War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

soldiers in society/mercs/the "core business"

was up to the University of Reading for one day of a conference, Soldiers in Society, organized by Canadian PhD candidate, Sarah Dentry-Travis, who is living in the UK working in the field of sociology. Sarah’s work, Saint or Sinner – Soldiers’ Perception of their Social Status focusses on soldiers’ perceptions of themselves, within society and within the military. Sarah surveys soldiers and asks, among other things, for them to “rank” themselves and others. not surprisingly, those with “combat” experience rank themselves higher than those who don’t.

interestingly, “combat” experience is defined for the purposes of the survey as serving in theatre and not necessarily kinetic engagement. I’ve been amongst soldiers sitting around chatting, or rather, B.S.‘ing(!), and heard them ranking themselves amongst themselves. for the ones I was with at the time, it’s one thing to be in theatre but then another to be outside the wire, then another to be outside the wire for most of a tour, then another to be outside the wire out in the desert with just LAVs (no platoon house e.g.), and then another thing all together, to be outside the wire without LAVs, just “camping” (dismounted, sleeping on the ground) … in other words, whoever was filthiest, suffered the most deprivation (no hot meals, no showers for weeks on end, cold, in constant danger), etc. etc. AND engaged in kinetic, was the most “soldierly” to these guys.

I remember a young clerk, a reservist, who spent his tour in KAF saying to me, “you’ve been to war way more than I have ma’am, you’ve seen way more than I have …”. and yet I didn’t “camp” in the desert nor witness kinetic (thankfully, and yet rather disappointingly to some who ask) and was in theatre for a very short while (because they wouldn’t let me be there for as long as I requested), whereas he did the whole tour, with weekly rocket attacks etc. and I know senior mil. pers. who wanted very, very badly to get to theatre to cap off careers because they’d spent their professional lives training for war but hadn’t experienced it.
it’s all fascinating.

the conference featured speakers from many disciplines, all of whom are interested in military culture and policy, these included American, British and Canadian academics, a Canadian senior officer, policy wonks, practitioners, psychologists, historians, and a few PhD candidates. one of the latter, Malte Riemann, gave a really interesting paper on “mercs” aka PMCs, or Private Military Contractors.

I remember seeing mercs in A’stan. you could spot them a mile away. hyper-bulging biceps, black golf-shirts (their uniform at the time), suntans, Oakleys, shiny watches, big weapons (but everybody carried those in KAF anyway, so I guess their gigantic muscles must made those rifles look bigger!). they’d strut down the Boardwalk – a fascinating place for people watching, pure wild west in feel – laughing (not loudly or obnoxiously), seeming to own every inch of real estate they walked upon as they walked upon it (and not in an aggressive way, but rather an assured way). they’d smile at me and if they spoke to me e.g., in a lineup at one of the coffee places or stores, spoke very politely with American accents – would it be a cliché to say drawl? (is memory playing a trick on me?) – and call me “ma’am”. they were fascinating, but also a bit scary. they were SO big and SO confident, and let’s face it, there’s nothing ambiguous about a merc’s job is there? or is there?

while in KAF, I was told that if we had a rocket attack at night I was under no circumstances to leave my biv until the all clear because there might also be a breach of the perimeter and the protocol was for the mercs to “sweep” all the streets, shoot first, ask second, if they came upon anyone (in any case, I figured if we had an attack that as I was surrounded by senior officers, mostly Cols., that they’d know what to do.) I hated KAF. I hated being stuck in VIP quarters. but that’s another story for another time.

and some of the boys, disillusioned with the army after their tours, talked about becoming mercs. fantasized about quitting, signing on as a PMC, making a pile of money, fighting, living the adrenaline dream. but that was “after-tour” talk when the adrenal glands were still over-working and “normalcy” hadn’t kicked in (and wouldn’t for at least another 18 months or so). I’ve not heard of any who actually did sign up as a PMC, though I know of some who left to become corrections officers or cops, and others who returned in non-combat roles. I think they were just in that no-man’s land of being neither here nor there (Canada nor a war zone) and negotiating some semblance of a plan.

yesterday I heard a French academic, Dr. Barbara Jankowski, present on the Impact of Military Casualties on Civilian-Military Relations in France. and a phrase she used struck me – the core business (of soldiering) – it occurred to me as speaker after speaker presented, that it is “the core business” which seems to be skirted often in discussion, even for the most part in the conference, and I wonder if it’s the fact that the “core business” is so ambiguous, and/or unpalatable, that we can’t seem to talk about the role of soldiers, and this is what causes discomfort, ambivalence, shame or fear, or that oft heard phrase, “I support the soldier but I don’t support the war”. and Canada, with its long tradition of peace keepers, seems to have a real affection for the concept of our army in blue berets, or what I call, “the chocolates and flowers” fantasy of soldiering. I believe that many Canadians don’t understand that “peace keeping” does not preclude soldiering, or the core business. neither does the concept of “hearts and minds” preclude soldiering. soldiering, when one gets down to it, is soldiering. always has been. always will.

fascinating conference. lots to think about. not the least what the role of the artist is in all of this. or maybe the question should be, “what the hell is an artist doing in theatre anyways? (other than being a nuisance and causing extra worry for the Sgt Major)”

yesterday amongst all the academics this artist felt like an observer, and outsider, not a participant.
plus ça change

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