This interview first appeared in Sharp’s July 2008 issue.
In mid April Chief of the Defence Staff [CDS] General Rick Hillier announced his July 1st retirement. A frenzy of media speculation greeted this news and the General was bombarded with questions. Why leave the military now, when the Afghanistan mission he worked so hard to support has just been extended to 2011? Had Prime Minister Stephen Harper indeed pressured our top soldier to step down, following rumours that his less-than-desired frankness upset Ottawa’s united foreign policy front? Or, had Hillier finally recognized the potential of his widespread influence and decided to begin a career in politics? In typical Hillier fashion, he undercut all theories with a straightforward, unglamorous response. He just wants to take some time off. Hit a few golf balls. Spend some quality time with his wife Joyce and his grandson Jack.
Sharp went to Ottawa to sit down with the General and ask the other questions. Just who is this deliberately unglamorous man, arguably Canada’s most popular top soldier ever? What made him the man he is today? To whom does he credit his success as a military leader? What are the secrets of his leadership? We started with a photo shoot.
MM = Mario Miotti, Sharp’s contributing photographer
RH = CDS Gen. Rick Hillier
MM: <angling his camera> Okay, so you’re about to lay into me about some policy.
RH: I’m not a policy wonk. <laughter>
MM: Good job. Love the fire in those eyes. Now…
RH: Burning passion?
MM: Burning passion. Now try both hands in your pockets.
RH: No, no. Jesus. RSMs [Regimental Sergeant Majors] everywhere will have a fit. I’ll put one hand down, how’s that?
MM: Perfect, great, good. Very nice. Let’s get a few tighter shots. <moves in to get a close-up> Oh that’s right. Right in there.
“Do you realize,” someone later whispered to the photographer, “that no one in the entire Canadian military is allowed to talk to Rick Hillier like that?” The notion of a fashion photographer shooting a portrait of Canada’s highest-ranking military officer, not to mention one of Canada’s highest profile public figures period, bordered on the absurd. And yet, true to his reputation as an everyman, the General rolled with it like any relaxed middle-aged man might. He joked, told stories, and could not hold a serious face much longer than a moment before cracking into a wry, self-conscious grin.
ML: While we’ve got you in front of the backdrop, we’d like to get some with the golf club.
RH: That’s all right. Think we’ve got one handy. This is actually my favourite 3-Wood. I brought it in because I like to beat people with it.
It was a quintessential Hillier moment – politically incorrect, unexpected, and charmingly disarming. Within moments the room was laughing with him as he kissed his golf club and chuckled about striking uncomfortable poses.
But from the man who called the Taliban “detestable murderers and scumbags” and told a press gallery that the army’s job is “to be able to kill people,” his guilelessness was nothing new. In person, he presents an altogether different kind of candour. Settling in to an appraisal of his life and career, he spoke fondly of his inspirations, joked about the perks and downsides of being CDS, and recalled his early days as a young soldier, when he had doubts about continuing in the then struggling Canadian Forces.
Books line the walls of his office with titles like The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, The Logic of Failure, The Military History of Quebec and a well-thumbed copy of The Life of a Military Wife. The last is reminiscent of one of his legendary left-handed compliments: military wives are like tea bags: you only know how strong they are when they’re in hot water. Along the same lines was his response to a question about his reading habits, which leads not to a discussion of Sun Tzu or Edward Gibbon, but to Ben Weider.
“Ben Weider must be somewhere in his eighties, must be. He’s the original body builder. I guess back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, he would have been the equivalent of Mr. Universe. Well, in his later life, he’s become an aficionado of Napoleon. He writes books on him, and he sent me one. I wrote him a note back, thanking him. He wrote back and said, ‘you may have done a dangerous thing saying that you enjoyed this,’ and then he sent me a whole box full of his books. I got them yesterday.”
It turns out the General keeps the Ottawa used book market alive due to a self-confessed patchy short-term memory and a penchant for military pulp fiction. “I re-read books all the time. Ten or twelve books in the Flashman series, I’ve bought them all at least twenty-five times.” And what of his permanent collection? “Bernhard Cornwell [author of the Sharpe chronicles,] this past fall, sent me – and I don’t know the guy – a note that said, ‘With the greatest respect, from Private Richard Sharpe,’ who is the character from the series. I’ve got it at home, it’s a real treasure of mine.”
“My favourite timeframe is WWII, in essence, particularly Churchill, Eisenhower, Marshall, Roosevelt and a little bit of Macarthur.” It was books about men like these that planted the kernel of military ambition in General Hillier’s mind as a boy and inspired him at eight years old to write letters to military recruiters. “I was already reading military history. I lived in a little community in Newfoundland, I think I just saw it on the Internet yesterday, current population of 565. An older man there who had served in WWII used to loan me books on WWI and WWII. I was just enthralled by them.”
