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Chief Hillier



Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier has seen the enemy and he knows it’s going to be a real battle.

It has been said that the art of command consists largely of the ability to anticipate. While failing leaders focus on the last battle, victorious leaders try to understand the shape of the next one. For Hillier, that next battle is all about the responsibility to protect. In his way of thinking, fully protecting Canadian citizens can only be accomplished by extending protection to all innocent victims by bringing stability to the disordered parts of the world.

Though it’s certainly a grand vision, Hillier is a believer and he’s not alone in thinking the way he does. His is a worldview shaped in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The old order of great power rivalries was fragmenting and the emerging threats weren’t opposing armies with tanks and fighter jets but instead something new and seemingly much harder to combat–disorder itself was now the problem; failed states were the new threat. If the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, served as a wake-up call, for Hillier they just confirmed what he already knew: if the Canadian Forces was going to protect Canada it was time for some serious changes.

Though Hillier is a soldier first–notoriously straight talking and assertive–he is also a visionary who thinks in big concepts and argues passionately about the future. He is as equally comfortable issuing blunt orders as he is discussing the intricacies of transforming Afghanistan’s feudal political system into a modern parliamentary democracy. With this rare combination of action and ideas, Hillier is a man who may assume historical proportions.

After being chosen as the new CDS in February 2005, he immediately began working toward a wide-ranging and comprehensive transformation of the CF. With his leadership, the CF was going to reorient itself to the new threat environment and consequently expand its role in the international arena. For the next few years at least, Canadian Forces missions abroad will be all about stabilizing failed states. “It all wraps up to one word: the enemy is chaos,” said Hillier during an interview with Legion Magazine in his bright, functional office at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. “Chaos and instability in other regions around the world provide a fertile garden for the growth of a whole variety of things that could harm Canada, directly or indirectly…. So we look at it from that perspective: how can we be most effective for Canada? Since 9/11 the focus has come down to that we need to do this for Canada’s benefit as opposed to simply wanting to do it because our values say that we should help people.”

Originally trained as an armoured officer, Hillier was appointed chief of the army in May 2003. In October that year he commanded the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan. Prior to being named chief of the army, he commanded a multinational division in Bosnia, and in 1998 he was the deputy commanding general of the United States Army’s III Armoured Corps at Fort Hood, Texas. In short, Hillier has been on the fast track to success for a long time.

But despite his relatively meteoric rise through the CF’s ranks, Hillier says that achieving high command was never his intention. “Sometimes in life you make choices and sometimes you might think you make them but you end up flowing into a path where the choices are made for you,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, I never made a single decision, never in my life, to say ‘OK, I want to be a senior commander.'”

In another man with such career accomplishments, these comments may seem disingenuous, but there is an honourable candour in Hillier’s speech. According to retired Lt.-Gen. Lou Cuppens, chairman of The Royal Canadian Legion’s National Defence Committee, Hillier has always been highly respected by his fellow officers as a man with lots of talent and leadership skills. “My impression of the man is that you couldn’t ask for a better fellow to be chief of the defence staff,” said Cuppens, who first met the CDS when he was Major Hillier.

So while Hillier might not have had his sights on generalship from the beginning, from his earliest days in Newfoundland he always knew he was headed for the armed forces. “I always wanted to be a soldier. I was an enthusiastic reader of military history from an early age. There was an older gentleman that lived in our small community that had a great collection of books and I used to borrow them…. A lot of those were World War I, but some were WW II. The idea of a soldier, I’m not sure I knew what that meant in its entirety, but the idea of being a soldier enthralled me.”

Born in the central Newfoundland town of Campbellton, Hillier, 50, has a wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law and one grandson. He is the second youngest CDS in CF history. He graduated from Newfoundland’s Memorial University in 1975 with a bachelor of science degree. A member of Dominion Ottawa Branch, he was named honorary vice-president of the Legion earlier this year.

