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Book Reviews

The Unexpected War: Canada In Kandahar

by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang

Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007
348 pages, $35.00
ISBN 9780670067220

Reviewed by Scott M. Davy

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Book cover : The Unexpected War – Canada in KandaharIt has become almost axiomatic to describe the changing security environment in which Canada has found itself embroiled since 11 September 2001, and certainly since the end of the Cold War. In the light of this threat environment, among a myriad of other factors, the civil-military dynamic in Canada has also evolved, resulting in changes that require investigation and analysis. The nation’s top general during these changes, General Rick Hillier, enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) an unprecedented public profile and even he commented on the state of civil-military relations in Canada as he retired from his post.

The Unexpected War was published in the summer of 2007 amidst extensive dialogue with respect to Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan. At the time of its publication, Canada had suffered 67 combat fatalities (now nearly 100), and was (and still is) facing resurgent hostilities in the south of the country, specifically in Kandahar province. Despite a popular public discourse in opinion pieces and editorials and at issue panels, there existed a dearth of literature regarding Canadian involvement in Afghanistan. As a result, Eugene Lang and Janice Gross Stein set out to portray a “history on the run”1 of Canadian decision-making on the Afghanistan file up to that point in time. They possessed a unique perspective to pursue this undertaking. Lang had been Chief of Staff to both Defence Ministers John McCallum and Bill Graham, and Dr. Stein has been a long-time international relations scholar, and commentator on Canadian foreign policy as Director of the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto. This review will seek to introduce the work, to explore the reaction to its publication, and, finally, to assess what the book is, and what it is not. It will pay special attention to the impact of not only the book but also its influence upon the conduct of civil-military relations in Canada. Put broadly, the book has three themes: Canada’s relationship with the United States; the Government of Canada’s lack of a coherent Afghanistan strategy; and Ottawa’s difficulty in successfully overcoming a counterinsurgency.2

With more than a year having elapsed since its publication, reaction to the book has been mixed. After its release, some applauded its uniqueness, and noted the scarcity of writing with respect to the Canadian experience in Afghanistan. However, not all responses have been those of praise. In fact, an exploration of some glaring criticism can first identify differences in interpretation, clear any misconceptions about the book itself, and, more broadly, can further our study of civil-military relations in Canada. Several such reviews came from what could be described as the Canadian defence establishment,3 by whom the book is called a “...self-serving diatribe,” and “decidedly partisan.” From this perspective, the book is felt to be an anti-military, pro-Liberal political ‘blame game.’

A common criticism from this side of the civil-military dynamic is a staunch defence of military leaders in the light of perceived attacks from the authors. Some reviewers felt that Stein and Land attempted to square the blame of Canada’s involvement on diplomats and military leaders, and away from their ‘political masters.’ Some go further and claim that the book actually insults the military leadership, portraying them as bullies, or implying that they ‘bamboozled’ their political masters into a course of action.

Was it, as their detractors proclaim, the authors’ intent to portray the military as ‘a gang of bullies,’ and to lay blame for the Afghanistan mission upon them? Did General Hillier ‘bamboozle’ the civil authority? Some passages from the book are telling. “The Canadian Forces [CF] have [sic] flourished under the charismatic leadership of General Rick Hillier...”4 While some state that the authors place blame on the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the text is explicit: “Hillier would persuade Bill Graham and ultimately Paul Martin to send Canada’s military deeper and deeper into the conflict in Afghanistan.”5 General Hillier is a strong, persuasive individual, and the authors place him squarely in that light.

Criticisms, as already described, originating from the defence establishment are important for the purpose of an examination of civil-military relations in Canada. In this context, commentary represents an attempt by the defence establishment to vanguard the interests of the military versus the ‘decidedly partisan’ interests of their political masters. Therefore, regardless of any friction that may or may not have existed between the CDS (and by extension the CF) and the civil authority, the reaction to the book has revealed friction between the defence establishment in the form of commentators and the civil authority in Ottawa.

In the broadest sense, The Unexpected War is a book about relationships. It involves the relationship between allies in the United States and Canada; it is about the relationship between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet; between the Minister of National Defence (MND), the CF, and the public service; and between the CDS and the civil authority. Further, it is about the relationship of the government to its citizenry. It offers an insider’s look at the interactions within and surrounding the office of the MND, and, to a lesser extent, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). I believe The Unexpected War covers these perspectives with great accuracy, and it does not purport to give the same in-depth perspective into other departments or at other levels within the Government of Canada. And yet, this strength and accuracy of detail has also been decried as the book’s weakness. It is most certainly ‘defence-centric,’ and is not able to describe the events and efforts of, for example, the Department of Foreign Affairs, before or during the mission. In fact, the perspective of the book is so defence-centric that other government agencies and departments are seen as external, as “the others.” This phenomenon is perhaps reflective of the central position that National Defence had enjoyed in the Afghanistan file, but certainly is also reflective of the authors’ own experiences and perspectives. As a result, while all Canadians can benefit from this important book, anyone reading it will become more familiar with the workings of, for example, National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) than Foreign Affairs’ Lester B. Pearson Building.

Of particular note in this work is its complete distancing from any scholarly discourse with respect to civil-military relations, despite grappling with an issue of direct importance and impact on civil-military relations in Canada. Also missing is a discussion of the organizational studies and changes to the civil- military dynamic in Canada, the likes of which have been studied in detail by Drs. Douglas Bland and Albert Legault. Even the authors stand at an arm’s length from the study of civil-military relations, Mr. Lang is a political operative, and, while Dr. Stein is an eminent scholar, her field of specialization is decidedly not the interaction between civil society and the military. Despite a disconnect from both the civil-military relations “ivory tower” and previous organizational and management reviews, The Unexpected War delivers an accurate portrayal of the real world interactions in the civil-military dynamic in Ottawa, and, most precisely, as it exists between 101 Colonel By (NDHQ) and Parliament Hill. Without a single reference to Huntington, Janowitz, or Feaver, important theorists in the field, the authors observe: “It is the military that is forging policy. Yet that is not the way it is supposed to be in a mature parliamentary democracy. Civilian oversight matters. Policy is made better by it. The military benefits from it.”6 The Unexpected War describes, I believe with great accuracy, a perspective upon an aspect of civil-military relations in Canada in a time during which this field is undergoing unquestionable changes.

Regardless of the criticisms brought forth by its detractors and any blame that may exist regarding the Afghanistan file, there was clearly an impact of the experience upon Canadian civil-military relations that continues to manifest itself today. From the interaction and influence of one man on Canadian defence policy, to the broadest question of how the Canadian public views its military and that policy, these questions are pervasive. For its efforts to investigate and analyze this impact, The Unexpected War is a timely and important work.

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Scott Davy is completing his final year of a Master of Arts degree in War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. Eugene Lang, Comments to Royal Military College, 19 March 2008.
  2. Mr. Lang describes these as central analytical points; they are truly basic, and oversimplify a complex and far-reaching monograph. Ibid.
  3. For example, organizations such as the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Royal Canadian Military Institute, Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, defence lobbyists and corporations, and academics in some way affiliated with defence issues.
  4. Stein and Lang, The Unexpected War, p. 260.
  5. Ibid., p. 151.
  6. Ibid., p. 261.

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