Turning the Titanic

hillierA few days ago my wife spotted A Soldier First—the autobiography of General Rick Hillier, CMM, MSC, CD—at the library, and brought it home for me.  It is an engaging read and the prose style is fairly casual, much like the general speaks.  I am told National Post journalist and reservist Chris Wattie lent some assistance, but in the main, the written flow of Hillier’s thoughts is uncannily like that of his actual public speaking style.

The most illuminating aspects of the book are not necessarily those that deal with ISAF in Afghanistan and the general’s well-known career as Chief of the Defence Staff; I found the descriptions of the institutional culture of the Canadian Forces to be highly illuminating.  I had always thought that careerism and the survival mentality were gradually inculcated as one aged, advanced in rank, and became reluctant to risk the gains of one’s life work; in fact it turns out that the CF was more or less deliberately creating that mindset at the junior officer level.

In the summer of 1976, when Hillier was going through Phase 4 of his Armoured Officer training, the CF had created a manpower SNAFU:  it had several times as many armoured officer candidates as the Armoured Corps required.  So the Army set out with brutal efficiency to whittle down its overflowing cup and eliminate, as fast as possible, as many surplus bodies as it could.

So that summer became an exercise in survival.  In fact, it was a slaughterhouse: out of the sixty-five who started the course, only twenty-eight graduated at the end of the summer.  The rest failed…

…Some pretty good people went out the door that summer, and the experience left an overwhelming impression in the minds of everybody who was on that course that this was just not the way to do business.  It says something about the state of the leadership of the military and the incredibly poor training process at the time that we lost so many good young men.  It was appalling.

We spent the first week of the course in garrison, taking classes, refreshing skills from previous courses, and then deployed to the training area, or “into the field,” for the practical-training part of the course.  The instructors began weeding people out right away.  By the time that first week was over, some of the men were already on formal warning of shortcomings because their inspections weren’t good enough or they had not received a high enough mark on one of their tests.  If you got three warnings from the course staff, you were out.  By the time we got out into the field to actually start learning how to command our vehicles and a later troop of tanks, some guys were already more than halfway out the door.

By the end of that week, we knew what was happening and became very cynical about it…

The experience shaped, in a dramatic way, my approach to leadership.  I believe in doing things almost the exact opposite of what we encountered that summer—respecting individuals, bringing them along, training and developing them, occasionally jacking them up but always on a path to make as many as possible the leaders we needed.  Instead, the CF, and specifically the army, treated great young men deplorably, created a culture of survival, and as a consequence, lost many of the very good ones.  Every day that summer we all worried that we would be the next to go.

…The course staff even started a bit of a competition among themselves to see who could fail the most students.  I failed my share of tests but was never on warning and so wasn’t concerned that I was going to be kicked out, but we were so gun-shy about the way things were being run and had so little faith in our instructors that we didn’t believe a thing they said.

The situation was so bad that Hillier did not believe his instructors when, during a training exercise,  they told him that his wife was in the hospital for an emergency operation.  The instructor offered to release him from his training that day so that he could go be with his wife, but young Hillier thought they were probing for a weakness or looking for a way to sabotage his resolve and fail him out of the course.  He carried on with his training task, and was surprised to learn that his wife’s hospital trip was genuine.  He did not trust his instructors to tell him the truth.  The CF later formed an inquiry and examined the running of the Phase 4 course, with disappointingly predictable results.

Toward the end of that summer there was an inquiry into how the course was handled.  Colonel Nicholson, the Combat Training Centre commandant, stood up at the mess dinner at the end of our course and said, “The inquiry’s done and we’ve proven that the leadership is great, and everything is exactly as it should be.”  Everybody in the room thought that this was great and applauded, except for the handful of us who survived.  We sat there shaking our heads.  That course had almost nothing to do with learning how to lead a troop of tanks; it was about hanging on desperately until it was over.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 45.