In a much-cited passage from his official biography, the CDS makes it clear that not only does he have a sense of humour, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. “General Hillier enjoys most recreational pursuits, but…runs slowly, plays hockey poorly and golfs not well at all.”

Or, he may just want you to think he’s easygoing. In person, Hillier is a slightly fierce man who doesn’t like to have his picture taken. Interestingly, if it wasn’t for the efficiency of CF recruiting in the 1970s, Canada may not have a General Hillier at all. “I did have a temporary detour where I went to put an application into the RCMP at roughly the same time but our recruiting system got me first and I was delighted with that, never regretted it.”

In the time since he assumed control of the CF there have been two important developments. The first is the publication of the new defence policy statement, Canada’s first serious effort at providing direction for the CF since the 1994 defence white paper. The new statement takes Hillier’s basic vision and turns it into a plan of action. What makes this new plan possible is the second important development–a revised budget for the CF that allots nearly $13 billion in increases over the next five years. Much of this money has been set aside for equipment upgrades and an all-important 8,000 member expansion of the force (Going Through The Hoops To Be In The Forces, March/April 2005).

One of the key pieces of Hillier’s early transformation effort has been the creation of the new Canada Command. In the old way of thinking, Canada was not viewed as an operational theatre and the CF, though it could and did respond to domestic emergencies, didn’t have the same level of planning and preparation in place. “What Canada Command does reflect is the Government of Canada’s direction to us that the number one priority for us is the protection of Canadians at home. In short, the responsibility to protect begins at home. Up until now we have not had one organization, with one commander with all the authority and responsibility and accountability to be prepared for that. This is what Canada Command gives us. It gives us one commander who has nothing but the responsibility to be able to conduct CF operations in support of the Government of Canada, in support to Canadians, to ensure that when Canadians need our help we can provide it effectively, we can provide it quickly and we can provide exactly the kind of help they might need. This is an intellectual shift for all of us in uniform because our focus has been international. And yes we’re going to do many things internationally, in fact more, but we cannot forget and we must put actions to our words, that our first responsibility is to help protect Canadians here at home.”

Much like with Canada Command, the transformation of the CF to meet the new era of stability operations has focused on creating new organizations that are responsible and accountable for their missions. To that end, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command and the new Special Operations Group have both recently been assigned commanders and are preparing to go operational in 2006. According to Hillier, these new organizations will increase the CF’s ability to run complex, Canadian-led, stabilization missions when and where the government directs them. “We’re one of only two to four countries in the world that can really do the full spectrum of operations well. There are many countries that can do the humanitarian business, but really are ineffectual if you put them into high risk areas. There are some countries that can do the hard operations incredibly effectively, but are perceived as being a bit awkward at doing the nation building. Us, and very few other countries, have the capability to do it right across the board. I think we need to build on those strengths and characteristics. Our approach–the fact that we’re not threatening to folks, we’re not there to take over the country for Canada–that’s an incredible characteristic.

“We know, we’ve learned from the school of hard knocks, that it is pointless to go into an area or region and simply try to knock everything down unless you’re actually helping build a government, a state, a police force, an army, an economy and a health system and at the same time give people enough protection and confidence that they’re going to stay in their homes. So as we build our expeditionary forces, we’re trying to build the capability to assist in any of those areas where there’s a void to be filled.”

The Special Operations Group, to which the JTF2 special-forces unit will be attached, will be responsible for creating the kind of “surgical strike capability” necessary on stability operations. “The demand for very highly selected and trained and skilled people is becoming an increasing factor in all those operations. It’s not just special forces, but special reconnaissance and surveillance and a whole variety of things you need to do slightly more precisely than we’ve been doing them all along,” said Hillier.

It was as a result of a media briefing this summer about the upcoming CF deployments to more volatile regions of Afghanistan that Hillier learned not every Canadian is enamoured with his vision of the CF’s tough new role. During the briefing Hillier said that terrorists were “detestable murderers and scumbags” and later said that the job of the CF is “to be able to kill people.”

