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Battle of the book: Rick Hillier and how we got into Afghanistan

Rick Hillier became popular across Canada as the straight-talking defender of the military he recently led. Now he's written A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, a book that is predictable in many ways but leaves the interesting questions of his time as Canada's top soldier unanswered.

The book is dedicated to "Canada's sons and daughters who serve our nation in the Canadian Forces." Nothing suggests that the former chief of the defence staff feels other than overwhelming pride in those men and women. That the autobiography is mostly about him, dedication notwithstanding, is what one would expect from an autobiography.

The general spoke up publicly for the Forces more than any of his predecessors. For this, he earned their gratitude and that of many Canadians. That the military's budget is now soaring relates, in part, to his public-relations efforts and to the re-equipment decisions of two governments, starting with that of Paul Martin.

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Here is where the tale - or, rather, non-tale - of the Hillier book gets interesting. Eugene Lang, chief of staff to Bill Graham, Mr. Martin's defence minister, co-authored a book with the University of Toronto's Janice Gross Stein that reported in considerable detail how the general had argued for and planned Canada's entry into Afghanistan. Mr. Hillier's book suggests he took a secondary role in those decisions.

Politicians made the decisions, he says, an assertion that is correct in practice but that surely plays down his role in urging not just participation, but in the dangerous province of Kandahar. The Afghan mission has cost more than 130 Canadian lives and many more wounded, and run way over budget. It's turned out to be more costly in lives and treasure than anyone imagined.

Eight years on, the mission has failed to bring peace to Afghanistan. If anything, the security situation is worse, because Pakistan has become so unstable as an adjunct to the Afghan conflict.

Reading Mr. Lang and Prof. Stein, Mr. Hillier was the driving intellectual force convincing the Martin government. They describe his five-point package for Kandahar - after other countries had swiftly signed up for less turbulent parts of the country. A Kandahar commitment, they report the general as arguing, would impress the Americans and heighten the Canadian military's profile.

They write that this bold course of action was seen as making "a mark for Canada in the world." Then they assert, ominously as events proved, that "there was comparatively little discussion about the operational challenges of southern Afghanistan, of Kandahar specifically."

Mr. Lang and Prof. Stein's book is the best outsider's account of how Canada got into Afghanistan, although Mr. Lang was an insider for some of that time. Other officials with knowledge of the inside debates have argued that the authors didn't get everything right. They probably didn't. But no one looking for greater insight should turn to Mr. Hillier's book.

Readers will know what he dislikes: NATO, the United Nations, most civil servants and the Chrétien government ("a decade of darkness"). And what he likes: the U.S. military and those who serve in the Canadian armed forces.

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Missing in action are serious reflections on what the Afghan mission was all about apart from killing some "scumbags," how Canada got there and his own role, which, if Mr. Lang and Prof. Stein are to be believed, was a good deal more decisive than the general suggests in his book.

Missing, too, are any serious reflections on what a better-equipped but still small Canadian military should do in today's world. If NATO is, as Mr. Hillier says, a "corpse, decomposing," then presumably we should not get militarily involved through that organization. The UN is also apparently next to useless, as his account of the Balkan conflict suggests.

So if Canada can't or shouldn't work with NATO or the UN, that leaves the U.S. military and, of course, independent solo missions of unspecified kinds.

The world has failing states, counterinsurgencies and genuine terror threats to Canada and its allies. It has one superpower deeply overextended financially, with a superb military that got mired in Iraq and now can't find a way forward in Afghanistan.

The Canadian military needed its pride restored and kit upgraded, for which Mr. Hillier deserves credit. The question of what to do now, given Afghanistan's lessons, would have been worth exploring.

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