“WE ARE not the public service of Canada,” General Rick Hillier once told journalists. “We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.” Such a robust view of military power was unusual when General Hillier was appointed chief of the defence staff. In the three years he spent in the post before stepping down earlier this month, he almost succeeded in making it mainstream.
Canadians have often seemed more comfortable with an army that puts up tents and dishes out aid than with one that actually shoots people. The reasons for this are partly historical: the Liberal Party, which ruled Canada for most of the second half of the 20th century, drew much of its support from Quebec, where a dislike of military adventures dates back to the days of the British empire. Defence spending was frozen in the 1970s and 1980s, and then cut back in the 1990s.
Bucking this history, Canada announced in 2005 that it would assume NATO responsibility for providing security in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province and sent 2,000 soldiers to do the job. The task of selling the deployment of these troops fell to the plain-speaking general. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden were, he explained, “detestable murderers and scumbags” who should be hunted down.
To keep public opinion on his side, General Hillier made regular appearances on television accompanied by Afghan veterans, bringing him a level of fame previously unknown for an army officer in Canada. He took ice-hockey players to visit the troops and installed an all-Canadian doughnut shop on the army’s base in Kandahar. The election of the Conservatives in January 2006 made the task easier, providing strong political support for the intervention in Afghanistan. Even with the number of casualties rising (the 88th Canadian soldier was killed there on July 18th), Parliament has approved a two-year extension to the mission until 2011.
Money has followed. The government has acquired over 100 second-hand Leopard 2 tanks, four Boeing C-17 heavy transport aircraft, 17 Hercules planes and made a commitment to buy 16 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. The navy has not been left out, with a C$1.1 billion ($1.1 billion) refit for a dozen frigates and a C$2.9 billion contract for three ships to support army operations. There is even a plan for a naval port in Nanisivik, in the territory of Nunavut, and up to eight Arctic patrol vessels to fly the flag in the increasingly ice-free far north. In May Stephen Harper, the prime minister, unveiled a new defence strategy called Canada First, with a pledge to increase the annual budget for the military by two-thirds over 20 years.
General Hillier’s successor, Walter Natynczyk, has so far shown a less sure touch. When visiting troops in Kandahar recently he first played down the violence in the region and then conceded that things were in fact getting worse. He also has some unfamiliar problems to deal with. Soldiers are worn out after repeated tours and the army is having trouble retaining them and recruiting suitable replacements. So much so that they have begun to look for recruits in unlikely places. A Canadian Forces recruiting booth at Toronto’s gay pride festival was a surprising first.