Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Posted - Alberta Bound

After a seemingly interminable delay, I finally received a posting instruction that will send me and my wife to Canadian Forces Base Suffield. It will be a big change, trading the hills of the Annapolis Valley and the shores of the Bay of Fundy for the rolling prairie of SE Alberta. For my wife Kay, a lover of geology and of fossils, it will mean a chance to explore the badlands around Drumheller, visit the Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum, and finally see the Rockie Mountains. For me, it will be a chance to return to an Army environment with the added bonus of getting to know the unique and historic culture of the British Army. BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield) is based there, so there is a permanent British presence and regular visitations from British (and other NATO) army units who come to use the sizeable training ranges.

Kay and I will be busy finalizing our home sale, winding down Kay's job at a local garden centre, arranging the move, and taking some leave time. There are also some things we want to see and do in Nova Scotia before we go, to round out this blog's category of Adventures in Atlantic Canada before we start a category called Adventures in Alberta and Adventures with the Brits. Wish us luck.

What Makes a Good General, Part Two - Tom Ricks on George S. Patton

Recently defence blogger Tom Ricks has been documenting some of the more outlandish, outrageous, anti-semitic, misanthropic and generally hateful things said by George S. Patton, the iconic US general of World War Two. Had Patton been in command in Afghanistan today and said any of these things, he would have been relieved of command faster than you can say Stanley McChrystal. But as Ricks points out, he was in a league of his own on the battlefield.

It's interesting to compare and contrast Patton with US General David Petraeus. One was a hard-charging crusty cavalryman, the other is a shrewd and tactful soldier-scholar with a Ph.D. Both probably the right men for their place and time. But as Ricks reminds us, good generals don't have to be likeable.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Ministry of the Chaplain's Assistant

The US military has a trade that you won't find in the Canadian Forces, that of the Chaplain's Assistant, a non-commissioned member who assists a chaplain in his or her ministry. I came across this profile of one such soldier in today's US DOD news and found it worth posting here as an example of this trade. The CF Chaplaincy Branch is currently considering the creation of an equivalent trade.

Face of Defense: Chaplain Assistant Serves With Passion
By Army Sgt. Jessica Rohr
135th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq, June 25, 2010 – Army Sgt. Keith D. Wright, a native of Brunswick, Ga., is serving here on his fourth deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Army Sgt. Keith D. Wright, a chaplain assistant for the 3rd Infantry Division’s Special Troops Battalion, is serving on his fourth deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom at Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jessica Rohr
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

A chaplain assistant with the 3rd Infantry Division’s Special Troops Battalion, Wright said he joined the Army to get some direction in life after high school.

“One job that came up was metal worker,” he said. “In high school, I did welding for a semester, so I was already familiar with it. I was like, ‘Hey I could do that.’ They built up my confidence and skills.”

Army Sgt. Keith D. Wright, a chaplain assistant for the 3rd Infantry Division’s Special Troops Battalion, is serving on his fourth deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom at Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jessica Rohr

After he completed his active-duty enlistment, Wright served with the Georgia Army National Guard from 2003 to 2006. While in the Guard, he developed interest in a new specialty.

“During my transition from active duty to a civilian, I had a maturing experience mentally and coming into the faith. I am now a Christian,” Wright said. “When I got activated with the National Guard, I found out about chaplain assistants. … That’s when I decided my desire or passion wasn’t for welding.”

The idea appealed to him in light of the changes in his life, Wright said.

Read the whole story here.

The Hundred and Fifty

I find it regretable that the violent and destructive actions of some young Canadians on the streets of Toronto overshadowed the news that our country lost two more young Canadians in Afghanistan. Two young medics lost their lives when their convoy was struck by an improvised explosive device near Kandahar City. Their deaths bring the total number of Canadian military killed in Afghanistan to one hundred and fifty. They were:

Master Corporal Kristal Giesebrecht from 1 Canadian Field Hospital, based in Petawawa, Ontario. She was a native of Wallaceburg, ON, and was serving in Afghanistan with the Task Force Kandahar Health Services Unit. MCpl Giesebrecht is third Canadian woman soldier to lose her life in Afghanistan in a combat situation.

