Archive for the ‘military’ Tag

Canada Free Press – What A Joke!

Every now and then, I stumble across someone (usually an intellectually-barren right winger) who cited http://www.canadafreepress.com to support an argument. Even more amusing is that occasionally people seem to think that writing for this blog is some kind of journalistic credential.

When your tagline is “Because without America there is no free world…” I have to wonder what the “Canada” part is all about. CFP started as a print paper in Toronto, a right wing free birdcage liner, but it’s now rarely about Canada, and more a haven for American conservatives, and frankly, not good ones. There used to be a comedic value to it, but even that’s gone. Now it’s just… well… I can’t describe it. So let’s look at one of their articles, about the evil (well, if you grossly misinterpret it) UN Agenda 21) and its impact on the military, by Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh. The article is here. Read carefully, because some of the hilarity is subtle.

The good doctor’s article is based on a US government directive about sustainability and designs for military bases – to make them more “walkable”, something that’s been, as I understand it, an urban planning concept for a long time. Most military bases I’ve been on aren’t, don’t offer much in the way of incentive for transit or ride share, and are thus often traffic nightmares. A base I spent a lot of time on has three gates fed by a series of collector roads, and it’s not uncommon to spend 15-20 minutes or more trying to get out at the end of the day, sitting in traffic. To travel a kilometre or two. That’s a lot of cars idling for no good reason. But I guess, if you’re a right wing moron, that’s not a big deal.

She wastes little time to turn an architect’s report on the community around the US Air Base at Aviano into a snipe at Italy – suggesting “they can defend themselves”. Which, of course, they do, which a fairly large and well-equipped military. I’m not entirely sure who or what the US base at Aviano defends Italy from, and would guess it primarily serves US and not Italian interests.

I particularly love this paragraph:

The military leadership explains that transit-oriented development reduces traffic congestion and accident rates while encouraging walking, bicycling, and overall healthy communities. This is a ridiculous excuse since a soldier, by definition, has to be healthy and fit in order to serve in the military. Walking and biking actually increase accident rates of hit and run. There are retirees, even young ones, who are handicapped, and biking and walking is not an option for them. We have thousands of soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Iran with severe, life altering disabilities.

I literally cannot make any sense of this. Where to begin? First, military communities don’t just include “soldiers”. Bases employ civilians. Military families use their facilities as well. And ultimately, that soldiers have a fitness standard that the general public doesn’t has pretty much nothing to do with this. Increased rates of hit and run? Okay, whatever. Conveniently, the Good Doctor offers no statistical support for this, and I somehow don’t think it’s particularly important. Biking and walking aren’t an option for lots of people, sure, but nothing in the ideas of better urban planning makes it impossible. Thanks to not right wing people, after all, we have laws about making sure that we accommodate disabled people. Of course, if you’re a certain class of conservative, you think those laws are an encroachment on your civil liberties and free enterprise, but we’ll try to leave Paultards out of this, shall we? I also love she says soldiers “returned from Iraq and Iran”, to help build the case that on basically the entire subject matter of this post, she has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. Iran? Really?

Another gem of a paragraph:

Because of drastic cutbacks in the military for cost-saving reasons, at a time when the world threat to our country is at an all time high, we do not have money to refurbish and modernize the military capability. We let soldiers fight in Afghanistan and Iraq with scarce resources and protection, having to duct-tape their body armor to non-armored vehicles in order to provide some level of safety.

Well, “we” sent soldiers to fight a way in Iraq without proper equipment because there wasn’t enough of it to go around. By invading Iraq, Afghanistan was neglected with victory declared early, and it was allowed to fester. And the war with Iraq was totally unnecessary. By the way, which political party has members that actually voted against better equipment for soldiers? Ooops.

The military is more concerned with rules and regulations, like a soldier being licensed properly to drive an un-armored SUV through a war zone. Those who make ill-conceived rules from the safety of their offices in Washington, D. C. do not worry that this soldier might be blown off by a roadside bomb because his vehicle is not armored.

Why are soldiers “licensed” to drive UP-armoured (not “un-armoured”) SUVs? In the case of some places, because they’re less conspicuous and easier to maneuvre around cities. Big convoys of armoured vehicles are juicy targets. Consider the attack on the Rhino Bus on October 29, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was a big, heavy, armoured vehicle, and a vehicle-borne IED destroyed it and killed all its occupants. It was a clear, significant target. SUVs disappear into traffic, theoretically. Why are they “licensed”? Because they have to pass a driving test that’s a little more than what most people do – how to drive evasively, and maneuvres that increase the safety of the driver and their passengers. Not just anyone should be thrown keys and told to have at it.

“Which would you rather have? Would you rather spend $4 billion on Air Force Base solar panels, or would you rather have 28 new F-22s or 30 F-25s or modernized C-130s? Would you rather have $64.8 billion spent on pointless global warming efforts,  or would you rather have more funds put towards modernizing our fleet of ships, aircraft and ground vehicles to improve the safety of our troops and help defend our nation against the legitimate threats that we face?” (Sen. James Inhofe as quoted by Caroline May)”

I like the solar panels thing. I recently read an article about the US Marine Corps using them on FOBs in southern Afghanistan, saving massive amounts of fuel that would be needed for generators to power the installation. Not only does using less fuel save money, and hey, it’s good for the environment (particularly relevant when the US military is under fire for the air quality on their bases, generator emissions are not exactly good in that sense) – but it saves lives potentially because less fuel consumption means less convoys to transport fuel, means less vehicle movement on the roads, regardless of whether the vehicles are armoured or unarmoured.

Yet we spend billions to needlessly restructure military bases into global environmentalism compliance. It is more important for our executive branch to “sustain” the so-called endangered environment, and please the environmentalist wackos, than to defend our country.

Actually, as I understand it, the directives apply to new base construction and chages thereto. Environmental compliance not only is good for the entire world, it saves money, and in most cases, if you look at what sustainable communities are actually about, it makes them more pleasant places to live. Saving money on defence facilities (the massive of cost of which she references in her article, oddly enough!) leaves more money available for defence, or whatever else. There’s literally nothing bad I can see about that, at all. Unless, like The Good Doctor, you want to make a series of arguments from ignorance to hear yourself speak.

Whither The Centre?

For some reason, I guess because I’m some kind of masochist, I tend to insert myself into all sorts of debates and discussions over politics.  Canadian politics, American politics, whatever – they all fascinate me, and if there’s one thing that’s becoming clearer and clearer over time, it’s that all politics is indeed local – everything matters, because we’re all really connected.

When I was a first year university student, I read Benjamin Barber’s article (since expanded into a book), Jihad Vs McWorld.  It was a very good explanation of the competing forces which we were just coming to be understood as “globalization”.  That article was six years old by then, but seemed to me very insightful.  I had started to understand those impacts during the brief travels I managed to do before and during school, which doesn’t seem to be a habit I’ve carried on with enough, though hopefully that will change.  Anyhow, if you’ve never read the article, do so – it’s worth a read.  It talks a fair bit about the ideas of confederalism and trying to define the role of a nation-state in this new world.  We’re seeing the same sort of thing now when we take a look at NATO trying to define a role for its future post-Cold War.  That, I suppose, is a whole other matter.

If I tell you that higher education softened my conservative views, I guess I’ll play into some sort of sick right wing stereotypes about liberal education.  Truth is, while I went to a very, very liberal school, I didn’t really start to really think like a centrist until a while after I was out of school in the real world and started to realize that all those monetarist, conservative “theoreticals” are just that, and they don’t really seem to work.  And I guess I realized that before a lot of people, because what I’m seeing unfolding in the world suggest it.

What happened to the idea of a rational, pragamatic centrist movement?  In the US, the only people I’ve seen claiming the label of centrists are really right wingers trying to sell themselves a little softer.  In Canada, the reasonably centrist Liberal Party of Canada just got totally wiped out in the recent election, and the “Progressive Conservative” Party no longer exists.  Although Prime Minister Harper doesn’t strike me as having some incredibly insidious right wing agenda, he also learns a fair way to the right, more than perhaps I’d consider acceptable, and even worse, some of the clowns in his party are far less ambiguous about it.

