Monday, March 23, 2009

General Leslie on Fox News: I'll take the slanders for our young men

As mentioned earlier I attended a Canadian Journalism Foundation-sponsored event tonight where the commander of Canada's Army, Lt. General Andrew Leslie, was the speaker on the role of the media and the military in our democracy. Very informative, interesting event.

Since what I'm sure is on everyone's mind is the Fox News story, I'll jump ahead to that. About mid-way through the Q&A, a reporter from the CTV National News (they were taping, so look for it on the news tonight) asked Leslie for his reaction to the Fox comments, and specifically the slanders on his name. Follows is a rough account of his reply (may not be word for word):

“Did I say I looked forward to these questions?,” he laughed. “We all know the superb quality of the Canadian soldiers who represent us as truly world class, they have a reputation as tough, capable soldiers. We've shed a lot of blood in Afghanistan, and I just wish some of the private citizens – certainly they weren't former soldiers – of some of our neighboring countries and allies were more aware of our contribution … in a very tough fight. (And as for personal attacks on him) if our young men are willing to fight for our country, I'm willing to get slandered for them.”
That last bit earned Leslie his strongest applause of the night from the audience.

So, Fox drama aside, back to the beginning and his speech, which I had to watch from an overflow room via CCTV because I'd arrived 5 minutes late and, although there were still seats and I was pre-registered, the door was shut so CTV could tape. Annoying. (They let us in for the Q&A)

Kvetching aside, I thought Leslie made a very reasoned, thoughtful performance that made an honest effort to make both the Army's case and the case for media oversight of the military. I'll present my bullet-point notes on Leslie's speech and answers, and save my comments for the end.

* Soldiers and the media walk towards the sound of the bullets.

* He's faced some tough media interviewers, but by far the toughest audience he ever faces is his own soldiers. They're professionals and their lives are on the line, they want to know what they need to know, they have tough questions, and they're not afraid to ask them.

*The kinship between Canadians and its military is closer now than it's been in many years.

*Media scrutiny is essential to a successful military, and he welcomes that scrutiny.

*The military needs to be properly equipped to do the jobs its tasked with. And they don't decide the missions, the Canadian people (though their elected representatives and government) do.

*The rapid succession of evolutionary steps armies are taking to respond to the new threat paradigm is unprecedented, with traditional doctrines being re-examined and changed. We're well beyond the Cold War paradigm.

*We've reconfirmed our Army's reputation as one of the best small armies in the world. Yes, the cost is high, but it's an immutable fact that influence in international relations is often exacted by our men and women in uniform.

*We're increasing the Army's intellectual horsepower. We're improving support for families but more has to be done, he's the first to admit that.

*Speaking on Toronto he said we're still sensitive about the snowstorm so we won't talk about that but hey, you called and we came with shovels. This earns a laugh.

*Retention and recruitment is a major challenge. Attrition rates have risen from a traditional five to six per cent to a current nine to 10 per cent. Military has the same demographic challenges as the private sector, and so many soldiers are leaving for jobs on “Civvy Street” is causing him grey hairs. You can't walk off the street and be a regimental Sargent-Major, you need to start at the bottom.

*The Army leadership is obviously biased for our soldiers. But Canadians need to know the unbiased picture, and for that the Army relies on the media. Only with independent media scrutiny can Canadians be sure they're getting the clear picture. So long as it's far and balanced. But we need an engaged citizenry.

*There's been times where the results of your unbiased reporting have caused the Army to feel like it has digested a litre of cod liver oil. But while it tastes horrible, it's good for you in that it causes the Army to identify and ackowledge problems and take corrective action.

*Afghanistan is in some ways like Canada's Vietnam in that it's Canada's first TV war. It's real, and it's in your face. Media are embedded in the field. There's a constant media presence in Kandahar. It's challenging, bit it's been a success. The best PR for the Army is to let soldiers talk to the media, for for the media to see what they do.

*Through the media, Canadians need to see the faces and learn the names and the stories of our fallen. It's important for Canadians to be aware of the consequences when the Army is deployed to dangerous places.

*(Question on peace vs. war, necessity of war, and peacekeeping) We need a multiplicity of ways to deal with global threats. No soldier wants to go to war, but they're willing to go if they're told to by their country, to fight, and do die if necessary for their country. He happens to believe there are certain things worth dying for. There is diplomacy and other tools but when that doesn't work, you turn to the military, and folks in uniform go out and do their jobs and risk their lives in support of our international objectives. Soft power can't be disconnected from hard power, they're intrinsically linked. What's in the colour of a beret? The beret (we're wearing in Afghanistan) may be dull camo (instead of blue) but he still thinks we're doing the work of Pearson.

