September 03, 2003


I've liked Gregg Easterbrook a lot, for years, but his recurring stint at Tuesday Morning Quarterback, and the playing to the masses that involves, is beginning to drag down his sense for nuance and accuracy in his writing.

For instance, his cheap shot last week at Canada's Somalia affair.

Dinging Toronto mayor Mel Lastman's comments that Americans don't take blame well (and face it, Lastman's right, during the blackout New York politicians did no better than Canadians in reserving what little judgment they might have), Easterbrook wrote:

Canada's recent track record at taking the blame? In 1993, a Canadian commando unit in Somalia tortured a civilian to death. The Canadian military and the Ottawa federal government denied responsibility, then engaged in a three-year cover-up. Here is a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation summary of the cover-up and investigation, plus CBC's lament that "The government's decision to cut the inquiry short left many questions unanswered." So people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, eh?

Okay, from the top, it wasn't a Canadian commando unit, which implies some Special Forces type raiders, it was the Canadian Airborne Regiment, no more commandoes than the 101st Airborne is. And just two members, not the whole unit, were involved: Kyle Brown and Clayton Matchee. They killed a young Somali, Shidane Arone, who had been captured after sneaking into the Canadian camp.

It's true that the military and federal government at first avoided drawing conclusions that more than just two warped soldiers were responsible. Many people felt there had to be a command failure involved, particularly by those in direct command that night, or those who had allowed those two -- who had previously exhibited a lack of discipline -- from being sent to Somalia. Others thought the regimental culture of the Airborne, or even of the whole army, was partly to blame. Others wondered at the possible influence of the mefloquine anti-malarial the troops were taking, or even the effects of affirmative action recruitment (both Matchee and Brown were of Native descent).

There was, it was true, no immediate disclosure of the torture death, and only after Matchee's attempted suicide (rendering himself nearly brain-dead), shortly after having been arrested for it, were Canadians made aware of what had happened a few days after the fact.* It's also true there was a cover-up back in Ottawa of sorts... but it was a cover-up focussed solely on shielding the defence minister (then running for Prime Minister) and other high-ranking officials from allegations they had known about the torture-death before it first appeared in the papers, and more broadly, may have known about other problems in the Airborne Regiment in the months leading up to it. (Even if they didn't, a quite valid argument can be made, I fully agree, that they should have known.) It was not a cover-up of the torture death per se. Easterbrook makes it sound like Canada was blaming some other country, or that the torture was an officially sanctioned act.

On the government side, the 1993 death was followed by the creation of an independent investigatory commission. That commission, incompetently run and led for the most part, dragged on through three YEARS of televised hearings, had its mandate extended three times, and was demanding to be allowed to continue through to late 1998 at the earliest when the Liberal government shut it down. In all that time, amazingly, the commission had yet to hear any evidence about the actual death itself, or depose any of the civilian leadership involved (the whole reason it was established in the first place). The government at the time stated they believed it would be 2000 at the earliest before the group would actually produce a report if left alone, and I'd have said at the time that was optimistic. Regardless, by the end, it had become its own self-perpetuating bureaucracy and needed to be shut down. Of course the CBC lamented its departure... it meant they had to fill up their broadcast day with actual programming again.

In the end, the commission's report would blame the military for lowered morale in the Canadian Forces due to this incident, but in my experience it was those years of constant vicious lawyer-badgering of generally honest soldiers, miles upon miles of frequently stupid questions which had nothing to do with the events of the night in question, day after day in primetime on the CBC that hurt retention, recruiting, and military effectiveness far more. By the end, most of us were convinced we were in the midst of a government-funded Salem trial, and I still believe that's not far off the mark. There was even a Joseph Welch-Joe McCarthy moment, when a senior Canadian soldier, Vice. Adm. Larry Murray, under cross-examination finally said what most Canadian soldiers by that point were thinking -- enough was enough:

"[To Crown Prosecutor Richard Noel]: Mr. Noel, you've consistently demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the dimensions and magnitude and the responsibilities of the people running the Department of National Defense... [then, turning to chair Gilles Letourneau]... I have been appalled by the way this commission, and you in particular, have treated junior soldiers. I don't intend to be treated the same way."

While that silliness dragged on, the military justice system rendered a series of (I feel) prompt, rapid, and fair verdicts. Master-Cpl. Matchee, rendered incompetent by his own hand, has been permanently confined in a mental hospital; if by some medical miracle he ever gets well enough to be found competent to stand trial, he'll be facing a life sentence. Brown, his accessory, got five years in military prison. The pair's supervising sergeant got one year. Their company commander got three months. The platoon commander got busted to lieutenant. The commander of the Canadian Forces, Gen. Jean Boyle, resigned.

