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Canada's top general wins over the public as champion of the military

Gen. Rick Hillier has achieved victories in the field, but his plan to re-equip the Forces will be a tougher fight

Richard Foot, Vancouver Sun, 27 Jan 07

Article Link

 

Canada's top general wins over the public as champion of the military: Gen. Rick Hillier has achieved victories in the field, but his plan to re-equip the Forces will be a tougher fight

 

When Gen. Rick Hillier strode on to the national stage two years ago this month, Canadians had never witnessed a military boss quite like him -- crude in his assessment of the country's enemies, cunning in his courtship of Ottawa's political masters and uncompromising in his mission to remake the Canadian Forces into an instrument of pride and influence in the world.

 

Since his appointment as chief of defence staff in 2005, Hillier has fearlessly promoted his vision and faced down anyone who dared challenge it.

 

Consider how he handled Liberal Senator Peter Stollery last fall, when the angry senator demanded of Hillier at a parliamentary hearing, why the military wasn't contributing a peacekeeping force to help the beleaguered masses of war-torn Congo.

 

"I will be back in Kinshasa on Sunday," said Stollery. "I am sure the question will be asked of me, 'What can Canada do to stop one of the great tragedies that is unfolding in Africa?' . . . What kind of response will I be able to give these people on Sunday on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces?"

 

"I do not believe you can give a response on behalf of the Canadian Armed Forces," Hillier told him. "That is my job."

 

GENERAL IS A 'SOLDIER'S SOLDIER'

 

It is arguably one of the toughest jobs in Ottawa and, two years into it, Hillier has become a force to be reckoned with in the capital. But how well is he actually succeeding in his grand mission to transform the military? And what impact is he having on the country after 24 tumultuous months in command?

 

"I think he is doing an outstanding job," says Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, chairman of the Senate's foreign affairs committee. "He is the best combination I have seen of a soldier's soldier -- the men and women in uniform identify strongly with him -- and of a proponent to the public and Parliament of the military's mission and responsibilities."

 

Hillier has a higher public profile than any defence chief since the 1950s. Like former generals Lewis MacKenzie and Romeo Dallaire, he has achieved the rare status of celebrity-soldier, thanks to his passionate salesmanship of the war in Afghanistan, and his down-to-earth Newfoundland charm and wit.

 

Where other chiefs of defence have come across as bookish bureaucrats, or the self-important products of elite military academies, Hillier is famous for the time he spends with the troops.

 

For Christmas, he made an extraordinary Canadian Forces video, interviewing sailors, soldiers and airmen about their lives and families. It was a bravura performance, with Hillier gliding around in front of the camera like Phil Donahue in a combat uniform, armed with nothing but a microphone and shooting the breeze with his rather awe-struck subordinates.

 

His greatest success so far, say many observers, has been raising the profile of Canada's military, and instilling national pride -- among both soldiers and civilians -- in an institution that has suffered decades of disinterest and disrepute.

 

"He's been very proactive in going out and schooling the Canadian people about what the military is doing for them, and I think it's working," says Dan Middlemiss, a political scientist and military analyst at Dalhousie University. "Canadians look a little more favourably on the military now, and most people accept the need for higher defence funding."

 

NOW 'BITES TONGUE'

 

Segal also says Hillier has helped dispel what he calls the myth of Canadian peacekeeping -- "the notion that the only purpose of our military is for non-combat missions in support of a tepid, mild-mannered foreign policy. Instead, he has made the case for how on occasion we have to engage the world on a more robust level."

 

But Hillier's outspoken advocacy has also made some people, even friends of the military, uncomfortable.

 

"It's fair to say that for almost a year he was the only person who was articulating the case for the mission to Kandahar, and I think he was out of line," says Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate defence and security committee.

 

Kenny realizes Hillier may have been selling the Afghan mission with then-prime minister Paul Martin's blessing, but he says it was wrong for the country's top general to be publicly pushing that mission -- or any policy idea -- on Canadians.

 

"Hillier has a job to motivate the troops and make sure they understand why something is worth putting their lives on the line for," says Kenny, "but this is a democracy, and the prime minister and minister of defence -- not their military officers -- need to be doing the motivation of civilians and Canadians in general."

 

Terry Copp, a military historian at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says he worried during Hillier's first year in command that the general was getting ahead of government policy in some of his public statements. However, he notes that in recent months he appears to have reined himself in -- or been ordered to bite his tongue.

 

Although Copp supports the mission to Kandahar, he also says he was disappointed in 2005 when Hillier famously called the Taliban a horde of "detestable murderers and scumbags." The language was tough and sensational, but Copp calls it a strategic error.

 

"I think it's always a bad thing to characterize your enemies in ways that allows them to use the terminology for propaganda purposes," he says.

