Thursday, January 31, 2008

4RCR Photo, November 2007

Our Sierra Company picture finally arrived and I'm very proud to have a copy and to be in it (I'm seated, front row, far right). Our Company Sergeant Major was kind enough to let me be a part of the picture, even if as the padre I'm with HQ and not with S Coy. This represents a pretty good turnout, though over 15 members are absent doing workup training for Roto 03-08 in Afghanistan. This was take at the Royal School Building, Wolsely Barracks, Area Support Unit London (ON). Regrettably, I'm not allowed to play with the weapons on display here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

From my Workbench - 20mm WW2 German Whermacht Infantry

These figures have been finished for a while, but I wanted some more miniatures wargame content here.

The figures on single bases in the first two pictures below are from AB Figures in England. They are on the small side, being true 1/76 scale figures. The sculptures are excellent and are rather intimidating because I never feel that my painting work does them justice.

Things I like about my work here: I'm happy with the use of layers and drybrushing on the uniforms. The look like typical German landsers who have been in the field for a long while. Things I don't like: the skin tones are not subtle enough. The darker parts are using Games Workshop Flesh Wash whichI find too shiny and tricky to manage. The use of lighter skin tones needs to be done with more care, as the contrasts are too severe.
I'm also rethinking using the washers on the bottom of the stands. My intention was to put them on a magnetic sheet for transport, but the washers are clunky. I may change to gluing small fridge-magnet sized strips on the underside of the bases and them putting them in a tin cookie box for transport.

Not sure who manufactured this MG42 crew shown next. I've had them for ages, possibly made by Hinchcliffe.

More figures from an unknown manufacturer. They were a very kind gift from Dan Hutter of the HotLead gamers in Stratford. Dan is a generous friend and a great gamer - two of his games are featured on my blog. I like the chap in the middle firing the MG42 from the hip. The trio are based as part of a section for either of the Too Fat Lardies systems I'm currently playing - I Ain't Been Shot Mum for company level skirmish gaming, or Troops, Weapons and Tactics for platoon level gaming. The figure on the single base is a Big Man, TFL parlance for a leader in either system.

More gifted figures from Dan. The single based guy could be from the RAFM Patrol 20 series. The trio show my attempts at camoflague patters - the guy on the left in Oak Leaf, in the centre in PeaDot, and on the right in Splinter. The fig on the right is from the Revell late war German plastic set.

Finally, more plastic figures. The trio on the left are ESCI plastic figures. I painted them a decade ago and they looked like crap, so repainted them and they look good enough to hold their own on the tabeltop with the metal guys. I think the MP40 machine pistol is too shiny, but otherwise I like them. The terrain effects on the basing helps.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What I’m Reading: The Soldier’s General: Bert Hoffmeister at War.

Douglas Delaney, The Soldier’s General: Bert Hoffmeister at War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.

Among the papers I inherited from my dad is his class yearbook, Snowy Owl, from the Canadian Army Staff College (1955 ). Towards the end is a profile on the class of 1942, whose candidates included Bert Hoffmeister, then a Major and company commander with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Hoffmeister’s brief reminiscence of the course is worth quoting in full.

"The expression “Death Takes a Holiday” has seldom been used more appropriately than on the occasion when students of the Fourth CJWSC were called on to demonstrate their skill on combination motor bikes to the satisfaction of the G1. With hardly an introduction to these gas demons, hearts quailed over the prospect of piloting these machines through Kingston, stopping, then facing up to the return journey. Had the good citizens of Kingston received any inkling of the risk to which they were being exposed that day, the streets would have been as empty as those of Cassino during heavy shelling. This unforgettable experience miraculously ended well and was indeed a conditioner for later events under fire, where in my opinion the odds were much more favourable.”

Motorcycle adventures aside, the time Hoffmeister spent at Staff College is an important chapter the story Delaney tells about how an inexperienced militia officer became one of the most successful of a now mostly forgotten group, Canada’s World War Two generals, and the commander of a storied outfit, the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division (5CAD), “the Mighty Maroon Machine”. An infantry officer and a faculty member at Royal Military College, Delaney’s focus is that of the military professional, showing how Hoffmeister learned the tradecraft of command. Non-military readers may find this book to be dry and technical, but as Jack Granatstein notes in his introduction, there’s a dearth of scholarship on the men who commanded Canadian troops in the World Wars, and this book is fine account of an important Canadian soldier.

Bert Hoffmeister might easily be offered as an example of an enduring national stereoptype, the amateur colonial soldier who took to war and who succeeded where bumbling British professionals had failed. Hoffmeister's fellow British Columbian, Sir Arthur Currie, comes to mind in this regard. Nothing could be further from the story that Delaney tells. Bert Hoffmeister was an amateur soldier before the war. An up and coming lumber executive in Vancouver, BC, he was an officer with the Seaforth Highlanders, a militia infantry regiment. The militia were willing but poorly trained soldiers in the interward period. What training they did with the regular army, the Permanent Force, was deficient. Hoffmeister recalled that the regular officers he met where “sad”, “lethargic”, “overweight”. “drank too much” and were mostly “useless”, and as a result, he admitted, “I knew damn all about tactics” (p. 18).

