“My subordinates took time to reach out and let me learn how to lead” – Exclusive interview with Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (ret.)

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (ret.)

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be in touch with Vice-Admiral (ret.) Mark Norman, former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff of Canada. A man for whom I have tons of respect and admiration. He gladly accepted to respond to a few questions for my blog. To that end, we had an extremely pleasant discussion on the phone. Here is the content of our exchange.

Vice-Admiral Norman, as you can see with the name of my blog, books about history (mainly military) are among my main subjects of interest. Are you an avid reader? If so, what are your favorite subjects?

Compared to others, I am not an avid reader. Surprisingly, I don’t read military history directly. I do however enjoy three broad areas of books. 1) believable fiction – often based in an imaginary world. For example, I was recently absorbed by the Dune trilogy. This is a brilliant story. 2) the pseudo-realist genre, whose stories are based on reality. I’m a big fan of James Bond, the Jason Bourne series, Jack Ryan and Dan Brown for example. And 3) non-fiction. I like more analytical pieces and variations of military history. In that regard, I have recently read Destined for War by Graham Allison, books about leadership by retired generals like Colin Powell and Rick Hillier. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I will occasionally dive into naval history, and I have read different translations of Sun Tzu. This said, I am less active in that last category than I am in the two others.

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The General who Prevented a Fascist Takeover of America

Few journalists and observers are more versed in US presidential history than Bob Woodward. In his latest book, Peril, written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, they write that “Most [presidential] candidates struggle with the message. In his case [Joe Biden], he was the message.” The former Vice-President was the best positioned to carry the day in front of President Donald Trump, a man who didn’t and probably couldn’t grasp the magnitude of Covid-19 (“I wanted to always play it down”, he said to Bob Woodward in March 2020), or the basic tenets of politics. About the latter aspect, “[Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016] was surprised that Trump, of all people, did not seem to get that Republican leaders were self-interested.”

In a nutshell, Trump – who did not have a story to tell – couldn’t possibly compete with a man whose own life was and is the story – Joe Biden. “There is no news I can walk in and give him in the morning that is worse than the news he’s been given many other times in his life”, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told the authors about President Biden in what is probably the best book published about US politics this year.

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“The chance to put the terrorists in their holes”

“Interpreters are the forgotten heroes who played a significant role in the war against terrorism.” Reading these words in Special Forces Interpreter: An Afghan on Operations with the Coalition (Pen & Sword) by Eddie Idrees reminded me of the frustration I felt late last summer when I heard that those Afghans who sacrificed so much to help the coalition forces involved in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during so many years were threatened by the withdrawal from Afghanistan decided by the Biden administration and followed by other countries like my own, Canada.

While I was keeping abreast of all developments happening in Kabul airport at the time, social media algorithms suggested I read a memoir from a courageous young man who took the fight to the enemy alongside American and British soldiers. In that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that I would review this book, if only to better understand the crucial role played by the interpreters in the “forever war”.

The author – who writes under a pseudonym for understandable reasons – summarizes that “it was the Afghan interpreters who provided information on cultural issues to avoid misunderstandings between the village, tribal leaders, Afghan forces and US forces. In this way they ultimately reduced casualties.”

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General Milley stood up to Trump

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley. (source Los Angeles Times)

Here are excerpts of Peril, the new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward and his colleague Robert Costa. I’m not yet done with reading it, but I can already observe that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, wasn’t afraid to stand up to President Donald Trump on several issues.

Reading this book is an excellent antidote to the perception that General Milley is a weak figure.

Two examples.

About Confederate flags:

Trump asked Milley, what do you think?

“I’ve already told you twice, Mr. President. Are you sure you want to hear it again?”

Yeah, go ahead, Trump said.

“Mr. President”, Milley said, “I think you should ban the flags, change the names of bases, and take down the statues.”

He continued, “I’m from Boston, these guys were traitors.”

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Exclusive interview with an avid reader, Premier of Alberta Jason Kenney

Premier of Alberta Jason Kenney, pictured in front of his bookshelves. (source: Alberta Politics)

I have known the Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, for almost 20 years and I’m proud to count him as a friend. As well as enjoying pancakes at the traditional breakfast he traditionally organized as federal Member of Parliament, I fondly remember eating poutine with him when my family and I participated in the Calgary Stampede in 2012. If there’s one thing we invariably always talk about (other than politics of course), it is books. He’s a consummate avid reader, a fellow bookworm.

Like every elected official, the Premier is fighting Covid-19 and its dire consequences in his home province of Alberta, making headlines. These are tough times. But I won’t get into that. Don’t expect anything controversial here. This is about books, which I found to be a source of solace in these difficult months. I was therefore extremely pleased when Mr. Kenney accepted to take a few moments within his brutal schedule to respond to a few questions for this blog.

I hope you enjoy this simple yet insightful exchange.

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Premier Kenney, I remember, when you were a federal cabinet Minister, those amazing pictures of boxes from a famous Canadian bookstore filled with books you received. Have your reading habits changed since you have become Premier of Alberta two years ago?

