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Pistols and blue berets?

Retired general and military historian speak out

This Remembrance Day will be observed by Canadians deployed abroad in over a dozen countries – many in UN contingents that wouldn’t fill a minivan. When it comes to tackling modern conflicts like the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan, has the political expediency of Canada’s peacekeeping image left our soldiers fighting – and losing – yesterday’s war?

“The politicians who make these decisions – who decide for instance, ‘We’re going to declare the [Afghan] war over in 2011, folks’ – do not usually get challenged with the consequences,” observes military historian Desmond Morton of McGill University. “These small [UN] operations that have two guys or a sergeant and a corporal are cheap, and they can say ‘We were involved in 93% of all UN operations.’ When they want two Canadian staff officers to go to Goma or some such place, it seems like a small commitment and a little bit of profile.”

But such peacekeeping posturing excuses neglect on the ground. “Successive governments have created this myth – of both political stripes,” maintains retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, who detailed the aftermath in his recent memoir Soldiers Made Me Look Good, “because you can slash and burn the defence budget if the country is convinced that we’re just peacekeepers and we only need pistols and blue berets. Nobody much complains... Northern Uganda, the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, and it just went on and on and on... the only way to save money was to cut personnel.”

“Today the infantry is 2000 smaller than the Toronto Police,” he laments. “As far as the army itself goes, it really has to be rebuilt – it needs at least five years. I say it’s broken because it’s turned itself inside out. The army commanders have a horrendous challenge these days. There’s very high attrition. A lot of soldiers are on their fourth tour, and when they come home they’re only with their families for two weeks. You do that for five or six years, and your spouse looks at you and says, ‘You’d better make up your mind.’”

The theory that a peacekeeping nation does more with less takes its toll on fighting cohesion too, according to MacKenzie: “It used to be that soldiers slept, trained, and fought together for three years. Now we have units we patch together from all over the country – a lot of them are reservists. The troops call it ‘plug and play.’ And then when we bring them back they disperse.”

At the same time, much of the Forces’ infrastructure is getting outsourced. “A general told me recently he was working on his business plan,” says Morton, recounting cost-cutting efforts that required trainees to return to the mess hall mid-day rather than cook in the field. “That’s what I mean about privatization,” he says. “Generals who have to think about nickels. The military have lost all their battles in Ottawa since the early nineties.”

The Pearsonian myth has done worse than send peacekeeping-equipped soldiers to do counterinsurgency work, insists MacKenzie – it’s politicized the treatment of war dead as well. “In the Balkans when we had 27 killed and over 100 seriously injured, nobody but nobody except for the families in Canada knew about it. In fact bodies were brought back in the hours of darkness as a matter of policy, and sent to the home towns where they were buried with proper dignity and military funerals. But it sure as hell wasn’t a media event, because it was deemed – erroneously, what we were doing – as peacekeeping. But it wasn’t – it was two factions fighting each other. That was not deemed to be in Canada’s image, so there was a blackout as far as media reporting, that went on for about two years.”

Warring factions with no clear lines of authority are the players in many modern conflicts, notes MacKenzie, not warring states capable of brokering a truce. “Factions don’t have a flag in front of the UN, they don’t have a delegation, and if you broker a deal with them, there’s a very good chance that you’re not even going to be able to find them... Because they’re factions. And as a result – I know people are critical of me for saying it – but when we go into missions like this now, we have to be strong enough to say to the factions: ‘Keep the peace or we’ll kill you.’ That’s the only way to control these bullies and drunks and war criminals. You can’t go in and negotiate, like you used to be able to do with countries when they went to war. Not many countries are going to war these days­.”

A case in point being Kosovo, where both experts agree Canada failed to act in its own interest. Says MacKenzie: “We got sucked into protecting a state run by a terrorist organization... Now it’s sort of a mini-state with, unfortunately, prostitution and the slave trade and drugs and foreign troops as their source of income.” Says Morton: “CNN wanted war – it wanted people to go to Kosovo for various news-type reasons, and it presented Kosovo as a shocking case of Serbian genocide on humble, beautiful and lovable Albanians. The media went along with it.”

Where opinions diverge is on the lessons to be applied to the situation in Darfur – MacKenzie favours another NATO intervention, where Morton sees more of the same, merely “a crude Sudanese attempt to put down a separatist insurrection” with bad actors on all sides.

MacKenzie believes it’s possible and necessary to secure the refugee camps. “We’re not going to put [soldiers] into Sudan and fight the Sudanese army and occupy Khartoum,” he says. “The UN decided to augment the African Union force that’s there, and that’s where General Dallaire and I have a lot of significant debate, because before he became a senator he was very much on the side of NATO forces assisting [in Darfur] but then the Liberal Party changed its mind, and decided that they’d only send some armored vehicles and a few staff officers, and it was declared that that was enough. And I still very much disagree with that.”

“The area’s so large and the force is so small, they’re spread so thin that they’re vulnerable – a number of AU troops were ambushed and killed just over a month ago. Aside from the country and the challenge, it just can’t be handled by the AU troops because they just don’t have the transportation or the communication or the means to do detailed patrolling. So we’re supporting a UN resolution and a UN mandate, but it’s frustrating in the extreme because it’s not effective.”

Both veterans still see value in Canada’s wafer-thin UN deployments. “It’s tokenism, but they’re valuable assets on the ground,” MacKenzie asserts.

Morton agrees. “They do useful work. They speak English or French – useful languages in much of Africa and elsewhere – and Canadians have a good reputation for taking these jobs seriously, and doing them pretty well. I encounter people even here at McGill who’ve met Canadians in Africa and come to Canada because of it.” And past glories continue to pay diplomatic dividends, with Canadians still counted on to get the ball rolling: “There’s a feeling that if Canada’s involved, we’ll involve others, we’ll pull the rest of the lot in.”

But foreign policy under Stephen Harper could change all that. “I don’t think he cares very much about Canada’s profile among the right-thinking people of the world, to put it mildly.”



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