NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Fighting The Bean Counters


Top left: Canadian peacekeeping duty in Cyprus lasted from 1964 to 1993. Bottom: Canadian soldiers pause while on reconnaissance duty in the Sinai.

Legion Magazine is pleased to provide the following excerpt from the new book Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace by J.L. Granatstein. It is reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press, and is available at bookstores everywhere for $50, plus tax.

by J.L. Granatstein

“Ours is not a divine mission to mediate,” the long-time diplomat and historian of Canadian foreign policy, John Holmes, wrote in 1984. “Our hand is strengthened by acknowledged success,” he continued, “but it is weakened if planting the maple leaf becomes the priority.”

All too often, Canadian participation in peacekeeping under the United Nations or other bodies has been shaped by this idea of “planting the flag.” Canada was in every single peacekeeping operation until 1989–and any government that refused a chance to join in seemed certain to suffer attack from the public and the press. The simple fact that these UN operations often made little sense, that Canadian troops were in short supply, or that the available soldiers were manifestly unsuited for the particular role never seemed to matter. Had not Mike Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957? Surely some other foreign minister or prime minister could repeat his triumph.

Throughout the Cold War, Canadians seldom asked “Why Canada? Why were the Canadian Forces seen as natural peacekeepers?” By the 1990s, as manpower became scarce, as army units were overcommitted around the world, as troubles within the army mounted, a somewhat more realistic approach to long-term service abroad at last began to be followed.

These questions and many others came to the fore as the army struggled to survive the last third of the 20th century. So long as the Cold War continued, the army knew its enemy and, within limits, understood what it was supposed to do. But once the Soviet Union crumbled into dust, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and the Cold War ended, the army was left uncertain of its role. Paradoxically, overseas operations in the new world disorder increased at the same time as the government slashed defence budgets and force strength declined. Trouble was inevitable for the army, and it came, again and again.

What had gone wrong? The Canadian Forces as a whole and the army in particular were poked and prodded, studied by civilian management consultants, probed by inquiries and commissions, harried by parliamentary committees, and hacked and slashed at by bean-counters. In the process, the professional military lost much of its confidence, as its equipment aged, its ethos crumbled, and its leadership, distracted and sometimes self-serving, became distrusted by the junior officers and other ranks. The militia, short of funds and equipment and pressed to provide individual soldiers for duty with the Regular Force, became increasingly bitter at the professionals as its numbers shrivelled and its historic role of providing a base for mobilization disappeared. The wonder is that anything survived the strain, compounded as it was by the impact of huge budgetary and personnel cuts, unification, successive reorganizations, and the imposition of gender and racial quotas and bilingualism on an institution in crisis.

The culmination of a long process of disintegration came with a breakdown of discipline within regiments, a process demonstrated most clearly by the killing under torture of a Somali teenager during a peacekeeping operation in 1993. After Somalia and an abortive commission of inquiry, the army began the long process of reform in an effort to rebuild confidence in itself and with the public….

Pierre Trudeau came to power in April 1968, an unlikely prime minister. Elected to Parliament only three years before, he had almost no political record. He was an intellectual, a doughty warrior against Maurice Duplessis in the Quebec of the 1950s, and a soldier in the increasingly sharp struggle against the nationalistes and separatism in Quebec. He was not a man with any interest in the armed forces or defence policy; aside from a brief period in the Canadian Officers Training Corps when he was a student during the Second World War and inglorious service in a reserve regiment in wartime Montreal, he had no military experience. The military life, to him, was nasty, brutish, and short, and the armed forces stuffed full of dullards. He had written a vicious editorial in his magazine Cité Libre attacking Lester Pearson’s support for the acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1963, he had criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, and he believed that Canada’s foreign and defence policy “was largely its policy in NATO, through NATO.” He also agreed with ministers such as Walter Gordon who, during the Pearson government, had questioned Canada’s heavy NATO commitment. Europe had recovered since 1945, Gordon and others argued, and it made sense for the Europeans to bear the burden of defending themselves. To Trudeau and the NATO critics, if Canada owed Europe anything at all, it owed a demonstration of solidarity in the smallest military way possible: a few Canadians should be in Europe to be hostages to fortune, ready to die in any European war. A war against the USSR in all likelihood would quickly become general nuclear war, and one Canadian was as good a symbol of support as a brigade. Or so Trudeau believed.

