Tuesday, April 15, 2008

General Hillier chooses to fade away

He was the right man for the job.

Does that grate you? Good.

That doesn't mean he did everything properly or achieved things without mistakes. I'll chalk that up to him being human.

It may come as a complete surprize to many but Hillier was chosen for a specific purpose. Afghanistan was not in the equation. He was chosen to re-establish the Canadian Armed Forces as a Canadian institution. He was chosen to provide the rough language and unvarnished details about what was necessary to ensure Canada possessed an immediately ready force capable of responding in an emergency and able to buy the time to build an effective expeditionary force.

Harper did not select him. Harper inherited him. No matter what Harper thought of him in 2006, Hillier, although he was able to articulate the Afghanistan mission better than anyone in the Conservative government ever could, never actually promoted the idea of a Canadian involvement in that conflict beyond 2011.

Hillier, quite outside his terms of reference, did insist that the only way to support the mission which had now taken on his trademark, was to give it the extension he desired, and did state that it would take at least ten years, (maybe more), to train the Afghan National Army. At no time did he say that the Canadian Forces should be the ones to do it.

He was stating a fact, as he saw it, without demanding a specific commitment. He was quite probably right.

What I don't believe from today's announcement is that he was under no pressure to leave.
Hillier said he was under no pressure from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to retire.

Yeah, well, we've all heard that one a thousand times before.

I have roundly criticized Hillier in many previous posts for his comments and public statments. I stand by every criticism. If it had been any other general or admiral I would have criticized those same statements.

That doesn't however, mean I believe he was a poor choice for the appointment he held.

Paul Martin, the last prime minister, endorsed his appointment with a view to strengthening the armed forces, revitalizing the personnel structure, re-equipping the infrastructure and consolidating the resources.

He did that. Harper received the benefits of a an appointment made by his Liberal predecessor.

Hillier's eloquence at the announcement of his departure is entertaining, but hides some of the reality. There was pressure.

Harper's words after Hillier announced his retirement.
He is a great Canadian and we are very proud to have worked with him.
That's it?

What about the fact that he's saved your government's ass on a couple of occasions? It's not a glowing testimony. In fact, Harper could have said, Here's your gold watch. Bye. Same thing. Given the limb Hillier occasionally climbed out for the Harperites, there should have been something a little more glowing for Hillier.

But then, Hillier did cost Harper a cabinet minister, didn't he? (Jeez, didn't anyone see that one coming.)

So, while Hillier reported that there was nothing from the prime minister forcing his decision, be reminded that Harper didn't beg him to stay. (Not that Harper would ever do such a thing, but a saviour is a saviour and it might be good to get as much as one can from such a person.)

While I will take Hillier at his word that he was under no pressure from the Prime Minister, (he never mentioned the MND), he would have started to experience pressure.

Walk the halls of any armed forces establishment that does not have a direct role in the Afghanistan conflict. That, by the way, would be the majority of the armed forces. There is a slew of people unhappy with the fact that the entire focus of the Canadian Forces is on Afhanistan. The overall role of those elements, the sovereignty of Canada has been usurped by a mission which is basically a military extension of the Department of Foreign Affairs in an action which involves less than five percent of the regular armed forces as a full-time focused operation.
There is pressure. There is pressure coming from below. As much as Hillier focused on the Afghanistan mission his role was to generate the resources necessary for the whole armed forces. No one is saying he did not do that, but that single mission, under a subordinate commander you probably cannot identify, became synonymous with his name. That's a bad place to be.

The generals and admirals, particularly those who would hope to replace him, would be applying pressure. Notwithstanding that traditionally the CDS was appointed for a three year period, those who might consider themselves eligible for promotion into the position of CDS would expect that some of their priorities might get some attention. And be clear on this, Afghanistan cost any element not directly involved in the ground conflict very dearly. And understand that if this country required the armed forces to respond to any contingency operation, domestic or expeditionary, it would be hard pressed to respond effectively.

But there was another pressure. It became obvious when, as the initial rumours of Hillier's retirement surfaced, he responded to them with a facade of humour. "I was on my second rum and coke when I heard about it."

On a beach in Costa Rica The Dominican Republic.

While a force of 2500 Canadian troops were in a hot combat theatre.

That struck me as odd, until I realized that he had already reached a career decision. He had taken on the mantle of the Afghanistan mission, quite as a result of his own actions, when it should have been the difficult problem of a subordinate commander. Whether that was the way his political leaders wanted it or whether he had voluntarily accepted it, it was now his.

So, while Hillier leaves feeling he has accomplished his goals, I might toss in that there is still no Defence Review from this government. National Defence policy is still the one written by the previous government. Given the helter-skelter purchases made by this government, it becomes clear that they have no idea what they really want.

After two years, I'd retire too.

So, I will offer General Hillier what I would offer any retiring service member.

Firstly, you had a stellar career and achieved what most people do not. End it knowing that and if all you ever do from now on is grow tomatoes, you did what you set out to do.

Secondly, you achieved that level with the help of others. They cleared the way. You took the path. You owe them nothing but a beer. If you've already paid up, they expect another one.

When you've finished signing documents at the Release Centre, go home, crack a beer open and ignore the rest of the day. In the morning, sleep in. When you read the papers, try to find out what happened in Paraguay. Then, when you dress, wear plaid.

Take the day off. You've earned it. Tomorrow you'll be worried about what you're going to do next. Smart people don't do that. Book a cruise. (Make sure I'm not the Captain.)

If you need more information, email. More people blow retirement than they do combat.

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