Friday, July 9, 2010

What is happening to our top commanders?

We can no longer turn a blind eye. Something is seriously wrong. In just six months, our rising military stars have fallen on their swords and killed hard-earned careers. Why?

We have the top dog of top dogs, a highly decorated and respected commander-in-chief of American, Canadian and other NATO forces in Afghanistan getting drunk and trashing the president of the United States. U.S. General Stanley McChrystal is relieved and recalled home in disgrace.

In Canada, the most respected military commander of the largest and busiest air base is accused of being a serial killer and rapist after he's connected to the murders of two women, one under his command. Col. Russ Williams awaits trial. More than once he has required suicide watch.

The commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, selected because of his tactical brilliance, is stripped of his command and sent home in disgrace because of an "inappropriate relationship." Before this happened, Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard was on a fast track to one day becoming the chief of staff for all Canadian forces.

And now we learn Canada has relieved its senior ranking commander in Haiti of command. Col. Bernard Ouellette, who also doubles as the chief of staff for the UN's Haiti rescue mission following the earthquake that devastated the Caribbean country, faces allegations of an "inappropriate relationship" and an investigation on his return home, BUT he's also the same commander who was highly praised for his cool handling of Canada's relief effort under almost impossible conditions to bring aid to the Haitian people and children when they so desperately needed it.

If the morale of the commanders is self-destructing, what can we say about the troops depending on them for leadership?

Paul Watson, a Pulitzer-winning war correspondent for The Toronto Star, is presently embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan and he reports it's the boots on the ground looking out for each other that sustain the troops' morale and determination to get the job done right. He writes: "During an especially tough spate of attacks last month, soldiers at one of the company's most exposed bases say their commander offered to transfer any soldier who wanted to leave for a safer place. None stepped forward. All wanted to stay in the fight."

Watson is finding that the solidarity amongst troops is indivisible. He probes the heart and soul of each soldier and he can't find a break in their commitment to each other. He sites the example of Sgt. Jeff Veinot, on his third overseas tour starting in Bosnia in 2003. He was part of Operation Medusa, when Canadian Forces first battled large groups of well dug-in Taliban in the Kandahar province. He explains: "His [Veinot's] strongest loyalty is not to an idea or a cause, but to the men and women who may go home in a box because he [the sergeant] has had a bad day at work."

Watson quotes Veinot: "It's not about the pay cheques. It's not about saving Afghanistan or doing what the politicians think. It's about making sure that the guys, the sappers and the corporals below us are the guys that get to go and have as safe a trip as they can over here."

And here's another aspect of the soldier serving under war conditions that civilians fail to understand and cannot empathize with: the bonding of facing and overcoming danger together, every day. Watson captures this spiritual hold when he questions a corporal on leave back home who tells him, "the only thing harder than being Afghanistan is being somewhere else when your buddies are here."

This buddy system is a soldier's safety valve.

What safety valve to commanders have?

Leadership by definition is isolated and lonely. Field commanders make the toughest decisions of life and death, whatever the rules of engagement or the purpose of the mission, from peacekeeping to actual battleground, and they have to live with them alone. They write the heartache letters home to the families of the fallen. We put our best and most innovative leaders in the hottest pressure cookers and wonder why they implode. How stupid is that? Instead of sending them home in disgrace because they snapped under unrelenting pressure, isn't it time we showed them the compassion and understanding they have earned and wholly deserve for all the things they did right to make us proud to be Canadians or Americans, whichever our stripe?

It's not enough to say something is wrong. It's time to find out why.

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