But books and history weren’t solely responsible for winning over the young Hillier. He admits there was a certain mystique about the military life that was attractive to him as long as he could remember. Recalling his childhood in the small lumber and fishing community of Campbellton, Newfoundland, he says, “I grew up listening to my Dad talk about Uncle John Clark. But we never ever knew him.” This mystery figure was a community legend whose war stories survived only in letters he’d written to his teenage sister, Vicky. This romantic vision eventually came to an abrupt conclusion when young Rick later discovered that Vicky was the “the contrary and cantankerous old woman who lived across the road who is now 83 years old. We used to be frightened to death of her.”
Early on, Hillier’s father didn’t support his military aspirations. “My Dad was quite concerned that I’d join the army, go off to war, and that I would die prematurely, a young boy in his eyes. Perhaps his view of the army was slightly different, having come out of that WWII generation.” This brought to mind a story often touched upon in Hillier’s dialogue – the sacrifice of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment at the Battle of the Somme. At Beaumont-Hamel that day more than 750 Newfoundlanders went through the wire and only 68 stood for roll call the next morning. Some say an entire generation of Newfoundland leadership was lost that day. Certainly Beaumont-Hamel left a legacy of horrible glory in the mind of Hillier senior and Hillier junior as they negotiated his future. The determined sixteen-year old ultimately got his way, however, and succeeded in bringing his father to the Justice of the Peace to sign his son over to the Canadian Forces.
“When I joined the Canadian Forces, I saw a lot of leaders, or people masquerading as leaders. When I went into the regiment, my first year or so, I actually had conversations with my wife over whether or not we wanted to belong to the Canadian Forces in the longer term. And then a guy called Lieutenant Colonel Bob Billings arrived and took command of the regiment. The guy was a leader. He had a vision. He communicated with everybody. He knew every soldier in his unit, he knew their families, he looked after them, he was straightforward with them, he didn’t bullshit them. Good news or bad news, he gave it and tried to give it in the right context. The guy was a leader with values that he lived – that his actions articulated. And that, I think, convinced me to stay in the Canadian Forces.”
In a few short sentences Hillier captures the essential aspects of leadership in any organization anytime – vision, knowledge of your people, communications and straightforward integrity. It’s a refreshing return to basics in an age of complexity, making it quite clear that General Hillier has emulated his role model precisely.
As much as his story is one of distinguishing himself as a soldier’s soldier, the younger Hillier was not without his transgressions. “I’ll take a little risk here. We used to have a little thing called ‘extra duties’. As an officer, if you got charged under the National Defence Act then that was a career-ending move. So, for most misdemeanours, unless they were quite serious, you got punished either by somebody walking you up and down with a barbed wire brush, figuratively speaking, or you got extra regimental duties. If you missed or showed up a little late for something, it was quite typical to get seven extra duties, or things of that nature. When I was deployed to Germany in 1979, I got into a small, little bit of trouble. It had to do with being a duty officer and being late. I won’t go into detail, but for my last 33 days in Germany, I was Regimental Duty Officer. The guy who gave me those duties, Commanding Officer at the time, was Gord O’Connor.”
This was, of course, none other than the Honourable Gordon O’Connor, who held until very recently, the position of Minister of National Defence and who is now Minister of National Revenue. “I’d just been promoted to Captain a month earlier. We laugh about it now, but it was all a part of my upbringing.” While thirty-three days as RDO is some consequence for ‘being late,’ when probed for the nature of his mischief-making in early days, however, he stops at the blue line. “None whatsoever. Always in early, always into work early, never go home late, never stay out drinking, never do things I shouldn’t do. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. (laughs) Absolutely and fastidiously.”
In October of 2007 General Hillier found himself in some hot water, at least as far as the media was concerned, for contradicting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s predicted pull-out date for the troops in Afghanistan. This wasn’t the first time he had been found with his toes off the party line. In good military tradition he seemed to be following the adage that if you and your boss always agree, then one of you is unnecessary.
“You know, I didn’t take this job because it was a job or an appointment or a post, I took it because this is my passion. I haven’t enjoyed every minute of it. There are some moments – phone calls in the middle of the night, going to Trenton to receive the body of one of our soldiers. I have not enjoyed those, obviously. But the rest of it, I’ve enjoyed just about every minute of it,
“And that includes giving the hundreds of journalists across Canada fodder to write and talk and comment upon and obviously earn salaries from. It’s interesting watching the news – I almost feel like I should get a cut. But I’ve always been very careful to stick to my lanes. Is it okay to be a little tiny bit controversial in how I stick to my lanes? I thought that was exactly what we needed to do.
“But I don’t perceive of having had any battles with Parliament, and certainly no conflicts with political leaders. I work for the Prime Minister, I work for the Minister of National Defence. I take my direction from them.”
