In which I blog about my miniature wargaming and whatever else takes my interest!

In which I blog about my miniature wargaming and whatever else takes my interest!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Hero's Autobiographry

When on my courses at Borden several of my colleagues had I met General Hillier once stories, illustrating the General's ability to relate to and connect with junior officers and NCMs under his command. The awe-filled, hero-worshipping tone used to talk about the former Chief of Defense Staff is perhaps unique for soldiers talking about General officers since WW2. And I can't think of any other CDS who has been so well known in a country were we often need to be reminded of who our Member of Parliament is.

So when I found General Hillier's autobiography A Soldier First; Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War (Harper Collins, 498pp) for $4 in a charity shop I had to get it. For many who wear the Canadian Forces uniform, Hillier is hero. He is held responsible for singlehandedly rebuilding the CF and pulling us out of decades of budget cuts, personnel cuts and increased commitments to try and engage in 'peacekeeping' in failed states without clear objectives or functioning equipment.

The book follows his life from childhood to retirement, and of course, spends a lot of time on his career as an officer in the Canadian Army. In each stage he talks about lessons learned that he took with him into his future commands and the many inspiring people he worked for, with and even some of the troops under his command. He also talks about how he had some terrific, career changing opportunities, such as going to the US Army's Advanced Armoured Officer Course in Ft Knox or later on serving as an exchange officer with III Corps in Ft. Hood Texas, serving as that formation's training and operations officer. The ability to learn how to control more troops than the entire Canadian Army was a huge opportunity that he could never have gotten in Canada where exercises at greater than battalion level were seriously curtailed by budget cuts. He also made a lot of strong personal bonds with much of the US Army's senior command which helped both countries forge a stronger alliance and working relationship in the post-9/11 world and Afghanistan campaigns. That is a theme he revisits throughout his book; strong personal relationships between individuals are much more effective than bureaucratic process for getting things done.

It's not about organization, structure, process or management: it's people who accomplish things, and they need to be inspired, informed, enabled and supported. (p.237)

I think I'd like that drilled into the head of every MBA, CEO and VP in the business world. There's far too much management and not enough leadership in this world.

Even though Hillier coined the phrase "decade of darkness" to describe the state of the Canadian Forces during the '90s he does his best to give credit where it is due. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin started the rebuilding process by pumping much needed money into the Forces. Hillier as the new CDS just provided the vision to direct that money into where he thought it needed to go for the CFs changing mission in a post-Cold War world. He also credits that solid working relationships with two different PMs (one Conservative, the other Liberal), three Ministers of National Defence and various cabinet ministers (in two different governments) who could navigate the political process was essential for getting anything done, such as urgently needed heavy lift helicopters for Afghanistan or a pay raise for the troops!

One thing he does not need to share the praise for though, is a cultural change in the CF and how Canada views it. The "Cold Warriors" were very much aloof from Canadian society, in a world apart and not terribly well understood. They were just seen as 'peacekeepers' and requests for more funding to update weapons systems and worn equipment or even just for ammunition to train with, were met with a lack of will, because all we needed to man ceasefire lines was some binoculars and sunblock. The Canadian Forces were just Civil Servants and an extension of the Foreign Affairs office not soldiers. Hillier recognized the need to change that relationship however. If Canada wanted to stay on the world stage we needed to get behind our Armed Forces. So he began what he called his 'Recruit the Nation' campaign and used his high profile status and some celebrities to draw media attention towards the servicemen and women and the important, demanding and often dangerous jobs they were doing on behalf of a rather neglectful and ungrateful nation. Here's a clip done by popular Candian comedian Rick Mercer who in his weekly Rants would take on issues of the day:

It worked better than he expected and average Canadians, once they were aware of the CF and the sacrifices they were making responded with a huge outpouring of emotion from buying individual servicemen at airports a coffee to massive crowds when each body came home from Afghanistan. It made Canadian soldiers proud to wear the uniform again and I don't think any other retiring General has had junior NCMs openly weep when he left the service since maybe Napoleon went into exile.

I'll finish off with another quote from his concluding chapter:

Most importantly, everyone who wore a uniform had experienced a cultural revolution. We were proud to wear our uniforms, but we also had confidence in who we were-warriors first and foremost, able to do any task- with a first responsibility to finish tough, often violent tasks when Canada needed them done. Our country had not seen this military culture since the Second World War. The immense frustration at the ignorance of so many who labelled us "only" peacekeepers had disappeared. Canadians knew that no matter how easy or tough the mission, whatever it was our country needed doing, we could do it. That was as important for those in uniform to learn as it was for those outside the CF. Amusingly, this actually made life more difficult in Ottawa. We were at war in Afghanistan, while the mandarins processed paper.


  1. Great post. I'll keep an eye out for this book.

  2. That's been my favourite quote since I read the book.

    Nice article James.


  3. Well written James. I saw him in London at the fund raiser for the London Health Sciences. It was quite a night. Next read his book on Leadership. Perhaps my employers should read it and learn how to do things properly.


  4. I've often thought that many corporations could do with contracting a few ex-servicemen to teach some leadership principles.

    Yes, I am on the look out for his second book.