by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernd Horn, 1 June 99

Conventional military minds spurn the distinct, special or unique. In fact, military practise and tradition enshrines the notion of uniformity. Resistance to the concept of an elite is malevolent not only in the military but also in general society at large. Canadians, at least in theory, wish to view their society as egalitarian and equitable.

Perceptions, however, can be quickly altered. The debacle which ensued in the wake of the Canadian Airborne Regiment’s deployment to Somalia in 1993, and its subsequent disbandment, less than two years later, shattered the illusionary image of a non-elitist military institution. Public disclosures of disreputable behaviour, attributed to Canadian paratroopers, yielded a glimpse of a distinct and unique organization within the nation’s armed forces. Unfortunately, the notoriety surrounding the disclosures acted more to cloud, than to promote, a complete understanding of Canada’s airborne forces. Messages from official sources, as well as those from the media, were contradictory. It was unclear whether these special soldiers represented the Army’s ‘cream’ or its ‘offal.’

Canada’s paratroopers, throughout their existence, have been paradoxically depicted as both the “pick of the Army,” as well as “ill-disciplined rogues.” They have been extolled as Canada’s pride, as well as her shame. One question which has always generated heated debate is the issue of elite status.

The subject of elites is one which is heavily cloaked in emotion. Inherently, the airborne fraternity quickly defines itself, whether internally or publicly, as an elite. This perception is further exacerbated by the treatment bestowed on the group by the military institution as a whole. From the airborne’s earliest beginnings, the hazardous nature of its role necessitated that the military establishment grant certain allowances, as well as recognition, in regards to the airborne’s uniqueness, if for no other reason than to attract volunteers. Extra pay, distinctive insignia, and customized uniforms reflected the exclusive status bestowed upon the paratroopers.(1)

The Canadian experience is identical. Despite the gasps of incredibility and the emphatic denials by senior commanders in the Canadian Forces, the fact is that prodigious consideration, in some cases outright favouritism, was given to Canada’s airborne forces in the past. They were entitled special orders of dress and distinctive clothing items; allowance to wear unique insignia; privileged access to special courses; and a greater number of foreign exchanges for training.(2)

Predicably, the special consideration given to the parachute soldiers contributed to a discernable arrogance and the notion that paratroopers were a special caste, a group apart from the remainder of the combat arms. American Major-General A.S. Newman captured the essence of the disdain paratroopers often feel for outsiders in his epigram, “being a jumper is like being a virgin; you are or you are not. If you are not, nobody is really interested in your tedious explanation of your unfortunate status.”(3)

The descent of the paratrooper into a closed ‘ warrior tribe’ of its own is not difficult to understand. A farewell message from Major-General Crabbe, on the occasion of the Airborne Regiment’s disbandment ceremonies, highlighted the exclusivity of the airborne family. He wrote, “to have felt the rush of wind in the door – to have experienced the sheer exhilaration that comes each time one exits an aircraft trusting one’s life to the professionalism of comrades – binds all jumpers in a special fraternity.”(4) Similarly, Lieutenant-General Kent Foster, the Airborne’s last Colonel of the Regiment, asserted that “Only those who have dared will understand the call of the jumpmaster, the weight of a winter rucksack, the tap on the shoulder and the cry of ‘have a good one!'”(5)

But the question must be asked. Does an intense ‘esprit de corps’ and elitist sentiment, which is nurtured by a specific group, and promoted and / or tolerated by the chain-of-command, automatically denote elite status? More specifically, did Canada’s paratroops represent a distinct Canadian elite?

The post-Somalia environment witnessed a profusion of senior leaders, including former Regimental Commanders, who fervently denied ever encouraging or harbouring elitist sentiments in regards to the Canadian paratrooper. In many cases, this was blatant airbrushing of history to conform with politically correct themes. Nonetheless, the scramble to distance themselves from the concept of promoting the existence of an ‘elite’ also highlighted a fundamental problem within the Canadian Forces. There was a definite lack of understanding of what the term actually meant.

