March 26, 2010

Judging heroism

Globe and Mail:

Joyce Green, a political science professor who signed the letter, says she’s concerned that there was no discussion before the university decided to offer the scholarship, but says it needs to be debated.

“It conflates heroism with the death of individuals who are in the military service and we think that the death of individuals is always a tragic matter, but we think that heroism is something different,” Ms. Green said.

“When you attach heroism to the deaths of the military, it makes it very difficult, maybe impossible for us to talk about what’s going on, what the nature of our military engagement is. In other words, it shrinks the space for democratic discussion and criticism of military policy in Canada and in the university.”

This is an interesting discussion. Prof. Green here seems to say she would support educational support, if it had just been for the children of dead heroes, presumably from a wider range of professions; she just doesn't want that label attached to all military wartime fatalities, because of the implied value judgment we are making as a society about a particular military action.

I wouldn't or couldn't tell you which of the deaths on our rotation were more heroic than the other ones. It's an impossible judgment call; even medals for bravery and such are at best a very rough approximation. Every soldier knows the stories about the heroic acts that didn't get a medal, and the unheroic ones that did. Those sorts of controversies go right back to Billy Bishop's time, if not further, and that's when soldiers are judging other soldiers. It's certainly not a distinction that a university registrar's office could ever be expected to make on its own.

For that matter, I don't think policemen or firemen would want a scholarship where the recipient's parents' actions needed to be judged retrospectively on their bravery by laymen in order to qualify, any more than soldiers would. It's all, or none, in a sense.

So the real question here is whether military death taken as a whole is qualitatively different from other workplace death. The only question then would be whether police officers, subway workers and/or butchers might make the cut or not.

Ultimately, as Damian says, it may go back to whether you subscribe to the idea of "unlimited liability": specifically whether you believe that soldiers are the only people in our society who we as a nation, through the chain of command, can order to individually stand their ground to the point of death for the greater good, if necessary.

Now if you believe we can order policemen and firemen to give their lives in the same way, then yes, they should probably be included in any survivor provisions, but I don't know that that's the case. Does a policeman refusing to patrol a dangerous neighborhood, or a fireman refusing to attend a fire, face the same utter absence of pity that I would have received if I'd ever said I didn't want to drive down that same road where someone got blown up last week? In theory, they wouldn't, but in real life I don't know that I know the answer to that: I've never been a cop. But at the very least, the survivors of the dead in other professions presumably have access to a set of remedies mine would not if that death were seen as not entirely my own fault, starting with the court system. It's a well-established principle that soldiers' families can't sue the government, no matter what the government made them do: one shudders at the thought of how much in damages would be owing in the case of a Dieppe or a Hong Kong otherwise.

The other civilian-military distinction rests on the assumption that Canadian soldiers are representatives of Canada, in a way that other Canadian citizens are not. That is why they wear the flag at all times. This then becomes an added burden of responsibility and limitation on their freedom of action: for instance, non-soldiers are not in any sense obligated to obey the Geneva Conventions, even if not doing so entails greater risk to them. It simply doesn't apply to civilians as a restraint or as a rule set. Again, though, one may justifiably feel that other Canadian representatives bear similar burdens of responsibility to the nation in their daily activities. To take the obvious example, are not Mounties also recognizable as national representatives, whose negative actions risk putting us all in disrepute? Does not a Mountie's death while trying to live up to our expectations of them signify more to us than other deaths in that sense?

The other distinction might lie in the sheer frequency. Certainly if we're going to evaluate in terms of rates of fatality, 100-plus "deaths on the job" in a military organization of 60,000 or so in a four year period does seem somewhat higher than the rates of "workplace death" in most other professions police and fire included. (And if there was a private profession where the rate of death was anywhere comparable, I'd argue it should probably be nationalized.)

The tradeoff for accepting all these additional obligations and risk is an understanding that one's affairs and families are looked after by the state should the worst happen. This scholarship only seems to be an extension of that. Furthermore, as I understand the program it is the effort of a retired general to increase the opportunities for the children of our recent war-dead, which universities can choose to enter into. There is nothing in the proposal that would preclude the university extending similar benefits to the children of other forms of death... the only question again becomes where one draws the line.

The logical followup question I suppose, to those who advocate drawing the line somewhere else, would be whether a scholarship for the children of World War Two's dead would ever have been justified. One hopes they are not so hypocritical as to argue the choice of war should make a difference: the soldiers certainly had no choice in which war their country was fighting.

Ultimately, though, it's difficult to see how you could make an army run without those added risks and responsibilities above that don't attach to other trades. To reject them as no longer useful or valid distinctions, to argue as an example that soldiers today and police are functionally equivalent, and while they can sometimes have to take a higher measure of unexpected risks to do their job, neither tradesman's death can ever be expected by the state, neither has to accept more risk of death than the other without complaint, and neither has any greater obligation to represent Canada and its values in a way that can often threaten one's own life... I would respectfully have to suggest the logical extension of that position is the extension of civil rights to unionize and to sue their officers to all soldiers and their families, which those other trades enjoy, and which I suspect would result in the eventual degradation of any national expeditionary military capability whatsoever. If that's a belief that these professors subscribe to, it would benefit the debate to be clearer about that.

