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Not Necessarily Conscription... Bringing the Forces up to Strength: A Question of Motivating Youth to Serve

by Adam Chapnick

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Thanks largely to the dangerous mission to Afghanistan, and the situations in Darfur and the Middle East, Canadian awareness and commitment to the nation’s armed forces has undergone a profound resurgence of late. As recently as the 1990s, the Forces were largely regarded by the federal government as a money drain, and by large portions of the general public as an out-of-date, ineffective, and perhaps even irrelevant institution. The national economic recovery, effective public pressure by pro-military enthusiasts, and an increase in pride in Canada’s place in the world have changed all of this.

A recent poll by the Innovative Research Group found that two-thirds of Canadians agree that for the country to play a significant role in world affairs, it needs an effective armed forces. During the last election campaign, after the Martin Liberal government promised to spend an additional $13 billion over the next 20 years to revitalize the Canadian Forces (CF), the Conservatives pledged to spend almost $2 billion more. And while the Liberals expected to add 5000 regular and 3000 reserve personnel, the Conservatives have created a recruiting target of 15,000 additional personnel in total. Both parties seem to believe that “people,” as former Defence Minister Bill Graham put it, “remain the greatest strength of Canada’s military.” The less partisan Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has agreed. It recently released a report arguing that the budget for the Department of National Defence (DND) should be increased even more to somewhere between $25 billion and $35 billion. The Liberal proposal would eventually result in a Forces budget of about $22 billion, and the Conservative proposal, $24 billion, supposedly allowing for between 15,000 and 20,000 additional personnel.

There must be significant expansion, say the experts, and there will be, reply the politicians. But how? Buying new equipment, modernizing military tactics, and reforming inefficient bureaucracies can be accomplished relatively easily, but even in an era when youth unemployment is dangerously high, recruiting new personnel has proven much more difficult. In fact, judging by current trends, without major changes in the approach to recruiting Canadian youth, the proposed increases will not be met. In April 2002, Auditor General Sheila Fraser issued a damning report of the state of the recruitment and retention abilities of DND. Although she found that efforts were being made to improve the recruiting process, to increase wages and benefits, and to make the Forces more open and accessible to previously underrepresented groups – such as women and ethnic minorities – the results had not been realized quickly enough. The navy still needed people with technical skills, she noted at the time, the army still needed engineers, the air force still needed pilots, and the entire armed forces still needed additional medical personnel.

More than four years later, with even more money available, in two separate reports, both Fraser and Yves Côté, the Canadian Defence Ombudsman, have found that the results remain disappointing. The CF is still understaffed, and, in spite of some incremental improvements, particularly among better-educated recruits, there are few signs of long-term positive developments. The current system, in Côté’s words, “is neither efficient nor is it adequate to meet the needs of the Canadian Forces.” Put simply, even if the general public, the so-called experts, and the political elite have increased their commitment to the Canadian military, the country’s youth – the present and future of the Armed Forces – have not, and without them, there can be little hope of meeting the recruitment goals.

Critics might suggest that the lack of interest among youth with respect to the armed forces is symptomatic of a general decline in the commitment of this new generation of Canadians to their country as an influential armed power on the world stage. Young people, the argument goes, lack a real sense of Canada’s military past. Since only three provinces require that students take modern Canadian history in high school, most youth have a limited understanding of how their country evolved in the 20th Century. They do not know, for example, about Canada’s military accomplishments in the world wars, and in the Korean War. They are only vaguely aware of early successes in peacekeeping and peace support missions. And they have, as one recent poll by the Dominion Institute has suggested, displayed less and less interest in honouring the country’s surviving veterans, although it is true that opinions vary on this particular perception. Without these memories of combat, it becomes difficult to develop national pride, and without such pride, there are fewer reasons for today’s youth to volunteer to risk their lives overseas.

