Memories of a Canadian soldier
One man’s darkness is another man’s light. Canada’s former “top soldier”—General Rick Hillier—referred to the 1990s as a “decade of darkness” for Canada’s armed forces, and particularly for the army. It was mired in peacekeeping debacles in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Balkans, like a 90lb weakling having sand kicked in his face. In this narrative, the Canadian army regained its manhood in the bloody battles of Afghanistan, where combat prowess and professionalism second to none were clearly on display. For me, leaving uniform in 2007 and still teaching at Canada’s Royal Military College today, the years of Canada’s combat operations in Afghanistan were a personal decade of darkness.
I feel cowardly because I didn’t speak up for peacekeeping. Not that we shouldn’t have been in Afghanistan, not that we weren’t useful, not that it was an illegal war (as I still believe America’s invasion of Iraq probably was). But I acquiesced by my silence to the enthusiasm for counter-insurgency whack-a- mole, to hunting and killing “bad guys,” to breaking and bombing things, to accepting civilian collateral damage, to treating them over there in Afghanistan in ways we would never accept if we were dealing with us here at home. I’m not averse to violence; sometimes it’s necessary and it can be effective. I would have been in the wrong profession if I believed otherwise. There can be good wars—just wars, justly fought. But expeditionary counter-insurgency is usually bad policy, however bravely fought. Like medieval bloodletting, the blood loss makes us believe we are making progress, while less visible healing repairs the damage. Peacekeeping, which assumes bad behavior but no enemies, is a smarter way to negotiate political, social, and economic change; sometimes it works and maybe we can do it better. Hillier’s “decade of darkness” was a decade of less money wasted on weapons, and good people struggling to think through the problems of managing violence rather than contributing to it.
I served with Hillier in the Zagreb headquarters of the United Nations Protection Force during the grim days of Srebrenica, through air strikes and plans for NATO-assisted withdrawal, and again with NATO’s 2nd Canadian Multinational Brigade in northwest Bosnia in 1996. But his autobiography, A Soldier First, makes it clear that he came of age as a general during his service as Second in Command of III Corps, US Army, in Fort Hood, Texas. It was a better apprenticeship in soldiering than a War Studies masters degree at RMC. I think a soldier’s understanding of security, faced with the might on display at Fort Hood, is inevitably tainted with the hubris of a superpower, and with assumptions about the use of force that are deeply embedded in the professional socialization and training of American officers. They are officers in an army whose mission is to “fight and win the nation’s wars decisively”—not easy even for a superpower. Human security, national security, and international security, in the minds of American generals, are inevitably vested in force of arms.
My purpose is not to debate Hillier and his legacy; I like him and he was a forceful and dynamic leader. Read his books. My aim is to think about the future of force and the profession of arms in states without any hope to control the world around them. Actually, that’s all states, but there are a few big ones reluctant to accept this truth. Because soldiers teach with war stories, I’ll tell a few to explain what I think we should learn as world citizens—from the Cold War, from the decades of darkness, and from the new worries that confront us.
For an army cadet growing up in Ottawa, Dows Lake Armoury in 1974 was a magical place smelling of damp woollen battledress and gun oil, with old Cadet Instruction List officers who sported Korean War ribbons, smoked cigarettes, and held that “rank has its privileges.” It was a place of Cold War certainties. Soviet Communism was bad. NATO protected Europe. Big guns kept the peace. Nukes were good. Canada needed new tanks in Europe, not those dinky-toy wheeled armoured police cars we eventually bought for internal security operations—were we an army or a gendarmerie? Real countries had armies, navies, and air forces, not banana-republic gendarmeries. What happened to our aircraft carrier?
A decade later I was part of that bulwark of freedom and democracy, Canada’s brigade in Germany. Once attached to the British Army of the Rhine in centre stage for the next war with Honest John nuclear missiles, the 4th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group by 1984 had been relegated to a reserve role in the Black Forest region. We resolutely battled “Fantasian” Motor Rifle Regiments on exercise, preparing for the anticipated Cold War square dance of retreating to absorb the assault, then counter-attacking to contain it. The reality didn’t inspire confidence. Within a few weeks of arriving in Lahr, I was responsible for leading a ragged caravan of aging and variegated trucks with broken struts and patched tarpaulins, on a 450 km road move east to Grafenwoehr for the annual gun camp. Eight of 26 vehicles made the trip unaided, and assembling the unit was a tribute to soldiers’ ingenuity. For the Brigade Commander’s inspection, we painted shovel-edges silver rather than risk rust by sharpening them—a metaphor for the appearance of readiness.
