Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My ignorance revealed (what else is new?)

Last night I attended the Canadian Journalism Foundation's lecture series on Democracy and Journalism, featuring Andrew Leslie, the Chief of Land Staff of the Canadian Forces.  Fascinating evening, and a reminder of a) how little I know about the military and b) how lucky I am, like many Canadians, to have the luxury of being so ignorant.  

I first saw the General speak at the Banff Forum two years ago.  I was impressed then, and was even more so last night.  He was very thoughtful during the Q&A in particular and I observed a solid level of discourse and mutual respect among him and the journalists.  It was an important reminder of the role of public service, something I think about a lot now given Samara, and the discipline that comes with being a public servant.  I learned a lot.
Some of the highlights: General Leslie spoke for about 30 minutes, followed by about an hour of Q&A.  During his talk, he made two major points:
  • The tranformation underway in the army today is "unprecedented." It has changed more in the last four years than in the previous 40, he said, in part because Afghanistan is the largest combat effort since WW2. Some of this has to do with modernizing an old institution (e.g., "becoming a learning organization," recruiting and retaining) and some has to do with the particular difficulties of war in a more modern time (e.g., providing better support for families and for injured soldiers, sorting out baseline funding for the equipment needed for IED-style battle).  Paul Knox asked a great question about the army's ability to transform absent a "labratory" (read: active combat situation), to which the General responded correctly that no one seeks war to experiment, but like other government insitutions, the army can be bureaucratic and it sometimes takes new experiences to push it forward.  This led me to wonder what "new experiences" might be underway that could push other bureaucracies forward?  Ideas?
  • The miliatary "works for you."  He said this about 20 times in a number of different ways (e.g., "you need to know what your army is up to," "we're called by you to serve," "we do your bidding," "you decide where we go, for how long and at what cost").  After awhile, I thought, "okay, I get it!" and felt a bit annoyed, thinking this was another example of the PR-ization of our public discourse.  Then (warning: nerd alert) I started thinking about the breakdown between Parliament and the average citizen - he's right, it is our army, but we really have little say in what it does.  Then, in listening to the Q&A after, I realized I'd missed the point.  General Leslie was asked several times to comment on various government decisions, and of course, didn't, as well as Hillier's decision to speak at the Manning Centre conference... finally, he said, "when you put on the uniform, you are subordinate by law, custom and practice to the laws and policies of the Canadian government, and trust me, you want it this way.... when you take off the uniform, you are entitled to state your opinion.  That's what you fought for while you were in it."  One only needs to think for a moment about military dictatorship to realize what he really meant when he said it was our army.  Doh.
A major tension underlying the questions was the muzzles that many felt the Conservatives were putting on people who should otherwise be free to speak. Scott White from CP was particularly thoughtful on this point.  General Leslie was respectful and listened closely but obviously couldn't comment. 

 Janice Stein closed with a plea not to ignore the tensions in our own democracy; in particular, the inability of our best ambassadors and foreign affairs people to talk without having their comments "cleared."  She encouraged journalists to keep pushing - their sources, their editors - and asked them to be "more like yourselves than you are."  "I look at where we are," she concluded, "and I'm not satisfied with how our democracy is educating our citizens on global issues."  Here here.

Shameless plug: I attend a lot of events and speakers series in a sometimes futile attempt to get a better understanding of what's going on around me.  In my humble opinion, the CJF's are among the very best.  A neutral, agenda-free platform, great speakers, engaged audience and no charge to the public.  Sign up here to learn more. [full disclosure: I recently joined their programming committee]

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