Major General Lewis MacKenzie (Ret.) Interview

Interviewed by Greg Farries on Mar 31, 2008

Greg Farries: Thank you again for joining me for this interview. I have about 10 or 12 questions, a few of the questions were developed by the staff at Maple Leaf Web. I also asked Maple Leaf Web’s forum participants to contribute a few questions – so a few of those forum questions are mixed in.

Greg Farries: Leadership is an important element of a strong military. As a former officer in the Canadian military, what do you believe are some key qualities of good leadership?

General MacKenzie: I’ve spoken to about one and a half million people in the last 10 years professionally on this subject, and it was really, really difficult to convince me to do the first [lecture on leadership]. I thought an audience would say, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” Then, I shared with the audience that everything I was telling them isn’t what I did every time; I wish I had [been able to do the right thing every time]. But the fact is, after commanding troops from over 76 different countries over my career, and starting off as a 20-year-old lieutenant with a platoon full of Korean War vets, and ending up with a command of about 14,000 – you see a lot of people make a lot of mistakes. But you also see a lot of people do brilliant work.

One of the most important things is – as simple and silly as it sounds – is to be yourself. I’ve worked for too many people who, when put in the position of senior leadership, actually thought that they were more important than the position; that the windows in the office, and the driver and the car outside, was for them. In actual fact, the perks are all for the position – they could be fired anytime, and the perks would just go on to the next guy or gal. So it is very important not to try to adapt your personality. Your personality has gotten you to where you are – the majority of people understand that; it’s the real screw-ups who don’t.

It took me 20 years to learn how to listen. I discovered when I actually started to listen – about 15 years before I retired – I was shocked that most people were smarter than I was. But the fact is, when I listened to them, and incorporated their ideas, and gave them credit for the ideas, they got credit for their work, I got credit for listening, and the organization got better. So it was a three-way victory, and you can’t do much better than that.

Courage – and I don’t mean the ‘first up the hill’ or ‘first across the river’ – it’s the courage to disagree. A leader has to create an atmosphere where people can disagree with him or her without being disagreeable. That’s very important. If you’ve got a bunch of ‘yes’ folks around you, you’re in serious, serious trouble.

Also, in the military you’ve got to determine what you are – are you a leader or a manager. Because rarely are both skill sets found in the same individual. I didn’t consider myself a good manager, so I made a point of surrounding myself with good managers to keep me out of jail, particularly when it came to dealing with large budgets. In some cases, budgets over a billion dollars. So it’s pretty important to know your limitations and to work to your strengths.

I tell a lot of folks – in both the civilian and military businesses – on your bad days, you really have to be an actor. On your bad days, you have to act like you would on your good days. Because there is nothing worst than when someone has to come into the office on a Thursday afternoon and say, ‘What mood is the boss in today?’ or ‘How did he do on the golf course yesterday?’ or ‘Should I put this in front of him today?’ or ‘Should I wait until Monday?’ If they have do that, then you’re known as being inconsistent, and inconsistency is a real cancer in an organization. Leaders who are inconsistent cannot be predicted. If you’re an ‘a-hole’ all the time, then at least you’re being consistent. But if you’re an a-hole for one day, and then you’re outstanding for the next five, it really throws people off balance.

So [this is] a long-winded way of saying, be a human being and don’t be a manager. Managing is doing the thing right; leadership is doing the right thing. And that’s not just a glib comment, it’s true.

Look after your people and go to great pains to shield them from all the crap that comes down from above. Because crap does flow downhill and you should always try to keep it from splashing on your people. A good leader intercepts the crap and stops it.

They also accept responsibility. And that is my last point, even when you’re not responsible, accept the responsibility. Normally the problem will go away. Canadian politicians and senior military people during the Somalia inquiry just demonstrated how dangerous it is when something goes wrong and you try and bluff or baffle your way out of it. You just dig the hole deeper. Ultimately someone fills it in. So, just accept the responsibility for the good of the organization, and, normally, the problem goes away.

Greg Farries: An important relationship for the Canadian military is the one between senior military leaders, such as the Chief of Defence Staff and civilian government officials. In your opinion, what characteristics make for a strong military-government relationship?

