U of C pioneers Canadian war policy

In his lovely office overlooking Calgary, blood-stained words spill from Dr. David Bercuson’s mouth.

War, conflict, terrorism–terms that have become permanent fix-tures in news and politics–are also the primary concern of the University of Calgary’s Center for Military and Strategic Studies.

CMSS doesn’t pretend that it can find a cure for what its director calls “a self-inflicted scourge,” but much like doctors poking and prodding a tumor from all angles, Bercuson and the team of experts and students he directs analyze war so their research can be used to make informed policy decisions.

Up on the 7th floor of the MacKimmie Library Tower, a virtual clinic is in action.

Talking to the government

One of the center’s many mandates is to act as a source of expertise to the government. Bercuson said that faculty members are encouraged to give expert advice and be in touch with public policy.

“We are representative of the Calgary voice and the Alberta input into the process of policy making,” Bercuson said.

“Calgary is in the forefront of this kind of representation,” added Dr. Holger Herwig, CMSS director of research.

However, Bercuson acknow-ledges the government doesn’t always listen to their input. He described policy making as a kind of “black magic,” with a recipe of varied ingredients. Input from Canada’s allies, the media, and the military all affect decisions. Thus, expert advice provided by CMSS has to be weighed against many other factors.

“You try to make a recipe you’ve never made before,” Bercuson said. “There are many different considerations to take into account when the government is making a decision.”

Bercuson also stressed the center does not speak as a unitary voice.

“Each person is responsible for his or her own views and the center itself has no views,” he said. “It’s just a gathering place.”

A multidisciplinary approach to war

CMSS is more than just a gathering place, however. The federal government website describes it as an “international front-runner” for education in military and strategic analysis. The center has churned out twenty masters graduates and two PhDs so far. The PhD program was initially hampered by a lack of funding, but the center is expecting the university to approve a regular PhD program by next fall, said Bercuson.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the center. About six years ago when Bercuson and Herwig took over the center’s leadership, Herwig described CMSS as being on its deathbed.

“It had the lowest possible funding level in Canada,” he said. “But in the last two reviews, we’ve been at the top of federal funding.”

At the center, students are offered the opportunity to study war from different perspectives. All but one of the professors, Bercuson included, come from other faculties, fostering a rich and multidisciplinary academic foundation for students.

In addition to the economists, political scientists, historians, and sociologists that populate CMSS, Bercuson said a philosopher will be joining the center later this year.

“Our students study everything from peacekeeping operations to child soldiers in Africa,” said Herwig. “It’s not the standard kind of drums and bugles affair. Our students are more interested in aspects of human security that we read about in the papers everyday.”

Calling war a complex phenomenon, Bercuson said CMSS encourages students to come at it from at least two perspectives.

But Herwig said developing a multidisciplinary program can be difficult. He said the U of C has lengthy rhetoric on interdisciplinary education, but little action to back the words up.

“[The university] is very traditional,” Herwig said. “It’s very hard to stand up for an interdisciplinary system. It’s difficult to convince the feudal barons [department heads] to let us have some of their faculty. David and I have worked very hard to get that kind of program here and overall, I think we’ve succeeded.”

After getting their degrees, most graduates accept government and industry positions oriented toward security and defense issues.

The men with the plans

Bercuson himself is a history professor. He started off as a historian in 1970, researching labour history for a decade before he shifted his focus to Canadian foreign policy. He has been teaching and researching Canadian military history for the past 20 years.

Last year, Bercuson’s expertise was recognized when he was appointed to the Advisory Council on National Security, which provides confidential advice to the government on national security issues.

“He’s our top lobbyist,” said Herwig. “I can’t think of any other center that has done the kind of public policy work that David Bercuson has.”

Herwig is accomplished in his field as well. As the Canada Research Chair in Military and Strategic Studies he has held a research grant from NATO. Canada Research Chairs are recognized as pioneers of knowledge in their field.

Bercuson and Herwig’s current research is on submarine warfare and the struggle over strategic commodities during the Second World War and they are co-authoring a book on the subject.

Public apathy

The center is one of twelve across Canada that receive funding from the National Department of Defense.

“The department wants us to inform Canadians as much as possible about the policy choices that Canada faces,” Bercuson said.

While the center is not obligated to voice a certain political platform or to toe the ruling party line, it is mandated by the Department of Defense to hold conferences and to educate the Canadian public.

It’s a tough job, noted Bercuson, highlighting the apathy of Can- adians in general.

“Canadians aren’t aware enough of security and defense issues,” he said, adding he is doubtful that recent terrorism scares will change Canadian attitudes. “It’s very easy to live in Canada and believe what is happening in the world will not impact you. We know from history that it does.”

Apathy has a direct impact on the government. Bercuson acknowledged the state is restricted in what it can do if it doesn’t have taxpayers’ support to protect Canada.

“No one knows what’s in the minds of those who want to do damage to us, but if they want to wage economic warfare, they can attack our infrastructure [to our significant detriment],” Bercuson said.

Despite worldwide concerns, Bercuson said terrorism-events risk analysis has not been a significant part of the CMSS mandate. In fact, it has “not been on the radar.”

The point?

For Bercuson, at least, the answer is understanding. He describes war as a cancer that must be studied if it is to be treated or reduced. Though he doesn’t believe humanity will ever eliminate it entirely, Bercuson is hopeful that research and analysis can downplay its negative consequences.

“For us the question is: Why do this? Why study a self-inflicted curse? A nasty phenomenon?” asked Bercuson. “But we need to study it to make informed choices.”

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