The problem is, as I see it, we have a whole lot of challenges to deal with.  Climate change, regardless of the degree to which you accept the anthropogenic nature thereof, is something that is going to impact the world somehow – it’ll change migration patterns, it’ll impact food supplies, it will impact everyone in some way.  The global economy is another problem – casino capitalism as it were has impacted us certainly.  The world’s largest economy sits in a country that faces massive budget deficits and complete unwillingness to overcome the polarization in politics in such a way as to actually make any progress.  There’s no rational voice in the centre trying to balance out the two highly polarized sides in any debate, and so there’s deadlock.

Why do we have to talk only about tax cuts, tax hikes and spending cuts and not look at other ideas?  More importantly, why is there no discussion of combining various approaches in the US for example to solve problems?  Obviously, taxes have to rise in some form in the USA, it’s just a matter of time.  Despite the claims of various pundits on the right, America does indeed have a revenue problem.  It does have a spending problem too, and that will take a lot of effort, it’ll take some pain I’m sure to fix it effectively, but it must be done in some form.  What astounds me is the denial of realities that healthcare reform as it’s been initiated by the Obama Administration will likely help while actually improving healthcare outcomes.  I’m also surprised (not really) that no one seems to grasp that massive, massive military spending cuts in the USA are going to be necessary to make any progress.   Those cuts will have to come from capital procurement primarily, and allowing the force to shrink via natural attrition.

What I don’t get is why people aren’t demanding better from politicians, demanding actual reasoned discussions.  I guess that advantage we had in Canada when we went through this in the 1990s is that our Parliamentary system allows the government of the day to just get on with things without having to constantly battle the opposition.  Score 1 for us.  Obviously there’s no way to make changes to that, but where are the voices starting up to the Professional Left and the Theocratic-Fascist-Corporatist right?

On Afghanistan

I got into a brief Twitter chat with someone today about Afghanistan, and I think it prompted me to write a bit on my perceptions of how the Afghanistan experience has impacted Canada – impacted me personally, my family, my friends, and the sense I have of its impact on Canadians broadly based on my observations.

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I was in third year university, living in a house with three friends. That Tuesday morning, I was awoken by one of my housemates just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and I managed to collect myself and get out of my room in time to see the second hit. I spent the rest of that day watching television, trying to figure out what happened and what was going to be done about it. That night, being an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Forces Reserve at the time, I headed off to my Armoury and down to a meeting previously scheduled which was overtaken by discussion about the topic. Later I sat in the Junior Ranks Mess of my home garrison with various other people, and I said, “We will all remember where we were this day.” As we watched replay after replay of planes hitting the Twin Towers, I then thought, “This is our Zapruder film.”

Canada eventually sent a battle group built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (3VP BG) to Kandahar to help destroy Al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan and rout the Taliban regime which had mostly controlled that failed state and provided that haven. It didn’t make a lot of news until April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a 3VP group training at the Tarnak Farms Range Complex near Kandahar Airfield, killing four Canadians: Sgt Marc Leger, Cpl Ainsworth Dyer, Pte Richard Green, and Pte Nathan Smith and severely wounding eight more. The outcome of the inquiry into the event would be a massive post in itself, but suffice it to say that not only was it basically the end of the USAF pilots’ careers, but one received a stinging reprimand for his dishonourable conduct in trying to evade responsibility for a decision that was in no way justifiable. In short, he claimed that he acted in self-defence, but he actually turned back to drop the bomb after being well out of danger and was not cleared to attack.

The Patricia deployment wrapped up without any further casualties, and the follow on was a deployment built around the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (3 RCR BG). They went to Kabul, established a large camp (Camp Julian) and got to work on local security and some of the foundational work on establishing Afghan National Security forces – new Army, Air Force, and Police for the country. Things went fairly smoothly. There were no casualties reported until October 2, 2003, when what we would come to know as an “IED” or landmine blast struck a patrol traveling in an Iltis jeep in Kabul, killing Sgt Robert Short and Cpl Robbie Beerenfenger. When a suicide bomber killed Cpl Jamie Murphy three months later, a national debate began about the adequacy of the equipment Canadian soldiers were being sent to Afghanistan with. The Iltis jeep, a small, unarmoured patrol vehicle long due for replacement became a focus in the media, but many, many other items were viewed as deficient and the Liberal government of Jean Chretien began spending a lot more money on improvements.

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan stayed relatively quiet until the summer of 2005, when it was decided to redeploy the force from the relatively stable capital of Kabul to the restive province of Kandahar, one of the strongholds of the Taliban, to which 3VP were initially deployed back in 2002. Settling into Kandahar Airfield, Canadian soldiers began to become involved in a lot more “outside the wire” work, doing battle with insurgents in Kandahar’s vineyards, orchards, and fields. The Panjwaii District, located along the Arghandab River west of Kandahar City, was one of the Canadian Areas of Responsibility. Panjwaii would become a name known to many Canadians starting in 2006 when the fighting became much more intense, and Canadian casualties began to mount starting in the spring of 2006.

The only other deaths before then were road traffic accidents, a sad hazard of any place, but losses grieved no differently.

The first casualty of fighting was Pte Robert Costall, a member of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1VP). Costall’s deal was later revealed to likely have been a friendly fire incident during a pitched gun battle with insurgents. On April 22, 2006 a roadside bomb blew up a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, one of the vehicles bought to replace the Iltis jeeps that had been so controversial, killing four Canadians. May 17th saw something new to Canadians – a female Forward Observation Officer from the 1st Regiment of Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA), Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed by a rocket propelled grenade which struck her LAV-3 while she was calling in artillery during an offensive operation. She was the first Canadian officer to die in Afghanistan, and the first female combat casualty in Canadian history.

It became clear to Canadians that we were in quite a fight and there was a real cost – I think, from my recollection, it was Capt Goddard’s death that hit home for many.

Through the summer and into the fall of 2006, fighting in Panjwaii was intense. August 3 saw a fierce fighting kill four members of 1VP, and fighting during September was similarly costly. September 2, 2006 saw the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (1 RCR BG) launch Operation MEDUSA, a major effort to drive the Talian out of Zhari and Panjwaii districts. 1 RCR suffered the single worst day of the war to date for Canada, September 3, 2006. That day, four fell, including two Warrant Officers and an Engineer Sergeant very experienced NCOs, and many others were injured. The following day, a friendly fire airstrike hit members of 8 Platoon, Charles Company, 1 RCR, killing Pte Mark Graham and injuring several others, one of whom was a close friend of mine. The Crazy Eights, and indeed Charles Company itself, was rendered basically combat ineffective at that point. MEDUSA ultimately was a tactical victory for ISAF, but at a cost.

And so it went from there. I could recap the ensuring campaigns, but that’s not really the point. Following 2006, things became much more dangerous in Afghanistan, and many more would fall. April 2007 saw a massive bomb kill six Canadians, a feat the Taliban would repeat in July of that year. Most were due to pernicious improved explosive devices, planted by a cunning and crafty enemy that studied our tactics and learned how to defeat them. I did want to actually stick to my original concept for this, to try to make some observations on how the public responded to the events, and how it changed their view of the CF.

Many Canadians held a sort of romanticized view of the Canadian Peacekeeper – a UN Blue Beret-sporting friendly sort of armed Boy Scout off to try to save the world in various places, standing between disputing parties to keep them from fighting. Canada basically invented the concept in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, the idea of a neutral party keeping to sides in a conflict who genuinely wanted peace apart while they learned to trust each other. Canadians patrolled the divided island of Cyprus for many years in this role, among other places. A TV commercial, a “Heritage Moment”, played up this cultural myth. When the world watched the horror of the meltdown of Yugoslavia, it was Canadians in blue helmets who raced off to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to stop the bloodshed there.

