Comment and Articles

As an advocate of discussion and debate of Canadian defence and foreign policy, RUSI Vancouver will share opinions and observations from academia, the media, and respected historians.

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Gwynne Dyer Commentaries

We are pleased to introduce the noted independent, London-based, Canadian columnist and military historian Gwynne Dyer as a regular contributor in the Comment section on the RUSI Vancouver website. His thought provoking, well informed and pertinent commentaries will appear regularly.

Gwynne Dyer was born in St. John’s Newfoundland and educated at Memorial University, St. John’s; Rice University, Houston; Kings College, London. He served in the Canadian, American and British naval reserves. Dyer lectured at Sandhurst Military College following which he moved into a full-time career in journalism.

RUSI Vancouver appreciates any comment on Gwynne Dyer’s contributions on the RUSI website at RSVP@rusivancouver.ca

Gwynne Dyer’s website is: www.gwynnedyer.com

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Greenland’s Gamble - 18 August 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


From his purchase of New Jersey casinos to his proposed acquisition of Greenland, Donald Trump’s real estate deals have always been plagued by bad timing. The United States could probably have bought Greenland from Denmark in 1917 (when it did buy the US Virgin Islands from the Danes), but he’s a century too late now.

Nevertheless, his latest bad idea does give us an incentive to catch up with what’s been happening in Greenland, and it’s quite interesting. Trump may not know this, since he rarely reads intelligence reports, but in November 2017 Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen, led a government delegation to Beijing to seek Chinese investment.

Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is not yet fully independent, but it is autonomous from Denmark in everything except foreign affairs and defence. Kielsen was looking mainly for Chinese investment in mining enterprises, but he was also interested in attracting a Chinese bid to build three modern airports in the island, which currently depends on World War II-era airstrips.

This set off a security panic in NATO, involving implausible nightmare visions about Greenland getting so deep in debt to Chinese banks that it would end up letting China (which has comically declared itself a ‘near-Arctic nation’) operate military aircraft from those airports.

The US military, which has a large air base at Thule in northern Greenland, then took fright. Washington strongly urged the Danish government, which provides two-thirds of Greenland’s budget revenue, to nip this threat in the bud. Copenhagen had previously refused to fund the new Greenland airports, but late last year it suddenly came up with very low-interest loans for them. End of panic.

By then Kim Kielsen’s government in the tiny capital of Nuuk (pop. 17,000) had collapsed, but his Siumut Party came out ahead in the election last April and he is back in power. And the issue of Chinese mines in Greenland is still on the table.

In fact, there already is one in southern Greenland, producing uranium and rare earths for a Chinese-Australian consortium. Other projects potentially involving Chinese capital (and Chinese workers) are under discussion, including a huge open-cast iron-ore mine near Nuuk, a zinc mine in the north, and both offshore and onshore oil and gas leases.

For the 56,000 Greenlanders, 90% of whom are Inuit (Eskimo), the geostrategic implications of Chinese investment are irrelevant – and they are probably right about that. What worries them, and occupies a central place in Greenlandic politics, is the cultural and social implications of foreign investment by anybody, Chinese or not.

The Greenland Inuit are one of the few indigenous society in the world that has full or almost full control over its own destiny, but the impact of the modern world on their traditional culture has been as destructive as it was for all the others: depression and other psychological illnesses, rampant alcoholism and drug use, and an epidemic of suicides.

So they face a choice. Do you go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet? Or do you seek salvation in full modernisation through high-speed economic growth, while keeping your language and what you can of your culture?

What’s remarkable about Greenlandic politics is how aware the players are of their dilemma and their options. “If you want to become rich, it comes at a price,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, one of the founders of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party that ran the government until 2013.

Lynge and many others didn’t want to pay that price, and under the Inuit Ataqatigiit administration all mining was banned in Greenland. Quite apart from the environmental costs of large-scale mining operations, they believed, the many thousands of foreign workers they would bring in would have a devastating impact on the already very fragile Greenlandic culture.