Mobilized in 1939 at the declaration of war, Hoffmeister and the Seaforths went to England as part of the First Canadian Division. They were well-intentioned, but their training never went much beyond basic soldier skills. Through 1940 Hoffmeister worked hard as a conscientious company commander, but he was acutely aware that he lacked any real knowledge of how to make decisions on the battlefield. By January 1941 he was suffering symptoms of a nervous breakdown, including partial paralysis. As Hoffmeister remembered, his breakdown was “brought on by the anxiety of having responsibility for a hundred men, [being] responsible for their lives, taking them into battle, and not having the necessary training to ensure that I would do a satisfactory job” (p. 30). In an army that still today views mental crises as signs of weakness, the story of Hoffmeister’s breakdown and his subsequent recovery is an important one to remember. It reminds us that fear and stress can occur even in the best soldiers, and can be countered in many ways that leave the soldier and the unit more, not less, effective.

Hoffmeister recovered thanks to army psychiatrists who believed he could recover by talking through the issues that led to his strain. He also recovered thanks to the influence of the British General Bernard Montgomery, then senior commander in Southeastern England, who instituted more realistic training and who aggressively weeded out non-performers and sent them back to Canada. Hoffmeister would later describe himself as a “disciple” of Montgomery. By autumn 1942 Hoffmeister had passed his staff course in Kingston and was back in England as the Seaforth’s battalion commander. It was the first of step in his rapid wartime rise. Once he regained his confidence, Hoffmeister’s people skills served him well with his troops. One of his NCO’s remembered that “He was in there all the time, every exercise or scheme, he was in there leading. He’d come around and ask people how they were doing … He was very good with the troops” (p. 42).

The main thread of Delaney’s biography is how Hoffmeister combined character and courage with increasing military knowledge and craft. The latter could be learned, the former were his gifts. As a battalion and brigade commander, he was brave enough to lead from the front, gathering tactical information first hand and inspiring subordinates with his confidence and energy. One of his officers remembers during the battle for Ortona that Hoffmeister, then commander of 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, visited him and said “’Great show, Syd, terrific show, you are doing great’. He patted me on the back when all I wanted to say was, ‘For Christ’s sake, Bert, can’t I have a rest [?].’ There was no way I could say that to him. He was so great that way … I was so impressed with the way he inspired and put so much spirit into people. You couldn’t say no to him” (p. 103).

When he moved to divisional command of 5CAD, Hoffmeister learned that he could not manage a larger battle from the front. He also learned that he could no longer visit his wounded troops in hospital, because the experience left him feeling like a “dishrag” and he became worried that his concern for his soldiers “could affect my judgment in planning an attack” (p. 152). Hoffmeister led his division ably in the last big battles of the Italian campaign, and then led 5CAD in the Liberation of the Netherlands. While he was in Italy he served under the British Eighth Army, and found their command style to be informal, relying extensively on verbal orders. Under fellow Canadians Harry Crerar and Guy Simmonds, the atmosphere was formal, everything was written, and there was less “mutual rapport” (p. 206). In short, the Canadians were more British than the British! Hoffmeister did well in Holland, and he finished the war at home as commander of the Canadian contingent preparing to invade the Japanese home isles. After the war he returned to Vancouver and the lumber industry and died in 1999 at a vigorous ninety-two.

Doug Delaney has done us a great service by reminding us of a fine Canadian soldier. Bert Hoffmeister was an amateur who became a professional. He learned from role models such as Montgomery, cared for his soldiers, tried to preserve their lives through careful planning and simple orders, and inspired them to give their best. During the battle of Agira in Sicily in 1943, one of his Seaforths, a corporal and a radio operator named Corporal Denis Meade, won the Military Medal for manning an exposed position to keep Hoffmeister in radio contact with his subunits. As Meade said later, he took the risk because “I didn’t want to let [Hoffmeister] down” (p. 70). As Delaney notes, the ability to inspire such loyalty in his troops was the key to his success, and made “Hoffy” stand out amongst other Canadian generals.

Friday, January 25, 2008

British Army Rules for Dealing With IEDs


1.Household Cavalry. Regard IED with haughty disdain and rustle Daily Telegraph angrily. Maintain presence of IED in Knightsbridge is "absolutely preposterous". Return to regimental main effort of defending Central London from the roundheads.

2. Cavalry. Declare IED as best thing since tinned champagne, hold impromptu Pimms party to celebrate. Declare subsequent IED detonation as even more "wizard prang", extend Pimms party and incorporate mandatory drinking of champagne from remains of IED as regimental custom for next 300 years.

3.Footguards. Reduce words-of-command and halting in quick time to a minimum. Deploy No.1 fatigue party in close-order to polish IED to acceptable standard, followed by No.2 fatigue party to paint IED blue-red-blue and swab immediate area. IED detonated by massed bands. Deploy 2 X Battalions- worth of fatigue parties to swab resulting mess.

4.Armoured Infantry. Fail to see IED. Crush IED. On realising error, detract attention by initiating faked contact against nearest dwelling using all available weapon systems. Hide remains of IED in sidebin.

5.Light-Role Infantry. Find IED. Fail to find solution to IED due to environmental differences to Salisbury Plain. Attempt cordon operation and set a new world record for miles of mine tape used. Withdraw to COB under cover of mine tape.

6.Parachute Regt. Decide IED is a "hat". Deploy most junior paratrooper to "crack the hat's skull". Call the junior paratrooper a "hat" when he gets blown up by IED. Remind all others that they are "hats" because they weren't there.

