The Minute Book
Saturday, 20 July 2013

High Seas in a Melmac Cup
Topic: Commentary

Rank badges of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Source: Their Glory Cannot Fade, a souvenir pamphlet published by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Christmas, 1918.
Click on thumbnail images for full size. Images cross-posted from here.

The battle lines are drawing themselves over an issue in the Canadian Army that seems to be self-propagating contentious views. Sadly, its not over the loss of buildings in places like Wolseley Barracks, but rather over the planned change to officers' rank insignia.

It's not worth one's time to trawl through the comments on news media sites, even the CBC, because those discussions seldom don't turn into raving political diatribes. Better to look at internet forums where we find congregated people of similar interests who will discuss issues from a common understanding, even if not common agreement.

Take the British & Commonwealth Military Badge Forum, for example, where in a thread titled "Pips and Crowns re-instated" we find the admission by member servicepub that it was indeed a lobby group that precipitated the Government decision to change Army officers' rank badges. It is most likely that if this had actually been a Canadian Army agenda item, its execution would have swiftly followed, if not preceded, the change to Naval officers' rank insignia in 2010. Granted, the Army has had other priorities for some time now.

The members on the Badge Forum show strong support for the change, but they are a group of collectors, reveling in the intricate design and workmanship of badges. And for many military badges, the finest workmanship and levels of detail are not in basic accoutrements such as officers rank stripes, it is in the older badges like intricate metal crowns and stars (pips is a colloquialism). This is a group that celebrates the past, and works diligently to preserve and honour it. They like the idea of returning to more ornate rank badge styles, and readily agree with the connections this gives to the historical Canadian Armies of the World Wars. But, notably, few of them will be found among the officers subject to any new uniform changes.

In comparison, we can read the exchanges on the forums at Milnet.ca (a.k.a., Army.ca) where a group comprised, in large proportion, of serving members of the CF generate a very different tone.

In the recent pages of a lengthy discussion thread titled "Re-Royalization" (RCN, RCAF & RCEME), renaming, CF to CAF, old badges, and "new" Army Divisions". (Start about page 111 of the thread.) Here the conversation circles less around support for or against the change per se, but more on the timing of such a decision in declared times of austerity. Small change one might argue, but the principle remains. The costs of changing rank insignia could have been the money to give buildings at Wolseley Barracks a few year's reprieve.

The troops at Army.ca also, quite deservedly, feel affronted by the claim that this change somehow restores honour lost at Unification. If that is so, someone hasn't been keeping the military of the past few decades informed that they should be maintaining a sense of lost honour. Instead, they've been in places like the former Yugoslavia, Africa, and Afghanistan forging honour with good steel and lost blood.

But some will ignore the achievements of today's Army because they are too rigidly focused on slights, real and imagined, of the past. Like the British with the retreat from Kabul, Isandlwana, and the Somme in 1916, some Canadians also love to treasure a good tragedy, especially when we can find someone to blame in the distant past and try to fix it in the modern era. Like War of 1812 Battle Honours, Unification of the CF, or the attempts to resurrect the Arrow, there's never a shortage of lobby groups to attack an issue, and when they can convince the Government can use Defence dollars to achieve their dreams, all the better.

There's a certain irony that the sides drawn in this battle don't really exist, or at least aren't mutually opposing. One side declares the change is a "good thing," and having convinced the government to do it, find themselves mystified that the rank and file aren't marching proudly to their victory over Unification. The rank and file, on the other hand, are saying "meh." For them, it just another change to uniforms (and not everyone's anyway). The ones who have a few decades service remember that no-one made any furor over the re-introduction of the coloured "jam label" regimental shoulder titles and brass locket belt buckles on the Garrison Dress in the 1980s. Those also copied badges worn in Italy and North West Europe in the Second World War, and they came and went without a whimper from the 'save our heritage' crowd.

The garrison dress shoulder flash.  The embroidery of the blue and the wide black border with heavy hem stitchery make it distinctive from earlier patterns. Photo by Capt M. O'Leary (Private Collection)

The garrison dress shoulder flash of The Royal Canadian Regiment.

"Change the uniforms?" the troops say, "ok, but don't tell us what we're supposed to think about it."

Today's Army, the one that maintained an incredible pace of operational tempo to meet Canada's expectations in Afghanistan lacks no honour. To imply they do, and that it will be restored by new pips and crowns on officers' shoulders, is a laughable argument. They're not against the change, they're protesting the window dressing of hot air accompanying it and all that it implies about them. They're questioning, among themselves, the contradiction between warnings of austerity measures and an unexpected expense on non-essentials. Regardless, none of them are going to resign their commissions in protest over this one. They'll work through the change and be just as effective afterwards, probably without spending forty years bemoaning it.

Bring on the stars and crowns.

Next, the Canadian Forces, and the Canadian Army, will have a chance to examine the task, devise the insignia (hopefully with appropriate and distinctive Canadian iconography), contract their production, and coordinate their issue. The lobbyists may have sold the plan to Ottawa, but the Army still needs to do the detailed staff work on what will actually be approved and worn, otherwise we might have to ask who's steering this ship.

To anyone who's still reading, can we put this issue to bed now? Let the Directorate of History and Heritage (including the Dress and Ceremonial officer) do their jobs. After that, let the Supply folks do theirs, and then the tailors can get to work.

