Canadian Leadership
Jan 15, 2012

Retired General Rick Hillier has been awarded the Order of Canada, in the grade of Officer, for generating pride in the Canadian Forces, both within the ranks and among the public at large.

He certainly deserves this honour.

Almost single-handedly and through inspiring personal example, General Hillier generated public pride and respect for the Canadian Forces – to a degree that has not been seen in generations. He came to be the Chief of the Defence Staff at an historically significant time, on the eve of an important re-deployment of Canadian combat forces to Kanadahar Province, in southern Afghanistan, to begin a long and grueling campaign to counter an insidious and persistent insurgency. As is appropriate for a senior national commander in times of conflict, he did not flinch.

Admittedly, he was fortunate (again perhaps historically so) to serve two Prime Ministers and two Ministers of National Defence who supported a more aggressive military campaign in Afghanistan. With the necessary political backing, he led Canadian Forces troops to a level of operational effectiveness that was at least equal to that found on Vimy Ridge, in Ortona, on Juno Beach, or on Hill 187.

He also had a grand vision for the transformation of the Canadian Forces at home. By sheer force of personality, he pushed through a series of reforms that re-organized the Canadian Forces and finally pulled them out of a post-Cold War funk brought on by skimpy defence budgets, shrinking manpower and government reluctance to act aggressively. Even in the months following 9/11, military morale was still slow in recovering from the Somalia incident and related commission of inquiry. Furthermore, growing dissatisfaction over the inadequate treatment and compensation for injured soldiers and veterans indicated that government had lost touch with the realities of military service. Government had also lost the confidence of the troops. Beginning in 2005, the ‘Big Cod’ turned things around. He talked with the troops. He was among them. He looked after them. He led them.

Aided by increased defence spending and engaged Ministers, General Hillier not only won the confidence of the troops, he also helped educate Canadians at large as to who their Canadian Forces were and what they were doing in Afghanistan. Make no mistake about it, he made it clear that the job of the Canadian Forces is to kill people if necessary. He is right of course. The profession of arms in Canada is responsible for the application of violence on behalf of the state, as directed by government. Time has proven he was also right in characterizing Taliban insurgents as “detestable scumbags and murderers.” But some did not like his outspoken style and complained that he was overstepping his bounds as the Chief of the Defence Staff. Most complaints of this nature came from a misguided media, weak bureaucrats and politicians who preferred to be more partisan than honest.

They did not like that he talked with Canadians. They didn’t like that he met with his fellow citizens. They did not like that he took time to know them. Politicians and bureaucrats with less charisma pouted and sulked.

General Hillier, buoyed by the battlefield successes of the troops, raised public respect for the Canadian Forces, but inspiring public respect is different from being the public champion of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. General Hillier did not attempt to do this. He knew the difference and was acutely aware that mobilizing public support for the mission was the responsibility of political leaders. Regrettably, those political leaders failed to fill a clear majority of Canadians with a sense of mission.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had already thrown in the towel during the 2008 election campaign, declaring that the Afghan war was ‘unwinnable.’ There never was a determined Canadian political effort to match the military campaign.

Soft hearts had put too much faith in expensive development programs that did nothing to reduce the effects of the insurgency. Canadian soldiers continued to fight and die. Moreover, political leaders on both sides of the houses of parliament did all they could to thwart mature discussion of the mission. Opposition parties of the time were also reluctant to adopt an aggressive stance. Somewhat hypocritically, they claimed to support the troops, but not the mission. Poll after poll revealed a nearly consistent 50-50% split in public opinion for and against the mission. Government did not rise to the challenge of winning over the uninspired half.

Virtually throughout the entire six-year Canadian military campaign to defend Kandahar, the governing party and opposition parliamentarians focused their efforts on petty partisan politics such as the detainee handling issue. They were so focused on scoring points against each other, they forgot about the Canadian public, the people they supposedly represent. No political leader stepped forward to assume a leadership role and motivate Canadians to adopt a more positive attitude toward the mission. If government cannot be bothered to publicly support a mission, or deploy enough national power to prevail, it has no right to send Canadians into danger in the first place.

General Rick Hillier inspired public respect for the Canadian Forces and gave Canadian troops a sense of mission at home and abroad. It would be nice if ­government could do the same for all Canadians.

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Hudson, on The Hill
© FrontLine Defence 2012

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