Amid the outrage, one question lingers: Where were the officers?
Amid the outrage, one question lingers: Where were the officers?
They thought they had turned the corner. In early January, the soldiers of the Canadian Airborne Regiment believed they were on the way to living down the brutal images of torture in Somalia that had haunted them—and the Canadian public—for almost two years. They had a new commander, a no-nonsense lieutenant-colonel named Peter Kenward who was determined to restore their once-proud reputation as Canada’s toughest fighting men. And they were eagerly preparing for peacekeeping duty in Croatia starting in early April—a chance to win back the trust that some members of the regiment had so badly abused.
“The guys are sick of all the bad coverage,” one Airborne officer told Maclean’s. ‘Things have been cleaned up.”
Then, suddenly, all that hope disappeared. Newly released images of Airborne soldiers mugging for a video camera in early 1993 brought back the old stereotypes of the unit—and added a deeply disturbing new dimension. One videotape, broadcast by the CBC on Jan. 15, showed several members of the Airborne making racial slurs. Chief among them was Master Cpl. Matt McKay—a former member of the white supremacist Aryan Nation group—who complained that he “ain’t killed enough niggers yet.” Four days later, CTV News broadcast a second amateur video shot following training exercises at the regiment’s base in Petawawa, Ont., during the summer of 1992, before the Airborne was sent to Somalia. It depicted a brutal hazing ritual: drunken men forced by comrades to eat feces, vomit and urinesoaked bread; simulated sex acts; a black soldier on a leash being led around on all fours with the words “I love the KKK” scrawled on his back; soldiers having dirt kicked in their faces while doing pushups.
The videotapes, particularly the second one showing degrading behavior, sparked public outrage and raised serious doubts about the very survival of the 650-member regiment. Defence Minister David Collenette, expressing shock and disgust, ordered Gen. John de Chastelain, the chief of defence staff, to investigate the hazing ritual and produce a report for him this week. Prime Minister Jean
Chrétien, on a trade mission to Trinidad, went further. Describing the actions of the Airborne soldiers as “horrible and unacceptable,” Chrétien told reporters: “If we have to dismantle it, we’ll dismantle it. I have no problem with that at all.”
The Prime Minister’s remarks were the strongest sign that the Airborne, an all-volunteer force that draws its recruits from Canada’s top infantry regiments—and that tends to attract gung-ho soldiers to Canada’s equivalent of the American Green Berets or the British SAS forces—may be disbanded. At the very least, its scheduled mission to Croatia was immediately put in doubt. Maclean’s has learned that a reconnaissance team of about 10 members of the regiment had been set to go there this week, but senior officers were ordered to stay in Petawawa until the controversy over the tapes has been dealt with.
The videotapes were just the latest black mark on the Canadian Airborne. Since the regiment’s return from Somalia in July, 1993,13 of its members have been tried by military courts for various offences— nine of them related to the beating death of a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, in March, 1993. The prime suspect, Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee, was found unfit to stand trial due to brain damage sustained during a suicide attempt shortly after Arone’s death. Re. Elvin Kyle Brown was convicted of torture and manslaughter and is
now serving five years for his role in the beating. Critics contend that Brown, who is appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court, is a scapegoat. They argue that his superiors have not been adequately punished, pointing to the acquittal of the Airborne’s commander in Somalia, Lt.-Col. Carol Mathieu, and the relatively light “severe reprimand” handed to Maj. Anthony Seward, who ordered troops to “abuse” prisoners. And they say that the hazing incident points to a serious failure in the unit’s command structure. Scott Taylor, publisher of the military affairs monthly Esprit de Corps, said he was shocked by the
absence of supervision during the hazing ritual, conducted in broad daylight on the Petawawa base. “Where were the officers?” he asked.
Many of the soldiers shown in the videos remain in the Airborne, including Pte. David Brocklebank, who was acquitted last November of torture and negligent performance of duty in Arone’s death. In the video made in Somalia just weeks before that fatal beating, Brocklebank is shown waving a loaded heavy machine-gun and talking about getting “niggers.” But although the Canadian military adopted a new “zero tolerance” policy on racism last April, Collenette’s spokesman John Willisten said he doubts that the soldiers depicted in the videotapes can be disciplined for racist behavior. Said Willisten: “You can’t make the new rules on racism retroactive.” National defence officials, however, say that other regulations regarding deportment may be used to discipline the soldiers. Rubin Friedman, director of government relations for B’nai Brith Canada, voiced fears that racists are being allowed to remain in the Canadian Forces: “What are the chances,” he asked, “that those soldiers have changed?”
