An Army Astray

Canada’s long-standing struggle between the military and politicians

Relations between Cabinet, senior bureaucrats and the Canadian Forces have been tense of late. Arguments about the role of civilians in overseeing the military’s operations in Afghanistan led General Rick Hillier to criticize the interference of “field marshal wannabes” in his farewell speech as chief of the defence staff. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sought, with a good deal of frustration, to get the military and defence department to achieve greater administrative efficiency. Public Works and Government Services Canada has been involved in more than one confrontation with the Department of National Defence over the acquisition of new military equipment. Indeed, defence procurement has arguably created a wedge between the military and the Conservatives, a party that came to power determined to champion and rebuild the armed forces.

When we hear about discord between ministers and the military, there are reasons to assume that the politicians are largely at fault. Looking at the history of Canadian military affairs, there is a distinct pattern of governments putting forth highly ambitious defence policies, while giving the military insufficient funds to execute them. Canadian politicians have also tended to ignore the armed forces for long stretches of time, leaving the military with vague direction and compelling senior officers to plan according to their own assessments of Canada’s defence requirements and alliance obligations. On those occasions when ministers have taken a keen interest in the military, it has often been because the government was determined to impose unpopular reforms or budget cuts on the armed forces. Ministers, furthermore, have often allowed political expediency to trump professional military advice regarding the maintenance of Canada’s defence capabilities. All this has fed the notion, common in both the academic literature and journalistic writing on the military, that successive Canadian governments have failed the armed forces, and that episodes of strained civil–military relations result from poor political leadership.

This view of Canadian civil–military relations is largely shaped by accounts of the country’s defence affairs from the early 1950s to the late 1990s. The story of these decades is often presented as one of lamentable military decline, with the armed forces falling from their post–Second World War “golden age” into their now infamous “decade of darkness.” Popular histories have treated the subject as a tale of a highly capable military being dismantled by naive ministers and officious civil servants. Although not all authors believe that the story is so clear cut, a majority of historians and defence analysts agree that civilians shoulder most of the responsibility for the steady erosion of the Canadian military, owing to the reasons listed above.

In his history of the Canadian Army, A National Force: The Evolution of Canada’s Army, 1950–2000, Peter Kasurak carefully documents how prime ministers, defence ministers and senior civil servants contributed to the weakening of the armed forces in the second half of the 20th century. But the originality and value of the book lie in his equally determined effort to show how the army contributed to its own failings and failures. As well, Kasurak highlights how the army fuelled, and in some instances incited, damaging relations between ministers and generals. In so doing, he adds a welcome degree of nuance to our understanding of the interaction between governments and the military during the Cold War and early post–Cold War era.

Following the Korean War, the Canadian government permanently stationed military units in West Germany as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s effort to deter Soviet aggression on the European continent. From the Canadian Army’s perspective, this commitment necessitated a large, mechanized force that could work with allies to defeat the Soviet Union along the Central Front. The army remained committed to this view from the mid 1950s to the end of the Cold War. Kasurak demonstrates that the army’s unwillingness to waver from this assessment was the cause of its most significant confrontations with civilian authorities. In one notable instance, it led the army to defy the prime minister, an outcome the author describes as “one of the most under-reported incidents of insubordination in Canadian civil–military relations.”

At the heart of this confrontation were divergent views of the army’s role in Europe. Whereas the army believed that its forces would be an important part of an allied war with the Soviets, by the early 1960s, a number of stakeholders had concluded that Canada’s presence in West Germany was largely political. Defence analysts and politicians believed that protracted conventional war was no longer possible or was likely owing to the existence of several thousand nuclear weapons. Were NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact to ever engage in actual armed conflict, the thinking went, the battles between conventional forces would quickly escalate toward nuclear war. Once both sides unleashed their nuclear arsenals, conventional forces would be rapidly annihilated.

The logic of fielding a substantial army to fight the Soviets, and the idea that such an army would survive long enough to accomplish much, appeared at odds with the nature of warfare in the nuclear age. At best, the purpose of keeping Canada’s conventional forces in Europe was to demonstrate allied solidarity, deal with smaller scale crises that did not escalate, and give the Canadian government a voice within NATO. As long as political leaders saw the military’s NATO contribution in this way, the army could expect to remain in West Germany, but there was little hope that Ottawa would fund a larger, heavier land force.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, however, took a harder line against Canada’s military presence in Europe. In the first years of his premiership, Trudeau wanted to end the military’s permanent NATO contribution altogether. Not only did the new prime minister question the value of keeping conventional forces in Europe to fight a war that would likely trigger a nuclear exchange, he was equally skeptical of the political benefits that those forces accrued. Accordingly, when he formed his government in 1968, the new prime minister asked the defence department and military to examine the option of withdrawing Canada’s forces from West Germany. As Kasurak demonstrates, the army actively resisted and subverted the prime minister’s directive over the next years. With the help of Trudeau’s first defence minister, Léo Cadieux, the army ensured that the option of ending Canada’s NATO commitment was never seriously ­considered.

