In The Media

We dishonour our soldiers by assuming they erred in Iraq

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
March 10, 2015

There really isn’t a disputed account of the friendly fire incident in Iraq that killed Sgt. Andrew Doiron, which Canadians learned about on the afternoon of March 7. You can’t dispute an account when you only have one side of story.

What we know for certain, is the event occurred at approximately 11 p.m. at night, at an Observation Post (OP) in Northern Iraq.

Within only a few hours, relying on Kurdish Peshmerga spokespersons, media reported that the four Canadians had arrived unannounced at the OP and, by not correctly responding to Kurdish challenges, were engaged when the Kurds suspected that the Canadians may have been infiltrated Islamic States fighters. They were firing behind them, as opposed to in front of them – the presumed direction of the enemy.

Sgt. Doiron was killed and three wounded, one likely seriously as his wounds required evacuation to the U.S. military hospital in Germany.

Within 24 hours, the Kurdish version of events, remarkably ascertained and transmitted to the outside world, gained a patina of truth – notwithstanding that in most such circumstances the first reports are always wrong. How is it that no questions were raised about the speed with which Kurdish forces were able to provide such a definitive account of what occurred?

On Monday, the story changed again, revealing that the Canadians had indeed followed procedures in passing two Kurdish checkpoints en route to the final position. Yet the story remained that somehow the Canadians were at fault.

As Kurdish assertions gained traction, little thought was given to the fact that the “other” witnesses to what occurred that evening were the very same soldiers lying wounded in a coalition hospital. The readiness to believe the assertions of a non-professional army without any faith in the transparency and honesty of our own soldiers says much about the trust in our own institutions.

So, in three days, the tragedy morphed into a metaphor on the Canadian mission. Canadians, some commented, would not have been killed if they had stayed away from the supposed front line. The story became a narrative of a self-inflicted wound.

From their most basic training – as privates and then as NCO’s or officers, the most basic procedure drilled into every Canadian soldier is how to approach a position near or on the front line by day and by night. Every soldier is schooled on a menu of options, including light signals; sound signals; other visual signals such as smoke; radio call signs; code words and passwords; time co-ordination and geographic bearings related to an approach.

It is difficult to digest that ordinary soldiers with combat experience, let alone Canada’s elite Special Forces, would have abandoned their most rudimentary training in a landscape as unpredictable as Northern Iraq.

What is far more likely is that young, untrained Kurdish militia, already fearful of what might befall them – having seen their compatriots paraded in cages by IS – simply allowed fear to trump discipline; the very thing Canadians are there to teach them.

Now, for whatever reason, we’re now back to the old story of Canadians in combat. On every occasion where Canadians have exchanged fire with ISIS, it has been an individual response – withdrawing from combat rather than seeking an engagement. Experiencing combat does not make it a combat mission, and to paint it as such is inaccurate. If it were so, all our peacekeeping missions would have been called combat missions.

Canadians have approached the front line to see the terrain, to guide their Kurdish or Iraqi charges on what they should be planning – but not with the intent to engage in combat. Canadians have assisted in calling in air strikes, but doing so while kilometres away from a target stretches the interpretation of being in combat.

This is not the First World War with clearly demarcated front lines where you were either inside or outside the wire.

This month, Parliament will have to consider an extension to Canada’s mission. What should be germane to the discussion is whether coalition strategy is achieving its goals of degrading or destroying the Islamic State.

What would be the ultimate tragedy in our national debate would be the splitting of hairs of how close we are to the front line or not, or whether we are in ground combat. If this is allowed to happen, our priorities are very much misplaced.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO, and has been an advisor to senior NATO commanders.

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