Armies exist to fight wars. That's a fairly straightforward statement, almost, you'd think, a self-evident one. Well, it's not, at least not according to the new book by David Bercuson, a history professor at the University of Calgary. He believes that the senior officers in Canada's Armed Forces (in particular its "army", or more properly Mobile Command), Canada's political leaders, and Canadians in general have lost sight of this fact.
One of the consequences of this was the "significant incident" referred to in the title: the murder by Canadian soldiers in March 1993 of a sixteen-year-old Somali youth, Shidane Arone. By now, almost everyone knows the basic story. Indeed, as Bercuson says, "Most Canadians know more today about the scandal in Somalia than they do about Vimy Ridge," or any other part of their army's past. Briefly, while part of a United Nations mission sent to Somalia (with no clear idea of what they were to do there), members of Number 2 Commando, Canadian Airborne Regiment, captured Arone inside the boundaries of their camp one night. One of them, Master Corporal Clayton Matchee, took it upon himself to beat and torture the young man and kept it up for several hours. During Arone's ordeal, several other soldiers dropped by to watch Matchee work him over. Not one of them lifted a finger-unless you count one Kyle Brown, who went off to grab his camera so he and Matchee could take pictures of each other posed with the bloodied, blindfolded Arone. Sometime that night, battered and burned with cigarette butts, Arone died.
One death, far from Canada (a couple of others have come to light, too), but it triggered a long chain of events: accusations of high-level cover-ups, the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment (aided by a series of videos of Airborne hazings of new recruits), and an inquiry that looks like dragging on well into the next century. It has also, says Bercuson, helped "create the deepest crisis in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces." He makes no attempt to defend the behaviour of the men accused, but he does think that pointing the finger exclusively at them or at the Airborne Regiment misses the bigger story. Their conduct was the result of bigger problems in the armed forces. Significant Incident is dedicated to proving this.
For Bercuson, the armed forces' problems begin in the 1960s. (The very phrase "the sixties" is a red flag for a lot of people, shorthand for either a golden era when everything was possible and "very heaven it was to be alive" or that dark age when civilization started to unravel. Bercuson falls into the latter category.) As he makes clear in one of the best explanations of how an army functions that I have ever read, before that time, the Canadian Army-and it was still a separate force in those days-was a hard-drinking, inward-looking force, cut off from civilian society and a lot of the postwar changes that were already affecting Canada. It was also a first-rate fighting organization, one that had distinguished itself in the Second World War and again in Korea. The reason for that was that it concentrated on the traditional job of armies: preparing to fight. This is always hard in peacetime, particularly in a non-military country like Canada. Young soldiers get restless, and it's hard to keep the edge when there's no war in sight. The secret, Bercuson says, is that good commanders are "leaders who have the charisma and strength of character to ensure that their soldiers know what is demanded of them and what the limits of acceptable behaviour are." The "Old Army", as Bercuson calls it, had those.
In place of this traditional focus, the Liberals, Bercuson asserts, without ever really proving it, wanted to use the armed forces as a sort of "test-bed" for all the changes they wanted to bring about in Canadian life: making it multicultural, pro-Quebec, and rights-driven. They also-and when he argues for this he is on much more solid ground-wanted to bring it to heel and remake it in the style of the activist bureaucracy they believed in. The first step was to reduce waste and the triplication of services by unifying the army, navy, and air force in one large organization. Then, in the early seventies, the Liberal government of the time created the National Defence headquarters. For Bercuson, and the experts he cites, that was when the armed forces stepped onto the slippery slope. Henceforth, the forces' military commander, the chief of the defence staff, was to share authority with a civilian deputy minister. The military no longer had a clear-cut mandate to prepare for the next war; instead, administrative skills and consensus-building became more important than traditional military values. Add in a promotion system called Performance Evaluation Review, which seemed to advance those who kept their heads down over those who made waves and a policy that had young captains and lieutenants constantly rotating in and out of units on two-year postings (and why make trouble if you're only around for twenty-four months?), and, Bercuson argues, all the makings of a disaster are in place. Anyone who watched Jean Boyle, then the chief of the defence staff, testifying before the Somalia inquiry has to agree: How else could this shifty-eyed Howard the Turtle lookalike in a cap that doesn't fit properly have made it to the top of the Canadian Armed Forces?
All of Bercuson's legwork and his assertions are well-developed and highly plausible. If Significant Incident suffers from any major drawback, it is structural. For some reason, perhaps the speed he wrote it at, the book has been broken into three parts: one deals with the bureaucratization of the army, one with the Canadian army today, and then the final section with the Canadian Airborne Regiment itself. Each part works well enough alone, but as a blended argument, they leave something to be desired: either material is repeated-we're told again and again that there is a leadership crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces-or just mentioned once, far from where it might be most effective in making his points.
