October 18, 2004

Louis Riel, call your agent

The CBC's "greatest Canadian" list has been whittled down to the top 10. No doubt regrettably, only two are currently employees of the CBC (David Suzuki and Don Cherry).

They compete with three prime ministers (Macdonald, Pearson and Trudeau), two inventors (Bell and Banting), The Great One, Terry Fox, and the founder of public health care.

Predictably, no military figures made the top 10... those that placed in the top 100 at all were Romeo Dallaire (#16), Arthur Currie (#24), Brock (#28), Tecumseh (#37), Billy Bishop (#48), William Stephenson (#54), war poet John McCrae (#76) and sneaking in at the bottom even though he wasn't in the CBC's initial list of suggested great people, Sam Steele (#99). I'd say around half of those eight deserve the honour, along with others unrecognized, but you'll have to read my own greatest military Canadian posts to figure out which ones. Read on, if you dare.

This is part of the reason I don't place a lot of faith in any honours system, populist ones included. (I'm not crazy about the current AIDS-conspiracy-touting Nobel Peace Laureate, either.)

NOTE: Also interesting are the people the CBC initially suggested, but who didn't make the final top 100, suggesting they have zero name recognition among Canadians outside the CBC studios: WWI aces Barker and Brown, French-Canadian world war heroes Vanier and Menard, modern generals De Chastelain and Mackenzie, Native American legends Kondiaronk and Joseph Brant. (Gabriel Dumont, a talented fighter who was not on my list, because he was, well, an anti-Canadian guerilla, also went poof.)

All had bios on the CBC site initially, that have now dropped down the memory hole due to their failing to develop good brand identity in their lifetimes, apparently. That would seem to put our largest collective mil-hist knowledge gaps as Canadians in the areas of the Indian wars, armed services other than the army, Quebec's military contributions, and everything since V-E Day: if I were on a history curriculum committee somewhere I might think about that.

And please note: the CBC suggested 15 military figures in their first list. The Canadian public knocked that down to only eight, allowing more room for singers and hockey players, suggesting the public as a whole sees military matters as even less relevant to their lives than our public broadcaster does. You might want to think about that next time you hear someone talking about the silent majority of Canadians who support the military despite all the bad press. They're certainly awfully silent... if they're out there at all.

It doesn't actually surprise me, though. My recent epiphany has been that the purpose of this blog as it goes into its fourth year is largely as a chronicle from a serving member's point of view of the coming culmination of Canada's bold and decades-long historical experiment: the first major industrial nation to disarm ourselves completely. It's still a couple decades away, but I'm not going anywhere. I'll keep you posted how it's turning out.

Posted by BruceR at 11:25 PM


With the announcement of the "ten greatest Canadians" list yesterday, it's as good a time as any to finish off my greatest military Canadians list. If you want to see the precursor posts to this, they're here:

part 1 (Brutinel, Fitzgibbon, Crerar)
part 2 (Dextraze, Foulkes, Grant, Salaberry)
part 3 (Hoffmeister, Birchall, Simonds, Collishaw)

Funnily enough, the Canadian military figure who I humbly suspect I most resemble (in disposition, but not ability), didn't even make my own list. That doesn't mean he wasn't a remarkable fellow in his own way, though.

You see, a lot of people see E.L.M. "Tommy" Burns, commander of 1 Canadian Corps and UNEF, as a flawed figure... distant, dour, unapproachable, sarcastic... relieved of command while in Italy in 1944 for command failure. The men called him "Smiling Sunray," because he never did. A World War One vet, he had intelligence in dollops, but not so much wisdom, it seems... his career was one long series of personal disasters, followed by startling comebacks. The final comeback, of course, was when he just happened to be a military observer in Palestine in 1956 when the first ever UN peacekeeping force needed a commander, and Tommy Burns came in from the cold for the last time.

But it's not those characteristics (or his surprisingly tumultuous romantic life, or his time in India) that endears Burns to me. It was his pseudonymous writing, under his superiors' noses, as "Arlington B. Conway," military expert for H.L. Mencken's American Mercury, one of the most controversial journals of the day. In the 1920s, "Arlington" wrote a series of reasonably perceptive articles for Mencken on the way modern war was going to change, and also made some forays into other areas, such as playwriting. A deeply cynical man about some things (he believed Canada was doomed to be absorbed by the United States), Burns' odd puckishness in this shows a man stifled by peacetime soldiering, even if he would be promoted past his competence level, and disgraced again, once war finally came. If they'd existed at the time, no doubt Burns would have been the first soldier-blogger.