Trudeau would ultimately agree that the political costs of withdrawing the Canadian military from Europe was too high. But the prime minister and his second defence minister, Donald S. Macdonald, were determined to strengthen civilian control of the military in light of the resistance they encountered from the military. To this end, Macdonald established a management review group to evaluate ways to reform Canada’s defence administration. The result was the establishment of a single national defence headquarters that integrated the administration of the defence department and Canadian Forces. Additionally, the change expanded the power of senior defence bureaucrats and gave them a challenge function over various aspects of military planning. Over the following decades, this organizational structure granted Cabinet a greater degree of control over the armed forces. Although the new structure arguably bred problems of its own, it has proved superior to previous arrangements. In fact, when the principles of the integrated administrative structure and bureaucratic challenge function have been diluted, the effect has been to weaken civilian control of the military and increase strife between political and military leaders.

For the army officers that lived the organizational reform, however, the integrated headquarters was an aberration, one that gave questionable authorities to senior civil servants and threatened to replace their system of command responsibility with a managerial style of leadership. Yet, as Kasurak notes, it is unclear if the army appreciated how its resistance to a direct query from the prime minister contributed to this outcome. Instead of accepting the primacy of the civilian authority’s policy decisions, the army continued to pursue a force structure that reflected what it wanted and thought was best for Canada’s NATO role in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, the army still pursued plans for a large land force that it knew was not affordable. These factors lead Kasurak to conclude that the army exhibited a failure of professionalism and a refusal to accept that the military must be subordinate to ministers.

A National Force offers two explanations of the army’s behaviour. The first was the army’s tendency to view Canada’s defence requirements through an allied lens. Rather than accepting that political leaders had the right and authority to question the country’s contribution to NATO, the army appears to have believed that Canada’s alliance commitments needed to be protected from Cabinet meddling. Second, Kasurak argues that the army’s organizational culture legitimized the sense that civilian policy directives could be resisted or ignored if they threatened the army’s interests. His book’s discussion of these aspects of the army’s history presents a valuable contribution to our understanding of Canadian civil–military relations as well.

In the aftermath of the Somalia Affair, which Kasurak discusses at length, the army was subject to major reforms. Efforts were made to bring the army’s culture in line with Canada’s societal and political norms. The army’s retrograde values and belief that it should stand apart from, rather than reflect, Canadian society were gradually ground down. During his brief but highly regarded tenure as minister of national defence, Douglas Young oversaw the preparing of a report on the future of the Canadian Forces that made higher education standards for the officer corps, professionalism and leadership a priority. Owing to critiques that the integrated national defence headquarters had contributed to the military’s failed response to the Somalia Affair, Young also commissioned a study on the organization of Canada’s defence organization and accountability. Contrary to the view that the integrated headquarters had been detrimental, the report reaffirmed the logic of linking the administration of the defence department and Canadian Forces, and further stressed the importance of maintaining a civilian challenge function in order to assist the minister in exerting control over the armed forces.

Doctrinally, the 1990s saw the abandonment of the “big army” idea in favour of honing a smaller force. Along with the end of the Cold War, budget cuts introduced by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, and amplified by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, made this doctrinal change inevitable. Yet this should not take away from the significance of this evolution in the army’s thinking and planning. Indeed, while Kasurak remains guarded about the success of the army’s cultural shift, he considers that the adoption of this more realistic doctrine was a notable adjustment.

A National Force concludes on a cautionary note. Armed forces, Kasurak writes, echoing American civil–military relations expert Peter Feaver, must “always bear in mind that their role is to be the agent of the state and that civilians do indeed have the right to be wrong.” Kasurak’s caution is not unwarranted. The past decade has seen its share of civil–military confrontations about who gets the final say on matters of national defence, such as force structuring, budgetary priorities and operational objectives. Some serving and retired military leaders, such as General Hillier, remain uncomfortable with the integrated national defence headquarters and the authority of civilian defence officials. The prime minister appears to have been genuinely frustrated with the responsiveness of the defence department and military to policy directives. Canada’s ongoing struggle with defence procurement, furthermore, cannot be properly understood without considering civil–­military dynamics, which slow or derail capital equipment programs. Without implying that Canadian civil–military relations have reached an especially low point, or that civilians do not share the blame for the recent episodes of discord, this suggests that Kasurak’s emphasis on the military’s subordination to the civilian authority is worth repeating.

Stating that politicians have “the right to be wrong” about matters of national defence may appear too categorical. In fact, it may even seem to be a dangerous notion. The military, after all, are experts in the use of armed force. Unlike politicians who tend to focus on short-term gains and losses, the armed forces are more mindful of future defence needs and capabilities. Military personnel, moreover, accept an unlimited liability in executing directives issued by ministers; the price of defence failures are far higher for the armed forces than for politicians. This has led to calls for military decisions to be made on the basis of an equal dialogue between ministers and officers who are understood to have a shared responsibility for Canada’s national defence.

Yet, however appealing these notions may be, they are problematic. As Kasurak’s work demonstrates, the military can be as prone to errors and misjudgements as ministers. Granting the armed forces a greater say over Canada’s defence affairs does not guarantee that we will have better policies or a more effective military. Equally important, the suggestion that politicians should not have the “right to be wrong” about national defence undermines the central tenet of liberal democratic civil–military relations—namely, that those who hold the legitimate authority to govern must be supreme over those who are entrusted with the capacity to inflict organized violence on behalf of the state. In Canada, this means that ministers who are accountable to, and hold the confidence of, the democratically elected House of Commons must have the final say over matters of national defence, whether they make correct decisions or not.