Interviewing general officers can be a little difficult, to be honest.
Not only do they tend to have the no-nonsense command presence you’d expect from a leader in charge of the fate of thousands, they also tend to be a little cryptic, which is not to say they talk in code, but maybe something close.
Perhaps cryptic is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just that one of the reasons a Canadian Forces officer ends up becoming a general is they possess the habit of very rarely ever saying anything too bluntly, nothing too frank or controversial—at least to the media or, at the very least, to me.
However, since good reporting requires more depth than the latest ‘politically-approved lines’ can generally provide, I’ve developed a few techniques over the years, a bunch of odd little questions designed to draw reticent generals out into communicational candidness.
Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, commander of the Canadian Army, highest ranking soldier in Canada, did not fall for a single one of my gambits. Not even close.
I expected nothing less, actually.
I’d done some research before meeting Devlin and every officer I spoke to said the same thing: Devlin has a big brain.
And he does. In conversation—even combative conversation—Devlin is so calm and precise that it seems like it would take something really catastrophic to unsettle him in any way.
Also, interestingly, among the officers polled there was exactly zero grumbling about Devlin’s character or track record or leadership ability—and this lack of back-biting is rarer than one might think.
If you want to take the measure of a soldier, ask him to tell one of his favourite war stories from some past deployment and see what he says. (This is one of the aforementioned gambits.)
Devlin has been on enough deployments to have more than a few good stories up his sleeve. He was with the United Nations in Cyprus in 1984-85 and the former Yugoslavia in 1992, where his unit was awarded the Commander-in-Chief Citation for their ballsy effort to open up the Sarajevo airport. He did two NATO tours in Bosnia, including one in 1998 as the Canadian battle group’s commanding officer. In 2003-04 he was commander of the Multinational Brigade in Kabul, Afghanistan, and then spent 15 months on assignment with the Americans as the deputy commanding general of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq starting in 2006.
Out of all these many experiences—a veritable life lived in the field—Devlin’s answer to the question of his favourite war story actually has nothing to do with the general himself but is instead a virtual ode to Canadian soldiers and the pride he experienced watching them do their sometimes difficult and often complicated jobs. “I watched them in the field and it’s a magical thing. These guys and gals do [their job] with such a level of skill that you just can’t help but feel fiercely proud about Canadian soldiers.”
The typical knock on generals among the troops is that in order to reach that level, an officer needs to become something of a politician. And it’s said as if this is a very bad thing. But with Devlin it doesn’t seem so bad. If all politicians were as selfless and eager to share credit as Devlin, maybe they wouldn’t have such a bad name.
“I’ve been doing this job for a year now,” he goes on, “and Canada has such an incredible level of respect around the world—our soldiers rock. And we are looked at as professional and confident and if there’s crap happening in the world, folks expect and want Canadian soldiers to be there. And in my travels, we are looked up to, and a lot of that goes back to…combat—Canadians representing themselves with a rare level of skill and professionalism. It may be [a] rehearsed [answer] but it comes from the heart. It’s genuine.”
There’s an old cautionary saying in military literature about the tendency generals have to fight the last war to the detriment of the current war. Which is to say, the tendency is to let wars past shape and influence one’s strategy and tactics to the degree that no one notices the current war is different, and going badly. But on the other hand, a general doesn’t want to make the same mistakes twice, so it’s a precarious game: ignore the last war’s lessons at your peril; allow past lessons to dominate everything at your peril.
Devlin’s army, and his perspective on the Canadian Forces, has been forged by the Kandahar combat mission.
My vision of the army, he said, has been “powerfully reinforced by what I saw in Afghanistan over the past decade.”
It is no exaggeration to say that the army also has been re-shaped by their shared Kandahar experience.
“There have been some…enablers, is what I call them, that have been born in combat over the past decade,” said Devlin. “Things like the unmanned aerial vehicles, the counter-IED effort, information operations, civil-military relations, electronic warfare and the importance of helicopters.”
As Devlin points out, the lessons have been translated to the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC), the army’s premiere venue for preparing troops for war. Training at CMTC now includes IEDs, criminal networks, language challenges, civilians on the battlefield, engagements with simulated local authorities, and ‘near-peer’ combat.
