OTTAWA -- Canada, renowned for its willingness to place its uniformed men and women in the cross-fire of other people's wars, finds its military in a weakened state, its combat units stretched to the limits of their capabilities.
"Your army fits in Maple Leaf Gardens," retired Maj. Gen. Lewis Mackenzie warned a government panel this month, referring to Toronto's hockey arena. "And there are a thousand seats left empty when they sit down."
But the government is committed to cutting the armed forces ranks from the present 70,000 soldiers, sailors and aviators -- itself a sharp reduction from 1980s levels -- to 60,000 over the next three years.
The cuts, analysts say, may jeopardize Canada's ability to continue the peacekeeping duties, humanitarian airlifts and other international commitments that have come to symbolize the nation's world role.
"Canada is squandering its credibility as a country committed to active peacekeeping service and a reliable NATO partner," said Nicholas Stethem, managing director of the Strategic Analysis Group, a Toronto-based defense and international affairs consulting firm. "The loss of direction in the military reflects our loss of direction as a country."
Canadians still feel great pride that their country -- with a population of only 29 million -- has played a disproportionately large role in peacekeeping missions from Cyprus to Cambodia.
Former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson is regarded as the inventor of modern-day peacekeeping, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for Canada's work in defusing the Suez crisis of 1956.
"Other than hockey, peacekeeping is the only thing in the world that we Canadians influence a lot," said General Mackenzie, who commanded the first U.N. forces dispatched to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in 1992. More than 100 Canadians have been killed on U.N. peacekeeping missions.
At the outset of the decade, Canada had about 5,000 peacekeeping troops deployed overseas in some of the world's worst trouble spots. Today there are only about 1,000 Canadians wearing the U.N. blue helmet, and there is increasing resistance to the idea that Canadians should put their lives on the line of intractable conflicts.
Canadians cherish a notion of themselves as international good guys. Americans make war; Canadians make peace; or so the belief goes. Certainly most Canadians see participation in peacekeeping missions as something that distinguishes their country from the United States.
But as Canada struggles with a fiscal crisis, the military makes a tempting target for budget cutters.
Procurement of badly needed combat equipment has been put on hold, while little has been done to reduce the swollen corps of officers and headquarters personnel. The military has nearly as many generals as tanks: 92 generals, 114 tanks, according to published reports.
Soldiers assigned to Bosnia are wheeling about a war zone in armored personnel carriers designed for training maneuvers, not combat. Canada has only three submarines, all obsolete. Its new naval frigates are badly impaired by the government's refusal to buy the high-tech helicopters with which the vessels were designed to operate.
Some Canadians argue that the end of the Cold War means the country no longer has enemies and money spent on the military should be diverted to welfare, national health care and other social programs.