Public debate continues over the most desirable role and size for Canada's military.

With Soviet armed might fragmented and dismantled at the end of the Cold War, many people felt Canada could reduce military spending substantially and direct the savings into social welfare and health care programs. The revenue to be accrued from this decrease in military expenditures was termed the "peace dividend."

Royal 22e Regiment Forms an Honour Guard, Nicosia, Cyprus, March 1964.
United Nations (UN 84255).

Royal 22e Regiment Forms an Honour Guard, Nicosia, Cyprus, March 1964.

 

In a world perceived as being largely without substantial external military threat to nations, Canada would not require the costly armoured fighting vehicles, combat aircraft, warships, and other high technology equipment needed for modern conventional warfare. Canada could instead maintain lightly equipped forces to concentrate on peacekeeping work through the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. Such missions had long been an important way in which Canada helped pay its dues in collective security.

Events of the next decade undermined this optimistic forecast.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait showed that substantial fighting capability was still needed to combat aggression. The Balkan morass demonstrated that Canada's previous experience in peacekeeping-situations in which lightly armed forces were primarily involved in monitoring truce lines-was not applicable to ethnic conflicts where heavily armed militarized factions were determined to systematically eradicate other groups. The need for heavier armament to engage this new type of peacekeeping situation became apparent when Canada's initial force was dispatched to the Balkans in 1992. Fortunately, the Canadian contingent insisted on taking along their armoured personnel carriers, rather than trucks as the UN had specified. As a result, they were the only UN force equipped to attempt to relieve Sarajevo.

Canada was, however, ill prepared for the more severe demands of a combat role in the UN Security Council-sanctioned Gulf War. For the previous two decades, the country had maintained almost the lowest per capita expenditure on defence amongst the nations of the NATO alliance. This policy left Canada's military small in size and poorly equipped in terms of modern combat capability. The shortcoming meant that Canada was unable to put together an effective army combat component for the Gulf War.

The limited scale of its potential military involvement can cut Canada out of top-level decision making. Just months after the end of the Gulf War, Canada was excluded from the contact group of five nations developing strategic planning for intervention in Yugoslavia. Although Canada had the third largest UN contingent there, the nation's limited role in the Gulf War probably deprived it of a seat at the council table. Canada was thus denied access to a forum where decisions were made directly affecting its soldiers.

Although the public often resents peacetime expenditures on military forces, they are essentially an insurance policy against an unknowable future that may unhappily involve resort to armed forces. Early nineteenth-century humorist Josh Billings said, "There may come a time when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, but I am still betting on the lion." Modern armed forces require complex skills that can neither be developed overnight nor maintained in the absence of the relevant equipment and adequate funding for training. In both world wars, Canada mobilized with only a limited number of trained military personnel available, but the circumstances of those conflicts allowed for this problem to be addressed. For the most part, Canada had sufficient time to train its new expanded forces before they had to be committed to combat. The pace of modern conflicts suggests that Canada will not have that luxury in the future. Canada's current defence policy sets a brigade group as the minimum army task force for deployment in an emergency. Yet, for years, unreasonable expectations and insufficient funding have severely restricted the amount of collective training provided at brigade and unit levels. For example, combat infantry soldiers, the basic building blocks of any army, have been limited to as little as 15 days of field training per year. Whether Canada could quickly field an effective force is thus questionable.

The catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 will no doubt define a new direction for collective security. To have a voice in shaping its strategy, Canada must maintain armed forces that contribute significantly to world security.

In 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields," a call to arms that Canadians widely revere and frequently quote on Remembrance Day. The poem concludes:

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

These lines are repeated here as a fitting conclusion to this portion of the Web site, a resource dedicated to the memory of those whose sacrifices have helped Canadians to live freely in peace and prosperity. May it stiffen Canadians' resolve to keep faith with those who lie in Flanders fields.

 

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