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A persistent myth: whether effective or not, we love our peacekeepers.

Pearson's Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67

Michael Carroll

University of British Columbia Press

254 pages, softcover

ISBN 9780774815826

Canada, the Congo Crisis and UN Peacekeeping, 1960-64

Kevin A. Spooner

University of British Columbia Press

296 pages, softcover

ISBN 9780774816373

MILITARY HISTORY IS HUGELY POPULAR in Canada. Wherever Canadian military history is taught, enrolments are very good. There are lineups at the University of New Brunswick, at Wilfrid Laurier University, at the University of Western Ontario and at the University of Calgary, to cite by name only a few. Moreover, while astonishingly little of note is being published in most areas of Canadian history, there are more books being published than ever before in military history, more, I believe, than in any other area. The University of British Columbia Press leads the field, but McGill-Queen's University Press, University of Toronto Press, Robin Brass Studio, Douglas and McIntyre, Vanwell Publishing, the Dundurn Group and the Canadian Defence Academy, based at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, all turn out first-class material. Very simply, there is a flood of good scholarly and popular military history coming from trade and university presses. Most is on the world wars, naturally enough, but for the post-1945 period, there are relatively large numbers of books on NATO, NORAD, and Canada's Cold War role, which absorbed perhaps 90 percent of defence spending and personnel.

And yet one area of this nation's military history that has not received much attention until now is peacekeeping. This is very odd, considering the centrality of the peacekeeping myth in the public mind. Canadians believe that they (or, rather, Lester Pearson) invented peacekeeping, and they think that their soldiers are the world's best practitioners of that art because we are nature's middlemen, honest, fair, judicious. Above all, they believe that peacekeeping differentiates us from the bellicosity of Americans. They make war, we shout, while Canadians keep the peace. Some Canadians appear to believe that even this country's decade-long commitment in Afghanistan is peacekeeping, albeit peacekeeping gone astray, rather than the war it is.


Not much of this belief system is correct, but in these two books, both produced from recent doctoral dissertations, we can see where and how the peacekeeping myth developed. Appearing more than a half-century after the events they chronicle, the books are the first serious research-based studies of major Canadian peacekeeping efforts, and they are an indication that the hesitation of Canadian historians to write peacekeeping history may be ending. Why scholars have been so slow, I cannot say--except to guess that it may be that most peacekeeping operations, once the first flurry of activity at their creation passes, tend to be dull and predictable. If so, neither the United Nations Emergency Force in Suez nor the United Nations Congo operations fit that mould. Both featured war, high politics international and domestic, and Cold War excitement. There are good stories here, and both Michael Carroll's Pearson's Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67 and Kevin Spooner's Canada, the Congo Crisis and UN Peacekeeping, 1960-64 deserve to be welcomed.

The Suez Crisis of October 1956 saw Britain and France collude with Israel in an invasion of Egypt, a grossly inept plan carried out with gross ineptitude in the middle of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt and the U.S. presidential election. Moscow threatened nuclear retaliation, but the Americans brought the affair to its end with a promise of financial punishment against London. And Mike Pearson saved both President Gamal Abdul Nasser's and the Anglo-French bacon by proposing a large UN force to separate the Israelis and Egyptians and allow Paris and London to disengage while Cairo saved face. It was a brilliant scheme, which won Pearson a deserved Nobel Peace Prize.

Or so Canadians firmly believe. But books written in other countries scarcely mention Pearson's part, and the leading scholar of peacekeeping, the Briton Alan James, has said that "the degree of credit ... may have been a trifle excessive," Pearson more or less bumping into the U.S. representative at the UN who was looking for someone acceptable to sponsor his draft resolution. It might have been a Brazilian; instead it was Mike, and thus history was made.

Perhaps that is the story; if so it is not one that Canadians will tell, and certainly not Michael Carroll.

What is clear is that there were immediate problems for Canada in trying to get into the new UN force. The Egyptians, because the UN force was to be on their territory with their say-so, could effectively veto participants. They objected that Canadian soldiers wore the same uniforms as British soldiers, that the infantry battalion to be sent was (in the circumstances) the inappropriately named Queen's Own Rifles, and that Canada's Red Ensign had a Union Jack in the corner. Oops. Nasser's complaints about the rather too-British Canadians were in fact sensible and Canadian infantry might have got into trouble with Egyptian soldiers and civilians. Only intervention of the designated UN Emergency Force commander, Major-General E.L.M. Burns, by chance a Canadian, rescued Ottawa when he proposed that Canadians provide UNEF's logistical support. The Cabinet and Nasser grudgingly agreed, and Canada's soldiers kept UNEF functioning for a decade. (Not at all incidentally, after the Suez crisis, Mike Pearson began to believe that Canada needed its own flag and, perhaps, its own military dress. Both would come to pass in his time as prime minister.)

Then in 1967, Nasser's bungling diplomacy led him to tell UNEF to get out of Egypt, the UN Secretary-General, U Thant, foolishly acceded, and the resulting Six Day War led to a huge Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian defeat. Fortuitously, Nasser had ordered the Canadians out before the shooting started, sparing them the casualties inflicted on the rest of UNEF by Egyptian and Israeli gunfire. UNEF, in other words, ended in failure and war.

