Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Failure of command. Prosecute the corporal.

Reader CdnDiv aimed me at this article by Michael Friscolanti in Macleans a couple of days ago. It is the story of Canadian snipers in Afghanistan and how they went from relative heros to goats based on allegations and innuendo that at least one of them had desecrated the corpse of one of their targets.

The fact that Canadian army snipers in Afghanistan had accomplished outstanding feats of marksmanship and stamina during the 2002 campaign, including a world-record long shot, soon fell to a CF National Investigative Service investigation which would delay recognition and fail to provide evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the Canadian troops.

Friscolanti's article is well worth reading, and while it is the reason for this post, it is not necessarily the primary focus.

I have had my ass saved by a sniper. My small unit was unaware of an approaching enemy force when, from 400 yards to our rear, a single shot took out their leader. It gave us time to reposition and eventually kill or capture that force. I know all of that sounds very un-Canadian. It isn't, but if it eases the sensibility of some, it was a British unit.

After the action we conducted the necessary patrols and encountered the sniper team which had started the ambush. As good as my team was, the snipers were better at concealment. They held off challenging a two man approach until after they were past. We secured the area and I had a conversation with them. When I thanked them for the initial shot, they both just shrugged and said little more. They were curious as to whether we had taken any casualties. Aware that we had routed the enemy force, they had no interest in how many we had killed.

And whether we like it or not, that is what snipers are all about. Snipers do not fire warning shots. The sole function of a sniper is to identify and kill a target, almost always on direction from a higher authority. They are a specific weapon assigned to a battlefield commander and while free-lancing is not unheard of, it rarely occurs. I have never met a sniper who boasted outside their own team of shots taken or numbers they have dispatched. It is a personal score and while they may take personal pride in their work, there is a huge price to pay.

Most people do not understand what killing other human beings, even in combat, does to a person. Just accept that it changes everyone who does it. The effect on a sniper, where the killing is planned, deliberate, remorseless and often isolated, has even a greater negative effect on the human psyche. Almost all who have had to do their job on the battlefield suffer from some form of post traumatic stress disorder.

Given all that, snipers, because of the nature of the job and the intense inner secrecy of their feelings do not leave a calling card on their victims. The job requires that they take their shot and then melt into the environment. The best effect of a sniper on the enemy is that he is not seen prior to, during or after the shot. The message to all others is the shot itself.

It was for that reason that the CFNIS investigation and the subsequent board of inquiry conducted by the army left me questioning the sanity of those with command authority.

There is little doubt that Corporal Aaron Perry was a problem in his battalion. He was an insubordinate sonofabitch. His fellow team members, although much less inclined to buck authority, were also subjects of the investigation. In the end however, no evidence was found to support any charge of any kind. And believe me, if there had been any, Perry in particular would have faced a court-martial.

The CFNIS is made up of military policemen. Before I go too much further, I will explain that they have a job to do and it isn't easy. However, they are often over-zealous and they rarely understand the assignment of the people they are investigating. All too often in the Canadian Forces, just being the subject of a NIS or military police investigation is enough to ruin one's career or worse, permanently destroy an individual.

In consultation with the Judge Advocate General's office, investigations are carried out in the same format as those carried out by civilian police authorities. And the military careers of both the military policeman and JAG prosecutor depend on "getting" people. Despite high minded mottos, lofty ethics statements and published visions, both NIS and JAG members engage their roles with career objectives very much on their minds.

In the case of the snipers reported in the Macleans article, the pressure applied by NIS was relentless. It was also fruitless. Even an unrelated charge against Perry was dropped, simply because it should never have been laid in the first place. (He was accused of mouthing-off to a chaplain. In that a chaplain, when talking to an individual holds the same rank as that individual at that moment, it is impossible to be insubordinate.) NIS produced nothing, JAG was left with a blank page and the matter should have been dropped.

Then, having been robbed of the opportunity for blood by the military justice system, the command authorities went the next best route - a board of inquiry into Perry's character. The soldiers of 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were already grumbling that the NIS investigation of the snipers was a sham. When the board of inquiry was convened they knew it was a witch-hunt.

While I know few details of the snipers' case, I have had close involvement with both NIS and JAG. My suspicion comes from the past behaviour of these two groups and their willingness to pursue subjects long after it has become clear that there is no case. They are also not beyond "inventing" evidence and suborning testimony. That they found nothing which could be used against the snipers, particularly Perry, strongly suggests nothing existed.

What is missing from the Macleans article, however, is a look at how the leadership failed. While it is paramount that a soldier take responsibility for his/her own actions, it does not diminish the fact that the senior leadership of the snipers' unit was sorely lacking.

If Cpl Perry was a disciplinary problem throughout his career it was contingent upon his leaders to restrict his advancement until that problem was dealt with. If his character was a problem before he applied for training as a sniper then his request should have been turned down. And if the army is still so politically charged as to find itself unable to demonstrate proper loyalty to its troops then it's time the senior commanders were taken to task for their unacceptable leadership.

To convene a board of inquiry into people's character after they have been exonerated by the military justice system and after having performed one of the most vile jobs on earth is a demonstration of poor judgment at the command level. Perry and his compatriots, whatever their faults, were products of the CF's making. It is the responsibility of their leaders to deal with them properly - not just write them off and engage in the 30 year-old CF habit of making war on its own troops when someone expected to be a stone-killer doesn't act like boy scout.

It's time the careerist officer corps of the Canadian Forces was cleaned out. Perhaps then, more of them would start paying proper attention to their most important resource - their troops.

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