On a narrow road in the hills of Bosnia, Daniel Gunther, a Canadian infantry corporal, sat in the turret hatch at a white armoured vehicle. The midday sun blazed down on the parked carrier as he surveyed the landscape ahead through a bulky pair of binoculars that he held just under his light blue United Nations helmet. Gunther, 24, had only been in Bosnia for about a month, since soldiers of the Royal 22ieme Regiment replaced an Anglophone unit in Visoko, about 20 kilometres northwest of Sarajevo.
Earlier that morning, June 18, 1993, two armoured personnel carriers, one driven by Gunther, rattled out of the Canadian compound at Kiseljak, near the peacekeepers’ main position at Visoko. Their mission: to stop at an observation point on the Kiseljak-Visoko road near the village of Buci. Once there, they hoped that a visible, stationary UN presence would stop the warring factions from attacking civilian traffic. It was the kind of workaday peacekeeping operation that Canadians hear little about. By 9:30 a.m., the two vehicles, one known on the radio net as Seven-One and the other as Seven-One-Alpha, had taken up positions about 500 metres apart.
At Seven-One, Captain Yvan Pichette and Sergeant Mario Robert sat in the carrier while Gunther scrutinized the landscape through his binoculars. As the morning wore on, the three soldiers in Seven-One-Alpha-Master-Corporal Richard Martin, Corporal S.R. Phaneuf, and Private J.P. ThEberge-tinkered with their broken radio, eventually giving up. At 12:30, Phaneuf left the sheltering armour to relieve himself.
“It was at that point that I heard the first explosion,” Phaneuf said. He sprinted back toward the little open door in the back of the white carrier. An instant later, he heard another blast-this one Much closer. Bullets smacked the air around both vehicles.
Inside Seven-One, Sergeant Robert was rocked and deafened by that second blast. The interior of the carrier was suddenly filled with acrid smoke. He slammed the heavy rear door and, he later remembered, “shouted at Corporal Gunther to start the vehicle and get out of the area as quickly as possible,”
But there was only silence from the turret. An anti-tank rocket aimed at the carrier had exploded where Gunther sat, missing the main body of the vehicle but killing him instantly. Investigators later found fragments of his shattered blue helmet 30 metres away.
Later that day, in Ottawa, National Defence Headquarters issued a press release which appeared in paraphrased form in most Canadian dailies the next morning. It differed from what had happened in one crucial detail: Gunther, it stated, had been killed when a mortar round hit the carrier.
“Corporal Gunther was probably halfway out of his vehicle when the shrapnel of what seemed to be a mortar hit him,” Major Jean-Pierre Sabourin, a spokesman at the military base a Valcartier, Quebec, told French-language newspaper Le Devoir. Several other papers phoned Visoko and talked to a military spokesman, Captain Bruce Stock, who confirmed the story. (A dispatch from Southam, however, correctly attributed the death to an anti-tank round.)
The distinction between the facts as they occurred and the facts as they were presented to the media is important. A mortar is fired in a high sloping arc at its target, which is an area rather than a specific object. An individual mortar round is not a particularly accurate weapon. What’s more, if a mortar round had struck the thin roof of the carrier, the explosion would have devastated the interior, killing all three men. An anti-tank rocket, by contrast, is fired at a deliberately selected target-there’s nothing random about it.
The official military account wasn’t publicly challenged until December 1993, when the Ottawa military magazine Esprit de Corps got two anonymous calls from soldiers with a different view of events. Because he wanted to publicize the soldier’ version as quickly as possible, Scott Taylor, the magazine’s iconoclastic publisher, called The Toronto Sun’s Peter Worthington, who broke the story in his column.
In January 1994, Esprit de Corps ran an angry, bitter article that contrasted the information given to the public and Gunther’s wife and family with what an internal board of inquiry had found to be the cause of Daniel Gunther’s death. “Beyond all doubt,” the three officers on the board of inquiry had written in a report dated July 10, 1993, “the weapon used was in fact an anti-tank weapon and not a mortar round.” Their report was given a restricted classification.
Beyond Esprit de Corps and the Toronto and Ottawa Suns, however, the story got no wider coverage-a lucky break for the military’s public relations officials, says Taylor: “At that point the trust in [Department of National Defence] communications could have been blown wide open.”