According to CBC News, her commander, General Vance, described her as "married and a fit, dedicated and fun-loving medical technician serving her second tour in Afghanistan. 'She was a mentor and an inspiration for her fellow medical technicians. Kristal loved life to the fullest. She was a wonderful friend, always opening her heart to everyone in need," Vance said. Kristal prided herself on her health and fitness, although she always felt the solution to any problem could be found in a box of chocolates.' "

Private Andrew Miller, from Sudbury, ON, served with 2 Field Ambulance, also based in Petawawa, Ontario. He was serving in Afghanistan with the Task Force Kandahar Health Services Unit. In the same press conference, General Vance said that "Andrew was very confident in both his soldier and clinical skills. He wanted nothing more than to be part of the Health Services Unit for ROTO 9, in Afghanistan, so that he could put his skills to the test. Called Caillou by his friends, everyone acknowledged the resemblance [to the children's cartoon character] as soon as they met him.' "

These two are not the first CF medics to have been killed in theatre - to my knowledge roughly half a dozen have been killed or wounded in action. As chaplains we have a special affinity with medics - they are non-combatants, armed only to defend themselves and their patients, and they are all about helping others.

Two other Canadian dead have not yet been noted by this blog. Sergeant James Patrick MacNeil from 2 Combat Engineer Regiment, based in Petawawa, Ontario, was killed on 21 June and his body returned home to Canada on 25 June. As has been frequently noted here in Nova Scotia, "Jamie" as he was known is the first Cape Bretoner to have been killed in Afghanistan and his funeral will take place in Glace Bay in the near future.

Combat engineers have taken a lot of hits in Afghanistan in the last few years. As the IED becomes the weapon of choice by the insurgency, these are the men and women called to do the careful, patient and highly dangerous work which Hollywood fictionalized in The Hurt Locker. I say fictionalized because I've spoken with Counter IED guys who liked the movie while aware of its exaggerations.

Another combat engineer who fell this month was Sergeant Martin Goudreault.

Sgt. Goudreault served with the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment and was killed on 6 June by an improvised explosive device while investigating a suspected weapons cache. He was 35, from Sudbury, ON.

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

For One US College, Chaplaincy is an Unnecessary Luxury

I noticed this story in the NYT last week. Smith College may be an obscure place, but the issues involved in the story, namely how to quantify the value that chaplains can bring to an institution, are of note and are equally relevant in the contxt of military chaplaincy. Likewise the story's comments on how difficult it can be to offer meaningful yet generic Protestant worship would be well understood by CF protestant chaplains. MP+

June 18, 2010
A College Fires Its Chaplains to Save Money, and Students Move On

When a chaplaincy dies, there is nobody to preside over the funeral. But if there were a funeral, would anyone show up?

In May 2009, Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life at Smith College, closed a budget gap by laying off her only three practicing chaplains, representatives of the American trinity of religious tradition: Protestant, Catholic and Jew.

The Rev. Leon T. Burrows, a Baptist minister; Elizabeth Carr, a Catholic laywoman; and Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer were allowed a final year, but by June 30, all will have vacated their Smith offices, spiritual and physical. Rabbi Seltzer and Dr. Carr will continue as chaplains at nearby Amherst College, which paid a third of the three chaplains’ salaries. But for the first time since 1935, there will be no chaplains at Smith.

According to Dr. Walters, the end of the chaplaincy was not just a matter of money.

On a weekly basis, “less than 100 students were actually participating in regular religious services provided by the college,” Dr. Walters said. “Maybe close to 50 total, to be honest.”

It is hard to tell who cares, or how much.

Read the whole story here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Military Picture of the Week

This beast has been developed by the British Army to protect soldiers from Improvised Explosive Devices, the insurgents' weapon of choice in Afghanistan.