7.Royal Marines. Declare that IED is "hoofing". Get junior men naked with IED as an initiation. Turn IED into an improvised free-weight for bench pressing. Indent for extra, extra supplementary rations from "the galley". Hoofing.

8.SAS. Deploy bearded men 200km behind IED using HALO-Landrover-Submarine insertion. Tab into area of IED and capture IED alive. Smuggle IED out in burka and extract to UK . Write a book per team member, all with hugely differing accounts of the OP.

9.SBS. Get into black rubber suits. Steal IED as above. Construct black rubber suit for IED. Move to a special swimming pool and do bad, bad things with black-rubber-coated-IED. Turn on wave machine and let things get properly nasty. Be very grateful for UKSF non-disclosure policy.

10. SRR. Dig hole in ground to hide in. Proceed to watch IED for ten days to make association to Bravos. Divert entire Brigades assets onto tasking. Manage to maintain dignity when informed three weeks later that it's a small rock and not an IED.

11.Royal Artillery. Level entire area ten square kilometres around IED. IED still functional. Repeatedly remind everyone that artillery neutralizes, it doesn't destroy. Create promotional video of IED neutralization with images of Apache and accompanying Tina Turner soundtrack.

12. Medical Corps. Send out a fit hottie to chat-up IED. Fit hottie lightly dabs a damp cloth over the IED to keep it cool and offers reassuring words. Ends up sleeping with IED before announcing undying love and marrying it. IED later detonates when it catches her in bed with an Irish Guardsman

13. Chaplain Corp. Approach the IED preaching about The Lord, oblivious to having entered a come-on. Rounds from nearby insurgents pass over and around the Padre without harming him. IED attempts to detonate and fails as some mysterious force prevents it from engaging. IED is later found giving sermons to scared soldiers new into theatre.

14.Royal Engineers. Destroy IED using charge with 10-times explosive content of IED. Build SQN bar in crater. Use second massive charge to blow second crater in which to build & celebrate opening of SQN bar/gym complex with BBQs every night for the rest of tour. IED appears on next SQN t-shirt.

15.Royal Signals. IED self destructs to avoid WESTLANDS BOWMANISATION. 1

6. BFBS Radio DJ's. Send shout-out on BFBS Radio 1 to IED wishing it good luck and playing 'I Will Survive'. IED detonates out of shame and embarrassment.

17. Royal Military Police. Issue IED with penalty fine of £1000 for loitering and not having FFD/Tourniquet/Morphine. IED detonates in anger and annoyance at the
monkeys wasting its time. Surviving RMP's issue IED with penalty charge for littering.

18.Army Air Corps. Identify ideal opportunity to prove AAC has an offensive role and is not just a taxi service. Launch TOW missile at IED. Missile fails due to armaments contract being given to cheapest bidder. Accept that was the AAC's only missile and disband.

19.Intelligence Corps. Deny existence of IED to unit reporting IED, as they are not sufficiently cleared. Issue BG's with a list of int-based questions to ask IED. Study Q&A analysis and find two main results:
A-Suggest IED may detonate having studied trend analysis of previous IED's
B-Claim it's part of a come-on involving 400 insurgents and Iranian heavy-armour, as that's what the guy who cleans the toilets told them.

20.Div/Bde Headquarters. Issue IED with a notification of controlled explosion. IED ignores/deletes message, as does the rest of theatre.

21. RLC. Get pictures taken whilst posing next to IED with another Units GPMG. IED detonates due to someone making a video call on their mobile phone.

22. RAF. Send the RFS out to investigate IED; fail to notice they never come back. RFS patrol later found upside down in a WMKII in a ditch, in Syria . Patrol Commander admits to being a 'bit unsure about his position', is informed his position is now 'Private'

23.Navy. Proclaim IED as a figment of the Army's imagination. Go on a Mediterranean cruise for 3 months. Come back to Middle East waters. Proclaim IED as a figment of the Army's imagination. (repeat indefinitely). Occasionally get taken hostage to relieve the monotony.

24. American Army. Send out a patrol in a hummer with Rhino deployed, then send out a Spectre gunship to destroy the nearest local village in retribution for when it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

25. Australian Army. Threaten to withdraw entire countries assets from theatre as they heard a rumour there was an IED identified 50 miles south of their position. Demand hand-holding by other already over-stretched British units and then complain when we make them actively look for more IEDs'.

26. Romanian Army. Confuse IED with their gibberish native tongue. Sign the IED onto their stores and attempt to make it part of their armaments supply due to under funding by a government that's abandoned them.

27 Danish Army. Arrive in theatre and promptly invite IED to their camp to join in their BBQ and Drinks sessions held every night. Eventually starve to death as they'd forgot how to open their camp gates on account of having never left. IED detonates to attract attention and help.

28. Iraq Army. Tip up five days after IED reported. Cordon area, remove IED. Corrupt elements of IA then move IED five hundred yards further along road and bury. Ensure MND(SE) that area is now clear.

29. Iraq Civilian. Dig up IED, take to nearest MND(SE) post and attempt to sell IED. Upon refusal, attempts to sell IED to MJAM. MJAM take IED and bury it at target area. Civilian digs up IED, takes to nearest MND(SE) post and attempts to sell IED. And so on.

30. UK Aid Worker. Show complete disregard for IED, fail to adhere to Foreign Office warnings on IED's, pay no attention to MND(SE) briefs on IED's and wonder what went wrong when their convoy gets destroyed by IED.