However, two black marks would come to influence that view dramatically, the failure of the world community to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and a series of incidents in Somalia in 1993 which overshadowed anything else the Canadian contingent deployed there did – a small number of soldiers from a unit riddled with leadership and discipline problems engaged in some atrocious crimes, then tried to conceal them, which failed. In what one writer (regrettably, I can’t remember his name) referred to as a “great act of self-effacement”, the unit involved, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, was disbanded completely, even though most of its members from that era had since moved on. These events certainly cast a pall on the view that many Canadians took of soldiers – in cases they were harassed, even told not to commute to and from work in uniform lest they be recognized according to some stories I’ve heard.

Around the same time, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien came to power and set upon wrestling the great deficit dragon that threatened Canada. When I talk to Americans and Britons about the fiscal challenges their countries face, I am proud to tell them that we went through this before, and it eventually gets better. Chretien began a program of slashing spending, including cashing in the so-called “peace dividend”, downsizing the Canadian Forces and its budget. This came to be referred to by many as the “decade of darkness”, a phrase made most popular by the charismatic Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, who made it public. Through the 1990s, bases closed, including the mass movement of 1 RCR from London, Ontario to Petawawa, Ontario, and the closure of Canadian bases in Europe. Little was invested in training or equipment.

The sun began to come out through some unusual circumstances, according to many of the stories I’ve heard – the Red River Floods in Manitoba in 1997 and the Ice Storm in Ontario & Quebec in 1999 were emergencies where Canadian military personnel came out in droves to help communities, and suddenly people began to think more warmly about the military. It was again possible to wear the uniform with pride. It was shortly after this that I, a university student, presented myself at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in the spring of 2000 to apply to join the Reserve. I was sworn in January of 2001 as an infantry Officer Cadet, beginning a journey which would become a defining feature of my adult life.

Prior to 9/11, no one really noticed us much. We were just ordinary people it seemed. After that, particularly when Canada got involved in Afghanistan, people actually started to take a little more notice. We started to actually have people approach us in public to say “thanks” and acknowledge us, people started paying for our coffee at Tim Hortons, things like that – all wonderful gestures, if a little awkward.

If you’re reading this as an American, understand that the sort of “aggressive” flag-waving patriotism and love of the military that you’d consider normal does not generally exist in Canada. Canadians tend to be much more reserved, to the point that we often find the contrast frankly uncomfortable. The attention was a little weird for many people.

Something else happened, though. Something so incredible that no one would have anticipated it, and what made it so amazing is that it emerged from nothing, as just an idea of ordinary people that caught on.

When a Canadian soldier is killed overseas, there is a process followed. The remains are brought to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, an air force base about 80 miles east of Toronto, which is essentially the air hub for all Canadian Forces operations. From there, they travel to the Coroner’s Office on Grenville Street in Toronto for the normal processing before the remains are released to the family.

The trip travels along Ontario Highway 401, a major expressway. At some point, when word got out that these funeral corteges were passing by, people started to gather on highway overpasses along the way. Eventually, paramedics and fire departments would park on the overpasses and pay tribute to the fallen as they passed. Every time it happened, the turnout got larger and larger.

My first time seeing this, I had just returned from a course at the Infantry School at CFB Gagetown, a sprawling army base near Fredericton, New Brunswick. My flight home into Toronto’s Pearson Airport was mainly made up of military personnel, most of whom were from the Gagetown based 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, returning to Afghanistan after their mid-tour leave. As I and another reservist were picking up our baggage several people approached us and offered the thank yous which we politely deferred to those headed back to Afghanistan. It was June 23, 2007, and Sgt Christos Karigiannis, Cpl Stephen Bouzane, and Pte Joel Wiebe, killed by a roadside bomb on the 20th, were being brought home. Driving east along Highway 401 home, I noticed the fire trucks on a couple of overpasses, and saw the flags, but I had no idea what I was seeing. Then the cortege passed us coming the other way from Trenton. I suddenly understood.

That night I moved into a new condo we had just bought in Oshawa, not far from the 401, and we made a point of making sure that whenever a family was making the journey down what had come first informally but now legally to be known as the Highway of Heroes, we would be there – to stand, to honour, to bear witness to the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters. We would return many times, never in uniform, never drawing any attention to ourselves, just to join the crowds.

It became even more real to me on the morning of December 5, 2008. That morning I received a phone call informing me that a roadside IED had killed three Canadians, including Cpl Mark MacLaren, who at the time was serving with 1 RCR. Mark, or Chinaman as we knew him, previously served in the same Reserve unit as I did. He had also been one of the Crazy Eights wounded during Op MEDUSA on his first Afghan tour, while still a Reservist. He came home and immediately transferred to the Regular Force, returning to Afghanistan two years later.

I had chatted with him on MSN a couple of weeks before, a brief exchange where he told me about an ambush he’d gotten in. Long after his death, we learned that he was to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions during that ambush, and subsequently, that along with Captain Goddard, he would be having a new Coast Guard ship named after him as well.

I attended Chinaman’s repatriation the following Monday in Trenton, and after his funeral, attended by some 800 people including many from the community who didn’t know him personally but wanted to pay tribute, we boarded buses for Ottawa and Canada’s National Military Cemetery. Ottawa’s firefighters and the public also lined the streets in the same way as the Highway of Heroes, and I then understood what the sight must be like to the families of the fallen – how much it must mean to them.

Around that time calls went out to for Reserve augmentees for 3 RCR BG’s next rotation. Fresh off the final qualification hurdle I had to jump, I put my name in and started the process to get ready to deploy. Around that time I joined twitter with some grand plan to eventually microblog the experience. Just before the work up training period was to start I learned I wouldn’t be going. Life works that way sometimes, and there were some silver linings to the cloud.

Throughout those times, when things started heating up and the faces of young Canadians lost in Afghanistan became sadly common on the front pages of Canadian newspapers, there was a shift in public opinion, a palpable change in how the military was viewed. At the same time there was much debate – how we got into this war, who put us there, to what end, when would we leave, what was the mission about, etc. Not long after the decision was made to move from Kabul to the relatively more dangerous Kandahar, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was replaced by the Conservative Stephen Harper, and many people came to suggest, completely erroneously, that somehow Harper had changed the nature of the mission or was somehow responsible for the casualties. That simply wasn’t true, and served to cloud any rational discussion for quite a while.

What was clear, though, is that regardless of people’s opinion of the mission, they asked questions and took interest – and they started to treat people in uniform very differently, in a way that made me uncomfortable. I now live in a “military” town so it’s not really a novelty to see someone in uniform, but before moving last winter, it was. I remember walking into a Dairy Queen of all places with a friend, both in uniform, to grab some quick dinner – someone in the drive-thru line paid for our dinner having seen us walk in.

There’s been a lot of war weariness, too, especially as casualties mounted and people didn’t see any sign of progress in the media. From people I know who’ve been and seen progress over multiple tours, I am confident that the picture is nowhere near as grim as some might glean merely from media reports – though it’s often noted that the prospects for really sorting things out there are still not great. Dealing with a tribal population with staggering rates of illiteracy and little in the way of a viable economy in most of the country makes the prospect of building a functioning, unifying state very difficult indeed. Add to that the influence of the drug trade and general corruption, and things look bleaker still. I would hypothesize that a generation of Afghans will need to grow up without war and with education before you’ll see any real progress there, but it is possible when you consider what Afghanistan was like before the Soviet invasion.

In the end, it seems our decision is made – combat operations in Kandahar province will wind up this summer, and we’ll pack up and move back to Kabul, shifting from a combat role to training and development of Afghanistan’s security forces. It will still be a mission fraught with risks, but it will be less taxing on the nation in many ways. However, we now need to look at the situation in the world and decide “what next?”, because there certainly are challenges to face abroad that we can make a difference in.

On Semrau’s Sentencing

Robert Semrau’s sentence was pronounced yesterday, after a couple of delays, possibly related to the fact that there is no precedent to work with in the matter in any of the ABCA countries.  This case has indeed been unique.

The sentence: reduction in rank to Second Lieutenant and dismissal without disgrace from the Canadian Forces.  No jail, which is good.  In fact, theoretically, the dismissal doesn’t even prevent Mr. Semrau from reapplying to join the Canadian Forces once the appeal process is complete, and it seems certain he will appeal, though one has to wonder if there’s any advantage to doing so.  An appeal stands little chance of success, and I have to wonder if it would expose him to more risk sentence-wise should the Crown decide to push for a more harsh sentence, as they had initially requested.