A Buffalo mine protection vehicle with a rummaging arm
[Picture: Andrew Linnett, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010

Is it just me or does anyone else find it very British and slightly endearing that the vehicle should be equipped with a "rummaging arm"? "Rummaging" sounds like a word that would be used by A.A. Milne to describe Pooh looking in his cupboard for an errant pot of honey. Surely the Americans or even we Canadians would have an acronym to describe this piece of kit (eg, CIEDRE - Counter IED Remote Extender)but to the Brits it's a "rummaging arm". I rather like that.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pioneer Female Fighter Pilot Takes on PTSD

I noted this story in a back issue of the CF newspaper, The Maple Leaf, about Major Deanna (Dee) Brasseur, Canada's first female fighter pilot, who has recovered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and now champions the cause through her advocacy of the One In A Million Project.

I was unaware of this project until I read this article - their website features an excellent description of PTSD, some links to Canadian military charities whom the coin project supports, and a chance to do some good by purchasing this spiffy coin for $50 that will go to helping soldiers and their families.

Meet My Next Boss

While in Ottawa recently I was delighted to come across a copy of the other Canadian Anglican newspaper, The Anglican Planet, and discovered this profile on the next Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces (and thus my next boss), Padre Karl McLean, who like myself is an Anglican priest. Here's the article in full.

Anglican named top military chaplain
Monday, April 26, 2010 at 02:10PM
By Sue Careless

An Anglican priest has been appointed Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Peter MacKay, Minister of National Defence, announced the selection of Padre Karl McLean as the next Canadian Forces Chaplain General. Colonel McLean will be promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and assume command of the Chaplain Branch later this year, succeeding Brigadier-General David C. Kettle, who is retiring.

“Chaplains provide the men and women of our Canadian Forces with the moral and spiritual support that they require in their service to the nation,” said MacKay. “Padre McLean brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience that will give him unique insight in this crucial leadership role.”

There are 65,000 Canadians serving fulltime in the Regular Forces and another 25,000 serving part-time in the Reserves. Many chaplains, representing a variety of faiths and denominations, minister to them.

Col. McLean was deployed as a Brigade Chaplain in Bosnia-Herzegovina and served as the Senior NATO Chaplain with the Stabilization Force in the capital of Sarajevo. He has been the Chief Instructor at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and the Command Chaplain for both the Army and the Air Force.

Col. McLean has previously served in the Office of the Chaplain General as the Director of Chaplain Administration Education and Training; the Director of Chaplain Operations; and, most recently, the Chief of Staff.

The Chaplain General heads the multi-faith Chaplain Branch and advises the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of Military Personnel on matters related to the moral and spiritual well-being of personnel and their families in all aspects of their lives. He or she serves a two-year term and is responsible for recruiting, training and managing the ministry of chaplains within the CF. The position alternates between Protestant and Roman Catholic.

“Karl is a person of deep prayer and spiritual integrity, who actively and constantly practices the art of spiritual discernment as understood in the Great Tradition of the Church,” said Padre Lt. Col. Canon Gary Thorne. Thorne is a Reserve Chaplain of twenty-one years and has served as Canon Reservist on the Chapter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate for ten years.

He said McLean “seeks Christ in the ancient wisdom of the Church and has an abiding and keen great interest in biblical hermeneutics.” Thorne knows him as an avid outdoors person who enjoys hunting and fishing but also as a “critical thinker” and an “empathetic listener, a man of great compassion” who, Thorne believes, will “care deeply for the chaplains of the Canadian Forces.”

