A General for Peace

Maj.Gen. Leonard V. Johnson (Ret.), Toronto: James Lorimer and Co, 1987

By Bruce Dodds (reviewer) | 1988-04-01 12:00:00

As a young colonel, Leonard Johnson once hosted a disastrous briefing for General Dextraze, then Chief of the Defence Staff. Officers stumbled over their material, failing to make their points while the General grew more impatient. Finally he walked out, but, before slamming the door on his embarrassed subalterns, Dextraze admonished them: "If an idea is clearly conceived, it is easily expressed and the words come naturally." Colonel Johnson later became a Major General and Commandant of the National Defence College. Famous now in retirement, he is an important proponent of nuclear disarmament and a more independent Canadian defence policy. General Dextraze would approve of the brisk pace and clarity of Johnson's recent autobiography, A General for Peace, an enjoyable account of his transformation from general to peace activist.

Beginning with his boyhood in impoverished Saskatchewan in the 1930s, Johnson outlines his career and his love of the air force. He's a good writer. Recalling Greenland, he describes the rugged coast where "icebergs calved at glacier snouts." He is honest too. Of a childhood cruelty to a native schoolmate he writes, "shame renewed the memory long after the time for atonement had passed. No-thing can make me forget that I was born in a racist society, and that I was a racist myself." A former man of arms, he acknowledges being "moved by the awful beauty of the machinery of war."

Johnson's eventual conversion from conventional military thought is compelling. As he explains, "the assumption that there is some inherent contradiction between the aims of a general and the peace activist ... is a fallacy, but there is no easy rebuttal. Where the general and the peace activist differ is in the means to pursue security. I broke ranks when I concluded that the threat of nuclear war was no longer the way to peace and security."

Johnson states, "the military threat to Canada is nuclear devastation and the single test of Canadian security policy is the extent to which it lessens the risk of nuclear war." How to pursue that? "Along with arms control, disarmament, and the pacification of the international order, Canada needs a strategy of war avoidance, not of suicide if deterrence fails." To this end "Canada should at the very least, and as first steps, break the link to war in Europe and stop cooperating with the United States in preparations for nuclear war..." This means withdrawal from NATO and NORAD and the deployment of "non-offensive self-reliance in the surveillance and control of national territory and airspace and the denial of consent to its use by any other country for military purposes."

These eloquent words from a former professional soldier stand in poignant contrast with the NDP's recent ducking and weaving on the subject. Their party leader hedges on NATO withdrawal before national audiences as NDP strategists intimate that Canadians are not ready for a strong, independent policy. Reading General Johnson (who admits to no political alignment) makes me think it more plausible that it is the absence of conviction and committed leadership on the question, rather a dearth of sound policy that dogs social democrats. Perhaps, like Johnson, they should recall the advice of General Dextrase. It would be a real irony if the NDP let an old airman outflank them on this one. p

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988, page 25. Some rights reserved.

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