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Richard Shimooka: Why Canada needs a new model for civil-military relations

Commentary

Every year on Remembrance Day, Veterans Affairs Canada releases a video reminding Canadians about the people the day is intended to commemorate. Most notably, the images intend to humanize them, often portraying them as everyday Canadians—who could be family members, friends, and the like. Certainly, that was true during the two world wars, when citizens were mass-mobilized to fight the Axis. The reality of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) today is much more complex, and misperceptions surrounding it have had real consequences on its current state. 

The CAF plays a unique role within Canadian society, as one of the primary instruments by which the government employs violence in defence of the country, which requires the military to maintain a culture dedicated to ensuring its personnel are able to carry out their roles reliably under difficult conditions. To this end, soldiers are indoctrinated according to long-held traditions and codes that lionize valour, duty, and sacrifice. 

The CAF’s culture is a critical glue that holds the force together in extremely difficult operations. Yet its soldiers must be agile, intellectually and technologically, to defend the country from foreign threats and provide support to domestic civil authorities. It must also reflect the values of broader society; otherwise, the population will not support its operations, nor will people join as recruits. Navigating between these two poles is essential for the CAF’s survival. 

The uniqueness of the CAF extends beyond just the culture of the rank and file—its entire institutional existence is unlike any other organization in Canada: in law, the chief of the defence staff (CDS) position derives his line of authority from the monarch, though convention subordinates the position to the minister of national defence. This however has contributed to the situation the CAF finds itself in today, and why a new model for civil-military relations may be required. 

The current model of civil-military relations emerged as a result of the challenge of managing the CAF after the Second World War. For much of that time, the dynamic of that debate has been resources: allocating enough for peacetime administration versus preparing for wartime operations. The needs of the latter, as the Second World War demonstrated, required major economic mobilization and dislocation. Preparing for that end required the maintenance of a structure to do so, which was a costly enterprise. 

The drive for “administrative efficiency” enabled one of the most consequential reforms: the Unification of the CAF during the 1960s, which eliminated the separate services (the army, navy, and air force) and amalgamated them into a single service structure. This approach was largely based on trying to consolidate duplicated functions into a single organization to find cost savings, but it destroyed morale. It also illustrates a dynamic that continues to this day, with attempts to reform aspects of the military culture from the outside tending to go poorly and resulting in severe consequences for morale and retention. 

Not immediately obvious, but a key part of this debate, was the relationship between the civilian and military leadership. The effort to increase efficiencies resulted in a consistent effort to elevate civilians into roles previously held by military members, curtailing the authority of senior military staffs. A 1980 study of Unification’s effects on the military noted how “civilian standards and values… are increasingly being used to assess Forces’ needs and goals, because we no longer have clearly defined and defensible military values.” It went on to say there “was urgent need to address this problem squarely.” Instead, the trend largely continued for the next 40 years.

The height of this occurred in the 1990s, which was marked by the “defence team,” where civilian officials were often involved in military decision-making. Even though that practice was officially discontinued in the early 2000s, the influence of civilians is felt across the department and the military each day, often making decisions on the day-to-day lives of military personnel. Although all decisions likely require some level of civilian input, the balance of civilian considerations over military ones is skewed. This often manifests in policies that add excessive bureaucratic requirements on troops, or does not address their needs, or are slow to react. 

In addition, the CAF has been affected by a growing shift within the bureaucracy that limits its independence and authority to implement decisions. This was not unique to the military, but one that was evident across all departments. The civilian bureaucracy, once prized for its independence and ability to speak truth to power, has slowly become reticent, instead being focused on defending the government of the day. This has emerged during major scandals like SNC-Lavalin, We Charity, and the like, where public servants are frequently seen to bend professional ethics to support the prerogatives of the government of the day.

While the CAF resisted these pressures better than other departments, it too has succumbed to this pressure. One study published a decade ago found that senior military personnel felt dissuaded from offering frank advice to the government that contradicted the latter’s established political decisions. Moreover, the CAF’s ability to communicate with the public has been curtailed, especially following the imposition of “message control” during the Afghanistan mission under the Harper government. This has contributed to the situation where the basics of defence and military policy and strategy are non-existent among the wider populace and leaves the service vulnerable to criticism over its policies, as its side is unable or unwilling to address incorrect claims in a timely and factual manner. 

While the embarrassing state of the CAF today has many different sources, the impact of civil-military relations cannot be ignored. The last several decades have led to the present moment, where the CAF is suffering massive retention issues, ageing and increasingly decrepit capabilities, and problems with its institutional culture. 