Last November, General Hillier appeared alongside then newly appointed Minister of Defence Peter MacKay on the ice at an Edmonton Oilers game. Some 5,000 troops were invited to the special event. When the General stepped onto the rink he received the thunderous applause one recalls from the great Oilers heyday of Gretzky and Messier. Soldiers leapt out of their seats for the boss whose special attention had also sent a Tim Hortons and the Stanley Cup to Afghanistan. He grinned and nodded, and proceeded to drop the puck, and once again the arena was filled with deafening cheers. But this was hardly an unusual event for the General Hillier, who, unlike previous top soldiers, has risen to the height of celebrity during his term. As unusual an achievement as this is, he characteristically plays it down.
“I do my job. I will say that we were striving to have the profile of the Canadian Forces, and the men and women therein, raised so that Canadians could see what incredible national treasures they are, and therefore get engaged and support them in a whole variety of ways. Coincidentally with that, and this wasn’t my intention, my profile got raised. I’m well aware of that.
“Unfortunately when I go to events now, everybody wants their picture taken and you end up spending the whole time – and you don’t want to say no to someone, particularly when people end up lining up, which I find amusing – but it really does detract from an evening out, et cetera.”
Having served for over thirty years, General Hillier has seen Canada’s military transition from Cold War deterrence and traditional peacekeeping, through massive post-Cold War cutbacks and downsizing, to the Somalia debacle in the mid-nineties, to the post 9/11 War on Terror. Throughout, Hillier has been engaged on many significant operational fronts; he was appointed commander of NATO’s stabilization force in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2000, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan in 2003, and, closer to home, the Canadian Forces commitment to the Quebec ice storm of 2004. When he traded his role as Chief of Land Staff for the appointment of CDS in February of 2005, he recollects facing several coinciding challenges that ultimately defined the path of his tenure. Foremost was what to do about Canada’s commitment to the mission in Afghanistan, and whether Canadian troops should be placed in a combat role in the south. Related to this challenge was his crucial role in developing a new Defence policy statement, a massive project that reviewed the realities of the Canadian Forces for the first time in ten years. Hillier worked hard to lift the military from what he in 2007 referred to as a “decade of darkness” under the budgets of previous Liberal governments. As a result, Budget 2005 reflected a drastic increase in military funding and acknowledged Canada’s need to better equip itself in the face of increasingly complex challenges both at home and abroad.
His response to questions about what it was like to oversee three decades of sweeping changes from the inside were frank and, historically, very telling. Clearly, Russia’s Potemkin village had its counterpart here in Canada.
“My goodness, we were a shell of ourselves. A shell. I joined an armoured regiment that should have had a strength of around 600 people, probably had around 370, 380, and had no fighting vehicles whatsoever. Our wheeled vehicles or trucks were all rusted out and from the fifties. Our jeeps were post-WWII jeeps. The attitude and the ability to do things in a regiment like that reflected the equipment. It was a non-operational Canadian Forces, in the largest sense of the word.
“Now we have the best equipment fleets in the life of the Canadian Forces, including World War II. When you look at the quality of the equipment, we have most operational units brought up to speed. Not all of them yet, because we’re still recruiting and building. We now have a Canadian Forces with raison d’etre to be able conduct operations for the benefit of Canadians either at home on the continent or across the rest of the world. Back in those days, Canadians, by and large, didn’t even know we existed.”
General Hillier’s plans for retirement are exactly that, for the moment, as he sticks to his story about taking it easy. “I’ve got a clear radar-scope,” he says. “We’re footloose and fancy-free for the first time in our entire lives. I’m going to take a couple months off. Hit a couple of golf balls. Maybe we’ll do a bit of short-term traveling. No extended travels or voyages. I’ve had enough of that over the last five or six years. Truthfully, I’d like to keep my feet on terra firma. Maybe starting Labour Day I’ll start looking at what the future might bring.” Apart from becoming the Maple Leafs’ General Manager, should the position be offered him, (“I would take it in a heartbeat,” he grins) the prospect of a second career – in any field – is still strictly speculative.
When General Hillier returns from his summer, after his reflections, then perhaps and not before, Canadians will learn what his plans are. July 1st, Canada Day, is his official retirement date. In Newfoundland that is also Memorial Day, in remembrance of July 1st, 1916, the date of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment’s tragic defeat at Beaumont-Hamel. It is perhaps no coincidence that he chose such a weighty day to, as he puts it, “vanish back into the great Canadian mosaic.” Prompted for his final remark, he goes the route of what he calls the Joey Smallwood school of public speaking. “If it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying five times.”
“When you’re a young airman or airwoman and you’re flying at night over the far north during an ice storm in your aircraft; or you’re a sailor and you’re in a ship on your fisheries patrol off the east coast of Canada and there’s forty foot waves and ice is forming on your ship; or you’re a young soldier patrolling in those dirty, dusty, dangerous trails down in Kandahar and somebody’s waiting to shoot at you and kill you – you can be forgiven for thinking that you’re all alone in the world. And without the visible, active support of Canadians, they will be assured that they are alone. Yet another day, yet another week, yet another month until they do their job for Canada and they get to come home. Without that support, they can’t continue to do that. With it, they can accomplish anything. That support is essential.”