No one in government was overly surprised when Trudeau’s cabinet on May 15, 1968, decided to conduct a “comprehensive review…of Canada’s armed forces policy, including alternative forces’ structures and costing.” The review was announced on May 28 as Trudeau led his party into a victorious election: the new Trudeau government committed itself to “take a hard look, in consultation with our allies, at our military role in NATO and determine whether our present military commitment is still appropriate to the present situation in Europe.”

The review, predictably perhaps for one undertaken by bureaucrats, largely endorsed the status quo. When the Cabinet Committee on External Affairs and National Defence reviewed the first draft, Donald Macdonald, the President of the Privy Council, demanded that the paper consider the possibility of Canadian neutrality and urged a complete Canadian withdrawal from Europe. Trudeau did not want to go that far, but, unhappy with the bureaucratic paper, his cabinet called in August for a full-scale review of defence and foreign policy; with all options to be explored. The bureaucracy was now beginning to be very concerned. The review continued, its details parsed elsewhere.

In the autumn of 1968 the government made a major change to its NATO role. Canada had long been committed to sending two brigades to Europe in the event of war. Defence Minister Paul Hellyer’s unified force, however, had grown “lighter”, making it more difficult for the Canadian-based brigades to fight alongside heavily armoured, mechanized, nuclear-armed European and United States forces in NATO. Trudeau’s government reduced the commitment to a single brigade, and then Hellyer’s associate minister and subsequent successor as minister, Léo Cadieux, ended the commitment to send reinforcements to NATO’s central front in 1968.

Coming as this announcement did just weeks after the Soviet Union and its satellites invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring, this retrenchment was not well received by NATO. Instead of an additional brigade on the likely Soviet invasion route, Canada now pledged to contribute the Canadian Air/Sea Transportable Combat Group to either Norway or Denmark in the event of war. The CAST brigade was to include the Allied Mobile Force battalion previously promised to NATO. Initially, Canada planned to pre-position equipment in Norway, but the Norwegians feared this move might appear provocative to Moscow. Hence, Ottawa decided to deploy the brigade by air and sea from Canada. This role sounded plausible, but it was, given Soviet submarine and air strength, almost certain to be completely impracticable in wartime unless the navy had nuclear depth charges. The commitment, reduced in 1979 by Defence Minister Barney Danson after an exercise failed dismally, nonetheless continued in force until the Mulroney government finally ended it.

It is curious that the CAST decision was made while the defence review was under way. More significant is that, in March 1969, the cabinet fought through the defence issues, Professor Trudeau conducting a seminar for his ministers. His foreign policy aide, Ivan Head, had produced a paper–in sharp distinction to the departmental review–that called for Canada’s military, then numbering just above 101,000, to be reduced to 50,000 over the next decade and its forces limited to domestic duties, except for 1,800 Canada-based troops assigned to NATO’S Allied Command Europe Mobile Force. Nuclear weapons, including the Honest Johns, were to be abandoned. This plan obviously represented the prime minister’s position, but so confused had the discussion in cabinet become that officials had to meet to sort out the details. So too did Trudeau and Cadieux, who ultimately compromised on “a planned and phased reduction” of Canadian forces in NATO.

Trudeau told Canadians on April 3, 1969, that his government’s defence priorities were Canadian sovereignty, North American defence, NATO, and peacekeeping. For NATO, he said, the government intended “to take early steps to bring about a planned and phased reduction of the size of the Canadian Forces in Europe.” The result, after much discussion in Canada and almost none in NATO, was that Cadieux, a loyal NATO soldier, told the assembled NATO defence ministers that Canada was going to cut its army and air force in Europe to 3,500 men. After NATO representations and strenuous efforts by Cadieux, the force fell only to 5,000, half the existing strength of the brigade and the air division in 1968. The Canadian NATO contribution was to be co-located under a combined Canadian headquarters at Lahr, West Germany, a small town of 35,000 people near Strasbourg. Keeping the NATO cut to only 50 per cent was a rare and small victory for Cadieux who, on June 23, 1969, had to tell the Canadian Forces and the nation that Canada’s military forces were to be cut by 20 per cent to just above 80,000. The Reserves would be slashed to 19,000. The Canadian Guards, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Black Watch, and the Fort Garry Horse all disappeared from the Regular Force, though third battalions were added to the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The army also created two new French-language units, one artillery; one armoured, and established the Canadian Airborne Regt. For the next three years, the defence budget was fixed at $1.8 billion.

