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Douglas Bland
Douglas Bland

Douglas Bland

What next for the military? A false dichotomy Add to ...

After Afghanistan, what next for our military? The question cannot be answered in detail simply because the circumstances of future military missions will never be certain enough to allow for a credible, detailed response. The general answer is that armed forces will be necessary to provide governments the capability to use lawfully armed, even deadly force in the national interest.

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The policy question, therefore, is not simply about what mission, but about how much and what types of military means are enough for this purpose. Unfortunately, when citizens and parliamentarians response to "What next" questions, the debate invariably flutters around the false assumption that Canada can choose between peacekeeping or war-fighting missions. In reality, the two terms describe the same phenomenon - warfare - set apart only by degrees of similar means and methods.

A debate about what next for our military that poses peacekeeping against war-fighting or vice versa situates the debate in a false dichotomy. Assuming that peacekeeping operations occur outside the realities of warfare confuses policy and defence planning, raises unrealistic expectations and often endangers members of the Canadian Forces. As in all the other forms of warfare, peacekeeping is about adapting means and tactics to the circumstances.

Scholars often define wars by their particular characteristics and place them along a low-high spectrum of conflict. At the lowest end, one finds "unstable peace" or "police actions" and social or civil strife where the likelihood of significant armed conflict is low. Examples at the low end include the deployment of lightly armed forces on United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Middle East or Cyprus, and small-scale "observer" missions. Scattered around the middle and higher end of the spectrum we find so-called limited wars in Korea, the Middle East and Vietnam as well as the long wars between Iran and Iraq and the various Afghan wars and insurrections. Humanity, fortunately, has not yet experienced war at the highest end of the spectrum: war without limits.

Wars - guerrilla or civil warfare, for example - are often defined by their particular means and methods. But they are not thereby set aside from the common circumstances and demands of warfare: "They have their own grammar, but not their own logic."

We make a fundamental error in assuming that the particular circumstances, the direction of international authorities and the particular means and tactics mean that peacekeeping operations are not warfare. And when we assume that all future peace operations can be stuffed into the low end configuration of 1950s and 1960s UN peacekeeping experiences, we make a dangerous error as well.

Our military operations in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s under a UN blue flag ought to have served as a warning. The Canadian Forces deployed in the Balkans equipped with a mere six rounds of rifle ammunition for each soldier on the assumption that they were joining a "peacekeeping operation." The soldiers and their white-painted vehicles almost immediately came under fire from well-equipped local forces. For a decade, Canadian soldiers attempted to conduct peacekeeping operations inside a conventional war. This attempt to define and conduct a military operation according to the diktats of a preferred doctrine, peacekeeping, and not by the military realities on the ground left two dozen Canadian soldiers dead and many more seriously wounded.

Today, the Canadian Forces are engaged in a violent war-fighting mission in Afghanistan. Yet in the midst of this war, Canadian soldiers are also conducting complex developmental and humanitarian operations. The Afghan mission is neither a peacekeeping operation nor a war-fighting operation. Rather, Canada is fighting this particular war with the means and methods appropriate to the war's particular circumstances, which are dictated in large measure by Afghanistan's social and political conditions and the enemy's means and tactics.

The lessons from the past 20 years of Canadian peace and combat deployments are self-evident. The international environment in which Canadian Forces units can expect to operate tomorrow will not allow for the deployment of peacekeeping forces among the people of disintegrating communities, states and regions unless these units are prepared at the outset for the rigours of combat. Neither will it allow for the deployment of combat units not prepared to undertake humanitarian operations in the midst of violent conflicts.

Debates about what comes next for the military must stand on a clear-headed appreciation of present and future operational realities in conflict areas. Leaders must avoid careless rhetoric based on a false dichotomy.

Douglas Bland is professor and chair of the defence management studies program at Queen's University's School of Policy Studies.

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