The latest controversy sullied not only the reputation of the Airborne, but also that
of two of Canada’s proudest army units, which are supposed to send their best members to the Airborne for three-year tours of duty. Until now, attention has focused on 2 Commando—which draws its men from Princess Patricia’s Canadian light Infantry, an 81-year-old Calgary-based regiment that earned battle honors in the mud of Flanders during the First World War and in Italy during the Second World War. It was members of 2 Commando who arrested and beat Arone to death. But the videotape of the hazing shows Frenchspeaking troops of 1 Commando, made up of soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment, the legendary Van Doo.
Military sources told Maclean’s last week that because of these regiments’ numerous peacekeeping duties, many aspiring soldiers no longer view a stint with the Airborne as the best route for advancement. Instead, other regiments may even have dumped soldiers they regarded as “bad apples” on the Airborne. In an interview last November with Maclean’s, Lt.-Col. Kenward— who took over command of the Airborne in September, 1993, with a reputation as a hard-nosed disciplinarian—said that in the past soldiers should have been screened more carefully. ‘To be frank, at times the Airborne has not received the very, very best,” he acknowledged. That would point to a failure on the part of Kenward’s predecessors. Bill Sutherland, a retired colonel with the Patricias, says that a very strong hand is needed when dealing with such aggressive young soldiers. “At times, the Airborne leadership has been weak,” said Sutherland. “On that occasion [the hazing], it certainly broke down—from commanding officer down to warrant officers and sergeants.”
Nicholas Stethem, a captain with the Airborne in the 1970s and now director of the Toronto-based Strategic Analysis Group, remarked that the hazing ritual aired last week “is closer to a biker initiation than anything to do with being a soldier.” His analogy is apt. Some soldiers in the Van Doo have long been associated with motorcycle gangs in Quebec, and in the videotape a man in full biker regalia can be seen in the background. Some members of the Patricias have also been linked to biker gangs, as well as to far-right groups such as the Aryan Nations.
The Airborne will come under more intense scrutiny when a public inquiry, ordered by Collenette last November, convenes following the completion of the last of the military trials arising out of the Somalia incident, probably by late spring. Capt. Michael Sox—charged with unlawfully causing bodily harm and negligent performance of duties—was Kyle Brown’s
platoon commander in Somalia and is to go on trial on Feb. 21. The defence minister called the inquiry following allegations by army surgeon Maj. Barry Armstrong that Airborne officers had ordered the destruction of photographic evidence of the murder and abuse of Somalis by Canadian soldiers. Armstrong—who disobeyed the orders and says he will provide evidence to the public inquiry—says the orders were part of the sweeping coverup of an escalating pattern of violence.
Another issue likely to be examined is the poor logistical support of the Somalia operation, which caused bitterness and cynicism among the troops. A report prepared by defence officials for the department of foreign affairs and obtained by Maclean’s cites a series of supply and equipment problems faced by soldiers, including insufficient time to train and integrate leaders, and impractical clothing and backpacks for Somali conditions.
Other areas of concern regarding the Somalia mission were identified by a military board of inquiry in September, 1993. It noted that a rogue element within 2 Commando had posed a direct challenge to authority, yet was not properly disciplined.
Some soldiers had even formed what the report described as a “wall of silence” to protect each other from punishment after some had torched a sergeant’s car and set off explosives in a soldier’s club at Petawawa and in nearby Algonquin Park in 1992. The group called themselves the “Rebels,” and their use of the Confederate flag was described in the report as “an open symbol of defiance of authority.” The report was critical of the fact that the man who had identified the problems—Lt.Col. Paul Momeault—was removed as the regiment’s commander before the Somalia mission for what has since been described by superiors as training inadequacies.
Questions about his removal, as well as activities within the Airborne, reach into the highest levels of the military. The key men in the decisions to fire Momeault and send the Airborne to Somalia, Maj.-Gen.
Lewis Mackenzie, now retired, and Maj.-Gen. Ernest Beno, will likely face some tough questions at the impending inquiry. And some critics even point to Gen. de Chastelain—a former commander of the Patricias and, until now, a strong supporter of the Airborne—who they say was likely informed of the disciplinary problems. Asked if the inquiry should look at problems extending beyond the Airborne, one senior officer replied: “Absolutely.”
Last week’s gruesome videotapes lend a new urgency to the inquiry. And with many predicting the Airborne’s demise, a dark cloud looms over the soldiers now training at Petawawa for the scheduled peacekeeping mission in Croatia. Stethem, who believes Canada needs a commando unit, says the regiment has been judged by the actions of a few. “The only way they can reverse that judgment is through their performance in the future.” But they may not get the chance. For Canada’s elite paratroopers, last week may well have been the beginning of the end.
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