General MacKenzie: Well, it’s important for the government to at least pay attention, and for the senior military to give unfettered military advice. However, this situation is nearly impossible in Canada. Before I appeared – over a dozen times in front of Congressional committees of the US Senate and US House of Representatives in the early nineties, during the Balkan wars – I was told by my chief, and Foreign Affairs, to make sure the Congressman knows that you’re offering your personal opinion, not the official policy of the Government of Canada … which I did. Then, when I came back to Canada and I was asked to appear in front of a House of Commons committee, I was passed a card which contained talking points on it – government policy talking points. To which my reaction was, ‘Send a monkey, I’m not going to read that.’ I thought they wanted my opinion based on my experience in the Balkans? But no, here are the talking points. So I refused to appear. Even to this day, if you watch CPAC, you’ll see senior military officers refusing to answer any question from the Committee that is deemed to be political, when, in actual fact, the Committee wants your personal opinion. But if you give your personal opinion, and it’s not in line with government policy, then, nine times out of 10, you’re going to suffer for it. So people have just decided to keep their mouths shut.

So to answer your question, it should be based on unfettered military advice. Let me give you an example – maybe three or four years ago, it was decided by President George Bush to centralize intelligence gathering after 9/11. He proposed taking the Pentagon, the National Security Council, etc., and [putting] them in one intelligence gathering organization. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, when asked by the media said: ‘I don’t agree with that. I don’t think that is a good idea. We should maintain our intelligence gathering in the Pentagon.’ So then the media ran to the President and said: ‘Your Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is disagreeing with you. What are you going to do with him?’ Bush, much to his credit, said: ‘That’s what I pay him for … I pay him for advice. I don’t agree with his advice and I’m not going to follow his advice, but damn it, that is what I pay him for.’ You would never hear that reaction in Canada.

Greg Farries: Speaking to your last point, was the strained relationship between former Defence Minister O’Connor and the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Rick Hillier, a major liability for the Armed Forces?

General MacKenzie: That was total and absolute fabrication – made by the media. I know both of them extremely well. When O’Connor was a Lieutenant-Colonel commanding an army regiment in Germany, Hillier was a Captain in his unit.

Greg Farries: So they were familiar with each other?

General MacKenzie: Hell, one worked for the other. O’Connor, to his credit, achieved a great deal for the military. Your value as a Defence Minister is what you can convince your Cabinet colleagues to spend money on. So, O’Connor was more successful than anybody in recent memory.

This success meant O’Connor and Hillier got along extremely well. The tension between the two was a myth. Mind you, the myth was exasperated by the [Prime Minister’s Office] floating trial balloons about firing Hillier – to see what the public reaction would be if Hillier was in fact fired. However, the public reaction was very supportive of Hillier.

The military should never have been trying to sell the mission in Afghanistan – or even explaining it. That’s the job of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Defence responds to the Foreign Affairs department. But the Foreign Affairs department didn’t do that. And, as a result, the military got the job by default.

O’Connor is not good on TV and he is no good in a question-and-answer session. He has no sense of humour whatsoever, and never has had one. So, guess who did it by default within the department? It was Rick Hillier. Whenever Hillier said he was going to show up and give a speech, it was standing room only. When O’Connor said he was giving a speech, maybe the front row was occupied. The tension did not exist as it was portrayed. During most of my career, the Minister used to see the Chief of the Defence Staff maybe once a month, maybe. But now, because of Afghanistan, I’m sure they are chatting on a daily basis. But it should be outside the media reporting. It is an office relationship because they’re in the same bloody building.

Greg Farries: ‘White Doors,’ one of our forum members, composed this question: Do you believe the recent purchases of equipment made by the current government have done much to help the ‘rust out’ that has been plaguing the Armed Forces?

General MacKenzie: No. Not much. Because every purchase that we have made recently has been made to support what is going on in Afghanistan and therefore the numbers are just enough for Afghanistan. Which means it is not enough for the military. In the future, when additional tanks come on line – of interest to Alberta, with Suffield – that will certainly assist in the armored side of the force. Four C17s will certainly help give us the capabilities that we gave up about 20 years ago, and the Hercules 130Js will replace the oldest operating Hercules in the world. So it will help, but joint supply ships will be years and years before they come on line. They are badly needed. The one thing that hasn’t been done – and I’ve been pushing for unsuccessfully for over 30 years – are assault ships. An assault ship would provide you with a thousand soldiers and a helicopter on board. It’s not an aircraft carrier, but an assault ship. I’m afraid those won’t be discussed until after the Olympics, because that is what is taking all the attention and the money in the near term. So to answer the question, yes it helps.

Greg Farries: This sounds like Canada is just replacing older equipment with new equipment. Do you have any suggestions to take our forces to the next level? Is the existing military infrastructure and equipment able to meet the new challenges?