By June 1993, there had been other deaths of Canadian peacekeepers, but they were accidents of a war zone, like the sergeant who had been killed by a land mine the previous August, or the carelessly handled rifle that killed a Canadian in Somalia. Gunther, however, had been killed by soldiers who deliberately aimed a rocket at a clearly marked UN vehicle. His tragedy signalled the opening of a new and ominous chapter in Canadian peacekeeping, and should have started a public debate about the dangers of sending peacekeepers to an active war zone. And it also should have led to a debate in journalistic circles about the glaring deficiencies in the way military matters are covered.
Unsurprisingly, there are conflicting explanations as to why the military didn’t admit immediately after the board of inquiry came to its conclusion that Gunther had been killed by an anti-tank rocket. Some see it as an act of deliberate dishonesty, one designed to downplay the dangers that peacekeepers faced in Bosnia and thus avoid a public controversy that might lead to withdrawal. “It was politically unacceptable to have a murder of a Canadian UN soldier,” says Peter Gunther, Corporal Gunther’s father. “That’s what the problem was.” Esprit de Corps’ Taylor agrees with the assessment. “Six months after the Board of Inquiry was concluded, the Public Affairs branch was still lying to the people of Canada, claiming Gunther was killed accidentally by random mortar fire,” he stormed in the August 1994, issue of his magazine.
National Defence Headquarters, for its part, blames the discrepancy on bad information from the battalion in Bosnia in the immediate aftermath of Gunther’s death. In response to written questions from the Ryerson Review, Commander Barry Frewer, a military spokesman in Ottawa, attributed the error to “initial reports submitted from the field under the ‘fog of war,”‘ and pointed to a press release issued by army headquarters in Montreal in May 1994, correcting the misinformation in NDHQ’s statement the previous June.
With Gunther’s death causing few political waves, there continued to be little public awareness of the danger to which Canadian peacekeepers in Bosnia were exposed. Little happened to change that perception until December 1993, when a group of Serbs took 11 Canadian peacekeepers prisoner, disarmed them, and subjected them to a mock execution. The story, however, was not broken by anybody in the Canadian media. That honour belonged to The New York Times, a newspaper that hadn’t let its military coverage atrophy. The actions of the Serbian soldiers startled and disturbed the public, and an anxious debate over the presence of Canadian troops in the Balkans finally began.
Those on both sides of the gulf that divides reporters from the military’s PR structure agree that coverage of the armed forces has, in the last generation, become a weak spot for Canadian journalism. There are several reasons: cultural barriers, the loss of a tradition of military reporting, the clannish nature of military societies, and the lack of a consistent presence of reporters with Canadian troops on operations, particularly in Bosnia and Croatia.
“On the ground,” says military public affairs officer Captain Bob Kennedy, “there have been 2,000 soldiers for the last three years being shot at, killing people who shoot at them and, every day, generating fabulous stories. And not a single Canadian news agency has been smart enough to put somebody there with them [full-time].”
They have, however, sent journalists overseas on short-term visits, which raises the sticky issue of costs. Although the military is willing to support reporters from resources that already exist in the field, most major news agencies insist on paying the full cost to preserve their independence-a process that Kennedy describes as “spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars a day avoiding the hospitality of the Canadian Army.” Between transportation, reimbursing the military (several news organizations demand to be billed) and insurance, the cost of sending reporters and photographers to cover Canadian troops in a war zone, let alone keeping them there, quickly becomes prohibitive to a cashstrapped news operation. The result: visits to Canadian troops abroad that are relatively brief and rare.
Whether journalists should go on the military’s supervised tours of war zones (termed “junkets” by some) is a debatable point. Unlike such easier ethical judgement calls as rejecting gifts from the sub, jeers of articles, there is little unanimity among reporters about the degree to which news agencies should accept help from the armed forces, or whether their objectivity would suffer if they did. “You’re going to be biased for the cost of a plane flight to Somalia?” asks John Ward of The Canadian Press.
David Pugliese, who often covers the military for The Ottawa Citizen, defends his newspaper’s decision to pay its own way: “I think that you do get respect from some military people when you’re not on a free ride. They seemed impressed by that.”
Be that as it may, having the military pick up the tab hasn’t always stopped embarrassing stories from being told, Jim Day, at the time a reporter for the Pembroke Observer, flew to Somalia in March 1993, on a trip mostly paid for by the armed forces. Day, who happened to arrive in the immediate aftermath of the murder of a Somali teenager by members of the Airborne Regiment, ended up breaking the first story of what became the Somalia scandal. Day’s article led to a spate of revelations about bizarre initiation rituals and anarchic violence in the unit, culminating in the regiment’s disbandment in disgrace on a parade square in Petawawa in March 1995.