For the army, the new policy amounted to a disaster of the first order. The NATO force, the cutting edge of the land forces and, by 1968, a brigade almost perfectly designed to meet NATO’s new strategy of flexible response, was to be only 2,800 strong. A mechanized battle group with no nuclear weapons, the NATO force comprised two understrength battalions, each with three infantry companies, an armoured regiment of three squadrons, an artillery regiment, an engineer squadron, and a service battalion. The Honest Johns disappeared. The renamed Canadian Mechanized Battle Group was to be located close to the Franco-German border, in deep NATO reserve. After consultation, NATO assigned the CMBG a counterattack role in support of American or German forces.

General Sir John Hackett, the commander of the Northern Army Group in which the Canadians had served, said: “I regarded the Canadian Brigade as one of the best elements in our front line defence…one of the star items.” Now the brigade had been relegated to what Hackett called “a third line, as it were, reserve capability in Lahr.” The Combat Group’s first commander, Maj.-Gen. W.C. Leonard, later estimated that his men were good “for about one and a half counterattacks.” In 1973 the CMBG’s strength was increased to 3,212, a small step forward. As Leonard added, his force still retained access to American and NATO nuclear support–Canada’s nuclear virginity was completely spurious. The NATO brigade, arguably Canada’s best and most professional force, one respected by the nation’s allies, had been gutted by the Trudeau government.

At the same time, rank inflation affected the army. The Chief of the Defence Staff who had put unification in place, Gen. J.V. Allard, had also tried and failed to get his soldiers more pay. In response, he hit on the idea of making every trained private soldier a corporal and creating the new “command” rank of master corporal. This scheme had the desired effect of generating more pay to the men, but unit commanders unanimously recommended against it because of its pernicious effects. The Canadian army quickly became the only army in the world with more non-commissioned officers than privates, with sergeants as section commanders, and a plethora of new warrant officer ranks. Over time, it also became known as an army with the highest number of generals per capita. At the beginning of the unification process in 1970 the army had 15 per cent of its strength in the officer ranks; by 1995 it had just above 20 per cent. In 1970 it had 64 per cent of its other ranks at corporal or below; in 1995 it had 69 per cent of its non-commissioned members at the rank of sergeant or below, with the sergeants having equivalent duties to the corporals of a quarter-century before. Corporals’ messes disappeared and sergeants’ messes grew in size. For a time, one officer recalled, there were two classes of sergeants: “Real ones and Hellyer sergeants.” Rank inflation had been pervasive and it spread like wildfire. Allard’s intentions had been good, but the results were damaging.

The Management Review Group that Defence Minister Donald Macdonald created in 1971 was intended to study the department’s organization to “ensure effective planning and control.” The existing Department of National Defence was divided in two–the deputy minister controlled the money and the military controlled the operations, and sometimes neither side talked to the other. The result, depending on who was asked, was either that the military operated unchecked, or that it was hamstrung by its lack of financial control and internal rivalries over a steadily diminishing budget.

The Management Review Group had proposed, incredibly, that the deputy minister should outrank the Chief of the Defence Staff. But there were two new figures in the department–the deputy minister, Sylvain Cloutier, and the CDS, Gen. Jacques Dextraze. They persuaded the minister that a better solution would be for the deputy and the CDS to be equal in status, with a combined staff serving both. The deputy would have responsibility for management, and the CDS for operations. This division made sense, and it worked because Cloutier and Dextraze made it work, though the relationship between them was often full of cursing and shouting.