General MacKenzie: Well, when you’re talking about a military – an Army in particular, which I’m more familiar with – that you can march into the Maple Leaf Gardens and tell it to sit down and there are still 3,000 empty seats. You’re talking about an infantry that is 2,000 smaller than the Toronto Police Services. You’re talking about a minuscule military that requires vision as to how it’s going to be deployed. Yet we still see ourselves as wanting an exhibitionary capability. You don’t have an exhibitionary capability if it takes you three months to fly a battalion of a thousand soldiers into a mission. Or you have to go out a rent Antonovs or charter ships from some civilian contractor. That’s not an exhibitionary capability. So, we will move towards that additional focus on expanding the size of the force back to a very, very modest size – hopefully 80,000 instead of 55,000. But that will take a long time, because, while we have all kinds of recruits coming in now, it’s difficult to source instructors to train them because they are either on their way to Afghanistan, or they are in Afghanistan, or they have just come home from Afghanistan. Because you don’t take someone that has been training for six months, or someone who has been in Afghanistan for a year, and immediately – which is happening – post them to a training facility in Wainwright or Gagetown. Because being 1,500 kilometers away your home is the same as being 15,000 kilometres away from home. You’re not at home.

Greg Farries: Do you think the average Canadian would be surprised by what you’re saying? Is there a disconnect between what Canadians believe about our military, in terms of its size, what it accomplishes, and what exists in reality?

General MacKenzie: Absolutely. Because most Canadians – and God knows I’ve spoken to a lot of them in the last decade – think when they hear 55,000 that we are referring to the Army. They don’t realize that the 55,000 is the Army, Navy, Air Force, and what we call the Green Trades – which are the ones that move freely between all three – doctors, lawyers, clerks, nurses; those types of folks that can do their job in all three environments.

So absolutely, people think I’m making it up when I tell them that the infantry – which does the majority of the dirty work, although not all – is smaller than the Toronto Police force. They say, ‘No, come on, where’s the punch line?’ To which I respond, ‘That is the joke.’

Greg Farries: The current Canadian military operation in Afghanistan is somewhat unique in recent Canadian history. It is not an offensive mission, such as the one Canada played in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Nor does it seem to be a purely peacekeeping mission, like Canada’s involvement in the former Yugoslavia. How would you characterize Canada’s current military role in Afghanistan?

General MacKenzie: It’s certainly not peacekeeping – don’t get me started on that issue. I’m the guy who has the presentation called, ‘The Peacekeeping Myth.’ Peacekeeping was never really a priority during the time, post-Pearson, when we had maybe 2,000 troops, at any one time, for over 30 years, outside the country conducting peacekeeping missions. We had 15,000 stationed in the central front in Europe, Air Force, Army, armed with nuclear weapons – CF104 and the Honest John missile systems. And we had our Navy, at sea, as part of the North Atlantic Fleet. So that was our number one priority – foreign policy priority – by far. Peacekeeping was way down, maybe fourth of fifth on the list of priorities. But successive governments, of both political stripes, kept pushing this myth because it’s cheap. You don’t need a lot of kit, you just need a blue beret and a pistol and get international credit for it.

So, what is happening in Afghanistan is not peacekeeping, its counter insurgency. It was the recognition after 9/11 of the UN resolution, passed within 48 hours after that particular attack, that the United States had a right to intervene in a country that was harbouring the very people that organized the attacks in New York [and Washington]. NATO then joined the party and called up its Charter – I think it was Article 41 – that says an attack against one is an attack against all, and joined underneath the UN resolution. Having arrived there in early 2002 – we would have been there in 2001, but we didn’t have any enough transport to get there – so my regiment arrived in February 2002 as one-third of the combat power of the American Brigade of Kandahar.

Immediately the media kept referring to it as peacekeeping. The troops were up in the Tora Bora area, they were in the hills overlooking the Pakistani border, chasing down members of Al-Qaeda, and killing as many as they possibly could. Then, after the friendly fire incident – and not because of the friendly fire incident, where the American pilot killed four of our people – [Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien pulled the troops out and brought them back. And we had no one in Afghanistan. But then President Bush came sniffing around, looking for support for the Iraq operation, and Chrétien – even though he couldn’t find 600 to replace the original force – magically, over the objections from the military, found 2,000 to send to Kabul in a constabulary role. That was confusing to the Canadian public. No blue berets, no white vehicles. But it was more of a constabulary role, in spite of the fact that we had a number of individuals killed there. And then America, having shifted a lot of its resources to Iraq, unable to send as many troops as we would have liked, was looking to NATO to reinforce in southern Afghanistan. The Dutch, ourselves, the British, the Romanians, and the Poles, said OK. We deployed to the south, arriving in February, almost 2 years ago.