McLean attended Dalhousie University, University of Waterloo, Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology. He was ordained to the priesthood in Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton and has served as Curate at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Saint John and as Rector of the Parish of Shediac, both in New Brunswick. For the past six years Col. McLean has been a member of the Council of General Synod. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

US Military Pursues Link Between Suicides and Brain Ailments

Noting this piece below in today's US Defence Dept news feed. What's interesting about the figures in this piece is that suicides in the Marines and Army are increasing year by year since 2007, though that increase may be an increase in the actual number reported following investigations, due to militaries focusing more and more attention and resources on this problem. This report comes in the wake of a recent report carried June 17th on National Public Radio that US military suicides now equal combat deaths in Afghanistan. I learned about this NPR report while listening to a discussion of military suicides and their link to stress and strain on overdeployed personnel on the Diane Rehm show last week. The discussion is worth a listen, especially some of the comments by Nancy Yousseff, Pentagon correspondent with McClatchy News who has embedded with US troops in theatre and has noted the increase in attempts to try to make soldiers aware of depression and suicide.

Anyway, here's the Pentagon story:

Services Work to Learn More About Brain Ailments, Suicides
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 22, 2010 – Post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and suicides among servicemembers are interrelated problems requiring holistic prevention methods and more scientific study, military leaders told a Senate panel today. Video

“The reality is, the study of the brain is an emerging science, and there still is much to be learned,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing about how the services are dealing with brain injuries and mental health problems.

The vice chiefs of the Navy and Air Force, the Marine Corps’ assistant commandant and a Veterans Affairs Department health official also spoke before the committee. All agreed with Chiarelli that the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are coordinating better than ever to diagnose and treat brain injuries and mental disorders, and that much more is known about such conditions today than when combat operations began after Sept. 11, 2001.

Read the whole piece here.

Good General? Bad General?

Weighing on on whether or not General Stan McChrystal should keep his job in Afghanistan is way above my pay grade. Just looking at a picture of the guy makes me uneasy about saying anything remotely critical of him, because he is one intense dude.

Since McChrystal will learn today from his Commander in Chief if he'll keep his job, I found and read the Rolling Stone article which has landed him in hot water. My own take on it is that while he comes across as displaying a macho attitude and some of his staffers more so to the point of stupid, it is a Rolling Stone article, with all the gonzo hyperbole that one would expect (did you know the US is basically fighting the war in Afghanistan single handed - I didn`t), and the tone of the article is more subversive than are the General`s actual political comments. As one ex infantry officer puts it, this is after all ``a freelance article written in music magazine`` and thus not the most desirable driver of foreign and military policy. Still, I can`t imagine how the article is in any way helpful to Obama or to the war itself.

I tend to agree with Flit that this moment isn`t a reply of Truman vs McArthur, and that his Lincoln vs McClellan analogy is a better one. Hopefully some clarity and focus will come of this. As the body of Sgt. James Patrick McNeil comes home from Afghanistan today (hello Rolling Stone) it`s worth noting that soldiers are still dying and their deaths need to be honoured and given purpose. In that goal I think Obama has it dead on when he said that it's all about the soldiers: “Whatever decision that I make with respect to Gen. McChrystal, or any other aspect of Afghan policy, is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there, and that ultimately makes this country safer".

Sunday, June 13, 2010

US Military Remembers Children of Fallen Troops

This story from the AFPS illustrates some innovative and attentive steps to look after children whose moms and dads won't come home from war. The US military has the resources to bring to bear on a program (TAPS - Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) like this, but then again, they've lost a lot of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and there's a real need for it. MP+

Children of Fallen Find Comfort at TAPS Camp
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 1, 2010 – Trevor Jones peers into the vivid blue sky, tightly gripping the string holding his balloon.

A warm breeze is blowing, and his blue balloon bobs against the dozens of red and white ones around it, each held by a child.

A volunteer with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ Good Grief Camp sits with the child he’s mentoring before a balloon-release event in Crystal City, Va., May 30, 2010. The child’s message to a fallen loved one is tied to the balloon. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson

The children wait expectantly for the command. The cacophony of chatter dies down just moments before a woman calls out: “Let ‘em go!”

Trevor releases his balloon into the wind, where it joins hundreds of others rising into the sky. They separate and rise swiftly as the children tilt their heads back, squinting into the sun as they strain to keep an eye on their balloon. They don’t look away until the balloons become just distant specks.