31. Security Contractor. Use innocent civilian children to test road ahead of patrol for IED's. When child finds IED, claim child is insurgent attempting a come-on and shoot child. And his family. And neighbours.

32. Private Contractor. Find themselves lured to Iraq by greed. Make more money in a week than some soldiers do in a month. Laugh at poorly paid soldiers being blown up by IEDs'. Expect MND(SE) to help when they get blown up by IED. Wonder why we don't respond.

Monday, January 14, 2008

For Frere Jacques

My friend and colleague Jacques is undergoing surgery for prostrate cancer today. Jacques and I were fellow candidates on the Reserve Chaplain's BOTC at the Chaplain's school at CFB Borden last May. A devout Roman Catholic priest, unfailingly cheerful and fun to be around, Jacques often kept us going with his songs and jokes. Jacques is padre with an armoured regiment in Montreal.

Please say a prayer for Jacques if you read this page in the next few days.

Going to the Wars"

Yes, of course it was sin
And no Christ would say 'Fight
For the right' -
But we had to win.

When the chaplain would bluster and blow
About laying the rod
Of God
On the back of 'his foe'.

I knew it was all just a form
And there was no fiery sword
And the Lord
Was not in the storm.

Yet - to have stood aside
Hoarding my fortunate life
With my wife
While the other men died!

Some sort of god, good or bad,
Would have kept me longing in vain
To be slain
As I am, if I had.

C.E. Montague

Montague was an English journalist and veteran of the First World War - my brother Al passed this on to me. An excerpt from his memoir, Disenchantment, is found at the wonderful AftermathWW1 website.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord

Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton, and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 13 January, 2007

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isa 42:1)

Last week the National Post ran a story about a group of Tim Hortons employees who have started a group on the internet to advise cranky customers how to order. These workers are tired of customers who tell them to “stir the coffee well” (because there’s no button for that), who order six sandwiches at the drive-thru window, or who get angry and throw food or coffee at them. I wonder if this story will surprise those customers who are used to treating the employees like slaves or robots. I’m sure you’ve noticed these folks. They stand in front of you in line and say “Give me a double double”. Whenever I hear something like this, I want to ask “Excuse me, but did your parents never teach you to say please?” or “Would it kill you to say ‘May I please have a double double?’”

We like the convenience of being served at fast food stores like Timmies, but how many of us would want to stand behind the counter and serve? Probably not that many of us. When we say “service industries” we sometimes use it as a euphemism for low-prestige, low-paying, dead-end jobs. For my part, I wouldn’t mind it if my kids worked at Tims while they were students, but I’d hope that they could find better jobs as adults. But that’s me being a snob, isn’t it? It’s nothing but snobbery, because who I am to say that the person who gives me my steeped tea in the morning and manages to smile while doing it isn’t as good or as important as any other person? I know, whatever my snobby side may want to say, that the Timmies worker is just as much a beloved child of God as me or the guy in the Ford Excessive in the drive through with the heated seats and the MBA and the Rolex watch? Because really, I don’t think God cares much about our big cars or our university degrees or our trophy consumer items. I think God is really interested in whether we are willing to be servants.

All through Advent we’ve heard the wonderful promises of the prophet Isaiah to a people that sorely need good news. We’ve heard God tell his people that the bad times aren’t going to last. A saviour will come to lead them out of the darkness and back to the light of God. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, Isaiah says, and for us this Christmas, as always, that light was a star that led us to the manger in Bethlehem. We saw the baby lying there, and perhaps we wondered, as the shepherds and the wise men wondered, what sort of king will this little one become? What kingdom will he inherit? What deeds of power will he do? Isaiah gives us an unexpected answer. “Here is my servant”. Now Isaiah was speaking to a people in captivity in Babylon, exiled from their homeland. We might expect Isaiah to say “Here is my champion” or “Here is my hero”, but no, it’s just “my servant”.

The servant is not loud or flashy. “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isa 42:2). No loud televangelist here. The servant won’t do huge acts of strength or feats of might: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42:2). He’ll spend his time with the damaged and the vulnerable, with those whose hopes burn faintly. The servant will suffer as he goes about his work. “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isa 42:4). He’ll pay a price for what he will do. The servant is quiet, gentle, compassionate. He’s not a great general waving a flag on the battlefield and shouting a battlecry, more like a humble medic going about helping the wounded. The servant isn’t an impressive figure, but his calling couldn’t be any more impressive. The servant is God’s chosen, the one who fills God’s soul with delight, and who God fills with his Spirit. The servant will “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). In all this poetic, powerful language, Isaiah is showing us how God works. Not with human power and dignity, but with a love and gentleness that wants the best for all of his people, for each of his creations. Where is the servant? He’s there, the humble carpenter from Galilee who comes down to the Jordan to be baptized, waiting his turn with all the other sinners.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized? John the Baptist was out there in the desert, telling the people to confess their sins, repent, and get baptized. John was even telling the proud and holy Pharisees to repent, even though they were the expert keepers of God’s law. He warned them to straighten up and fly right, because the one coming on his heels came from God himself. The one coming was bringing the fire and the winnowing fork. He was going to sort the good from the bad, and woe to you if you were one of the bad! I think after that preaching, the crowds were expecting someone pretty special. I’m sure John was, as Matthew describes it, because the Baptist is scandalized when Jesus comes down into the muddy brown water of the Jordan, where all the others have stood before him, and waits for John to pour the water and say the prayers over him. Why did our Lord and Saviour, the Alpha and the Omega, need to receive a baptism from John just like any other sinner? Did he need a baptism for the forgiveness of his sins? All the gospels agree that Jesus was a blameless person, a person without sin. Jesus had nothing to repent of, which makes sense, because why would the Saviour need to be saved himself? So there’s got to be another reason, and I think the reason has to do with you and me.