This story is well told by Carroll, who has done thorough archival research and many interviews and has flashes of fine prose amidst somewhat tedious detail on UNEF's financing and the daily life of Canadians in the force. The funniest tale he offers is of a Canadian infantry officer in UNEF who told a journalist in 1964 that he had been "trained to lead and fight. They spent a fortune on me at home making me a good officer and a good fighter. Now," he went on, "when some guy curses me in a street I'm not even allowed to bash his teeth in." That comment got the officer, one Lieutenant Lewis MacKenzie, in trouble--for the first time, he recalled, because of being quoted in the press. Almost four decades later, an older, wiser General MacKenzie noted that UNEF failed "because war broke out. Not only was it not able to stop it, but it had to respond to the request to leave, too. That's a pretty good condemnation of the [UN] and how they knitted together the actual force agreement and the mandate." Exactly right.

The same problems, only more so, arose in the Congo mission, the Operation des Nations Unies au Congo. Belgium had left the Congo completely unprepared for independence, and from 1960 to 1964, the new state fractured, ruptured and collapsed amidst corruption and death. The Soviet Union and the United States, the Cold War in full bloom, had their own interests in the Congo's mineral riches (and in denying them to the other side), while Moscow also tried to paint it itself as the leading opponent of colonialism. Add weak Congolese leadership into the mix, and it was a perfect recipe for chaos.

The Diefenbaker government and the Canadian army had little interest in getting involved, but the UN needed signallers, especially bilingual signallers, and not many acceptable countries could provide them. Kevin Spooner suggests that public opinion did not force Diefenbaker and the army to yield to New York's demands but his case is not persuasive. The difficulty for the government was that after Pearson's Nobel Prize, peacekeeping was becoming an imperative Canadian military task, one that was hard to resist when the media, the Opposition and the prime minister's mail pressed hard to support the UN and "peace."

The difficulty, as ought to have been evident by 1960, was that the United Nations could not effectively run a Girl Scout summer outing. Money was always short, troops supplied by some nations had little training, discipline or equipment, UN commanders were too often weak and prey to their home government's desires and interests, and logistics were frequently managed incompetently. Thus, when the Congo operation degenerated into the first peacekeeping war against separatist elements in Katanga, the UN won, but only barely. Meanwhile, the poor, lightly armed Canadian signallers found themselves beaten up on the streets because the Congolese soldiery seemed to think they were Belgians (or merely because they were white), shot at by Congolese troops that were even less disciplined than the UN forces, and not necessarily liked by other UN staffers who did not always admire their competence amidst the ONUC chaos. One Canadian officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.A. Berthiaume, certainly took sides in Congolese politics and played a role in the capture of left-leaning Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba by his pro-western rival General Joseph Mobutu. Lumumba was subsequently murdered.

Spooner tells this sad saga well enough, and certainly he too has done his research. He even manages to get into the story (buried in a footnote, unfortunately) the wonderful saga of Lumumba's 1960 visit to Ottawa when he asked foreign minister Howard Green for "girls." Green thought he meant secretaries, but his aides arranged "to meet the wishes of the Congolese prime minister the following night." Accountants at External Affairs charged the expenses as "flowers."

That we have two good academic studies on Canada and peacekeeping is important. But we can see here how doing good deeds for the United Nations, initially a small commitment for a Canadian military that had large responsibilities in Europe and home defence, began to take over as the public's preferred Canadian role. Even being kicked out of UNEF in 1967 did not shake the force of this passion. Give a Canadian a Nobel Prize, in other words, and we are yours for life--even if peacekeeping is not very effective in keeping (let alone making) peace between warring parties.

And there were consequences to this craze. Soldiers cost money to raise and train, equipment is never cheap, and governments have manifold responsibilities, many of them more popular than basing troops in NATO to keep the Soviets at bay or working with the unpopular, nuclear-armed Americans in North American air defence. Peacekeeping let the people and government ministers believe that they were doing good--and they were--while running down the military. At the time of Suez and the Congo, Canada had some 120,000 personnel in uniform and defence budgets that had been as high as 7 percent of GDP in the 1950s. The numbers kept dropping, the budgets shrinking, as Canada kept sending peacekeepers abroad.

By the 1990s, the military was completely overextended, both prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien cutting funding and increasing commitments, just at the time peacekeeping changed into peace enforcement--or war. Operations in the Former Yugoslavia involved combat and watching ineffectually as Croats, Serbs and Bosnians did their ethnic cleansing; operations in Somalia, conducted in dreadful chaotic conditions, led to torture and murder. But so long as budgets could be shrunk and deficits reduced, no one seemed to care because peacekeeping was a great and good thing. It still is. But it can be destructive to a military force if a government and public delude themselves into believing that peacekeeping is all their soldiers should do. Unfortunately, that is what Mike Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize led to.

General Rick Hillier and defence minister Bill Graham began to turn this around during Paul Martin's brief and otherwise inglorious government. Hillier had seen his soldiers in the Former Yugoslavia, organized into what were called "Canbats" or Canadian battalions, sneered at as the "Can'tbats" by British senior officers who believed the Canadians were mere peacekeepers who could not and would not fight. He resolved to change matters and as chief of the defence staff did so. That is one reason why Canada has played and is playing the role it does in Kandahar. No one will call Canadians Can'tbats now.

But the September 2009 Ipsos-Reid opinion poll on this subject found that more Canadians want the Canadian Forces to do only peacekeeping than to keep up their war-fighting role. The Harper government, without question the best government in more than a half-century for the military, is taking us out of Afghanistan next year and looking to trim military spending. The Tories can read the polls, and they might very well begin to turn their back on the Canadian Forces. Peacekeeping, after all, is cheaper, and deficits must be eliminated. We shall see, but if we go back to this folly, Canadians had better pray they never need to fight anyone anytime soon.

J.L. Granatstein is a historian, author of Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace (University of Toronto Press, 2002) and senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
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Title Annotation:Pearson's Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67
Author:Granatstein, J.L.
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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