09/28/2011 04:38 EDT | Updated 11/28/2011 05:12 EST

There Are High Flyers Who Deserve Military Jet Planes

We are a nation that flies economy, drinks Tim Hortons and wears khaki and plaid. But Gen. Walter Natynczyk's situation is, and should be, different. He needs to be a walking paradox -- a warrior and a diplomat, a genius with a common touch, a workaholic who never seems tired.

Who knew amortization could be so lethal? If we've learned any lasting lessons over the past week, it's that accounting hyperbole can do as much damage to our military's reputation as a weapon wielded by an Afghan insurgent. Hyperbole is exactly what's being used by media as they target the Canadian military. What else to call the incorporation of fixed capital costs into accounting that magically inflates a Challenger jet's operating costs from $2,630 per hour, to more than $10,000? While the whole affair seems an unjust media ambush on Defence Minister Peter MacKay and others who have made a lot of sacrifices to serve their country, I'd like to take a moment to defend a man I know well, and a man I admire, General Walter Natynczyk.

Several media stories mentioned that Gen. Walter Natynczyk took one of the planes to a 2010 gala in Toronto for the True Patriot Love Foundation, the organization I lead as chair of the board. The event was portrayed as Natynczyk hobnobbing with the elites. But the truth was that Gen. Natynczyk was there to raise money for his rank-and-file soldiers. He gave a stirring, captivating speech, then worked the room tirelessly, pausing for a photo with anyone who asked and always stopping to thank a soldier or the soldier's family. Thanks in part to Gen. Natynczyk's personal appearances at this fundraiser and others, we were able to raise more than $6 million to send the children of deployed soldiers to summer camp, fund military community centers, renovate homes and cars for our amputees and provide funding to train them for the paralympics.

Since he became the military's top soldier in 2008, Gen. Walt Natynczyk has what must be one of the planet's toughest jobs. Canadians tend to want their leaders to be just like them. We are a nation that flies economy, drinks Tim Hortons and wears khaki and plaid. And we want our leaders to follow our leads -- to wait in the same queues as the rest of us. Think of how hard the Prime Minister's Office works to make Stephen Harper seem like a regular guy. He's someone who drops his kids off at school, whose home at 24 Sussex Drive still doesn't have central air conditioning. We prefer our political leaders to look un-exceptional, even if deep down we want them to act exceptionally.

Natynczyk's situation is, and should be, different. He needs to be a walking paradox -- a warrior and a diplomat, a genius with a common touch, a workaholic who never seems tired. What complicates Gen. Natynczyk's job is the fact that it exists in a political sphere -- that of Ottawa, home to one of the most anti-exceptional cultures of leadership of any Western capital city. That culture has imbued the Challenger affair media cycle from its first sentence, when CTV's Lisa Laflamme decried Gen. Natynczyk's "high-flying travel arrangements." Even Liberal Leader Bob Rae wondered whether the whole thing was overblown -- chalking it up to "politics within politics."

Which is exactly right. Look, politicians run down their opponents all the time. They leave their own friends or subordinates to twist in the wind to further a career or agenda. Last week was Gen. Natynczyk's turn. In the three and a half years that he's led our military, Gen. Natynczyk has distinguished himself in a town where any recognition can be dangerous for a career. The problem isn't whether he was right to use a Challenger jet to join his family for Christmas holidays for the first time in three years. The problem is that Natynczyk's remarkable job performance has made him stand out. And the culture of Ottawa shuns anyone who stands out.

Our antipathy toward excellence is a vestige of our colonial past, and it would behoove us to shake it. We don't celebrate the best among us. Instead, we criticize them as high-flyers, as queue jumpers. Perhaps this national trait once made sense. When Canada was a sleepy resource-rich quadrant of Her Majesty's empire, we kept our heads down, in quiet deference to Britain, our colonial master, and America, our confident and powerful neighbor. But those days are long past. Amid global economic chaos we have emerged as one of the most stable and respected of Western nations. We can compete with anyone. When are we going to stop acting like the nervous colony? When are we going to let the prime minister get his central air?

Tradition suggests Gen. Natynczyk is heading into the final months of his term as Chief of the Defence Staff. He led our Canadian Forces through the successful completion of our combat mission in Afghanistan -- one that elevated Canada's military reputation around the world. We should allow him to bask in the afterglow that follows a job well done. What's troubling about the Natynczyk affair is what it foretells for the Canadian military, already entering a transformative period of cost-cutting proposed to eliminate $1 billion from its annual operating budget. What will be the new era's defining ideology? Apparently, rather than celebrating excellence, we'll return to our old ways of criticizing it. Gen. Natynczyk, and the Canadian Forces, deserve better from the people they've sacrificed so much to protect.