CANADA

A massive and elaborate game of war

Ken MacQueen June 24 1985
CANADA

A massive and elaborate game of war

Ken MacQueen June 24 1985

A massive and elaborate game of war

CANADA

Ken MacQueen

If war is hell, then hell this month was a convenient three-hour drive southeast from Edmonton. In peacetime it is known as Camp Wainwright, 386 square miles of marshland, bush, rivers and rolling plains bearing a strategic resemblance to northwestern Europe. The area is neatly bounded by wire fencing and incongruously defended from civilian encroachment by a series of “No hunting” signs. For an eightweek period which ends June 24, Wainwright has been pockmarked by the guns and shovels and scarred by the armored vehicles of more than 13,000 Canadian soldiers in a massive military exercise, Rendezvous 85. It was the largest gathering of Canadian troops at Wainwright since more than 14,000 members of the 6th Canadian Infantry Division trained there in 1943 at the height of the Second World War. This spring at Wainwright the war was make-believe, and the object of the exercise, in the minds of soldiers who prefer not to contemplate a real-lifé conflict in the nuclear era, has shifted. Explained 22-year-old Pte. John Hooyer as he crouched beside a mortar on a windy hilltop: “Right now we don’t practise for war, we practise for peacetime.”

Even so, an intensified level of military preparedness—as peacekeepers in brushfire wars or, if necessary, as participants in a wider conflict—is the driving force in the gradual reconstruction

of the Canadian military. After the political uncertainties of the 1970s, when the armed forces’ strength under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau fell to a 25-year low of 78,033 and a 21-gun salute seemed to strain equipment stores, Canada’s military has made significant advances back into political favor. Ten years ago just 12.2 per cent of the military’s $2.97-billion budget went to equipment purchases, while the balance was devoted to salaries and benefits, military

pensions, training and operating costs. But this year new equipment, facilities and supplies will account for 27 per cent of a $9.38-billion budget. While Canada’s more than 82,500 service personnel still make up the smallest per capita force in the 14-country North Atlantic Treaty Organization, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies Canada is one of just four NATO countries that has, since 1980, consistently increased its annual defence spending by three per cent or more above inflation.

The fight for political high ground reached its zenith on Feb. 27 with the appointment of Second World War bomber pilot Erik Nielsen as defence minister. The impact has not gone undetected. Noted a reserve helicopter pilot as he negotiated a gut-wrenching turn just above the Wainwright treetops: “You can see a different attitude in the government. It went through a real decline under the Liberals.”

In truth, the previous Liberal government ordered many of the big-ticket items, including $5.2 billion for six patrol frigates and $4.8 billion for 138 CF-18 fighter aircraft. But under the nine-month-old Conservative government defence has become a major preoccupation, ending a decade in which the military was such an invisible force in Canadian life that camouflage seemed redundant. Despite the embarrassing resignation in February of former defence minister Robert Coates for visit-

ing a West German strip club, most of the developments have buoyed morale: a commitment of $55.5 million for a return to the distinctive army, navy and air force uniforms; plans to place 1,200 new soldiers in Europe by next summer, boosting Canada’s NATO commitment overseas to 7,100; the signing of a costsharing agreement with the United States for a $1.5-billion updated North Warning System; serious consideration of participation with the United States in its proposed $26-billion space weapons research plan; and an agreement in principle to expand Canada’s peacekeeping role by posting about 100 soldiers in an international force patrolling the Sinai peninsula.

The elaborate war games at Wainwright amounted to a full-scale celebration of the renewed interest in Canada’s military strength. Said Lt.-Gen. Charles Belzile, head of Mobile Command, the army component of the unified Canadian Armed Forces: “We don’t mind a little publicity.” Journalists covering the war games were conscripted as players, assigned to either the Orange or Blue army, given uniforms and rations and supplied with an escort officer and a driver. In exchange for their freedom to roam the battlefield, reporters became guinea pigs in exercise Sudden Flash, an attempt, forces information officers explained, to draft guidelines for press coverage of any future conflict. The bullets and shells were blanks. But the dust, the noise, the moonlight manoeuvres, the cold, the sleep deprivation, the rations, the running and hiding and waiting were real enough.

Although Canadian peacekeepers have been under fire as recently as 1974 in Cyprus, there is a diminishing corps of senior officers with combat experience. Even the 52-year-old Belzile, who commanded the exercise, has not seen action, although he did serve a one-year tour of duty in Korea as a junior officer following the 1950-53 Korean War. “Almost none of us has been involved in a war, at least our own war. Many of us have been involved in somebody else’s,” said 47-year-old Maj.-Gen. John de Chastelain, the urbane commander of the 5,000-member Blue army at Wainwright. Waging war, Belzile added, is closer to art than science. “You are the artist who is trying to do a painting or write a poem,” he explained, “when everybody else around is trying to break your pen and your brush and cut your God damned canvas.”

The artistry was less obvious on the battle lines. “It will sound like everybody is panicking and freaking out—and they probably are,” explained Pte. Hooyer as he bounced toward battle in the dark, cramped belly of a Grizzly armored troop carrier. Then Hooyer, a native of economically troubled Brantford, Ont., who enlisted two years ago

after studying graphic design at Sheridan College, strapped a radio to the back of 25-year-old platoon commander Lieut. Ian Creighton, grabbed his 9-mm submachine-gun and joined the rest of his company in jumping from the herd of armored carriers. Smoke stained the sky as guns chattered and artillery thumped. They ran, crouched over, toward the distant specks of the retreating enemy. Nobody fell down.

By 7 a.m. Fletcher and Hooyer, taking turns on the shovel, had dug a shallow trench to serve as a base for the mortar and offer some protection from enemy artillery. “You’ve got to be a little crazy at times to handle all of this,” Hooyer conceded. Then, suddenly, a CF-5 jet

fighter screamed low across the hilltop. “That was enemy air support,” shrugged Creighton. “We probably just got napalmed or something.”

No one kept a running tally of how many soldiers died in subjugating the Orange army or how many times they sprang back to life to fight again. It is a safe bet, however, that none of the casualties was a woman. The role of the 274 women at Wainwright was strictly limited to support work, from clerking to maintenance, all well back from the front line. Federal policy bars the 6,900 women in the forces from 45 of 136 job classifications, essentially blocking

them from any combat role. Canadians simply are not ready to see women killed in battle, insisted Lt.-Col. William Megill, 44, the senior officer for operations and training for Canada’s land forces. “We go to war to protect our wives and children,” he observed, “not to have them slaughtered on a battlefield somewhere.” Noted a female captain in the information service after meeting the crew of male reporters and cameramen covering the exercises: “You talk about prejudice in the forces, but not one of you sent a woman here either.”

The grand scale of the Wainwright manoeuvres has given Canada a higher level of combat readiness than it has had in years, military planners insist.

But the question that lingers is whether the battlefield is a sane place for a Canadian soldier of either sex. The best defence a conventional army like Canada’s can muster against an attack by tactical nuclear weapons is to spread itself thinly on the ground to limit the carnage of a direct hit. Even in training for conventional warfare Canadian soldiers have, since the Korean War, been spared from the final accounting: the battle-hardening that comes from the noise of real bombs and bullets and the taste of death. In that regard, training officer Megill conceded, “we’re still not ready to go and get shot at. Not yet.”