The General has stepped down. After thirty-nine years of service Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defense Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, retired in January 2021. It appears incoming Admiral Art McDonald will have to right the ship.
If one area of Vance’s performance can be praised—indeed it certainly should—it was his ability to never lose sight on the great game of geopolitics. While many Canadians were beguiled by China’s rising economic station and believed she could be an amicable partner with Canada, Vance saw the illusion for what it was. His strength on this matter was not truly apparent, at least in the eyes of the public, until the last moments of his career. Only late in 2020, after confidential documents were exposed by Rebel News did Canadians learn that Vance had cancelled winter training exercises with the People’s Liberation Army of China and suspended other ties as well. Joint military training exercises—relics of previous hopes, or previous miscalculations, depending on point of view—with China’s military were no longer in Canada’s best interests by 2020. The Canada-China relationship had deteriorated. China was no longer Canada’s friend, if ever she was one, and Vance knew it.
Some at Global Affairs Canada were still under the friendship illusion, believing China should be treated with diplomatic tenderness. Attempts were made to rebuke Vance but the grand master, keenly aware of his need to protect his country, took unilateral action of the kind one expects from a gregarious and astute military leader.
Vance saw the bigger picture. Certainly, on China he did. He also knew Russia was never going to be an eternally benign actor either. As a result, military hardware and training needs were duly updated under Vance. The General earned his medal on the geopolitical file.
Yet a darker side to Vance’s abilities dogged him from beginning to end—an inability to understand the human resource file. In spite of crafty public relations events, veterans behind the scenes have been telling anyone that will listen how disgusted and disappointed they are in what the CAF has become. Were it simply a few cranky old men making noise, one could be forgiven for ignoring them. Yet signs of internal disorder in the CAF are widespread. Physical fitness has dropped. Incompetence has risen. And the CAF can’t seem to recruit enough people to meet its basic needs. Worst of all, Vance had an attitude that his soldiers should “be nice and respectful.”
Morale had been low for many years before Vance took over and it did not show signs of improvement while he was there. The crux is that Vance seemed to lack a basic understanding about what makes humans thrive, or wither.
In some ways General Vance is reminiscent of the British Empire Commander during the Second Boer War, Lord Kitchener. For Kitchener, Boer men had been waging a guerilla war of which he could not win with conventional strategies. He turned to the tactic of corralling Boer women and children into camps as a means of encouraging the guerrillas to surrender. The camps were not meant to be genocidal, only holding pens of sorts, until the guerrillas gave up.
Through indifference, or lack of awareness, Kitchener erred by giving the task of overseeing the women and children to his war-ravaged and mentally exhausted soldiers. The outcome was obvious. Neglect led to over 26,000 deaths of women and children from preventable disease and malnutrition. It only made the guerrillas fight even harder and it became the 20th century’s first experience with mass civilian death during war. Kitchener could have prevented the whole thing by noting the obvious reality that mentally traumatized soldiers should not care for the families of their enemies.
Lord Kitchener’s military prowess stood beside his appalling lack of insight into human nature.
In a similar vein, it should be obvious today that putting men and women together in serious combat roles is a terribly poor idea if one wants to avoid sexual assault and depravity of other kinds. But Vance took an almost childish view to this now common practice, berating his soldiers to “be nice” when sexual misconduct, racism and other cohesion problems arose. His blunders on the human condition were, unfortunately, exacerbated by his political masters’ encouragement.
Indeed, the heart of the problem for the CAF under Vance’s tenure, and even prior, has been the practice of hiring less than the best, and hiring unfairly.
Hard realities dictate that militaries recruit the best individuals they can find. Recruits must be willing to fight and die for the nation they love. Forging them into a cohesive fighting machine is no small feat, either. When successful, the world’s top militaries are filled with a polished comradery of the soul that digs deeper than most civvies can possibly imagine. It is well known that unrelated soldiers form bonds of intense loyalty to one another that are often greater than marriage and family. According to research from the US Army, individuals in the most effective fighting units, above all else, trust one another. Cohesion “based on trust and teamwork” is the heart of what builds the best militaries.
Research from the Finnish Defence Forces however, has found cohesion and military effectiveness breaks down when some individuals are perceived to lack merit. If a new recruit can pass physical and psychological tests that are equally administered, there is little for want of worry. But what if that recruit was initially hired based on something unequal and irrelevant such as skin colour?
This is where the CAF runs into trouble. It now hires based on criteria so far distant from merit as to be laughable, were the consequences not so dire. Skin colour and sexual orientation for example, have informed CAF diversity hiring quotas for years. The unfair and blatantly discriminatory hiring has not gone unnoticed. Stories from soldiers that have recently left are fairly consistent—the CAF is being undermined ‘from the inside out.’ To its credit, the CAF is in a conundrum that has left it tongue-tied.
Section 15(2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states rather awkwardly that people with darker skin colour, women and aboriginal peoples can, and will, receive preferential treatment from the government. This contradicts the previous section which states that all Canadians are equal.
The contradiction is ripe for a legal challenge but in the meantime, political masters have thrust the CAF into the uncomfortable position of mandatory discrimination by way of diversity, equity and inclusion mandates. Questionable hiring criteria such as skin colour, have gained traction in recruiting offices across the country. Merit be damned. It is a kind of harakiri for which the CAF can hardly say no.
To its credit, the CAF did politely ask, as far back as 2013, to have its quotas lowered to more realistic levels. Indigenous people, women, and visible minorities were not walking through the doors of recruiting offices in large enough numbers. This is not to say there aren’t highly capable and loyal individuals among these groups. Without reservation, there definitely are. The problem is that many indigenous people do not trust the federal government, which is understandable. Few women are interested in war. That’s evolutionary biology at work. And visible minorities is an egregiously ill-defined term to be using in policy at any rate. These are generalizations of course, but reasonable and obvious ones at that. The federal government temporarily acceded to the CAF requests but later, under the dogma of diversity with a dram of daftness, doubled-down on quotas, raising them even higher.
Realistically, the vast majority of individuals interested in joining are men from traditional Canadian families. Militaries of liberal democracies around the globe are consistent in this regard. For example, the percentage of women is generally around 15%. Sweden, arguably the most gender-neutral country in the world with its military open to women since 1924, has never found enough female recruits to rise above 15%. The United States managed to reach 16%. Canada reached 15.7% in January 2019, mostly by rejecting more worthy male candidates. One wonders where the CAF will now find enough women to fulfill its goal of 25% by 2026, as outlined in the latest CAF defense policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged?
A military’s role is to defend, attack and kill. It is they, not politicians, that should determine who will best fit that bill. Merit would count. Indeed, merit must count. It is a deadly serious requirement in the game of geopolitics and national defense.
Discrimination is written into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That, today, is an unfortunate fact. What else can the CAF do but buckle under? It really has no choice, the argument goes. The fine men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces are not permitted to speak publicly about such matters. That is left in the hands of their leaders but what if the leadership fails their troops, through silence?
Vance seemed vacuously oblivious to all of this.
And so, every time General Jonathan Vance backed down from questioning his political master’s insistence on mandatory discrimination which undermined cohesion, we all lost. It will be a tall order for Admiral Art McDonald to fix.
In the meantime, one can’t help but wonder, if the greatest masculine institution in Canada lost its spine and won’t stand up for itself, then who will protect us when it really matters most?