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On Point

"Canadian Military" an Oxymoron?


by Austin Bay
January 25, 2006


Take two apparently contradictory terms, and link them in a single phrase. The result is an oxymoron, a figure of speech yoking a perceived contradiction in terms. "Military intelligence" almost always rates a chuckle, as does "jumbo shrimp." A skilled poet can use an oxymoron to stir emotions beyond laughter. Shakespeare riddled the tragedy of "Romeo and Juliet" with incongruous verbal jolts like "cold fire" and "happy dagger."

The term "Canadian military" should never be an oxymoron, but after a decade of reduction and decline, what was once one of the world's most able and elite combat organizations is now a hollow force.

The slide in defense funding that began in the mid-1990s is one cause. The current Canadian defense budget buys about 25 percent less bang and less peacekeeping than it did 10 years ago.

With the end of the Cold War, some reduction in force structure was understandable.

The defense cuts, however, weren't simply based on a strategic assessment of finances and the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Post-Cold War, North American geography played a role. Here's that presumption: The United States would always be there to defend Canada, so why bother maintaining military forces?

That wasn't always Canada's defense philosophy. At one time, when it came to defending liberty and democracy, Canada punched way above its weight class, and the Free World was thankful.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, while the United States hid behind the false wall of "neutrality," Canada confronted with armed force the cultural and political threat of fascist tyrants. At the end of World War II, Canada had the world's third-largest navy. In 2006, despite having the globe's second-largest nation in terms of landmass, Canada deploys only three dozen or so warships and naval support vessels. Over a million Canadians served during World War II, out of a population of 12 million. Today, the expeditionary military that Nazi Germany feared must juggle troops and equipment to sustain two battalion-sized task forces in an overseas deployment.

The Nazis did indeed fear and respect Canada. From Sicily to Normandy and on into Germany, veteran Canadian divisions often formed the "hard core" of an allied thrust. That wasn't a conspiracy by London to "let the colonials be cannon fodder" -- it was recognition of Canadian military capabilities and fighting spirit.

Canada's military continues to attract outstanding men and women.

I have yet to meet or serve with a Canadian soldier who failed to impress me with his professionalism and discipline. In my experience -- in terms of individual, quality personnel -- only Australian troops match Canadians on a one-for-one basis.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of serving with Australian troops in Iraq. The Aussies are crack. In the mid-1970s, I had the privilege of working with the 4th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in then-West Germany. In my opinion, the Canadian brigade was the best brigade in NATO, which probably meant at that moment in time it was the best brigade man-for-man in the world.

Today, Canada has too few of these fine troops, and the superior troops Canada does field are not supplied with the modern, first-rate weapons and equipment they deserve -- at least, not in sufficient numbers.

The lack of military punch weakens Canada as a global political player, because Canada cannot act with a full spectrum of foreign policy options.

In many ways, the Canadian rhetorical and political game of "We Aren't America" is a reasonable, if semi-hypocritical posture. The game has actually benefited the great cause of freedom. In Cold War situations where American troops or observers might have escalated tensions, Canadians could provide security, stability and democratic presence. Canada could be the United States without Washington's alleged baggage. Those of us who understood the stakes were thankful.

However, as the Canadian military declined, the Canadian "We Aren't America" game -- particularly under Paul Martin's Liberals -- degenerated into rank, adolescent anti-Americanism. Is there a connection between increasingly strident, appeasement-laden rhetoric and the loss of military capability? I think the answer is "yes."

Canada's Conservatives have managed a narrow victory and now confront the challenges of a coalition government. Let's hope the first consensus Canadians reach is to restore and revive the Canadian military.

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