Is it Rick Hillier’s war? With things going badly in Afghanistan, a controversy has developed over who was the main architect of the Kandahar component of the mission that has cost so many Canadian lives.
In his book, A Soldier First, which is jumping off the shelves, retired Gen. Rick Hillier tries to distance himself as the prime mover. The decision had already been made to go into Kandahar, he said, when he became head of the Armed Forces five years ago. That doesn’t quite square with the picture put forward in The Unexpected War, the award-winning book by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang.
Lang, who served as top adviser to former defence minister Bill Graham, said yesterday he stands by his story.
“My account is accurate. My account is based on research, not memory. I was at the table for many of the decisions and I subsequently interviewed many of the principals, including Hillier,” Lang said.
He said the decision that had been made was to send only a provincial reconstruction team of a couple hundred troops to Kandahar, not the full-fledged combat force that came about under Hillier.
The question is an important one. Hillier has elevated the reputation and stature of the Canadian military and deserves a lot of credit, as Lang points out, for doing so. There is uneasiness, however, over Hillier’s larger vision. He has a simplistic notion of the world as being divided into good guys and bad and saw the Canadian role as being to get out there to kill those “scumbags,” as he called them. The approach marked a wholesale shift from peacekeeping and the advocacy of soft power.
Hillier, who has described himself as being to the right of Attila the Hun, refers to soft power in his book as “sheer lunacy.”
How the war pans out will impact heavily on his reputation and how his redefinition sits with Canadians. He does say in his book, which is full of praise for former prime minister Paul Martin, that Canadian troops could have served in far more safer areas in Afghanistan, like Herat. But there wouldn’t have been “the visibility, credibility or impact internationally.”
The country has never had a military boss with the punch and public relations power of Hillier. He is Fort Hood (Texas), where he served, come north. But while we needed some of that mentality, his dismissive attitude toward soft power and civilian oversight is worrisome to say the least.
If he read more history, he would know what happens or might have happened when too much power is left in the hands of generals. He could start with the Cuban missile crisis and the hot-button ravings of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay. If he had not been overruled by civilians at the Kennedy White House, Hillier wouldn’t even be here. Neither would the rest of us.