Since arriving, we’ve gotten involved in classic counter-insurgency. However, lately people are saying the situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan. On the contrary. If you look at the implications of failure, you can then judge how well a particular action is doing. By that I mean, during the Cold War, when not much was happening, the implication of failure was probably the end of the world – it was thermal nuclear exchange between massive nuclear powers. That never happened. But it was a very serious situation compared to today, where you have terrorist’s acts here there and everywhere, but it’s not threatening [the] humanity of the entire world. Whereas, when we arrived in Kandahar two years ago, the Taliban was right up against the city limits and they were in large formed groups. They put together a company of 60, 70, 80 battalions of 300 and they made the mistake – fortunately – of taking us on directly in a conventional type operation. And they were soundly defeated. So now the Taliban has been relegated to little teams of two or three, putting [Improvised Explosive Devices] IEDs and mines out on roads. So people are saying, ‘Well, the situation is deteriorating.’ To which I say, ‘No.’ Because the implication of what these people are doing is not the loss of Kandahar city – which is the Jerusalem to the Taliban. I would argue that a strong case could be made that the situation is more stable than it ever was. That doesn’t mean NATO isn’t fighting for a draw, which I think NATO is. I think NATO should be fighting to win. But that’s an issue of resources.

Greg Farries: Does Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan represent something new to the Canadian military? Is this going to move us away from peacekeeping?

General MacKenzie: There is no peacekeeping to do. I shake my head when I hear people like Jack Layton and company say we should return to our historic priority – peacekeeping. First off, it was never a priority. We were good at it, but we were not better than everyone else. And secondly, there is no peacekeeping going on anymore. You can’t call what we’re doing in Afghanistan peacekeeping. I wish to hell we were in Darfur, kicking some ass. But it’s not peacekeeping. We would be going in there to take sides and that’s not peacekeeping. You can call it, peace enforcement or peacemaking. I translate it as, ‘Keep the peace or I’ll kill you.’ You have to go in strong enough that you can put the thugs, goons, and bullies on the run. That doesn’t mean you need a blue beret and a pistol. You need a hell of a lot more than that. In the Congo, the UN troops are killing the rebels in the jungle and being killed.

Peacekeeping as we know it doesn’t exist anymore because, fortunately, countries rarely go to war now. When countries went to war – and Pearson came up with the concept of putting neutral troops in between opposing national militaries – it gave them an excuse to stop fighting so that diplomacy could unfold. What’s happening today is that most of the 40 or so wars that are occurring right now are between different factions. You can’t have peacekeepers separating factions because factions don’t have identifiable leaders, or even a flag flying in front of the UN building. They don’t have a UN delegation, or even a method in which we can punish them if they break an agreement not to fight. So that is not peacekeeping. You need the military force to force them into a particular decision. And finally, most countries are not prepared to provide the resources to do that.

I think the NATO Alliance is seriously threatened. I don’t think it will survive the wash-up of Afghanistan. Because who would trust NATO to come to their rescue in the future, when people are screaming for additional thousands of troops in the south – I think they need 10,000 – and there are 800,000 soldiers sitting on their hands at home in other NATO nations doing nothing, other than training. And we’re at war. So I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the [NATO] Alliance self-destructs. When I was commander within the United Nations and I would run into problems with the UN, with resources, money and personnel, etc., I would always say to myself, ‘Gee, if only NATO had this job, we’d sort that thing out.’ Well no, I’ve discovered that NATO is a bigger debating society than the [UN] Security Council. It’s very disappointing.

Greg Farries: One of the frustrations for Canada has been the unwillingness of its allies in NATO to commit troops to Afghanistan or to keep them out of combat roles. What can Canada do to convince NATO to provide more assistance? If other NATO countries are not willing to step up, should Canada consider a different role?

General MacKenzie: Well, yes, [this speaks to] the debate about the Manley Report. I thought, and wrote frequently in The Globe and Mail, that this behind-the-door, nice, touchy feely diplomacy, was not going to work. Get in front of the door and start pointing fingers at people at these NATO meetings. Much to its credit, [National Defence Minister Peter MacKay],when he was in Foreign Affairs, and more recently, as Minster of Defence, has been doing that with no result whatsoever. Plenty of promises, but bugger all on the ground by way of boots. So I was wrong on that. [Former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley] [in the Manley Report] has played a bit of hardball by saying, ‘Well, if you don’t show up, we’re going to consider leaving after February 2009. We’ll give you six months’ warning.’ Well, that’s not entirely the case, because we’ve already been rescued by the Marine Corps, which is sending over 3,200 additional combat troops in the spring. That’ll probably be the excuse to stay. But I argued, at the same time I was arguing for hard diplomacy, that if no one else showed up, I certainly wouldn’t be at the head of the parade saying we should stay. But now, with no one stepping forward at all, if we pull out we will cause the Brits and the Americans to extend their boundaries and areas of responsibilities, and there would be even fewer troops on the ground. To secure the situation, the classic ratio for counter-insurgency is 2,000 to 2,500 soldiers per thousand civilians. That was proven in Malaya. We have fewer than 1.5 soldiers per thousand civilians in southern Afghanistan. So that tells you, if the Canadians leave, we’ll have less than one. So there is just no way we should abandon; we might not like it, but we’re stuck with Afghanistan. The fact is, you just can’t pull the pin and leave.

