CDA Institute Research Fellow Richard Shimooka explores what Canada’s experience at Vimy Ridge can tell us about its future military role.
Last Saturday marked Vimy Ridge Day, the 99th anniversary of the battle on the Western front of First World War. Routinely cited as the birth of the Canadian national identity separate from Britain, perhaps more directly, it left an indelible mark on Canadian military culture. It emphasized perseverance through immense sacrifice, while maintaining practicing to a high professional standard and innovative thinking.
During the battle, the Canadian Corps fighting together for the first time, conceived and implemented new tactics, and displayed unflinching courage in taking the seemingly unconquerable hill. Vimy was not an isolated event: rather it was reflective of the general conduct of the Canadian military over its modern history. This includes the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, Dieppe, Juno Beach, and Kapyong, to name a few. Despite the unfavourable outcome of several of these battles, Canadian soldiers, sailors, and aviators have consistently displayed remarkable resilience, determination and professionalism.
This legacy is an important to highlight under current circumstances. The Trudeau government has decided to conduct a defence policy review to chart a course for the military’s future. It will focus on the increasingly complex nature of conflict in the international system, characterized as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Certainly warfare has become more visibly violent, as even basic moral considerations often being discarded for military or propaganda purposes. However the increasing prevalence of social media has stripped away the fog of war that once obscured events on the ground. Consequently, even small indiscretions can have major consequences for an intervention’s outcome.
Being aware of cultural contexts and other considerations are now part and parcel of these new campaigns for international security. Given these challenges, Canada’s resourcefulness, professionalism and courage, are critical advantages for this new era of conflicts. The military’s contributions are highly valued among our allies, despite the relatively small size of our forces.
Nowhere was this more evident than during Canada’s decade-long commitment to Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers routinely faced immensely challenging situations, which was not simply related to combat with the resourceful and tenacious Taliban. They often navigated the confusing and corrupt morass of local Afghan politics, as well as the country’s unique local society.
In the face of this challenge, many allies established well-fortified bases in comparatively peaceful areas, and rarely ventured outside of the wire. Other states took a much more aggressive posture in their areas, which often upset the delicate balance and turned the local populations against them. The Canadian Armed Forces left Kandahar and its environs in a much more stable condition than it had received it.
Another example can be found in the aerial campaign against the Islamic State (IS). Many pointed out that Canada’s six CF-18′ represented a small proportion of the overall air effort against IS, and could be easily replaced once withdrawn. However, that view belies the exceptionally high professional standards present within the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), which makes preventing civilian casualties a primary consideration. Through a rare combination of exceptional training, precision weapons, and dedicated organizational structure, Canada’s CF-18s greatly minimized collateral while playing an important role in the conflict. As in Afghanistan, several other states participating in the air campaign do not possess the rigorous process and standards for precision weapons delivery, and Canada’s withdrawal means they will play a larger role in the conflict, to the detriment of all involved.
In the past, the Canadian Armed Forces have also made valuable contributions was UN peacekeeping, such as in the Sinai and Cyprus. In these difficult operations Canadian soldiers applied the same dedication, professionalism, and resilience readily apparent in their conventional war-fighting experience to make a positive difference. However the nature of peacekeeping has fundamentally changed in the past twenty years, reflecting the new realities of international conflict. Most UN interventions are better described as peace enforcement missions, whereby foreign forces attempt to stabilize a collapsed state in the throws of a violent conflict. Moreover the UN is often unwilling and ill equipped to intervene in more serious outbreaks of violence. They often pose too great a challenge for the organization, with the similar risks and challenges that afflicted Canadian military operations in Afghanistan. Consequently, these crises are typically managed by coalitions-of-the-willing or regional security organizations like NATO.
If the current government desires to make a real contribution to peace and security in the international sphere, it should be made on the basis of the Canadian Armed Forces’ capabilities and an accurate assessment of what are the actual requirements of the international community. Canada has a history of operating with its allies and providing professional, highly capable, and courageous soldiers. This is a legacy that should be understood and not be disregarded lightly.
Richard Shimooka is a research fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. (Image courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada.)