Tommy Conway: When soldiers show a dangerous contempt for reality
Even if we wanted to be useful in Ukraine, we don't have the capacity.
Note: Though the author’s true identity is known to us, Tommy Conway is a penname. The author’s employer currently restricts what they can publish, however, we at The Line feel that this perspective is worth sharing.
By: Tommy Conway
“Well troops, this is fucked, but we’re here, and we’ve got to do it. No point in bitching. Let’s get to work.”
These were strangely comforting words to hear for the first time as a young soldier. They were issued by a captain from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The situation wasn’t grave — it was just a training course — but it was fucked up. Our company was tasked to do something that made no sense. We didn’t have the resources to do it, the weather was bad, and the rationale of the task didn’t fit into the general exercise anyway. But orders are orders, and the captain’s honesty was helpful. We grinned and got the job done. Much of army life is doing hard jobs in bad conditions. Much of Canadian army life is doing those jobs with inadequate gear and too few people. It’s refreshing to have a leader identify when something is FUBAR, confirm that you’re the fuckers who have to get it done, and then do the fucking thing with you.
That captain taught a valuable lesson: don’t show contempt for reality. You look dumb and it won’t work anyway. This knowledge, unfortunately, is not universally applied in the officer corps, and we are now faced with a dangerous situation: the CAF is unprepared for war and the CAF, for the most part, cannot be brought to recognize or care that it is. We have a military with many dedicated people that can do many things well — but it can’t fight a modern war.
Much of this sorry state comes from the legitimate political and funding choices of a legitimately elected democratic government, and I won’t criticize any of that. What does worry me is that our officer corps — the people who should be providing dispassionate technical advice to government — have developed a dangerous contempt for reality. That's bad for both our military and our democracy.
If you want to understand what “contempt for reality” looks like, here is a Twitter thread by Mike Day, a retired lieutenant-general with special-forces experience. He is much liked by defence journalists, think-tanks, and is also well-connected with serving senior officers. This is what he had to say about “the CAF not being able to contribute” to either reinforcing Ukraine or reinforcing NATO allies in the East. He thinks such descriptions are “utter nonsense” because combat troops might not be what Ukraine wants, and that there is a “surplus” of combat power in Western Europe anyway. No, the CAF could maybe contribute better by helping the flood of Ukrainian refugees evicted by an invading Russian army. Even though Canadian troops would be valued, there is “essentially zero” value to maintaining troops at high readiness anyway. And if you disagree with him, Day thinks you’re ignorant, lazy, dishonest and benefitting the Russians who are seeking to “divide and conquer” and too much criticism might “diminish” the hard work the “woman [sic] and men of the CAF do every day.”
This is a lot to unpack. Let’s dispense with the outright falsehoods first. First, there is no “surplus” of combat power in Western Europe. The Russians have, without question, the biggest and most capable army on the continent. Second, Kyiv has been very clear about what it wants: military support from the West, ideally with ground troops, weapons to stop Russian tanks, weapons to down Russian aircraft, ammunition, and intelligence. Ukraine has not asked for help with refugees. Many countries have listened. The United Kingdom sent anti-tank weapons and Boris Johnson promised to send soldiers to reinforce NATO allies if Putin invades Ukraine. The Dutch offered to send weapons. The Americans sent weapons, $200 million in ammunition and anti-tank missiles, authorised the Baltic countries to ship stocks of their own US-made anti-armour and air-defence missiles to Ukraine, and made 8,500 U.S. troops available to support NATO — in other words, to help backfill the Balts. Two thousand U.S. troops are headed to Europe to take up positions there; a thousand more already in Europe are moving closer to NATO’s eastern frontier.
Canada has not done these things. We say we’re not sending weapons because “diplomacy is the solution,” but the reality is we can’t send anything meaningful. Any small arms we send would likely be on a NATO standard, and thus not very useful for Ukrainian forces who use Soviet calibers. As for the stuff the Kyiv really needs — the anti-tank and anti-air systems that the Americans, British, and Balts are sending — we are not sending them because we barely have any. Our anti-tank capability is mostly theoretical. Because we have not replaced older, worn-out systems, we have less anti-tank capability now than we did during the “decade of darkness” in the 1990s. We’ve known for decades that we need to equip the infantry with highly-portable, effective guided missiles like the U.S. Javelin, but we haven’t bothered, save fora few Spike missile systems for our special forces. Maybe our regular ground forces will get something similar by 2033. We have literally no air defence capability besides shooting machine guns in the air and hoping for the best, so we have no air defence missiles to send. Besides the fact that we can’t support Ukraine with weapons, we can’t really support NATO allies with reinforcements either because our units, on a modern battlefield, would lack the ability to defend themselves. We might be welcome as a political gesture, but we might also just be in the way.
Our deficiencies go deeper than weapons. CAF is well below strength. But instead of doubling down on core capabilities, CAF leadership insists on putting more people and resources into newer, faddish capabilities like cyber and information warfare, when we already have an entire government agency that does cyber. Our brigades — the core of the Canadian Army’s fighting power, are under-strength, and the army’s recent “Force 2025” concept concedes that the army should hope to field small, combat team elements as the core of any near-future operational deployment. To put this in perspective, a combat team makes up part of a battlegroup, which makes up part of a brigade. The Russians have 50 battlegroup equivalents on the Ukrainian border, and roughly 16 in the Kaliningrad exclave bordering Poland and Lithuania.
A Canadian deployment of a few combat teams would be too small a force even to help manage a large number of refugees in an active combat zone. We might be able to scrape together a battlegroup, but it would be vulnerable to air and tanks — in other words, not very useful. Once it was destroyed, that would probably be the majority of the Canadian Army’s combat power gone, with no hope of reconstituting it.
It would be one thing if the army sold this reorganization as a necessary evil in lean times, but this sort of hollowing-out is instead presented as allowing the army to “remain[…] ready to operate not only in the land domain, but pan-domain in a joint environment beyond simply reinforcing its existing capabilities.” Strip away the jargon, and it should be obvious that this phrasing is the victim of too much powerpoint and too little thinking. Junior NCOs and junior officers alike are instructed to build a “priority of work” into their plans for even small, simple operations. Given that we don’t have realistic “current capabilities,” reinforcing our shell of an army should obviously be on the top of the list before we commit resources to new things. At the very least we should be open and honest about what we can and can't do.
If you ask most talking heads in the Canadian “defence space,” battlegroups that can’t battle aren’t a big deal. The idea that modern war will be won on social media or through “integration” and digital technologies, thus making the old ground-pounders outdated, is a common staple among civilian defence academics. It’s also present in the government’s defence policy, which goes on at length about space and cyberwar and climate change and “ungoverned spaces,” but little about building a realistic fighting force. This hopeful language about an army that can operate in a chaotic world without much messy stuff like hurting people or breaking things is obviously nonsense, but novelty and wishful thinking are pretty standard fare for academics and politicians. It’s much more concerning to see supposedly practical military people hold reality in such low regard.
The officer class’ shoddy thinking comes from decades of misguided pseudo-intellectual development. After the Somalia Affair in the 1990s, the CAF turned to liberal arts education as a way to buy credibility. There was nothing wrong with the idea of intellectual broadening in theory — the officer corps obviously needed reform. But the reforms were rushed and packaged, so they replaced one set of intellectual deficiencies with another.
The army’s junior staff college in Kingston gets less and less time with captains soon to be majors, and the instruction focuses more on teaching the “planning process” and briefing techniques than they do on military tactics. The minor course offered at the tri-service staff college in Toronto, designed to make majors into lieutenant-colonels, devotes most of its curriculum to “institutional” stuff like “cross-cultural environmental factors” and “integrat[ing] the interests of external stakeholders in the planning of operations.” This lack of focus bleeds outward. Day, for example, for example, has argued that “Cold War”-style forces were outdated, and that Canada needs little more than special forces and strategic lift to provide “strategic optionality,” whatever the hell that is. General Jonathan Vance, the former CDS, largely agreed with Day in his senior staff college paper, where he noted that simply showing up was enough to achieve a strategic effect. One paper which gets discussed a fair bit in Toronto and written by a likely candidate for the next CDS argues that “victory” is “an ambiguous and counter-productive concept” and that in “modern warfare … it is difficult to distinguish between the victor and the vanquished.” I guess someone should tell that to the Assad regime, the people of Afghanistan under the grip of the Taliban, or the 100,000 Russian troops lined up on the Ukrainian border.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t smart, clear-seeing officers in the ranks. The current CDS, General Wayne Eyre, for example, holds no illusions that Canada needs combat-capable forces and has been talking about the challenges in fixing the army for years. There are plenty of smart, honest, officers in the CAF — even those proposing unrealistically hopeful concepts of future war — they are just mired in the institution’s intellectual rut. I have nothing but respect for many of the people I criticize here. Many of them have been vocally, and refreshingly honest about the culture problems the Army and the CAF face — they are willing, in that area, to show their subordinates the same respect that my former captain showed me — to use a soldier’s dialect, things are fucked up and it is going to long days to un-fuck them.
Let’s take that one step further. We need an army that can fight, and we don’t have one. Maybe we should take a breath, drop the buzzwords, and get to work.
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