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Members of the Royal Military College stand for a moment of silence as they take part in the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa, Friday November 11, 2011. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Members of the Royal Military College stand for a moment of silence as they take part in the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa, Friday November 11, 2011. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

J.L. GRANATSTEIN

A soldier's best weapon is a well-trained mind Add to ...

It doesn’t make sense. Why would any Canadian want a return to the Somalia era? The mid-1990s were dark days for the Canadian Forces – the Shidane Arone murder, Defence Department cover-ups, the sacking of generals, and a special commission investigation.

These incidents arose from a number of factors, but one of the most critical was the remarkably poor state of officer education. I said so in a 1997 report to the Minister of National Defence, and I was not alone in believing that the Canadian Forces officer corps was the worst-educated in the Western world. Barely half of Canada’s officers had an undergraduate degree while a mere 7 per cent had completed a graduate program. Canadian officers were well-trained in organizing their troops and using their weapons, but many lacked the critical thinking skills for the complex environments in which they operated. The results showed in Somalia.

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Thankfully, there was a turnaround, and the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston was a big part of it. Since 1997, RMC has granted close to 4,000 undergraduate degrees and nearly 1,900 graduate degrees. That has raised the proportion of officers with an undergraduate degree to 88.1 per cent, according to 2008 statistics. Reliable data for officers with a graduate degree is harder to find, but the percentage is now much higher than in 1997. RMC also took on the task of educating all junior officers through the Officer Professional Military Education Program, which delivered university-level courses in military history, international relations, leadership, ethics and civics. In essence, RMC has been the baseline of Canadian Forces education since 1997.

Moreover, most Canadians will be surprised to learn that Canada’s military university has long been a bastion of liberal arts learning in the country. At RMC, history majors, for example, take a range of mathematics and science courses, while mechanical engineers study humanities and social sciences. Forcing young minds into unfamiliar areas, of course, is an excellent way of developing them.

That broad-based education is militarily useful. Take the case of Lieutenant Tyler Wentzell. Not two years out of RMC, he found himself attached to an Afghan National Army company in the middle of nowhere. His driver and radio operator were practically the only Canadians he saw for months. Nothing was familiar. And yet he still managed to move into the Afghan camp, gain the acceptance of his hosts, help them train their troops and take them into battle against the Taliban. True, Lt. Wentzell had the good soldier skills that he’d learned at the Infantry School, but he would have been lost without the well-developed thinking skills he had acquired at RMC. The college has produced many Lt. Wentzells over the years.

So why would anyone want to reverse this progress? The Department of National Defence has just announced savage cuts for RMC: 32 of 185 professors are to depart and the officer professional development program is to be scrapped. Is this really just to save money? The fiscal savings are paltry – $4.5-million over three years in a Defence Department that annually hands back half a billion dollars it can’t spend.

These cuts are simply short-sighted. The immediate impacts are obvious – fewer courses, larger classes and no education baseline for CF officers. The long-term implications are even more serious. Good education is impossible without a well-qualified, competent faculty. But why would good academics retain or accept an RMC appointment, knowing that their jobs will exist at the whim of DND bureaucrats without academic credentials or a few myopic generals trying to save a buck or two? Not many. They would have to place their trust in the same people who compiled an initial chopping-block list of 68 RMC professors that included four prestigious Canada Research Chairs, one Rhodes Scholar and RMC’s principal!

The generals and the bureaucrats clearly don’t know what they’re doing in university affairs and, frankly, they shouldn’t be allowed even to try. RMC needs a new governance arrangement – one that protects the college and ensures that it can continue to provide first-rate well-educated junior officers to the Canadian Forces. The Minister of National Defence – he is the chancellor of RMC, after all, and has substantial responsibility for the college and the Canadian Forces – should ask Parliament to strike a committee to determine how best to do that.

The Harper government rightly wants to give our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women first-rate equipment. Why wouldn’t it also want to give them leaders with first-rate minds? They deserve nothing less. And a well-educated mind will always last longer than any weapon system.

Historian J.L. Granatstein is an RMC graduate, was an adviser to defence minister Doug Young in 1997, and has been a member of RMC’s board of governors.

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