Generally speaking, critics have allocated blame for this scenario in two different directions. Some have noted in anger that the auditor general’s reports dating all the way back to 1990 had predicted a long-term personnel crisis. They therefore blame the military, and DND, for failing to deal with the crisis early enough and effectively. The world has changed, they argue. Security is no longer the exclusive domain of officers and generals. Youth who want to make a difference do not see the military as the best way to do so. And by failing to reinvent themselves effectively, the armed forces have not done enough to convince them otherwise.

Others focus on education. They believe that if Canadian youth knew more about the nation’s history, interest in the military would increase. Young Canadians would feel a greater commitment to the future of their country and would understand that we are, and have always been, a nation of significant military accomplishments. If today’s youth were taught to appreciate the sacrifices made by previous generations of Canadians to preserve their freedom and freedom around the world, they would feel a duty to do the same for future generations.

Unfortunately, to move the military forward will take more than just better recruitment and more history being taught. Both criticisms are fair, but addressing one of them exclusive of the other will not solve the problem. There is no doubt that the world and the meaning of security have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, security must now be understood as more than just military might, and to convince Canadian youth to join the military will require a modern, progressive and far-reaching approach to national duty and global citizenship. The military will have to make itself more relevant in the eyes of the country’s future leaders, and a more rewarding form of service than it is considered today. It is also true that young Canadians do not know enough about their country’s past. And in those rare instances when they are presented with the Canadian story in school, too much of it is delivered ineffectively, and it does not result in real learning and appreciation. We have to teach more history, and we have to do it more effectively.

Nevertheless, even if DND continues to modernize its recruitment strategies (for example, it has increased its budget for advertising by over 500 percent since 2000), and even if future young Canadians are taught more history, there are reasons to believe that the CF will still struggle to attract sufficient numbers of Canadian youth. No matter how effective the recruiters, nothing can replace the impact of a veteran’s presence in the home. Apart from some recent immigrants, the current generation of Canadian youth is among the first to have almost no direct links to veterans of previous wars. The soldiers who fought in Europe in the Second World War and in Asia during the Korean War might well have told their children stories of their experiences, but, until very recently, today’s parents do not have those stories to relate. It is difficult to imagine, barring the obvious recent involvement in Afghanistan, that war can be real to most young Canadians. Unless they have travelled through failed or failing states overseas, the closest they likely will have come to genuine danger will be, at worst, a book or film in school, or perhaps an hour-long visit from a veteran to a school assembly that they may or may not have attended. Try as they might, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for National Defence recruiters to recreate in this country the military culture and sense of duty to which previous generations of young Canadians were exposed.

Teaching more history, and even teaching it more effectively, will also go only so far. Young Canadians today learn differently. Technological advances have made it possible for them to read less, to concentrate for shorter periods of time, and to rely more on experiential forms of learning. Books and films on Canada’s wartime experiences will affect some youth, but not as many as has been the case in the past. And no matter how well taught, fewer of today’s youth will be inspired by a typical classroom experience to go out and join the military. If they are not fighting themselves, and they do not know anyone who has fought to preserve Canada’s security, no matter what they are told in school, they will have great difficulty understanding what military service even means, let alone appreciate its value.

This problem is obviously not exclusive to Canada. In Sweden, the solution is known as full conscription. Under the Swedish military system, in the event of an emergency or a war, anyone living in the country between the ages of 16 and 70 is obligated to help ensure the nation’s security. Men between the ages of 18 and 24 must go even further by enrolling in the military and reporting to a training unit if they are accepted for service. For women, the decision to participate is optional, but if they pass a special admissions test, their obligations become the same as their male colleagues. Sweden averages about 8500 conscripts per year from a nation of nine million people, less than one-third the population of Canada.

