P. Stacey. “Warlike her people have often been forced to be, military they have never been.”

As a result, Canadian armed forces—except during world wars—have had to operate out-

side the mainstream of Canadian society. This lack of relevance flows from one of our deepest-rooted convictions: that we are a cultural free port, a society so open and so negotiable that our citizens need claim no loyalties, not even a belief in their own country. Writing about the American draft dodgers who came here during the Vietnam War, Robert Fulford astutely observed that their biggest surprise was to discover that “patriotism is not a requisite of Canadian citizenship.”

That was true, but it may not be true much longer. War must always be a last resort to be abominated and prevented at all costs. But there are many Saddam Husseins; Canada may have to become more military as the cost of survival in this dangerous age. That was all supposed to have become ancient history with the end of the Cold War, but it turns out that both sides were arming for the wrong battle. It will be the regional warlords in the Middle East, South America and the Far East who will be managing the world’s agenda in the 1990s.

The argument has been made that we should stay out of the Gulf war because we are peacekeepers, not fighters. But that’s what those 12 UN resolutions were about—an attempt by virtually the entire world community

to halt aggression before it turned into war. “If we want peace, we must defend those principles which are enshrined in the UN Charter,” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney declared in his opening speech during the Commons emergency session on the issue. “No moral superiority accrues to those who stand on the sidelines and let others defend their principles. Canada is a peaceful country—but Canada is not a neutral country, nor a country that expects a free ride.”

Canada has always been distinct from other major powers (and we are a major power, the world’s sixth or seventh) by being a liberal democracy with no imperialistic or territorial ambitions. Our professional military planners suffer from no delusions of grandeur and few mercenary impulses. But as the threat to our way of life grows, national defence may have to become a political priority instead of a bothersome afterthought. (At the moment, national defence ranks somewhere behind hog subsidies in the minds of most of our politicians.)

At some point in the near future, Canadians will have to take stock of themselves and decide whether to assert that we are and want to remain a sovereign state, or to continue being a dependent colony, owing our safety and continued existence to the tender mercies of the Pentagon. Any country that hands over the ability to defend itself to another country automatically becomes that parent nation’s colony. Canadian politicians of all parties have perpetrated a massive fraud on the Canadian people by pretending that our sailors, soldiers and flyers are adequately equipped to defend themselves, much less to guard the nation, any province, county or village. As the Gulf experience has shown, the loyalty of our troops is beyond question; but most of their equipment is beyond salvage.

All navies, armies and air forces mirror the characteristics of the societies on whose behalf they are pledged to fight. If the ultimate purpose of our military forces, such as they are, is hard to pin down, it’s because we as a people lack a definable creed or even a set of common beliefs. In the final analysis, our survival on this delicate planet will depend on the will we can muster to protect our institutions—and that, in turn, will depend on how much we learn to value them.

To achieve such a transformation will require a new set of attitudes towards the military. My favorite illustration of how Canadians feel about their fighting men is a story told by Hal Lawrence, one of Canada’s Second World War heroes who won a Distinguished Service Cross for boarding a Nazi submarine and helping to subdue its crew. “If I’m in the U.K.,” he once complained to an admiral, “and someone asks me what I do, and I say, ‘I’m a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy,’ they say, ‘Oh, really? Jolly good. You must come down for a weekend.’ When I’m asked the same question in the United States and give the same reply, I’m told, ‘Good, you must come out and meet the little woman.’ But when the same question and answer are exchanged in Canada, there’s an awkward pause while everyone thinks. ‘Poor guy. Probably didn’t do well in Grade 12.’ ”