Realigning the balance in civilian control within the department is key. One option would be to reinvest some authority back into the military to identify solutions and implement decisions. The current model robs authority and accountability from the military—which results in paralysis and avoidance of difficult decisions. Reversing that trend would allow for greater accountability and improve policy outcomes as there would be better buy-in from the rank-and-file personnel. 

Improving the capacity of the military to manage its affairs should not compromise civil control, especially if it results in superior outcomes that are in line with the government’s broader interests. Furthermore, providing military officials greater independence and freedom to speak may also improve outcomes. 

Several weeks ago, the CDS, General Wayne Eyre, delivered an honest assessment of the state of the CAF and signalled its inability to deploy forces. This is a good first step—by clearly communicating the military’s perilous state, he limited the government’s available options. This brought some much-needed skepticism to the prime minister’s call for a potential military intervention to Haiti a few weeks later. While that might be out of sync with the political intent, it prevented the government from implementing an unsustainable military operation. 

Considering the state of the armed forces, it is clear that the current model of relations has contributed to its decline. If the government is serious about improving the state, addressing it must be one of its first tasks.

Janet Bufton: The pandemic shows we expect too much of governments and too little of ourselves

Commentary

The saying in early 2020 was that there are no libertarians in a pandemic. 

It’s been a disappointing time to be a libertarian. It’s not that there are no libertarian responses to a public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. But those responses turned out to be unpopular, even where they seemed realistic.

The political right, including many libertarians, embraced the idea that Covid-19 is not a serious enough virus to warrant a serious response. The political left had no time for the idea that there was any role for individual responsibility. And an opportunity for libertarians to contribute meaningfully was squandered. 

Mandates to the left of me, minimizing to the right

Since the beginning of 2020, I’ve changed my mind about how much Canadians are willing to give up to help each other. 

Skeptics of big, active government should acknowledge that there are problems that don’t have individual solutions and need collective action to respond. The Covid-19 pandemic is an excellent example: Even if I have the resources to wear high-quality masks, to stay home when sick, and to test diligently, I depend on other people to do the same. 

But I was unrealistic about how much even people who want society to respond together will do voluntarily to help each other if that help costs them something unless everyone is forced to do it together. As though nothing any of us does on our own matters at all. 

It’s normal and necessary for individual action to support collective action. We have municipal waste collection and municipal workers who clean our streets and parks, but we’re still expected not to litter, and we act as enforcers when we call out people who do. We live in a democracy, so we need to convince others to support policy changes if we want those changes to stick. Sometimes government policy change helps persuade people, but this time it didn’t.

By relying almost completely on mandates, especially in Ontario, we’ve sidestepped important parts of social change that would have supported “living with Covid.” We didn’t update “what’s normal?” or “what’s polite?” We let bylaw officers show up instead. It’s no wonder that masking disappeared so quickly when mandates went out the window.

Almost as troubling was how the attitude of “mandates-only” contributed to politicizing the pandemic. If the only response to a dangerous virus is government mandates, then the stakes of politics become very high. 

On the political Right, we’ve seen a rise in those who deny the severity of the virus as a way of denying their responsibility to do anything about it. I think the belief at the root of this response is the same as the belief that supports mandates: if Covid-19 is a public health threat, then sweeping government mandates are needed to fight it. Those who buy that but don’t want to change their own behaviour have a strong incentive to believe there’s nothing to worry about.

It has been maddening to see those who take up the call of “Freedom!” deny that there’s any problem worth worrying about. There is nothing small-government about the position that when there is not a problem, the government shouldn’t do anything to solve it. The case for libertarianism rests on the belief that hard, important problems need individual action, innovation, and buy-in. Not a belief that we live in a world without hard, important problems.

The polarization of pandemic issues is so severe that we can’t even agree on what “doing something” or “moving on” look like. Wearing a mask, testing a few times, and working remotely when sick but otherwise returning to normal could qualify as either to the right person. The inability to agree makes it harder to be anything but angry at each other. 

Voluntary responses are good, even if they’re not sufficient

What would have been libertarian policy responses to the pandemic? First and foremost—though some might not call it a policy response—is significant voluntary mitigation for the sake of one another and especially for the sake of the most vulnerable. 

