Maj.-Gen. Brian Vernon (Interview)

On Sept. 16, 1996, Maj.-Gen. Brian Vernon retired, ending 32 years of distinguished service with the Canadian Forces. But at the end, his career was marked by controversy.

Vernon, Maj.-Gen. Brian (Interview)

On Sept. 16, 1996, Maj.-Gen. Brian Vernon retired, ending 32 years of distinguished service with the Canadian Forces. But at the end, his career was marked by controversy. In March, 1993, Vernon became commander of the Land Forces Central Command - assuming overall responsibility for the elite, but troubled, Canadian Airborne Regiment. Vernon was not directly implicated in the Airborne's December, 1992, to July, 1993, mission to Somalia, during which Canadian troops tortured one Somali teenager to death and were involved in suspicious shootings of at least two other civilians. But he was relieved of his command in February, 1995, after becoming embroiled in another Airborne-related scandal, this time over videotaped hazing practices. Vernon also stands accused by military police Maj. Vincent Buonomici of interfering in certain aspects of the Somalia investigation. Last week, in an exclusive interview, Vernon spoke to Maclean's Ottawa Correspondent Luke Fisher about some of the controversies and problems besetting the Canadian military. Excerpts:

Maclean's: Should chief of defence staff Gen. Jean Boyle resign?

Vernon: Absolutely. Leaving aside my personal animosity - which is fairly strong and I don't make any bones about that - I think that our chief of the defence staff has to be two things. One, he has to have the trust and confidence of the government of Canada. But number 2, and very closely behind number 1, is that the led have to have confidence in the leadership. There's a very strong sense of distrust at the moment. A survey done a year ago said that 83 per cent of the troops had some serious reservations about the senior leadership. If you did that same survey today it would probably be 95 per cent.

The chief of the defence staff sets the moral tone for the armed forces. Whether or not Gen. Boyle actually did anything wrong, I don't know. But his attitudes are diametrically opposed to the fundamental military ethos. Does he have the moral stand which the members of the armed forces could condone, support and follow? The short answer is no - he has forfeited the trust of those in the armed forces. He was overly egocentric in pursuing his own career and advancement rather than what would be good for the armed forces. And all of us understand that when you wear a uniform, the institution comes first, your subordinates come second and you come third, fourth or fifth down the line.

Maclean's: Has Defence Minister David Collenette painted himself into a similar corner?

Vernon: He seems to have got himself in a political box. On the other hand, he's very close to the Prime Minister and I think that his tendency would be to tough it out. I don't think he would be very quick to pack it in on a matter of principle. Perhaps he'll wind up in the Senate - I haven't met his wife [Penny], but she runs the patronage appointments in the Prime Minister's Office and she's said to be a fairly smart and capable lady.

Maclean's: What, in your estimation, is at the root of the military's problems?

Vernon: This is not so much a question of dealing with aberrant individuals as it is with a defence bureaucracy that over the last 30 years, since the introduction of unification, has evolved to the point where it has corrupted the armed forces of Canada. It has watered down or altered fundamental military values to the point where we are no longer reacting as sailors, soldiers and airmen, we are acting the same as the bureaucrats. I would say that Gen. Boyle and others are a logical byproduct of that evolution. It's not a question of blaming an individual, but the whole command and control system of the defence organization in Canada.

Maclean's: So the problem arose with the 1968 unification of the armed forces?

Vernon: The integration of the forces, for most of us, made a great deal of sense - that part of it was marked by success. The next phase, however, was a step considerably over the line of common sense. In 1972, as a result of a management study, it was decided to combine the department of national defence and Canadian Forces headquarters. We took apples and oranges and created tangerines as a result. We now have military people involved in areas where uniformed people should not be - government policy, protection of the minister and so on. We very much have bureaucrats involved in armed forces policy like the mounting of operations, the degree of support provided and so on.

My view is that the military operators should be running the organization - and not a collection of bureaucrats. You need to hit defence headquarters with a 20 megaton bomb and separate it into two components - one a proper military headquarters, the other the ministry of defence, which contains all of the necessary bureaucratic elements for things like procurement and financial probity.

Maclean's: What are your views on the Somalia scandal?

Vernon: An artificially generated crisis - I've been consistently amazed in the last 3 ½ years at some of the goings-on. I was horrified at the fact that two Canadian soldiers beat a prisoner to death. That was something clearly wrong, and needed to be dealt with. In some ways I was even more concerned that some noncommissioned officers were aware of what was going on and did not intervene. But beyond that murder, what else is known about Somalia? Our troops from the Canadian Airborne Regiment were rated by our allies and the coalition commanders as among the very best - they achieved their mission, providing security faster than anybody else and with the least cost in terms of loss of human life.