That's all over one, sole, admittedly horrible death. Not counting Matchee, that's 75 months of hard time more than were ever served by anyone in the United States for the entire My Lai massacre, where dozens indisputably died in American hands, and no one in Washington ever lost their job over that, either. But then again, as Mayor Mel said, Americans have trouble taking responsibility for this sort of stuff. I only wish American military justice, or Canadian civilian justice for that matter, could always be as harshly fair as Canadian soldiers were to their own in the Somalia affair. And if Easterbrook is going to drop his previous thoroughness on such matters because it plays better with the South Park "Blame Canada" crowd, maybe he should just stick to football. Or shut up.

*The military justice system was moving quickly and without any conscious attempt at secrecy, although there was certainly some lag on the military PR side in acknowledging what was going on. If the Canadian media had actually had more than a single local newspaper reporter in Somalia with the troops at the time, even that minimal coverup would have been impossible... a lapse I have never heard any media mea culpa for.

UPDATE: For the record, the author was not involved with the Canadian military from 1990-96, when the events and resulting inquiries took place, and doesn't know any of the principals involved, other than from the TV like everybody else.

UPDATE, May/04: Looking back on this, I recognize it does not address a simultaneous problem in Somalia, involving an allegation a Somali thief, Ahmed Aruush, may have been executed, rather than shot while fleeing, by a night patrol commanded by Capt. Michel Rainville. For the record, Rainville was not otherwise connected with the torture-death event, and worked with a different subunit of the Airborne. He was, as far as I can tell and according to people who knew him, a certifiable psychopath. However, the forensic evidence about the looter's death could not, in the end, support an execution hypothesis: experts ultimately agreed Aruush was hit once while fleeing in the dark, then shot a second time, fatally, but still from 10-50 m away, while trying to rise. Rainville's leadership style and attitude certainly contributed to his soldiers' trigger-happiness that night, but he would have to wait to get his own comeuppance for other acts elsewhere. (The two soldiers, MCpl Countway and Cpl Leclerc, who fired two shots each at Aruush when ordered by Rainville to "get them!" were not charged to my knowledge.) I would even suspect that the civilian Somalia inquiry's bizarre faith in Capt. Rainville as some kind of useful witness in other ways may have even complicated the military's prosecution of other shenanigans by this officer at the time.

Posted by BruceR at 06:54 PM


One of the University of Toronto's truly great people, Jack Gorrie, the provostial adviser on information technology, passed away suddenly on Saturday. Jack knew more about IT, the internet, and online communications in general than most people ever will. I was always proud to count him as a colleague, mentor, and friend. His calmness, his good humour, and his plain-old engineering prof's good sense will be missed by many, myself included. I think he was loved by all here lucky enough to know him, whether it was as an information services manager, a teacher, or an advocate for the student solar car team. There'll be a memorial service here next Monday.

Posted by BruceR at 02:17 PM


A rather surreal email today from D., with ISAF in Kabul. No, I don't know quite what to make of it either, but that Larium sounds like a lot of fun.

Sept. 3:

I got up on Monday as usual and took my larium (mephaloquine) tablet for malaria. So far, I have not suffered any of the side effects such as the gastro-intestinal discomfort or lack of sleep. Some guys have had the other symptoms - very vivid dreams - completely real to them, and not always pleasant. Some actually hallucinate and then have to switch medications, but fortunately I have not had that problem. Anyway, after I took the meds I started up to the headquarters, but the day was not the dull and boring one I had anticipated.

After I left the tent and was walking up to the HQ, I ran into a bunch of friends of mine from the German Battle Group. Instead of going to the HQ directly, one thing led to another, and we all got an Ilits from rover troop, went out to the beach and did a lot of wave-riding, canoeing and surfing, followed by a huge bonfire in the early evening with lots of Swedish girls from their CIMIC detachment. There was a ton of wine and even a couple of great bands. Some journalists showed up and were very friendly to us, (no wonder) and joined in on a great German sing-song. The journalists were fantastic - a little right wing for my liking though, and totally obsessed with the truth. Some of the contingents here have special celebrations and I guess we lucked in on that one! Then, we all wandered up to the Hotel Continental, just up the beach and had tropical drinks at this huge pool and were served on by very friendly former Taliban and Al Queda terrorists; some we even recognized from our "neighbourhoods". I can't believe this but they actually apoogised to us and gave us their weapons!!!!

Then it happened; I began to daydream and remembered all the things that we were supposed to be doing that day. Here is where it gets weird - I actually dreamed that I was in fact at the HQ all day doing paper work on a couple of patrols I had done. I even went to a morning briefing, had lunch in the mess tent, went back to the HQ, spoke to the General about some "nasties" in our area, and then headed home through a hot dusty sandstorm. Now the really bizarre part - I actually walked instead of flying, which is how Dieter, Fritz, Walter and I got to the beach that morning. (No planes, just a good old arm flap!). Ayway, the weird daydream ended, and there I was back at the poolside.

Yup, I love Mondays like never before. They always seem to be so much fun.

Posted by BruceR at 12:22 PM