In the integrated Canadian Forces headquarters, however, civilian officers could outrank military officers, and managers, civilian or military, could outrank commanders. The resulting civilianization of the department–the dominance of managers over the military, and of military bureaucrats over operational commanders–had major long-term implications for the army and the other environments. As one student of military justice noted, the new integrated National Defence Headquarters created opportunities for more interaction between civilians and soldiers, but the department “failed to delineate respective responsibilities in any legal or binding manner through amendments to the National Defence Act.” Officers stayed in posts where civilians might have been more appropriate and, in some cases, the reverse was true. The result, as the head of the Defence Research Board, Dr. O.M. Solandt, called it, was “an act of mayhem committed in the name of administrative madness.” Perhaps he overstated matters. What is certain is that civilians and military managers gradually gained more control over the operational side of the forces, a condition that likely reached its peak in the 1990s when Robert Fowler was deputy minister. For the soldiers on the ground, the joke was that the traditional military challenge had to be altered. “Halt. Who goes there?” And then, not “Advance and be recognized” but “Advance and be reorganized.” The bean-counters and managers were in charge. To them, the armed forces were a corporation or a government department like any other, the “in” management techniques of the day should prevail, and the era of business plans and of officers with MBAs was just around the corner.

These changes were compounded for the army by the effects of unification. The entire system of training changed, with basic recruit training for the three environments given at the Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. Basic training, in other words, was to be the same for soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and for women. Concurrently, and…for fiscal reasons, bases were consolidated. The regimental garrisons largely closed down and units, including their air force and navy personnel, ordinarily operated within one force’s organizational structure. Regimental messes, the heart of the units, disappeared, replaced by base officers’ and NCOs’ messes that had little life in them. Something tangible had been lost, and the impact compounded when more soldiers took to living ‘on the economy’, renting accommodation in town. The differences between soldiers and civilians had begun to blur.

At the same time, at operational bases in Canada, an army brigade might have ‘purple’ tradesmen, so called because the support services were unified and no longer army, navy, or air. So long as everyone wore the dark green uniform, this unified system appeared to the outsider to be functioning properly; once the three environments reverted to different uniforms in the mid-1980s, a parade at any base looked bizarre. Those in the system didn’t need the different uniforms to know that the process wasn’t working. Too often an air force or navy mechanic posted in to an army position did not know the equipment or have any idea how to function and survive in the field. The inevitable result was that support for the operational forces deteriorated, producing a “significant decline in expertise and capability” for the land forces, or so one official study in 1985 reported.

There were also too few men–just above 20,000–for the tasks assigned to Mobile Command and the Lahr-based Combat Group. In particular, the army wanted a new tank to replace the 20-year-old Centurions, something Macdonald’s 1971 White Paper had discounted. To get this main battle tank required extensive lobbying by the CDS, aided by German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who worried over NATO’s defences and persuaded Trudeau of the alliance’s utility and importance. Dextraze preferred a U.S. tank, but the Americans were in the early stages of developing a new main battle tank, the newest British tank was too heavy, and the Canadians deemed the Germans’ Leopard eminently satisfactory–which, of course, gratified Schmidt. Interested in securing an economic link with the European Community and personally friendly with the Chancellor, the Prime Minister agreed in 1976, despite the opposition of the new finance minister, Donald Macdonald. The army soon had 128 Leopards for $210 million. The NATO brigade received 86 tanks, giving it some teeth at last.

The budgetary problems were less easy to resolve. The freeze was to end in1974, but Cloutier managed a breakthrough in 1973, winning approval for a seven per cent increase in each year of a five-year period. The difficulty was that inflation was running in double digits, and DND’s budget actually lost ground despite the increased funding. A defence structure review in 1975 reaffirmed the military’s priorities, but phrased them in terms of combat capability and committed the government to increasing capital expenditures in defence by 12 per cent a year for five years. This increase was enough to get the army 491 Cougar, Grizzly, and Husky wheeled armoured vehicles by 1982 and almost 3,000 new 2 1/2-ton trucks by 1984. There were also new anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and self-propelled 155-mm Howitzers. In 1977 the Canadian Airborne Regt. became part of the new Special Service Force, based at Petawawa, and including 1 Royal Canadian Regt., 8th Canadian Hussars, and 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. The Special Service Force was a light, air-transportable force with airborne capability; because it was based close to Ottawa, some people thought it was intended for use in case of civil disturbances–a reasonable assumption given that the Parti Québécois was in power in Quebec City and threatening to hold a referendum on independence for Quebec. The remaining Combat Groups were redesignated as brigade groups, and the NATO brigade became 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group.