But the reaction in Canada was affected by the political state of the day - and that was opposition to the Conservative government. Somalia suddenly surfaced as a weapon that could be used - and it was. In the military, had we resolved the murder in Somalia and had we quickly dealt with one or two other events, then I expect that we wouldn't be in the position we are today. But for a variety of reasons - the remote theatre, the confusion and also an effort to be politically correct - we didn't. Unlike the Americans, who dealt with their problems quickly - some kid stole a sergeant's sunglasses and didn't halt when ordered to. The sergeant picked up a grenade launcher and blew him all over Mogadishu, I think. The guy was busted to private, fined - and it all happened within a week. That's the way military discipline was intended to work.

Maclean's: The Airborne was disbanded in January, 1995, in part because of Somalia. Was the unit treated unfairly?

Vernon: The government has the unquestioned right to take whatever course of action it deems to be appropriate. But it was a most unusual course of action. As a highly decorated American said, if you applied the same standard to the U.S. army, you wouldn't have any units left. Almost every outfit has problems. That is not significant - it is how you deal with it that is significant. In January, 1995, when the minister announced that he was disbanding the Airborne, the regiment was without question the best in the Canadian army. They were just dumbstruck by the decision. The fact that they didn't behave like the Foreign Legion and dynamite CFB Petawawa on the way out, as the Legion did in Algeria, is a tribute to the leadership and self-discipline of the troops.

Maclean's: But the Airborne's image was badly tarnished not only by Somalia but also by the videotapes scandal.

Vernon: There are in fact three videotapes. Someone described the first one, which was publicized, as an hour and a half of extremely boring home video of sand, sand and more sand, and a minute or so of two guys posing in a macho fashion. The second was the 1 Commando indoctrination, which occurred in August, 1992. That was widely publicized and led to the disbanding of the Airborne. It disgusted everybody - I had never before seen behavior like that on the part of soldiers. The third videotape, which has not been shown in public, has a couple of things in it which would irritate you if you saw it on TV. It was a communion event using pre-chewed bread passed from person to person - an act of communion when you joined the outfit. The rest of it was no big deal. A couple of people got all excited about self-electrocution. I know what the soldiers were using - a field telephone box that has all the power of two D-cell batteries. What the guys were doing was to see how long they could take the two connectors and hold them together while getting a mild jolt. The fact that they were laughing and lining up to do it again indicated to me that this was nothing serious.

Maclean's: But you ended up losing your command because of that third video, after telling your superiors that it contained nothing controversial.

Vernon: That part is true - it had more to do with confusion than anything else. Defence Minister David Collenette was asked a question in the House: "What do you know about a terrible third video?" The minister said that he didn't know about any 'terrible' video, but that he would look into it. At the end of it, the information given to the minister was an exaggerated view of what the videotape contained. It caused him to react to the cameras, saying that he had been misled by his military staff. And after that, you can't back off.

Maclean's: How did that happen?

Vernon: The videotapes were handed over to the military police. In this case, their assessment of video three was that it was considerably different than videotape two and that there were no grounds on which to take disciplinary action. But a particular officer in defence headquarters interfered in the police investigation, saw the video-tape quickly, made a very hasty judgment and then went directly to the minister and gave him a sensationalized version.

Maclean's: A general officer?

Vernon: Yes - the associate assistant deputy minister, policy.

Maclean's: Which at the time was Gen. Boyle?

Vernon: Boyle, yeah.

Maclean's: You have been accused by military police Maj. Vincent Buonomici of interfering in his investigation of the Somalia affair. How do you respond?

Vernon: In the summer of 1993, a military police investigation looking into Somalia had executed some search warrants in what I thought was a very clumsy fashion, and had violated the rights of the soldiers concerned like Keystone Kops. I did not know that Maj. Buonomici was involved at all. I think Buonomici got hammered between the eyes because myself and two other general officers complained that he was incompetent and that he didn't know how to do his job. He saw that as interference. When Buonomici was the security officer for me in Calgary, he had a sense of himself as a marshal of Dodge City and that nobody could interfere with what he did. None of us works in that much of an embryonic cell.

Maclean's: Why have you waited so long to go public?

Vernon: My sense of loyalty to the army, and to the soldiers with whom I've served, is undiminished - and, if anything, is enhanced by the last couple of years. My trust and confidence when you get beyond that level has diminished considerably. When you take off the uniform, you have the same rights, obligations and opportunities as any other citizen.

Maclean's September 30, 1996