The decision was made in 2013, when the Siumut Party took power. It believes that modernisation has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalised and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

As Aleqa Hammond, Kielsen’s predecessor as premier, said in 2014: “The shock will be profound, but we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before. The decisions we are making (to open the country up to mining and oil drilling) will have enormous impact on lifestyles and our indigenous culture. But we always come out on top. We are vulnerable, but we know how to adapt.”

Let us hope so, but the die is cast. Greenland will modernise, and in due course we will find out if that helps. It makes little difference to Greenlanders whether the foreign investment comes from Denmark, China or the United States, so long as they have political control – but they certainly don’t want to become Americans.

The ‘Greenland Purchase’ is not going to happen. As Soren Espersen, foreign affairs spokesman of the Danish People’s Party, said last week: “If (Trump) is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad.”

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The Middle East: Treachery and Betrayal - 14 August 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


Things have got so complicated in the Middle East that the players are no longer just stabbing each other in the back. They are stabbing each other in the chest, in the groin, behind the left ear – anywhere that comes to hand.  Friends and allies one day are targets and enemies the next.

Item One: Israel is not just bombing Iranian troops and allies in Syria, which it has been doing on an almost weekly basis for years.  It is now also bombing pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, a country that is a (reluctant) ally of the United States.

The bombings began last month, hitting the camps of Iraqi Shia militias that were getting US air support only two years ago when they were driving the Islamic State jihadis out of Iraq. Most Iraqis are Shias, but Israel thinks these ones, the Badr Corps and Kataeb Hezbollah, are too close to Shia Iran.

There are still US forces in Iraq, but the US ignores the Israeli attacks, and the Iraqi government has to ignore them too.  Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has to please both the Americans and his Iranian neighbours, who as fellow Shias benefit from strong popular sympathy in Iraq.  His task is impossible, but he tries.

Item Two: Turkey, a NATO member and close American ally, is getting ready to invade northern Syria.  As Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, gets desperate at home (electoral humiliation, runaway inflation, popular anger), he looks for triumphs abroad.

Erdogan is obsessed with the Kurds, a minority population in both Turkey and Syria, and he has long vowed to crush the self-governing Kurdish-ruled region that has emerged south of the border in northern Syria thanks to the civil war there.  Now he’s actually going to do it.

The tricky bit is that these same Syrian Kurds provided the ground troops for the US campaign to eliminate Islamic State forces in Syria.  That job is now done, but several thousand American troops remain in northeastern Syria, partly to deter Turkey from invading.  Betraying the Kurds is a Middle Eastern tradition, however, and the United States does not want war with Turkey.

Item Three: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, is pulling its troops out of Yemen.  ‘Little Sparta’, as former U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis calls the UAE, has been the mainstay of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen since 2015.  It seems to have realised at last that the intervention has failed, and was a bad idea from the start.

It certainly was.  When a northern Yemeni tribe called the Houthi seized control of most of Yemen in 2015, driving the Saudi-imposed puppet president into exile, the Saudi concluded that it was an Iranian plot.  (The Houthis are Shia.)  But that’s nonsense.  It was just Round 189 in a power struggle between the Yemeni tribes that has been going on for centuries.

So the UAE is leaving, and its parting gift to the Yemenis last week was to back rebel militias in Aden who want to revive the old separate country of South Yemen.  The Saudi Air Force bombed the rebels, of course, but they still hold most of the city.

This level of dysfunction would not even have caused comment in medieval Europe, but it is unique in the modern world.  There are bits of Africa and Asia where individual countries are seeing this level of violence and chaos, but not many, and no whole regions.  How can we account for it?

You can’t blame religion.  Half the world’s Muslims live in Asia, and they almost all live in peace.  There is a Sunni-Shia confrontation underway in the Middle East, but it is relatively recent and more likely to be the result of the region’s peculiar character than the cause of it.

You can’t blame colonialism either:  all of Asia and Africa went through that bitter experience too.  Ethnic and tribal divisions?  There are single African countries with greater ethnic diversity and more tribes than the whole of the Middle East.

Maybe it’s the fact that dictators and absolute monarchs are thicker on the ground in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, but that just moves the argument back one step.  Why are they the norm in this region and not elsewhere?  Could it be because the Middle East has seen more foreign military interventions than anywhere else on the planet?

