Military Investigates Misconduct

The troops in CANBAT 2 considered it a choice duty, an escape from the winter mud and wartime hazards of Bosnia's steep hills and narrow valleys.

Military Investigates Misconduct

The troops in CANBAT 2 considered it a choice duty, an escape from the winter mud and wartime hazards of Bosnia's steep hills and narrow valleys. From the 600-strong battalion, drawn from three storied Quebec regiments then stationed at Visoko, northwest of Sarajevo, a rotating unit of 40 men was assigned to a straightforward, even noble task. The soldiers were charged with protecting two isolated hospitals in neighboring villages, one housing 300 handicapped children, the other 200 mentally ill adults. But that was not why some members of CANBAT 2 clamored for the assignment. Rather, it was the opportunity to obtain access to sex, booze and black-market money. And in the view of Canada's top soldier, land forces commander Lt.-Gen. Maurice Baril, those guilty of the misconduct are "nothing more than a bunch of drunks and bums" who have no place "in my army."

For six months during the bitter winter of 1993-1994, the CANBAT 2 unit guarding the hospitals at Bakovici and Drin seems to have been out of control. According to witnesses who spoke confidentially to Maclean's, the rot started at the top. One officer in the Royal 22nd Regiment - the celebrated Van Doos - was openly living with his blond, attractive, female Bosnian interpreter. Some sergeants and other noncommissioned officers at Bakovici spent their afternoons playing badminton in an abandoned building in the village, their evenings engaging in consensual sex with the hospital's nurses. Ordinary soldiers sold cigarettes, coffee, alcohol, fuel, clothing and, in one case, even weaponry on the black market. Ironically, all of this happened while the Canadian soldiers were winning worldwide praise, as well as decorations, for coming to the aid of the patients at the two hospitals. "This whole thing is very sad and very maddening," said reserve army Capt. Raymond Bélanger, who served as a Visoko-based public affairs officer during the same period, often shepherding visiting journalists through the two hospitals. "If the allegations are true, it means that all the good and extraordinary things we did over there will lose their value." As in Somalia, where Canadian soldiers tortured and killed a local teenage looter, "it's just a small group of people who are believed to have screwed up. But, like Somalia, we'll all end up paying for it."

Rumors of misconduct at Bakovici had been circulating within the military since troops from the Calgary-based Lord Strathcona Horse Battle Group arrived at the hospitals in May, 1994, to replace the departing Quebec regiments. Indeed, complaints passed on by the Strathconas have prompted at least 12 separate investigations by Canadian and U.N. military police over the past two years. But it was not until late last week that the military's top brass finally admitted the full extent of the brewing scandal - when the recently appointed Lt.-Gen. Baril convened a news conference at army headquarters in St-Hubert, south of Montreal, to announce that 34 serving and former soldiers are under investigation. "I am particularly distressed to have to inform you that there is clear evidence of misconduct from Canadian soldiers," the general declared pointedly. "These incidents come on the heels of an unacceptably high number of cases of misconduct across the whole army. They all point to one overriding and critical weakness - leadership."

Baril, appointed army commander last September and widely viewed as the leading contender to succeed beleaguered Gen. Jean Boyle as chief of defence staff, told reporters that military police will continue investigating the 34 soldiers under suspicion. Those found guilty will be drummed out of the army. Another board of inquiry will review the command, leadership and discipline of the three Quebec regiments - the 12th Armoured, the 5th Artillery and the Van Doos, all based in Valcartier outside Quebec City - during their tour of duty in Bosnia. As well, an independent inquiry will examine why it took so long for the military's senior leadership to act in the matter. That probe will be headed by Lowell Thomas, who recently retired as assistant commissioner of the RCMP.

As far as Bakovici is concerned, there is clearly much to investigate. While the names of the 34 soldiers have not yet been released, army sources indicated that at least five are officers. Among the allegations levied against the soldiers: they indulged in heavy alcohol consumption, wild parties and indiscriminate weapons fire; one man even tossed a television set through a window. The troops are also accused of failing to aid a mortally wounded Bosnian Serb soldier, excessive use of force with patients and sexual harassment and sexual misconduct with nurses and interpreters. One soldier is alleged to have shaved the armpits, legs and genitals of a 17-year-old female patient. Another is accused of selling a .50-calibre machine-gun to Bosnian Croat forces. Several are suspected of widespread black-market activities. Many are accused of altering operations logs to cover up their misdeeds.

Military analysts and critics alike welcomed Baril's announcement. "Finally, a frank recognition of a failure in leadership and a failure of the military culture," remarked defence analyst Nicholas Stethem, a former army captain. "As with Somalia, you wonder how on earth officers and senior NCOs let this happen. Rogue elements must be controlled." At the same time, however, Stethem warned that the problem goes far deeper. "This extends well beyond Bosnia or Somalia," he said. "The core issue is leadership, and Baril, who has an outstanding, no-nonsense reputation, is going to need every ounce of that reputation to address and solve these serious problems."

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, who first brought the rumors of misdeeds in Bakovici into the public eye in January with an article in the military affairs magazine Esprit de Corps, agreed that Baril is heading in the right direction. But he, too, argued that Bosnia or Somalia may represent the tip of the iceberg. "Forget Bosnia," he said. "It and Somalia are symptomatic of what's wrong with the army's overall command structure. We've had a disciplined army before and I'm sure we can have one again. But we need action." In the same breath, he also expressed concerns about a possible overreaction. "Everybody wants to get the worst sons of bitches the military has," Drapeau cautioned. "But my fear is that someone will be over-punished."

Both Drapeau and Stethem agreed that the widespread use of alcohol in the military is an issue that has to be addressed. But both also claim that the longstanding British tradition of allowing personnel to drink while off-duty helps to strengthen the bonds among soldiers and reduces the temptation to break rules. "It's a false issue," claimed Stethem, arguing that the key problem is not the availability of alcohol but the apparent failure to control access to it - ultimately the responsibility of officers. "Alcohol simply made that [lack of discipline] more obvious," he said. "It is clearly not the only cause."

Sex falls into a similar category. "Commanding officers know that it's going to happen," said Stethem. "But when quiet fraternization becomes noisy and obvious, you're going to run into problems." In fact, many of the local women who worked as interpreters and cooks for the Canadian troops were young. Fearing shelling, they would occasionally stay at the Canadian base overnight. "The troops are told not to have sex with locals," said one officer at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. "But do you think that will work 100 per cent of the time?"

In the case of the troops who were stationed at the two hospitals in Bosnia during the winter of 1993-1994, the allegations point to problems that transcend the possible combination of available sex and alcohol. As a result, Canada's soldiers and the public are faced with a depressingly familiar spectacle: an army whose once proud reputation lies in tatters.

Maclean's July 29, 1996