It sounds unrealistic now, but the remarkable solidarity shown in the early days of the pandemic suggests that Canadians had the capacity not so long ago to do on our own what is generally considered prudent mitigation now: masking in certain scenarios, testing appropriately, and staying home while sick. We were also willing, not so long ago, to accept that those who can most easily make changes should take on the burden they can for the sake of those with fewer options, whether for socioeconomic or medical reasons. 

Somewhere along the way we flipped the onus. During lockdowns, many who could continue earning an income from home, or whose childcare or education was not disrupted, seemed to many more concerned with implementing the right policy response than about those whose lives were upended. When lockdowns ended, those who had weathered them well felt like they’d done their part, while those who suffered were desperate to return to normal. Today, people with many options are getting “back to normal,” while those who cannot take time off work or for whom the virus is the most dangerous feel left on their own to navigate the continuing pandemic.

If you’re more Covid-cautious, you’ve probably experienced the awkward feeling of asking someone to act differently to match your comfort level. It never became a matter of politeness to ask what someone is comfortable with or to mask or cancel plans even when it’s inconvenient. In a near-universe, it’s a faux pas to wrongly assume someone is as relaxed as you are, and internal feelings of shame help keep everyone safer. Mandates can’t go on forever. But politeness is not only lasting but self-enforcing. 

That near-universe is a more humane one. We’ve expected too much of governments and too little of ourselves.

Second, public health measures should never have been so politicized. It’s easier, when you believe that people can—and more importantly, will—meaningfully respond to a community problem, not to worry about what you imagine will be the implications of a recommendation to public policy

N-95 and similar masks have always been the best option for protecting yourself and others, even when they were in short supply. PCR and molecular testing are important for understanding how many infections are in the community, while at-home rapid testing—a poor way of checking for infection—can help us test for infectiousness and decide what to do. More and ongoing voluntary testing and isolation should always have complemented public health efforts to understand the virus. Air quality, exchange, and filtration matter, probably not only for Covid-19 but for fighting illness generally, even if updating it is expensive. Plexiglas is as useless at stopping Covid-19 from spreading through the air as it is at keeping cigarette smoke in a restaurant’s smoking section, even if we’ve installed it everywhere. 

Today, public health advice doesn’t aim to guide us to make the most informed decisions based on what’s realistic for each of us but presents a single guideline of what’s considered reasonably informed, motivated by government policy. For example, instead of encouraging repeated at-home testing to support individual decision-making, Ontario has shifted away from testing at all and now provides guidance based on symptoms, which are not necessarily tied to infectiousness, because the government changed public testing policies.  

The solidarity that motivated almost all of us to stay home and look out for each other early in the pandemic and the effectiveness of what we’re doing to fight the virus going forward have both been undermined by the polarization of acceptable public health responses. 

Finally, policies fast-tracking the development of vaccines, tests, and therapeutics while still ensuring their safety should have been kept in place and should be the focus at this point. The mRNA vaccines are medical miracles that have saved millions of lives. But they are not sufficient for getting “back to normal.” Keeping people alive and out of hospital is obviously important, but it’s not good enough. Even when Covid isn’t dangerous, it’s often disruptive and miserable. 

We need vaccines that stop not only severe illness but transmission, and we need them as quickly as possible. We need better and more widely available therapeutics that help people feel better and stave off long Covid. And testing should by now be cheaper, more available, and less invasive. That we don’t have these things is a policy choice, not an inevitability. Some people will worry about the speed of development, but many others would be eager to adopt new pharmaceutical responses, providing real-world evidence that they are safe and effective. Voluntary adoption supported by less political public health messaging would help depoliticize vaccines and treatment. 

These are suggestions libertarians should embrace, but they don’t have to be implemented as a libertarian would. They would all support and could be supported by government policy responses. Paid leave would allow more workers to stay home when sick. Government-provided testing could support people testing to return to work, school, or childcare. Public health could shift its focus to messaging on gold-standard behaviour (with variations based on life circumstances) and to the relatively intensive process of reaching people hesitant about vaccines and those who do not have easy access to them. 

And governments don’t only have to get out of the way when it comes to more and better pharmaceutical responses. They could support new drugs and vaccines with research funding or rewards. Operation Warp Speed might have been the only good thing to come from Donald Trump. Compared to lockdowns, crippled hospitals, sickness, and death, it was also the cheaper option. 

All of these changes, both government and voluntary, would support a better pandemic response. Whether or not you believe voluntary action could ever be sufficient, increasing our willingness and ability to rely on it would make our response to public health problems more durable, more robust, and more humane.