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Stunt casting

‘I am Canadian’ pitchman joins As It Happens.

I gave up on CBC Radio right around the time my twenties disappeared into the rear-view mirror. A decade and a half ago CBC’s radio services were much more interesting and thoughtful than they have become in recent times.

But I have to wonder, on behalf of everyone who still tries to practice honest-to-God journalism at the Mother Corp, did they run out of actual radio journalists sometime in the past year? Joe Canadian (of the worst beer money can buy) is the best you could do?

Programmatic diversity

I have no idea how Discovery’s Military Channel manages to retain viewers in large enough numbers to continue justifying their broadcast license. Every time I tune in, they seem to have programmed a show I’ve already seen—and what’s worse, they program similar items together in a block. Here’s a chunk of today’s lineup:

7:00 am — X-Carriers (60min, TV-PG, CC)

From super-computer design facilities to liquid-metal cooled, nuclear propulsion systems, the top secret future of the U.S. Navy’s most dangerous weapons are revealed.

8:00 am — Mega-Carrier, Episode 1 (60min, TV-G, CC)

Over 18,000 men and women have been brought together to build the world’s most technologically sophisticated aircraft carrier: The U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. From initial construction, to its first day at sea, follow the story of its builders.

9:00 am — Toughest Carrier Jobs (60min, TV-PG, CC)

The Toughest Carrier Jobs highlights the skill, training and commitment of the men and women who have the honor of working on what is essentially a floating city: A U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier, which is full of amazingly difficult jobs.

10:00 am — Carrier – Fortress at Sea (60min, TV-G, CC)

Life aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is thrilling, tedious, demanding and dangerous all at the same time. En route from San Francisco to the Persian Gulf, the crew’s extraordinary adventure unfolds.

11:00 am — Mega-Carrier, Episode 1 (60min, TV-G, CC)

Over 18,000 men and women have been brought together to build the world’s most technologically sophisticated aircraft carrier: The U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. From initial construction, to its first day at sea, follow the story of its builders.

12:00 pm — Sinking of an Aircraft Carrier (60min, TV-PG, CC)

Nearly a quarter of a ton of explosives are set to sink the Oriskany Aircraft Carrier during the world’s largest non-military exercise to sink a ship. Bad weather, flooding, short tempers, and grueling labor conditions threaten to halt the project.

1:00 pm — Extreme Machines – Carriers (60min, TV-G, CC)

Footage of the Navy’s huge floating fortress, the John C. Stennis, demonstrates the sophistication and complexity of today’s carriers.

2:00 pm — A Supercarrier is Burning: The U.S.S. Enterprise (60min, TV-G, CC)

A fire aboard a supercarrier detonates the ship’s weapons. The harrowing minutes that follow are packed with terror, heroism, sacrifice and courage. There are 18 detonations, 15 aircraft destroyed, 17 damaged, 28 dead and 343 wounded.

3:00 pm — City of Steel: Carrier (60min, TV-PG, CC)

The construction of the new aircraft carrier, the Reagan, vividly illustrates the remarkable scale of these floating cities and the weapons onboard. A new carrier, the Truman, is put through its paces on its maiden outing.

I like aircraft carriers as much as the next guy, but holy mackerel, that’s nine solid hours of carrier junk. Four hours devoted to carrier design and construction, three to day-to-day operations.

Enough is enough, fellas. Every single one of these shows has been aired a half-dozen times already, and they are not what we would call current. Some still feature the F-14 Tomcat, a fighter that was retired from USN service four years ago.

I seriously wonder how the channel manages to retain viewership.

CTA and Mapleflot’s allergy hypocrisy

Flight Snack 03, originally uploaded by mattlach.

This evening I read about a rather humourous decision handed down by the Canadian Transportation Agency regarding Air Canada’s accommodation of food allergy sufferers.  There’s nothing intrinsically humourous about the decision itself, but it becomes funny when paired with Air Canada’s reaction to another class of allergy sufferers.  First, have a look at the precautions mandated for the nut-allergic.  The airline has to provide a nut-free zone around the allergy sufferer, the scope of which depends on their class of ticket.