Amongst the majority of my military peers it seems there’s satisfaction with the sentence – the judgment was clear, that Semrau acted in the wrong, but the sentence reflects the reality that the situation is anything but simple.  It is something of an effective deterrent without being excessive or pointless.

What is striking is that it seems like many pundits are suggesting that troops have an opposite opinion – I don’t think so, and haven’t really seen so – and more importantly, when there are soldiers who think the whole thing was “unjust”, it normally takes but a brief discussion of the importance of the Laws Of Armed Conflict, the Geneva Conventions, and the maintenance of discipline in a professional army, particularly amongst its officers.  An officer very senior to me quipped that what’s disturbing is not the perception that an officer was punished for making a decision, but that there is a risk of reviving a culture of concealing incidents.  That’s very disturbing indeed, since it was just that sort of concept of sweeping things under rugs that led to the mess that became the Somalia Affair.  We’ve already learned the lesson.

My impression is that the outcome was probably the best possible.  Robert Semrau can return to his family, isn’t going to be incarcerated, and while his military career is at an end, he should be able to bounce back.  In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if I learned that he might reapply to the Forces, given that he has been such a dedicated officer.  Regardless of the course of action he takes, I can only wish him all the best.

Captain Semrau – Sentencing Pending

Well, Captain Semrau faces his sentencing this week, the “sentencing phase” of his court martial began today, and not surprisingly, the media was rife with speculation on what the decision would be.  Some Charter challenges were presented by the defence today but apparently all of them have failed.  I didn’t read in great deal what they revolved around, some had to do with punishments available, some had to do with the legitimacy of the trial in general.

It’s not really looking that great.  A fairly senior Canadian officer, Brigadier General Denis Thompson, was widely cited in the press today saying that in his view, implying in the view of  leadership of the CF, there’s no choice but to dismiss him from the CF with disgrace.  His exact words, cited in every major daily, were “This particular conduct, in these particular circumstances, is such a blow to the credibility to the institution that as a deterrent I don’t believe we have any other option than to release him from service,”

Arguing the counterpoint was at least one troop that spoke highly of Captain Semrau saving his life, of his cool demeanor, and all the other features sought in an infantry officer.  These are meant to present his character as being of a high standard, I would guess to suggest that he is indispensable to the organization.

I have to agree, to a large extent, with BGen Thompson – at least on the big picture terms.  According to the Laws of Armed Conflict and the ideas contained in the Geneva Conventions which are basically beaten into everyone who serves in the Canadian Forces, what Capt Semrau did was undeniably wrong.  The individual, the Talib, was by the terms of reference hors de combat, out of the fight.  At that point, he cannot be harmed in any way and must be offered whatever assistance may be reasonably provided.  It does seem that there was no assistance possible – the Talib had been basically shredded by 25mm chaingun fire.  All the medical care in the world wouldn’t have done a thing to help the guy – and according to the law nothing at all gave Captain Semrau the right to shoot the man.

I still cannot reason out a position on what should actually be done with the man.  Reading court martial decisions, as I do from time to time just to see what stupid things soldiers get up to, the judges rendering sentences always highlight the purpose of military justice and the aim of sentencing – one of which – a key point – is to provide a strong deterrent to others.  A message needs to be sent in this case to the rest of the Canadian Forces that is clear that the choice made that day was the wrong one, that it was seriously wrong, and that it should never happen again, and that’s the argument you’ll see for a strong punishment, whether it is imprisonment (which I think is probably very unlikely) or the dismissal of the convicted from the Forces.  It is for this reason I expect to see such a strong sentence, though I have absolutely no cause to celebrate it of course, to feel good about it.

What has astounded me has been the debate on the matter, both within and outside the Forces, and I have been following both.  Universally it seems few people can’t empathize with the decision, but still, many seem to think that the whole thing should have been buried.  Frequently I find myself reminding them – or seeing others remind them – of one of the darker periods in the history of the Canadian Forces – the “Somalia Affair”, when the murder of a Somali teenager by the name of Shidane Arone who had been detained by members of 2 Commando, Canadian Airborne Regiment,  came to light.  The crime had been covered up as best as possible but a military doctor broke the secret and the whole thing came out.  The CF was embarrassed, and the Canadian Airborne Regiment was actually disbanded as a result.  The CAR’s history and end are a subject of many other works, and I can’t delve into it much, save to acknowledge that what happened in Belet Huen that night was the crime of a very few, and I’m most saddened that it was used to besmirch the honour of an entire Regiment.  I’ve had the privilege of serving with and being instructed by many who were Airborne, and have had the chance to hear their tales of what Somalia was like and the problems that led to that event.  Had this incident been “buried” it surely would one day have come to light and we would go through the same mess, to the benefit of no one.

I still can’t say with conviction that doing the same thing would not have crossed my mind, that I would have been in the same dilemma as Rob Semrau faced that day before he acted.  I can say now that I know exactly what I’d have to decide, but not that I’d necessarily like it.  In that way, I suppose, the court martial has accomplished some measure of deterrence already.

Miscellany – A bunch of different things really.

Well, Captain Robert Semrau, who I mentioned in a previous post, has been acquitted of second degree murder by a jury in his court martial.  They did, however, convict him of the offence of disgraceful conduct, which can carry a prison term up to five years.  The sentence has not been passed yet, and there’s no indication of what will happen.  I think the jury must really have struggled with it, and now a judge will too.  Capt Semrau is a model citizen by most accounts, other than this event which was the product of a very, very unusual set of circumstances.

I hope it’s a lenient sentence that doesn’t end his career prematurely, that would serve no justice that I can think of.

Despite that, I’ve been annoyed that some people I know continue to be outraged that the matter ever saw a courtroom.  I cannot see any other way it could have been handled.  The allegations were made by other Canadian soldiers obviously uncomfortable with the event, who felt that their sense of duty compelled them to report it.  Once the allegations were made an investigation must begin and progress in the normal manner.  CFNIS decided that there was sufficient evidence to refer a charge, which is their job.  Those who think that the whole thing should have been swept under the rug should remind themselves of the Somalia Affair and the price that was paid in the end by an entire Regiment for transgressions of a few who could have been dealt with individually had the “system” worked.

I’m watching with interest the big military procurement decisions announced by the government.  They’re finally going to get the ball rolling on replacing our ancient AOR (replenishment/supply ships) fleet.  HMCS Protecteur & HMCS Provider are pretty significant assets to allow the global operation of the Canadian Navy, and it’s time to replace them.  It won’t be long before the Tribal-class/DDH-280 destroyers are going to need to be paid off, too.  I laughed a few weeks ago touring the USS Wasp and being told by the “guide” how the ship was likely to be paid off soon because it was 20 years old.  The newest frigates in the Canadian Navy’s fleet are nearly 20 years old.

Fleet week was interesting, though.  I was impressed the the Danish patrol ship I toured, HDMS Ejnar Mikkelson.  Apparently it’s primarily a coastal patrol boat used in the Arctic.  It’s small, versatile, carries a motor launch that can be fired out off a ramp at the rear in addition to a zodiac, and is lightly armed.  It strikes me that this is what we have the Kingston-class MCDVs for, but I think this Danish ship was a lot more modern and better equipped.  That’s the sort of thing it seems we should be looking at, I’d think.  The Danish Navy is something of a good analogue for us, perhaps – their Absalon-class ships are another potentially good example of ships we would get use out of.

Any time a government announces such big purchases there is of course the drama of deciding what else the money could be spent on.  This of course is an age-old economic quandary – the guns or butter problem.  In particular with the announcement of the single-source procurement of the F-35 Lightning II, there’s been a lot of that.  The 65 jets will cost a total of $16 billion when maintenance contracts are factored in over 20 years.  One has to wonder, do we really actually need them?  There’s that – and the single source thing – although realistically, we’ve already invested a fortune in the program, there’s lots of contracts coming to Canada, and there is no other 5th Generation fighter out there – though I laugh that it is single engine, and we bought out CF-18 Hornets over other alternatives like the F-16 because it was twin-engine and single was deemed to risky for sovereignty patrols over the Arctic.  We do need something to replace the Hornets and we need more naval capability to be able to assert our sovereignty over the north.  It’s not so much fun to know that it costs money, but it’s also necessary.

