Writing at the US Naval Institute’s blog, UltimaRatioReg examines what happens when the military’s traditional “can do” attitude is combined with greater institutional risk aversion.
And here is where the two seemingly opposite characteristics meet. The danger of the “can do” attitude I alluded to above is that, of course, there will come a time when “can do” will cease to be a response to even a cursory examination of capabilities. The commander or unit cannot do. Has no chance to do. The commander simply lacks the very minimum of resources to accomplish the mission. Yet, the likelihood of honestly saying so is usually low. Failure will be the result, which in the profession of arms is counted in terms of dead and wounded. The importance of a command climate where commanders can talk to seniors honestly and willingly in such matters without fear of retribution cannot be overstated. The mission still may be assigned, but the risks become known, might possibly be mitigated, and the chances for success improved substantially.
— UltimaRatioReg. “Admiral Harvey’s Question, Writ Large.” US Naval Institute blog, 11 January 2010.
If this scenario seems familiar to Canadian readers, it is because this was the state of the Canadian Forces in the past few decades, as recently retired General Rick Hillier highlights in the early portions of his book. Imagine a world wherein Canada commits several thousand troops to a dangerous combat mission, while simultaneously slashing its defence spending by twenty-six percent. Imagine over a dozen Canadians become combat fatalities and over a hundred are wounded, but they are repatriated back to their homeland with no fanfare, and little ongoing care and support. Some are simply cashiered out of the force rapidly because their wounds render them useless in their former occupational specialties. That sort of treatment would not speak well for this nation’s polity, would it?
Well, surprise surprise, you already lived through it in the 1990s. Around sixteen Canadians died in combat operations in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean, but you didn’t hear much about them back home. The Canadian Forces did have its funding slashed repeatedly in successive federal budgets, while its overseas combat commitments increased. The CF was forced, in fact, to send armoured training vehicles overseas—the Cougar, Grizzly and Husky variants of the AVGP, which were never intended to see combat—because it had few resources to send anything else. Canadian troops were specifically targeted with direct-fire anti-armour weapons (RPGs and the like) by the enemy, but were portrayed in the media as being lost to mortars and indiscriminate area weapons. And once home, wounded veterans did not get the best mental and physical rehabilitation available, because there simply wasn’t enough money for them.
Canada’s public was disinterested, and so they were disinclined to hold Canadian politicians accountable for their near-treasonous destruction of combat capability at the same time those politicians dramatically increased the CF’s combat commitments.
It took a long time for the Canadian Forces, the national defence civil bureaucracy and Canadian policymakers to shake off their risk-averse institutional cultures. (And as a result, I remain skeptical of how long-lived this recovery of institutional spine will last.) That decade was bad enough for Canada, which has chronically neglected serious consideration of its military priorities and capabilities ever since the formation of the Dominion. It would be an even greater tragedy for the Western world’s security guarantor, the United States, to undergo something similar.