Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Pique n your interest

Why I'm a civilian

Non-stop war footage on the nightly news gets me thinking about the dangerous lives of soldiers.

And now our own Prime Minister has tabled a plan that would call on the UN to apply military force to put an end to genocides - like the ones taking place in Liberia and the Congo, and that have caused so much death and carnage in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Iraq over the past 15 years.

The plan is not likely to go through, and if it does it will probably be without the support of the U.S., but that's beside the point. Kudos to Mr. Chretien for sincerely trying to make the world a better place, but the idea that Canada could make a contribution to these peacekeeping efforts is laughable. Our military is small, under-equipped and over-deployed. You can only spread peanut butter so thin if you want to keep your sandwich together, and we were scraping the jar to begin with.

Obviously there are some wonderful people in the military and military reserves in Canada. It takes a special kind of commitment and discipline to become a soldier, and I'm grateful these people exist. Sometimes I wonder how I would have done in the military - and then I remember the three horrific months I spent in the Air Cadets, Toronto Squadron when I was 14 years old.

Rightly guessing that my high school friends would make fun of me, I told them I had swimming lessons every Tuesday.

I didn't join the Cadets alone or willingly, but was talked into it by my friend Darren. His older brother Graham had been with the Air Cadets since he was 13 and learned how to fly a glider and a single-engine plane by the time he was 18.

I thought that sounded pretty cool, even if sneaking out of the house wearing an ugly powder blue shirt, black tie, and khaki French fry cook hat was most definitely not.

My fellow cadets were definitely not what I pictured. Many of the kids were overweight, while others seemed a little too small. Most of them wore glasses.

A couple of the kids were there on probation, part of a plea bargain with a judge who probably thought a little discipline would iron out the hard cases. And then there were the psychos. One guy used to wear ninja booties and claimed to be able to catch arrows, Rambo-style. Another older guy, one of my superiors, liked to grab young recruits by the throat or punch them in the guts.

For the most part, with the exception of a couple of guys and one girl, the cadets were the kids that spent high school getting shoved into lockers, walking hallways with "Kick Me" signs taped to their backs, and answering to nicknames like "Pimples" and "Skidmarks".

Some of them no doubt joined the cadets to toughen up a little, and a lot of them didn't lose the opportunity to get a little payback. It was sanctioned bullying.

Because Darren and I joined up late, we were made examples of on a regular basis. We didn't know the drills, weren't sure whom to salute, and couldn't get our uniforms on straight. We were yelled at, given push-ups, sent home early, pulled out of drills, and yelled at some more.

"Patience," we told ourselves. "Think about the gliders."

It's not that I was sensitive or anything - I'd been yelled at by coaches my whole life, and had an older brother who used to whale on me every other day. I had some pretty thick skin by the time I enlisted.

What bothered us most was the sheer idiocy of most of what we did. Prayer sessions. Flag ceremonies. Marching drills up and down the basketball court. Military history classes. We didn't do a single thing that might have been fun, like learn martial arts or shoot rifles.

My whole Air Cadets experience finally unraveled at a weekend "exercise".

We had actual night watches, and because Darren and I were so hated we were given the 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. slot, as well as the unpleasant duty of waking up the commanding officers.

We went around and woke everybody on our list, including the camp commander. Mission accomplished, we went for breakfast.

Unknown to us, the commander, who stunk like a brewery, had fallen back asleep and didn't wake up until noon. Enraged and embarrassed, he tore a strip out of our superior - apparently punching him in the stomach. Our superior then vented on us.

Afternoon was spent doing things like archery and playing games like king of the hill, and I had fun the first time since enlisting.

After dinner, we were having an evening war game. Every person was given a ring, and the group was divided into two teams. If someone stuck his or her finger in your back, you had to give them your ring. The team with the most rings at the end would win. It was pretty stupid, actually.

I found a good hiding place and waited. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later, two figures stomped up the path near where I was hiding. I moved in as quietly as I could, until I was close enough to jam a thumb into each of their backs.

Turns out I captured the camp commander and the head cook. They told me they were a third army that couldn't be captured and took my ring. I called B.S. on that, and was sent back to "barracks", so he could yell at me later for my insubordination.

The next day, I was given clean-up duty in the kitchen and then told to wait outside after I told the cook to eff off. This little jerk who outranked me started throwing rocks at me as I stood there waiting to get yelled at, and after the third one hit me I grabbed him and started punching.

The superior officer who liked to choke recruits then choked me until I let the little guy go. I was yelled at for about two hours by all of the superior officers for attacking someone smaller than me.

Then I quit. Then Darren quit. We spent the rest of the day on the bus waiting to be driven home, making fun of everyone out the window. They couldn't do anything to us because we weren't under their power any more.

Yessir, when I think of our peacekeepers abroad, risking their necks for some truly worth causes, I often still wonder what kind of soldier I might have made. And then I remember the cadets.