This ties into what’s been getting me a lot listening to all this stumping in the States – and it’s been in the press a lot – listening to these Republicans going on about the deficit and about how they are going to balance the budget – but David Gregory on Meet The Press tried to pin Mitch McConnell down to what, specifically, he would do in order to get the budget balanced – what difficult choices he’d make, and all he did was spin.  Chris Matthews did the same to Mike Pence, again lots of waffling, but nothing actually believable or concrete.

The fact is, much of the worst of the US budget deficit mess is the product of Republicans making stupid decisions like invading Iraq and the massive cost of the US military – the sacred cow that no one will admit to wanting – needing to cut.  It’s interesting that it draws parallels to the fall of various Empires – the cost of legions to defend the Empire saps the treasury to the point that it all collapses on itself.  I fear that could happen to the USA, and reading stuff like Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which incidentally is an amazing read, doesn’t dispel a lot of that fear.  None of the civilizations I’ve read about so far – all thriving – saw their end coming until it was too late to do anything to stop it.

This is where the debate in the States has to head.  Not to the stupidity of absurd talking points that are being raised by the teabaggers or their deluded prophet Glenn Beck et al, but to real decisions about how to get the spending on the government under real control, without any sacred cows, but in a way that makes the country actually stronger, instead of just making the insanely rich richer while the poor get more fucked over and the middle class just hollows out.  It’s not glib to say that the middle class as my parents’ generation knew it seems to be disappearing fast.  The idea of a single income household seems to be more and more preposterous to people I know, most of whom are now married and starting to have kids.  At least I don’t have that burden and don’t ever plan to.  It kind of makes me wonder why I care about the future so much – without any progeny to care about, when I’m gone none of it matters to me anymore anyhow!  I guess it’s that I wonder about how bad things could become in my lifetime, given the accelerating rate at which we seem able to fuck things up.

I guess I’ll just ride it all out and keep being an interested observer, once in a while writing some nonsense in a blog I hope some folks might find profound…

In which I try to figure out my position on the Flotilla mess

I’ve got to say, whoever it was that came up with the idea of the “freedom flotilla” is something of a genius. The idea of running the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is brilliant, because it put Israel into essentially a no-win situation. Israel was forced to react somehow, and it was pretty clear from the outset that there was essentially no reaction possible that would not result in bad press for them.

In the case of one of the ships – Mavi Marmara I believe it was called, the IDF walked right into the trap. The Manchester Guardian, one of my favourite newspapers, called the reaction what I think it most clearly was – something of an “own goal” for Israel. Likely none of us will ever know what happened on that ship, but we know that when it was over, nine people were dead.

I do think Israel went about the boardings in a reasonable way. The video I’ve seen does very clearly show that the main weapon carried by the boarding parties was an old fashioned Tippman 98 paintball gun, an excellent non-lethal weapon, whether they were shooting rubber balls, pepperballs, whatever. It also shows clearly that the men aboard the ships met them with violence despite several warnings that the IDF intended to enforce the blockade and would not allow them to land in Gaza.

The claims that the IDF committed what amounts to piracy doesn’t seem to hold up.  A military colleague sought the relevant information from the various applicable “laws of the sea”, and it seems that when a blockade is publicly announced, a state has the right to intercept any ships that intend to breach it, even in international waters.  It seems the Israelis knew the rules and followed them.  They have the blockade in place for a reason and it’s no secret.  They couldn’t allow it to be run.  That, of course, is what the organizers counted on I think.

It’s significant to note that only on the Mavi Marmara was their any real violence.  The other ships were boarded peacefully and without significant incident, all were then taken to Ashdod where the Israelis unloaded the cargo and offered to transport it onward to Gaza.  Well, some of it – the banned materials, like concrete, were not going to be forwarded.

The video released from the boarding suggests to me that the Israeli use of force wasn’t unjustified – they went in with non-lethal weapons and were attacked with metal bars, clubs, chairs, and apparently knives.  This isn’t “passive resistance” they encounter on the ship – it was active hostility, and the ship had been duly warned of the impending boarding.  I think the loss of life is regrettable but I don’t see that Israel did anything wrong in that sense.

The broader issue is the long term future for the region.  The Israelis of late – or rather, their current government, as I don’t believe the Israelis have a universal opinion, seem to be bent on prolonging the misery of the occupation.  The fact that Netanyahu allowed new settlements to be constructed while being visited by US VP Biden shows a ridiculous disregard for any effort at a peace process, I would think. 

I take a pretty sharp view of things.  Israel is a dependency of the United States of America when you really consider it.  It has something of a strong economy, but it is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, primarily in the form of military aid.  The second largest recipient is Egypt, which the USA seems to provide support to in order to use their leverage with other Arab states to keep the peace.  Were it not for the support of the USA, I don’t think Israel would last too long at all, it would be driven out of existence if only to restore a state for the Palestinians.

The roots of the conflict are deep and difficult to understand.  I, some time ago, did a lot of reading on the subject trying to understand the different dynamics of the region – not just Israel, but also Lebanon, another hotspot with a complex past and a number of dynamics that make it difficult to understand its interests, its key people, etc.  Lebanon itself is a really strange mess that also needs a long term solution, but that’s fodder for another blog maybe.

The Israel mess, like so many global conflicts, dates to the remnants of colonialism.  To this day in many parts of the world we endure the fruits of various great games, in Africa, in Asia…  The British Mandate for Palestine and the Balfour Declaration which set in motion the Zionist movement to settle Israel created this mess.  I don’t think it was something that was done with any sort of idea that we’d wind up in this situation, but one has to wonder what was expected when an influx of Jewish immigrants showed up in the region and immediately found themselves in conflict with the Palestinians who lived there already.

And so the stage was set for conflict.  I don’t plan to use this blog to rehash the history of the modern State of Israel – I’m neither an expert on it nor is it necessary – the interested reader can simply research it themselves, there are ample sources available.  I’m more interested in the current situation and the prospects for the future.

It, to me, is simple.  There is no viable long term solution but some manner of a two-state solution – a situation where the Palestinians receive statehood, and the ability to build their economy and create prosperity.  Look at recent statistics about the economic disparity between the occupied territories and Israel, and you’ll see what drives the conflict.  It’s not nationalism, it’s not religion, it’s none of these things, though they are tools of those in power – it’s economics – it’s the fact that people who have nothing will fight to get anything.

That’s why this was such a trap for Israel and played right in to Hamas’ hands in Gaza.  It’s something that people just don’t seem to get, and it’s a key part of the tyrants’ playbook.  In order to retain legitimacy in power, tyrants need to be able to control their subjects.  The most effective means to do so is to keep them poor and ignorant.  This is something religions have understood for a long time, and they’re extremely good at it.  To go the next step, tyrants need a great national enemy against which they can cast themselves as the people’s salvation.  Israel has served remarkably well in this role for Hamas, for Hezbollah, for other factions in the area.

To flesh this idea out, I like to point to Cuba.  The United States has had a very robust economic embargo against Cuba since 1962 – though the actual embargo started in 1960.  This tremendous campaign has done absolutely nothing to liberalize Cuba at all, but in fact, one can argue, it actually made Fidel Castro, and now his unofficial successor Raul Castro stronger.  As Cubans experienced continued poverty as a result of the embargo, Castro could point to the USA as an enemy of the people, the source of their misery, and could show himself as leading the revolution necessary to overcome them.

Look then at North Korea, again, poverty and ignorance keep the masses under the control of the Kim Family Regime, more properly described as a cult, I’d say.  The reason that they can maintain their grip on power is an ability again to point to America.  So long as their propaganda machine can keep people convinced that the US is the architect of their misery, the system works.

