Manitoba History: Book Review: Peter Kasurak, A National Force: The Evolution of Canada’s Army, 1950–2000.

by C. J. Taylor

Number 79, Fall 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Peter Kasurak, A National Force: The Evolution of Canada’s Army, 1950–2000. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013, 348 pages. ISBN 978-0-7748-2640-2, $34.95 (paperback)

Before the entry of Canadian Forces units into Afghanistan in 2002 there was a long period of regret over the state of the military, especially the army, coupled with nostalgia for a former glory. Much had been lost, it was felt, through unification, bilingualism, civilian control and chronic underfunding, especially from successive Liberal governments, culminating in the so-called ‘decade of darkness’ of the 1990s. This view, held as truth by many old veterans, was supported and given credibility by some prominent military historians writing in the 1990s and early 2000s: David Bercuson, John English, and Jack Granatstein.

Peter Kasurak presents a welcome counter argument to this received opinion. He shows that the army’s dependence on its British heritage, its submersion in a grand NATO alliance for the defence of Europe, and a succession of blinkered leaders blinded it to changing priorities of the government and limited its ability to adapt to a changing world. As the author writes in his introduction, “Whereas the standard narrative accuses civilians of both starving and wrecking the army, this book asks readers to consider whether the army was not the author of its own decline” (p. 8). Kasurak brings an impressive array of archival sources, including records of various chiefs of defence staff, Department of National Defence ministers and other senior officials, to make a case that shows the army in this period as being both structurally and dynamically flawed, conditions that persisted despite, not because of, unification of the armed forces in 1968.

The strength of the book rests on its use of these internal documents, coupled with the author’s own analytical skills honed as a former member of the government’s Auditor General’s Office. Kasurak knows where to look and what questions to ask. Hence, he easily disproves the notion that the Liberal governments of the 1960s and 1970s starved the army to death. For instance, he describes a telling moment in 1974 when the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jacques Dextrase, confronted the Minister of National Defence, James Richardson, about insufficient funding to maintain the army in its present state. “Richardson did not agree,” writes Kasurak. “National Defence received 10 per cent of the national budget and about 2.5 percent of the GNP to fund its programs. It was the department’s responsibility to design the kind of forces needed within that envelope” (p. 139). This is a central thesis of the book—that the military had good funding, it just ignored political and economic reality. To put these figure in context, it can be noted that today’s government funds the military less than 1 percent of the Gross National Product, while NATO recommends that its members fund up to 2 percent of GNP.

The funding crisis stemmed from the army’s insistence on maintaining a large mechanized force in Europe augmented by a large Reserve army (militia) in Canada, what the author terms “the Big Army.” Through the 1970s the army leadership is described as being out of step with both NDHQ and Cabinet. Implicit in this argument is the lost opportunity to embrace unification, providing a smaller but much more focused and highly mobile land force that was integrated with both air and sea support. But defence policy, organized around European priorities, splintered the three arms into separate spheres allowing each to go its own separate way. Describing another confrontation in 1979, Kasurak writes, “Throughout this process, the army had clearly recognized that its views were opposed, yet it stubbornly insisted that it was correct. Ignoring blatantly obvious and extremely significant qualifications or limitations to policies, it doggedly parsed them until it yielded the answer the army wanted. There seemed to be a persistent belief that the department could simply will a change of policy on Cabinet” (p. 178).

It would seem that this attitude was more broadly entrenched in National Defence Headquarters than solely in the army. Although the election of a Conservative government in 1984 gave the army a chance for reprieve, government spending on the military actually declined through 1987–8 despite the government’s words of support (p. 207). It was not until the end of the Cold War after 1991 that the army could focus on developing more affordable units geared to meeting the Canadian priority of fielding rapidly mobilized brigades or smaller units to trouble spots around the country or the globe. So, ironically, what has been termed the ‘decade of darkness’ for the army, in Kasurak’s view actually became a time of opportunity and progress.

As a polemic, A National Force presents a thorough and convincing argument; it is less successful as a history of the army in the second half of the 20th century. While the strength of the argument derives from the documents, the faces and organization behind the discussion often lay dormant. Key figures in the army’s evolution—generals Simonds, Allard, Dextrase and de Chastelain—remain just names, their outlooks largely glossed over, save for the words in their documents. The army’s organization is barely described in this period, its evolution even less so. Thus, there is not a single organization chart, a staple of most military histories, and the author seems to go out of his way to avoid mentioning component units of the army. The regimental system, for instance, which Kasurak argues is emblematic of the hide-bound nature of the army, is not described. While he analyzes the demise of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, he does not mention its formation in 1968, the brainchild of General Allard who was looking for alternatives to the entrenched European units, and a forerunner of the present-day Canadian Special Operations Regiment. Nor does he mention the dispersal of the regular force regiments in the 1970s into three regionally-based brigades, one of which is in Quebec, that seems, on the face of it, to reflect social and political reality more than military aims.

Given his preference for the macro and distaste for the unwashed details of his subject, then, one wonders why the author did not attempt a broader study of the three services in this period rather than just the army. Approaching broader defence policy, instead of just the army, would have given him better scope for analyzing the missed opportunities of unification. Still, despite these reservations this is a foundation book that should inspire others to build on it.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020