Gen. John de Chastelain (retd)

What have we learned from war? Canada 1914 – 2014

One hundred years ago, with a population of seven and a quarter million citizens, Canada fought a four-year war in Europe in which more than 60,000 of its soldiers were killed and approximately 153,000 wounded. This year Canada, with a population of more than thirty-five million, after fighting in five more wars and participating in numerous others, ends its role in the Afghanistan war, in which 158 Canadians soldiers were killed and nearly two thousand were casualties. Those numbers say much about how the state of both the world and of war has changed during that hundred year period, as it does about how Canada and its involvement in war has changed also. So what have we learned about war in that time?

On the negative side we’ve learned yet again that modern war is enormously costly and brings death and injury to participants and civilians alike, and massive ruin to infrastructure. We’ve learned that nuclear weapons of war, if used in a major conflict, have the capacity to end civilization as we know it, but we have not yet found the means to destroy or outlaw them effectively. Instead, we’ve learned to live with their existence, and to accept that the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) can act as a deterrent against nuclear adventurism. And for the past seventy-eight years it has done so.

We’ve learned too that there is a positive side to war, even as we seek to ensure it does not happen. Sometimes nationhood comes at the price of war, and a nation’s continued existence can demand a willingness to fight to defend it. Prior to becoming a nation 147 years ago, Canada was the scene of frequent conflict involving British, French, American and First Nations combatants, and only recently, Canada commemorated the bicentenary of a war fought on Canadian soil between British and American forces.

Indeed, Canada’s move to nationhood at Charlottetown in 1867 was accelerated over fears caused by Fenian raids launched from America into Ontario and New Brunswick the year before. Thirty years later, Canada provided more than seven thousand soldiers to fight alongside Britain in South Africa, and in 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada, under the terms of its then Dominion status, was automatically at war too.

Canada’s performance in World War I enhanced its move to full independence through the professionalism of its fighting forces in the major battles, as it did when Sir Arthur Currie’s 1st Canadian Corps captured Vimy Ridge in 1917 after allied attempts failed. In 1939, now politically autonomous after the 1931 Statute of Westminster, Canada joined Britain in declaring war on Germany at its own volition, not because Canada was threatened at home, but because of its belief in the need to counter the threat of fascism, following Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The value to its allies of Canada’s participation in that war was evident not only in the quality of its one million fighting men and women who took part, but also in the supply of vast amounts of matériel and arms shipped to Russia and Britain via the North Atlantic. Also significant was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, in which Canada trained over 180,000 air crew and 80,000 ground crew for the allies. That Canada ended the war with the third largest surface Navy in the world and the fourth largest Air Force demonstrated its will to play a full role as an ally in this eminently just war.

The fact that nuclear weapons were used to end the Pacific war in 1945 increased the possibility that war could be waged against Canadians at home. Heretofore isolated from conflict in Europe, Canada’s homeland was now threatened by the deployment of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. To defend such a geographically vast country, with three oceans and a small population, Canada could only hope to do so through alliance with other countries. Thus, Canada joined the United States and Western European nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States in the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). It also pledged to provide troops to the newly formed United Nations Organization, should that become necessary.

Countering invasion elsewhere was the reason Canada fought in the United Nations operations in Korea in 1950, and in Iraq forty years later, but it was also why Canada stationed land and air forces in West Germany in 1951 under NATO command, when the presence of Soviet troops in East Germany and Eastern Europe was seen as a threat. That the Cold War in Europe ended peacefully, despite the NATO–Warsaw Pact confrontation there, justified the belief that a demonstrated willingness to engage in war to defend a cause was a significant way to help prevent it.

At the beginning of the Cold War, and after the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel, Canadian Lester Pearson’s initiative to have a United Nations Emergency Force intervene whilst peacemakers sought to negotiate a settlement launched a new era for Canada in peacekeeping. The idea of changing Canada’s role to predominantly peacekeeping was attractive to Canadians who liked to think of their country as an “honest broker”, and to politicians who saw in it the possibility of avoiding the major expenditures needed to man and equip forces for a conventional land, sea and air war abroad. That concept notwithstanding, Canada continued to prepare for possible war in Europe and kept its forces stationed there and in the North Atlantic until the Cold War ended in 1989.

In recent years, international terrorism has added to dangers faced by Canadians at home. While the concept of another major land, sea and air war involving millions, as in 1914 and 1939, seems unlikely to recur, the war on terrorism has taken on a new urgency following terrorist attacks against the United States, Spain and Britain at the beginning of this century.

Given its involvement in the war in Afghanistan, Canada has been targeted by imported and home-grown would-be jihadists, and while attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on Canadian soil have been thwarted so far, continued vigilance and an enhanced intelligence and security establishment remains necessary to counteract the threat.

Terrorist threats aside, Canada’s attitude to war continues to be to prevent it if possible, but to engage in it alongside allies if that becomes necessary. That, essentially, is what Canada has learned from engagement in the wars of the past century. It is why Canada’s defence policy continues to be defined in its three main defence objectives: the defence of Canada itself; the defence of North America in co-operation with the United States; and contributing to international security. Each objective continues to include the possibility of going to war, and today, as Canada begins the second century following its 1914 experience, that seems unlikely to change.

General John de Chastelain, CH, OC, CMM, CD is a retired Canadian soldier and diplomat. He served twice as Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff, and was head of the International Commission on Decommissioning in Northern Ireland (1997 – 2011).