The Israelis are being trapped by the same mess.  By starving the people of the occupied territories, by choking off their economy, it’s easy for Hamas, Fatah, and Hezbollah to characterize them as manifestly evil, and to garner support for the continued struggle against the occupation.  It was this that allowed them to rally people to the intifadah in the first place, after all, and it builds tacit support for an undercurrent of religious extremism too.

So what’s to be done?  Well, let’s go back to a parallel – Cuba.  If the Americans really wanted to see Cuba liberalize and the Castro regime fall, then they’d lift the embargo, call by-gones by-gones, and realize what Cuba is to the rest of the world – a Caribbean island with beautiful beaches, lots of resorts, and really friendly people.  Americans would flood into the country to take advantage of it, to see its wonders, and to interact with the people.  The economic growth and actual interaction would disarm most of the claims about the revolution, and I think you’d see Cuba liberalizing very, very quickly, much as we saw happen in Europe.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, it is a little more complicated – but the principle is the same.  Open up – let the economy of Gaza and the West Bank begin to grow – let more cultural exchanges happen, let Gazans interact with Israelis more, and eventually you’ll see that relationships and trust forms.  This happens already all over the place on the small scale, but it needs to be broadened.  If that was the case, eventually Hamas would lose its influence, the ignorance and poverty on which they rely to stay in power would fade, and two states could probably live as decent neighbours.

What’s killing me with the whole thing is deeper than this rather simple premise.  It’s these people who are “supports of Israel” in the USA who tend to be fundamentalist nutcase Christians.  They “support” Israel because in order to fulfill their absolutely insane eschatological views (that’s fancy talk for the end of the world), they need Jews to be in Israel to trigger the great battle, Armageddon.  These sick people actually, really, truly believe this bullshit.  I think that’s why so many of them want to see the USA take on Iran, another country run by a religious nutcase who can point to America as the Great Satan from which he defends Iran. 

These folks, it seems, actually think that war in the Middle East is a “good” thing, because it fulfills the insane “prophesy” of the Bible.  This too is nothing new in the region.  In Thomas L. Friedman’s very insightful book on the region, From Beirut to Jerusalem, he describes the efforts of some of the more crazy Messianic Jews to bring about the coming of their Messiah.  I’m no expert on the story, but the way Friedman tells it is rather simple.  It seems that for the Messiah to come, the Temple of Solomon needs to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.  The trick is, the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock) sits on top of the site, rather inconveniently.  Jewish extremists figured that the easiest way to bring about this great event was to, as he put it, “dust off the throne” by blowing up the Dome of the Rock.  Fortunately, Israeli intelligence was wise to them and prevented what would have been a cataclysmic event.

Ultimately, I hate that those folks cannot seem to give any critical thought to the situation.  I think they’re fucking dangerous, frankly, and that’s why being an atheist I cannot see any good reason to be silent and rather have to call them out for their stupidity.  They seem to have bet big on a Bronze Age bullshit story and I think they’re totally, dangerously wrong.

In the end it seems that religion is what fuels this mess – without it there’d be no intifadah – no need for the conflict, because Zionism wouldn’t exist at all.  This is a sad, shining example of how poisonous to civilization religion really is – that one group of people would do violence to another over their idea of of god – the same god, for fuck’s sake!

I’m sure that some might read this and think I’m pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel – or worse “anti-semetic”.  Bullshit.  I’m none of the above.  While I think Zionism meant well it’s been a destructive nightmare in the end, but I don’t begrudge the nationalist aspirations of a group like the Jews, particularly in light of the persecution they’ve endured over the years.  I don’t see how there’s any good end to the situation, simply, without a recognition of the right of the Palestinians to be there too, and some effort to share the land and build a future.  This is something that has to start happening, and it has to start with the youth there.  The government of Israel has to take the lead – and its patron – the piper that calls its tune – the US – needs to motivate them to get on with it, I think – something that Obama has sort of done but not particularly well.  It’s time to stand up to Israel and remind them who pays the rent, as it were.

In the end, 2100+ words later, I’m no closer to really having a position on the flotilla, but I hope at least there’s some clarity for anyone who bothered to read the whole thing as to why I can’t make up my mind on it.  Comments are as always welcome.

The Military Sacred Cow

Lately there has been a fair bit of political hay made over the state of defence spending globally. Whenever an economic downturn happens and tax revenues fall, governments are forced to try to find savings wherever they can in order to keep budget deficits from spiralling out of control. With the global recession in 2008 we saw many nations experience a perfect storm of economic contraction, falling tax revenues, and the uncomfortable reality of needing to pump stimulus funds into several flailing industrial sectors.

What has now lately emerged in the United States is some controversy about a few policy decisions taken by President Obama which has prompted some serious consideration of the impact of defence spending on national economies.

In the US in particular, the military consumes an absolutely massive amount of resources. Someone recently told me that about a third of US tax revenue goes to funding the Armed Forces. It seems that this is the military-industrial complex of which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned after WW2. When the Cold War took the place of heated conflict, Ike saw the danger of focusing so much economic activity on the pursuit of ever newer and ever more powerful weaponry. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union nearly bankrupted both nations as each sought to build a massive arsenal with which to deter the other’s ambitions.

In particular, what Eisenhower was concerned about was a sort of corporatism where the influence of the defence industry trumped that of the public in the eyes of the government, where they gained the sort of influence that in the classic economic debate of “guns or butter”, guns one every time. This isn’t hard to see happen. Military procurements are a tremendous form of pork and can have the perverse effect of giving the armed forces equipment they don’t even want or need to satisfy political goals. Canada’s LSVW truck is often pointed to as an example of this kind of development.

What astounds me is how supposedly fiscal conservative Americans in particular seem to want to treat the military like a sacred cow and treat any effort to contain spending on it like some kind of astounding act of treason. First I noticed this when President Obama made an agreement with Russia to cut nuclear arsenals dramatically and issued clarification on the circumstances under which the United States would use its nuclear weapons. If you read nothing but conservative extremist commentary you would think that he had renounced nukes entirely, disarmed the US, that sort of thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This seems a continuous of the “support the troops” rhetoric that became so commonplace when the United States launched into the disastrous quagmire that is the Iraq War. I note with glee that amongst right wingers at the time it was considered unpatriotic and un-American to criticize a sitting President over policy decisions like that war. It seems they have forgotten this when they attack Barack Obama.

I always laugh at the “support our troops” concept because it can be so empty and rhetorical. It was something hurled at left-leaning protestors (or anyone sane who opposed the invasion of Iraq) so as to suggest that not “supporting the troops” was wrong or that whether you agreed with the policy or not “supporting the troops” was key.

I never really understood what supporting the troops actually meant. Did these people actually do anything “supportive”? No. They didn’t question the wisdom of the war in Iraq or the lies that propped it up. They didn’t demand a clear strategy for Afghanistan. They stuck flags and ribbons on their cars and contented themselves that somehow they had done some good. Now, I’m getting off a bit on a tangent – but there are ways this can be good. In Canada, for example, CANEX sells this merchandise and proceeds do in fact go to programs which benefit military families.

Back to the premise though. The reality is that when you look at the US’ military budget, which is almost 25% of the total federal budget, you have to know that there are plenty of ways to cut. There are plenty of capabilities that exist in surplus, like carrier battle groups in the US Navy, costing a fortune to maintain.

Talk about making these cuts though and many get incredibly defensive, as though shrinking the massive might of the US while still being far ahead of the rest of the world is somehow going to make America vulnerable. We’ve already seen that all the advanced F-22 fighters (another program scrapped, thankfully for US taxpayers) won’t end the war in Iraq, nor prevent terrorist attacks, nor support counterinsurgency efforts.

In Canada as well I suspect this kind of reckoning is coming soon. The floodgates for spending opened when Afghanistan heated up, but when the mission there winds down next year, there will be a lot of calls to curb the defence budget particularly since Canada is now in a deficit position. While disengaging from Afghanistan will save DND a lot of money in a lot of different ways, the argument will likely be made that some substantial capital reinvestments will be necessary in order to continue operations – worn out vehicles will need replacing, for example. There may be some challenges in getting this done – and all the while Canada’s Navy and Air Force will be looking for their share of the pie. The Navy, in particular, will probably want to get some attention as there has been no significant investment in them lately. They have an entirely rational interest in keeping themselves relevant and getting the largest possible piece of what is likely to be a shrinking pie.

