A lament for the Canadian Airborne

Were the Liberals right to disband the troubled Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1995? Robert Smol thinks not.

It has been 15 years this week since the final curtain came down on what was arguably the most painful political chapter in Canada's military history: The disowning and disbandment of the storied Canadian Airborne Regiment in the wake of the Somalia scandal.

"In those moments my head was swirling — I was in shock," recounts retired Airborne sgt. James Davis in his book The Sharp End, recalling the moment the announcement was made to the commandoes of the regiment.

"Everything I had worked towards, all of us had worked towards and believed in, had been taken away in an instant of political manoeuvring."

Was this the right decision?

Considering the internal reforms that the regiment was going through before its disbandment and the subsequent decision by the Paul Martin Liberals in 2005, in the wake of 9/11, to establish a new special operations regiment — essentially a new CAR — the answer, I think, has to be no.

David Collenette, the Liberal defence minister, answers questions in Parliament about the Somalia inquiry in 1996 (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

There is no question certain members of the Airborne disgraced themselves badly in Somalia in 1993 and that high-ranking officers tried to mislead the media later on as some of these incidents came to light.

But the whole Somalia affair, as it came to be called, probably has to be seen against the actual deployment itself as well as the broad politics of the day.

Echoing Canada's mission to Afghanistan a decade later, the Somalia deployment came about because one government (Brian Mulroney's Conservatives) jumped at a U.S. request to be part of a high-profile international mission while another government (Jean Chrétien's Liberals) bore the brunt of the fact that we may not have been prepared or equipped for such a job.

Not peacekeeping

By the time the Airborne deployed to Somalia in 1992, it had already distinguished itself while on peacekeeping duty in Cyprus in the 1970s and '80s, as I wrote on another occasion

But unlike Cyprus, the Airborne regiment in Somalia was deployed on a Chapter VII peace enforcement mission, which is not to be confused with the classic blue beret peacekeeping.

Under the new terms, contributing armies were "to use all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations."

In other words, Somalia had no real peace to keep and the forces that were dispatched there were expected to establish a secure environment that would allow relief operations to take place.

It was in this environment, in early March 1993 that a group of airborne troops set a trap for local teens who were stealing from the base, shooting and killing one in the process. Then, a week or so later, another Somali teen, Shidane Arone, was found hiding in a base latrine. 

Pte. Kyle Brown during his court martial hearing in Petawawa in March 1994. He was convicted and sentenced to five years for his role in the death of Somali teenager Shidane Arone. The other soldier involved, Clayton Matchlee, was deemed unfit to stand trial following a failed suicide attempt. (Canadian Press)

His torture and beating death at the hands of two Airborne soldiers, who took trophy photos along the way, became the ultimate symbol of what Canada's involvement there was all about, at least on the home front.

Within Somalia, according to former Airborne Cpl. Robert Prouse, there was a very different perspective.

Local Somalis didn't want us to leave, he wrote in his journal, now an online blog.

"Everyone smiled and waved as we passed. The new school we built was open and new buildings were being built everywhere. We must be doing something right."

Lack of leadership

What subsequently emerged in the hugely publicized court martial and government inquiry, which the Liberals eventually shut down, was that the regiment had been suffering from a lack of leadership.

This was certainly not the first time that a unit of the Canadian army was found wanting in leadership.

But never had such a problem resulted in the death of a civilian prisoner, and, more importantly, never had a single military incident — at least in Canada — been so widely scrutinized by the public and the media.

Its reputation in tatters, command passed in 1993 to Col. Peter Kenward, an accomplished fixer who appeared to have rebuilt the regiment enough that the Liberal defence minister at the time, David Collenette, was willing to allow it back in the rotation, to be deployed to Bosnia, the newest UN-U.S. hotspot. 

However, it was a chance at redemption that quickly buckled under the onslaught of media and public scrutiny when, shortly after Collenette's announcement, a series of incriminating videos were made public.

These videos showed disgusting initiation rituals, racist slurs, heavy drinking and inappropriate commentaries.

"I can tell you that after 11 years in the regiment that was not an Airborne regiment tradition," says retired sgt. Greg Janes, an Airborne medic who served in Somalia.

But for the Liberal government, the growing tide of negative publicity was enough to tip their hand.

As Collenette said recently, looking back, politicians "deal with the realm of the possible and, certainly, substantively, there were problems with the regiment. They were systemic and we believed the leadership, notwithstanding the problems in Somalia, really had not dealt with the issues, so we disbanded."

But there was a real contradiction here in the government's actions. 

The decision to disband was announced in January 1995. Fourteen days later in the House of Commons, it was announced that Col. Kenward would receive the Order of Military Merit for doing "an excellent job in bringing good discipline, the usual high degree of training and dedication to the regiment."

On March 5 1995 the Canadian Airborne Regiment paraded for the last time.

Was this the right decision?

Today, Collenette has no regrets about his decision and says he is happy to "leave it up to historians to make the judgment as to whether the decision to disband the regiment stands the test of time."

Indeed, he insists that the decision to disband "was welcomed by many in the Forces."

But that would assume that the Chrétien Liberals allowed the military leadership to speak frankly and openly on the subject.

What is clear is that the disbandment was welcomed by much of the public, who, ignorant of the intricate connection between conventional military action and peacekeeping, believed that we should dispense with much of the former to enhance the latter.

What also seems clear is that the minister of defence, faced with an unprecedented crisis of public confidence, had to take some sort of drastic action.

But was amputation the answer? What it did was leave Canada for a long period without the full special operations talents that the Canadian Airborne had provided and it left the country with the clear impression that its military leadership could not be trusted to put its own house in order.

In today's order of battle, the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, created in 2005, fills many of the same roles that would have otherwise been tasked to the Canadian Airborne Regiment had the regiment been able to carry on.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the start-up of this new regiment was made possible through the leadership of many former Airborne commandoes, while some of the senior officers from that period, including Col. Serge Labbé who was in overall charge of the Somalia mission when the Arone killing took place, went on to play a very senior role in the Afghan mission.

All told, it makes you wonder whether Collenette's challenge to historians has not already been answered.