Archive for July, 2008

Oh – bring on the silly season!

July is here, and so all kinds of funny things appear in the news these days. Here’s an interesting bit of analysis from the Conference of Defence Associations in today’s Globe and Mail:

Retired colonel Alain Pellerin of the Conference of Defence Associations said it’s tough to persuade poppy farmers in Kandahar – Taliban territory – to grow alternate crops. “The drug lords and the Taliban at night would go to the farmer and say, ‘Listen, either you grow opium for us or we will chop off your head.’ “

Chop off their head? Really? Hmm, I thought Afghan farmers grew poppies because they are among the poorest people on Earth and the billions of foreing aid dollars sent to Afghanistan never seem to make it to the countryside…


July 22, 2008 at 6:45 pm 1 comment

Conference of Defence Associations Institute President Slams Journalists and Public

The head of the military funded Conference of Defence Associations Institute used his farewell address to graduates at the Royal Military College to slam the media and public opinion (and presumably, the members of the public that hold that opinion).

John Scott Cowan, President of the CDAI, told the graduating class of the Royal Military College last month that the media “give new depth to the word ‘shallow.'” He described newscasters as “ill-educated but firm-jawed stage prop[s]” and decried journalists who deign to ask the opinion of Canadians when reporters “stick microphones under the noses of whatever slack-jawed gum-chewing vagrants they can find on the street.”

Why is this cheap attack so typical of the members of Canada’s military schools and DND funded lobby groups like the Conference of Defence Associations? Why is the military so distrustful of our democratic institutions? Should we be worried?
– Steve

Royal Military College Convocation Address at Canadian Forces College, 26 June 2008

“War and National Interest”

by John Scott Cowan, President, Conference of Defence Associations Institute and Principal, Royal Military College of Canada

“War and National Interest”

Monsieur le Vice-Chancelier, Major-général Daniel Gosselin, Brigadier-général David Fraser, Brigadier-général Don (ret) Macnamara, tous nos invités de marque, et la grande famille de nos deux Collèges, avant de vous exposer les qualités remarquables de notre récipiendaire de grade honorifi que, je veux parler aux classes sortantes. Je félicite tous nos 81 diplômés du deuxième cycle, et nos 15 diplômés du premier cycle sur leurs réussites. Les cérémonies d’aujourd’hui sont tellement différentes des évènements d’autres universités canadiennes. Par exemple, cet heureux événement a toujours un aspect plus sérieux que les collations des grades aux autres universités, à cause des responsabilités importantes assumées par les membres de la profession militaire après avoir terminé une période de formation.

Furthermore, the nature of those profound responsibilities is very far from the day-to-day consciousness of most other Canadians. This is surprising, since the tenor of world events, new security concerns, and the substantial and ongoing Canadian military commitments abroad ought to have provoked in the broader public an intense interest in what you do. At one point, I thought the so-called Afghanistan debate would trigger that, but there have been unexpected impediments to informed discourse.

For a democracy, there is no decision more important, more fundamental, or more diffi cult than the decision to make war.

And for a democracy, the reasons why and the process by which it decides to make war refl ect, reveal and refi ne the interests, values and character of the nation and of those who govern it. This is a fundamental truth. But these days in Canada, this fundamental truth is little illuminated by our chattering classes. Indeed, public discourse by the media, by some politicians and by some academics, on why we do anything, including why we fi ght, has become narrow, trivial, banal or even silly.

The vast majority of those who report upon or analyze these great events and the decisions we take over them have decided to discuss them from only one optic, votes and polls. And not only votes and polls, but votes and polls subdivided by riding, by region, by gender, by age, by economic class or by ethnicity. In the eyes of these commentators, it’s all and only about the power of elected office, how to get it and how not to lose it. This is an evisceration of understanding. Well, here’s an old thought come back to haunt us and taunt us: maybe we should be talking about what’s right, or at least what’s right for us, and also about what is possible.

But there are good reasons (or at least obvious reasons) why that’s not happening now. Despite the communications revolution, in some ways the flow of real information in Canada on questions of public policy is drying up. This is a grave threat to any functioning democracy. And it’s related to some disturbing trends in dissemination of news in Canada.