There is no doubt that the paratroopers within the respective Canadian airborne organizations, for the most part, believed they were elite. There was a wide acceptance of this status by those outside of the organizations as well.(6) This was largely a function of the reputation the paratroopers had earned for their physical prowess; their renown demanding and tough exercises; their ability to wear special insignia and uniform; the perceived preferential treatment by the chain-of-command; and of course the element of parachuting. But, once again, is this enough to warrant elite status? After all, Search and Rescue technicians view themselves as elite. So too do fighter pilots, combat divers, reconnaissance patrolmen, snipers, and no doubt many others.

This predicament underlines the central problem. What in fact constitutes an elite. Former Airborne Regimental Commander, Brigadier-General Theriault, believed that in Canadian society it is not a good thing to produce a group who is favoured above others.(7) Colonel Mike Barr, another former paratroop commander, acknowledged that elitism is something that turns people off.(8) But despite the accuracy of these observations, the missing link is still a clear understanding of the term elite. Therefore, prior to determining the status of the nation’s paratrooper it is essential to define the concept of military ‘elite.’

Eliot Cohen was one scholar who developed specific criteria to define elite units. He stated, “First, a unit becomes elite when it is perpetually assigned special or unusual missions: in particular, missions that are-or seem to be-extremely hazardous. For this reason airborne units have long been considered elite since parachuting is a particularly dangerous way of going into battle.” Cohen’s second criteria was based on the premise that elite units conduct missions which require only a few men who must meet high standards of training and physical toughness, particularly the latter.” Finally, he maintained, “an elite unit becomes elite only when it achieves a reputation-justified or not-for bravura and success.”(9)

For Colin Gray, a military analyst, the designation ‘elite’ pertained directly to the standard of selection and not to the activity that soldiers were selected to perform.(10) Conversely, the military historian, Douglas Porch, utilized conventional measures of performance to determine elite status. As a result, he relied on such benchmarks as “battlefield achievement, military proficiency, or specialized military functions.”(11) Similarly, Eric Morris, another historian and writer, defined units elite by virtue of the fact that they were required to “demonstrate a prowess and military skill of a higher standard than more conventional battalions.”(12) Numerous other military analysts, researchers and scholars have applied a comparable approach. Namely, the designation of elite was applied simply because individuals and units were not representative of their conventional brethren, in terms of one, or a combination of factors, such as the quality of personnel, training or mission.(13) The latter emphasis on discernable differences between the ‘special’ units and their ‘conventional’ brethren became the core of the Canadian military’s understanding of elite. Many senior Commanders defined and treated the Canadian paratroopers as elite, at least prior to the Somalia debacle, based on the higher levels of fitness, distinctive uniform and the parachuting requirement. Colonel Painchaud was representative of many when he explained, “the airborne soldier is the elite of the Canadian Army. He must be in top shape compared to any other soldier, in physical fitness and shooting and weapon handling.”(14) As already mentioned, the paratroopers themselves, as well as most soldiers on the outside, held similar convictions.

But the criterion is somewhat contrived and misleading. Being different and performing a unique task is far from being a de facto elite. Therefore, for the purpose of this analysis the designation of elite, relying heavily on Cohen’s definition, will be based on: 1.) Selection, i.e., rigorous screening processes which maintain extremely high standards of mental and physical ability / fitness, professional experience and skill levels, maturity, and motivation; 2.) The designation of an exclusive specific / special mission / role (either conventional or unconventional or both) which is actually exercised; and 3.) a recognized reputation for excellence (based on the level of training, expertise and professionalism of the group or on its success in operations). Based on these criteria it becomes evident that not all units with unique characteristics warrant elite status. They may demonstrate different skill sets than a conventional unit, however, they do not necessarily represent an individual qualitative superiority over the latter.

Armed with this definition it is now possible to assess the nation’s parachute forces throughout the Canadian airborne experience to determine whether or not they warranted the status of elite. The country’s original paratroopers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion clearly represented a military elite. Selection was exceedingly rigorous. The initial screening process rejected 30 percent of those who volunteered. The subsequent training wastage cut another 35 percent.(15) In addition, the unit, as part of its larger airborne organization, was utilized largely in a special capacity, as the vanguard element, literally the spearhead of the army. Lastly, its reputation for operational effectiveness was widely recognized. A Canadian Military Headquarters memorandum conceded that “1 Cdn Para Bn occupied the top of the list” in regard to performance.(16)

Elite status can also be arguably applied to the members of the Canadian SAS Company of the immediate post-war period. Selection criteria were strictly enforced. Furthermore, the organization received a specific mission and mandate, although this quickly became muddied. The SAS’ primary role varied dramatically between the interpretations of those in the subunit, the commanders of the Canadian Joint Training Centre, and elements in NDHQ. Nevertheless, the Special Forces persona associated with the SAS Company to this day, is testimony to the group’s high standards, orientation and reputation.