The more fascinating thing – especially in the case of the US is the quandary of supposed fiscal conservatives not only resisting the idea of shrinking the US military, even while maintaining effective capabilities, but the fact that many of them didn’t see an issue with Iraq war – or more shockingly particularly in the case of the social conservative/religious right, they seem to want to wage war on Iran.

It’d be a whole other post to get into why invading Iran would be absolutely insane and stupid, never mind atrociously expensive and likely unsuccessful by any definition anyhow. I don’t know if this ties into some kind of effort to trigger their end of the world story (the only reason I can see for their “pro-Israel no matter what shite Netanyahu says” position).

The point of this is that I don’t understand the reason that these people blindly defend the unsustainable spending the US military consumes. It’s the one time they seem apt to suspend their fiscal conservative disbelief (and it undermines it altogether anyhow). If you want small government, it starts with getting the military right-sized and focused on its intended role: national defence.

Treating the military like a sacred cow when it comes to fiscal discipline is simply unrealistic. Berating spending on healthcare or education while continuing to blindly shovelling money into the military-industrial complex neither benefits economic competitiveness nor makes a country s better place to live. While it’s important to have an effective defence capability it makes no sense to bankrupt the treasury to maintain a capability far beyond any foreseeable threat.

On Afghanistan

Afghanistan is making a lot of news again, and I figured it’s probably time to put something on the blog about it. Primarily, there’s the whole detainee scandal, something I’m not going to get into too much. I don’t really know enough about it, and the investigation is ongoing, and so I’m not going to speculate on it. I don’t think anyone is blaming soldiers for anything that happened, since it seems like they were the ones raising concerns more than anything else. I’m sure it’ll all become clearer.

However, the other thing about Afghanistan that’s making news I will comment on. Canadians, by and large, remain totally ignorant of how we wound up in Afghanistan in the first place, who sent us for what and when and all that jazz. Unlike any previous expeditionary military operation this country has undertaken to the best of my knowledge, we have a time-certain pull-out date in Afghanistan: come 2011 by will of Parliament, we’re packing up and going home, regardless of what the situation at the time is. So this blog post will take the form of a little bit of disclosure, a brief history lesson, and my take.

So, first, disclosures. I’m an Army Reserve officer, but I only ever blog as a private citizen. Nothing I say reflects any sort of official policy, I’m not going to even hazard a guess at what the brass thinks of anything. All I’ll write is what I’ve observed. Most importantly, I have not served in Afghanistan. That’s not for lack of trying, though. I’ve actually volunteered to go twice. The first time I was missing a trade course component (and I knew that, but I tried to get a waiver for on-the-job training, and it didn’t work). The second time, I was apparently selected to go, I started all the pre-deployment nonsense (what’s called “DAG”) – I DAG’d green (good to go), and was expecting to be heading to Petawawa to join the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, which was forming Task Force 1-10 deploying to Afghanistan – well – this week or so. Just before I was supposed to show up in Petawawa in September I learned, along with about 40 other officers, that the positions we were supposed to fill didn’t exist. Adding insult to injury, I’d dragged my heels on applying to another position thinking I already was going on tour – and missed a second shot at going as a result. I challenge you to imagine the frustration of getting your life in order to be away from home for over a year, pissing off your civilian employer who resents you going (and more, that’s a whole other story), being all set to go, and finding out at the last minute that it’s not actually happening. I was a pretty bitter person, that’s for sure.

I’ve lost friends in Afghanistan. Last winter in particular, on December 5, a very good friend of mine, my former platoon signaller, Corporal Mark “Chinaman” McLaren, was killed there. He wasn’t the first person I’d been acquainted with to die there. I went through basic with Corporal Glen Arnold’s brother Lance. I was awed and inspired Chief Warrant Officer Robert Girouard, the Regimental Sergeant Major of 1RCR, who terrified me as a CSM at the Infantry School but then came to visit me in the hospital when I got injured on course. I knoew Cpl Jordan Anderson through his online persona on a Canadian military website only, but found him to be an incredibly insightful young man. His favourite quote was “Often I have regretted my silence, never my speech.” I had met Capt Matt Dawe a couple times and worked with his brother for a while as well. The Canadian Army, after all, is a small one – we all seem to know everyone, or know of them, or know someone who knows them.

When Mark died it hit me pretty hard. It was his second tour in Afghanistan. On the first tour, he was wounded by shrapnel when his position was strafed by a US A-10A Warthog who mistook them for Taliban. The driver of his LAV-III, Cpl Mark Graham, was killed, and some 31 men were wounded. Mark took some shrapnel and was medevac’d to the Role 3 at Kandahar Airfield, patched up, and returned to duty. He showed off his scars when he got home, and was very proud to have been one of the now somewhat infamous “Crazy Eights” – 8 Platoon, Charles Company, The 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment. The Crazy Eights were apparently always in the shit, their unofficial unit patch by the end of their tour was an eight-ball.

After he got home, Mark did what many expected – he transferred from the Reserve to the Regular Force, joining 1RCR. He soon started workup training for his second tour, his last one. I remember that I signed a letter of recommendation for him to go on his first tour, and a letter of recommendation for him to transfer. He was a tremendous soldier and I was proud to see him go. I even talked to him through Facebook Chat a couple times when he was over there. The morning of the 5th, I had called in sick when the phone ran, and a Master Corporal from my Regiment gave me the news that he had been killed. I stood on the ramp, in the freezing cold, a couple of days later when a C-17 unloaded his casket along with Private Demetrios Diplaros and Warrant Officer Robert Wilson. They were casualties 98, 99, and 100. We felt a relief of sorts that there wasn’t one single person who was “number 100”. The following week, I stood at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa while he was interred, again on a freezing cold day. It was not an experience I’d like to repeat.

That’s my story. I have countless friends who’ve served in Afghanistan, on various tours, and in various positions. It is from the discussions I’ve had with them about my own plans to deploy and about their observations that I draw most of my opinions on the subject. It’s from there I’ll depart once I cover the history piece.

Canada first sent soldiers to Afghanistan in 2001, a tiny cadre of special forces, followed by a battle group, built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which deployed to Kandahar Airfield starting in January 2002. This first deployment (“Roto 0”) was a full-bore combat operation. We took our first combat KIAs on April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a Canadian range practice in the Tarnak Farms complex, killing four Patricias and wounding several more. It ended those pilots’ careers, and was an inexcusable act, but that’s fodder for some other blog – or you can just read the books on it.

After the Patricias finished their tour (Operation Apollo), 3RCR sent a Battle Group, this time to Kabul, where they began Operation Athena. Kabul was quieter, safer. There, Canada commanded the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led force which seeks to provide training support to the Afghan National Security Forces and to facilitate redevelopment of the country, in terms in governance, economy, etc. Kabul was relatively quiet, though the first RCR casualties were big news and generated much controversy about the CF’s old, open-top, totally unarmoured Iltis “jeeps”, and started the process of buying new vehicles like Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens which were then later also declared unsuitable for use there, and replaced.

In 2005, Liberal Defence Minister announced that Canadian Forces would be moving to Kandahar. In what was called his “bodybag tour”, he warned Canadians that we were headed to do a lot of heavy lifting in southern Afghanistan, and it was going to be dangerous and deadly. He was not understating things. The Canadian base at Camp Julien was packed up and the force moved south to Kandahar, establishing its main base at KAF, and a Provincial Reconstruction Team base at Camp Nathan Smith (named after one of the friendly fire incident victims) in Kandahar City.