Read the whole story here.

Tom Ricks Ponders Invading Canada

OK, that got my attention. Glancing at the daily email update from the Foreign Policy.com website and Ricks' has a story there called "Time to Invade Canada?" beside a picture of two sweet looking Mounties. Turns out to be a short meditation on how the US and Canada see the Northwest Passage differently. Ricks also supplies a link to a much longer, very thoughtful piece via the Edmonton Journal on the significance of the Passage and of the North in general to the Canadian identity.

Executive summary - we're probably not at risk of invasion any time soon. Also, we probably wouldn't care so much about the Northwest Passage if it wasn't for Stan Roger's, whose "Northwest Passage" song has been considered by many, including the PM, as one of our country's unofficial anthems. Since I have a compulsive desire to tell the world about Nova Scotia artist Kate Beaton, check out her cartoon on the Franklin Expedition.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

For a Military Wife, Her Husband's Suicide Becomes a Passionate Crusade to Help Others

By chance I noted this story from the Pentagon News Service after a day devoted to suicide intervention in the Pastoral Counselling Course I'm taking here in Ottawa. I found it heartbreaking but also a moving example of how one military wife is trying to turn the tragedy of her husband's suicide to the good. MP+

Fri, 11 Jun 2010
Survivor Shares Story to Combat Troop Suicides
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2010 - Kim Ruocco hung up the phone with her husband, relieved he had finally agreed to seek help for his increasingly severe bouts of depression.

Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco poses for a picture with his wife, Kim, and children, Joey, right, and Billy, in November 2004. The major committed suicide in 2005 after a long battle with depression. His wife has devoted herself to suicide prevention and assisting survivors. Courtesy photo

Still, she had a nagging feeling that something wasn't right. She decided to catch a red eye flight from Massachusetts to California, where her husband's reserve unit was located, so she could be with him when he sought help.
After Ruocco landed, she called the hospital. He wasn't there. She called his office. He hadn't shown up. A sinking feeling set in. Ruocco rented a car and raced over to the hotel where her husband had been staying. When she arrived, several Marines were walking out of his hotel room.

The Marines were crying.

"I didn't have to ask -- I knew," she said. Her 40-year-old husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, an accomplished AH-1 Cobra helicopter pilot and father of two, had hung himself just hours after his conversation with his wife.

Read the whole story here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

This Month's Luckiest Man in Afghanistan

Sometimes it has your number on it, but it's off by a few digits. RAF Chinook pilot Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune had a lucky escape in Afghanistan recently when an insurgent bullet ricocheted inside his helmet while he was flying his helicopter during a casualty pick-up. Read the whole story here.

Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune shows the damage to his helmet
[Picture: Sgt Leach RAF, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Good Day in Church

Being in Ottawa for six weeks has its benefits, inclduing the chance to do some ecclesial tourism. I've twice returned to St. George's Anglican Church on Metcalfe Street, and the folks there remembered my blog post from last year. I was able to visit them, like last year, on Pentecost Sunday and found this amazing church full of vibrant and alive people of all ages. I haven't found another Anglican congregation in Canada with so many young families.

Today, however, myself and two chaplain colleagues visited St. Barnabas, Ottawa's self-described Anglo-Catholic parish. More restrained and much more formal than St. George's, but still welcoming. We attended the 10:30am Solemn High Mass, which was done with dignity and skill. The music (Missa de Sancta Maria Maria Magdalena) by the choir, led by Welsey Warren, was wonderful. The preacher, Canon James Beall, one of the honouraries, was biblical and thoughtful. One of the things I particularly liked about the bulletin was the inclusion of a lectionary resource called Synthesis from Sedgwick Publishing. It appears to be a great resource, and is used at St Barnabas' for an adult study group that meets prior to the Sunday 10:30 mass.

As I did after visiting St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan last year, I am thankful that there are churches so richly grounded in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Our Church needs their witness, their prayer, and their deep and faithful reverence for the Eucharist.

