OTTAWA — Canada’s former top soldier is warning that “field marshal wannabes” are angling to take a bigger role in directing the day-to-day operations of military forces in the field.
Retired general Rick Hillier says a policy paper is circulating around senior levels of the Harper government that suggests the Clerk of the Privy Council and the deputy minister of defence take a greater role to “guide” the military.
The former chief of defence staff writes, in a postscript for the softcover edition of his memoirs, that there is a growing movement within the federal government to set up a system of micro-management that could extend from the highest reaches of Ottawa all the way down to combat units.
The paper was produced within the last year and has been the subject of some discussion, according to Hillier, and would give senior bureaucrats greater powers than those in the National Defence Act.
The notion that the military needs greater guidance on how to conduct operations irked Hillier.
“What crap!” Hillier writes in the new edition of A Soldier First.
“The National Defence Act is clear — our sons and daughters need to have direction from the leaders that Canadians have elected, and they need to have that direction passed through the Chief of Defence Staff without interference from bureaucrats who have no preparation or training for this task, and no responsibility for those lives.
“Any governments who permit anything different should have their rear ends booted out of office by moms and dads of those serving sons and daughters.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay was unavailable, but in statement he suggested the relationship between civilians and the military is productive and not strained.
“Whether it is our mission in Afghanistan, disaster relief in Haiti, support to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic games or any other initiative, the professionalism and dedication of all personnel is paramount to our success,” he said.
“I’m proud of the excellent efforts that numerous departments and agencies have put into our mission in Afghanistan. But I’m even more proud to work with the incredible people that make up the defence community.”
Military and political science historian Desmond Morton said Hillier’s warning about the creeping centralization of authority should be heeded because of the “control freak” reflex of the current government.
The general also took a swipe at parliamentarians for last year’s investigation to torture claims in Afghan prisons and what the government knew about it. He accused all parties being uninterested in facts and declared soldiers “would be run over in a heartbeat if those involved thought it would give them a few more votes.”
Hillier added excessive government secrecy over documents fuelled the debate.
“Now, I believe that those who have turned our Parliament into an embarrassment are unworthy of those in uniform who serve with such valour,” he wrote.
Stories of the battles between the bureaucracy and Hillier, who retired as the country’s top military commander in 2008, are legion around Ottawa. In the first edition of his book, published last year, he stunned many in the political community with his frank account of how the Conservative government toyed with the notion of yanking day-to-day control of the war away from the ground commander in Kandahar and placing it with the country’s ambassador in Kabul.
He railed against the Ottawa culture in the book and referred to the bureaucrats who cooked up the proposal as “field marshal wannabes,” who shouldn’t be trusted with authority beyond what Parliament has already granted them.
“I absolutely refused, for more than a year before my retirement, to condone any direct role in the command and control of the CF contingent in Afghanistan by any of the bureaucrats,” he writes in the new edition of the book.
“This would have been dangerous to our young men and women, to the mission and to the bureaucrats, who had had no preparation, training or experience in such command and were not qualified for it.”
Hillier was not available for an interview.
Morton said the former general’s fear about bureaucrats who know nothing about the military is well-founded because unlike previous generations they’ve not been educated or exposed to the culture.
He blamed that on the Liberals who killed off the National Defence College, an institution with a sizable civilian enrolment, but said Hillier has alienated them further with bellicose rhetoric.
“Folks at foreign affairs or even the mounted police used to be educated in what these fellows in green were doing and why, but that’s not the case anymore,” Morton said.
“They don’t know what use the military is, and Hillier has some justification for wondering about the kind of creeps rose the ranks, but to my knowledge, as chief of defence staff, he did very little about it.”
Hillier made a lot of speeches and raised the public profile of the Forces, but Morton said he questions what concrete action was taken to educate federal officials.