Andrew B. Godefroy’s history ‘In Peace Prepared: Innovation and Adaption in Canada’s Cold War Army’ traces the history of Canada’s post-Second World War military.  This was a remarkable decade, where Canada emerged from the War with a huge army and a wealth of experience, demobilized to almost nothing, then rebuilt within the span of a decade.  All the while trying to adapt to the beginning of the Cold War and the birth of the atomic age.

The book is an impressive work, in that it’s a history of the higher ranks and headquarters personnel, but doesn’t devolve into a parade of name-checking.  This isn’t an opportunity to list the unsung heroes of NDHQ but a recounting of a unique period of Canadian military history.  Godefroy does a pretty good job of imparting the urgency that high ranking officers were labouring under as they prepared themselves to face a new conflict that could potentially end the world.

On 29 August 1949, the battle lines of the Cold War were already being draw when the Soviet Union detonated it’s first atomic bomb at Semipalantinsk test site in Kazakhstan.  Overnight the stakes changed, and the Cold War took on apocalyptic dimensions.

By the mid-1950s, armies were facing off in Central Europe, and Canada was set to join her NATO allies with a newly reconstituted military.

In 1956 the CAF was in the process of rebuilding itself into a permanent army after having rapidly stood back up for operations in Korea.  In preparation for deployment to West Germany as part of the NATO task force, the CAF launched an ambitious series of war games at CFB Gagetown.[1]  Code named Exercise Morning Star, and involving tens of thousands of troops, the intent was to try and simulate the conduct of a Central European war in which conventional armies would be augmented by atomic weapons.[2]

The results…were interesting:

After last light, 28 July, the Fantasians sent a battalion through the woods in the center [sic] of the 3rd Brigade position, with the task of cutting the Drummond Road near the Mersereau [River].  During the night, they massed their troops in front of the Brigade’s left flank and, in spite of two nuclear strikes by the division, which took heavy casualties, they were able to mount an attack next morning at 0615 hours.  The attack commenced with two atomic missile strikes on the two left hand company localities of the 3rd Brigade position.  These were followed up and the Fantasian forces were able to get to the Drummond Road in spite of a nuclear counter strike by the division … at 1200 hours the Fantasians put in a nuclear attack on the troops holding the Lawfield Road.

Your first instinct might be to roll your eyes. Godefroy says as much himself, observing that the exercise designers “grossly misrepresented the true effects of [atomic] weapons.”  Clearly there were some serious problems with nuclear-age paradigm.  However, before you laugh the exercise planners off as a pack of latter day Col Blimps, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

The first is that, at this time, no Canadian General had actually witnessed an atomic explosion.  They generally understood that it was a bomb which was exponentially more powerful than anything that currently existed, but the full implications of what this meant was not properly understood by anybody who was in a position to set CAF doctrine.[3]

Think about it: How do you explain a nuclear explosion to someone who’s only frame of reference is conventional warfare?  Sure, you can explain to them that it’s a giant fucking bomb, but that’s not going to do justice to the sheer overwhelming power of the explosion.  On top of that, how do you explain the concept of radiation?

And when you finally get that point across, there’s no getting around the fact that these guys still had to deploy to West Germany to face this threat.  So you still have to simulate it for training purposes?

It’s all fine and good to laugh at the guys in charge…but do you have a better idea?[4]

The other thing to remember is that the Generals who had ordered this exercise (and who would be leading the Canadian contingent when it deployed back into West Germany) were well trained and highly experienced professionals…and that this was a problem.  As WW II and Korean veterans, their primary source of experience was in the pre-nuclear age.  What we are seeing here is a group of professionals struggling to unlearn the lessons that had taken decades to learn in the first place.

This is something that comes up a lot in military history.  Generals have a tendency to try and re-fight the wars of the past, instead of changing for the future.  By 1956, Canada’s generals had a wealth of hard won experience from previous conflicts, but this experience reinforced a tactical paradigm that was deeply unhealthy in a nuclear conflict.

To put this scene into better context, we should talk a bit about where the CAF stood as the realities of the Cold War began to hit its stride.

For both the World Wars Canada fought as a part of the British Empire/Commonwealth, although on both occasions we served in largely self-contained formations.  In the First World War, our national population of eight million would eventually have over six hundred thousand people in uniform, with more than sixty thousand dying in combat, primarily on the Western Front.  In World War II, out of a population of twelve million we managed an armed forces of a bit under 1.2 million, this time serving literally world wide.  The casualties from that war were ‘limited’ to forty thousand, although that number is deceptively considering that Canadian troops were deployed world-wide, but the bulk of the casualties came in the final two years of the war when we supported the invasion of Sicily & Italy, and the D-Day landings.