This is where the history gets screwy. When Op Athena ended and Op Archer started, and Canadian troops went back to combat operations, and casualties followed. The thing is, around the same time, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was defeated by the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper. To this day, many Canadians have the erroneous belief that it was Harper’s decision to send Canadians into full-scale combat operations again. This is totally, utterly false. Often conflated with this is the idea that charismatic General Rick Hillier somehow decided that Canadians were going to fight. While Hillier had an advisory role, these folks need to understand that soldiers in this country do not make policy. Politicians do. That’s why in Canada members of the armed forces are prohibited from seeking or holding public office, to ensure civil control of the military. The reality is that it was politicians – Liberal politicians – that made the decisions and bear the responsibility.

Debate over the involvement in Afghanistan was intensive during subsequent election campaigns as Harper sought to maintain his tenuous minority government. In September 2008, he made the rather bizarre statement that Canada would end its operations in 2011. Funny enough, all parties seized on this, including the ridiculous and comical Stephane Dion, who basically ensured the Liberals’ defeat for being arguably the most inept political candidate I’ve ever seem.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think there’s any other Canadian deployment that’s had an end date established three years out – certainly not an operation as intense as Afghanistan. Now we’re getting close, and there’s been a resurgence in debate, in part fuelled by a Canadian Press story on the remarks of a number of families who were in Kandahar on the Easter weekend on a sort of pilgrimage to see where their sons fell. They were there under a scarcely publicized program that’s been around for quite a while. Included in that group was the family of Mark McLaren, though they made no reported public statements. Those statements suggested that Canada should stay the course in Afghanistan – that they should see the mission through and so on. It seems there’s a small swelling of calls to reopen the debate, to determine what should happen in 2011. Much has changed since 2008. The Americans have made a major recommitment to Afghanistan after all but abandoning it to launch their disastrous and unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and they are learning counterinsurgency very rapidy. President Obama seems to be quite committed to achieving success in Afghanistan, and if he provides the leadership then it may just work.

I can say that amongst most of ot the people I know who’ve been there, the opinion is that we should stay – that we need to stay – because there’s been progress. It’s been slow, costly, difficult, dirty, dangerous – but it has happened. Particularly with those who have multiple tours, they report progress and a strong desire to return, almost unanimously. I know some people who don’t share the sentiment, a good friend of mine told me not to go, it wasn’t worth it, and I know of a few other veterans who had similar sentiments, that they were engaged in a deadly Sisyphean task.

Overall, I think that if there’s still signs of progress, which seems to be the case despite the many challenges Afghanistan faces, then we have got to stay. The key is to really focus on the counterinsurgency (COIN) effort – because what any of the people involved in the development effort will tell you is that the best way to keep the fighting-age males from picking up weapons and fighting is to give them better alternatives and jobs. The trick is in a country with no real infrastructure, no education, and no history of effective national government, it’s not going to be easy. Afghanistan will take a generation to fix – a generation of children need to grow up, get educated, and live without war to really build the country. That’s a big commitment.

The counterpoint though is that the burn rate for the Canadian Forces is huge. Equipment wears out very quickly there, and more importantly, troops wear out. The toll of long, dangerous deployments is becoming clear. That coupled with the economic realities facing Canada – being back into deficit and all – makes a pullout very attractive. In the end, I don’t really know just how much good we can do in Afghanistan. Canadians like to cling to a cultural myth about peacekeeping, gleefully bragging abroad that we invented it. It’s so burned into our culture by brilliant propaganda, that peacekeepers even feature on the Canadian $10 bill. When I hear people talking about it, I ask them for examples of success in peacekeeping. Other than its early success defusing tensions in proxy wars (like UNEF), blue berets don’t really have a history of success. They failed in Rwanda. They failed in Somalia. They failed in the Balkans. It wasn’t until more robust mandate-bearing forces showed up that anything happened in the Former Yugoslavia, for example.

Notwithstanding this it seems like a lot of Canadians feel like we’ve done more than our share in Afghanistan, and that there might be somewhere else we can do more. I don’t know that I believe that. Part of this is fuelled amongst extremists by a view that there’s some evil conspiracy behind being in Afghanistan, a conspiracy usually running around oil (Afghanistan has none) or gas pipelines – something that could happen, but wouldn’t actually be all that strategically important for the US as some would allege.

I don’t totally disagree with the idea advanced by some that Canada’s military needs a rest – to suck back, re-equip, train up new leaders, recruit new people to fill the gaps, and that sort of thing. Whether that’s going to be something that will mean we have to end any major expeditionary operations, I’m not quite sure. That’d be one of those things about which I’m not going to speculate.

In all, I think there needs to be a good Parliamentary debate. For that to happen, the detainee issue needs to be dealt with, preferably in the form of a public inquiry, but a swift one – it at least needs to be underway. Then we need to really engage Canadians both in getting educated about Afghanistan and what’s going there, and what the real costs and benefits could be. Of course, this is only going to work in my fantasy land where everyone actually reads the news and has some idea of what’s going on, rather than just braying like ignorant sheep, so I’m not sure it’ll actually work. I can hope, though.

I can say this – if we do extend our commitment there, I will not hesitate to step forward again to take my place in the line. It is, after all, what I joined up for.

It’s Time To End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Today, apparently, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will be in front of what I believe is called the Joint Armed Services Committee to start the process of scrapping the US military’s policy which prohibits gays from openly serving in the Armed Forces.

There is an irony to it as I understand, in that when Bill Clinton’s administration brought in the policy, ostensibly to be somewhat socially progressive, they replaced an easily withdrawn executive order with actual legislation that is much more complicated to do away with.

The policy just makes no real sense. Even those people who are gay who serve honourably and silent about who they are can have their career ended if outed by their peers. Scores of intelligence specialists, linguists, and decorated people have been discharged from the military under the policy at a time when those people are fairly crucial to US national security.

The arguments made to keep the policy seem overwhelming silly to me. I was a few months ago perusing the website of the “Center For Military Readiness”. The name is misleading, it’s some sort of religious organization whose sole concern is DADT.

One of the major claims is that repealing DADT and allowing LGBT people to serve openly would lead to an exodus of people from the military. Even if the surveys making the claim were real and stood up to scrutiny, which is apparently debatable, I suspect how some would answer and how they would actually act are two different matters entirely.

I remember having a discussion on the issue years ago with a crusty old Warrant Officer (which, in US Army parlance, would equate to a Platoon Sergeant or a Sergeant Major). He laughingly told a herd of young officers his take. He said, “First, they let women in and I thought that was bad, that I’d quit as a result. And I didn’t. Then they decided to let women into the combat arms and I said that was where I’d draw the line. But they came and I stuck around anyhow. Then they told us they were going to let gays in and I said that was it. But I never got around to quitting then either. But I’ve drawn my line in the sand now. As soon as they make it mandatory to be gay – that’s when I’m getting out!”

The anecdote is telling. Even in an organization that tends to lag social policy people adapt. Members of the military value what they do more than just getting a paycheque. They won’t quit en masse because of a change which quite realistically will have next to no impact on their lives.

The fact is there will be people who will be uncomfortable with the change – but being in the armed forces means being able to cope with adversity and soldier on. The only thing that needs to be happen to allow repealing DADT to succeed is that leaders need to do their jobs and lead. The reality is that most who serve couldn’t care less: they care that the person beside them can do his or her job, not what they go home to or do in their private lives!

As I write this in fits and starts I’m looking up info on Elaine Donnelly, who fronts the farcical Center for Military Readiness. One of her better claims is that “civilian activists do not understand or respect the culture of the military.” Funny enough, she has never served, making her one of those civilian activists. Her claims get more and more ridiculous from there.

The fact is, most of the US’ allies and many other professional military forces outside of NATO make no such ban. In fact, most integrate women more fully as well, though the treatment of women in the US military is a whole series of other problems that jezebel.com and various other sites address very well.

I don’t see why something like sexual orientation should be an issue. If someone wants to serve the country they love and has the talent to do so, that should be the sole defining factor. The fact that those who want to keep DADT or replace it with some manner of stronger ban have to resort to ridiculous arguments to justify their views shows just how untenable their positions are. Take a look at the arguments – what if any of them makes rational sense?

Good luck today Mr. Gates. It’s good to see some movement on this issue. It’ll be a small victory President Obama can be proud of.