I have actually met one fellow who served in Burns' Corps. Brig. Gen. H.E. Brown and I run into each other from time to time... most recently at the Pickersgill-Macalister memorial. He's an amazing fellow... still ramrod straight, and fierce when he needs to be (it's rumoured the men called him "High Explosive"), but he's always had a kind and supportive word for me when he hears what I've been up to. He's really quite a wonderful man and a soldier. Running into him in the halls for me is like that scene at the end of "Saving Private Ryan." I want to go find a friend and be reassured that I'm a good man leading a good life.

So here we go: the final top 4:

4) Col. Joseph Thayendanegea Brant (1742-1807): Adopted son of British-factotum-to-the-Mohawks William Johnson, Brant may be the most successful American Native war leader ever. His unbroken string of victories over the Americans began in 1777 at Oriskany. Fighting a losing battle against what was, in effect, the ethnic cleansing of Britain's Indian allies in western New York post-Saratoga, his attacks repeatedly stung the Americans with their superior cross-country speed and ferocity. His organization of the near simultaneous raids at Andrustown and Minisink, 100 miles apart within 72 hours of each other, still amazes those who study it. The German Flats and Cherry Valley raids in 1778 were brutal attacks that sent pro-rebel colonists fleeing in the hundreds for Albany. Laying low while furious American reprisals missed his own people, instead largely destroying the pro-American Oneida nation in frustration, Brant returned to the field again in 1780, repeating his raid-then-run-flat-out-for-two-days-and-nights-then-raid-again strategy, sacking Minisink a second time. Later the same year, Canajoharie and the Schoharie Valley were burnt flat. An estimated 200 homes and 150,000 bushels of wheat were destroyed. The Americans simply could not predict or anticipate Brant's Mohawks' absolutely amazing mobility, remarkable even by Indian standards.

Brant lived in an inhuman moment in time, but he was not without some charity, in his own way. When American Col. Archibald Lochry walked his unit into Brant's trap in 1781, Brant killed two-thirds of the Pennsylvanians and had the rest at his mercy, but then stopped the slaughter and let the remainder escape. When the infamous Indian Department agent Simon Girty taunted him for showing such weakness, Brant calmly put his sabre through Girty's cheek.

With the war over, Brant withdrew with his now-refugee people, their homes and fields burnt and destroyed, to the Grand River settlements in Ontario to start their new life. He remained peaceable and loyal to the British Crown throughout, and the Grand River became a sanctuary of sorts for Indians headed north from American land grabs. In the War of 1812, his son John would return with the Grand River Mohawk to the battlefield again; that time, for once, they helped stop their historic enemies long before their own hearths were endangered.

3) Maj. Gen. Sir Samuel Benford Steele (1849-1919): What can you say about Sam Steele? The John Wayne figure of Canadian history, he really does seem to have come about "legend in his own time" status honestly. Historical revisionism hasn't laid a glove on him yet, but I suspect he'd still typify Western Canadian machoism even if it did.

Okay, where do you start? He was a private in Wolseley's 1870 Red River expedition to establish military control over Manitoba, an expedition that was hailed across the Empire at the time for crossing an unbelievable stretch of trackless wilderness without human loss. Then, one of the first recruits for the new Canadian Permanent (Regular) Force army in 1871. He then joined the newly formed North West Mounted Police, and headed west with the first contingent as its sergeant-major. The usual legends ensue; then in 1885, he's in charge of the Canadian army's scouts, pursuing Big Bear across Assiniboia. In 1887 he single-handedly resolved the "Kootenay Crisis," between Indians and settlers in B.C. Then from 1898 to 1899, he more or less kept the peace in the Yukon by himself, in the middle of a gold rush, no less. Then he was off to South Africa with the army again, as first CO of Lord Strathcona's Horse. He stayed on there to form and run the South African Constabulary. World War One comes, and the old guy signs up again, and runs things in the big Canadian base camp at Shornecliffe, Britain.

There seem to be more stories out there about Sam Steele than there are about Mufferaw Joe. If half of them are true, he was a tank of a man indeed. But throughout, he remains best known as a peacemaker and peacekeeper, bringing law to places where there was none, with a soft word AND a gun. Although it wasn't just him, he as much as anyone laid the foundations for a Canadian tradition that may just be more valuable and deeper-sown then medicare or multiculturalism. You could even say that, in Canadian military history, the titanic struggles of 1914 and 1939 were noble levee-en-masse aberrations, and that our true military tradition is that unbroken line of frontier peacekeeping from Steele, through to Bosnia and Afghanistan today.