Maybe – and it’s still going on.  Overshadowing all the local follies is the possibility that the US will attack Iran on the false pretext that it is working on nuclear weapons.   You know, like it invaded Iraq on the false pretext that it was working on nuclear weapons.





May 2

Korean War (1)

Sixty-nine years ago Kim Il Sung led North Korea. Kim had spent World War II outside his country as a member of the Soviet army. Following the war, and with the sponsorship of his Russian masters, he returned to Korea with the rank of major in the Red Army, eventually taking charge of North Korea, that is, all of the Korean Peninsula north of the 38th parallel.

In South Korea the government was led by Syngman Rhee, a man who had lived much of his life in the United States. He was autocratic and had been uncooperative with UN efforts to promote democratic reforms.

The Korea-wide free elections that the World War II allies hoped would lead to unification were never held, with the result that the two Koreas – North and South – Russian-influenced and US-leaning – followed ever-more divergent paths.

In the spring of 1950 the North had a population of nine million, contrasted to the South’s 21 million. North Korea, however, had a clear preponderance of military forces. Their army outnumbered that of the South and included thousands of veterans of the Red Army and the Red Chinese Army. In addition they featured modern tanks, aircraft, and weapons provided by the Russians.

Guerrilla warfare raged in the south, with irregular communist fighters taking on the beleaguered Republic of Korea troops. The US’s 500-man KMAG—Korean Military Assistance Group—were probably more concerned about the upcoming baseball season back home than they were with keeping an eye on the north.

The stage was set for a surprise. Kim mustered his troops for a bid to amalgamate North and South by force.

June 18

Korean War (2)

Kim Il Sung’s North Korean troops stormed across the 38th Parallel in the predawn hours on June 25th, 1950. Kim was determined to unify North and South Korea under the banner of international communism, aided and abetted by Stalin in Russia and Mao Zedong in Communist China. All three dictators assumed Kim would sweep the token American forces from the peninsula, and that the US would not come to the defence of the overwhelmed South. They were 90% correct about the former, but totally mistaken about President Harry S.Truman’s reaction.

Truman compared the Korean situation to that of Europe before the Second World War, when Hitler swallowed more and more territory from timorous neighbors. He appealed to the United Nations where, as it happened, the Soviet Union was boycotting the organization and so not in a position to veto any response. The result was a demand for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of North Korean troops. Predictably the demand was ignored.

The UN authorized the United States to lead Allied forces in Korea. But the Americans, as well as the South Koreans, had been caught napping by Kim. By August 1st his North Korean People’s Army had occupied nearly the whole peninsula, cornering US and South Korean forces in a pocket around the southeastern port of Pusan, an area barely 80 miles square, their situation desperate.

July 16

Korean War (3)

In sleepy Ottawa, Prime Minister St. Laurent and the members of Parliament, including Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson, were caught off guard by the US reaction as much as were Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung. As the situation in Korea developed they took their cue from prior Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who would surely have been content to wait and watch under almost any circumstances.

On July 5th 1950 one Canadian service was ready: RCN destroyers HMCS Cayuga, Athabaskan, and Sioux slipped and proceeded from Esquimalt bound for Korea in support of the UN.

Moving the government to committing the army, though, took a request from the Secretary-general of the UN on July 14th, when he asked Canada to consider sending ground troops to Korea.

What to do? Canada’s Active Force was exhausted after their heroic efforts in Europe; numerically they were grossly undermanned, and their veteran soldiers felt like the last thing they wanted to do was get into a far-off dustup having survived the most deadly war of all time. The army was unable to attract enough recruits to maintain its already slim ranks.

Minister of National Defence Claxton and Chief of the General Staff Foulkes cobbled together a solution: a Special Force, the backbone of which would be three new battalions (approximately 940 men each) named after current army regiments, thus the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment (2RCR); 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) and 2nd Battalion Royal 22e Régiment (2R22eR).