A generation or two ago, key debates in Canada were not perfect either, but they had vastly more substance than today. I remember well the public texture of the medicare, nuclear weapons and flag debates of the early sixties, as well as the early eighties constitutional one.

There are multiple causes for the remarkable dumbing-down of the media in Canada over the past 40 years. Some of the obvious reasons are the need to compress complex issues into 10-30 second sound bites and the narcissism of portions of the media who report incessantly on themselves. Increasingly, the print media imitate the electronic media, in a desperate defence of market share. Furthermore, unlike 40 years ago when journalists were amongst the best-educated and best-informed citizens, today many of them are neither literate nor numerate, and do us the huge discourtesy of assuming we aren’t either.

Interestingly, one crucial fl aw also relates to market size. As critical as we are of US media, one can fi nd some thoroughly brainy specialized commentary in the US. This is because it is a huge market, so that through syndication a journalist actually can make a living understanding issues in military affairs, geopolitics, economics, or science. But not here: in Canada, you are the science reporter the week after you were the society reporter, and the week before you are the constitutional issues reporter.

Generalist journalists know that they haven’t the time to learn enough to deal with the full complexity of the issues, so they fall back on the double-barrelled stock in trade of any articulate journeyman: human interest and scandal. Hence all Canadian news is covered as human interest or scandal.

The situation is exacerbated by a fad taught in our journalism schools, which I call the “interior decorator” style of journalism. Have you noticed of late that the key facts are not at the beginning of the article? You need to read at least two thirds through it to find out what has happened or who was charged with what. The first part of the article is all about the feelings of the reporter or the relatives or bystanders, or about the general setting of the story. This forces you to read the continuation, on page 11, so that you will appreciate the true effort of the writer, or at least see the advertisements on that page.

Or contrast the CBC television news with the BBC equivalent, which is full of hard news. The CBC version is half filled with the opinions of reporters and pollsters, which is the high point, because during the other half they show scenic postcard views or stick microphones under the noses of whatever slack-jawed gum-chewing vagrants they can fi nd on the street to ask them what they think about oil prices or border security or equalization payments.

But if the media give new depth to the word “shallow,” what about our leading politicians? Well, strange but true, there may be considerable hidden quality. I’ve known many of them, and certainly some are genuinely impressive.

Just imagine an election campaign debate in which unelected journalists didn’t participate and didn’t interrupt our representatives every 30 or 60 seconds. Imagine the people we might elect debating each other in long enough blocks to be coherent, and on subjects which they think we might wish to hear about before judging their fitness to govern. Contemplate the possibility of political discourse not pushed through microcephalic filter of some ill-educated but firm-jawed stage prop of a newsreader. We might get political discourse appropriate for a free people making critical decisions about their national enterprise and its role in the world.

So, polls aside, what about Afghanistan? At the outset, our involvement in Afghanistan served our interests in two important ways. First, along with other nations, we were assisting an Afghan insurgency which overthrew one of the most toxic regimes the world has ever seen, a regime whose negative effects were not merely regional, in part because of the impact of the terrorists who were their honoured guests. Indeed, we had been touched directly, through the murder of Canadian civilians working in the US, the disruption of our movements and our prosperity, and the climate of fear engendered by the rhetoric and actions of al-Qaeda.

Secondly, our interests were very much served by being seen to contribute in a substantial way. Over many years, and despite our participation in a variety of missions, including the Balkans and East Timor, the view of Canada held by many of our allies had been becoming more negative. There was an increasing temptation to view Canada as an insubstantial blowhard that was very free with advice, inclined to offer all assistance short of actual help. This was beginning to put Canada at a disadvantage not just in dealings with the US, but on the world stage as a whole.

The Taliban were overthrown quickly, shifting our activities to consolidation and then to operations against the expected insurgency mounted by the losers. That has led, quite naturally to nation building. It’s clear that we didn’t enter the fray in Afghanistan as a form of muscular foreign aid, despite the spin that the media and some politicians might now wish to apply. We followed our interests by removing a toxic regime. But international rule of thumb and our collective moral sense triggered a subsequent obligation to promote something better to replace it. It is our success in our fi rst objective that gave rise to our new objectives to assist security, economic development, education and social progress in Afghanistan.