For people in executive first class, the buffer zone will consist of the pod-seat occupied by the person with allergies. In North American business class seating, the buffer zone will consist of the bank of seats in which the allergic person is seated. In economy class, the buffer zone will consist of the bank of seats in which the allergic person is seated as well as the banks of seats directly in front of and behind the person.

People who wish to receive special accommodation should notify the airline within 48 hours of their flights, the ruling said.

– McGinn, Dave.  “Air Canada told to create nut-free buffer zones.” Globe & Mail, 19 October 2010.

As with all things in life, though, some special accommodations are more special than others.  If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis due to contact with nut oils and particles, you get a nut-free buffer zone that the airline is responsible for policing.  If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis due to contact with animal dander and saliva, you get no buffer zone, and it’s up to you to make sure you don’t get stuck somewhere where your allergens might be present.

VANCOUVER — Air Canada is standing firm on its new policy to allow cats and small dogs to travel in passenger cabins, despite health concerns from people who suffer from pet allergies.

…”We believe our policy is prudent,” [Air Canada spokeswoman Angela] Mah said.

On its website, Air Canada says it is sensitive to the concerns of allergy sufferers and asks that travellers with pet allergies advise a check-in agent of their allergy to ensure they are not seated next to a customer with a dog or cat.

– O’Brian, Amy.  “Air Canada to Lung Association: don’t hold your breath over pet policy.” Canwest News Service, 2010 (?) [Emphasis mine]

If you’re curious, as I am, about how many people might be afflicted with nut allergies versus pet-allergies, there’s some baseline data in this Globe & Mail article.  It states that the first-ever nationwide study (published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) indicates that 2.5 million Canadians—or 7.5 percent of the population—have food allergies.  Specifically, 1.93% have peanut allergies, and 2.36% have tree nut allergies, for a grand total of 4.29% of the Canadian population (or roughly 1.46 million people).

And what about pet allergies?  That’s harder to nail down, but this editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal cites a figure of one in ten people.  If we took that to mean ten percent of the Canadian population, that would be 3.4 million souls, or more than twice as many pet-allergic people as there are nut-allergic people.  Yet the pet-allergic are responsible for policing themselves, while the nut-allergic get to have the airline do it for them.

The CMAJ editorial also hints at why Air Canada is intent on keeping pets in the cabin, despite evidence of potential harm:

Travellers in Canada lost their access to dander-free flights in July 2009, when Air Canada reversed its prohibition against allowing small pets, including cats, dogs and birds, to travel in the airplane cabin. The apparent motivation was competition from Canada’s other large airline, WestJet, which reportedly has pets on about 25% of its flights. (Service animals, whose infrequent presence on airplanes is mandated by disability considerations, are not an issue.)

…Seating passengers with allergies away from pets is not a realistic alternative. Pet dander remains on seats long after the pet and its owner have gone. One study identified clinically relevant concentrations of cat allergen on 100% of sampled airplane seats on domestic flights and 16% of seats on international flights [Martin IR, Wickens K, Patchett K, et al. Cat allergen levels in public places in New Zealand. N Z Med J 1998;111:356-8]  Moreover, flights are usually filled to capacity, and airlines have not created mechanisms to facilitate last minute seat changes.

– Stanbrook et al.  “Pets in airplane cabins: an unnecessary allergic hazard.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, 16 February 2010. [Emphasis mine]

In other words it’s purely a revenue consideration.  Mapleflot will lose seats to Westjet if they don’t allow pets to travel in the passenger cabin.

One hopes that either the Canadian Transportation Agency or Air Canada itself will recognise that differing standards and treatments for various classes of allergy sufferers will inevitably lead to a cavalcade of me-tooism from those treated unequally.  That way lies madness.  Either all allergy sufferers are responsible for policing their own health, or none of them are; it seems unwise and frankly incomprehensible to have a double standard of this sort.

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World-class means world events

Editor’s Note:  The title of this piece was altered, upon reflection, from its original—”For the whiners”

Toronto’s a big city.  Big cities occasionally host big events and big personalities.  New York manages to have UN General Assembly meetings all the time and host world leaders without the city descending into chaos.  This is our first time, but more will come; this is what happens when you reach a certain level of wealth and renown.