How did Jesus get into that muddy crick to stand before John? He would have to climbed down the bank like everyone else, literally stepping in the footprints of all the other sinners who had gone before him. He didn’t have to do that. Jesus could have stayed up there on the riverside in a blaze of glory and said, “That’s right, folks, I’m the guy he was talking about”. He could have said to John “Good work, John, I’ll take it from here.” For that matter, Jesus could have stayed with the Father in heaven. But he doesn’t. I think the whole point of Jesus’ baptism is to say, this is the moment when God announces his purpose, to send his son to stand in the mud and water with us rather than to lord it over us. This is when God unveils the servant who will save us, the healer who will heal us, the light who will lead us and bring us back to God.

When the voice from heaven says “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17), we hear the words of our first lesson, from Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). At that moment, God announces that Jesus is going to take on the role of the servant and do all the wonderful things that Isaiah prophesied. Jesus will go to the bruised, to those whose hopes are faintly burning, to those imprisoned by illness and by social stigma, he will teach and he will heal. His mission is to bring God’s justice, God’s kingdom, to the earth, even if it has to lay down his life in shame and pain to do it. As the preacher Barabara Taylor Brown puts it so well, he serves us by coming to us, “where we are, over and over again, when he could save himself the grief, the pain, the death, by insisting that we come to him where he is” (Barbara Brown Taylor. “Sacramental Mud”. Mixed Blessings Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, p. 59).

He comes to us because he loves us, as the Father loves him. Each of us first experiences this love at the moment of our baptism, when God names us and sets his spirit on us. From then on, as we move life we have the reassurance of knowing that we too are beloved children in whom God’s soul delights. We can find strength whatever crap and mud we find ourselves in, Jesus is standing there with us. When we find ourselves in darkness, when the way forward seems unclear to us, Jesus is the light, he’s the guide that takes us by the hand. When you feel down, or lost, or just not worth much, say to yourself, “I am God’s beloved child”. If you doubt it, if you don’t think you’re worthy of saying that, just remember that you were worth dying on a cross for.

God loves us, God serves us, and ultimately God saves us. Our baptism unites us to God and makes us part of his family. But there’s a catch. Everytime we baptize a child, we remember our own baptismal covenant. We remember that God has a job description for us, taken straight from Isaiah. God calls us to be servants too, to share in God’s plan to “faithfully bring forth justice”. God calls us to care for everyone who is still in darkness, to do what we can for the bruised and the dimly burning. Our baptism means that we can’t go through life wanting to be served. We are called to be servants, not customers. We’re called to love and serve the lord, and to love and serve one another. It goes against the grain of our world to be a servant, because we’re taught that there’s no prestige in it, no future. That’s the kind of thinking that Isaiah warns against when he says that God does not give his glory or praise to idols (Isa 42:8). God’s glory and praise comes in service, in the outstretched hand, in eyes that see with new light and new hope, down there in the mud where God and God’s people are truly needed. Or, to put it another way, each of us is a parishioner of St. Timmies, and our slogan is, “Welcome to God’s kingdom, how can I serve you?”

© Michael Peterson+ 2007

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What I'm Reading: At All Costs

At All Costs David Weber. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2005.

I had no idea David Weber existed until this book caught my eye at the public library after Christmas. My pastor’s brain was tired and I wanted some light relief, and the colourful dust jacket intrigued me. Likewise the cover’s blurb from Publisher’s Weekly: "like a fusion of Horatio Hornblower, Robert A. Heinlein, and Tom Clancy". That triangulation gave me enough to go on – this was pure escapism in the kind of swashbuckling, heroic adventure quadrant of science fiction known to its devotees as military SF.

I suppose the locus classicus of military SF in the 20th century has to be Robert Heinlen’s Starship Troopers (1959). Despite being made into an awful movie by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it was a reasonably convincing look at what war and soldiers might be like in the next few centuries. In fact, I noticed Starship Troopers among a list of recommended titles on military leadership, pinned up in my Army Reserve CO’s office, so I guess Heinlein’s book still has some street cred in the military community, despite the crap he wrote later in life. I’ve dabbled in the genre in past in a limited way, including Elizabeth Moon and the General series by David Drake and S.M. Stirling.

I don’t know how many military people read military SF, but my gut sense of the typical fan of this subgenre is as follows. An inherently conservative person, attracted to hierarchical structures and who is happy to put limits on human agency in favour of a greater good. Thus, military SF tends to feature kingdoms, militaries with traditional trappings, feudal aristocracies and aristocratic heroes bound by codes of honour and chivalry (it is probably not a coincidence that Weber’s character is a Duchess and Admiral whose first name is ... Honor). The conservatism of military SF comes from it’s discomfort with the utopian strain in science fiction, and this goes far deeper than the fear of bug-eyed monsters from outer space. This discomfort is ideological, and comes from a longstanding scepticism of the optimistic claims of humanism. Military SF is willing to concede that humans can harness fusion power, colonize the stars, and travel in hyperspace. At the same time, the subgenre suspects that humanity will take its worst traits – greed, treachery, the capacity for violence – along for the ride when it goes to the stars. In such a future universe, military SF argues that only strong characters with strong, traditional values, leading strong militaries, can protect, serve, lead and save humanity.

