Asking the right question about military service

A lot of changes are taking place in the relationship between the Government of Canada and its military. The Veterans Charter is failing disabled soldiers, according to the Veterans’ Ombudsman, Guy Parent. The National Association of Federal Retirees is reporting that the President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, intends to double the cost of the Public Service Health Care Plan, which all serving and retired servicemen and women use to pay for expenses not covered by Veterans’ Affairs. The story of injured reserve combat engineer Corporal Glen Kirkland, first reported by Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press, is bringing to light the unequal treatment of injured service members when they do not qualify for the minimum 10-year pension. Instead of being retained for the needed extra time, they receive a lump-sum payment, promises of assistance in transferring to civil employment, and then shown the door.

The most profound sign of the changing relationship took place this summer when federal lawyers from the Justice Department, arguing against a class action suite brought against the government by six disabled veterans about the Veteran’s Charter, argued that the federal government has “no particular moral or social obligation to veterans.” Meanwhile, Veterans’ Affairs has announced that it will be closing nine offices across the country, news that provoked a very large protest rally in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the location of one of the nine offices targeted. While the federal government may feel that is has no obligation toward veterans, it is clear that the public thinks otherwise.

‘Cash for service’ seems to be the Harper government’s basic approach. This does not conform to the usual motivations for military service in a democracy: patriotism, loyalty, duty, and service. This new philosophy reduces national military service to the level of a job with a private security company: take the money – do the job – move on to the next contract. This approach to raising and operating a military is mercenary, which the Canadian Oxford Dictionary describes as: “primarily concerned with money or other material reward,” or “a professional soldier serving a foreign power for money,” and “a hireling; a person whose services are available for money.”

History shows that the mercenary approach to raising military forces is both expensive and unreliable. What makes a military reliable is the strategic bond between the people, the government and the military. At the operational level, military forces are held together by doctrine and faith that the political and military leadership will not send them on hopeless missions. At the tactical level, units remain cohesive because of the bond between the members at the lowest level, whatever it is. While some claim loyalty to the colours, unit identity or task accomplishment is the glue that holds a force together and enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinarily risky deeds, it is actually the bond between the members that does this. Money is a poor motivator – trust and understanding cannot be bought.

Glen Kirkland is a 5th generation member of the Canadian Armed Forces. However, his treatment by the military and the government has broken the patriotic bond between the citizen and the military, at least in his case. Kirkland says that his family’s record of service “ends with me.” Here are the last lines, quoted directly from Brewster’s article:

“I don’t have very much faith in the politicians who are pulling the strings,” [Kirkland] said.

“There needs to be some serious change. I mean, who would join? Would you tell your kids to join knowing that if they get disabled they won’t be looked after?”

That is exactly the right question to ask: “Who would join?” If money is the motivation, then a mercenary force is what you get. Be warned: the result you get will not be what you expect.