Conference of Defence Associations Institute President Slams Journalists and Public

The head of the military funded Conference of Defence Associations Institute used his farewell address to graduates at the Royal Military College to slam the media and public opinion (and presumably, the members of the public that hold that opinion).

John Scott Cowan, President of the CDAI, told the graduating class of the Royal Military College last month that the media “give new depth to the word ‘shallow.'” He described newscasters as “ill-educated but firm-jawed stage prop[s]” and decried journalists who deign to ask the opinion of Canadians when reporters “stick microphones under the noses of whatever slack-jawed gum-chewing vagrants they can find on the street.”

Why is this cheap attack so typical of the members of Canada’s military schools and DND funded lobby groups like the Conference of Defence Associations? Why is the military so distrustful of our democratic institutions? Should we be worried?
– Steve

Royal Military College Convocation Address at Canadian Forces College, 26 June 2008

“War and National Interest”

by John Scott Cowan, President, Conference of Defence Associations Institute and Principal, Royal Military College of Canada

“War and National Interest”

Monsieur le Vice-Chancelier, Major-général Daniel Gosselin, Brigadier-général David Fraser, Brigadier-général Don (ret) Macnamara, tous nos invités de marque, et la grande famille de nos deux Collèges, avant de vous exposer les qualités remarquables de notre récipiendaire de grade honorifi que, je veux parler aux classes sortantes. Je félicite tous nos 81 diplômés du deuxième cycle, et nos 15 diplômés du premier cycle sur leurs réussites. Les cérémonies d’aujourd’hui sont tellement différentes des évènements d’autres universités canadiennes. Par exemple, cet heureux événement a toujours un aspect plus sérieux que les collations des grades aux autres universités, à cause des responsabilités importantes assumées par les membres de la profession militaire après avoir terminé une période de formation.

Furthermore, the nature of those profound responsibilities is very far from the day-to-day consciousness of most other Canadians. This is surprising, since the tenor of world events, new security concerns, and the substantial and ongoing Canadian military commitments abroad ought to have provoked in the broader public an intense interest in what you do. At one point, I thought the so-called Afghanistan debate would trigger that, but there have been unexpected impediments to informed discourse.

For a democracy, there is no decision more important, more fundamental, or more diffi cult than the decision to make war.

And for a democracy, the reasons why and the process by which it decides to make war refl ect, reveal and refi ne the interests, values and character of the nation and of those who govern it. This is a fundamental truth. But these days in Canada, this fundamental truth is little illuminated by our chattering classes. Indeed, public discourse by the media, by some politicians and by some academics, on why we do anything, including why we fi ght, has become narrow, trivial, banal or even silly.

The vast majority of those who report upon or analyze these great events and the decisions we take over them have decided to discuss them from only one optic, votes and polls. And not only votes and polls, but votes and polls subdivided by riding, by region, by gender, by age, by economic class or by ethnicity. In the eyes of these commentators, it’s all and only about the power of elected office, how to get it and how not to lose it. This is an evisceration of understanding. Well, here’s an old thought come back to haunt us and taunt us: maybe we should be talking about what’s right, or at least what’s right for us, and also about what is possible.

But there are good reasons (or at least obvious reasons) why that’s not happening now. Despite the communications revolution, in some ways the flow of real information in Canada on questions of public policy is drying up. This is a grave threat to any functioning democracy. And it’s related to some disturbing trends in dissemination of news in Canada.

A generation or two ago, key debates in Canada were not perfect either, but they had vastly more substance than today. I remember well the public texture of the medicare, nuclear weapons and flag debates of the early sixties, as well as the early eighties constitutional one.

There are multiple causes for the remarkable dumbing-down of the media in Canada over the past 40 years. Some of the obvious reasons are the need to compress complex issues into 10-30 second sound bites and the narcissism of portions of the media who report incessantly on themselves. Increasingly, the print media imitate the electronic media, in a desperate defence of market share. Furthermore, unlike 40 years ago when journalists were amongst the best-educated and best-informed citizens, today many of them are neither literate nor numerate, and do us the huge discourtesy of assuming we aren’t either.

Interestingly, one crucial fl aw also relates to market size. As critical as we are of US media, one can fi nd some thoroughly brainy specialized commentary in the US. This is because it is a huge market, so that through syndication a journalist actually can make a living understanding issues in military affairs, geopolitics, economics, or science. But not here: in Canada, you are the science reporter the week after you were the society reporter, and the week before you are the constitutional issues reporter.

Generalist journalists know that they haven’t the time to learn enough to deal with the full complexity of the issues, so they fall back on the double-barrelled stock in trade of any articulate journeyman: human interest and scandal. Hence all Canadian news is covered as human interest or scandal.

The situation is exacerbated by a fad taught in our journalism schools, which I call the “interior decorator” style of journalism. Have you noticed of late that the key facts are not at the beginning of the article? You need to read at least two thirds through it to find out what has happened or who was charged with what. The first part of the article is all about the feelings of the reporter or the relatives or bystanders, or about the general setting of the story. This forces you to read the continuation, on page 11, so that you will appreciate the true effort of the writer, or at least see the advertisements on that page.