They are a logical and normal concomitant of our initial actions, and reflect the application of our values to how we advance our interests.

So, while war and national interest are complicated, sometimes so much so that they confound the media and their pollsters, we continue to hope that the key leaders of the profession of arms would be well prepared for such complexity. They, after all, face challenges unlike any others within government.

On that central question of conflict, the democratic government makes any decision to fight. That entails a hugely intricate balancing of factors, but at least it yields a sort of binary outcome. Either we do or we don’t. That then necessitates you and your colleagues answering an even trickier question: How? The Canadian Forces are a device, a machine of great complexity, designed unlike any other part of government to be capable of functioning in conditions of great stress and strain, of chaos and complexity. A properly designed armed force is optimized for robustness first, and economy only secondarily.

The Master of Defence Studies degree, built on the foundation of the constantly improved Command and Staff Program, is part of that drive for robustness, as are many of our advanced programs for the higher qualifications within the profession of arms. Unlike the rest of government, we send our best “executives” back to school often, and for long periods. It does take considerable resources, but we know that ultimately the cost of not doing so is vastly higher.

When we heavily revised the Command and Staff Program and launched the related Master of Defence Studies degree in 2001, we did so in the face of more than a decade of naysayers claiming that it could not be done, or at least could not be done well. Brigadier-General Gagnon and I did not believe that, and so we proceeded, forcing the cooperation between our two colleges. But because the Canadian Defence Academy did not yet exist, and Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System was fairly passive on education questions, there was as yet no overarching policy drive to achieve these synergies, and only personal relationships made progress possible.

This is the seventh RMC convocation at CFC, and my 25th and last RMC convocation address as Principal. I’m pleased that attitudes have changed so much since the stand-up of the Canadian Defence Academy. It’s easier now to make the case for such synergies and for very advanced intellectual and professional development for senior officers.

But we didn’t invent these ideas, nor can we boast of speed. Major-General Roger Rowley advocated almost all of them in his widely acclaimed 1969 report. After almost 40 years, we’re almost there, but we stand on the shoulders of giants.

So don’t imagine that receiving your degrees today is just another tick in the box. We need your new capabilities and new awareness, because, where the national interest is concerned, the world isn’t getting less complicated. And in the battles to come, you are our sword and shield.

July 22, 2008 at 6:07 pm 2 comments

Tell Harper: Don’t Deploy Laser Weapons

The Canadian military is about to deploy low-power laser weapons, also known as “laser dazzlers,” to Afghanistan. Experts have raised serious concerns about the dangers these devices pose to civilians – including potentially blinding children.

Just like notorious taser weapons, there are concerns that these laser dazzlers have not been properly tested and could have disastrous consequences for Afghans – and possibly our own soldiers.

I urge you to read the news article by Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese (his blog is highly recommended)  below – published last weekend in newspapers across Canada.

If you have not already done so, please send your letter to Prime Minister Harper through right away at, urging him not to deploy laser dazzlers to Afghanistan.

If there is enough public outcry against these weapons, it is possible that we can stop them from being sent to Afghanistan. Please send your letter, and urge other to send letters as well.

Thanks for whatever you can do,

Steven Staples
Rideau Institute and
founder of
Military expects green light for laser dazzlers; Weapons are illegal, will set bad example, critics say

David Pugliese
July 12, 2008

Armed with legal advice that the systems can be classified as warning devices, the Canadian military wants to proceed with the purchase of laser weapons designed to temporarily blind people.

But a group opposed to the purchase of the equipment says any use of the so-called “laser dazzlers” in Afghanistan violates international law and sets a dangerous precedent.

The senior military leadership has recommended the purchase, and the $10-million project is now awaiting approval from Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Defence insiders say the military’s lawyers examined the legalities of using the devices on Afghans, and concluded the systems are not laser weapons and can be deemed warning devices. MacKay is expected to approve the purchase.

