Retired general and former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier was a dedicated soldier who made significant efforts to update and modernize the Canadian forces, respond to threats at home and abroad and help soldiers and their families.
He is clearly a very talented leader and soldier to whom the country owes a great debt, but as an author and biographer, his work falls flat.
In A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War Hillier takes the reader through his military career from the day he first decided to become a soldier at around age nine, to his last day of command as Chief of the Defence Staff.
He details his path through the Forces, including stints in Germany, Texas, Afghanistan and all across Canada.
He was with troops in Winnipeg, filling sandbags when the Red River spilled over its banks and again as they worked to clean up and restore power to thousands during the ice storm in Eastern Ontario.
He paints a picture of a military in the 1990s that was in need of better pay and equipment, still stuck in a cold war mindset and easily ignored by politicians.
He also hands out heavy criticism to the United Nations and NATO, organizations he seems to view as ineffectual and overly bureaucratic.
As a top-ranking general who was well known for solving problems within the military, it is surprising he doesn’t go into more depth on those issues and how they might be fixed.
Memoirs are also traditionally places where influential people discuss their failures, but to the extent that he acknowledges mistakes, he doesn’t offer much indication of why he made them.
It is not until the book’s last few pages or so that he even begins to offer insight into the Afghanistan mission, likely the most top of mind issue for Canadians. At this late stage of the book, Hillier does finally give the reader a touch more of his observations and a glimpse into his battle with political leaders of all stripes.
He also makes some interesting observations about the federal bureaucracy and the stymieing effect it had on the mission in Afghanistan. This insight comes very late however, and still would only seem to scratch the surface of the complexities of the mission in Afghanistan.
For a young soldier or officer looking for a portrait of how the Canadian Forces have evolved and function today, Hillier’s book would be a fascinating case study. For the average Canadian however, I recommend leaving it on the shelf.
A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of wWar
by Rick Hillier<br />Harper-Collins 2009 <br />505 pages