In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

A lesson in leadership from Wainwright

Posted 10/2/2011 by Grant Mitchell


I had a remarkable experience in Wainwright, Alberta, several weeks ago. I spent two days with the Canadian militia in a massive war game exercise, and then the better part of two days with senior military staff and members of the Senate and House of Commons Defence committees that culminated in our observation of a live fire exercise.

The war game exercise involved about 1,000 members of the militia.  The military has a very highly sophisticated system of laser sensor technology which is worn by all participants and is attached to vehicle as well. Each weapon shoots laser beams as it fires blank (loud) ammunition. The technology determines who is "killed" and "injured" and whether vehicles are damaged or destroyed. Artillery is layered over the game by computer model.

The military planners had created a scenario where one country had invaded its neigbour owing to longstanding tensions over border disputes and disputed gas fields. The scenario had NATO forces being called in to push the invaders back. Canada had a large sector to clear and secure and there were a number of key points where it was believed that there were significant concentrations of the invaders.

I was attached to an armored reconnaissance unit. I was able to observe the briefing and planning process as it went from Colonel to the captains, to the lieutenants and the NCOs and on to the troopers.  Then, at 10:00PM that night I left with the company in a four person "G-Wagon" for a reconnaissance mission. Our task was to set up an observation post to observe and report on activity at a bridge which would be the objective of a unit of infantry the next day.

Our three teams in three G-Wagons, drove across the prairie in the pitch dark, without lights, found a shallow ravine to set up a "hide" in, waited and patrolled all night and fed back information key to a successful attack. Our challenge was to do all this without being seen by the "enemy". The enemies too were military personnel who were armed with the laser technology so we would know who had "won" any encounter.

I was left with so many strong impressions. I recall the leadership of the young master corporal who commanded the vehicle I was in and the other two soldiers who I shared it with. He was clear, firm, thoughtful, competent, and action oriented. He knew how to lead and each of us knew implicitly we could trust and depend on him and his judgment. He had been regular force for 7 years and had served at a forward base in Afghanistan. He is now in the militia and finishing his degree in philosophy and psychology.

I was immensely impressed by how the next most senior level would not impose a plan on the next level of leadership down. Each commander laid out the objective and required their next level of leadership reporting to them to develop the plan to achieve it. They want soldiers who can think for themselves.

I remember the young soldier who I shared sentry duty with, getting almost no sleep and withstanding what was a very cold night. I remember how absolutely dark it was and yet how efficiently the soldiers functioned in these conditions. I was part of the team that first swept the site we had determined we would use for our hide. I literally could not see the person 2 feet in front of me. I recall the women who were equal members of the unit, integrated fully into this combat unit as front-line soldiers.

Perhaps, the strongest impression for me was the level of leadership. This is a force of leaders; leadership is the engine of everything that they do; and they are very good at it.

The next day our infantry unit took the bridge.

The live fire exercise was also a powerful experience in so many ways. It involved a "mock" attack on a position several kilometers across a shallow valley. It started with a live artillery barrage, followed by Leopard I tanks who fired live ammunition from their guns just meters from where we were observing. Then, the LAVs fired their cannons and their heavy machine guns. Soon all this mechanized force  was charging into the valley, unloading the infantry, taking the position, aiding "wounded" soldiers, firing all the while.

It too was a memorable experience. The professionalism of the soldiers, this time regular force, was so evident, managing the intricacies of doing at high speed what they were doing, while coordinating massive live fire. It was also evident how violent this business is. The firing of the tank gun sends shock waves and heat that you can feel many meters away. You can hardly imagine the havoc and horror it all wreaks when at the receiving end. It underlined for me just how significant a decision it is to go to war.

I was struck also by how humble our soldiers are in the face of the raw power that they wield. I heard no glorifying of what they do; no glorifying of war here. 

I have no sense from all of this that we need to be the kind of "warrior nation" that the Prime Minister talks of. Canada is a nation that has never been of that mind set. To be sure, if we have to fight, we fight. We have a proud tradition of doing that in the most difficult of circumstances, but it is not our first inclination and it never should be.

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