But Anthony Salloum, program director at the Rideau Institute in Ottawa, said Canada would be violating its international obligations by using the dazzlers on Afghans. Canada has ratified a treaty that prevents the use of weapons that cause permanent blindness.

“These are laser weapons that can blind and, as tests by Penn State University have shown, can also cause second-and third-degree burns,” said Salloum, whose institute has criticized the government and military’s approach to the Afghanistan mission. It’s also leading a campaign to halt the purchase of the dazzlers.

The lasers are capable of “disrupting” the vision of a person 50 to 500 metres away, depending on the model used. Some manufacturers say the systems are entirely safe, while other officials who know the weapons acknowledge they can injure or blind people – but only when improperly used at close range.

Salloum said the Canadian military’s claim the dazzlers are simply warning devices sends a message to other nations, such as China, that such weapons are acceptable to use.

“Once Canada does this, it has set a dangerous precedent and opened up the field to other countries to do it,” argued Salloum. “They’ll be able to say, ‘Well, Canada uses them, so why shouldn’t we? We’re just going to rename them as warning devices instead of calling them weapons’.”

China has equipped its security forces with laser dazzlers for riot control, but has been criticized by human-rights groups for doing so.

Last August, it was reported that India’s army planned to acquire dazzlers. An Indian government defence research centre had developed two such systems for use in counter-insurgency operations, according to news reports. Laser devices have been used in the past to disrupt optical systems on vehicles, aircraft and missiles. But the use of smaller laser dazzlers on people has been relatively limited.

In 2006, the U.S. military confirmed it’s using dazzlers in Iraq, and officers have said the devices have helped save Iraqi lives.

The Canadian military wants to mount the dazzlers on rifles and vehicles, mainly for use in protecting convoys. It’s hoped the systems could result in fewer Afghan civilians – who don’t heed warnings to stop at checkpoints or to approach convoys – getting shot dead by soldiers.

Defence officials declined to be interviewed about laser dazzlers, but did issue an e-mail statement, which noted no approval has been given to acquire the systems. It did confirm, however, that the Canadian Forces is proposing to equip its troops in Afghanistan with such equipment.

“Laser dazzlers would allow our soldiers another non-lethal means to ensure that they have done all they can to warn Afghan civilian drivers and pedestrians from entering a critical zone in which deadly force could be used,” reads the e-mail from department spokeswoman Jillian Van Acker.

“We are confident that the proposed use of laser warning devices would not contravene any provision of international humanitarian law applicable to Canada.”

But Salloum questioned that claim.

To satisfy international obligations, Canada would be required to conduct various technical and medical tests to prove the weapons do not violate international law, he said.

“If these are so safe and so legal, then where is the evidence?” Salloum asked. “How come (Defence) is not releasing any of its reports and test materials to back up their claims?”

Scott McLeod of M.D. Charlton Company, a firm that hopes to bid on the program, said the dazzlers can save lives. Although such devices are not considered to be “eye safe,” he noted that if used properly, they won’t harm a person’s sight.

He noted that under the Geneva Convention, lasers can’t be used as weapons – only to mark targets and warn off individuals.

July 13, 2008 at 7:45 pm Leave a comment

The crabby eye-rolling of foreign policy scholars

In his excellent series on Canadian identity, Michael Valpy says Canadians’ persistent belief in peacekeeping and soft power infuriates foreign policy scholars, driving them “nuts.”

It may not be surprising that these academics, who receive substantial government funding through the Department of National Defence, and increasingly big business, hold much more hawkish views than the public.

Canada’s foreign policy and business establishments have predictably argued that Canadians must trade in their values of diplomacy and UN peacemaking for more U.S.-friendly approach to the world.

For instance, we all remember the calls from the universities and boardrooms (and newsrooms) banging the war drums for Canada to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq, warning harsh economic punishment if Canada refused. But as the Globe and Mail’s poll this week showed, most Americans believe our decision to avoid the disastrous invasion of Iraq was the right one.

I am relieved that the Canadian government doesn’t always take the advice of the foreign policy scholars. Sometimes foreign policy is too important to be left to the experts.


July 1, 2008 at 12:39 pm Leave a comment

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