Such a solution is not at all realistic for Canada, nor will it ever be. Conscription has a history of creating national divisions along linguistic and ethnic lines, as it did in both world wars, and those experiences are unlikely to ever be forgotten. The current approach of the Canadian Forces, which favours better-educated recruits (the average recruiting age has increased by close to ten years), is also unlikely to be entirely helpful in the long run. Today’s youth need to be exposed to the military in a positive manner at as early an age as possible, if they are to develop any durable sense of affinity and attraction to military service. Furthermore, the traditional approach to recruitment as a whole, focusing directly on the youth themselves, is out of date. It reflects a technique that might have worked in previous generations, when knowledge of history was better, and when a sense of the country’s military tradition was more evident, but as the auditor general’s reports have shown, it has not worked more recently and will not work in the near future.

Promoting the military today requires a two-track strategy. In an era when security is understood so broadly, and at a time when the CF has worked exceptionally hard to redefine themselves as professionals, recruiters must focus more explicitly on the social benefits of military service. Young people today might, at least at first glance, be less interested in dying for their country, but they are certainly interested in developing leadership skills. In an age of increased global volunteerism, they generally embrace the idea of ‘service before self.’ Even though many do not vote, they do have pride in their country. Concepts such as duty, loyalty, integrity, and courage do resonate with them. They believe in bilingualism, and in working with those in need, and they want to ‘understand the inherent violence of armed conflict’ so that they can put a stop to it. These are all values discussed in the DND publication Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada, but how many young Canadians would be aware of this publication and its contents? Young Canadians generally do not know that the military employs doctors, engineers, technicians, and strategic analysts. They are largely unaware of the paid opportunities for professional and educational development, and they do not realize that service in the military need not be for life. If the CF hopes to attract today’s youth, it must show itself in the broadest and most progressive light possible.

It must also be practical. Military recruiters arriving on a university campus in full uniform are open targets for criticism from so-called ‘peace activists,’ among others. As a result, trips to schools and universities tend to ‘preach only to the converted,’ alienating the ambivalent, and further upsetting the critics. Recruiters should instead target high school guidance counselors and university and college career centres. Ambitious Canadian teenagers who are worried about having to work while obtaining a university degree should routinely be informed of the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP), which not only pays the tuition of military recruits, but also covers the costs of their books and provides them with a salary that includes a pay-living differential for those who attend school in more expensive cities. Summers are spent being paid a reasonable wage to develop what future employers will interpret as leadership skills, the ability to work as a member of a team, and also to develop a second language capability.

Upon graduation, recruits do indeed owe the nation five years of uniformed service, but during this time, they receive what is increasingly becoming a competitive salary, they are provided with full benefits, and they are given opportunities for further self-improvement. Unlike many of their colleagues, university graduates of the ROTP program do not have to spend their final year of school worrying about finding a job after graduation. Furthermore, while these graduates train, the CF contributes yearly to what is called a Personnel Enhancement Program (PEP), which provides funding for officers who seek to improve their qualifications, especially during their uniformed careers, but also in anticipation of the transition back to the civilian population. Pursuing further higher education is also encouraged, and rewarded with increased pay and responsibility. A similar plan exists for college students, and opportunities are also available for those interested in careers in trades.

The old military culture in Canada is fast becoming obsolete. Being a member of the Canadian Forces no longer generally and presently commands the pride and respect that it would have in previous generations. We must create a new form of this culture in Canada, and to do so, the Department of National Defence must integrate the values it holds that resonate with young Canadians more directly into its marketing strategies. It must spread its message through people who do not wear uniforms and who do not automatically provoke what can often be misleading and damaging images and ideas.

At a time when Canadians have developed a more sophisticated appreciation of the importance of a strong and capable military than they have in at least a generation, it is crucial that increased government spending not result in failure and disappointment. New equipment and greater focus are important, but if we lack the people to carry out the missions, the CF will have no future. And without it, Canada has much less of a place in the world. The action must begin now. There is no longer any time to waste.

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Adam Chapnick is an Assistant Professor at the Canadian Forces College and the author of The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations. He would like to thank Rob Kidnie and anonymous reviewers for their comments, and Jackson Whitman for further advice.