Friday, November 26, 2010

Canadian Soldiers' Experience as a Template for the Future

I've started two "blogs" now on different topics while insisting that I am against the concept in principle. I suppose it is time that I admit that the concept has sufficiently grown on me; when done well, they can be a unique form of educational and entertaining information. Done poorly, of course, we don't need to describe what they amount to - and it goes without much elucidation that the worth of these things are in the eyes of the beholders.

The aim of the main site - also linked to on this page, at right - has been to provide a historical perspective on Canadian soldiers of the 20th Century. I've kept discussion on the forum to within the constraints of those boundaries in order to avoid discussions of a more controversial nature, partially, and also because I didn't feel the format matched those kinds of discussions. Perhaps this format would better facilitate more "current" discussions. We shall see.

That conscious decision not to permit current topics of conversation on the discussion forum has not changed; it was made because my perception of the useful level of discourse arising from such discussions was low. Monte Solberg discussed (on November 22nd, in the Sun) the growing tendency of website commentary towards the darker end of the spectrum:

But it pains me to note that most of the comments on most websites most of the time are comprised of conspiracy theories, sweeping generalizations, random thoughts and ugly venom.
He was speaking about news websites, but his comments apply equally to much political commentary regardless of the type of website.

Nonetheless, I've come to think that there are many lessons to be learned from the experiences of Canadian soldiers from the 20th Century, and applicable lessons to issues and events of today, whether they be militarily related, or not. A blog format is a unique and appropriate way to add some of that historical perspective into the mix.

Generals Old...

When the governing board of Alberta Health Services controversially released the President and CEO, prompting three members of the board to also resign, one commentator at the CBC website was prompted to comment:

It truly astounds me....

We pay half a million a year for these people because they "claim" to be the "best and brightest"

What were the yearly wages (inflation adjusted) for Guy Simonds, Harry Crerar, Charles Foulkes, Bert Hoffmeister, Ralph Keefler, Bruce Matthews, Harry Foster and Chris Vokes?

Now THAT was a world class management team.....but I'll bet no one knows who they were.
The comparison of the Second World War generals to a modern health care bureaucracy fails for several reasons, many of which were elucidated by another commentator later in the comments section, but the salient point is that there are many people still willing to look to the past as a guide to the future.

And new...

Then again, however, perhaps some things have simply changed too much. Brigadier General Daniel Ménard is in the news currently; this former commander of forces in Afghanistan has been censured for infidelity and fraternization. Again, public commentary on news sites has been raucous. Some commentators have posited that since wartime generals thought nothing of cheating on their wives, and they won "the big one" that way, it should be anything goes.

I think another goal of this blog will be to set inaccurate historical commentary straight when possible. General Eisenhower was cited as an example of an unfaithful husband, based mainly on rumours of an affair between Eisenhower and his driver, Kay Summersby. The relationship between the two was more than cordial, but apparently less than sexual, despite an autobiography written in 1975 (her earlier book written in 1948 made no claim to an affair.) There is some controversy about their relationship but nothing substantial to indicate that they had been lovers during the war.

More relevantly, it has been suggested that Canadian general officers were such good fighters because they were cheating on their wives. This aspect seems to have escaped historian extraordinaire Jack Granatstein, who literally wrote the book on Canadian senior commanders in the Second World War, entitled The Generals. One officer, General E.L.M. Burns, began an affair with a married woman in Montreal early in the war. As Brigadier, General Staff of the Canadian Corps in the U.K., he was discovered to be corresponding with her and making indiscreet references to people and policies to his lady friend. He was sent back to Canada and reduced to colonel. The affair with the woman, however, continued, and so did Burns' career. He returned to the UK in 1943, this time with his married girlfriend in tow, as a brigade commander in the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division. By 1 May 1943 he was a Major-General in command of the 2nd Infantry Division and eventually commanded I Canadian Corps in Italy.

The others, however, seem to have behaved themselves. Other historians spoke of the fidelity which at the time was a virtue. David Bercuson wrote of Lieutenant Colonel Ross Ellis' letters to his wife, which sustained him through the Northwest Europe campaign and the difficult days he faced as commanding officer of The Calgary Highlanders. Robert Calder wrote in A Richer Dust about his uncle who survived through the war in Italy after a quickie wartime marriage, to come home to find his wife, who in reality was a complete stranger he had never had a chance to know before he left for combat, had not been faithful. Unable to cope, and thinking he was owed more than he had gotten, he took his own life. Such, apparently, was the importance of fidelity to him. In the words of John Costello, author of Love, Sex and War, Calder's wife's views on fidelity may not have been unusual for the changing times, either. "While many of women's wartime economic gains were to be given up in the retreat to post-war domesticity after 1945, the seeds of a profound sexual revolution had already been sown. They were to germinate and flower two decades later into a movement for female liberation that won many of the rights for which the women of World War II had been fighting for."

At any rate, the point of all of this is that Canadian general officers in the Second World War were living in a considerably different climate, despite what commentators on the CBC website may like to think. There were certainly exceptions, and then, as now, the higher in rank one got, the more access to privileges one was likely to get. For the most part, Canadian general officers behaved with decorum (Granatstein does mention "womanizing" by Chris Vokes but provides no details); by all accounts the "love story" depicted in the "Dieppe" mini-series involving Major-General Hamilton Roberts was a nifty piece of fiction and it is unlikely charming widows were popping in on Roberts and Churchill Mann while they were planning the 2nd Division's darkest day.

Burns' indiscretions had almost killed his career as a senior commander before it started, and his female companion leaves Granatstein's narrative as soon as Burns arrives in England. Perhaps, like Burns' superiors, Granatstein felt the affair was irrelevant to the question of Burns' generalship. Once Burns moved to Italy it is doubtful if it was an issue.

My question to you

What other current news stories would benefit from a decent analysis of 20th Century "lessons learned"? Could the health care system, for example, really benefit from studying the leadership of the 1st Canadian Army - or the Canadian Corps? I've been to a session by a corporate motivational speaker who dresses as General Currie and presents to business leaders on the "lessons of Vimy". How far can the lessons really apply?