The blurring of status ended with the SAS Company. Their demise heralded the end of the legacy of airborne forces as a distinct military elite. The paratroopers of the Mobile Striking Force (MSF) and the Defence of Canada Force (DCF) era, from approximately 1949-1967, were anything but elite. This is not meant to be derogatory but rather a simple statement of fact. Both NDHQ, and the Army itself, allocated minor importance to the airborne capability during this period. As a result, there was little difference, with the exception of an occasional jump, to differentiate the paratroopers from the other soldiers. Major-General Dan Loomis and Lieutenant-Colonel J.M. Swan candidly admitted that there was very little status attached to belonging to the “Jump Companies” because their existence was not dissimilar from the other companies within the battalion. Loomis and Swan felt that the only distinction was the maroon beret and the jump allowance of $30.00 per month which represented a substantial pay boost.(17)

Their sentiments are not unique. Major-General J.M.R. Gaudreau bluntly declared that the DCF had “more of a PR [public relations] value than any real tactical training value.”(18) Brigadier-General Walt Holmes described the Defence of Canada Force as “essentially a Jump [parachuting] Club.”(19) Lastly, Major-General Bob Stewart summarized the sentiments of virtually all who served in the DCF when he commented that the ‘Jump Companies’ had “no operational rationale nor capability, but existed only to keep alive the parachuting capability.”(20)

Whereas few will argue with the assertion that the MSF / DCF were not an elite, the next assessment will undoubtably create much emotional angst. The establishment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment once again muddies the water. Was the Regiment actually a military elite? Originally, the Airborne was established to represent such an entity. In practise, for the first few years, it generally met with success. Although selection criteria were not necessarily as rigorous as those applied against many contemporary elite type units, they were in effect.(21) The Regiment received only volunteers who were qualified to advanced levels. Moreover, the organization’s role as a strategic reserve was reinforced by special formation status, as well as direct access to the Army Commander. Additionally, the Airborne Regiment was exempt normal and routine tasking.

The Regiment’s preferential status, however, began to wane by the mid-seventies. The infusion of lesser qualified personnel and the erosion of the Regiment’s position within the Army changed its make-up. Categorically, in the aftermath of the move from Edmonton to Petawawa, the Airborne clearly ceased to be an elite. Membership required only that an individual be qualified as a basic parachutist. Furthermore, the unit had no mission or role that could not, and was not, performed by other conventional units. By the early-eighties, it lost its claim to experienced leaders and soldiers. Worse yet, it received undesirable individuals, who were recognized as disciplinary cases by their parent regiments. In many cases, those outside of the Regiment saw the Airborne as a reform school, if not a dumping ground. Many of the problems which eventually led to the disbandment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment are rooted in the demise of the Airborne’s substantive, vice perceived, status.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Airborne Regiment for the greater part of its existence was not a distinct military elite does not belittle its importance or its unique disposition. It became fashionable to down-play the Airborne’s special nature in the aftermath of Somalia and the hazing videos. Throw away generalities such as ‘parachuting is just another way to the battlefield,’ became common. Although pleasing to many in an era of airborne-angst, it belied the lack of understanding of airborne operations, as well as the special demand on its soldiers. Although not necessarily an elite, Canada’s paratroopers, for the most part, have consistently epitomized the best soldiers and units in Canada’s combat arms.

