October 31, 2003


CBC aired a Canadian documentary on American regular army basic training last night, "Build Me Up, Break Me Down." (Why the American army, you ask? There you have it.)

The synopsis was about right: "...captures the psychological arc of three lost and deeply disenchanted young people, who the army has seduced to join." The result, however, just left me... uninvolved.

Two of the three are, in a word, losers, who join for the wrong reasons, and never figure it out (a slow-witted Puerto Rican with a scumbag father... no, really, his little on-camera soliloquoy should win an award for worst father speech of the year... and a Chicago stockbroker who ends up as the "truck driver that's too smart for the system", drinking himself into oblivion and engaging with other soldiers in after hours on-base masochism sessions that involve flagellating each other with electrical cord... no I'm not kidding. He blames the army for being dead inside, and it's clear his failure to excel has torpedoed his self-esteem nearly fatally). But no real explanation is offered why they end up dropping out of the system, and the other, presumably equal losers in their platoons carried on. The film crew isn't with them to catch their breaking points. They just film them gung-ho before they're broken, and broken afterwards. Was it the army's fault? Was it theirs? The three recruits are apparently in different formations at different bases, too, so you have no way of seeing whether they received different stimuli, leading to different outcomes, or reacted to the same ones differently.

The third, Sara, is described in the press kit as the "perfect model soldier," but you don't see any of that... she looks and acts like any other recruit, ie, pretty much completely lost whenever she's in uniform. She's the one who stays with the army, though (82nd Airborne, by the looks of it) and goes to Iraq with them, though, so she can't have been as hopeless as she looks.

There's no "Survivor" style insights by fellow section members, instructors, and the like that might give you some insight into what happened between the on-camera confessionals... the overall message seems to be that the American army is a horrible, horrible place that turns out soulless automatons, where getting out before that happens is the real victory. It's a world-view where the soldier who leaves her old life behind and goes to Iraq is the cautionary example, and the alcoholic self-flagellator and the AWOL trainee, left at the end deeply overweight and flaunting gang colours on a New York ghetto basketball court, are the real heroes. Thanks a bunch... never heard that before.

Hey, look, the military is not for the weak of heart. (Weak of mind is another matter.) In my limited experience, those who excel in their early army training as a general rule seem to come from previous situations where they were heavily exposed to tough-but-caring father figures of some kind, whether it's a teacher, priest, scout leader, football coach, or even (God forbid) a parent... that's just the way the place seems to be. The conditioning locks in for them, sooner. (That's just getting through basic... success in actual real-world soldiering calls on different skills, altogether: fortunately, some of those are actually provided.)

I can look at the Puerto Rican and see he's never learned from his familial and neighborhood role models that honour is closer to humility than it is to pride, and that now he may never learn that; and at the stockbroker and see his caring and permissive family had left him without any defence mechanisms the first time things didn't go as he planned; and at Sara, the "success story," and see someone who may not be fully formed as a person yet, but she's getting there as fast in Iraq as she would anywhere else and whose tough-but-fair father openly encourages her without smothering her, either, even as her pacifist girlfriend tries to drag her back home for her own self-centred reasons (it's interesting that the Canadian crew focussed on a woman whose close relationship with her girlfriend and general appearance implies lesbian tendencies, but never addresses it openly). The upshot is, out of 3, one was pretty hopelessly damaged going in, one was (regrettably) damaged on the way through, and the other seemed to have ended up (at least in terms of friends and future) at the least no worse than before. Given the size of the sample set, it's hard to extend that to a condemnation of the entire system. But then, I'm not a producer at the CBC.

Posted by BruceR at 03:34 PM


Interesting list here of the combat equipment the Canadian Forces are currently trying to sell on the export market:

112 106mm recoilless rifles;
50 C1 105mm howitzers;
18 TOW2 anti tank missile systems;
500(!) M2HB .50 cal machineguns.

Something to keep in mind when people say the armed forces has no equipment left. It's more that it just doesn't make sense to continue to train people up, buy ammunition, etc. for systems that are never going to be used on operations again. If the Canadian defence establishment really saw mass mobilization of the populace (or, for that matter, heavy overseas casualties) as a real possibility for a middle-sized Western nation to plan for though, it likely wouldn't be selling this stuff. That it is helps reveal the real future focus of the Canadian military (and by extension, other similar-sized militaries as well): small, well-equipped professional forces capable of operating in a low- or at most medium-intensity environment.