Or contrast the CBC television news with the BBC equivalent, which is full of hard news. The CBC version is half filled with the opinions of reporters and pollsters, which is the high point, because during the other half they show scenic postcard views or stick microphones under the noses of whatever slack-jawed gum-chewing vagrants they can fi nd on the street to ask them what they think about oil prices or border security or equalization payments.

But if the media give new depth to the word “shallow,” what about our leading politicians? Well, strange but true, there may be considerable hidden quality. I’ve known many of them, and certainly some are genuinely impressive.

Just imagine an election campaign debate in which unelected journalists didn’t participate and didn’t interrupt our representatives every 30 or 60 seconds. Imagine the people we might elect debating each other in long enough blocks to be coherent, and on subjects which they think we might wish to hear about before judging their fitness to govern. Contemplate the possibility of political discourse not pushed through microcephalic filter of some ill-educated but firm-jawed stage prop of a newsreader. We might get political discourse appropriate for a free people making critical decisions about their national enterprise and its role in the world.

So, polls aside, what about Afghanistan? At the outset, our involvement in Afghanistan served our interests in two important ways. First, along with other nations, we were assisting an Afghan insurgency which overthrew one of the most toxic regimes the world has ever seen, a regime whose negative effects were not merely regional, in part because of the impact of the terrorists who were their honoured guests. Indeed, we had been touched directly, through the murder of Canadian civilians working in the US, the disruption of our movements and our prosperity, and the climate of fear engendered by the rhetoric and actions of al-Qaeda.

Secondly, our interests were very much served by being seen to contribute in a substantial way. Over many years, and despite our participation in a variety of missions, including the Balkans and East Timor, the view of Canada held by many of our allies had been becoming more negative. There was an increasing temptation to view Canada as an insubstantial blowhard that was very free with advice, inclined to offer all assistance short of actual help. This was beginning to put Canada at a disadvantage not just in dealings with the US, but on the world stage as a whole.

The Taliban were overthrown quickly, shifting our activities to consolidation and then to operations against the expected insurgency mounted by the losers. That has led, quite naturally to nation building. It’s clear that we didn’t enter the fray in Afghanistan as a form of muscular foreign aid, despite the spin that the media and some politicians might now wish to apply. We followed our interests by removing a toxic regime. But international rule of thumb and our collective moral sense triggered a subsequent obligation to promote something better to replace it. It is our success in our fi rst objective that gave rise to our new objectives to assist security, economic development, education and social progress in Afghanistan.

They are a logical and normal concomitant of our initial actions, and reflect the application of our values to how we advance our interests.

So, while war and national interest are complicated, sometimes so much so that they confound the media and their pollsters, we continue to hope that the key leaders of the profession of arms would be well prepared for such complexity. They, after all, face challenges unlike any others within government.

On that central question of conflict, the democratic government makes any decision to fight. That entails a hugely intricate balancing of factors, but at least it yields a sort of binary outcome. Either we do or we don’t. That then necessitates you and your colleagues answering an even trickier question: How? The Canadian Forces are a device, a machine of great complexity, designed unlike any other part of government to be capable of functioning in conditions of great stress and strain, of chaos and complexity. A properly designed armed force is optimized for robustness first, and economy only secondarily.

The Master of Defence Studies degree, built on the foundation of the constantly improved Command and Staff Program, is part of that drive for robustness, as are many of our advanced programs for the higher qualifications within the profession of arms. Unlike the rest of government, we send our best “executives” back to school often, and for long periods. It does take considerable resources, but we know that ultimately the cost of not doing so is vastly higher.

When we heavily revised the Command and Staff Program and launched the related Master of Defence Studies degree in 2001, we did so in the face of more than a decade of naysayers claiming that it could not be done, or at least could not be done well. Brigadier-General Gagnon and I did not believe that, and so we proceeded, forcing the cooperation between our two colleges. But because the Canadian Defence Academy did not yet exist, and Canadian Forces Recruiting, Education and Training System was fairly passive on education questions, there was as yet no overarching policy drive to achieve these synergies, and only personal relationships made progress possible.

This is the seventh RMC convocation at CFC, and my 25th and last RMC convocation address as Principal. I’m pleased that attitudes have changed so much since the stand-up of the Canadian Defence Academy. It’s easier now to make the case for such synergies and for very advanced intellectual and professional development for senior officers.

But we didn’t invent these ideas, nor can we boast of speed. Major-General Roger Rowley advocated almost all of them in his widely acclaimed 1969 report. After almost 40 years, we’re almost there, but we stand on the shoulders of giants.

So don’t imagine that receiving your degrees today is just another tick in the box. We need your new capabilities and new awareness, because, where the national interest is concerned, the world isn’t getting less complicated. And in the battles to come, you are our sword and shield.

Tags: Afghanistan, Canadian Forces, Conference of Defence Associations, Defence lobby, Steven Staples