The assertion that the paratrooper represents the nation’s premier warrior caste is a direct result of both the soldier drawn to the airborne, as well as the type of individual required as a result of the special nature of airborne operations. Perhaps the Canadian paratrooper has not always represented a distinct military elite. However, the nation’s airborne warriors have indeed epitomized the best of our country’s combat soldiers. Although drawn from the affiliated infantry regiments, on the whole, the individuals, who gravitated to the airborne were the more aggressive, physically fit and motivated soldiers. They were the individuals who sought action, adventure, and challenge. Once they became paratroopers, they enhanced their respective strengths with which they arrived and developed additional attributes and skills, such as confidence, initiative, leadership and self-reliance. The process transformed good solid soldiers into even better ones. In the final analysis, the Canadian paratrooper has always personified the proficiency of the Canadian Army.

Endnotes

1. Cockerham, “Selective Socialization,” 216; Roger A. Beaumont, “Airborne: Life Cycle of a Military Subculture.” Military Review, Vol 51, No. 6, June 1971, 53; “Training Paratroops,” CATM, No. 20, November 1942, 10; and “3rd Parachute Training Instruction No. 3,” A1. DHH 145.4036 (D1).

2. Donna Winslow, The Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia. A Socio-cultural Inquiry (Ottawa: Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia, 1997), 132.

3. Major-General A.S.Newman, What Are Generals Made Of? (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1987), 190.

4. Message, CCUNPROFOR Commander 095, 041202Z Mar 95, “Canadian Airborne Regiment – Laying Up of Colours.”

5. General K. Foster, “Remarks by the Colonel of the Regiment,” Maroon Beret, Final Edition, November 1995, 4.

6. Mobile Command (FMC), Mobile Command Study – Report on Disciplinary Infractions and Antisocial Behaviour with particular reference to the SSF and the Canadian Airborne Regiment (Hewson Report), 23-27; Board of Inquiry – Canadian Airborne Regiment Battle Group, Phase I, Vol XI, 19 July 1993, K-1/9; and Winslow, 126-135.

7. Interview with author, 28 April 1998.

8. Interview with author, 6 January 1998. One former SAS member noted, “elitism is counter-productive, it alienates you from other people.” Andy McNab, Immediate Action (London: Bantam Press, 1995), 381.

9. Eliot A. Cohen, Commandos and Politicians (Cambridge: Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 1978), 17.

10. Colin S. Gray, Explorations in Strategy (London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 158. Roger Beaumont noted that elite units were characterised by voluntary membership, relatively high physical and mental standards for admission, distinctive uniforms and insignia, and a link to a past heroic tradition.

11. Douglas Porch, “The French Foreign Legion: The Mystique of Elitism,” in Elite Formations in War and Peace, eds. A. Hamish Ion , and Keith Neilson (Wesport: Praeger, 1996), 117.

12. Eric Morris, Churchill’s Private Armies (London: Hutchinson, 1986), xiii.

13. See D.R. Segal, Jesse Harris, J.M. Rothberg, and D.H. Marlowe, “Paratroopers as Peacekeepers,” Armed Forces and Society, Volume 10, No. 4, Summer 1984, 489; and Winslow, 128-138. Professor Gideon Aran stated that “Jumping can be viewed as a test which allows those who pass it to join an exclusive club, to be initiated into an elite group.” Gideon Aran, “Parachuting,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol 80, No. 1, 124-152.

14. Dick Brown, “Hanging Tough,” Quest, May 1978, 12. See also Information Legacy, Somalia Commission Hearing Transcripts, Vol 36, 22 January 1996, testimony of Lieutenant-Colonel Morneault, 6898.

15. DHH 163.009 (D16), File: “Selection of Personnel – 1st Parachute Battalion.”

16. NA, RG 24, Vol 12721, File “Discipline – No. 1 Parachute Battalion.”

17. Interviews with author, 11 December 1997 and 16 August 1996 respectively.

18. Letter to author, 18 September 1998.

19. Interview with author 17 July 1997.

20. Letter to author, 1 July 1998.

21. The quality of personnel within an ‘elite’ is evident when one examines the actual percentage of volunteers who actually succeed. The current U.S. SOF attrition rate is approximately 79%. General H.H. Shelton, “Quality People: Selecting and Developing Members of U.S. SOF,” Special Warfare, Vol 11, No. 2, Spring 1998, 3.