The military SF reader also appreciates geek stuff – descriptions of weapons, uniforms, tactics and battles. He or she (I know some women readers of this stuff) is also not highbrow enough to be troubled by the boilerplate quality of genre writing. They like heroic, noble characters who are handsome, proficient, and self-sacrificing, and whose dialogue is a kind of clever wisecracking banter. Someone who values inarticulate antiheroes speaking like Beckett or Pinter characters won’t be attracted to military SF.

If I’m sounding like a literary snob (part of me is and I’ve got the degrees to prove it), don’t think I didn’t like this book. I did, and at some point I’ll come back to Weber, whose written almost (it may be more than) a dozen books featuring Honor Harrington. Weber is not a risk-taking, thought-provoking SF writer – his universe is far tamer and much less ironic than the kind you find in , say, Iain M. Banks, but the universe he has created as a backdrop is entertaining and convincing. His characters are key players – Admirals and senior officers, cabinet ministers and politicians, master criminals and spies – so in that case it’s more like Tom Clancy then, say, the historical fiction of Patrick O’Brien, whose below-decks and below-stairs characters are just as memorable and as entertaining as the nobs and toffs. It’s boilerplate writing (again, Clancy comes to mind) but there is a degree of subtlety to the political machinations that keeps it from the kind of black and white conflict that makes Clancy so dull for me. In At All Costs we follow characters on both sides of a shooting war started by a third party for its sinister own ends. There’s a degree of helplessness and tragic resignation in the final battles that saves the book from becoming a glorification of war and violence that I think lurks in a lot of writing of this type.

I mentioned Patrick O’Brien deliberately, because there is an old-world, retro naval quality to much of the book. Honor’s ships have Royal Navy names like HMS Warrior, they manoeuvre in fleets and squadrons led by flagships, and fight in a "wall of battle" that is clearly an affectionate nod to the age of sail. At the same time, Weber is sufficiently technical that he can convincingly translate Trafalgar to deep space. So much so, in fact, that when he talks at length about velocities and vectors, missile defences and accelerations, I tend to glaze over just as I do in the pages of a Patrick O’Brien novel where he describes the technical intricacies of handling a sailing ship. There’s enough science here to satisfy people looking for verisimilitude in their reading. I know wargamers who will lay out model ships on a floor and calculate turning speeds, angles of deflection, and armour penetration – they will love the battle scenes in this book. Part of me wonders if Webe’s authenticity comes from some time spent serving in a NATO navy’s command and control centre.

The church geek in me liked the religious trappings in this book. Honor’s home worlds of Grayson and Manticore are home to a religion (the Church of Humanity Unchained) that looks a lot like high church mainstream Protestantism. This church also gets along with the Roman Catholic Church, which has survived into the far future, and the scene where Honor’s son is baptized shows that Weber knows and understands liturgy. At the same time, Weber may not know his churches as well as he may think, as this speech by a Roman Catholic prelate suggests:
"But the context in which those humans confront their spiritual needs does change. The rules evolved to handle those needs in a preindustrial, pre-space civilization simply cannot be applied to the galaxy in which we live today, any more than could the one-time religious ratification of slavery, or the denial of the rights of women, or the prohibition of women in the priesthood, or the marriage of priests." (p. 418)

Perhaps Weber, who elsewhere seems to appreciate tradition, may be underestimating the willingness of the Roman church to be true to itself in the far future. Just a thought.
At 892 pages of maddeningly small print, At All Costs is a serious investment in time for light reading. Well-written within its genre arcs, it kept me reading right to the end and wanting more ... some day.

Friday, January 4, 2008

French IndoChina War 1952 - A Skirmish Game Report

In the last days of December, a group of questionable characters gathered in scenic West Lorne, in the heart of SW Ontario, for another Ricon, a seasonal gathering of wargamers. Our host was Rich (Rico) Brayton and his amazing and lovely wife, who turn the basement of their home into a day of snacking, beer drinking, joking and some cracking good games. After all, you need something to justify those New Years' resolutions. This Yulefest we saw another daring game of WW1 aerial mayhem as Keith Burnett hosted another game of Algernon from the Too Fat Lardies, our current gaming muses. Barry Holden offered another game of Pig Wars, a Dark Ages skirmish in which Vikings, villages, Saxon fyrd and of course the incredibly dangerous Bob the Boar all engaged in a violent brawl that hasn't been seen again in England until Coronation Street. It wouldn't be a RiCon without Rich's Charlie Company, a Vietnam game featuring ambushes, crashing helicopters, Mike Barratt's novel and suicidal method of discovering VC ammo caches. All good fun.

This report features a game put on by the incredible Dan Hutter, set in the French IndoChina war in 1952. The terrain pieces, especially the mouth-watering rice paddies, are a mix of store-bought and scratch built. Dan has a love for oddball kit and small-scale battles, and he's unashamed about stealing good ideas from other rules. This game featured his own rules with ideas such as blinds stolen from TFL systems like I Ain't Been Shot Mum.