Unfortunately, as the young officer would soon find out, that directionless, survive-at-all-costs mentality did not end in training, either.  Hiller was posted to the 8th Hussars in Petawawa as their intelligence officer, and made the dispiriting discovery that risk-averse leadership was alive and well at the regimental level in a line unit, too.

When I arrived in Petawawa and joined the regiment, I saw that what had occurred in Phase 4 was not the exception, but the rule.  The same attitudes and approaches that we had experienced were reflected throughout the army…

The actions of many of the regiment’s leaders articulated what I thought were questionable values.  Some of them were more concerned with looking after themselves or their careers than looking after their men.  There is an old army adage that an officer’s priorities are supposed to be his mission, his soldiers and then himself, but that certainly wasn’t the rule in the 8th Hussars.  Many of us really did believe in those priorities, but the actions of others made me question whether they did.  It was a tough baptism…

The army and the rest of the Canadian Forces—after decades of training, few operations, a Cold War, government inattention and being on the back burner in Canada—were becoming a bureaucratic organization, just another department of the Government of Canada, administered by managers, not leaders.  We had moved away from many of the best characteristics of leadership—focusing on getting the job done and giving the soldiers a vision of how to get it done—and had replaced it with bureaucratic process, turning the military into a risk-averse organization that didn’t give us the results needed.

The same problems were evident throughout the entire brigade command structure, not just the 8th Hussars, and caused me to ask, numerous times, what the hell we were doing.  I saw little in that first year that inspired me to want to continue to be a leader, an officer, or to continue to serve in the Canadian Forces.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 46-48.

There are also some barbed words for the CF’s procurement policies, and how seeking a “made (or modified) in Canada” solution often results in expensive, less-than-stellar gear.  In 1979, as a young captain deployed to Germany with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Hillier (and doubtless other other armoured crews) ran into a serious problem with the fire control system on the then-new Leopard C1 main battle tanks.

When we bought the Leopards from the Germans, someone in Ottawa had decided that the German fire control system wasn’t good enough for Canadians, so we had to go put in our own.  We bought a unique-to-Canada computerized fire control system.  Once the gunner fed the range and all the other factors into the system, the gun did the rest; we were supposed to get a kill every time.  In cold weather, the system worked like magic.  What nobody realized was that the system was connected to the interior roof of the tank’s turret—in reality a thin piece of metal.  In hot weather, the turret roof would buckle slightly—just a few milimetres, but more than enough to shift the sight completely out of alignment…

It took more than seven years for the Canadian Forces to solve that problem.  It took the army more than three years just to admit that there even was a problem.  Everyone who looked into the issue said, “No, it’s the gunner’ fault,” or “Put a few wet sandbags on the roof of that turret and we’ll be good to go.”

…Our problems with the tank sights were caused by our tendency to Canadianize everything that the Canadian Forces purchased, taking something that worked perfectly well for others and deciding that it wasn’t good enough for us.  The Canadian Forces have thought that way for decades, and we worked really hard over the past few years to change that thinking.  If an American-built weapon is working fine or a British vehicle drives beautifully, then let’s buy it as is.  Otherwise we end up with a unique, Canadian-modified beast that causes us technical headaches and costs us money.  Canadianized pieces of kit are hugely expensive to maintain because there are usually fewer of them.  Secondly, if there are problems, they end up being uniquely Canadian problems, and the CF has to go through long and expensive procedures to identify and resolve them.  I learned in Germany to put an appetite suppressant on Canadianization. Despite our efforts, this is still a major challenge.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 64-66.

It is more than a little frightening to think that, had the Cold War gone hot at some point between 1979 and 1987, Canadian tankers would have rode into battle with fatally flawed equipment, forced on them by a department that didn’t want to use the perfectly serviceable German original.  And it is no less than enraging to realise that this flaw was effectively off the radar of Canadian politicians and the public, even though it would have been painfully obvious to Canadian armoured crews themselves—not to mention any allied crews who took part in multinational exercises and armoured corps competitions.

