People are often surprised by what I have to say about the military. They take one look at me, or read some of the things I’ve written, and conclude that I’m one of those folks who don’t give a damn about the armed forces of my country. My opinion is that if you are going to have a military, you can’t be-half assed about it and not properly fund it. That’s unfair to the men and women who we send out into an ever-increasingly dangerous world.
Canada has a military that has stood them well over the years and measured up favourably to many a larger force when called upon. Until the end of World War I, Canada’s foreign policy was still being set by Great Britain, which meant that when they went to war, so did we. This explains how Canadian troops ended up in South Africa fighting in the Boer Rebellions.
It also meant that Canadian troops were placed under the ultimate command of the British, which may go a long way in explaining the reputation they earned as shock troops in World War I. Whole towns lost a generation of men at Ypres probably because some British general decided to soften up the Germans by sending waves of Canadians at them. It may have cemented Canada’s reputation as a military force in the early twentieth century, but it was at a horrible price.
World War II was the first war that Canada actually entered on its own via a vote in parliament. That it came one day after the British declared war on the Germans, and there was only one vote against (J. S. Woodsworth, a devout Christian and conscientious objector, was the only voice of dissent) probably said more about our strong ties to England than our burning desire to go to war.
Whatever the reason for entering the war, Canadian troops went into battle for the first time led by their own generals. Unfortunately they still ended up being placed under the command of the British armies, which led to the unholy disaster of Dieppe in 1942. Planned by the British, it involved attempting to land a force of primarily Canadian troops in occupied Germany for reasons that are still unclear to this day.
Perhaps it was to appease the Russians who were clamouring for a second front in Europe to relieve some of the pressure they were feeling, being the only the forces actively engaging the Germans in Europe. Or maybe it was to gauge the feasibility of invasion at that time. Whatever the reasoning, it ended up being a slaughter and less than half those involved were able to get out again, leaving the rest behind either dead or captured.
When the actual invasion took place in 1944, Canada played a key role in the liberation of the Netherlands. To this day the people of Holland remember their liberators and honour them annually. Ottawa, the capital of Canada, has received so many gifts of tulip bulbs for its flowerbeds, every year they hold an annual tulip festival. These are partially in recognition of the fact that the city sheltered the Dutch royal family during the war, but also due to our troops role in the liberation of their country.
In the 1950’s, Canadian troops started to wear the blue helmet of the United Nations for the first time. In the early part of the decade it was the civil war in Korea, but it was in 1957 during the Suez Canal Crisis that the role of the Canadian armed forces was to be defined for the next twenty-odd years. In order to separate the combatants (Israel, France, and Great Britain, against Egypt) and prevent the intervention of the Soviet Union, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Lester Pearson, proposed a buffer zone of neutral troops overseen by the United Nations. Thus was born the concept of peacekeeping forces.
Until the first Gulf War, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney having changed the direction of our military, Canada’s armed forces became synonymous with peacekeeping. In all the hotspots around the world — Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Viet Nam, and any other place the blue helmets were called upon, you could usually find Canadian troops. They were respected by people on both sides of disputes as being fair and impartial and served with such distinction that when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Peace Keeping forces, Canada was called upon to act as one of the recipients.
Unfortunately, a succession of governments over the years has constantly under funded the forces. It hasn’t mattered which political party has been in power, they’ve talked a good game and not done what’s necessary to keep Canada’s military up to date and adequately funded. A major part of the problem has been an inability to define a clear-cut role for our troops.
Each new political master has a slightly different vision of what duties and actions our forces are to be capable of carrying out. Over the past couple of decades there has been flirtation with changing them from a buffer zone to a direct participant, but no real commitment has been made to match the need with desire.
You can’t send troops into a combat situation with troop carriers whose armour can’t stop the lightest rounds of fire or rifles that date back to the seventies. They need to have more than just one set of uniforms so they don’t show up in a desert environment wearing olive green fatigues as has happened in the past. But most importantly they need an annual budget that allows the troops and their families to live without financial worries.
This week’s announcement of nearly $15 billion in spending on military equipment to replace the aged fleets of helicopters, supply planes, and merchant ships may be necessary, but it hardly comes close to addressing the real problems facing individual soldiers. It allows the Conservative Party to say they are correcting Liberal negligence (The Liberals had included $12.6 billion in their last budget for capital expenditures on the military) and stage photo opportunities around the country and look like they are doing something, but the actuality is far less impressive then the perception.
There has been no real increase in the annual military budget for the last decade. Each year they have less money to spend on the troops, but the demands on their resources has increased. What must the morale of the troops be like if they are living close to or below the poverty line?
Kingston, Ontario, where I live, is home to a Canadian Forces Base. During the sixteen years I’ve lived in Kingston, the local papers have run stories at regular intervals of enlisted personnel having to utilize the local food banks to make it through to the end of the month. Is this the way to run an army where we don’t even pay the soldiers sufficient money to properly clothe and feed their families?
Our government seems to want to turn Canada’s military into a more aggressive force than previously. Instead of just serving as peacekeepers, as we have in the past, our troops are seeing front line duty as active participants in a war zone. It’s all very well and good to invest in equipment, but shouldn’t a commitment, in terms of financial support to the people who make up the front line troops, be as important if not more so?
Our government just claimed they found $5 billion dollars more surplus than they had counted on, so it’s obvious we have the money to increase the military’s annual budget without taking money from other programs. In fact, if this government wasn’t so obsessed with giving its buddies in the business community tax breaks to lay off workers, close factories, and sell out to foreign investment, they could probably afford across the board increases to the military and social programming.
If they can quietly pass a bill raising Members of Parliament expense accounts, how can they say there is no money for annual increases for soldiers risking their lives at their government’s request? This government had to be shamed into honouring the soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan, has banned the press from filming caskets of dead soldiers being returned to Canada, and claims the Canadian public doesn’t understand the needs of our soldiers in Afghanistan.
Perhaps what the Canadian public doesn’t understand is how, in spite of all the flowery rhetoric wafting out of Ottawa, the government seems to be all talk and no action when it comes to supporting the troops. It’s all very well and good to buy expensive new equipment for the armed forces, but without people, you don’t have much of an army. Maybe the government should try to remember that in the future.