2) Col. John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806): Simcoe the kids will know. The founder of Upper Canada (Ontario), he had the dual blessings for history teachers today of a wife who was good at diarizing, and just happening to be the first British governor to declare the abolition of human slavery. (With a colony to build from nothing but snow and trees, Canadian black Loyalists were in a position to bargain.)

What they don't talk about in history class was that Simcoe was also an accomplished officer. A student of light infantry tactics, he inherited command of the Queen's Rangers, the green-clad Loyalist skirmishers of the American Revolution, in 1778. Captured in 1779, he was exchanged, and returned to command in 1781. At the head of one of Cornwallis's raiding columns, along with the better-known Arnold and Tarleton, he led a brilliant little action at Charles City, Virginia, then defeated Von Steuben at Point of Fork, and fought Lafayette to a draw at Spencer Tavern, before the curtain closed on them all at Yorktown. He wrote a well-received book on light infantry fighting in 1787, and then returned to North America as a lieutenant-governor from 1791-1798. As governor, it is widely related, he showed incredible energy, if not always in the wisest ways. But the colony, some of whose settlers had fought in Simcoe's regiment, thrived under his leadership. A man who was capable of raiding and destroying, he turned into someone capable of building and rebuilding when the shooting subsided. He was a great soldier and leader of men, who was also a founder of this country. Let this stand as a request that people try to see him as both, rather than just the latter.

1) Gen. Sir Arthur William Currie (1875-1933): For those who don't know the name, and there are many, many Canadians who do not, Currie commanded the Canadian Corps from mid-1917 to the end of the First World War. A failure and embezzler in his civilian life, he was saved from personal ruin by the onset of war, when his Victoria militia colonelcy actually began to mean something. His famous pear-shaped physique (a result of a sedentary lifestyle as much as genetics) made him ungainly in any uniform. The troops didn't think much of him, either. Brooke, Britain's chief soldier in the next war, served under Currie and thought of him as a colonial amateur. And yet, based purely on his record of success, he was the best Corps commander, bar none, the Allied armies had in the First World War.

currieLots of reasons have been put forward why the Canadians did better than average British (or American) troops in Flanders. Many can be at least partially attributed to Currie. He resisted the urge to put a two-Corps army in the field, turning down the promotion it would have meant for him, to keep his four divisions at greater-than-average strength (and his volunteer-to-conscript ratio higher than the British). Canadian troops had more machine guns per company than British troops. They spent more time when out of the line training than British troops. Canadian brigades, unlike British ones, had dedicated intelligence staff in the headquarters, and disseminated intelligence more effectively to lower levels. Written orders were more thorough and passed on more rapidly than in the British formations. Currie insisted on detailed rehearsals and after-action reviews at every level.

Most importantly perhaps, nearly everyone who actually worked for Currie (the "band of brothers," as British subordinate William Ironside termed it) was fiercely devoted to the man. The exception was Brooke, his one-time artillery chief, but one history prof I know suspects this was largely because of Currie's mission-focussed way of sometimes jumping the chain of command when he wanted answers, rankling Brooke by bypassing him. Otherwise, Currie gathered talent around him, and by all accounts man-managed them spectacularly well. Currie has been called the "CEO general"; I see that more flattering to CEOs than to Currie. Although stiff in public, he was collegial and human with his inner circle, constantly encouraging and demanding any new ideas from below that could staunch the ongoing trench slaughter.

Currie's greatest strength and greatest flaw was he was not at all diplomatic. Arriving late and mud-spattered for an orders group where he was supposed to take over the Passchendaele battle from Monash and the Australians in 1917, he disagreed when Monash announced how many artillery pieces the Australians were turning over to him, saying in reality there were significantly fewer guns, scattered over miles of frontage. Monash, embarrassed, demanded proof, to which Currie replied dryly, "I've just been counting them." The two had other differences, but put them aside to jointly fight and win the greatest "British" victory of the trench war, at Amiens.

Winning was everything to Currie, and heirarchies, formalities, and niceties be damned whenever they threatened to get in his way. Fearless under shell fire, he worked even after his troops were in contact with the enemy to the point of physical collapse. His "colonial" eccentricities were frowned on by Haig and the British generals, but respected by politicians like British prime minister Lloyd George and Borden. Lloyd George, who came to rely on the Canadians to tell the truth of what was actually going on in Flanders, called him "brilliant" and privately wished he could have given him (and Monash) a British army to command.

