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Book Reviews

Talking Heads Talking Arms
(3 volumes)

Edited by John Wood

Toronto: Dundurn Press
Volume 1 – 264 pages, $29.99,
Volume 2 – 230 pages, $24.99
Volume 3 – 360 pages, $29.99

Reviewed by Lieutenant-Colonel M.J. Goodspeed

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Book CoversThere is an old Hindu fable where six blind beggars hobbling along the road run up against an elephant. Each man grasps a different part of the elephant, and ecstatically describes the animal as having entirely dissimilar physical characteristics. At a quick glance, Talking Heads Talking Arms would seem to fall into the category of Hindu fable. This three-volume compendium of over fifty transcribed video interviews with academics, retired soldiers, diplomats and senior bureaucrats provides fascinating individual examinations of the issues assailing Canada’s Armed Forces in the first years of the century. Flipping through it in a bookstore, one might at first glance think Talking Heads Talking Arms was little more than impressively packaged bar talk. Don’t be fooled by first appearances. Read on. The series is considerably more than that.

The many interviews that make up Talking Heads Talking Arms are a part of Stornoway Productions “underground royal commission,” a much larger project that examines how Canada’s government processes work. These volumes examine the state of the Canadian Forces (CF) and their relationship to their parent society and government. Those interviewed range from Scott Taylor, the editor of Esprit de Corps, to retired Chief of the Defence Staff, General Paul Manson. All interviews were held between 1994 and 2001, but the timings of these interviews should not put the reader off, since their content is not in the least dated.

Recurring topics of discussion in the series are military ethos, professionalism, the quality and nature of leadership, education, military culture, the institutional fallout from the Somalia incident, assessments of recent operations and the nature of future capabilities for the CF. Each of these on its own is a complex issue, and Talking Heads Talking Arms deliberately makes no effort to summarize this complicated web of opinion by putting forward a single simplistic blueprint for the future. That is not to say there aren’t more than a few overly-simplistic prescriptions within the pages of these three volumes. However, on balance, each of the interviews in this series, even if you strenuously disagree with the content, has something worth listening to. There is a leavening of common sense, and, more than a smattering of controversy in almost all of these pages. For instance, Former Minister of National Defence, Paul Hellyer, describes how, after his departure, the Armed Forces botched his plans for Unification and left the military in a downward spiral from which it has never recovered. Also, retired Colonel Jim Allen rips into the general officer corps, and Professor Kim Nossal provides a blistering and dismal portrayal of Canadian foreign and defence policies.

Aside from the range of individual topics addressed in this series, there are several disturbing common undercurrents that run throughout. Every interview reflects a serious degree of pessimism – a shared view that sees the CF as suffering from more than just chronic under-funding. Every shade of opinion in this compendium indicates that, somehow, the organization – despite having first-rate people – has lost its way, and, on many fronts, is failing its members and the nation. The subtext (as well as much of the text) in each interview indicates that a once-proud organization has been diminished, and is on the brink of losing its credibility as a military force. There are no confident voices in Talking Heads Talking Arms. Yet in all this depressing analysis, one other common thread is that all those interviewed are emphatic that the root of the Forces’ problems is firmly embedded in Ottawa. There are as many shades and nuances attributing blame in each of these chapters as there are interviewees, but the themes of perpetually inept political direction and an ineffective national headquarters organization being responsible for breeding systemic leadership problems and bad policy is pervasive. In this respect, the producers of Talking Heads Talking Arms have probably not done as thorough a job in interviewing their subjects as they might have. The problems in Ottawa are not insoluble ones. The people who perform credible jobs in the field, and bring credit upon the CF abroad, do not suddenly transform into malevolent incompetents when they go to NDHQ. Talking Heads Talking Arms is long on describing symptoms, but it falls short in analyzing possible solutions.

There is another shortcoming implicit to this otherwise thoughtful and provocative series. No Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs) and only two serving officers were interviewed in this series. Clearly, in the 21st century, voices at all levels must be heard if we are to have a balanced understanding of the problems confronting the Forces. And, neither of the two serving officers who were interviewed was in a position to address with any authority the most contentious issues raised in these volumes. That so few serving officers are represented in these pages is unfortunate, but understandable. It’s likely the editors believe that serving officers are reluctant to speak up on anything remotely sensitive. Clearly, there is an absolute requirement for the military to remain completely out of politics – but this requirement, as it is currently interpreted, stifles meaningful debate on most important issues. As numerous retired officers in this series point out, failure to speak plainly on topical issues in turn leads to the impression of a tacit and secretive politicization of the military’s senior leadership. This series of interviews underscores the need for a policy review on the limits of public discussion and military transparency. Overly restrictive limits have almost certainly created distorted perceptions and morale problems, while too loose a system could result in intolerable intrusions into the political arena. Talking Heads Talking Arms emphasizes the need to find a middle ground – one where loyal individuals can conduct tactful, informed, politically neutral discussions.

There are other minor criticisms of this series. Some of the job descriptions for the people interviewed are incorrect. In some places, the text reads disjointedly because transcriptions were made from conversational tapes, and the questions preceding the answers were omitted. Nonetheless, this series is an incisive, albeit caustic, primer on many of the issues facing the Canadian Forces. It is highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand the situation the CF finds itself in. Talking Heads Talking Arms espouses no comprehensive plan for remedying the problems that assail the CF, but it does provide a no-holds-barred analysis of the factors underlying those problems.


Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Goodspeed is a member of the staff of the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.