Here's the game board from the French side:

From the Viet-Minh side:

The village and river at the centre of the table - the bridge was the French objective:

Here's the fictionalized account.

A few chickens scurried across the dusty square of Bin Phouc’t , where Peoples’ Captain Lo Truc was wrapping up his characteristically brief O Group. “As you know, General Giap’s offensive is driving the French before him like these chickens.” His officers laughed. “But even chickens will try and fight when cornered. The imperialists are trying to get across the Black River to open an escape route for their colleagues and one of the ways across is this bridge”. He pointed towards the modest span across the muddy brown river behind him, where a quartet of sappers were prying open several crates of dynamite. “The Frogs are pushing a spearhead up this valley and our objective is to stop them long enough for the comrade engineers to blow the bridge.”
“What is the composition of the spearhead, Comrade Captain?” Ho Nguyen, the senior platoon commander, asked.
“Scouts say a mixed force. Typical imperialist mongrels – Arab lackeys, mercenary running dogs and whatever armour they’ve cobbled together. So we use the hills on either side of the road to site our support weapons – the recoilless rifle to the right, the machine gun to the left. The mortar team will site here in the village, on that little rise there. We’ll make the Frogs regret letting their toys fall into our hands.” More laughter. “Crew commanders, use your ammo well, we don’t have much of it.” He looked at his platoon leaders. “Nguyen, site your platoon on the left to support the MG crew. Tran will support the recoilless on the right. Bo in reserve in the village. Quan, the hardest task falls to you. Your platoon will hold behind the closest of the paddies. You’ll be the first to engage, and you need to buy us as much time as we can – whatever the cost. That should be to your taste, you like your food hot.” The young subaltern grinned. “My flare will be the signal to fall back before we blow the bridge. If you can’t reach the bridge, exfiltrate through the trees and head for the fords – we’ll RV as planned. Place your troops, comrades. For the homeland and the revolution!”

Lt. Quan's platoon prepares to be the first defenders against the French push:

Caporal Gaspard L'Ennui scowled as his British-built Bren carrier rattled over the ruts in the jungle road. Typical rostbif piece of crap, he thought to himself, and a lousy tin tub is all they give to the scouting detail for yet another stupid adventure in the maudit jungle. Why they had to be here at all was beyond him. "Hey", he yelled, and slapped the helmet of Private Lesarge, who was dozing in the morning sun over the American .30 calibre machine gun he was manning. "Wake up and watch your arcs, or the little yello men will eat you for breakfast." The thought of breakfast put him back into a foul mood. It had been ages since he'd had a decent cup of coffee.

Caporal L'Ennui's Bren carrier advances beside a platoon of French Arab troops:

L'Ennui took some comfort from the fact that he had support behind and to his flanks. A platoon of Arabs loped along beside his carrier, while an American-built half-track followed behind him. It's .50 calibre gun gave him some comfort, as he'd seen it shred the jungle many times. To his left he could see a second platoon of paratoopers moving cautiously along the far bank of the rice paddy, while some Legionairies, cursed Germans to a man, were in the jungle to his right.

The French advance onto the table. L'Ennui's carrier in the centre, the halftrack behind, and a platoon of the Legion Etrangere L'Ennui's right. The chits represent French units that the Viet Minh have not yet spotted:

Closeup view of the French half-track - the crew are mysteriously hiding. Note the cool reflection in the resin of Dan's rice paddy:

French paratroops and their tres chic Lieutenant advance alongside the rice paddy:

A crackle of rifle fire to the front sent the Arabs beside L'Ennui's carrier diving for cover. Seconds later, above the clatter as Lesarge opened up with his .30cal, L'Ennui heard the unmistakable whistle of a mortar shell and closed his eyes as he heard a loud crump nearby. He had trouble opening his eyes because his face and most of the interior of the carrier was covered with foul-smelling mud. "Merde", he thought. He could actually hear the Arabs laughing as they opened fire on the VietMinh across the paddy. "Crazy fools", he thought.

Lt. Quan's men open fire on the French Arabs -they will shortly become the focus of every French gun on the table:

VM mortar works in support of Quan's platoon - it's firing would be accurate and would keep many French heads down during the game:

Wiping his face, L'Ennui watched in satisfaction as the edge of the paddy sheltering the VM erupted in muddy splashes as the French fire built up. The .50 from the halftrack was firing, as were the paras. If this was all, he thought. SPANG SPANG SPANG L'Ennui ducked again as the carrier was rocked by the impact of numerous bullets. MMG, he thought. Probably up there on that hill. Merde. He looked up at Lesarge, who was again slumped over his gun. "Hey, idiot! Keep firing". Again he slapped Lesarge, who this time tilted sideways, quite dead. Again a whistle crump, this time behind him where the HQ section were dismounting from the halftack. "Merde". L'Ennui wrestled Lesarge's corpse out of the way and told the driver, Desrochers, to take the gun position.

Meanwhile, Lt. Remarque stood in the turret of his antiquated Renault tank and compared the scene ahead to his map. His orders were to patrol as far as the river and see if it might be a breakout point for his comrades fleeing Giap's advance. The firing he could hear made him hopeful that a relief force was coming, and he wanted to make sure. He signalled to the infantry section behind him to be alert. Sgt. Crapaud rolled his eyes at this. "What does he think we're doing, going out to la patisserie to buy a baguette?"

