A gripping murder mystery about Canada's military

Two years ago historian Jack Granatstein produced the sort of book that should cap a scholarly career. Canada's Army was a stunning overview of its subject, comprehensive without being dense. Exactly what you'd want from an engaged scholar. His new Who Killed the Canadian Military? is the identical opposite: a stunning monograph, short without being sketchy. Exactly what you'd want from a scholar who's engaged. Including the cover, a recruiting poster pointing directly at the reader. The book elegantly starts nearly every chapter with "Who killed the Canadian military?" And the answer comes back relentlessly: "Lester B. Pearson - inadvertently ..." "John Diefenbaker ..." "Paul Hellyer ..." "Pierre Trudeau ..." "Brian Mulroney ..." And then "Who finished off the Canadian Forces? Jean Chrétien did." But don't think you're off the hook.

The book is full of blunt truths on subjects from UN incompetence to quotas to the enduring differences of opinion between francophones and anglophones on defence. But its bluntest is: "the real killers of the Canadian Forces were you and I, the Canadian people. The military scarcely interested us ... We assumed that we were safe, our territory inviolable, and we believed ultimately that the Americans would protect us. So you and I elected our politicians, and we told them ... we wanted health care, culture, better pensions, and a thousand other programs ... These are all good things ... But Canada is a rich country, and we could have had both a strong military and the social services we want." There is no escape. "Who killed the Canadian military? We all did."

To help combat this indifference, let me digress to note that George Blackburn recently contacted me about his campaign to get people to put his superb Second World War memoirs into the hands of the nearest interested teenager. George has had a few health scares lately, and he's not as young as he was 64 years ago when he was among the first Canadians sent to defend Britain against Hitler's then-probable invasion. But he need not worry that the voices of veterans will lapse into silence, provided those of us who care take the trouble to read and share his books. For anyone not already familiar with those dark days I'd say start, as his publisher did, with volume II, The Guns of Normandy. Please.

Now back to Jack Granatstein and blunt truths. For the lack of interest in our military is not an isolated piece of forgetfulness. At one time concern about our military, past and present, was uncontroversial. Nowadays there is widespread hostility on the left to the very concept that military force has any utility. And it creates hostility to remembering the good it did at Vimy Ridge, in the battle of the Atlantic and in Normandy.

It need not be. When I spoke with Jack Granatstein yesterday he called himself "centre-left" on social issues; he wants abortion legal and the minimum wage raised. Yet his new book takes a Wilsonian position on NATO's "totally justifiable and necessary 'humanitarian war'" in the former Yugoslavia "to stop a genocide in the making." Regarding Iraq in 2003 he says, "Sufficient cause for action, in my view, was that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, a monster who had attacked Iran and Kuwait and oppressed his own people."

More generally, he says with characteristic directness, "In the cut-throat realm of international relations, power still comes primarily from the barrel of a gun, not from the ranks of social workers that Canadians believe they send abroad ... Does this weakness serve Canada's national interest? Do we even know what these interests are?" As he agreed, it would be inadvisable to say such things to a Liberal convention these days, never mind to the NDP.

Prof. Granatstein's desire that Canada play a role for good in the world is hardly controversial even on the right (though some of us grumps contain our enthusiasm). But his grasp of the connection between military power and international influence is by now not so much controversial as taboo on the left. When a recent report warned that Canada will soon find itself with no armed forces at all, most commentators didn't bother to respond. Such indifference contains a big streak of peculiar partisan hostility. Regardless, fixing the problem starts, as usual, with understanding how we got to where we are.

So read Jack Granatstein's new book. It will leave most of you in no doubt that over the last 40 years Canada's handling of national security has been shameful. But be warned.

On the question of responsibility for the problem and for the solution, it is one book you should judge by its cover.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson