Is Denial Taught in Basic Training?
Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
The latest defence news is that the Canadian Forces’ (CF) transport planes, Hercules C-130Js, may have some electronic components that are Chinese knockoffs. Thus far, it appears the CF has yet to try to replace these components. But the more important part of this news story is the fact that the CF and the Department of National Defence (DND) repeatedly denied that there were problems, even though the U.S. version of the plane was clearly riddled with counterfeit electronics. The denials here are part of a larger pattern: The CF and DND regularly deny that anything is awry about programs and operations, even though such denials can often be easily investigated, and even though the denials are often actually more problematic than the original problem. For instance, the history of the F-35 procurement process is chock full of denials about cost-escalation and the fact that the F-35 may be a poor fit for Canada’s defence needs. What credibility do the government and the military have these days?
In Afghanistan, this imperative to deny that there are problems was most obvious when it came to the handling of detainees, and, in particular, whether the Canadian Forces transferred detainees to the Afghan security forces knowing that the detainees might be abused. This became the central story of the Afghanistan mission in Ottawa. When this story arose, the CF, DND, and government pushed back, trashing the whistleblower, Richard Colvin. In reality, the CF was trying very hard to prevent such abuses from happening, but the choices in Afghanistan were mighty difficult. It was pretty apparent to those on the ground that the Afghan security forces were not going to follow the standards consistently, but that the option of handing over the detainees to the American detention facilities was no longer available due to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. This was a problem that all of the NATO countries were facing – it was not just a challenge to the Canadians.
When I visited Kandahar in late 2007, it was clear that transfers were being held up because of concerns about what the Afghan forces were doing with the detainees. Yet, when I returned to Canada, the DND and the CF seemed to be arguing that there were few problems with the detention issue. This frustrated me endlessly. I think the CF and DND would have been better off being more open about the fact that some detainees had been abused, that the CF was doing its best in difficult circumstances to halt transfers when it learned of abuses, that the Canadian government was seeking to improve Afghanistan’s limited capacities here, and that there were few alternatives. Instead, the CF and DND demonized Colvin, ultimately making themselves look worse.
Indeed, the detainee issue distracted the parliamentarians and the media from the much more consequential set of denials, which rejected statements that the Canadians weren’t making much progress in the Kandahar mission. Almost all reporting to the public was wildly optimistic about the progress of the counterinsurgency effort. Now, looking back, it is pretty clear that until the American surge was well underway, Canada was just holding the fort, and not doing much more than that. This was not the CF’s fault, given the mismatch between resources and challenges. Canada led (but was not alone) in one of the most populous provinces, and in a province that continued to be the home of the Taliban. So, instead of “clear, hold, build” – the mantra of counterinsurgency – the CF was mostly mowing the lawn or serving as a fire brigade, clearing the same territories again and again but not getting enough support from the Afghan government or the rest of the international community to actually stick around in one spot and build some governance (again, not until there were enough troops in the area).
To be fair, this is not a uniquely Canadian tendency. Militaries of most countries are “can-do” organizations that do not want to admit that there are challenges that they cannot overcome. Still, while the U.S. media does not see the American military as being utterly transparent, the American military does seem to be more upfront than the Canadian military. Several years ago, I interviewed the staff of an opposition critic, and I was told that when they really need to know what is going on with the Canadian military, they call the Pentagon.
Again, some of this emanates not from the CF, but from the DND and above. When stories like those about the F-35 and the Afghan detainees arise, the minister of national defence and his staff consistently deny that there are problems. They do this until they are repeatedly pushed, until the media digs through a heap of documents, or until the U.S. releases information that makes it clear that the minister of national defence is in denial.
The media is seen as an adversary, apparently. This contrasts sharply with the attitude that former U.S. secretary of defence Robert Gates presented recently:
"You know, in 4 1/2years [at the Pentagon] I never had a line outside of my office of senior executives coming to tell me all the problems in their service or in their organization. . . .
"Some of the biggest problems that I acted on were first brought to my attention either by an inquiry from Congress or by an article in the press.
"I found out about [deplorable conditions at] Walter Reed due to a series in the Washington Post by Dana Priest” and Anne Hull. “I found out about the problem with the lack of armored vehicles in Iraq through a USA Today story. So . . . I would say when there’s an article critical of us . . . don’t go into a defensive crouch. . . . Maybe you’ve just been handed a gift to fix a problem that you didn’t even know existed.”
Perhaps Gates didn’t always feel like that, but this attitude advocates taking advantage of the information the media presents, rather than resisting the bad news stories. In the language of organization theory, the media can serve as a fire alarm, revealing when something is going awry so that those in charge can respond. Over the past several years, it seems like the ministers of national defence have often been deaf to the alarm bells.
To be clear, the CF is full of officers and enlisted people with integrity, and the DND also consists of sharp, honourable people. Yet, when a problem arises, the imperative seems to be to deny it. Perhaps the decade of darkness after Somalia has had a lasting effect, and the military does not want any weakness exposed for fear that it will be used to slash the military’s budgets. Perhaps the DND is concerned about the consequences of bad messages in a time when message management is quite tight. Either way, the saying, “the cover-up is worse than the crime” applies here, not because I think there are either cover-ups or crimes, but because habitual denial does the CF a disservice.
Also, to be fair, this is not just a military problem. In my research, the Canadian Forces have been far more accessible than the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and both of these have been far, far more transparent when compared with the Canadian International Development Agency. So, perhaps there are other things going on here. But the pattern within the realm of military issues is hard to, ahem, deny – that when problems arise, the first response is to say that there is no problem. Which makes it mighty hard to fix the problem.