This column is an opinion by Nick Gunz, a naval and intelligence historian who lectures at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have a fascinating component called the Canadian Rangers that may be unique among the world’s militaries. Rangers are soldiers, but they don’t look like it: they wear red sweatshirts, carry hunting rifles instead of assault rifles, and often drive civilian vehicles (which they provide themselves).
It’s not unusual in military history for armies to dress specialized light infantry units like hunters. But Rangers are not the Jaegers or Zouaves of the nineteenth century — indeed, they’re not really infantry at all.
Operating out of isolated communities on the West Coast and in the North, Ranger patrols are comparatively tiny, with as few as eight members each. Units adapts their culture to the local community. They elect their sergeants, and are largely exempt from both the physical and training-time requirements of other elements of the CAF reserve.
These are not combat troops, equipped for battle; they’re something far more interesting. The Rangers are a way for distinct and diverse peoples to participate in the defence of their own land, on their own terms, and provide the wider nation with the benefit of their unique skills.
They have also, unfortunately, recently become controversial.
Recent years have seen a number of scandals in which members of the CAF were discovered to be associated with far-right groups. This summer, when some non-Indigenous members of the Canadian Rangers were implicated, it generated hostile commentary. What is the point, wondered some, of an army that cannot fight? Are they just a public relations exercise?
On the contrary, the Rangers are not only important in their own right. They are a model which should be expanded to even more communities, with a wider range of specialist skills.
To understand the scepticism with which some view the Rangers, one has to understand something of how the broader CAF see themselves. This is a huge and complex subject, but here’s a single, illustrative example: The CAF observes a principle known as “Universality of Service.” All Regular and Primary Reserve service members – recruiters, surgeons, clerks, cooks – are required to be deployable for what are called “general operational duties.”
Essentially, they have to be physically able to serve as a foot soldier with a rifle. This is stringently enforced. You may have decades of specialized knowledge about, say, procurement, or public relations, or intelligence – but if your lower back pain doesn’t clear up, it doesn’t matter: you’re out.
One can see how people used to this ethos might think an outfit like the Rangers very strange indeed.
There are many problems with Universality of Service, but one of them is that it makes it almost impossible for the CAF to employ area-specific experts.
In this age of growing cyber-warfare threats, for example, it might be really handy if the Forces had strong links with our world-beating cyber-security experts on Bay Street, in Waterloo, and so on. But world-beating cyber-security experts aren’t allowed to take the oath and put on the uniform unless they meet the terms of Universality of Service, and intensively train as foot soldiers. Even those members of the tech community who could pass the physical don’t have the spare time to spend hours a week training to shoot rifles and throw grenades.
Here’s another example: our big cities have whole communities with rich cultural and linguistic skills concerning parts of the world in which our Forces might deploy. From a military standpoint, the cultural and linguistic knowledge embedded in these communities is priceless – except for the price imposed by Universality of Service.
It is really expensive to locate combat-capable units in dense urban areas, so we weight them toward small cities and rural municipalities where land is cheaper — and the population more homogeneous. If you’re a Haitian-Montrealer or a Syrian-Torontonian, you’ll find there are often four times as many applicants as open training slots for the Reserves. And if you make it through the often-six-month selection process, your job is never going to be related to fostering your linguistic or cultural competence.
Let’s compare this to the powerful counter-example provided by the Rangers.
Universality of Service doesn’t apply to the Rangers, so they are free to recruit people on the basis not of their capabilities as an infantry soldier, but for their deep knowledge of their local environments. They can then deploy them through a military unit tailored exactly to their needs.
Let’s imagine Canada (heaven forbid!) had to fight a war in the high Arctic. Training soldiers for such an eventuality is capital-H Hard. The landscape is unfamiliar and unforgiving, equipment fails, GPS is spotty and magnetic compasses don’t work.
OK, now imagine we could supply each platoon with a highly expert specialist in Arctic survival and navigation. Not to fight – they’re too valuable to be put into combat – but to get our troops to the area of combat and get them safely home again.
That’s what the Rangers give us: local specialists, with a lifetime’s worth of deep skills we could never adequately teach, prepared to support our combat forces in the unlikely event of a local crisis.
To do that, yes, we have to allow for forces with uniforms and command structures tailored to local cultures; emphasize skills they need, rather than infantry combat; and lightly equip them with the tools and vehicles they choose, ones that work in their local environment. They’re going to be different and, yes, from the point of view of a military traditionalist that might look strange.
It is not, however, a bad model.
Indeed, it is a model we could well adapt and apply to other military needs in other diverse communities.
There are complex reasons why Canada’s defence experts might be suspicious of a service so far outside the military mainstream. But if we too lightly dismiss the Rangers we risk losing not only their irreplaceable capabilities, but also a living example of how creativity and flexibility can make our diversity our strength.