The Minute Book
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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