By Richard Martin

© Rotislav Sedlacek | 123 Stock Photo

My study of military history has taught me that most soldiers and warriors throughout history have gone willingly, if not enthusiastically, into battle. They followed their comrades in arms, and they followed their leaders. They participated in behaviour that was downright counter to their survival and the wish to live a long and prosperous life. In many cases, they fought to defend themselves, their families, and their lands against hostile depredations. But in many other cases, perhaps most, soldiers and warriors have fought for conquest, glory, pride, courage, status, recognition, and booty.

 

On the other hand, the Canadians who have served and sacrificed for peace and security around the world present something of an outlier in this respect. Since the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, Canadians have largely fought or operated oversees, taking on the forces of countries that have threatened Canada and its allies directly and indirectly, or endangered world peace and security. Over 116,000 have given their lives in these missions, and countless more have sustained debilitating mental and physical wounds. Of these, 158 Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011. Often forgotten is that approximately 130 Canadian soldiers have died in peacekeeping missions.

It’s only by talking to combat veterans that we can gain a true appreciation for the sheer difficulty of combat and what is involved in military leadership. I was on a battlefield tour when serving in Germany. A Canadian veteran of the D-Day campaign had been a platoon commander during an operation to capture and secure Carpiquet Airfield, near Caen, Normandy. His recall of the engagement was of crawling uphill under the enemy’s grazing fire. Rationally, he knew full well that he had fought on an airfield, and that his memories of crawling uphill must be mistaken. On the other hand, he couldn’t shake the persistent impression of having to struggle against gravity. When he eventually visited the battlefield after the war, he could see that the ground was basically flat and even. It was an airfield after all. But still, the memory stuck with him, and it was only decades later that he could picture the fight in a more objective manner.

The leadership challenge in combat is singular. That soldiers under your command will follow you is not necessarily given, despite the weight of military discipline. Charly Forbes, a veteran infantry officer with the Régiment de Maisonneuve during the Second World War and the Vandoos in Korea recounted his baptism of fire. He had just taken command of a depleted platoon in a company that had been decimated only days before by friendly fire from Allied bombers. He had to lead his platoon to take out a German machine gun that was holding up the battalion’s advance. He did his combat estimate and came up with a simple plan and briefed his men. On his signal, they would run on the flank to assault the machine gun nest while his own machine gunners would lay down covering fire. As he gave the signal, he leapt up and rushed toward the German MG. After a few yards, there was so much withering fire that he had to take refuge in a shell hole. That’s when he realized that there was only one of his soldiers with him. Unflustered, the private said, “It’s okay sir; we’ll take ‘em out,” and the two of them completed the mission.

What does it take to lead soldiers and partake in combat? What makes your troops want to follow you? What makes you want to lead them in this dangerous and, frankly, irrational behaviour? It seems daunting, but it has been done since time immemorial. Coercion and punishment are always possible, but they only work to a certain point. In the final analysis, the best troops are the ones that want to fight, that have morale and cohesion, and who are willing to follow their officers and NCOs until the mission is done. This is what most sets apart the Canadian soldier, sailor, or airman.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Leave a Reply