What I'm Reading: Fiction Roundup

I've got some more serious stuff on the go in my typically undisciplined way, but for the last month I've been addressing a deficit in my fiction reading. Three titles I've recently finished, starting with the latest.

Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner.

Won this year's Canada Reads Award on CBC radio. I can see why so many people, including the Canada Reads jury, found this book whimsical and charming. I'm just not sure I know what to say about it otherwise. Nikolski combines a refreshing innocence with a postmodern sensibility that refuses to tie up the loose ends and tell the reader what to think.

Nikolski is about three young people, quirky loners trying to figure out who they are based on fragments of family history and legend. These fragments include pirates, fish, lost parents, and a mysterious book. The three characters cross paths, but their connections are coincidental and aren't much developed. Even the title of the book suggests its unresolved nature. Nikolski is supposedly a village in the Aleutian Islands, and for one of the characters, whose "name is unimportant", it is the last place on earth connected to a father he never knew. The title suggests a quest to this place, but maybe the name Nikolski is just a playful reference to the author's name? Whatever the answer, you'll find Nikolski a lighthearted and pleasant, if sometimes frustrating, book.

The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo by Steig Larsson.

I'm coming late to this bandwagon - I'd read a bit about the late author and about how his home in Stockholm is now a tourist destination, but I hadn't connected him with this book, the first in the Millenium trilogy. When I was in Chapters here in Ottawa a week ago there were Steig Larsen books everywhere, and a lot of promotion to the film version of GwDT, which I am hoping to see shortly.

The central charcter, Lisbeth Salander, is a fascinating figure, and she is a sort of spokeswoman, in a kickass kind of way, for the author's obvious anger at how women suffer violence from male partners and authority figures, even in supposedly utopian Sweden. Actually I don't know much about Sweden at all, but apparently Larsson's cold-eyed vision of Swedish society may be closer to the mark than we might want to admit.

It's hard to talk about this book without giving the plot away. I'll simply say that while it started slowly for me, by the halfway point I could hardly put it down and now I am eager to read the next two. If you haven't discovered Steig Larsson yet, and if you like crime thrillers, you'll enjoy his work.

The Book of God and Physics, by Enrique Joven

A present day Spanish Jesuit schoolteacher with a love for astronomy and with a passion for a Renaissance treatise, the Voynich Manuscript, written in a secret language and connected with famous astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Galileo. Sort of like Girl With The Dragon Tattoo only without the sex and violence. I found this book intelligent interesting if not gripping, and I it made me so curious about the mysterious manuscript that I wanted to know what strange secret was buried within it. Again, I can't say more about the book without spoiling it. I managed to get all the way to the end before I discovered that there really is a Voynich Manuscript, which I suppose is proof of the author's skill that I was prepared to believe that this fabulous and mysterious book was a product of his imagination.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Death", "Water", "Bias" - Expound

I know I wasn't the only one to like this recent piece in the NYT on the ending of the one-word entrance exam at All Souls' College, Oxford, because several friends emailed the link to me. If you haven't seen it, for many years the College gave would-be scholars one word and gave them three hours to write something profound. I am still scarred from writing (and later, marking) undergraduate essay exams where three hours of writing produced very little of substance.

Having just finished a three week ethics course, I was intrigued by this question from another All Souls exam which asks prospective scholars, “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?” I've put that question to several of my fellow chaplains who took the ethics course with me, and I'm still waiting for a good answer. Any one out there got any thoughts? I'm thinking that the question, if put to Quentin Tarantino, could at least lead to another movie.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Struggle for Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

Last week, the Taliban in Afghanistan admitted that a US drone strike had killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the Egyptian head of al Qaeda's operations in that country. I came across an interesting piece by Paul Cruickshank, arguing that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar, has been distancing himself from his al Qaeda friends like al-Yazid for some time already.