If one doesn’t wish to be interrupted by the visit of world leaders, one might consider living in a smaller urban centre; i.e. the suburbs.  To live in large urban metropolis and complain that big-city events happen there is to miss the point on a cosmic scale.

For the wags suggesting web conferencing as way around these physical meetings, let’s think about this for a moment.  The physical meetings permit off-the-record discussions amongst many leaders and their advisors.  Web conferencing by definition will leave a record, and leave it in many places all across the globe in various ISPs and networks.  How many world leaders are going to candidly suggest something if any random sysadmin jackass from a foreign country can excerpt their traffic and dump it in his country’s media?

Most of us have experience with ordinary civil web conferences; which go over the civil internet and have some not-very-elaborate security measures.  Nobody much cares what the marketing department of MiniWidgetCo in Podunkville, YourCountry is up to, after all, which is why hackers never interrupt the tedium of your average office’s web conference.  But an awful lot of people might be willing to get their mitts on the thus far off-the-record remarks of world leaders candidly discussing major issues.  So right away you know that this notional G20 web conferencing is not going to travel over the ordinary (and easily degradable) civil internet.  It will go over a separate secure link, like the videoconferences that US unified combatant commanders have with the White House.  And that traffic, my friends, goes over SATCOM.

So what would a secure SATCOM connection that can provide live audio-video feeds to a multitude of spots on the globe end up costing?  Fortunately we have some idea because the US Dept. of Defense has built just such a system; it’s called Wideband Global SATCOM (formerly Wideband Gapfiller Satellite) and its program cost (including R&D) is estimated to have reached $2 billion for its 3-satellite constellation.  Now we won’t have to re-invent the wheel, so let’s assume we’ll buy three Boeing 702 WGS birds at USD $400 million each; or 1.2 billion just for the hardware.  Keep in mind you’ll have to replace this hardware every few years as it fails or runs out of gas (manoeuvring to avoid debris, solar storms, and so on).

Then we’ll have to get these WGS birds into space somehow—why not use the Delta IV launcher that USAF uses to put its WGS birds on orbit?  Each launcher costs between USD $140-170 million, and we’ll need three—so that’s $420-510 million.

Now you’ll need a place to launch it from.  Oh, your country doesn’t have a launch facility?  Well, it costs USAF $400 million annually to maintain Vandenburg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6.  You could build one of your own for several times that, or maybe just chip in on the rent.

Now, does your country have a facility to track and monitor orbital assets?  No?  DND’s Joint Space Project (a contributor to the United States Space Surveillance Network) used to have a budget of CDN $1.2 billion to monitor Canadian space assets and preserve our space situational awareness.  That budget has fallen in recent times to $625 million, but it’s still a big chunk of change.

And we have not even begun to examine the program costs of building ground stations to handle this secure SATCOM traffic, plus retrofitting various governmental buildings, facilities and residences with the ability to handle it.  Nor have we introduced the salary and entitlement costs of all the personnel required to work on, maintain and secure these programs, their hardware and their facilities.

When you think about all of that, $1 billion for an event we likely won’t host for another decade is not too big a deal.  And certainly not untoward for a city that constantly likes to assert it is “world-class”.  World-class means world leaders come to visit every once in a while; deal with it.

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Slow down and think it through

Former vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin is being pilloried for an admission that her family crossed the border to obtain Canadian health care—a system she previously said should be dismantled.

“My first five years of life we spent in Skagway, Alaska, right there by Whitehorse,” Palin said during a speech in Calgary on Saturday. “Believe it or not — this was in the ‘60s — we used to hustle on over the border for health care that we would receive in Whitehorse. I remember my brother, he burned his ankle in some little kid accident thing and my parents had to put him on a train and rush him over to Whitehorse and I think, isn’t that kind of ironic now. Zooming over the border, getting health care from Canada.”

– Canwest News Service (with files from Jason Markusoff).  “Sarah Palin’s Canadian health care link has critics sick.”  Calgary Herald, 8 March 2010. [Emphasis mine]

Some excitable journalists and commentators are trying to insinuate the stink of hypocrisy and covering the story like it’s a giant contradiction, but what it really tells us is that they have no deductive reasoning capability whatsoever.  I am no Palin apologist (my impression is that she is an earnest but incompetent politican, like Stephane Dion or John Tory), but surely the woman can not be called a hypocrite for an act she could not have influenced in any way, shape or form.

