Canada’s Military Ethos

January 1, 2004 by Legion Magazine

by David J. Bercuson

However the concept “profession of arms” is described in modern terms, it is always defined as having an “unlimited liability” to the political masters who direct the military and ultimately to the society from which the military springs. In the plainest of terms, the professional soldier–and by definition sailor and airperson–is unlimited in his or her military responsibilities and, if necessary, must offer up his or her life in the achievement of the mission goal.

This concept is clearly stated in the new publication issued last fall by Chief of Defence Staff General Ray Hénault entitled Duty With Honour: The Profession Of Arms In Canada. Written by the staff of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute of the new Canadian Defence Academy, Duty With Honour is an ambitious document. As Gen. Hénault says in his preface, it is “a defining document for Canada’s profession of arms and must be read and understood by all who wear the uniform.”

The book clearly describes what the Canadian military is, what its goals are both collectively and individually, its responsibilities, its values, and its standards of conduct both on and off operations. It combines the generic definitions of the ideal relationship between the soldier and the democratic state by scholars such as Samuel P. Huntingdon and Morris Janowitz with those of the well-known military scholar General Sir John Hackett, the author of The Profession of Arms. It applies this generic information directly to Canadian history and military experience to arrive at a distinctly Canadian military ethos.

One dictionary defines ethos as “the characteristic and distinguishing attitudes, habits, etc. of a racial, political, occupational, or other group.” Duty With Honour describes the military ethos in Canada as the critical bond that ties together a soldier’s identity, expertise, and responsibility to government direction and control.

In fact there is much in the pages of this document that stresses the responsibilities of soldiers. Soldiers are responsible to each other. They are responsible to those who are higher than they are in the chain of command. They are responsible to, and for, those who are below them. They are responsible for acting lawfully, even when their missions require the use of lethal force and the bringing to bear of great destructive power.

But most of all, as a creation of the state and an arm of an elected government, they are responsible to that state and that government for what they do and how they do it. That includes the obligation to go into harm’s way at the state’s direction. This is where the acceptance by the soldier of his or her unlimited liability is so important, because without it–without the risk to life and limb inherent to military operations–the conduct of those operations would ultimately be impossible.

Duty With Honour is a fine document. It ought to be read not only by everyone who dons the uniform of the Canadian Forces–as a full-time member or as a reservist–but by every Canadian who has either a desire or an obligation to understand the awesome physical and moral burdens that every Canadian soldier takes on.

It ought especially to be read by every member of Parliament and every member of those bureaucracies in Ottawa that are ultimately responsible for recruiting, training, equipping, housing, supporting Canada’s soldiers, and deciding what missions they undertake. It will not, of course, and therein lies the problem that is at the heart of much that ails the Canadian Forces today.

The book describes the responsibilities of Canada’s soldiers, but because it is a document generated by the military, for the military, it is not in any way a social contract between the military and Canadian society. There is not a word in Duty With Honour that lays out the responsibilities of the government to the members of its armed forces. It’s all the other way around. It can’t be any other way because in Canadian law and practise, it is the government that directs the military and that direction is a one-way street.

In all democracies there is a recognition that even though the military is the servant of the state, the state bears responsibility for the well-being of the military. In part, and especially in states that have no draft, that understanding is rooted in self-interest–treat soldiers badly and they will leave the military. In part it is based on acceptance of a moral obligation to treat people well, and with respect, simply because they accept unlimited liability.

In the United States, Congress has long been the ultimate protector of the military, taking on itself the overall obligation to ensure that American soldiers are as well trained, equipped, paid and deployed as is possible. Congress hasn’t always done a perfect job, but it is still the soldier’s ultimate voice in American government.

There is no parallel in Canada to the role that Congress plays vis-a-vis the military. Here, the prime minister is the virtual “owner” of the Canadian Forces. The rest of Parliament are little more than interested (and sometimes mostly uninterested) observers or advisers, even the minister of National Defence.

If a prime minister chooses not to get too excited about the age of a soldier’s kit, the vulnerability of a vehicle to mine strikes, the tendency of an aircraft to break down in flight, or any other factor that affects the welfare of a soldier or his or her ability to keep as safe as possible or to complete his or her mission, so be it.

It may be legal, but it isn’t right. Canadians do have, or ought to have, obligations to their military and it’s the government’s job to exercise them. Whatever else Paul Martin does as Canada’s new prime minister, he should give the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs oversight of the Canadian Forces. Then, and only then, will the long-standing Canadian practise of government abuse-by-neglect come to an end.

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