As an artillery forward observer, I was sent on the Battery Commander’s Fire Planning Course, with a module on nuclear fire planning. We planned “pulses” with scores of five- and ten-kiloton nuclear weapons and calculated the hours of effective fighting time remaining to troops after radiation exposure. But the tables that we used understated the lethality of radiation, and it seemed to me that nuclear war was as unreal as the Fantasians—part of the elaborate bluff of deterrence, along with “duck and cover” in the classrooms and rusting air raid sirens in the suburbs.
Canada had taken its peace dividend early, and we were trying to catch up in the late ’80s. As the Berlin Wall came down, I was a staff officer diligently trying to spend $1.5 billion on multiple rocket launchers and target acquisition radar for a revitalized Canadian division in Europe. We dodged that post-Cold War waste, though the wall didn’t fall soon enough to prevent us from spending another $1.5 billion on air defence weapons, to be parked and forgotten. But the cuts were only beginning, as Hillier laments:
The Conservative budget of 1989 had closed bases, cut the size of the Canadian Forces by 2500 personnel and cancelled many equipment purchases… In all, the Department of National Defence was expected to cut $2.7 billion over five years…All the army’s planning for the next two decades went out the window. Whatever vision there had been was gone, and there was nothing to replace it except further budget cuts and an ongoing struggle for survival.
I was involved in some of that planning with the 21st Century Army Study Team (21 CAST, with the unofficial motto, “limping into the future”); I think we missed the opportunities for change and perpetuated conventional military operations ill suited to the new world. Our lack of vision was a failure to see beyond corps, divisions, and brigade operations, when new missions entailed the sort of political, economic, and social reconstruction that took place in Europe after 1945.
I was in Cyprus with the penultimate Canadian unit to serve there when a Canadian battalion based in Lahr motored south and drove across the Sava River to join the new generation of “wider peacekeeping” in the Balkans. These were exciting times for soldiers with live ammunition and blue helmets. But generals licking their budget cut wounds and regretting the loss of big ticket items declined to see the opportunity for new ways to manage violence.
Peacekeeping was a darling of Canada’s political establishment throughout the Cold War and into the 1990s. Canada survived, the establishment contended, only with a fragile English-French balance, which could be shattered by war, as it had been by the Northwest Rebellion, the Boer War and conscription in the world wars. Peacekeeping worked to keep Canadians in agreement, at home and abroad, about the nature of security and how to pursue it. From our 30 years in Cyprus, the Golan Heights, and Kashmir, to bloodless restraint at Oka and Akwasasne, peacekeeping worked well for Canada, even when we were pursuing Cold War by other means. Canada was pursuing Cold War aims (including domestic tranquility) through peacekeeping, just as other countries were contributing for their own self-serving reasons—hard currency, prestige, and career enhancement for soldiers. But peacekeeping was generally good for world peace despite self-serving motives, even when we weren’t very good at it, even when soldiers misbehaved, and even when peacekeeping missions distorted the local economy.
Alec Morrison, a man of vision and a cunning Liberal insider, established the Lester B. Pearson Canadian International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Cornwallis NS, and for a while in the 1990s Canada could pretend to lead the way in peacekeeping at minimal cost, hosting officers from scores of countries to teach short courses on peacekeeping. For me, this was a bright corner in Hillier’s decade of darkness. But speaking as a researcher and teacher in uniform at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, I can attest that we were only beginning to understand conflict management then, and have made scant progress in the 15 years since. So much of what peace and conflict researchers have learned is not transmitted to military professionals, and the new world of information operations and influence activities is just beginning to intersect with cognitive mapping and new tools for conflict management, but hasn’t yet reached the world’s staff colleges.