EDIT: Also 120 jets, 44 helicopters, and 191 APCs.

Posted by BruceR at 12:34 PM


The Senate defence committee released a stunning report yesterday, that if left unchallenged will bury the Canadian navy at sea.

Played in the press as a call to better fund the coast guard and Mounties to help secure Canada's borders, it's more remarkable for what it implies by that... that when it comes to national defence, the navy and its affiliated air force units are functionally useless... not only that they can't be trusted to defend Canadians, but that they shouldn't be. The Canadian navy is, the report says, "not defending Canada's littoral waters (coasts) in any meaningful way."

How else can you read a report that says the navy's 12 Kingston-class minesweepers assigned to coastal defence, armed with 40mm guns and .50 calibre machineguns, do "not add appreciably to Canada’s coastal defence capabilities," and advocates instead that the coast guard should get 4 new cutters, armed with... 40 mm guns and .50 cals? It's not a matter of getting new capabilities, apparently... to the Senate committee (formerly perhaps the defence department's biggest friend in Ottawa) it's a matter of putting those capabilities in other civilian agencies, like the coast guard or RCMP, that might actually use them to, you know, defend Canadians.

There is a glaring image gap opening up here, and this is largely the navy's own doing. It's a classic example of how making oneself useful to the Americans militarily risks making you look useless for any other purpose. By investing almost exclusively in frigates that can effectively flesh out American carrier groups, and hence putting itself in high demand for overseas coalition work (unlike the other, less well focussed armed services in recent years), the navy has now alienated itself, this report has made clear, from any purpose that Canadians or their governments might actually find essential. To the army, which has long been unable to count on the navy for any support in its land operations, or even to help it get across the ocean, this surely can come as no surprise.

The political plan of the navy leadership is, pardon the pun, unfathomable. They had to know this report was coming out. As written, it effectively rules out any chance of their going up to Parliament Hill ever again for more money. Any statement like "We need to replace our ships, to defend Canadians," can now be refuted with the Senate committee's own report, which says quite clearly that that's not what the navy thinks it actually does. If this was adopted, it would become entirely conceivable, in fact, that the current surface combatant fleet will be the last the Canadian government ever buys (the Irvings, currently being accused of bribing cabinet ministers with freebies, are Canada's leading naval shipbuilders, but it's entirely possible the next ships to roll off their stocks will go to the proposed new independent Coast Guard, instead.) The defence department, the Senate has effectively said, cannot be trusted with maritime defence; Canadians should find someone better.

The navy could presumably have prevented this by saying, "you're right, our ships are too slow and we have too many maritime patrol assets overseas. We're bringing them back, so we can do the job Canadians expect of us." That they didn't at least try to make that pitch this time would seem indicative of how completely the country's senior defence planners have lost touch with what Canadians really want from them. In any other country, one would hope a report this damaging would have led to the resignation of a senior admiral, or two. But not here. (It's pathetic how few people feel a need to resign anymore. Why do Sean O'Keefe or George Tenet even have jobs? It's disgusting. Sorry, tangent.)

(One suspects what's really happening here is the navy is trying to insulate itself from future defence department cutbacks by supporting a separate coastal defence silo, outside the defence budget. It's the standard Canadian response to a failing government program... another government program... but here it seems very short-sighted.)

Even the proposed solutions for the problem of the Canadian Great Lakes, which the Senate committee identified as completely undefended, are telling. More resources need to be given, it says, to the coast guard (an organization previously in Canada only ever used for search-and-rescue, buoy maintenance, and ice clearance, and currently entirely unarmed) and the Mounties. The five naval reserve divisions on the Lakes, in Toronto, Kingston, Hamilton, Windsor and Thunder Bay, don't even warrant a mention. Apparently Canada's inland naval facilities are useless. (This surprised me particularly, as I've always found the Naval Reserve units to be the best run and most focussed of all of Canada's reserves.)

