December 12, 2003


As it turns out, the final major speech by outgoing defence minister John McCallum. As you can see, he gets it.

Posted by BruceR at 06:13 PM


Quick! What's the one Canadian military unit ever to be immortalized in a major Hollywood motion picture?

Don't know? Canada's new defence minister does.

David Pratt, MP has succeeded John McCallum as Canada's Minister of National Defence in the new Paul Martin government, starting today.

Pratt, a former Ottawa city councillor and PR manager, has previous experience in defence, having been chair of the Commons standing committee on defence issues. He is known as an advocate for increased defence spending and smarter defence policy generally. Next to McCallum staying on, he's probably the best the military could hope for.

Pratt is probably best known among soldiers, however, for a proposal he made in his MP's role earlier this year, which was shot down in flames by the Canadian Forces senior leadership. That was his proposal to rename Canada's special operations unit, Joint Task Force 2.

JTF2 is Canada's part of the whole Delta/Seals/SAS special ops nexus, and its members served with those units in the early fighting in Afghanistan (where they got the defence minister-before-last in trouble for taking Taliban prisoners and sending them on their way to Guantanamo, despite Canadian policy against that American practice). The name means little, being chosen more to play down the unit's existence than anything else (JTF1 was the name for the Canadian contribution to the 1991 Gulf War).

Pratt's idea was that the unit, which is ever more likely to be the main Canadian contribution to anti-terror operations, should adopt the name of Canada's only other previous commando unit, the World War Two-era 1st Special Service Force ("The Devil's Brigade").

1SSF was actually a "Can-Am" unit, formed with volunteers from both armies, and organized loosely on the lines of an American Ranger regiment, with an American commander and a Canadian 2iC. It was originally conceived as an elite mountain and cold-weather operations brigade, for deployment in an area like Northern Norway or perhaps Alaska, but in 1943 it was reroled as a general purpose commando formation and sent to the Mediterranean, where it served with distinction in Italy and the south of France. The myth is that it was composed of all the soldiers who other commanding officers in both armies wanted to get rid of for disciplinary reasons. Its exploits, particularly in night raiding operations, were legendary, to embrace the hackneyed but appropriate phrase in this case. In late 1944, after heavy casualties in a year of continuous operations, it was disbanded and its remaining members sent to flesh out the two armies' airborne units.

In 1968, the unit was immortalized on film in The Devil's Brigade, starring William Holden, Cliff Robertson, Claude Akins, Richard Jaeckel, Carroll O'Connor and Richard Dawson... the only Canadian military unit to ever make it to the silver screen.

While the unit is seen in the States as the progenitors along with the OSS of America's later Special Forces and Special Operations units, it was Canada's army that perpetuated the name after the war, where it was used for a time for the combined grouping of the Canadian Airborne Regiment together with the other all-arms units that would theoretically parachute with it into battle (artillery, engineers, etc.). When Canada disbanded its airborne capabilities in the 1990s, the name fell into disuse. (The name is not mentioned at all, curiously, in Jack Granatstein's massive history of the army, which I recently reviewed for the Literary Review of Canada.)

Pratt's idea was that JTF2 should inherit the name and tradition. It was panned widely by soldiers as a cosmetic and pointless tweak. But perhaps the fellow was on to something here. Pratt, who shares my own civilian profession, was clearly thinking in marketing terms... and savvy marketing is part of what the Canadian military really needs right now. Canadian disinterest in our own military affairs is near-total... the citizens' respect the old World War One and Two stories, but see no real connection between those soldiers and today's. Due to the hollowing out of the reserves, military participation rates among the populace are at a historic low, and that is translating into profound apathy when it comes to questions of taxpayer support.

It's patently obvious from a PR point of view that drawing connections between the old special ops unit and the new could only enhance public support for JTF2 in the long run, and provide a public opinion bulwark against any future parsimonious attempts to cut special ops funding. Canada's military leaders should have seen that; that they didn't only demonstrates the increasing gulf between their opinions of themselves and the public's. Publicly embarrassing the next defence minister, in retrospect, was probably also a bad idea. (When Pratt proposed the idea, he was just one MP; now he's in charge of the organization, and can presumably rename JTF2 Papa Sha Mu Mu's Magic Trombone Band, if he feels like it.)

Just a word for the outgoing minister John McCallum, now shuffled off to the low-rent Veterans Affairs portfolio. McCallum, whatever his other personal failings (he seemed just a little too weedy for the defence community to warm to him), received a high level of grudging respect from CF leaders by the end, largely because he did what none of his other predecessors in the last 20 years could... get a significant increase in funding for Canadian defence, based on a truly results-oriented approach to military restructuring. During his tenure, he stanched the hemorrhage. It is entirely his accomplishment that Canada had anything left to send to the ISAF force in Kabul at all by this point. Criticized for being army-centric, it's also possible that was just an honest realization on his part that peacekeepers, as opposed to frigates or fighter jets, are what today's world situation demands the most from Canada. No doubt he will be missed. One wishes his replacement as much success, and more.

Posted by BruceR at 12:11 PM