What we should learn from the 1990s is that the opportunity of the post-Cold War watershed was an ideal time to move away from preparation for big wars fought by high-tech machines and large formations like army corps and divisions, which Canada may never field again, and which most countries will never possess. But that is the preparation that officers continue to receive to this day in staff colleges around the world. War studies in staff colleges and military academies are still about the big battles inspired by military history, not the social science of peace and conflict management or human security. Meanwhile, for a decade after the fall of the wall, military and police professionals struggled to understand and manage peacekeeping, wider peacekeeping, stabilization, and humanitarian assistance, with only intermittent success. The voluminous writings on civil-military cooperation, comprehensive operations, whole-of-government strategies, defence-development-diplomacy (3D), and other buzz-phrases attest to the frustration of practitioners, and a consensus that we have more to learn. The Global War on Terror derailed us.
Peacekeeping was critically injured on September 11, 2001. At the time, I had several students, cadets at the Royal Military College, conducting interviews with Canadian soldiers about peacekeeping. How had Canadians used negotiation to manage or resolve incidents? How did peacekeeping tactics prevent escalating violence? The Peacekeeping Interview Project was part of a multinational effort to understand cross-cultural problems in mediation and negotiation. A dispirited cadet returned from Petawawa to report that no one had time to talk to him about peacekeeping—they were going to war. There was an excitement around the base that left no room for blue berets. Peacekeeping is OK until something more exciting comes along; even at its height, peacekeeping was an excuse to train for war, quoting UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold: “…no job for a soldier, but only a soldier can do it.”
September 11 need never have been a big deal. A few buildings were destroyed and there were fewer fatalities than on US highways in an average month. Even armed with nuclear bombs in suitcases, terrorists could never inflict the damage calmly contemplated by nuclear fire-planners on behalf of states. But cynical leadership with media connivance manipulated a nation with a sense of entitlement to inviolability, and suddenly the medievalist Islamist movement was chipping away at the enlightenment project of modernity and liberal democracy. Deprived of a good Cold War enemy, military industrialists and intelligence establishments were back in business with a vengeance. How little good has come from our investment!
The question of the Cold War, barring incineration, had been whether liberal democracies could survive communist infiltration and the terror of Baader-Meinhof and Red Brigades, IRA, ETA, FLQ, and PLO, or would they be forced to become a menace to civil liberties in order to protect citizens, thereby undermining their own legitimacy? After 9/11, the Global War on Terror rekindled those worries with the harsh language of “with us or against us” and pre-emptive war. Canada was sucked into the Project for a New American Century. Legitimate discussion of “root causes” was publicly vilified.
Even with America on the warpath, peacekeeping might have served Canada well. It still serves contributing nations’ purposes from Fiji to Jordan and from Finland to Argentina. UN missions still do essential work managing conflict, attenuating violence, and building states from Haiti to Congo. A decade in the Balkans was a good investment for the international community, and even Sierra Leone seems on the mend. Can we say the same for Afghanistan or Iraq? Has NATO’s hit-and-run operation left Libya more stable?
Part of Hillier’s decade of darkness was the Somalia legacy, in which rogue members of the airborne regiment beat a Somali teenager to death. Canada’s response was thorough and effective. Beyond the knee-jerk disbandment of the scandal-plagued Airborne Regiment, scores of recommendations from the Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Change put part of the focus on education and professional development. Another set of changes allowed more effective organization and accountability of military forces, with less political interference. The lights in our decades of darkness came from genuine advances in competence and professionalism, independent of Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan, or defence spending, or flag-draped coffins.
What I have learned from the last decade, my personal decade of darkness, is that military professionals can’t take a break from commitment to peace, even when ordered to war. The Global War on Terror was not a detour; it was a regression. It abolished the moral ascendancy of our closest ally and created a more dangerous world for all of us. “Shock and awe” in Iraq was illusory. Counter-insurgency with inadequate attention to locally led development has been ineffective, if not counter-productive. The courage and initiative of individuals, the struggles of staff officers and headquarters, have not compensated for the failure of vision of Hillier’s generation of American-led generals and politicians, pursuing expeditionary wars. We have a new generation to educate for peace, and a lot more to learn about how to do it.
Lt. Col. (ret.) David Last is associate professor of political science, Royal Military College, Kingston.