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Politics, the Military and the Media

Politics, the Military and the Media

Many column inches in the print media and even more gigahertz of bandwidth in the electronic media have been expended on parsing Gen. Rick Hillier’s recent comments about how long it might take to make the Afghan National Army (ANA) fit to defend Afghanistan on its own.

A recent Globe and Mail editorial is an example, but a sadly rare example, of a correct media analysis.

The Globe and Mail says: “...he owes no apologies for giving an honest assessment of the mission's status ...”
There are two important points that some media outlets have failed to explain to Canadians:

1. It is NOT Gen. Hillier’s duty (or even his right) to ‘sell’ the mission to Canadians. As Ruxted has said:
“General Hillier has been the public face of Canada’s mission in
Afghanistan and that, as we have said, is wrong. ... the Chief of the
Defence Staff should [not] be explaining national policy to Canadians;
that is the Prime Minister’s job and he has the bully pulpit in Ottawa,
in the Parliament of Canada from which he can and must convince
Canadians that our soldiers are fighting and occasionally dying in
Afghanistan for good, valid, even noble reasons: for Canada and for
Canadian values.”

But: Gen. Hillier does have a duty to speak
to Canadian military personnel about what they are doing, how they
ought to do it and why they are doing it, too. He also has a right to
transmit that message to the broader ‘military family’ – CF members’
relatives and friends, retired soldiers, etc.

He has been doing
that and he has been doing that well. In the process he has been, as
the editorial said of his ‘honest assessment,’ telling Canadians at
large about the realities of the mission and that is “...something that
Canadians surely appreciate from their top general.”

2. The
world has changed. Gen. Hillier is, head and shoulders, the most
‘visible’ Canadian military leader in living memory. He is a skilled
media ‘performer’ and a reliable source of the ‘sound bites’ which are
so essential for TV news, above all.

The relationship of the
media and war goes back, at least, to the ‘jingoism’ of the Crimean war
period. The media used the war to sell newspapers and the government
used the media as a tool for ‘selling’ its policies. That carried on in
South Africa nearly a half century later, then in the First and Second
World War when Canadian war correspondents were an integral part of our
national war effort. The media was conscripted into the government’s
propaganda effort.

That changed in the 1960s. First: some
journalists were, doubtless, sensitive to the complaint that Edward R.
Murrow, for example, was little more than a British propagandist on America’s airwaves.
Second: many Americans, including many American journalists, did not
approve of the American war in Viet Nam. Third: technology allowed war,
for the first time, to intrude into our living rooms. We can, and do,
read e.g. Christie Blatchford’s war reporting
and we can ‘feel’ the bumps and bruises and terror and laughter but
nothing quite captures mass attention like a TV clip. Like it or not
war is news and it is brought to our homes, 24 hours a day, seven days
a week, on TV.

Gen. Hillier is just another ‘cog’ in the
machine. He, and other military commanders, cannot help but be ‘used’
by governments and the media. In “The Unexpected war” Janice Gross
Stein and Eugene Lang tell us that Gen. Ray Henault was picked to be
CDS (by Prime Minister Chrétien) in some measure because of his skill
at media briefings.1 It is not surprising that being ‘media savvy’ is as important to military commanders as it is to business executives.

are accustomed, as we should be, to seeing admirals and generals on TV
testifying to parliamentary (or congressional) committees, speaking at
public events and, in the process, ‘selling’ the military and its
‘shopping lists.’ That is part of the day to day business of government
in a modern democracy. Gen. Hillier has been doing that.

Some months ago Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre complained that Gen. Hillier was being used as a political prop.
There is a risk, when a military is as ‘out front’ and public as ours,
that the line between traditional, proper, apolitical military advice
and information and partisan politics can become blurred or can be seen
to be blurred – which is just as bad.

Military people, including
Gen. Hillier must be apolitical; they must not cross the line. The
missions they conduct – bravely and professionally – are assigned by
Canada, by the people of Canada through their elected parliamentarians.
The military does its best with what it is given. It can, should
explain what it is doing and it can ask for more resources but it must
not be in the business of saying this is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The soldiers’
job is to do it right or resign. Politicians must, also, stay on their
side of the line. It is neither their right nor duty to try to silence
military commanders who are going about their proper business.

The media needs to understand this and explain it to Canadians.

1. Stein and Lang, The Unexpected war, Toronto, 2007, p. 57


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