*(Oversight, can you spread democracy where its not wanted?) He's a strong believer in ministerial and parliamentary oversight. He thinks democracy is worth fighting for, but that's not his decision, that's yours. That's your debate to have.

*(Question, something about Afghanistan and the historical failure of 'scorched earth' approaches) The over application of military force is nit the way to get people onside that want better lives for their sons and daughters. This isn't' the Cold War, the military is now a much more able and sophisticated instrument. Sometimes we do have to fight and kill, that's not the objective but we will, especially if they're truing to get through to the people we're trying to protect. But it's not the objective.

*(Question on what's next, re-equipping the Army, future threats) If it's not complicated and dangerous, why send us? In the future, until more technology emerges, we need to equip our people with more amour and more Kevlar so they're protected when they go out. But once the work really begins when the ramp goes down. Where we go next the solution will not solely rest with the military, they'll go with diplomats and humanitarian groups to build society and the rule of law.

Infantrymen today are akin to the special forces of yesterday. If you want us to have those capabilities it's not a matter of flipping a switch. It takes 20 years to build a battalion commander, 25 years to build a regimental Sargent-Major. You want to think carefully of the consequences of throwing away capabilities an uncertain future may demand.

*(Question on poppy issue in Afghanistan) He's definitely not an expert, but he has yet to see a proposed solution to the poppy issue he could wholeheartedly sign-on to that doesn't raise questions once you consider the second, third, worth order of implications. And it needs to be a solution the Afghans can accept, to what degree can we push our ideals and values onto them?

*(Question, comment on George Galloway banning) No, I will absolutely, categorically, not comment on that. Good try though, and I complement you for it.

*(Same guy, but you think about retired generals speaking at political events, like Rick Hillier to the Conservative-sympathetic Manning Centre) An underlying premise of the democratic model is that, when in uniform, we're completely subordinate by law, practice and tradition to the government of the day. But when we hang-up that uniform we have the democratic right to go to the microphone and speak our minds. And that's a right Hillier spent his career in uniform defending.

*(Globe's Hugh Winsor asks long, and good, question. He says Leslie is very open and candid, and so are the soldiers on the ground, but there's a disconnect in the bureaucracy at DND. During the detainee affair, misinformation was given to the House of Commons and to the media. And after the detainee affair, DND set up a committee to vet and stall any contentious Access to Information request. How, Winsor asked, do you square your desire for openness and media scrutiny with the roadblocking by DND?)

Leslie gave Winsor a sarcastic “thanks Hugh” (apparently they go back a bit) and considered it carefully before answering delicately, noting he has nothing to do with the Access committee and he doesn't run the military end of the Afghan mission, so he's not an expert of the detainee issue.

But he said he thinks DND learned a lot of interesting lessons from the detainee affair, such as the consequences on iterations of working with Afghan military and police, with a nascent judicial system, and with limited oversight of prisons. He said the argument could be made that, with its investigative resources, the media shone a cold, hard light on the issue and now it's being handled much better, so the system works.

My Thoughts

If you're still reading at this point, I'll say I agree with much of what Leslie had to say, and I think he's a strong advocate for the Army and for the soldiers in the field. Obviously he had to be careful in his answers at time, he serves political masters and he needs to operate within their guidelines and desires. And that, frankly, is how it should and needs to be. We don't want soldiers making policy.

Obviously, while Leslie's message on welcoming media scrutiny is a good, appropriate one, there is a strong dose of propaganda to that. And while I think he's sincere, when you ask the media, the public and DND what an appropriate level of such scrutiny would be you're going to get three different answers. And a fourth when you ask the Harper government, and their view is the only one that counts.

So, no matter how genuine he is on it and whether all of DND is on board or not, the message is the right one and it's up to us, the public and the media, to keep the pressure on the military (and the government) to live-up to Leslie's desire for scrutiny.

And to ensure that, when we do ask our military members to saddle-up, it's for the right reasons, and that we've got their backs.

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1 comment:

penlan said...

Good coverage, Jeff. Don't know how you can possibly remember all you did. You must be a good note taker. Interesting stuff. Thanks.