If restoring control of the Great Lakes was that dire, if Canadians were truly at risk, it would have seemed the naval reserve could at least have been given a footnote. Assuming sufficient watercraft were available, all five of those stations could surely be reinforced by naval personnel from elsewhere in Canada, or even local army reserve units, to man whatever patrol tasks were needed. (There's actually a historical precedent for this, amazingly... in 1812, the hopelessly undermanned Provincial Marine that guarded the Great Lakes for the British, was fleshed out by the addition to their crews of pretty much the entire Royal Newfoundland Regiment... a red-coated quasi-regular regiment raised in Newfoundland for North American service.) One must conclude that in the government's mind either the threat is unreal or non-immediate, despite what this committee claims.

This, though, reveals some larger truths about Canada's voluntary reserve service scheme. This situation... undefended lakes, a terrorist threat... is exactly the kind of unforeseen circumstance that the country's military reserves were presumably created for; ready to be mobilized to tide things over in emergencies until things normalized. But using reservists apparently wasn't even considered as an option. Toronto's reserve army brigade even does a big annual exercise with the Canadian Coast Guard, but the idea of actually collaborating, or even liaising, on an actual matter of national security between the two agencies was apparently never even remotely considered. The three reserve brigades in Ontario all have quick reaction companies, of reservists who can theoretically leave whatever they're doing with their lives on short notice if need be... presumably in a real threat you could put some of them, along with naval reservists, on something similar to that coast guard tender I once had a chance to travel Lake Huron on (great food... very competent watermen) to assist with searches and seizures without any major reorganization at all. Again, never considered as even an option, apparently. Why not?

It's necessary to grasp that the real problem on the Great Lakes that precludes reservists being used is part of a much larger one: that mobilization for national emergencies in this century is not really a matter of getting people. It's getting equipment. The ships the Coast Guard already has are well-manned... what they need is more ships, AND more crew, and the former's harder than the latter. Adding more bodies would be useless without more hulls to put them on. It's like the tank dilemma discussed yesterday here... in the 1980s the Canadian government had about 50 Leopard tanks in Europe. In a high-intensity war like World War 3 was supposed to be, once those were gone in the first few days, there would have been no replacements. It wouldn't matter how many people signed up for service back in Canada (or the U.S. for that matter)... NATO's war with the Soviet Union was going to end, one way or another, in roughly two weeks when everyone ran out of all their vehicles and ammunition.

The Defence minister is expected to make a major announcement on land force reserves sometime before Christmas. More money, more troops, etc. All welcome. When he does so, there will be the usual platitudes about creating a framework for mass mobilization, yadda yadda. It's important for people to understand that this stuff is just thrown in for the surviving Normandy veterans, and means almost exactly nothing. Canada will not "mobilize" as a nation, ever again. And even if it did, the reserves would not be essential, as it would take far longer to build up the industrial capacity to turn out new tanks and guns (and ships and planes) than it would take to train the soldiers to use them: you could just haul people in off the street if that were ever the case.

No, the reserves in Canada exist for one primary and one secondary purpose. The primary one is to act as a porous interface between civilian and military cultures, to prevent them from ever entirely separating, by training some civilians in military practice, and (to a much lesser extent here than in other countries) keeping touch with trained soldiers who have re-entered the civilian world. In addition to that, they can reliably provide a steady trickle of volunteer augmentees to fill out full-time units overseas. Barring American-style mandatory service legislation, that is all they can do. They can do it well, or poorly. But everything else is just spin.

As for the navy, they've apparently managed to completely alienate their natural support base among the public and government. When the Senate, the most useless organization in Canadian history, actually has the gall to call you even more useless than them, isn't it time to throw it in? One could argue they should probably bring the ships and planes home, man the coastal vessels properly, buy a few seagoing catamarans rigged out for troop transport, and devote their efforts to the tasks Canadians can actually understand. It's hard to see how they wouldn't be courting a funding disaster down the road if they continue to sacrifice the coastal defence task in favour of deep water joint operations. This wasn't just a shot across the bow. It was a direct hit. They're taking on water.

UPDATE: The hidden reason, btw, that the Canadian and American navies both have no Great Lakes presence is the 1817 Anglo-American treaty that demilitarized them. The U.S., however, has a substantial and well-armed coast guard to take up the slack. Canada does not. If we wanted to revoke parts of that treaty now, however, it's hard to see the Americans objecting, and it is not cited in the Senate report.

Posted by BruceR at 12:13 AM