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Fulfilling MacArthur’s Promise

In a recent interview for this blog, I questioned former Gurkhas commanding officer General Sir Peter Duffell about the reasons why Viscount Slim – the victor of Burma – is less recognized in popular culture than Field Marshal Montgomery for his contribution to victory in World War II. Montgomery, he replied “[…] was much the better-known British Commander because his campaigns were fought much closer to home [North Africa, D-Day, Arnhem].” In a certain way, much the same applies to the fighting of the American forces. Anyone visiting Washington, D.C., can admire the impressive Iwo Jima Memorial, but movies, bookstores and the remembrance rationale are largely dominated by the fight in Europe.

Fortunately, recent years have offered the publication of excellent books about the Pacific theater – for example the contribution of China to the Allied war effort. As we observe and live the geopolitical shift towards Asia, this literature is not only a welcoming phenomenon to better understand the Second World War, but also to navigate the troubled seas of the current world order. Thankfully, the increasing interest generated by the war in the Pacific will be of assistance to further develop our historical conscience in that direction.

I was therefore thrilled to read Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur’s Revenge on Japan (Caliber) by Kevin Maurer. Having been forced to evacuate the island on 11 March 1942, General MacArthur only makes his entrance in the story at the very end, after the men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment neutralized the Japanese troops assigned to defend the strategic sentry island guarding the entrance of Manila Bay.

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The Hero Code: “Find what your good at and give it to others”

Ever since I watched his famous speech “Make Your Bed”, I have been captivated by the career and thought of retired Admiral William H. McRaven, the former commander of the Navy SEALs. I was therefore excited to receive a copy of his most recent book The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived (Grand Central Publishing).

While I was reading it, an article from the Journal of Strategic Studies caught my attention. Written by National Security Affairs Professor James J. Wirtz, “The Abbottabad raid [during which Osama bin Laden was permanently neutralized by Navy SEALs] and the theory of special operations” elaborates about the theory of special operations, whose father was none other than Admiral McRaven. He theorized it in his master’s degree thesis in a period when, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, we lived in a “[…] new, unipolar world, [where] U.S. special forces would be relegated to tertiary missions within a Cold-War force structure that appeared bloated, obsolete and ripe for significant reductions.”

McRaven’s work sought “[…] to demonstrate that a tactic and unit deemed largely irrelevant by conventionally-minded officers and civilian strategists could actually achieve strategically and politically important effects, but only if planned and executed by special operators themselves against significant targets in proper ways.” And you can figure that the devil was – and still is – in the details.

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Every Man can be a Hero

Back in early September 2015, my family and I rented a car in Paris to spend a day in Normandy. I had always dreamt of visiting Juno Beach, where we fellow Canadians landed 77 years ago today. While strolling on the sand, I kept thinking about the level of bravery and heroism required to conduct such an unusual task. Because running to a possible and likely death is certainly not an ordinary action.

Ever since, I have tried to read as much as I can about the men of June 6, 1944. I reviewed Alex Kershaw’s and Giles Milton’s excellent books here. Late last night, I finished reading The Hero Code by retired Admiral William McRaven and Peter Caddick-Adams’ Sand and Steel is on my summer reading list.

Earlier this week, I finished reading the gripping D-Day memoir Every Man a Hero by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice (William Morrow). I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself with Admiral McRaven’s book, which I plan to review soon on this blog, but let’s just say that I found the answer to a lingering question between these covers.

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Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery

General Sir Peter Duffell (source: Nepali Times)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & sword), General Sir Peter Duffell generously accepted to answer my questions for this blog. Below is the content of this fascinating exchange.

But before you read any further, let me remind you that if you are a military history aficionado, this book is a must for your bookshelves.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly.

Whenever I attend the change of the guard at the Citadel in Quebec City (home of the Royal 22e Régiment, the legendary Vandoos), I am always impressed by the “Bearskin” hat worn by the soldiers, a tradition that comes from the French. At Waterloo, the red coats picked the hats from the dead bodies of their fallen opponents. Throughout its history, the British Army always knew how to integrate the best parts of other traditions. The Gurkhas are no exception, having been integrated to the British Order of Battle after the Nepal War of 1814-1816. Has the British Army kept this capacity for accepting other’s best capacities and features?

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“When you know you are with the Gurkha, I think there is no safer place to be”

In themselves, these words from His Royal Highness Prince Harry encapsulate the ethos and history of those soldiers who are called the best in the world. Having completed two tours of Afghanistan, notably for two months in Helmand, the Duke of Sussex has seen for himself what those legendary fighters are made of.

In his amazing book, Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & Sword), retired General Sir Peter Duffell took upon himself to explain what kind of mettle these exceptional fighters who first encountered the British red coats as enemies on the battlefield of the war on Nepal between 1814 and 1816 are made of. Few people could know the subject better, since the author was himself commissioned into the 2nd Gurkha Rifles at the beginning of his military career.

Having lived for several months in Edinburgh (Scotland), I visited the National War Museum on a few occasions. I was always impressed to read that, during World War I, Germans used to call Scottish soldiers “the ladies from hell” – a distinct reference to their kilt and warrior prowess.

I don’t know how Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops (or other battlefield enemies throughout history) called the Gurkhas south of Ypres in the first months of the Great War, but I can easily imagine a similar fright must be instilled in whoever sees one of those Nepali soldiers advancing toward his / her position. Just to give you an idea of the kind of fighter we are talking about, the author recounts that, in the last stages of the Burma campaign:

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