Boots on the ground, Canadian style
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Spend a few weeks working with the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and you’ll notice that while they share a lot of things in common with U.S. troops, they also have their differences. Some of them are subtle, others are more distinct.
For instance, most of the basic small arms, equipment and vehicles are the same. Both militaries use the same rifles, squad machine guns and general purpose machine guns. But the Canadian version of the M-240 is called the C-6, the M-16 is known as the C-7, the M-4 is called a C-8, the M-249 SAW is the C-9, and all of them are made in Canada.
The workhorse vehicles of the Canadian infantry are the Light Armored Vehicle, or LAV, and the Bison. They’re basically the same vehicle, but the LAV has a turret on top with and 25 mm gun, and the Bison is a troop carrier. U.S. Marines use a variant of the LAV, calling it by the same name. The U.S. Army uses a version of the Bison, but calls it the Stryker.
Canadian troops refer informally to their LAVs and Bisons as "boats."
Both armies use the MRAP and Buffalo, mine-resistant vehicles. Canadian engineers also use the old U.S. M113 armored personnel carrier, but they call it the TLAV, for Tracked Light Armored Vehicle.
In the field, Canadian troops eat prepackaged meals very similar to American MREs. Known as IMPs, or individual meal packets, they feature an array of offerings ranging from Szechuan chicken to lamb stew to cabbage rolls and zesty turkey. The only drawback is that they don’t come with individual heaters like the MREs, and the packets have to be prepared in boiling water. But on the whole, they’re much tastier than their American counterparts, even when they’re cold.
Just as with the American Army, the squad or section is the basic working element in an infantry unit. But whereas in the U.S. Army, infantry soldiers are called infantrymen, in Canada, they’re known as infantiers. That’s because women can serve in the Canadian infantry, just as they can serve in any field of combat arms (though women in the Canadian infantry seem to be few and far between).
As in the American Army, the infantry tends to regard non-combat arms soldiers with disdain. Anyone who is not one of them is known as a "WOG," which means "Without Guns" or a "POINTI," a "Person of No Tactical Importance."
The Canadian forces are much smaller than their U.S. counterparts. Canada has only about 62,000 troops in its regular forces. For comparison’s sake, that’s about one-third the size of the U.S. Marine Corps. Another 25,000 reservists serve part-time. But Canada also has only a tenth of the U.S. population.
The Canadians have a unified command, so there are no separate branches for the army, navy or air force. But for practical purposes, most soldiers still refer to them as the army, navy and air force.
Rank structures in the Canadian Forces are different from their U.S. counterparts.
"Lieutenants" (pronounced "leftenants" by Canadians) command platoons, but so do junior captains. A company is always commanded by a major, with a captain as second in command.
The ranks among the enlisted are private, corporal, master corporal, sergeant, warrant officer, master warrant officer, and chief warrant officer. New soldiers can spend three or four years working their way up from private recruit, private basic and private trained. Corporals have usually been in the service for four or more years.
While not officially a separate rank, but an appointment, a master corporal is equivalent to a U.S. sergeant, with similar responsibilities.
In a platoon, warrants are the equivalent of a U.S. sergeant first class and serve as "2IC," or second in command. Master warrant officers and chief warrant officers occupy the most senior enlisted positions in a company and battalion, and confusingly, are often called sergeant major, although the rank itself does not exist in the Canadian forces.
Canada has briefly introduced conscription twice in its history, towards the end of World War I and World War II. Canadian troops have served in numerous NATO and U.N. peacekeeping missions over the past few decades, but Afghanistan is its first combat deployment since the Korean War.
There are 2,500 Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan. They generally serve tours of six to seven months.
Canada pays its soldiers well, and troops are often quick to tell you that they are among the best-paid soldiers in the world. Retention is quite high, and within any given platoon, there are probably more junior soldiers with five and six years of service than there are new privates. A platoon of soldiers can sometimes serve together for a couple of years with very little turnover. Enlisted soldiers usually sign one or two short-term contracts, usually about three years each, then an indefinite contract that’s meant to see them through to retirement. As in the U.S. military, Canadian soldiers can retire after 20 years.
An egalitarian spirit seems often to prevail, especially among the enlisted infantry. Privates, corporals and sergeants tend to call each other by their first names. But warrant officers are often just called "Warrant" without any last name, and enlisted soldiers invariably refer to their officers simply as "sir" and "ma’am."
The egalitarian spirit was on display recently during a trip back from Zhari district to Kandahar Airfield. In the back of a Bison troop carrier, one lieutenant colonel had scrawled his name on the ceiling of the vehicle. "Living the Dream," it said.
Next to it was a note written and signed by a captain.
"If the COs (commanding officers) can write up here, so can I," it declared.