What surprised me about the story is that as part of this distancing stragegy, in July 2009 the Taliban issued a Code of Conduct, called "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen", designed to place limits on the use of force by its fighters. These limits are similar in function to the Rules of Engagement developed by Canada and other NATO/ISAF countries. Cruickshank cites a fascinating piece on this Code of Conduct aired on Al Jazeera last year.

These guys could be more ethical than you might think.

As this quote from the document suggests, the Taliban are mirroring western attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population, one of the key principles of Counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare:

"The mujahideen have to behave well and show proper treatment to the nation, in order to bring the hearts of civilian Muslims closer to them.

"The mujahideen must avoid discrimination based on tribal roots, language or geographic background."

Time will tell whether or not the strategy will work. A press release from the US Department of Defence suggests that numbers of Taliban fighters are seeking to make peace and reintegrate with local populations and authorities.

What the story suggests to me is that we need to be careful of careless, broad brush attempts to demonize the Taliban and portray them merely as terrorist thugs. Clearly they realize at the strategic level that COIN warfare ultimately depends on a voluntary decision by a local populace that its self interest is in allying with one side or another. The story also suggests that when both sides are playing the hearts and minds game, the side with the most firepower (namely us) can't afford to make mistakes in its application of force. Military ethicists take note.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What Makes a Bad General?

One more post on the subject of leadership, good and bad. Crusty milblogger Thomas Ricks has offered a list of the top ten worst generals in US history, and he figures that this guy is the worst of the lot.

What Makes a Good General?

Some conversation at the dinner table tonight among my chaplain colleagues as we regroup for another training course about the reaction in the media to the relief of Brigadier General Menard, former CO of Task Force Afghanistan. One writer in today's National Post called the BGen's alleged offense "a trivial infraction" and noted that the US Supreme Commander in WW2, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had an affair with his female driver. Another letter expressed sympathy that "A soldier who lived dangerously on the battlefield has paid a very high price for loving dangerously in the bedroom". Yesterday in the NP, columnist George Jonas complained that the Menard was no different from the Prussian general Blucher who helped Wellington defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. Blucher was an eccentric and a "dissolute womanizer" but he was a good soldier. He concluded that "depriving the country of a good soldier for nothing more than an extramarital fling with a subordinate is ... a damn poor choice".

Two thoughts in these letters strike me as interesting:

1) The sense that a General having an "fling" with a subordinate is a "trivial" matter because hey, it's only adultery
2) The argument that a person's private life has no bearing on their public performance. A good general who get results on the battlefield can be pardoned for all manner of personal faults.

For my civilian readers, two points need to be made.

1) There is very little that an officer, especially a senior officer, can do that is "trivial". He or she is looked up to by their subordinates to set standards for professionalism, for discipline, and sound judgement. Everyone in the chain of command wants to look up and see that their superiors are following the rules, and that they are treating all under their command with fairness and impartiality. They want to know, and this is especially true for female soldiers, that their male superiors will treat them fairly on their merits. In this respect, there is no such thing as a "trivial" sexual misconduct on anyone's part, and especially on the part of a senior officer. The sad business at CFB Trenton earlier this year should remind everyone that all sexual misconduct is serious because it can turn a commander into a predator.

2) The Jonas argument, that a general can have any manner of flaws as long as he gets the job done, is spurious. A general who is thinking of getting some on the side when he is ultimately responsible for the lives of thousands of soldiers under his command displays recklessly unsound judgement. Jonas argues that we didn't give Menard the chance to prove himself on the battlefield. Perhaps, but his military masters were right to pull the plug if they felt that they couldn't trust him to make wise and prudent decisions or to set a good example for his subordinates. If the troops start worrying that General Horndog is more interested in nookie than he is in their safety (and Kandahar is a small place with few secrets), then there is a big problem.

