An ex-general and his blunderbuss

Brian Stewart on Rick Hillier's populist agenda.

For Canada's government, Rick Hillier's memoirs are akin to those nightmarish minefields strewn throughout modern wars — any way you scramble to get clear you're likely to stumble on something that goes boom.

Canada's former top soldier has very carefully laced his minefield revelations in this new book, which has just been released.

They're aimed directly at what to him is clearly Ottawa's craven, risk-adverse failings throughout the whole Afghanistan mission.

Canada's former top general, Rick Hillier, atop a Leopard tank in 2008. (Canadian Press)

By Hillier's account, no arm of government outside the military has performed well in this first true war since Korea. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that, if the Afghanistan mission fails, as well it might, then the blame must fall on the politicians and bureaucrats, not the soldiers.

I should note here what a rare, perhaps unique, moment this is in political-military relations in this country.

Both serving and retired generals traditionally pull their punches when it comes to differences with their civilian bosses.

The bravest of battlefield commanders often quail before the displeasure of those in high office. But not Hillier.

He has been the most influential and popular military figure in generations and is perhaps too frustrated — or too sure of his populist clout — to hide his grievances.

Self-serving and inept

In these memoirs, Hillier is most scathing when dealing with the unelected officials who hold great power in the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office and other senior areas of the federal bureaucracy, regardless it seems of which party is in power.

He clearly despises these bureaucrats as cowardly, self-serving and inept.

In his account, Ottawa (under the Liberals) was quick to send tired, under-strength units off to conflict zones — first the Balkans and later Afghanistan — in order to win points with allies.

It was then equally swift to put limits on the ability of our soldiers to do their jobs in the field for fear of any political fallout.

Reading Hillier, you can almost hear the sound of sweaty official hands wringing whenever military missions report in from abroad.

In one striking revelation, Hillier writes that when he was commander of the ISAF, the international force in Kabul in 2003-04, he would resist calling out Canadian troops for urgent operations, preferring to send British or Norwegian units instead.

This was not a reflection on our Canadian soldiers as on the fact that a perpetually nervous Ottawa insisted on debating and agonizing over even the smallest moves.

"The time, detail, pain and agony to get something done, and the hand-wringing over it, were so extensive that I concluded it just wasn't worthwhile to even ask Ottawa," Hillier writes.

"When I went to the British contingent or the Norwegians, they'd have the operation not just approved, but carried out in less than two hours."

Stay near Kabul

Hillier is at pains to point out that, contrary to accepted wisdom, it was not the military and certainly not himself, who urged the dangerous Kandahar mission upon the Liberal government of Paul Martin in 2005.

Hillier actually wanted Canadians to stay in Kabul, not because it was safer (which it certainly was) but because it was where Canada's efforts were being effective and appreciated.

NATO also did not want the Canadians to go off to Kandahar. It held out the option of the relatively quiet west of Afghanistan, to serve alongside the Italians.

Instead, however, Foreign Affairs, presumably with Martin's blessing, argued that Canada should play a "substantial role" in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban was regrouping.

The mission was pushed to go there for political reasons, in order to give Canada clout with Washington and certain European capitals, and Hillier insists he only learned of this when he returned to Ottawa, prior to becoming chief of the defence staff in 2005.

Three lost years?

Although Hillier warmly embraced the riskier Kandahar mission — and became its main defender in public — he now insists that it was seriously handicapped from the start by Ottawa's terror of assuming any real risk.

After Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry was killed in a suicide attack in 2006, Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency abandoned the field. Ottawa also restricted all civilian effort there to a bare minimum.

This was a disastrous setback. For the mission was designed from the start to be a "whole of government" operation, combining civilian governance and development with the security operations.

Now the soldiers were left to struggle on their own with what their role was supposed to be. 

The military command pleaded over and over again with Foreign Affairs and those around Prime Minister Stephen Harper to send back some diplomats and development experts, as soldiers could not handle everything themselves.

"We worked on every single level throughout the government of Canada, but Ottawa was so risk adverse that our efforts were to no avail. It took three years to get Foreign Affairs and CIDA back to full participation in the mission, and the effect of that gap are still felt."

'Making Canada small'

Despite his broad criticisms, Hillier writes respectfully of the two prime ministers he served, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, and lauds Defence Minister Peter MacKay as first rate.

However, he found them essentially powerless in the face of the greed and pettiness of Ottawa's super-bureaucrats.

The former general returns repeatedly to the fact that his military had to constantly fight for items that were desperately needed, including proper equipment, sufficient armour and reinforcements.

"The military was at war but the rest of government was not, and sometimes it felt like our war was in Ottawa, not Kandahar."

To Hillier, the military became simply another victim of bureaucratic turf-battles and a refusal to take risks, which are "Making Canada small," the title of one of his chapters.

You can no doubt expect to hear more of this central theme during his coming media tours.

Hillier says he was muzzled by Harper's PMO, which was resentful of his publicity.

His procurement needs were held up, and resisted by other departments. And the delays faced by National Defence reached the point of "sabotage," in his view, as bureaucratic resentment festered over the military's higher profile in the world.

"It is impossible to overestimate the amount of jealousy that developed in other government departments or to the lengths that some bureaucrats would go in order to sabotage a rival," he writes.

"I often saw sticks stuck in the spokes of the wheels of many of our programs. [S]ome programs were slowed to a crawl and others were stopped cold by bureaucratic delays, petty infighting and sometimes the incompetence of those who were responsible for moving those projects through."

A political agenda?

While Hillier's level of criticism is extraordinary, it loses force because he rarely names a bureaucratic or political culprit.

As usual, in these cases, when everyone is blamed, all individually feel less threatened.

His criticism is also global enough to make Canada seem almost the norm in inefficiency.

The UN, he says, is "useless," while NATO has become a foul decomposing corpse. "Any major setback will see if off to the cleaners."

Anyone who talks regularly to Canada's senior military officers knows that many who served in Afghanistan and made it "the cause of their generation" share Hillier's views.

Cries of "we were sold out" have not yet been heard. But one can already hear faint stirrings of the intense anger that will become public if Afghanistan ends in defeat and disillusion.

For Hillier's part, he seems to want a new debate that goes even beyond the war.

He seeks to galvanize national action against the suffocating bureaucracy of the federal government. He wants nothing less than drastic, top-down reform to topple the power of public servants and return government to elected officials.

He wants the kind of leadership that imposes its will on resisting government fiefdoms. A second book on "Leadership" is due out soon. There is no missing the message here.

How much impact will this book have?

Canadians don't usually pay much heed to retired generals and traditionally show minimal interest in military issues.

But Rick Hillier may be different.

For there's no doubt politicians and bureaucrats alike are wary of the former general, whom they see as a bemedalled and more articulate Don Cherry.

They know Hillier is capable of inspiring flag-waving patriots and military supporters whenever given the opportunity.

And with this publication he seems anxious to seize that opportunity with both hands.