by Charles Trueheart, Washington Post Foreign Service
TORONTO, Dec. 29
The murders early this month of a black couple in Fayetteville, N.C., allegedly by two U.S. Army airborne soldiers holding white supremacist views, have painfully familiar overtones for the Canadian military.
Canada's ugly antecedent is known as the Somalia affair: the 1993 torture and murder of a Somali teenager by Canadian airborne soldiers, and the culture of racism and brutality in the ranks that it exposed.
The Somalia revelations during 1994 and 1995 anguished the nation and traumatized the Canadian military. The perpetrators were court-martialed. But a military inquiry continues into the events surrounding the murder as well as the chain of command -- and what looks like a cover-up -- all the way to the Department of National Defense in Ottawa.
The government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which was not in office at the time of the murder, has had to preside over the unpleasant aftermath. It was buffeted last week when its nominee to become Canada's top military officer, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jean Boyle, was described in press reports as being under investigation for his handling of documents related to the Somalia inquiry.
Defense Minister David Collenette, shepherding Boyle through a grueling introductory news conference, said "Gen. Boyle is not under investigation" but is cooperating with the inquiry. Boyle said the documents in question were "in no way connected to Somalia. "
But he was pressed by reporters to explain his earlier insistence that the same documents did not exist. After whispered counsel from Collenette, Boyle said the issue was "a matter for the investigators."
The Canadian airborne was disbanded in January after the murder of Shidane Arone, a teenage Somali thief, was followed by embarrassing videotaped footage of racism and brutal hazing in the regiment formerly known for its wartime heroics. One segment depicted Canada's U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia referring to local citizens as "nig-nogs" and joking about hunting Somalis as trophies.
Another tape showed a black airborne recruit crawling through a gantlet of blows and a shower of human waste with the words "I love KKK" scrawled on his back. That soldier later said he hadn't minded the treatment, in the context of the hazing ritual, and didn't consider his buddies racists.
As long as it existed, the Canadian airborne considered itself a kindred spirit of the fabled 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C. -- the division to which the three soldiers charged in the Fayetteville case belong.
In the view of Desmond Morton, a leading military historian here, "the [Canadian] airborne was spending too much time down in Fort Bragg, picking up the ethos, the gung-ho fighting spirit of the 82nd."
Morton offered a sociological explanation for incidents such as the Somalia affair and the Fayetteville killings.
"The more you get into the killing trades," he said, "the more likely you are to get people from small towns and other back-of-beyond places who don't have a great education or career prospects otherwise. They're keen on adventure. They're not there to learn a trade."
As members of an airborne unit, Morton said, "they're taught that they're superior beings. They jump out of airplanes and they're given silver wings for it. And then they're licensed to do things criminals do."
Nicholas Stethem, a former Canadian airborne officer and now a private military analyst here, said:
"Airborne operations force more responsibility on the individual soldier. You want an individual who will push himself, prove himself. But you also get an individual who wants to prove he's a tough guy and who adopts that badge of identity -- someone who for the same reason might join a motorcycle gang."
But Stethem cautioned against too sweeping a comparison between the two events. Published photographs of Confederate flags in the quarters of Canadian airborne personnel suggest some common interests. But the two most serious offenders in Arone's murder happened to be Canadian Indians -- "so they wouldn't be white supremacists," he said.
In the view of several analysts, the stain of racism that the Somalia affair has left on the airborne has been motivated by military critics and fueled by the media. They said it shouldn't obscure the real problems of selection, support and leadership that were responsible for the regiment's troubles -- or the vastly more critical issues facing the Canadian military establishment in the throes of radical, budget-driven downsizing.
All those issues will crowd the plate of Gen. Boyle, who was sworn in Thursday. He succeeds Gen. John de Chastelain, whose five years as chief of the Canadian Defense Staff were interrupted by a year in Washington as Canadian ambassador.
The appointment of the relatively junior Boyle, a 48-year-old former fighter pilot, to Canada's only four-leaf military job surprised some analysts here. They noted that more senior candidates had been passed over -- or declined the offer.
Alex Morrison, president of the Lester B. Pearson Canadian International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Clementsport, Nova Scotia, praised the combination of military and political skills Boyle would bring to the job.
Col. Michel Drapeau, a defense commentator for the maverick military magazine Esprit de Corps, lamented the appointment. In the Toronto Sun, he described Boyle as "the spin doctor of the Somalia affair."