Though some protested that Hillier’s language echoed recent American rhetoric which could be interpreted as simplistic and divisive, others worried that Canada’s new general was straying a little out of his lane, into matters more political than military.

Leading the charge was independent MP Carolyn Parrish, who wrote an open letter to Defence Minister Bill Graham arguing that Hillier’s comments reinforced “the polarities between terrorists and victims.”

“The war on terror is indeed complex,” wrote Parrish. “A great deal of it must be directed at root causes rather than testosterone-filled threats of murder and mayhem. Let the Canadian public know General Hillier does not speak for our government. Build confidence in our ability to cope with the terrorist threats in a calm, reasonable and confident way.”

But for Hillier it’s simply a matter of understanding the situation. Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, he argues, is not only in Canada’s interest but also true to its values. “What we had was a failed state, torn apart by some 20-plus years of brutal warfare, more than two million people had died, six to seven million had been ejected from their homes and were living in states of desperation that was absolutely unbelievable. It goes against Canadian values not to help a population that are simply men, women and children who want to live a normal life, who want to hope that tomorrow and next week and next month is a little bit better. So from our values, were we going to help a population of 28 to 30 million that was desperately in need? I believe that’s one of the reasons we need to be there.

“From the point of view of (Canadian) interest, Afghanistan, as a failed state, provided a fertile garden for the growth of extreme societies that persecuted women, men and children, and that directly provided the safe haven, shelter, training ground, recruiting ground, for terrorist organizations–murderers–to project their violence around the world.

“We’re a part of a great international effort, to give the Afghan population an opportunity to go from brutalization through some stability, development of a constitution and government, and then development of the institutions and development of a life, if you will, and by doing that, stabilize that country. That’s got to be directly beneficial to Canada….We’re not there to occupy, we’re not there to build an empire, we’re not there to do anything but help somebody who desperately needs help.”

Among the leading international proponents of the vision of stabilizing failed states is American strategist and former U.S. Naval War College professor Thomas Barnett. Several of the ideas found in Barnett’s acclaimed book The Pentagon’s New Map can be found echoing around in Hillier’s vision. Most apparent is Barnett’s concept of the non-integrating gap–a group of isolated and failing countries running through Central America, Africa and Asia that are global sources of instability and turmoil. “Everybody knows this is the dominant issue,” Barnett told Legion Magazine. “We’re reaching tipping point here on dealing with failed states because this is how you defeat terrorism. You’re just not going to be able to kill terrorists fast enough. You have to rehabilitate states. That’s the thing we’ve been doing for the past 15 years but it’s just taken a certain critical mass for it to be an argument where we finally start moving off force structure paradigms of the past. The efforts of someone like Hillier are going to be pushing up against a larger political skepticism or a lack of will among the great powers to say this is a bad problem, that it isn’t going away and we have to do something about it.”

Barnett is not only familiar with Hillier, he is able to provide some insight into the challenges Hillier is facing in trying to get his message across to the politicians and the public. “Guys like Hillier, they’re pushing the debate almost faster than the politicians are ready to handle, but it’s an important forcing function. If they don’t make the moves now, these capabilities, which take time to put together, won’t happen. So it’s a weird situation where the military has recognized the international security environment much more realistically than the politicians have and they’re saying we need to get ready for this.”

Despite Parrish’s claim to contrary, Hillier’s vision really is about treating the root causes of terrorism. In order to do that, the CF is not only going to have to transform into a whole new kind of force, it’s also going to have to fight some pretty tough, enduring enemies. “Nobody in any part of the world wants to live in a country or region that’s violent, destabilized, without policing,” said Hillier, “where their very existence the next day is in question, where they’re worried about going to bed at night, worried their house is going to be burnt, their family tortured and killed. I think that is the enemy and that is what we’ve got to concentrate on.”

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