Within a year following the surrender of Japan, Canada’s military had been reduced from an effective force of over a million soldiers to just a few thousand. This skeletal remnant had nevertheless sprung back to life when war broke out on the Korean peninsula.  For Canada, the Korean War represented an odd conflict in which a significant part of the forces involved were (technically) hastily called-up reservists who were nevertheless hardened veterans.[5]

Following Korea, we started rebuilding our army for the Cold War era, and unlike previous conflicts, we actually started thinking about what form the war of the future would take and how we should build our army to meet it.  Hence EX Morning Star.

So as much as we might be tempted to sneer, this was a case of old dogs not only learning new tricks, but trying to invent news tricks out of whole cloth.

And there was a helluva learning curve for these old dogs to overcome.  One of the challenges to come out of exercises like Morning Star was something that came to be called the ‘concentration/dispersal paradox.’  This was a fancy way of saying that, while the old maxim of concentrating your strength at the decisive point still held true, dispersal was the easiest way to protect against enemy nuclear weapons.  So how do you disperse your troops to escape nuclear attack, but concentrate them to fight the enemy conventionally at the same time?

That’s not an easy problem to solve.[6]

Compare this mindset to the pre-1914 one where machine guns and even artillery were dismissed as an accessory to the infantry that should take a seat behind the bayonet as the weapon of the future…yeah.  The fact of the matter is that EX Morning Star was a sincere effort to figure out the next technological leap before people ended up dead.  As ridiculous as it may seem to our eyes, these were people trying to do it right the first time.

This is why, while there’s always going to be a place for the classics, and a lot of value can be found in looking at past conflicts, you still need to study the present and anticipate the future.  Being able to quote Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War won’t do you much good when the threat is a surface-to-surface missile with a nuclear warhead.

This serves to highlight another problem with how Douglas Bland has approached his study of a native uprising in Canada.  Most of his references seem to be coming from classic sources like Lawrence of Arabia or the Viet Cong, and very little effort is going into examining/speculating on more modern dissident movements.  This is how we get anachronistic scenes like the NPA hijacking the First Nations TV network to broadcast their manifesto when YouTube is right there.  It’s also how we get ‘The Complex‘ at Akwesasne as a headquarters when, in the digital age, your command & control functions could be decentralized through a hundred computers scattered across the country.

Now to be completely fair, I am not the kind of person who can lecture anyone about the cutting age of technology.  I got my first cell phone in 2007, and every now and then I’ll stare at my iPhone like a cave man who’s just seen fire for the first time.  But I realize how much there is that I don’t know, and that’s the first step.  People like to bash the kids these days, but I can tell you that the younger generation right now can organize and innovate on a level that boggles my primitive mind.[7]  You only have to look at the speed with which Idle No More or Black Lives Matter mobilized to get some sense of how this can apply to a rebellion.[8]

Bland seems to think he’s being edgy by saying “the revolution will be televised.”  Someone should tell him that TV’s dead, but you’ll probably be able to access the revolution from your phone.

***Featured image source.***


[1] Located just outside of Fredericton New Brunswick, Gagetown today is the home for all four of Canada’s combat arms schools (Armoured, Artillery, Engineers and Infantry).

[2] This was the first occasion in CAF history in which we squared off against ‘the Fantasians’: an imaginary enemy army that bore an entirely coincidental resemblance to the Warsaw Pact and the Red Army.

[3] There were a handful of Canadian scientists working with the American Manhattan Project.  The most famous of whom was Louis Slotin, a physicist who died from radiation poisoning in an accident involving the infamous ‘demon core‘ (a subcritical plutonium core that had already been involved in a similar fatal accident).

[4] One of the things that Godefroy points out was that, part of the rationale for diminishing the power of atomic weapons could be to allow the exercise to continue.  After all, if everyone dies with the first bomb, you’re going to have a lot of bored soldiers sitting around in the training area for the next couple of weeks.

[5] As an example, C. Sydney Frost ended the Second World War as a platoon commander in the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).  In Korea, he commanded the Patricias as a Colonel.

[6] Although there’s no perfect solution to it, one of the keys is to create a highly mobile army, where everything is mounted in Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) so they can scatter and concentrate in relatively short time.  As a solution it also meant that commanders would have to accept a certain number of casualties as inevitable, since someone was going to get caught in the nuclear strike.

[7] One of the more amazing recent examples I can think of came out of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, where dissidents got around government control of the internet by literally building their own out of Wi-Fi and Apps on their phones.  Like, they made an internet!  On their phones!  To fight the government!

[8] I could actually envision some kind of spontaneous, hyper-connected rebellion breaking out halfway through Molly Grace’s Uprising, rejecting her plans of violence and bloodshed and then taking things over for themselves.

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