Let the record show that Sarah Louise Palin (née Heath) was born in 1964.  At the end of the 1960s she would be five years old.  Hands up, everyone who had the authority to select a sibling’s trauma treatment facility (in lieu of their parents doing so) at the age of five.  If you are guessing that Mom or Dad Heath was responsible for sending her brother to Whitehorse for treatment, you’re correct.  Now, hands up everyone whose parents made a decision in your formative years that you now, as an adult, find disagreeable.

Canada’s publicly-funded health care system was initiated by some provinces in 1961, but key federal legislation (the Canada Assistance Plan, 1966, and the Medical Care Act, 1966) did not come into force until 1968 (see timeline).  Yukon Territory set up a hospital insurance plan with federal cost sharing in 1961, and a more general medical insurance plan with federal cost-sharing in 1972.

It will not surprise you to learn that in that time, non-Canadians were not eligible for our publicly-funded health insurance, so the American Heath family would have paid for any medical services that were provided.

Palin’s father said his family probably boarded the train for the Whitehorse hospital only twice — once when a daughter had rheumatic fever, and once when his son, also named Chuck, severely burned his leg and an infection set in.

“We much preferred to use our facilities because my insurance didn’t cover anything in Whitehorse. And even though they have socialized medicine, I still had to pay the bill, being an American citizen,” Heath said.

Heath worked part-time for the White Pass & Yukon Railroad and had a pass allowing him and his family to ride for free.

– Markusoff, Jason.  “Sarah Palin heads north. Er, south. Er, to Calgary.” Calgary Herald, 7 March 2010.

If you want to drag Mrs. Palin over the coals about why the details of this story are eerily similar to another one told previously (where her brother burned his foot and went to Juneau, Alaska for treatment), you may have firmer ground to stand on.  It’s okay to dislike a pandering politician; I dislike lots of them.  But hypocrisy?  Please.  Palin was a five-year-old girl, at best, not the parent who decided where their children got treatment.  If there’s a contradiction here, it’s why a non-story is garnering so much breathless media attention.

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Missing the proverbial boat

Low-cost carrier AirTran (formerly ValuJet) is running a promotion in partnership with Sports Illustrated, featuring the magazine’s famed swimsuit edition.  To this end, AirTran has bedecked one of its 737s with the following swimsuit-clad figure.

Said adornment has caused the AirTran chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants to note its displeasure, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (and also via Gawker):

“It is our feeling that this is not only contrary to the family image that this company tries to promote, but also potentially offensive to their female employees, the majority of their flight attendants who will have to work on this aircraft,” the union said, adding that it “creates a potential for verbal abuse by male passengers.”

– Yamanouchi, Kelly.  “Flight attendants protest AirTran swimsuit plane.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2 March 2010.

The airline feels, correctly, that a swimsuit-clad lady ornamenting a single aircraft fuselage is not unduly concupiscent.  Being in the tradition of beautiful yet tasteful Second World War bomber nose art; or the even more recent revival by Virgin Atlantic.  Which is some twenty-five years old now, and your correspondent is not aware of any swimsuit-lady-driven spike in male-initiated verbal abuse of female flight attendants in Virgin’s operating history.

Considering that such art adorns every Virgin Atlantic aircraft (and there are some 37 of them), one must, by the Association’s reckoning, assess the risk to those cabin crews as being several times greater than that borne by AirTran.

One may also wish to remind the Association that the swimsuit lady was on the outside of the aircraft, so the time of the greatest risk of inappropriate male behaviour was pre-boarding, while the AirTran 737 was at the gate and the passengers were still outside the aircraft, capable of seeing the woman on the fuselage.  After boarding, the greatest risk is to the cabin crews on adjacent aircraft, whose passengers still have a shot at seeing the swimsuit-clad woman on the 737’s exterior.

But that is all based on the Association of Flight Attendants’ fatuous reckoning of human nature.  In reality where adults dwell, the Association’s biggest blunder lay in focusing on the symptom, not the cause.

