Officers too often focused on only their careers

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Canada’s military is a microcosm of our society. The members of our armed forces remain largely representative of the Canadian culture from which they are drawn, although they have — as combat organizations must — attitudes and customs that set them apart from civilians.

Statistically this means that a few will possess unhealthy personal traits, which make them prone to criminality, including odious and even homicidal sexuality. Such traits are hard to detect and the behaviour potentially flowing from them difficult to predict. Believing this, after the atrocious allegations surfaced against Col. Russell Williams I did not see how the forces could have stood much chance of spotting a person with the personality that would yield the terrible crimes of which he stands accused. My major reaction was distress over one aspect of the case, for if it is possible to make a sex slaying worse, Williams would have done so in the sort of personal treason involved if he indeed killed one of his own airwomen. And yet, if the man is guilty, it is a valid question how his true nature could have stayed cloaked so long within the close knit and internally scrutinizing atmosphere of the military — and remained disguised while excelling, for interviews with present and former high commanders have left no doubt that Williams was on the “fast track” to the top.

Such successful concealment might have been facilitated by the command culture that exists within our military, which in the past I have criticized for excessive careerism. While desire to get ahead professionally is a healthy motivator in military leadership, it can be overdone. Robert Massie’s 1991 book Dreadnought on the British German naval race before the First World War depicted a Royal Navy in which leadership was stagnant, promotion gained by pleasing superiors and not “rocking the boat.” In this type of setting, officers assessing subordinates for promotion look for replication of themselves. There is a focus on professional competence, which in the case of someone such as Williams would include not only excellent flying skills, but also managerial efficiency and leadership ability.

However the perception of leadership might be flawed. Nearly 10 years ago in this column I said careerism was permeating our military’s higher levels, picking up a point about failure of leadership I made here in 1995 after the Canadian Airborne Regiment was disbanded. I said as much in a CBC Winnipeg television interview in 1984. It is my contention that too often leadership in our present day military has become largely an exercise in authority divorced from genuine concern for subordinates. Command is, for many officers, simply a rung on the ladder to step upon while climbing to even higher command. Assessing commanders is not geared to spotting that someone’s exercise of leadership skills is merely a rote exercise of techniques picked up from a manual, a sham lacking empathy or true concern. Assessing military commanders more broadly might turn up this up — generating legitimate cause for concern.

St. Albert resident David Haas served in the regular and reserve army between 1959 and 1999, and worked as a lawyer with considerable involvement in criminal law, including military cases, from 1976 to 2001.

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