But yet, it’s too soon to cast off the old style of big-army, force-on-force mechanized warfare. “We would not be professional if we were not doing manoeuvre warfare,” said Devlin. “So we try to strike the right balance between manoeuvre and counter-insurgency. I don’t think it’s an either-or thing. [CMTC] is a manoeuvre challenge inside an environment that still has some counter-insurgency aspects to it.”
There is little doubt that wherever the army goes to fight next, it will be facing some form of the dreaded improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the cheap and disastrously effective insurgent weapon that in many ways defined the battle in Kandahar.
“The counter-IED fight is something that needs to be institutionalized inside, not the army, but inside the CF,” said Devlin.
Coming to grips with IEDs will mean not just new equipment and capabilities—the army has started training its own bomb-sniffing dogs, for example, and now has mine detectors more suitable for low-tech wood and plastic devices—but also a realization that helicopters that soar above the bombs are now a crucial part of the army’s defensive weaponry.
In Canada—unlike in the U.S., for example—the army does not control its own helicopters, which means that on occasion, as happened in Kandahar, the army can be deployed on its own, without the Canadian air force, and therefore without a built-in ability to transport itself above dangerous battlefields.
The answer, Devlin argues, is not for the army to have its own choppers, or even to necessarily deploy with RCAF choppers, but instead to rely on allies. “If you’re in shit and you call for assistance,” said Devlin, “who comes is irrelevant to the guy or gal on the ground—it may not be from your nation. So that helicopter that comes may not be a Canadian helicopter. That fast airplane that’s coming in to blow something up, it might not be Canadian. And so, particularly as we move forward in tougher economic times, you will find nations make deliberate choices about combat capabilities.”
However, in Afghanistan, which nation showed up to assist Canadian troops was often very important, as some nations had unreasonable restrictions on what they could and could not do—some allied air forces could not even engage the enemy or would not land to pick up troops if the enemy was nearby. In addition, airlift was almost always scarce and it was easy to see that Canadians slipped down the priority scale when the allies got stretched themselves.
“I accept that point,” Devlin said, “and so, correct, if I’m running around on the ground and I see someone coming with a Canadian flag I’m a lot more confident than if there is another flag. I accept that.”
Despite this, Devlin points out that simple economics also means accepting the risk that Canadian troops might not have optimal—Canadian—support. “The size of our nation, the size of our military, is such that helicopters are best placed inside the air force,” he said.
Indeed, the current economic situation has meant that budgets are being cut all across the army—some units have reported they can’t even afford to buy ammunition to train with.
“I think budgeting is an issue,” Devlin admits. “We’re acutely aware of the size of DND’s budget. We understand the economic times that all Canadians live with. We’re not naive in thinking that we don’t own a share of a more demanding economic time. So the issue is: what’s our share of the economic challenge? My job is to find the right balance of spending the resources that I’ve been given.”
Devlin goes on to note that while the army is currently in a “balancing” phase—“No, we’re not at full strength,” he said—they are definitely ready for a new mission, should a new mission come. In fact, Devlin’s kind of worried that there won’t be a new mission soon enough.
“I hope soldiers are excited about the kind of training opportunities the army offers them and that they want to be part of our big family,” he said. “And I worry about that. A whole generation of guys and gals have tasted combat and they are uncertain that they will find that same level of excitement and challenge in the army tomorrow. And I think about that a lot. And so, my job is not to seek combat for these guys, that’s a government thing…but I worry about that.”
In the end, the impression Devlin gives is of a tirelessly competent administrator and a genuinely humble guy who’s very happy to be where he is—and that sounds like a pretty good bunch of qualities to have in a boss. “In my little mind—because I don’t have a big mind—I peaked years ago and everything beyond that has just been gravy,” he said. “But if I didn’t pull on a uniform in the morning, and if I didn’t come to work to be surrounded by soldiers, I would be lost. And I really do, as hokey as all this crap sounds, I really do love coming to work in the uniform. I love being a part of the Canadian Army and the Canadian forces.”
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