Swimsuit-clad ladies painted on airplanes are not the problem.  The airline trying to lure male passengers by dangling a pathetic chance of chatting with SI swimsuit models on a flight from New York to Vegas, plus two weekend parties with same, is the problem.

Party with the SI Swimsuit Models in Las Vegas!

Is Sports Illustrated your favorite magazine? What about the Swimsuit edition? Well if you love both, this is the event of a lifetime. Travel on AirTran Airways with the 2010 Sport Illustrated Swimsuit models from New York to Las Vegas for the party of the year! One winner and their guest will fly on AirTran Airways along with SI Swimsuit Models featured in the 2010 SI Swimsuit issue.

The winner will receive

  • Airfare for two (2) to New York to board the flight to Las Vegas
  • A two (2) night hotel stay in Las Vegas
  • Two (2) tickets to the SI Swimsuit On Location Party at the The Mirage Resort & Casino
  • Two (2) tickets to the Club SI Swimsuit Party at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

– “AirTran Airways Sports Illustrated® Swimsuit Fly Away Sweepstakes—Official Rules.” AirTran Airways, 2010.  Web.  2 March 2010.

So, the SI swimsuit models were contractually obligated to fly from New York to Las Vegas with the contest winners, and probably also to mingle with them a teeny bit at said SI-sponsored parties (all of this having wrapped up, in actuality, by February 12th, 2010).

To be blunt, the contest involves flying across the country in order to converse with contractually-obligated attractive women in three carefully controlled situations.  The only chaps this is likely to appeal to are those that don’t think they have a shot at chatting with any locally-derived attractive women who can stay or depart at their own leisure.  And such chaps might, indeed, decide to make a play for a flight attendant, or behave inappropriately.  If that were to happen, however, it would have nothing at all to do with a woman being painted on a 737 fuselage, and everything to do with the contest which caused that woman to be painted on the fuselage.  And the management which endorsed said contest, which would be properly understood as the root cause.

Rather than start a round of hand-waving over something utterly inconsequential, AirTran’s members of the Association of Flight Attendants would be much better advised to address the root, and not a mere symptom.

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I’ll pass on the Mile High Club, thanks

While your intrepid gazetteer is supportive of many efforts to further man’s mastery of the skies, making sexytime in an aircraft lavatory is one of those pursuits that he has never been able to fully comprehend.  For some of us, the appeal of flying lies in the way in which the aircraft becomes an extension of the person; granting the freedom to move in three dimensions with the winged creatures of the earth, to take in sumptuous and serene vistas which few can routinely see, to visit remote locales which few have visited.

The idea of spending one’s time aloft locked in a tiny windowless closet, taking in the smell of human waste and chemical disinfectants, while simultaneously trying to put Tab A into Slot B seems like Missing The Point on a rather grand and tragic scale.  There is no philosophy in it, no majesty or grandeur.  It is like winning a million-dollar lottery prize, and spending every last cent of one’s winnings on table salt.

JetHead, a veteran captain having logged 24 years flying service with American Airlines, also does not see the point:

2. Mile High Club? Seriously?

What, in an outhouse? The last guy’s skid marks (remember: no water) stinking the place up? Now THAT’S amore. And you’d have to be an idiot. Your buddy who claims he did it in the lav (yeah, right) is an idiot for even thinking about it.

– JetHead.  “Airliner Lavatories: No Blue Sky and NO DEUCE. Ever.”  JetHead’s Blog, 3 February 2010.

He also goes into some detail about the ventilation systems, and how the ah, aerosolised byproducts of lav activity make their way into the cockpit very quickly.  Ew.  Very funny read, though.

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The Pitfalls of Confessional Culture

John Donovan, Master of Castle Argghhh!, links to a pitiful column in online magazine Salon.com, wherein the former wife of a soldier confesses to leaving her husband while he’s on deployment.  Nor can she bear to show up for her son’s induction into the United States Naval Academy.

It would be easy to cast aspersions on the woman’s apparent fecklessness and lack of character.  But despite your correspondent’s generally Christian conception of marriage, I readily accept that some people will choose life partners unwisely, and therefore divorce is unavoidable and even desirable in some cases.

