The mission of the Vimy Report is to raise the quality of national debate on security and defence issues which matter to Canadians. To do so, it must liberate discussion from the preserve of government, political partisans and special interests; broaden the parameters of what is considered acceptable opinion; and draw attention to the information and views of professionals who have worked in the field.
In brief, the aim of the Vimy Report is to be independent, insightful, and experienced.
the Vimy Report will be independent of government, without ties to any political party or movement, and free of any obligation to business or other outside interests. But it will also be independent in its attitude towards pursuit of the truth. Much of what passes for journalistic independence in Canada today functions within very constrained parameters of information and commentary. George Orwell called failing to breech these parameters “crimestop”:
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.
It is not, of course, Ingsoc – Newspeak for the totalitarian ideology of “English Socialism” in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four – which today inhibits Canadians in discussing international security affairs. But it is a similar form of group-think which has largely closed off inquiry on a host of issues materially affecting the safety and security of citizens. This dumbing down of discussion has not been cost-free. Compared to its closest friends and allies, Canada’s competencies are woefully low in government decision-making on security issues, diplomatic engagement, defence of the realm, global awareness, and assistance to others. It wasn’t always this way.
The main way the Vimy Report will exercise its independence will be through exploring dimensions of issues which typically never see the light of day – taking analysis beyond the usual limits and into aspects of problems routinely overlooked in public discussion of controversial matters. This will mean getting the history right, bringing judgement and fairness to bear in the marshalling of information, shedding new light on issues even if this makes life difficult for some, not hiding from or glossing over options that deserve to be considered, and being honest and thorough about the likely consequences of decisions.
In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the anti-hero Alec Leamas declares, “I have the right to be ignorant. That’s the Western way of life.” Perhaps, but ignorance of international security affairs and its corollary, an overly sentimental and hopeful outlook on the world, has never served a people well. At best, it buys a little peace of mind until the barbarians strike – at which point Canadians have found themselves with no defences, nothing to deter an enemy, little to contribute to the collective effort, and no influence on others’ decisions. This is not a situation in which serious people with aspirations for international leadership should ever find themselves.
One of the world’s earliest publishing magnates, Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, described journalism as a profession “whose business it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand”. The distinguishing characteristic of the Vimy Report will be its writers’ knowledge of their subject matter, drawn from first-hand experience on the front lines and in the councils where decisions are made, executed — and sometimes regretted.
Canada can always count on having at least a few political leaders, diplomats, soldiers and others who know the reality of things – whether because of personal exposure to the world of security and defence at earlier stages in their careers or because of exceptional diligence in their learning on the job. But there are far fewer of them today than a generation ago and their influence is often marginal. Where once a hundred Members of Parliament had served in the Canadian Armed Forces, senior officials managed much smaller departments with much greater direct exposure to issues, and foreign correspondents deserved the title, what passes for Canadian expertise in security and defence today often pales in comparison to that of friends and adversaries alike.
This is a situation that prevails only because it is seldom challenged and hence found wanting. Meanwhile, there are large numbers of people outside the government and the military with first-class professional credentials in security and defence – resigned, retired, transferred to other careers, on assignments abroad, with international institutions, working at universities and think tanks — with virtually no outlets allowing them to inform the public discussion and influence decision-making.