As a new brigade commander at Second Ypres, with his troops dying horribly in the first-ever use of gas in warfare, Currie couldn't understand why the British 27th Division to his left wasn't moving to plug a gaping hole in the line that threatened to cut him off entirely. Leaving his headquarters, he walked alone for a direct confrontation with the very-oldschool British Maj. Gen. Snow in his bunker... the resulting Currie-Snow affair would rocket down through the history books for decades. (Snow lost his temper, and later declared Currie should have been shot for impertinence.) It led to considerable Canadian military discontent with their continued "colonial" status, in much the same way Gallipoli made Australians think twice about their future in the Empire.

The CBC, which is behind this current "greatest Canadian" shtick, ran another of their McKenna revisionist history documentaries a few years back, accusing Currie of losing men unnecessarily when the Canadian Corps captured Mons on Nov. 11, 1918 (in reality only one Canadian was killed on the final day, and Currie had given no orders to attack, just keep on the Germans' heels). Currie had sued the first paper to run the allegations in 1927 (first made by controversial Canadian soldier-politician Sam Hughes, who disliked Currie because he had passed over his son for promotion, among other things, and who by that stage of his life was, in retrospect, quite mad). Currie won in court: apparently a libel suit victory in this country only means the Mother Corp has to wait 60 years or so to resurrect the old lies again.

Currie had left the army in 1920, after only five years of full-time soldiering, and never returned to it. Instead he became and remained principal of Montreal's prestigious McGill University for the rest of his life, despite never having a university degree himself.

Public broadcasting's efforts notwithstanding, Currie's role in establishing 20th century Canada is assured. The postwar gains in Canadian self-determination were entirely a tribute to the battlefield performance of the men he led, which also contributed to the beginnings of a distinct Canadian identity separate from British immigrant roots. His on-the-job pupils would command Canada's army units for the next 30 years. And not the least, his determination to win at the lowest cost in Canadian lives probably saved some number of lives in Canada's own "greatest generation" of future leaders in other fields: Pearson, Banting, Bethune, etc. He brought home everyone he could, and then they all went back to building a country together. For that, he is indubitably Canada's greatest soldier.

LIST UPDATE: Since beginning to write this, regrettably the one living Canadian on the list, Air Commodore Len Birchall (#7) passed away on Sept. 10. As I feared even as I wrote about him, the death of one of Canada's greatest military heroes went largely unmarked by the public.

Posted by BruceR at 10:39 PM

He's got a point, but still...

"The idea that two groups are arguing over the best way to kill coalition forces is something that I find difficult to differentiate... If one thinks it's better to kill and not behead, and the other group thinks it's better to kill and behead, it has the same effect on our forces."

--Brigadier General John Defreitas III, deputy chief of staff for intelligence of the Multinational Force-Iraq, in the Boston Globe, today

I'm not sure that's the deepest analysis from an intelligence officer I've ever read... anyway, the article goes on to state the current intelligence picture has the Iraqi insurgency at 12,000 strong actually in arms, not counting "weekend warriors," enablers, and non-armed supporters. It's not clear whether that includes Shiites, or is just the Sunni insurgents.

UPDATE: It is up, however, from the last official estimate, in November, 2003, of 5,000 insurgents... along with 20-50,000 active supporters... assuming that that number has also grown commensurately, that'd be 100,000 now actively working against the Americans. One could argue that American actions over the last year, by their own estimates, have only served to increase the size of their enemy's force by 150%.

UPDATE #2: Here's another way to look at it: last October, the Iraqi army had one trained battalion (800 men), half of whom would desert within a month. As of last month, it had seven battalions, counting the commando battalion (5,600 men). So in a year, the Americans added 4,800 trained Iraqi soldiers to their combat strength; the insurgents, according to American estimates, added 7,000 insurgents to theirs.

Posted by BruceR at 05:34 PM

This is an amazing thread

The Canadian Army has had troubles with discussion forums. When Land Force Reserve Restructuring had a website, there was an attempt to create a consequences-free discussion space. It was remarkably well-moderated by an overtasked army public affairs major, but closed down along with the rest of the site (leaving an awkward 404 at the top of the Google results for LFRR to this day).

The know-it-alls then gravitated to an all-army discussion board, which didn't last long.

Now they're over at army.ca, where the government is not responsible for the content. It's thriving there: it is probably the easiest way today to get an honest picture of Canadian land force service issues, and one of the most effective communications tools to reach today's soldiers, as well. They're not reading the CF newspaper, the Maple Leaf, or any other official products. If you're lucky, though, they may drop by this website.

What's remarkable is the occasional military leader who recognizes this. Particularly one colonel I've met a couple of times. A complaint thread about the food at the latest army reserve exercise took an entirely new turn here when that officer, going by the handle "PPCLI Guy," as in the guy who actually ORGANIZED that exercise, dropped in to take it on the chin and dish it out in turn. It's freaking amazing communications work, on every level. Good on you, sir.