If you happen to be a big fan of the change, for whatever reason, just don't be surprised when a young officer wearing freshly minted pips doesn't gleefully join you in a good round of damning Hellyer, he probably won't know who that is. Or care. But if your next project is getting the troops good boots, you may find a willing audience.

The Senior Subaltern


Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 20 July 2013 12:07 AM EDT
Saturday, 13 July 2013

Pips and Crowns and Politics
Topic: Commentary

Rank badges of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Source: Their Glory Cannot Fade, a souvenir pamphlet published by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Christmas, 1918.
Click on thumbnail images for full size. Images cross-posted from here.

What do the War of 1812 and Canadian Army rank insignia have in common? They have both (or will, in one degree or another) changed the way the Army is perceived by Canadians, yet neither was an Army initiative. The Army doesn't get to lead its own heritage and historical representations, that is now apparently done by third-party lobby groups who manage to convince the Government that change in the Army is "good for the troops."

Frankly, I will bet there was no cheering in any Army Mess over this announcement. Find a cynical enough Corporal and he'll tell you the officers should change rank insignia, preferably to colour-coded top hats so they can be seen from afar and efficiently avoided.

 

So what's the Army to do? The background manoevring on such issues is politically motivated, sold to the Government by lobby groups, and then delivered to the Army as a decree. The Army, however, is in the business of carrying out the Government's wishes. That's what armies in democratic nations do. And so the Army soldiers on.

The Army soldiers on, says "Yes Sir," and is left not only to execute the task, but also to create the explanations for why such changes are a good thing. This messaging has to be delivered not only internally, but also externally to all Canadians, and, indirectly, to an international audience of interested military minded news watchers who sit and wonder why other militaries do the things they do.

The last change to Army officer's rank insignia in the Canadian Army was with Unification, that much maligned (and in many respects deservedly so) plan to economize the structure of the Canadian Forces. And here we are, 40 years later, watching our current Government work at undoing the vestiges of that era, including remaining ones that have no impact on current operational efficiencies or professionalism.

The Army has had uniforms come and go (some had mercifully short tenures), moved rank between sleeves, shoulders and centre of chest, and taken each change in stride. This is just one more dress change that will require extensive preparations for the tailoring of thousands of uniforms, and those affected will wait and turn in their tunics on order and pick up new insignia in turn. Hopefully they'll be better made than that War of 1812 pin they issued to the troops.

The aggravating aspect comes with the worldly predictions of how this is all received. Frankly, this will have no material effect on the "morale of the Army." In an era of declared austerity, its an inexplicable expense, however small in the "big picture" it may be. If you want to raise morale, gear up another mission so that those who joined the Army to see the world and serve their country can look forward to their next tour (but perhaps not with the pace Afghanistan inflicted upon the Army). Want a smaller change? Give Commanding Officers the authority to issue a rum ration again, rather then needing a verified Ice Age and a General's signature to do it on a winter exercise.

Frankly, I will bet there was no cheering in any Army Mess over this announcement. Find a cynical enough Corporal and he'll tell you the officers should change rank insignia, preferably to colour-coded top hats so they can be seen from afar and efficiently avoided. The average junior officer is more worried, as she should be, about when Cpl Bloggin's boots are going to come through Supply, or how to organize transport to next week's ranges. The old retired guys in the Officers' Messes are chuckling over the change, because they know how much administration comes with such things, to be dumped on the serving officers' desks without anything being taken away in balance.

And proclaiming the historical significance and "regaining lost honour" to bolster troops morale? Bull-shit! The Army has not been some pathetic Gollum, skulking in the shadows waiting for the return of its Precious in the form of pips and crowns to be redeemed in its own eyes. And the pride shown by Canadians in the Army's achievements over the past decade needs no qualification. The fact of the matter is that while most soldiers (serving and retired) are very proud of the histories of their regiments and corps, and proud of the Army's achievements, they just aren't that interested in the details outside their own periods of service. Walk into any unit and start asking detailed questions about their history. You'll get shuffled around a few offices until you meet the one or two in-house history geeks that know the answers … because they have personally dedicated time to the research.

Changing the rank insignia? All well and good, the Army will soldier on. But lets not try to sell ourselves with a smoke and mirrors act that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And in a few years, it will all be normal again and the in-house history geeks will be the ones explaining the "old" rank stripes to visitors.

I may be one of those history geeks, and I can tell you that while change may be an unavoidable constant, bitching about having to change is an inalienable soldier's right, especially when the explanations fall flat.

Bring on the stars (pips is a colloquialism) and crowns, but let's make sure they are well made. And for the Supply types who will be managing the production contracts, remember that officers will wear these in groups numbering up to six at a time, and need them for multiple uniforms. Every time you find a "cheaper" contract and flood the Clothing Stores with bags of new stars and crowns, it's going to get harder to make up matching sets. So don't complain when a newly promoted officer wants all new ones so that he looks correct in the rank insignia the Government has magnanimously restored.

I'd like to tell you to watch this space for developing news, but it may be some months before the final plan is developed by the Army. Changes ordered by Government announcements can be lacking in the details needed for execution. But I'm sure some newly motivated staff officer is already working extra hours to figure this one out. And feel free to watch this space anyway.

The Frontenac Times


Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Saturday, 13 July 2013 1:36 PM EDT

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