This is particularly true when Bercuson begins to talk about the Canadian Airborne Regiment specifically. Occupying the final third of the book, the regiment's history parallels the decline of leadership in the Armed Forces covered in the first third. Put together they would have created a far more powerful impression.
That aside, Bercuson does an excellent job of tracing the regiment's history from its birth in 1968. Interestingly, the regiment's military value was always dubious, according to him: "there was and is a real argument that...a unit such as the Canadian Airborne Regiment was operationally obsolete from the day it was formed." Other, more affluent armies, in particular that of the United States, were opting for what were known as airmobile as opposed to airborne formations, units that relied on helicopters to move troops into battle quickly. Buying the helicopters to set up an airmobile outfit would have cost a lot, however, so that may have determined Canada's decision to stick with paratroopers: they could jump from the Hercules transports already flown by the Canadian Forces. There also seems to be some evidence to suggest that Jean Allard, then chief of the defence staff, had a near-paranoid terror of an armed uprising in Quebec and wanted a unit that, even if it didn't jump, could be quickly transportable by plane.
Finally, Bercuson says, in the aftermath of unification and the reduction in strength in the forces, spirits were low in the army. "Creation of a new, supposedly elite, unit to which soldiers could aspire for greater physical challenges and to achieve a higher level of training and skills might help raise morale." Airborne fit that bill, and the dangers and excitement of jumping took the place of combat in keeping a peacetime unit sharp. The regiment took only seasoned officers and men, who came for a few years and then returned to their parent regiments, helping spread its professionalism throughout the army. Before too long, a spell with the Canadian Airborne Regiment became a must for any officer or enlisted man who wanted to get ahead.
Airborne regiments, Bercuson says, attract both the best soldiers and the worst. Scattered in among the professionals, are the would-be Rambos, the bullies, and the downright psychotics. As long as a unit is well-led, and everyone is kept busy, they don't amount to a problem. But that is not what happened in the Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 1974, as a cost-saving measure, the unit was moved from Edmonton to Petawawa in Ontario. The regiment now found itself in the dubious position of being an airborne unit located several hours by truck from the nearest air base. That meant a lot less jumping, at least for the first few years until facilities were built at Petawawa. In a small town like Petawawa, there were far fewer ways for soldiers to let off steam off-duty; this made for a sort of a hothouse atmosphere on the base. Worst of all, a hard core of the bad type of paratrooper either managed to avoid ever returning to their old units from the airborne, or came back again and again. A well-led regiment could have overcome their influence, but the changes brought on by the military bureaucracy meant that the problem they posed wasn't addressed. Good officers did occasionally make a difference; those who didn't care, or just wanted to put their time in and move on, let the regiment slowly get out of control. The hard-core hell-raisers became the regiment's unofficial leaders. Rebel flags flew outside the barracks; twice cars belonging to unpopular officers and NCOs were set on fire; soldiers sported white supremacist and biker-style tattoos and disgusting hazings became common. And virtually no-one did a thing. When the word came to go to Somalia-a dangerous mission where no-one was certain whether the forces involved would be keeping the peace or imposing it through force of arms-the regiment was far from ready. Despite that, says Bercuson, at the highest levels of command, "No-one hesitated to send a unit with obvious disciplinary problems into a possible combat environment...." Once more, the buck had been passed, and off went the regiment-with predictable consequences.
For Bercuson, the solution to the Canadian army's problems will require "the restoration of preparation for war fighting and combat at the centre of the army's existence." Once that happens, the warriors-the real old-time leaders-will regain control. Whether it happens is another question. Changes at the top would be a start, restoring morale and sending the signal that the army is cleaning up the mess. But the prime minister's prolonged support for his minister of defence and the chief of the defence staff suggests that, as far as the government is concerned, everything is fine. Beyond that, Canadians aren't very interested in their army and probably don't much care what happens to it.
They should, though. Our contributions to NATO and the United Nations have brought us benefits: "Successive Canadian governments," Bercuson reminds us, "have found that a place among the Western powers can be purchased with a little military muscle and a lot of pious cant about being an honest broker in an evil world." Beyond that, we may actually need an army some day to fight a war. If it seems unlikely now, it did in the 1930s, too. Reading Bercuson's book should help convince us that we should care about what's happened to the Canadian army.
Ian Coutts is an editor at Madison Press.