Monday, April 7, 2008

The ‘Vimy Effect’ – 91 Years Later

General Rick Hillier, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, addressed the 2008 Canadian-American Trade Summit in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, last week, and he brought a message of courage and self-sacrifice. For one hour, Gen. Hillier spoke without notes to a gathering of business and political leaders from both countries, describing our joint mission in Afghanistan and the strengthening state of the Canadian military. When he was finished, the General’s audience had a new appreciation for valour.

Hillier began with an extrapolation on the seminal 1917 Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, saying it remains the standard for our soldiers to this day as they try to achieve the "Vimy Effect" of success and inspiration in everything they do. “The way they did it has lived on in the legacy of our country,” he says of the ingenuity and courage with which 100,000 Canadians accomplished what no other nation could. “They learned the lessons of the other countries that had tried to go up the Ridge. They empowered their soldiers and their junior leaders. 91 years later, that has strategic implications for Canada and continues to shape our nation on and off the battlefield.”

But wars among nations, fought on open battlefields and overseen by governments, seem a thing of the past. Today, Hillier avers, our enemy is chaos. Failed and failing states, where citizens cannot trust the authorities and no kind of happy life can be scratched from the hard earth, pose a threat to countries around the world. It is not mere altruism that compels blessed nations such as ours to lend a hand; the matter is extremely practical.

“In the war against terror, there is no such thing as a doorstep defence,” Hillier advises. “You cannot be, as a nation – any nation – an oasis unto yourself. You’ve got to be part of an international dynamic that is more stable, less chaotic, and not the fertile garden for growing terrorists.”

As to the noble and practical purpose of Canada’s 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the General is very clear: “We are there to help the Afghans rebuild their country. We are there at their request, as part of a United Nations’ mission. We are also helping them to recover from about 30 years of destruction and brutality and get on with a better life. The Afghan people speak a different language, they dress differently, there are cultural differences, but you scratch away the surface and they’re just like us – they’re moms and dads who have children, and they’d like to have a future.”

Hillier is circumspect about the feelings and motivations of the Afghan people: “They don’t want foreign troops on their soil – let’s not have any doubt about that. Just like us – we wouldn’t want a foreign military in our country. But they don’t want us to leave yet, that’s for sure, and they tell us that all the time. They need help building their army, building their police force, so that they can look after themselves.”

An abiding challenge for Canada and its allies in the war on terror is how to define victory. As is often noted, this conflict will not end with colours lowered or declarations signed on the deck of the Missouri. Our successes, says Hillier, will be incremental and subjective. Counting the number of patrols sent out or police officers trained will not tell the true story. Rather, he advises, when an Afghan citizen who is approached by a policeman can feel secure that he is not about to be murdered or kidnapped for ransom – something we take for granted in Canada – we will know that our mission is succeeding.

Governance in Afghanistan is Hillier’s most pressing concern. While the newly trained Afghan army continues to do the heavy lifting to improve the country, the creep of corruption within the civilian government and police forces gives him pause: “Imagine in three to five years, when a trained Afghan army, having taken its losses, looks over at the civilian government and sees them as corrupt. Can you imagine the sort of things that can happen then?”

But the simple fact that the mission is hard, Hillier insists, ought not to divert our eyes from its nobility and worth. If the job were easy, it would be done by now; if it were not difficult, there would be no debate. As the General describes the plight of children in Afghanistan – poverty, infant mortality, child slavery – one wonders: What would be the point in having a great and free nation like Canada if we did not help such people?

Gen. Hillier concluded by thanking the Americans for their efforts in Afghanistan and around the world. He spoke of the profound similarities between our two countries: our foundations of freedom, our love of liberty, and our belief in the infinite, God-given worth of every single human being. In these cherished tenets, we remain among the minority of the nations of the world. And so, as rare friends, we press on together.