These passages are, I think, emblematic of why Canadians took to General Hillier so readily.  Even as a gold-braid-bedecked general officer, he is a man unafraid to slay sacred cows and to speak the truth plainly, without theatrics or ornamentation.  His many predecessors have not been so outspoken, nor drawn as much attention to the unsung triumphs and travails of the average young man and woman in uniform.  I am skeptical, however, of General Hillier’s claim to have changed the default institutional behaviour of the Canadian Forces, from a risk-averse bureaucracy into something a little bolder and more concerned with serving the nation.  He did indeed change it, albeit temporarily; the question is whether that change will outlast him in any significant degree.

My fear is that the transformation he hoped to effect within the Forces is stillborn, or at best half-complete.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the CF procurement battles underway and know that the useless, money-wasting Canadianization fetish is alive and well.  And statistically we may be sure that careerists are alive and well in any organisation, even the Canadian Forces.  But in what density and concentration?  The best we can hope for is that there are more future Rick Hilliers in the ranks than Jean Boyles or Larry Murrays, and that future Canadian governments continue to fund the Forces at a level where they can thrive, not just survive.  I fervently hope that succeeding generations of officers are, in fact, risk-taking leaders who look after the men and women under them, and not survival-minded careerists/managers who only want to save their own skin and hang in there for the pension payoff.

As the general says so ably, long periods of underfunding the Forces from the Nineties to the early Aughts had a dramatic and profound effect upon those in uniform:

…we found ourselves shelving plans to rebuild atrophied capabilities, saw our budgets cut by more than 25 per cent, our training slashed to an almost non-existent state, bases closed and the numbers of uniformed men and women reduced drastically.  In a perfect storm, then, our confidence in who we were and our pride in being soldiers, in the most generic sense, was shattered.  Several scandals, including those in Somalia and Bosnia, compounded our stress, while frozen, insufficient wages spoke eloquently as to our value in the eyes of our government and Canadians.  Most of us in uniform, key to coping with humanitarian crises worldwide, were not making enough money to feed or house our own families.

The perception across the junior ranks was that we, the leaders, had broken faith with those we led, and if there is one thing I learned over the years, it is that perception is reality.  Our soldiers did not trust us.  We could do little to address the key issues that weighed so heavily on them and their families.  The Canadian Forces moved into crisis and focused on survival, not excellence or shaping for the future or serving Canada.  We were largely incapable of coping and “SALY” [the “same as last year” mindset] had been responsible for a lot of that.  After thirty to forty years in an organisation where everything was the same, leaders could not handle the sudden, global changes or the enormous issues those changes created.

— Hillier, Rick [General, CF].  A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War.  Toronto:  HarperCollins Canada, 2009. p. 93.

What is interesting is that in spite of all this, General Hillier appears to have had much warmer relations with the former Liberal government (mainly MND Bill Graham and former PM Paul Martin) than he did with their Conservative successors (MNDs O’Connor and MacKay, and their boss PM Stephen Harper).  Too many of the general’s critics, particularly on the left, imagine the opposite; that he, Mr. Harper and—quelle horreur—Mr. George W. Bush were the coziest of pals.  (Just Google “rick hillier” plus “bush” for a plethora of examples.)  That delusion is not supported by the general’s own account.  On the other side of the aisle, whatever conservatives may think of Paul Martin (and his Minister of National Defence), it is worth pondering that as Finance Minister and famous budgetary “Dr. No,” Mr. Martin helped craft the era of decreasing CF budgets described by General Hillier above (and elsewhere, as a “decade of darkness”)—and yet in spite of all that, Hillier counts Martin as a good friend today.  Either the General does not hold Mr. Martin partly responsible for those dark times, or he is a man that does not hold grudges.

There is much more, of course—lively accounts of operations in Bosnia, and naturally the bulk of the book revolves around the political machinations in Ottawa (through governments of two different parties) during the Afghan campaign.  A Soldier First is an engrossing read, especially for anyone that has served (or their families).  It offers much sunlight into areas of the bureaucratic mind that ought to be cleansed.  Canada would do well to have more officers of a similar mind, who can express themselves so capably.

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