Greg Farries: My next question has to do with the perception of the war. The military and its individual achievements seem to be glossed over by the reporting of soldiers’ deaths. Has anything been done by the military to communicate beyond the conventional media – possibly speaking directly to the general public? Does the military have a role in selling this war to Canadians, or even to other NATO countries?

General MacKenzie: I alluded to it earlier. The whole selling of the war and the policy of explaining the mission should, and must, be the responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs, which, incidentally, is not doing that right now. Previously, when it wasn’t being done by the former minister, it sort of slid over to the Department of National Defence. You might recall – about nine months ago – they had the first of the regular media briefings. And there hasn’t been one since. Somebody shut them down. And I presume that’s a policy at the highest level. That we [the military] are not going to regularly brief the media, which is supposed to educate the public as to what’s going on.

The embedded reporters are very constrained – I agree with that – because the last thing you want to do is get a reporter blown away. Things are dangerous over there. Even to just drive outside the gate, it’s dangerous. They don’t get out that much and, therefore, have to take their reports from the military itself. And reports from the military, as I’ve discovered over the years, are received with a fair degree of skepticism from the public. It’s OK if it’s a corporal, sergeant, or a lieutenant that’s doing the interview, because they’re a little bit nervous, and therefore, they have credibility. But the more senior people become, the slicker they become, and thus, the less credibility they have with the general public. It’s a real quandary when the government itself is not taking the lead. And that’s why I’ve said, in at least 15 different interviews in the last 48 hours, that the most important aspect of the Manley Report for me, was the recommendation that the Afghanistan file be taken personally by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minster needs to take the lead in coordinating the departments involved. He would be the first leader in all of the NATO nations to do that. And that would give him a bully pulpit where he could network with other NATO leaders in order to encourage additional support for the mission. And he would be the first one to do that. You will always notice, if you go into the record, it’s always the minister taking the lead. Unfortunately the minister just doesn’t have the clout that [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] would have.

Greg Farries: Do you see an appropriate role for Canada in Darfur? [This question was submitted by forum member Melanie_.]

General MacKenzie: [There will never be a role.] It will never happen. The Khartoum Government won’t allow it. They won’t let Western forces in. They have played us like a Stradivarius [violin]. I’m incensed at the inability of the United Nations to deal with it. Why can’t it deal with it? Because all decisions on international peace and security go through the UN Security Council. And forget about the other 11 members. It’s the ‘Permanent Five.’ The Permanent Five are the ones that count. So take a look at it, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom – which is ridiculous, it should be a European seat – and the United States.

They could have found a five-kilo tonne nuclear weapon in front of the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad – when UN inspectors where looking for weapons of mass destruction – and there still would not have been a resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because France and Russia have massive amounts of money invested in the oil business in Iraq and were also owed a lot of money. It’s the same thing in Darfur.

China will never ever agree to any resolution dealing with the use of force in Darfur. And so the Darfur government says, ‘Sure, we’ll allow a hybrid force in, and it’ll consist of troops from the African Union, and in accordance to Pearson’s criteria for a peacekeeping force, the Government of Darfur will check and approve what national contingents will be part of this force. And oh, by the way, we don’t want any white folks.’

So the idea of Canadians going there – we already have 23 people there, but they’re only staff in the headquarters, helping out so they can run a blood headquarters because the African Union doesn’t have the experience nor the communications to do that. But, as far as putting troops on the ground, no way, it’s just not going to happen.

The world should just bow its head in shame, but it’s happening because of the rigor mortis in the decision-making process of the [UN] Security Council. You could put a military force together and go in and put the rout on the Janjaweed, the militia, and on the rebels who started this fight. We could put the boots to all of them, but it’s not going to happen. [But] it should happen, because now hundreds of thousands of people have been either pushed over the border into camps in Chad or have been killed.

Greg Farries: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

General MacKenzie: It was my pleasure.