Ultimately, the infantry battalions would be supported by artillery, a field ambulance detachment, workshops, a transport company, engineers, a signal squadron, and an armoured squadron—some 7,500 personnel of all ranks.

The prime minister announced on August 7th that Canada would recruit the Canadian Army Special Force. To the shock of many, within a week 10,000 men had signed up.

August 13

Korean War (4)

If the Army had stuck to traditional procedures, there would not have been 10,000 recruits signed up in a matter of days. But Ottawa wanted troops and wanted them quickly, so they adopted a practise of signing men up, and only then assessing them. The result was that many who were recruited didn’t last long. It was up to the regular army NCO’s to whip the recruits into shape, with perhaps a fifty percent discharge rate. Let go were men with hearing impairments, weak eyesight, wounds suffered in WW II, partial disabilities…the list goes on, even including an apocryphal enlistee with an artificial leg.

One thing that could not be taken away from the members of the Special Force, however, that distinguished them throughout their service: they were all volunteers, and were there to fight.

The westerners were assigned to the 2nd Princess Patricia’s and trained briefly in Calgary then at Camp Wainwright, Alberta. Those from other parts of Canada landed in the 2nd Royal Canadian Regiment or the 2nd Vandoos, at Petawa Ontario or Valcartier, Quebec respectively.

After basic training at the platoon level, it was intended that the Special Force would complete their workups at Fort Lewis in Washington State.

Plans changed quickly when the war took an unexpected turn. US General MacArthur engineered his last great victory, the Inchon Landing outside Seoul. The US thereafter had the North Koreans on the run, pursuing them to the extreme northern fringe of the country, virtually to the bank of the Yalu River. It appeared the war was all but over, to the chagrin of the Canadians who had enlisted to fight.

The UN changed its mind—it wanted occupation forces, not fighters.

Located in the west, the 2PPCLI were handiest. They boarded a Liberty Ship in Seattle on November 25th, 1950, off to be what they thought of as some sort of glorified police force.

But the war was about to take another savage twist.




In 2010, several members of the Naval Officers Association of BC (NOABC) decided to salute the role of BC’s shipyards during World War Two. The project eventually transitioned into a monument to include all workers in the BC shipbuilding industry. The following article in the July-August issue of BC Shipping News by RUSI President Cam Cathcart, outlines the eight year journey of the project, with a few nautical miles left before it’s completed.

...why isn’t there something tangible on the Vancouver waterfront to salute
the legacy of B.C.’s proud and illustrious shipbuilding industry?

Honouring B.C.’s legendary shipbuilding industry

by Cameron Cathcart


Curious how projects get started. Many have a definite purpose. Others, the result of a dream. The shipbuilding monument project began with a question: why isn’t there something tangible on the Vancouver waterfront to salute the legacy of B.C.’s proud and illustrious shipbuilding industry? That question got a few people thinking in 2010.

The Metro Vancouver Naval Monument Society was formed, and the concept of a memorial began to take shape. The idea was to position a statue of a Second World War shipyard worker on the North Vancouver waterfront. But, that hectic period of non-stop shipbuilding also included thousands of women, along with navy personnel acting as advisors. It was clear that all three had to be represented in a shipbuilding monument. The next step was to engage a sculptor.

The artist chosen was Norm Williams, who had recently completed the monument to B.C.’s fishing industry and its workers situated outside the old Steveston Cannery, now the Gulf of Georgia National Historic Site in Richmond, B.C. His first task was to develop a maquette, or model, showing the three statues in various poses within the parameters of a single monument. Mr. Williams has since created the Roger Neilson and Pat Quinn statues located at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, the initial flurry of excitement for a shipbuilding monument began to wane at this time and for several years the project suffered an overall lack of enthusiasm. That changed in 2017 when the Naval Officer’s Association of BC (NOABC) announced plans to mark its 100th anniversary at a fall 2019 conference in North Vancouver. This sparked renewed interest by the Society and the monument project was revived in earnest.

By now, project costs had increased substantially and it was obvious the final price for the shipbuilding monument would be much higher than originally contemplated back in 2010. Also, urban renewal had changed the old Burrard Dry Dock site at the North Vancouver waterfront with the area that now includes an art gallery, a new hotel, a residential complex, public market, restaurants, boardwalk and a public pier.