 

"More recently, General Hillier has been much less aggressive in public. His approach is much more measured . . . he has continued to maintain his high profile within the Forces, but he has stayed out of the political arena."

 

As for the actual mission in Kandahar, Copp says the best that can be said today is that "failure has been avoided" -- hardly a ringing endorsement.

 

MILITARY EFFORT 'SPECTACULAR'

 

As a key proponent and architect of Canada's first war-fighting operation in half a century, Hillier will share in whatever credit or blame arises out of the mission.

 

"By my measurements -- establishing bases, operating in the field, and defeating at every turn their opponents -- Kandahar has been a starring point for Gen. Hillier and his officers," says Douglas Bland, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and author of the book Chiefs of Defence.

 

"They've gone into the field and done something quite spectacular."

 

Less successful, says Bland, have been Canadian efforts to help develop Afghanistan's economy, rebuild its infrastructure and strengthen its government. But Bland says responsibility for those failings rests with the Canadian International Development Agency and the Department of Foreign Affairs, agencies Hillier has no control over.

 

On the other hand, it's clear that Hillier's prescription of a single, battalion-sized battle group -- less than 1,000 soldiers -- just isn't big enough for the task at hand in Kandahar Province. Requests for more help from NATO allies came up empty.

 

Last year, Hillier said the only way Canada itself could provide more troops was to cull them from the air force and navy, sending sailors and airmen to Kandahar as convoy truck drivers and logistics personnel -- an unpopular suggestion that was quickly mooted by the government.

 

Even sustaining a single battalion in Afghanistan is proving difficult for the military, raising questions about how carefully Hillier and his staff understood what they were getting into.

 

"I fully support the mission, but it seems to me that the planning to sustain it was seriously flawed," says Eric Lerhe, a retired navy commodore, who led a task group of warships in the Persian Gulf during the war on terror in 2002.

 

Last winter, Hillier signed a detailed briefing document for incoming Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, which states the military has enough troops to field two overseas task forces -- the one in Afghanistan, and a second force of 1,200 soldiers "for other possible missions the government may wish to consider."

 

When he was asked in Parliament last fall where those extra soldiers were, Hillier denied knowing anything about the briefing document and said the military had no more troops to spare.

 

"How can he go from saying, 'We can do one mission plus another,' to doing only one, and then wanting to force newly recruited sailors and airmen into the army to sustain it?" asks Lerhe. "That statement had will have a frightful impact on the military's efforts to attract and recruit top notch sailors."

 

Whatever the problems arising out of Afghanistan, Hillier's most difficult challenge remains his mission to transform, modernize and rebuild the Armed Forces for the 21st century.

 

So far he has reshaped the very tribal structure of the army, navy and air force into a series of integrated new geographic commands, including one for overseas operations and another for domestic operations.

 

Some observers say the change has made the military more efficient, cohesive and focused on its core missions. Others call it little more than bureaucratic desk-shuffling. Real transformation, they say, will come when the military is properly rebuilt with the hardware, base infrastructure, and manpower befitting a G-8 nation.

 

MILITARY NEEDS MORE MONEY

 

To date, many of Hillier's pet projects appear to be stuck on the drawing board. For example, the Standing Contingency Task Force -- a quick-reaction unit capable of rapid deployment anywhere in the world -- and its main mode of transport, what Hillier is fond of calling a "Big Honking Ship," remains little more than a conception.

 

Kenny, the defence and security chair, says Hillier will be hard-pressed to re-equip the Forces with even a fraction of what they need in the coming decades. The money just won't be forthcoming, in spite of the $17 billion in new purchases announced by the Conservatives last year, he said.

 

Kenny says the Defence Department is requesting $27 billion to $37 billion in total annual funding by 2025. He says the government is most likely to agree to the lowball figure, which, with inflation factored in, won't allow the military to grow and modernize and certainly won't fulfil Hillier's dreams of transformation.

 

"For Hillier to be successful, he needs the support of government, and I have the strong sense that the amount of money involved means the government isn't going to step up and deliver," says Kenny.

 

Bland agrees that a lack of money may stand in the way of Hillier's big plans, but he insists the general and the senior staff he has around him represent the most capable professional leaders Canada's military has had in decades.

 

"What you're seeing in Hillier and his principal subordinate officers is a band of brothers, a group of officers raised in the post-Cold War world, who all served in Bosnia and were promoted for their ability to work in difficult positions in the field, and who matured in conditions most other officers didn't experience," says Bland.

 

"They're able to bring to the table, in front of the prime minister and cabinet, and senior bureaucrats around town, a degree of credibility that nobody else can match.

 

"Hillier has many challenges, but he's the right guy in the right position at the right time."


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