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Fort Fumble on the Rideau: Just say no to military academics Add to ...

In the mid-1990s, the officer corps in the Canadian Forces was lamentably undereducated. Just over half had university degrees, and only 7 per cent had graduate degrees, something completely unacceptable in the increasingly technological and complicated world in which Canada then lived. Fifteen years later, matters have improved substantially, with more than 75 per cent of officers holding undergraduate degrees and 40 per cent of senior officers above the rank of colonel having advanced degrees. Today, many non-commissioned members have university or college degrees.

But what about Canadian civilians? There’s no doubt that the Canadian military has much more public support than it did a decade ago. The numbers lining the Highway of Heroes when those killed in Afghanistan are returned home are only one indicator of this; the rising budgets of the Department of National Defence are another. It’s also no coincidence that there’s more informed commentary on defence questions in the Canadian media than there was 20 years ago.

And there are scores of academics who write on defence, on strategy, on the economics of defence, and on the conflicted areas of the world. Most of these scholars and their students live and work in various university centres that are sometimes called strategic studies or policy research centres. Most of them are partially funded by a little-known program in the Defence Department called the Security and Defence Forum (SDF) that, since 1967, has been providing small grants ($100,000 to $200,000 is the norm) to these university centres. Today, these grants total $2.5-million, and they support some 230 courses and help educate 10,000 students each year. In addition, $1-million in research grants help academics and students work on their projects.

The result has been an increase in informed commentary – and in scholarly papers and books. Military history, for example, is taught in universities from New Brunswick to British Columbia, and has created a boom for publishers, one of the few areas in Canadian history that see significant scholarly and popular writing. There are now three university centres in francophone Quebec – at Laval, Montreal and Université du Québec à Montréal – training Québécois students in an area that, until a few years ago, was almost completely unstudied.

To me, as someone who’s been out of the university arena for more than 15 years and who had only the slightest of connections to the SDF program, the results of the federal government’s small investment seem wholly positive. Surely informed discussion is a good thing for the Defence Department and the military.

Now, however, DND, like other departments in Ottawa, is in the throes of a budget-cutting exercise, as the Harper government struggles to eliminate the budget deficit. DND is looking to save $1-billion a year or more, and one of the programs on the chopping block is the Security and Defence Forum. I agree that everything needs to be examined, including the huge increase in civilian DND employees and the enormous growth in headquarters staffs. These are big-ticket items that can probably be cut back. But the SDF? A tiny program that costs $2.5-million in a department with a budget north of $20-billion? Does this make any sense?

What makes matters worse is that the bureaucrats charged with administering the program seem anti-academic. After 40 years of the SDF, they say, neglecting the anti-military attitude of most universities and the budget crises affecting every institution of higher education in the country, why don’t the universities pay the bills? Besides, who needs more detailed studies on the Chinese or Syrian military? And, of course, why do academics always seem to be so critical of government policy on procurement or budgets or Afghanistan? What the government seems to want from SDF academics is uncritical support for its partisan policies, and from its bureaucrats a defence against SDF scholars who fail to play along.

The SDF program has had its funding guaranteed for 2011-12, but DND has said the program will be cut to $500,000 on the way to future extinction. Most of the university SDF programs – except for a few that have developed private support – will disappear or, at a minimum, shrink into insignificance. And the money saved will be swallowed by the paper-clip budget at DND headquarters, producing yet another triumph for the bean-counters at Fort Fumble on the Rideau.

Historian J.L. Granatstein writes on military and defence policy issues.

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