Interestingly, I have not heard any sympathy for Menard from my military friends, who are not "reeling" as the NP's rival the Globe would have it, but are managing some snorts of derision at how one of their own could implode so spectacularly. As one serving friend wrote, he had no desire to be led by "a clown with no sense of honour and obviously no strategic planning ability". Note that word "honour". It's not an old fashioned and archaic word. When soldiers use it, they are talking about integrity, about a seamless connection between the public and private life. Military ethics don't allow soldiers to separate their public, work selves from their private selves. Soldiers need a working sense of honour to do their duty. Whatever their personal flaws, and they are legion, at the end of the day it's all about integrity. George Jonas seems to know a lot about military history, but he could benefit from knowing some soldiers and learning how they think

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

For Fans of Naval History

Two pieces in the news last week spoke to naval stories of World War Two. Last Friday the 70th anniversary of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, was remembered in a flotilla of small craft that made the Channel crossing.

HMS Monmouth sails alongside the Dunkirk Little Ships flotilla to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the World War Two evacuation
[Picture: Leading Airman (Photographer) Dean Nixon, Crown Copyright/MOD 2010]

Looking at this picture, it's hard to believe how small some of the civilian craft were. This is how they must have looked to the German pilots that tried to bomb and strafe them. Very brave.

In the same week, I noted in the NYT the passing of John Finn, the last surviving Congressional Medal of Honor winner from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He was 100.

John W. Finn, with his wife, Alice, was awarded the Medal of Honor during ceremonies at Pearl Harbor in 1942.

Chief Finn drove into work during the attack, set up a machine gun, and fired at Japanese planes for two and a half hours, suffering many wounds. My favourite part of the obituary is the Chief's comments on the movie Pearl Harbour that came out in 1999. "It was a damned good movie,” he told The Boston Herald in 2001. “It’s helped educate people who didn’t know about Pearl Harbor and what happened there.”

“I liked it especially,” he said, “because I got to kiss all those pretty little movie actresses.”

Canada's Top Soldier in Afghanistan Relieved of Command

There has been much coverage of the announcement on that the CO of Task Force Afghanistan, Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, has been relived of his command and returned to Canada "following allegations he had an intimate relationship with a member of his staff".

From my vantage point, I wouldn't say that myself and other CF members are "reeling", as the Globe and Mail puts it, but there do seem to be a lot of people shaking their heads and saying, as one my favourite historians, Jack Granatstein, that this was pure "stupidity" on the BGen's part. Members of the military are prone to office romances, as in any other workplace, but these liasons are strictly forbidden in theatre, and the ban against sex even applies to couples serving together. The official army term for sex in a combat zone is "fraternization" and it's forbidden because it has a corrosive effect on the trust and impartiality that is necessary for the chain of command to work.

“The people who are at the top simply must follow the rules and must set an example,” says Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein. “If they don’t then there is no enforcing discipline on others, and maybe more important, things down the ranks. How can I enforce discipline, when Private Jones says to me, yeah but you’re screwing so and so.”

In one of my favurite mil blogs, BruceR's Flit, I note that this event is pretty much unprecedented in Canadian military history. The closest parallel one could find is General R.F. Keller, Canada's D-Day commander, who was distracted from his job by drink and his mistress. As BruceR puts it, "clearly this is going to be one for the history books, too. I guess the larger lesson is that no one in an operation this big is ever indispensable.

WIth the Americans on Memorial Day in Iraq

When our US friends in theatre remember a fallen comrade, they use a custom somewhat different than our own. The US memorial service ends with a ceremonial calling of the roll, in which the dead soldier's name is called three times. This practice is hauntingly described at a service yesterday for Major Ronald Culver, an officer with the Louisiana National Guard, killed in Iraq on 2May.

Fittingly, Maj. Culver's service occured on Memorial Day, a US holiday dedicated to remembering that country's military dead. One thing that threw me in this account was the reference in the service that Maj. Culver had "gone to Fiddler's Green". I googled the term "Fiddler's Green" and discovered that it is used by US armoured units to refer to a legendary afterlife, a kind of Elysian Fields, for the souls of dead cavalrymen. Maj. Culver served in a cavalry unit. I would be curious to know if anyone has ever heard the term used in a Canadian or British armoured unit.

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.


Blog Archive