By 1980-81, with the Soviets embroiled in Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan in power in Washington, and the Cold War going full blast, the pace of training for the NATO brigade picked up. The new equipment, slow in arriving, hampered the Canadians as they tried to play their small part in NATO. Alliance strategy had changed to fighting the so-called Air-Land Battle, which featured deep penetrations into Soviet and satellite territory. In some areas, such as air defence, however, 4 CMBG remained woefully under-armed. To defend against aircraft and helicopters, soldiers had only hand-held Blowpipe missiles, “little better than slingshots,” Peter Newman wrote. The air force’s bases had their air defences provided by 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns “taken off the late and lamented HMCS Bonaventure,” the navy’s aircraft carrier that was scrapped at the end of the 1960s. Brig.-Gen. Richard Evraire, commanding the brigade from 1982 to 1984, recalled telling an American commander that his force “was not equipped” for the new battle concept: “the best use he could make of 4 Brigade was to make sure that it was in a fairly static defensive position with the possibility of counterattacking here and there, but not as an offensive weapon… I know this did not please too many people,” Evraire said, “but it was hardly the place to be untruthful.”

The weakness of 4 Brigade was serious because, in 1982, the Soviet bloc had more tanks (42,500 to 13,000), more artillery pieces (31,500 to 10,700), more armoured personnel carriers (78,800 to 30,000), and more attack helicopters (700 to 400) than NATO. The disparities were alarming, and the NATO decision in 1979 to station land-based intermediate range missiles in Europe was a response to the arms imbalance that favoured the Soviets so heavily.

In the eyes of its allies, Canada was not pulling its weight in the alliance. This lag inspired continued efforts by Deputy Minister Cloutier, who had served previously in the Treasury Board and understood how the system could be made to work. He succeeded in 1978 in winning Trudeau’s support for annual three per cent after inflation increases in the defence budget. Trudeau, in fact, did better than that and, by 1984, the Defence budget was $7.97 billion, up from $4.39 billion in 1980. Inflation had played its part in swelling the total budget figure and, according to Dr. J.C. Arnell, a former Assistant Deputy Minister in the department, in 1980, “Inflation was probably the main cause of any general decline in the Canadian Armed Forces.”

The Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark held power briefly in 1979-80, just long enough for Defence Minister Allan McKinnon, a Second World War veteran and a peacetime regular officer, to undertake a review of unification. The Tory victory had greatly pleased the armed forces, but the new government seemed more interested in trying to unscramble the unification omelette than anything else. The defence view, shared by senior military officers and civilian officials, was that this complex issue was better left untouched, but McKinnon insisted and created his own review committee under businessman George Fyffe. To the committee members’ surprise, they discovered that unification was not universally detested in the forces and, surprisingly, they did not recommend its undoing. They did, however, call for a return to distinctive uniforms and more say at NDHQ for each of the environment chiefs to “put the focus back on operations.” The committee delivered its report after the Liberals had returned to power in 1980. A subsequent review of the Review Committee’s report, ordered by Trudeau’s next defence minister, Gilles Lamontagne, urged the department to give the environmental commanders more clout but refused to agree to spending money on new uniforms. That had to await the arrival of the Mulroney government in 1984.