Everytime I consult on people about discussion forums, I tell them the same thing: the discussion about your product/service is going to go on anyway... better to have it where you can listen in, in almost all cases. The alternative, of course, is to spend PR dollars actively monitoring the places online where it does happen, and inserting the big dog when appropriate. (Computer games companies are particularly good at this.) Most people, however, haven't caught on yet, in the military or out.

Posted by BruceR at 02:22 PM

The reason for subs

So what is the point of submarines anyway? Nearly every commentator on the fatal fire on HMCS Chicoutimi has questioned that one, to the point where it seems increasingly likely the major upshot of the tragic death of a naval lieutenant will be the abandonment of any subsurface role by the navy.

Before that happens, it is probably worth pointing out that the four diesel submarines are the only dedicated, full-time maritime sovereignty vessels Canada has left. The only ones. If you're a Canadian hypernationalist, or if you believe Canada should help the United States defend the maritime approaches to the country, they're the only naval resources left you should have the slightest interest in.

What about the surface vessels, you ask? Canada's 16 remaining destroyers and frigates are only enough to put one or two out at sea per coast, at a time. (For much of the rest of the time, they are filling out American or NATO surface groups somewhere in the world: putting more frigates on the coast approaches would require reneging on most of those commitments, which the navy is manifestly unwilling to do.) The 12 Naval Reserve minesweeper-sized coastal defence vessels are slow and non-threatening, and dependent on the availability of reservist volunteers (there is no job protection for reservists in Canada, remember). Coastal aircraft are in short supply, and have their own limitations (and are also frequently called on for foreign deployments).

The subs on the other hand are entirely dedicated to knowing what's on Canada's maritime approaches. That is their only role.

Subs are a huge force multiplier for a coastal defence operation. Tracking them is extremely difficult, even for allies: underwater they're as fast as a surface ship, and can stay out on station at least as long. It is not inconceivable that, if Canada had only surface vessels to patrol with, a well-financed immigrant smuggling/drug trafficking/illegal fishing concern could, with a guy with binoculars at Halifax or Esquimalt and a little basic surface radar capability, keep track and avoid any Canadian surface naval vessel that might intercept them. (You could track the subs leaving harbour, too, but after that, they're gone like Keyser Sose.) Whether your activities are being watched goes from being a known known to a known unknown with subs, and there's no doubt that the kinds of clandestine activities above have governed themselves accordingly in the past.

Subs are so useful in continental defence that it is inevitable that, if Canadian subs aren't available, US Navy subs will take their place in those waters, either on our request, or to reassure themselves that Canada's coasts are being sufficiently watched. (As I mentioned previously, if we lacked that capability themselves, it is entirely likely they would not tell us everything their subs find, either.) We have already handed over significant swathes of Canadian sky to American air interdiction... removing the subs from service now would erode actual physical maintenance of national sovereignty, in favour of American overwatch, far more than the loss of any other major weapons system.

Yes, with subs the coverage is somewhat more ephemeral... no ensigns fluttering in the breeze. But this hopelessly optimistic page may give you an idea what kind of resources would be required for actual visible coverage of Canada's waters... given the funding situation, the navy will never see that kind of money. So the real choices are either shaky coverage, with the subs providing an element of doubt, or much less than the kind of naval panoply envisioned there.

No, they're not going to dramatically rescue any lost fishermen, or probably ever fire those torpedoes in anger, either. But those four Victoria-class subs now nearing the block were envisioned as doing more than their share of the job of actually securing Canadian waters until at least 2020. Commentators who question the need for them, in favour of other funding priorities, need to be whacked with a clue bat. Hard.

You wait, though. This whole thing is coming more and more to resemble the Arrow-Bomarc saga, where Canada destroyed its domestic fighter aircraft industry (which the newspapers at the time, it should be remembered, criticized as costly and unnecessary) in favour of purchasing a supposedly cheaper surface-to-air missile net that never worked: what we're going to see now, if that parallel plays out, is more and more people proposing in the papers that we can decommission those nasty subs and use that money to fund something like the defence minister's proposed "peacekeeping brigade" (or maybe even daycare). That's how knee-jerk responses to costly programs that columnists can't see the military value of normally end up.

Posted by BruceR at 12:17 PM

Now with extra curd

Like all Canadians (admit it) my first thought when I read Matt Yglesias' "creeping Putinization of American life" post was that but for want of a vowel or two it could have been "creeping Poutine-ization of American life."

Which, come to think of it, also works.

Posted by BruceR at 10:01 AM