So let it be stipulated on Hillier's announcement this week that he will step down as chief of defence staff in July: there's no way his successor can hope to equal his Newfoundland-accented turn of phrase. But following in the slipstream of this unusually populist general will be a tall order beyond trying to match his outsized public persona. In more than three years at the top of the Canadian Forces, Hillier, 52, not only emerged as the most recognizable face and voice the Canadian military has produced in decades, he also overhauled its structure, restored its morale, and launched it into a dangerous new era of combat missions abroad. "The Canadian Forces have become an important national institution that everybody thinks about, talks about, writes about," says Terry Copp, director of Wilfrid Laurier University's Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies. "And that wasn't true before Hillier."
When Hillier was appointed to head the Forces by then-prime minister Paul MARTIN in 2005, the moment was ripe for change. An era of painful defence cuts, part of the Jean Chrétien government's deficit-fighting program, was ending. Hillier soon declared a historic turning point as Martin pumped billions into the military. Perhaps more importantly, he was part of a rising cadre of officers whose formative experiences gave them a distinctly post-Cold War outlook. Like Hillier, many had experienced the new world order's dark side while serving in the fragmenting former Yugoslavia. And Douglas Bland, professor of defence management studies at Queen's University, stresses that Hillier's generation was determined to foster a "new ethic" after they felt morale sink to a nadir during the scandal over the 1993 beating death of a teenager by Canadian soldiers on a UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Hillier's chance to test a new role for the Forces and restore its public image came in another failed state: Afghanistan. Even before he was named Canada's top general, his Afghan credentials gave a serious claim to a place in Canadian military history. In 2003, he was chosen to head the UN-mandated coalition's mission, called ISAF, in Kabul. "That was the most significant command a Canadian general had held since the 1956 Suez Crisis," says Eugene Lang, who saw Hillier in action close-up as a chief of staff to two Liberal defence ministers, and also wrote extensively about him as co-author of Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. Hillier distinguished himself in Kabul, Lang says, by helping pave the way for Afghan elections, forging close bonds with Afghan leaders including President Hamid Karzai.
He came home with a personal commitment to Afghanistan that brought out a slightly romantic, somewhat sentimental streak not uncommon among successful soldiers. "I was enthralled by the Afghan people," he told Maclean's in 2005. "You had to experience their version of friendship to understand it." He expressed admiration for warlords seen by others as obstacles to a stable Afghan government. Even some who dabbled in the opium trade Hillier was inclined to excuse as motivated by insecurity about their place in Afghanistan's future. Anyway, they were all fine warriors. "They beat the Russians pretty fairly and squarely, at the end of the day they were responsible for thumping the Taliban and throwing them out along with a significant number of al-Qaeda folks," Hillier said. "I saw the finest leaders that I've ever had the opportunity to meet."
Given his intense attachment to Afghanistan, it's little wonder Hillier pushed for the chance to shift Canada's focus from the relative safety of Kabul to much more challenging Kandahar. Although the decision was approved by Martin and sustained by Harper, Hillier was the driving force behind Canada's mission to take on the violent Taliban heartland. "He's the architect of that," Lang says, "and he's the most outspoken voice for it in Canada." The job has certainly needed a passionate champion: from 2002 to 2005, Canada lost eight troops in Afghanistan; 74 have died since the move to Kandahar in 2006. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for Hillier's personal connection to Canadians and Canadian troops is that, despite that heavy toll, his popularity hasn't noticeably suffered.
Indeed, so popular is Hillier that around Ottawa his stature often raises questions about who's really directing defence policy - the charismatic general or his less widely admired political masters? In last fall's Throne Speech, for instance, the government set out a goal of training Afghanistan's police and army by 2011, but Hillier remarked only a few days later that the training would take "10 years or so." He denied there was any real conflict, but it wasn't the only time he stressed the long-term demands of Afghanistan in contrast to more optimistic-sounding assessments from politicians.
Still, if he sometimes caused politicians grief, Hillier's knack for fostering pride in the Forces - even among Canadians uncertain about the Afghanistan mission - made him an undeniable political asset. Asked at a news conference on his retirement if he contemplated a future in politics, however, he said: "No. Is that clear?" Harper didn't pressure him to step down, and his 3½-year tenure is about typical for a chief of defence staff. "He is a great Canadian," the Prime Minister said of Hillier, "and we are very proud to have worked with him."
Despite his high profile, much of that work was very much behind the scenes. Hillier updated the Force's command structure, ending some of the old divisions between army, navy, and air force. He pleaded for expensive new military hardware, a thrust that fit with Tory inclinations. But the procurement push wasn't always successful: Lang points out that Hillier hasn't yet got new helicopters he once called his top priority, and has abandoned a plan to acquire a new mobile gun system.
Laurier's Copp points to other unfinished business. Top on the list for Canada's next top general: what to focus on when the Afghanistan mission runs out, as scheduled, in 2011. Announcing his retirement, Hillier suggested a perhaps daunting answer: more of the same. "The spectrum of operations required from the Canadian Forces will be the entire spectrum," he said, "whether it's blue-beret operations, peacekeeping operations, peace- support operations, or full-out combat operations in a place that is similar to Afghanistan. I think that is the way of the future."
Maclean's April 28, 2008
Author JOHN GEDDES