13 Responses to “The Canadian Airborne as a Military Elite – Fact or Fiction?”

  1. on 01 Oct 2009 at 11:29 pmronert panko

    thids article is relatively accurate. Having served with the airborne from 78 to 81 I missed the transition you descrbed. My duty that I trained for wasthe disrupti\on of communications and opening the line…….both the were considered suicide tactics by line units…..maybe so, but we were willing. We had faith in our commanders……we were trained. The demise of the Regiment di occur……………the spirit did not Airborne… Death from Above!!!!!!

  2. on 14 Apr 2010 at 4:53 pmKen Charlton

    Looking for Mike Barr. High School info.

  3. on 12 Sep 2010 at 9:11 pmGareth Adams

    It is not a matter of elitism, but purely a matter of excellence and necessity. Without necessity, it was not tenable.

    Pride, for those who can be proud, is forever it’s history.

    Lest we forget.

  4. on 13 Nov 2010 at 10:30 pmBruce Hillyard

    First off you MUST ask why the CO Prior to the Airborne deployment was replaced. He stated he had a large group of BIGOTS within his ranks and had first to deal with them. Everything from RACISTS,KKK Belivers, White supremicists, French Seperatists, and numerous other groups. HE instructed Ottawa he could not take the Airborne out of the province little alone the country….SO he was replaced with an ASSHOLE. When the asshole was asked if the AIRBORNE WAS READY FOR DUTY IT SAID OF COURSE. When in country and it was expressed that captives would help intelligence the asshole let the scum loose to find acaptives and get information ANY WAY POSSIBLE. when shit hit the fan was the asshole punished of course not it was a little guy and the FRENCH MILITARY AND CIVILIAN ELITE closed ranks absorbebv the asshole and typical made the rest of CANADA pay for it. Same as it was another FRENCH ASSHOLE who ordered their disbandment at the suggestion of another FRENCH ASSHOLE.

  5. on 28 Dec 2010 at 11:25 pmRob MacNeill

    Having served with the Regiment from 83 till its disbandment. I saw a constant loss of the Airborne standards as new weaker leaders came in. Screenings were done away with, the maroon beret course was not run and officers and NCOs alike were posted into the airborne with no field time or leadership experience. After my first 6 years in the army and 4 years in the regiment I remember coming back from a summer tasking and being told that I was being given a new platoon commander. He had never been in field and had appointed MCPLs newly posted to the regiment into the section commander positions. They had less time in the army than most of the troops had in the Airborne. It wasn’t until the appointment of LCol Kenward that that stopped and cleansing of the regiment began. It was shaping up to be the regiment it once was. But in typical political fashion the government never gave the man the chance to make things right. I stood on parade and cried next to some of the best soldiers this country had ever produced. It only goes to show you how little the Liberal Government cares about those who stand in harms way to protect them. I do not regret a single day of my life that I served under the maroon beret. I wish I could say the same about my career after the disbandment.

  6. on 11 Dec 2011 at 10:05 am5 mistakes

    Your site is pretty cool to me and your subject matter is very relevant. I was browsing around and came across something you might find interesting. I was guilty of 3 of them with my sites. “99% of website owners are committing these five HUGE mistakes”. http://tinyurl.com/84ettp3 You will be suprised how easy they are to fix.

  7. on 06 Jan 2012 at 2:22 pmE.P.BAKER

    Loved art. by Bruce Hillyard….The Liberals have screwed theCanadian forces from ww11 to present but we learned that too late. Served in the forces 1950 to 1980 and still proud of our men and girls with a few exceptions, but totally pissed off with our Gov. hacks.

  8. on 19 Feb 2012 at 12:04 amJ.D. Latour

    To : Bruce Hillyard

    You are what we call “an english pig with no brain”

  9. on 22 Feb 2012 at 7:03 pmRichard 'Moe' Morris

    I was MSF (2PPCLI) in the mid fifties, and I remember being told by a senior NCO even then, not to consider ourselves special; that jumping was just a quicker way to get us from point A to point B.

    I also remember four of us deciding to go downtown for a cup of coffee and piece of pie after completing our pre-para training. We jogged all the way from Currie Barracks to the Bus Depot restaurant (which was kitty-corner from The Bay in those days), then jogged all the way back afterwards, mostly uphill.

    I was never in better physical condition, and never would be again.

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