The Conservative government, in power until 1993, at first raised hopes for the army and then, when federal budget deficits mounted and the Soviet Union collapsed, it dashed them. Both in opposition and in the 1984, election campaign, Mulroney had promised to raise the strength of the forces by 10,000, to increase defence spending by six per cent a year, to bump up capital spending, and to provide new uniforms for each of the three environments. The first of these promises to be broken was that on funding. In November 1984 the finance minister cut $154 million from the defence appropriations left by his Liberal predecessor. At the same time, Mulroney’s promise of additional funds–$190 million–also disappeared. That was a blow to Robert Coates, the new defence minister, but it did not stop him from proposing to give the three environments new and distinctive uniforms. The cost estimates ranged from $36 million to $100 million–difficult enough when funds were scarce, but particularly so when the CDS, Gen. G.C.E. Thériault, believed that new equipment was a vastly more important priority. The minister prevailed and presented “the Coates of many colours” on Feb. 7, 1985. The army retained the green winter uniform, but now had a tan summer uniform. Coates’s career was cut short when he was forced to resign over a scandal a few days after the unveiling.

Coates’s successor as defence minister was Erik Nielsen, previously the deputy prime minister, the enforcer of the Progressive Conservative party and caucus discipline, and vice-chair of the cabinet’s priorities and planning committee. Potentially the most powerful defence minister in years, Nielsen believed, as did his prime minister, President Ronald Reagan, and NATO, that the Soviet Union again posed a real threat to Western Europe. Just two weeks after his appointment, Nielsen announced that Canada would send an additional 1,200 troops to NATO at a cost of $100 million a year. That commitment meant an extra squadron for the armoured regiment, an artillery battery, and an additional company for each of the two infantry battalions. For a time, the army was cock of the walk, but the 1986 budget brought everyone back to reality. Instead of Mulroney’s promised six per cent, the Department of National Defence received 2.75 per cent in 1986-87 and 2.5 per cent in each of the following years. The proposed NATO troop increase was cut by a quarter and the Canadian Forces overall strength increased only by 1,752, a far cry from the promised 10,000.

There was still some progress: Mobile Command, led by Lt.-Gen. Charles Belzile, produced Corps 86, a plan to restructure the army so that it had all the units essential to field a division and all the corps troops that would be required in the event of mobilization. There were some steps towards re-equipment, notably new trucks and jeeps, improved TOW (Tube launched, Optically guided, Wire controlled) anti-tank missiles with a thermal imaging sight, a new 5.56-mm rifle and machine-gun, and low-level air defence guns and missiles. There were more and larger exercises in Canada in 1985: 14,000 troops took part in Rendezvous ’85, a six-week training exercise that tested fighting and support units to the fullest. As the army’s Regular Force strength was only 22,500 and its Reserves 15,500, this exercise brought together a large part of the land forces. Professionalism demanded training, and training required exercises that tested commanders and soldiers at all levels. Belzile’s army understood this need.

In June 1987, after a lapse of 16 years, the department issued a new White Paper, a personal project for the new minister, Perrin Beatty. Marked by Cold War rhetoric that was already sounding outdated by the time the document came from the printers, Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada sounded good to the army. “If our conventional forces are to deter,” it said, “they must be able to defend. If they are to defend, they must be able to fight. To do that, we must maintain their readiness and provide for their sustainment.” The White Paper admitted that the Canadian Forces equipment was in “an advanced state of obsolescence or … already obsolete.” Furthermore, “Rust-out” was a real difficulty that could only be met by increased resources, reduced commitments, or some combination of the two, and the minister stated that the government had decided “to alter some commitments… while improving the effectiveness” of the others. In particular, Beatty pledged to increase the Reserves fourfold, creating additional brigades for the defence of Canada, and to consolidate the country’s European commitments, notably by eliminating the CAST brigade role in Norway and pledging to send it to join 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade, a new name, in a two-brigade First Canadian Division. The plan even included new tanks and the positioning of equipment in Germany for the Canada-based brigade. It sounded too good to be true–and most of it was.

The 1987 White Paper died from the combination of the Mulroney government’s rapidly rising deficits and the beginning of perestroika and glasnost in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. In short order the Warsaw Pact disbanded, Eastern Europe’s Soviet satellites turned into free nations, the two Germanies reunited, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed and splintered. The assumptions of an intensifying Cold War that had shaped Beatty’s paper were gone by the early 1990s, and the budgetary crisis guaranteed that the Canadian Forces would not receive what he had promised.

Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.