The Society now had to re-engage with the City of North Vancouver to determine where the monument could be located on the revitalized waterfront. Meanwhile, the North Vancouver Arts Advisory Committee, along with the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, were consulted for artistic design and historical accuracy of the sculpture components. These were approved, and the City endorsed the project, agreeing that the monument be located east of the new pier on the North Vancouver waterfront boardwalk.

The building of vessels on the British Columbia coast has a long history. Well before European contact, coastal Indigenous people built large, sea-going dugout canoes for fishing, whaling, transportation and war. The first ship built on the B.C. coast by Europeans was at Friendly Cove, now Yuquot, in Nookta Sound in the early 1790s.

As European settlement took hold in the late 1800s, various types of vessels were built by B.C. shipbuilders over the years such as deep-sea sailing ships, paddle wheelers, lake ferries, tugs, fish boats and the occasional pleasure craft. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that U.K.-built passenger ships, used for West Coast service, began to be phased out and replaced mainly by vessels built in B.C. shipyards.

For most of the 20th century, the North Vancouver waterfront housed the largest shipyard in western Canada, with more than 450 ships launched from the site throughout this period. Opened in 1906 as Wallace Shipyard and re-named Burrard Dry Dock in 1921, tugs and barges for the forest industry, navy vessels, ferries, small cargo ships and icebreakers were launched from this historic location including the St. Roch, the RCMP schooner that achieved fame by traversing the Arctic in both directions in the 1940s.

The busiest and most record-setting activity on the North Vancouver waterfront occurred during the Second World War. Burrard Dry Dock, along with neighbouring North Van Ship Repairs, built close to 250 of Canada’s wartime Victory ships and 50 naval vessels, establishing a reputation for high standards of workmanship. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 14,000 workers were employed in round the clock shifts at Burrard, including 1,000 women, to feed the war effort. The B.C. shipyard was the first in Canada to hire women during the war. They filled the gap while men went to war with jobs ranging from store-keeping to welding.

When the war ended in 1945, shipbuilding in B.C. dropped dramatically and thousands of workers were let go, including all the women hired during the war. But, new contracts slowly picked up as the post-war economy began to surge. These included modern tugs, self-loading log barges, cargo ships, coastal tankers, patrol boats, state of the art icebreakers, arctic oil exploration ships and passenger and railcar ferries. In the 1950s the Royal Canadian Navy also began to modernize its fleet with new destroyers, several of which were built in B.C. shipyards.

Today, two replenishment ships have been ordered by the Royal Canadian Navy, along with a polar icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. All three vessels are at the final design stage at Seaspan Shipyards in North Vancouver, from which the first of three fisheries research vessels were recently launched. Along with building new ships, for several years cruise ship, ferry and navy vessel repair and upgrading work have been consistent and reliable activities for British Columbia’s shipyards.

The shipbuilding monument needs $350,000 to be completed and installed on the North Vancouver waterfront by October, 2019. To meet this challenge the Metro Vancouver Naval Monument Society has launched an appeal for contributions at eight levels that reflect the type of ships built by B.C.’s shipbuilders, ranging from Minesweeper to Victory Ship to Naval Supply Ship, to mention just three.

The monument will consist of three bronze statues that show a male worker using a torch to bend pipes, a female worker taking a break, while a naval petty officer unrolls ship plans. It is designed to engage people, with sculptures positioned at ground level on the walkway east of the North Vancouver waterfront pier.

The shipbuilding monument will salute the legendary British Columbia shipbuilding industry and its workers, and for its support of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Merchant Marine during the Second World War.

The project began with a question: why is there no tangible recognition of British Columbia’s proud and illustrious history of shipbuilding?

The answer is the shipbuilding monument, now ready to be launched.


MEETINGS

RUSI Vancouver members gather for lunch on Wednesdays at 12:00 Noon at the Officers' Mess of the 15th Field Regiment (RCA) located in the Bessborough Armouries, 2025 West 11th Avenue, Vancouver, BC.