A somewhat grainy view of Lt. Remarque's patrol turing up on the wrong (for the VM players) side of the river:

Unfortunately for Lt. Remarque, the jungle had eyes, and the eyes belonged to the village militia, whose bolt-action rifles were no match for the clanking Renault. The militia sergeant sent a runner across the bridge. Capt. Truc heard the news grimly. "Mow much time do you need?" he shouted to the sapper corporal under the bridge. "At least ten minutes, Comrade Captain". "Right, follow me" Truc said to his HQ section. He gestured to the boy with the satchel charge, hugging it like a bag of rice. "I think we'll need that."

Capt. Lo Truc leads his HQ section across the bridge to block the French patrol:

Lo Truc signalled to the militia for covering fire. This came as a rude shock to Remarque's detachment. The poilus plastered themselves against the rear of the tank, praying that its thin steel would block the bullets. Remarque hastily vanished into the turret, peering through a viewport to find the source of the fire. This was good for Truc, but the tank was too far away still and if it opened up. Suddenly he noticed a lone figure, running for the tank, a package clutched to his chest. "Huang, no!" Truc shouted, but it was too late. Whether the boy intended to throw it or wanted to make sure, he vanished in a black cloud of smoke and bright flame beneath the front hull of the Frog tank, which immediately halted.
The crew and tank disabled, and the accompanying infantry pinned down or worse by his militia, Truc knew that he would have the time he needed to prepare the bridge. "Comrade Hero Huang, when this bridge is rebuilt, it will be named for you".

Comrade Hero Huang charges the Renault with his satchel charge. As referee Dan allowed this move if the VM players made a successful morale check. We were lucky, as a rampaging tank in our rear area would have been a real pain. Thanks, Comrade Huang!

On the other side of the river, Caporal L'Ennui and his colleagues were not making much progress. The enemy machine gun had moved on from his carrier to pin down the Legionaires in a small copse to his right, with . The .50 cal on the half track appeared to have silenced the damn mortar, but it was now silent. Several Viet Minh AT rounds from a recoilless rifle had almost parted his hair before slamming into the halftrack, killing or wounding its crew. L'Ennui shrugged as the third AFV in the French column, a US-built Greyhound armoured car, came up and added its fire to the paras who were spraying the location of the recoiless. "Where has he been all this time?"

Lt. Nguyen's platoon engages the French on their right flank, firing in support of the VM Hotchkiss machine gun and keeping the Legion's heads down:

French Greyhound armoured car gets into the fight. The VM players were wondering why it took so long to come off its blind and start shooting. Can't remember if it was engaged by the VM recoilless or not. In the foreground, the last surviving VM from Quan's platoon surrenders to the Arabs:

"We're ready, Comrade Captain!" The engineers had emerged from the bridge and were wiring the detonator. Truc raised his flare gun and fired the signal to withdraw. Minutes later Bo's platoon double-timed out of the village and across the bridge, the last survivor of the mortar team with them. Truc knelt by the detonator, waiting for the last possible minute. He could hear the slow regular beat of the French .50 calibre starting up again, and the fire of his own men from the hills was slackening.

L'Ennui looked behind him in surprise as the .50cal in the halftrack started up again. Who was that. His eyes widened in surprise. It was Father Leblanc, the Legion padre who had insisted on accompanying him. The jungle was lashed and whole branches fell where the VM recoilless had been spotted. To his right the Legionaires were rising up again and moving forward. On the left the para subaltren was waving his own men forward as the VM fire slackened.

In something of a tradition at RiCons, and a very flattering one I might add, a chaplain figure winds up on the table and starts doing something heroic. Here the Legion's padre mans the .50 in the disabled halftrack and sends the VM on their way:

SPANG SPANG SPANG Another burst from the hills rocked L'Ennui's carrier as the Viet Minh machine gunners covered the withdrawal. When the Caporal looked up, Desrochers was slumped over his gun, quite dead. L'Ennui shrugged and started up the carrier. "En avant! Get that bridge!" the para officer waved his men forward. No sooner had L'Ennui started into gear then a loud BOOMMMM rocked the valley and a cloud of smoke obscured the bridge. The para lieutenant stopped shouting until the smoke cleared, revealing a shattered and broken span. No vebicle would cross that bridge any time soon.

Captain Truc and his comrades blow the bridge:

Caporal L'Ennui stopped his carrier, and accepted a Gauloise from a para standing beside him. "C'est la guerre".
The para lit his own Gauloise and shrugged eloquently. "La vie ... la vie est la merde".

That ended the game. The Viet Minh lost one platoon, plus the bulk of two heavy weapons crew (the recoilless gun and the mortar). The French had two AFVs knocked out or damanged but mostly were just suppressed by the VM fire. The VM (James Manto and myself) won the game by holding the bridge and then demoloshing it. The French (Rich Brayton and another chap) suffered a lot of grief from hits to their AFVs (Dan was very generous to us with support weapons) and saw their advance stall. In their shoes, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have put all three tanks (the carrier, the Greyhound, and the halftack) on the table and charged as fast as I could for the bridgeusing the three infantry platoons to engage whoever popped up to oppose the AFVs. A grand and entertaining game, thanks Dan for putting it on, and well done giving us an obscure period and some lovely kit to play with. And of course, it wouldn't be a game with the French in it if someone didn't shrug at the end and say in a Gaulois-raspy voice "Life is poop".

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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