Posted by BruceR at 12:20 PM

Left on Afghanistan's plains

Disregarding some of the Kiplingesque undertones of the situation, and refraining utterly from commenting on the actions before the court themselves, a little context for those following the Semrau court-martial through the papers, which may be difficult to discern from the coverage.

The Afghan unit in play in this story was a battalion-minus, primarily drawn from 2nd Kandak (Dari for battalion), 1st Brigade, 205th ANA Corps. Rated CM1, the highest level, by military evaluators, it had fought in Kandahar Province and around about since 2006, and is still there today. It was the first Afghan unit from their new-model army to be deployed to Kandahar, and has worked extensively with Canadians, who arrived around the same time, since.

In October of 2008, the battalion was detached temporarily from 1st Brigade, which was responsible for Kandahar Province, to support the 3rd Brigade of the Corps and their operations in Helmand Province next door. Insurgents had claimed the area west of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in force, and were using that vantage point to fire rockets and mortars into the city. A military operation was required to restore the situation, and 3rd Brigade needed the additional troops to do it.

The Kandak -- with some logistical personnel added, and some troops left behind to hold the area of Kandahar Province they were responsible for -- amounted to perhaps as many as 300 men. They were divided into multiple companies, or tolais, with 60 or more men each, driving themselves to Helmand in their ubiquitous Ford trucks.

Accompanying 2nd Kandak over to Helmand were 30 Canadian mentors from the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team unit based in Kandahar Province. This organization comprised a few teams of 4-8 Canadian personnel and an interpreter each, headed by a captain, each assigned to shadow an ANA company commander. Another team of similar size, led by the kandak senior mentor (Maj. Steven Nolan in this case) accompanied the ANA battalion commander.

The mentors, as Maj Nolan is accurately quoted as saying, did not exercise command, except over themselves: they shadowed the Afghans, but did not lead them. The Afghans in turn were only responsible to their own leadership, in this case 3rd Brigade and up to the corps. It was in essence two parallel organizations, mapped onto each other. The Canadian chain of command went from the company teams, up to the senior mentor colocated with the Afghan battalion commander, a lieutenant-colonel, with each country's senior officer keeping in contact with his own troops through parallel radio nets. The OMLT unit commander, LCol Joseph Shipley, and the rest of us, had remained in Kandahar Province with the ANA brigade headquarters, to observe and help with their actions at that level; that meant contact between our guys in Helmand, and through us with the rest of the Canadian task force was intermittent, at best. The other ANA brigade headquarters, in Helmand, which 2nd Kandak was effectively reporting to until the operation ended, was mentored by a British team. Any command relationship between the British brigade mentors and the Canadian battalion and company mentors would have been relatively ad hoc, one implied by the circumstances rather than formally defined. In short, there being no other Canadians within 100km, Maj Nolan and his men were very much on their own hook for a time in that sense.

The OMLT mentors to this point had been living with their ANA counterparts for about a month and a half, and had done at least one major operation in Kandahar Province together before this, so there was a clarity of expectation on both sides by this point. From our perspective, letting them be ordered away to Helmand for an indefinite period without Western support or liaison accompanying them would have been unthinkable, and possibly even dangerous, both to "our" Afghans and other Western troops (including British main force units and American police mentors) who would have no way of communicating with them if they were operating nearby. On the day in question, the value of that kind of support was made evident, when insurgents contesting the Afghans' advance south were engaged by an Apache helicopter called in through a Canadian-manned radio, armed with a 30mm cannon and heavier ordnance. (Aside: one can assess, hopefully without too much prompting, what effects that might have had on anyone it actually hit.)

The issue that always arises on these Afghan-led ops is what one must do when the cooperation threatens to break down. Both sides are somewhat dependent on the other to survive in battle, and that normally makes consensus pretty easy. But sometimes both sides aren't on the same page. This isn't a situation where the Western mentor is sitting back at base with a chalkboard and saying when they get back, "well, we observed you guys on the UAV and you probably should have done a left-flanking instead." Mentors out there taking an equivalent level of risk as the Afghans. And if it's unsafe, and you can't survive on your own out there, and if the Afghan half of your team were suddenly to not to play anymore and take a different course of action, for instance, that meant as mentors you could find yourselves in an awkward position. Some version of that scenario, with clearly conflicting aims, and priorities, and assessments of risk to resolve and maintain a consensus over, remains a regular and unavoidable occurrence when working jointly with any of the local forces in Afghanistan.

Posted by BruceR at 11:50 AM