As a writer of opinion pieces, I am used to receiving messages about them. Most are negative; people who agree with you are less likely to take the time to write something than those who don’t. But that’s OK. The views expressed by those who write are often interesting. Most correspondents are respectful, even as they disagree with you. If nothing else, it’s nice to know people are reading your stuff.
Nothing prepared me, however, for the significant response which a recent contribution to the Globe and Mail on defence policy received. The piece, entitled “Pips and crowns? Mere diversions” appeared on July 5th.
One would have thought that those who supposedly care about defence issues would have seen through this trick.
The thesis was that the decision to restore the ‘pips and crowns’ as the rank insignia of the Army was harmless in itself and the costs would be very small. However, it seemed to me that the move, coupled with spending cuts and the lack of a coherent post-Afghanistan defence policy, was growing evidence of a cynical Tory decision to throw such symbolic sops to its pro-defence base in the hope that they would not notice that the Government is abandoning defence to the fiscal and political wolves.
In short, the Tories seem to have come to the conclusion that there are no new votes to be had in increased defence spending, and that there are also no votes to be had in making the hard choices that would be required to rationalise what is being spent to make it more effective. Such an exercise would involve closing unneeded bases and prioritising some services over others with respect to new equipment (since we cannot equip all three services to be first-rate fighting forces for what we are presently willing to spend). In fact, the Tories have decided that acting on either of these possible courses could well be a vote-loser.
Thus, in the absence of new money or hard choices about how best to spend what is allocated to defence—but faced with a voting base which expects them to be pro-defence—the Tories have resorted at regular intervals to cynically tossing out symbols (such as the word ‘Royal’ for the Air Force and the Navy) and minor adjustments to uniforms (to make them look more as they did prior to the unification of the Forces).
What amazes me is how successful this trick seems to have been. I received a substantial number of comments, of varying degrees of politeness and coherence, which seemed intent on re-fighting the battle over unification. They accused me of all manner of failures: in supporting the troops, in being a patriotic Canadian, etc. etc.
What I found remarkable in all of this was how few of these people had really read the piece. I was not opposed to returning the ‘pips and crowns’ (though I didn’t see it doing much good), but I was opposed to using these symbolic gestures to hide the fact that support both for defence spending and for the effort to create an actual defence policy are woefully in decline under this Tory government.
One would have thought that those who supposedly care about defence issues would have seen through this trick. But few did; symbolism was all, substance was nothing. The “sleight of hand” (as I put it in my article) that the Tories have used has worked brilliantly. They get to ignore defence policy and spending decisions that would not be popular with the majority of Canadians, while a small but highly vocal minority which does consider itself to be pro-defence thinks that the Harper government is supporting the Forces.
Everybody wins—except people who are actually in the military right now. I hope they enjoy their pips and crowns.