By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
I remember as a junior staff learner at First Canadian Mechanized Brigade Headquarters, our brigade major, one then-Major John Joly, used to taunt me out of the blue with provocations such as “What are the principles of the defence?” or “Why are things seen?” — a spur-of-the-moment challenge for me to come up with the principles of camouflage. Now, the reader must understand how extremely elementary those concepts are and, even more so, how out of place they were as a topic of conversation in a formation headquarters. It was a compelling lesson for me very early in my career, though, that professional military officers at every level must remain brilliant at the basics of our craft as we work our way up the ranks.
Many years later, when I was a tactics instructor at the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Centre, I perpetuated Joly’s legacy, challenging my young charges to recite doctrine that they would have been taught much earlier in their careers. Much like a much-younger Pat Stogran, my students would hem and haw and eventually come up with a reasonable answer, or a facsimile thereof, and pat themselves on the back. I would counter them by asking how much confidence they would have in the medical officer (MO) if they were presented with such a tentative diagnosis for an itch in a private area. Could be heat rash, or “just” an insect bite. Poison Ivy? An STD? AIDS?!
Never having been someone who is a slave to convention, another challenge I would pose when the instructional moment offered itself — particularly on higher level pre-command seminars — was to explain what the verb “to defeat” means as a military task. That always made for very stimulating discussion, especially when we would drill down from broad academic definitions to some pragmatic operational analyses. When senior officers presented to me, the seminar facilitator, a briefing for the plan of a military operation that was doctrinally faultless, I would sometimes deviate from the instructor notes and pose the question, “What exactly do you envision as the ‘defeat mechanism’ for your plan?” More often than not, I would meet with some waffling and bafflegab that might have made sense, but most certainly would not inspire any more confidence in a discerning inquirer than my metaphoric MO would for a person suffering from jock itch.
At its most fundamental level, “defeating” an antagonist militarily means imposing your will upon them. I submit that, on the surface, our victory in the Second World War could reinforce what I consider to be a popular misconception that “defeating an enemy in war” means destroying them physically and morally into capitulation. The notion that the Allies won that industrial war and defeated the Nazis by mass destruction alone ignores how the Marshall Plan following the Second World War had a different lasting effect than the annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine industrial region of Germany did after the First World War.
I don’t mean to suggest that the officers in the Australian Defence Force are in any way inferior to ours in the Canadian Armed Forces. I am tired of hearing senior management in the Canadian Armed Forces insisting that we will not be able to defeat ISIL unless we commit more “boots on the ground.” It is nonsensical to infer the obverse, that more troops in the fight in Iraq will enable us to destroy the enemy.
That fallacy ignores the recent history in Afghanistan, in which we had plenty of boots on the ground and over 150 pairs in caskets. It is also disconnected from the reality of the threat that ISIL poses to Canada and Canadians and how the physical face of that threat morphs. Yesterday it was Taliban and al-Qaeda, today it is ISIL. Who will it be tomorrow?
When I was a young officer learning how to fight the Soviet hoards, it was all about destruction. Our doctrine and training were not constrained by media awareness, human rights, nation-building, and the like. The military was all about the application of violence, full stop. Hell, so-called peacekeeping was viewed as a tedious distraction from our mandate of high intensity conflict, and even the laws of armed conflict didn’t enter into my professional consciousness until much later in my career. I hasten to add that it was via my private study that I learned of the moral component of war-fighting. It was not introduced as doctrine or a learning objective on any military course of the day. We merely assumed that what we were doing was lawful and moral.
That may have been the way we fought a Cold War battle, but in retrospect we must not ignore, as I explained in an earlier article, the fact that NATO emerged victorious from that war without so much as a clash of arms between the primary belligerents. In battle, tactical-level objectives can sometimes, perhaps always, be interpreted as nothing other than to destroy, but at the strategic and operational levels the concept of defeat is much more complex, uncertain, and ambiguous. Regular readers of Esprit
Corps will know that one of my central themes in these columns is that warfare has changed, war is raging today, and Canada is in the middle of it whether we care to admit it or not.
Canada is one of 67 members of the “Global Coalition against Daesh,” formed in September 2014, and is unique in its membership, scope and commitment. Together, the Global Coalition is committed to degrading and ultimately defeating Daesh. But in order to impose our will on ISIL we first have to determine what it is that we want for Canada and Canadians. So my question for readers is the following: What will the defeat of ISIL bring to the people of Canada? In other words, what is it, exactly, that we “will upon ISIL,” which will impact on the lives of Canadian citizens? This is a seemingly esoteric — obscure, even — question, but such is the nature of the strategic environment.
Once again, the person who offers the most compelling commentary will receive a copy of my latest book (my first and only book thus far, actually): Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans.