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Book Reviews

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reviewed by Bill Bentley

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by Rick Hillier
Scarborough, ON: HarperCollins Canada, 2009
509 pages, $34.99
ISBN-10: 1554684919
ISBN-13: 9781554684915

Reviewed by Bill Bentley

General Rick Hillier was arguably the most dynamic, public, and, yes, controversial Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in the history of that office. He was also remarkably and unusually influential in the spheres of foreign and defence policy, although the depth and longevity of that influence remains to be seen. Closer to home, his direct impact on the Canadian Forces (CF) was truly dramatic both in terms of how he drew the attention of the nation to their armed forces, and the structural and doctrinal changes he wrought during his tenure as CDS.

A Soldier First provides considerable insight into the man who so publicly represented the Canadian military for three years. The book covers the general’s complete career, from officer cadet to four-star general. In fact, of 23 chapters, only the last eight recount his time as CDS. The first 15 chapters, however, contain themes that help account for how he was shaped as a soldier: an outstanding officer and a leader of considerable prowess. Woven throughout his account is his obvious love of soldiering, and the deep admiration he has always felt for the men and women in uniform who served alongside him throughout his career. His determination as CDS to showcase these soldiers, sailors, airmen, and airwomen, and to explain to Canadians what they mean to the country, reflects this devotion.

A second key theme is the extensive and formative experience derived from the important command positions General Hillier held, especially as a senior officer. Beyond commanding his own armoured regiment as a lieutenant-colonel, Rick commanded a Canadian brigade, served as Deputy Commander of 3rd US Corps in Fort Hood Texas, commanded the Multi-National Division Southwest in Bosnia in 2000, served as Deputy Commander of the Canadian Army, and then as the Commander, over the period 2001-2003. In 2004, he commanded the International Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Finally, he was appointed CDS in February 2005. These experiences, combined with a third theme – the nature of leadership he encountered during his career – go a long way to explain many of his subsequent motives and actions as leader of the CF, and as the uniformed head of the profession of arms in Canada.

General Hillier’s reflections include the perceived negative impact he thought late-20th Century leadership had upon the existing structure, organizational philosophy, and doctrine of the Canadian Forces. He recounts that, as CDS, he remembered the lesson he had learned on his very first training course as a young officer, opining that it was not how to be a tank troop commander but of how not to lead soldiers. Later, as a more senior mid-ranking officer, he remembers observing that the army and the rest of the Canadian Forces were becoming a bureaucratic organization, administered by managers, not leaders. As deputy commander of the army, he saw this assessment reinforced in a discussion with Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran upon Pat’s return from his combat mission in Afghanistan. The general recalls Stogran’s statement that the command and control structure in the Canadian Forces “…just won’t work. Not if we are into agile operations and the heavy shooting starts. It just won’t work the way we are set up back here.” There seems little doubt that, by the time Rick Hillier took over as CDS, he had major changes in mind.

Thus, on assuming the office of CDS, the general immediately set out to radically reorganize the Canadian Forces, first disbanding the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff Group, which was, until then, responsible for all operations, both domestic and foreign. In its place, he established four operational level command headquarters – Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, Canada Command, Operational Support Command, and the Special Operations Forces Command. The promulgation of his six ‘Principles of Transformation’ set the tone for the force. It was intended to establish a more command-centric philosophy, to emphasize leadership over management, and to clarify responsibilities and accountabilities. The result, at the time of this review, is perhaps the most significant reorganization of the Canadian military since Unification and Integration in the 1960s. There is no doubt that General Hillier was committed to the proposition that leaders create and change cultures, while managers and administrators live within them. Unfortunately, these events and actions are only touched upon in a few paragraphs. We will have to wait for further first-hand details of how the general engineered this major change management exercise – should he decide to write more on this important subject. In the meantime, a good account of these events can be found in Lieutenant-General (ret’d) Mike Jeffery’s recent book, Inside Canadian Forces Transformation.

A Soldier First provides some insight into a number of other issues that generated considerable controversy as General Hillier’s period in office as CDS unfolded. There are interesting accounts of major equipment acquisition debates, the general’s personal recollection of the Afghan detainee problem as it had developed to that date, and his relationships with the three Ministers of National Defence for whom he worked. Those relationships he established with Bill Graham and Peter Mackay were excellent, that with Gord O’Connor, a little strained from time-to-time, but the general maintains that the tension reported in the media was overblown. Hillier gives his Public Service colleagues a mixed review, highly praising some while castigating others. On balance, however, the impression he leaves is negative. A perhaps less partisan account of these relationships, based upon several confidential interviews, can be found in Philippe Lagasse’s “A Mixed Legacy: General Rick Hillier and Canadian Defence 2005 – 2008.”1 Finally, Rick’s determination to very publicly treat returning casualties of war, to honour them properly, and to remind Canadians of the ultimate sacrifice that their sons and daughters had made, comes through ‘loud and clear.’

One of the most interesting accounts in the book for this reviewer is that of General Hillier’s prominent role in both the formulation of the Liberal Government’s foreign and defence policy statements, and, of course, with respect to Canada’s role in Afghanistan. In both cases, the general received considerable criticism in the bureaucratic halls of power in Ottawa, as well as, to some extent, in the national media. The argument is herein made that soldiers provide military advice, while politicians and senior civil authorities make policy. There is no doubt that his views and advice had an inordinate influence, compared to that wielded by any of his predecessors. However, much of the criticism levelled misses the point in two respects. First, the prime minister, Paul Martin, and the defence minister, Bill Graham – both of whom were highly intelligent, independent-minded men – were always firmly in control. Searching for new, imaginative policy initiatives, they were hard-pressed to find them anywhere as professed by their traditional advisors on these matters. General Hillier, in keeping with his very decisive nature, unabashedly filled the gap – providing advice that the legitimate, elected policymakers accepted.

Second, and more importantly for Canadian civil-military relations over the longer term, Hillier seemed to instinctively understand Henry Kissinger’s perspective when, as US Secretary of State, Kissinger wrote: “A complete separation of military strategy and policy at the highest levels can be achieved only to the detriment of both. It causes military force to become identified with the most absolute application of power and it tempts diplomacy into an over concern with finesse. Since the most difficult problems of national policy are in the area where politics, economics, psychological and military factors overlap, we should give up the fiction that there is any such thing as ‘purely’ military advice.”2

Notwithstanding General Rick Hillier’s contribution to the reform of the Canadian Forces, and to the re-establishment of a strong, respectful relationship with Canadian society, A Soldier First can mislead the reader about the full history of this effort, a history that predates General Hillier’s arrival as CDS. The fault undoubtedly lies in the fact that the general was serving outside of Canada during the critical period from 1998 until late in 2001. Upon his return, as Deputy Commander of the Army, he was further distracted by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and by dramatic events that followed, including our first combat deployment to Afghanistan.

Be that as it may be, the general writes that when he took over as brigade commander in mid-1996, the CF was still suffering from the fallout of Somalia and hiding from the public, fearful of doing anything, except for what had been perceived as being absolutely essential. The CF could not hide from the public for long, since, in October 1997, the government had established the Minister’s Monitoring Committee, chaired by the Honourable John Fraser, to oversee the implementation of the many reform initiatives proposed in the Defence Minister’s Report to the Prime Minister on Leadership and Management in the Canadian Forces (April 1997). This committee published quarterly public reports for the next five years.

More to the point, however, is the commitment and hard work of General Maurice Baril and his successor as CDS, General Ray Henault, together with Vice-Admiral Gary Garnet, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Dr. John Scott Cowan, Colonel Bernd Horn, Capt(N) Al Okros, and Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Lortie. They, along with several others, set out to revitalize the professionalism and leadership of both the officer and the NCM Corps through a combination of personal example, the promulgation of much needed formally approved doctrine, and significant organizational change. The result, over the period 1998-2005, was the production of two strategic documents – Officership 2020, and NCM Corps 2020, pointing the way forward for both these corps, and signed off by the sitting Minister of National Defence. In 2003, Duty With Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada, was published and was publicly endorsed by the Governor General as Commander-in-Chief. In 2005, the first of the full suite of four leadership manuals – Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Conceptual Foundations – was published. In organizational terms, both the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute and the Canadian Defence Academy were stood up early in the 21st Century. These measures were and remain the foundation for the ongoing reform of the Canadian Forces, and, I believe, played a significant role in preparing the ground for General Hillier’s subsequent, and vitally important, CF Transformation Project.

A Soldier First is an enjoyable, informative, and often insightful account of a remarkable soldier’s career, written in the personable, ‘folksy’ style for which General Hillier was famous. It raises, but, of course, it cannot resolve, the perennial debate about whether men make history or history makes the man. The events and circumstances in Canada leading up to and throughout General Hillier’s time as CDS were dramatic and unique, demanding action regardless of who was in charge. At the same time, the general’s particular experience, powerful personality, and leadership style clearly shaped Canada’s response in ways that perhaps no other individual could have accomplished. The dynamic between history and the man should be kept in mind while reading this highly recommended book.

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Lieutenant-Colonel (retd) L. William Bentley, MSM, CD, PhD, is Head of the Leadership Theory Section of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute in the Canadian Defence Academy, Kingston.


  1. Philippe Lagasse, “A Mixed Legacy: General Rick Hillier and Canadian Defence,” in International Journal, Summer, 2009.
  2. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 120.

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