They are the fittest and most aggressive soldiers in the Canadian army, kept in peak physical condition through rigorous training. And with their distinctive maroon berets, the members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment have never been reluctant to advertise their status as Canada’s elite warriors. But in the wake of the disturbing evidence from the court martial of Pte. Elvin Kyle Brown, the Airborne may soon find itself in a different kind of battle—one for its own survival. Already, some defence analysts are asking whether the army needs such a unit at a time when paratroopers no longer fill any obvious combat role. And with a new Liberal government in Ottawa intent on trimming defence costs at every opportunity, the controversial fighting force could see its historic role in the Canadian military scuttled. But despite the public scrutiny and political pressures, Airborne officers remain typically stoic about their future prospects. Declared Capt. Gregory Burt, the regiment’s adjutant, in an interview with Maclean’s last week: “We are soldiering on.”
On its own, the fact that a Somali teenager was tortured and beaten to death last year while in the custody of 2 Commando—one of three sub-units that make up the 600member Canadian Airborne—is damaging enough to the regiment’s proud reputation. But perhaps even more disturbing is the emerging evidence showing that senior officers knew well in advance of the Somalia mission of long-standing disciplinary problems within the 180-man 2 Commando—including a self-styled “Rebels” faction that adopted the U.S. Confederate flag as its symbol and had a reputation for heavy drinking and brawling. In fact, after soldiers set fire to a sergeant’s car in October, 1992, Lt.-Col. Paul Momeault, then-commanding officer of the Airborne, urged his immediate superior, Brig.-Gen. Ernest Beno, not to send the 2 Commando unit to Somalia until the rebel faction was dealt with. Shortly afterward, Lt.Col. Carol Mathieu—who now faces charges of negligent performance of his duties while in Somalia—replaced Morneault as commander of the Airborne.
In retrospect, many military observers question whether the Canadian Airborne, with its macho reputation and aggressive training, was ever a wise choice for the delicate peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The regiment traces its roots to a pair of legendary Second World War fighting units: the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which fought at Normandy on D-Day, and the First Special Service Force, known as the Devil’s Brigade,
which gained fame during the Allied campaigns in Italy. The Canadian Airborne Regiment, founded in Edmonton in 1968 and transferred to Petawawa, Ont., in 1977, carried on the tradition through rugged, combat-ready training that landed its members in such contrasting extremes as the Canadian Arctic and the African desert.
An all-volunteer force that draws its recruits from Canada’s top infantry regiments, the Canadian Airborne tends to attract ambitious, gung-ho soldiers who see themselves as the
equivalent of the U.S. Green Berets or the British SAS forces. “The Airborne guys tend to be young and hyperactive,” says one senior military officer who specializes in preparing soldiers for the psychological challenges of warfare. “It’s a great group to get in, get the job done and get the hell out. But they are not the group you send in for a sustained, patience-taking, hot, dirty, very trying situation.” But Nicholas Stethem, director of the Toronto-based Strategic Analysis Group and a former member of the Airborne, takes a different lesson from the tragic events in Somalia. He says that, despite the clearly unacceptable conduct of some members of the 2 Commando unit, the Canadian Airborne is well suited for peacekeeping operations because it can respond quickly to global crises. Still, Stethem adds that Airborne leaders need to do a better job of harnessing the soldiers’ natural aggressiveness to the task at hand. “Paratroopers are a culture,” he says. “If they’re on the rails, they give you flexibility. If they’re off the rails, you get what happened in Somalia.” The disagreement, however, may soon be academic as many analysts conclude that the nature of modern warfare has made the Airborne largely irrelevant. Military historian Gwynne Dyer says that the Airborne’s primary role—to jump out of airplanes into combat zones—makes little sense nowadays given the
vulnerability of slow-moving aircraft to rocket and missile fire over a modem battlefield. He adds that Canada and other NATO countries cling to their airborne forces, even with the high training costs, because of their historical mystique. “It’s a crock,” says Dyer. “Paratroopers are a luxury.” And for a federal government determined to cut defence spending, the scandalplagued Canadian Airborne may look like one luxury it could live without.
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