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
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
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
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
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
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.