More military reserves, better deployment decisions?

Harper pledged to increase reserves this week. That’s an opportunity not for more military might, but for more Canadians to be invested in future missions

By: /
August 20, 2015
Going to war — not a collective sacrifice. (Reuters)

Sending Canadian soldiers into harm’s way is no laughing matter. But recall Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s last extension and expansion of Operation IMPACT in the House of Commons on March 30. When asked about the legal merits of staying in Iraq longer and expanding Canada’s role to include strikes in Syria, the Prime Minister joked that he was not at all concerned about lawyers from the Islamic State taking Canada to court – a quip which earned him a few chuckles and a standing ovation.

The fact that decisions on the use of force are made so casually that one can laugh them off is cause for concern. And here is where I see broader significance to one of Harper’s recent electoral pledges: increasing the Reserves.

On the campaign trail earlier this week, Harper suggested that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) need more reservists for a number of domestic and international roles, from military assistance to civil authorities during national emergencies to naval patrolling in Canada’s oceans.

Increasing the number of Reserve Personnel in the CAF is not a new promise, however, as it was mentioned in the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy. This time, the deadline for delivering on that item would be quicker and the increase more significant, or so the campaigning incumbent says. Harper’s pledge is for a total Reserve Force of 30,000 in the next four years — a boost of 6,000 personnel.

The increase is modest, but what we should really be paying attention to, however, is the proportion of Reservists vis-à-vis the Regular Force. The idea of an all-voluntary professional force is comforting because it means most civilians are not directly concerned when the government commits troops to war. It is not a collective sacrifice.

Those of us who are not in the military have rarely asked ourselves what we would be willing to fight for. And I don’t mean that figuratively, I don’t mean tweet-shaming Boko Haram or dumping an ice bucket on your head — I mean putting yourself in harm’s way for kin and country, knowing that you might die in the process. As Rachel Maddow, a Liberal commentator in the U.S. argues in her book Drift, military interventions should imply a sacrifice. When we borrow money to fund wars and rely on an all-voluntary professional military to fight, the average person does not feel the cost of the war. Relying more on the Reserves means having more “skin in the game” because deployment decisions will touch more ordinary people.

The reliance on an all-voluntary professional force has led this country’s decision-makers to think that the CAF can be anywhere and do anything because the political risks are calculable. New generations of Canadians have forgotten about conscription. Now, everyone knows that other people do the fighting and they do it well, whether it’s providing humanitarian assistance or killing terrorists.

Certainly, military generals have a role to play in this misconception that the CAF can do it all since they are to provide honest and clear advice to our elected officials on what the military can and cannot do. Make no mistake, Canadian soldiers have volunteered for this and are more than willing to be deployed, but they do so under the assumption that this decision is made soberly and with clarity.

Is increasing the Reserve Forces a good idea? Only if it does not mean the government is just asking the CAF to do more. When it comes to personnel, equipment, facilities and training, Canadian capabilities have been stretched thin. Increasing the Reserve Forces is a good idea if it means rethinking how society relates to the military when the use of force is at stake. Increasing the ranks of Reservists significantly means more Canadians will pay attention to security and defence issues and pressure their government to make a strong and serious case for war when confronted with that choice.