What I can’t conceive of at all is writing a column like that of Ms. Cook.

For while I do not expect that every life should be devoid of misadventure, mishap and misjudgement, I do think it slightly unwise to treat the general public as if they are one’s closest confidant.  While seeking a divorce does not—in and of itself—necessarily provide insight into one’s character, seeking a divorce while one’s spouse is duty-bound several thousand miles away sends a certain message.  As does failing to show up at a landmark event in the life of one’s own offspring.

If I were in a situation where my son or daughter was taking part in a ceremony from a career or institution which I personally found distasteful (say, for the sake of argument, the AVN Awards), I would still make a point of showing up as a mark of respect for my own flesh and blood.  The important thing is not whether I am comfortable or happy about being at such an event (or approve of the career choices involved); the important thing is to honour my offspring by demonstrating love and support for them, at the event that they consider important.

More importantly, had I failed to make such a basic effort for my spouse or my descendants, I don’t I think I would be admitting to it in print.  This is something I would count as a personal shame; a failure of character not to be repeated should another such opportunity arise.  Certainly not something to be recounted for strangers as entertainment.

Ms. Cook probably looks on that column with some pride, recounting a painful journey of the heart under stressful conditions.  I doubt very much if she realises that putting one’s lack of courage and small-mindedness on display for the public actually reduces her stature.

UPDATE 121606Z FEB 10: Reaction across the dextrosphere is, of course, overwhelmingly negative.  Also encouraging, the comments from liberal-minded military spouses (such as those at LeftFace, “the Other MilSpouse Blog”) are not too favourably inclined toward the piece, either.

EQUAL TIME: Ms. Cook offers her perspective on the piece (and the attendant response) at her own blog.

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Selling the drama

I have some respect for the passengers of Northwest Flight 253, especially Dutch filmmaker Mr. Jasper Schuringa, who reacted quickly and appropriately to a dangerous situation.  But please, pundits professional and amateur, put aside the euphoric army-of-Davids, pack-not-a-herd rhetoric.

NWA253 wasn’t saved because of alert passengers.  It was saved because the would-be bomber was incompetent in both design and fabrication of his explosive device. The passengers did nothing to pre-empt impending tragedy; they merely restrained the bomber after his unsuccessful detonation.  It is not even on the same level as the passengers and cabin crew of American Airlines 63, who halted the attempted ignition of Richard Reid’s shoes.  The fuse leading into Reid’s shoe hadn’t been lit; let alone lit and providing an obvious warning in the form of firecracker-like noises and smells.

The moral of the Flight 253 story is not that ultra-vigilant passengers will save the day (although this is not a bad thing and sometimes, they might).  Remember that had the explosive device been properly designed and fabricated, there would have been precious little for those passengers to do except fall to their deaths.

There are instead three better lessons from NWA253. The first is that you cannot always rely upon airport screeners (whether foreign or domestic) to have and use the best possible equipment.  They might not have the equipment, or when they do, they might use it selectively—by prioritizing it for something other than routine screening (like say, narcotics smuggling).  This might require certain nations (or air carriers themselves) to have their own screening personnel and equipment at the originating airport.

The second lesson is that intelligence and law enforcement services need greater cooperation and coordination in order to effectively act upon leads given to them.  Having received a timely warning from Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father, the bomber should have been set aside for more intensive scrutiny prior to boarding, which—presumably—would have led to denial of boarding.

The third lesson is that the approach to security screening that we have today—a widely-cast net, inefficiently searching one and all for a limited range of explosives and weapons—is inadequate; it is not focused, accurate or granular enough to detect the threat.

There are other, more manpower-intensive approaches—just one example would be the behavioral profiling used by Israeli carrier El Al.  El Al interviews every passenger before boarding, relying on the experience and intution of its screeners to weed out the nervous and suspicious.  Our own airport security screeners do not tend to focus on human intelligence and psychological factors; they rely on technical means (x-ray scanners and chemical detectors) instead.  And technology, of course, is not as infallible as many would like to think.

Perhaps the best defence is a fusion of these methods; human intelligence buttressed with technical intelligence.  Surely that is several times better than your seat-mates reacting to a bomb after it’s failed.

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.