An organized tour is probably the only way most Canadian reporters get military experience-few of them grew up in a society in which the armed forces were anything other than peripheral, Peter Worthington, editor emeritus of The Toronto Sun, and an infantry platoon commander during the Korean War, is one of the few combat veterans left in Canadian journalism: “For a couple of decades after World War II,” he says, 11 the media was filled with people who’d been soldiers, sailors, airmen or some, thing, and had a visceral understanding of the mentality, and could assess it.”
Some lament the loss of the old-fashioned Canadian war correspondents, people like Charles Lynch or Ross Munro, who landed with Canadian troops in Sicily and Normandy. But “there haven’t been any Canadian wars to cover for the last 40 years as a war correspondent,” Kennedy observes. “[That earlier] generation drank whiskey instead of Perrier, chain-smoked, kept an eye on the track, and all that stuff: the whole Hemingwayesque routine.”
All the reporters interviewed by the Review, like The Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese and John Ward of The Canadian Press, agreed that the military, which often complains that it is poorly (as distinct from negatively) covered, must shoulder much of the blame itself.
Canada’s military culture is physically and intellectually isolated from the mainstream of Canadian society. Its attitudes, especially its assumptions about women, often seem to have sprung from another era; to this day, soldiers’ wives who go overseas with their husbands fall directly under military authority, and the archetype of wife-as-subordinate is alive and well in large parts of military society. As well, the ethnic makeup of the fulltime part of the armed forces reflects that of Canada half a century ago.
“The military is a closed, regimented structure, and the media are a group of people who are trained to test authority,” notes The Toronto Star’s Peter Cheney. Reporters are largely urban in outlook, liberally educated, and temperamentally skeptical. Often, relations between these two contrasting guardians of society are marked by mutual anger and confusion.
“[The military] had a lot of stuff to hide, and they did it for a long time,” Cheney contends. In January 1994, he published a large investigative feature in the Star about the Airborne Regiment’s disturbingly anarchic and hyperaggressive subculture, the first thorough look in the media at the regiment’s problems. He says he later got a death threat. “The military is a club. It’s like cops. If you get a story that involves the cops, you’re up against the entire police force.”
While all armed forces are closed to journalists to one degree or another, some reporters argue that Canada’s is too closed. “After the Gulf War, I sent in a request for the war diaries,” Ward remembers. “What did we drop bombs on, and what were the bomb damage assessments? They finally gave me an expurgated version of the war diary, but without any of the bomb damage assessments. They were done by the Americans, therefore this was a communication with a foreign government, and it was exempt. My problem with that is: the Americans didn’t give a hoot. They were giving out the bomb damage assessments on CNN. Who [is the Canadian military] trying to hide it from? The Iraqis?”
In April 1993, a few weeks after Somali teenager Shidane Arone was murdered by Canadian soldiers, an American Court-martial in Mogadishu convicted a sergeant of wounding two Somalis with a shotgun. “Unlike the Canadian military,” Pugliese pointed out at the time in The Ottawa Citizen, “the Marines are open about investigations against their soldiers. The log books of their military police are open to the media.”
Some reporters believe the military sometimes crosses the line from guardedness to active deceit. At two points in 1994, the CBC filed requests under the Access to Information Act for briefing notes used by public affairs officers. They had realized that the notes contained not only information for release to reporters, but also background information not intended for release. The CBC asked for copies of both.
“We applied for them,” explains CBC Radio reporter Michael McAuliffe, “and we received a stack of documents. And it wasn’t until a month or two [later] that we became aware that in fact the documents we’d been given had been altered. In some cases they were edited. In some cases they were rewritten. But basically the documents were re-created so that it concealed the alterations that had been made.” (At press time, a military police investigation was in progress.)
AT 10 IN THE MORNING on October 30, 1995, referendum day in Quebec, the public inquiry into the Canadian deployment to Somalia began another week of hearings in downtown Ottawa. Across the river in Hull, the polls were opening. Four reporters, clinical about their chances of having their stories published on the morning after the referendum, were in the press room. Others dropped in during the day, always asking if new documents had been released.
The inquiry was still studying the period before the Airborne Regiment went to Somalia. In the press room, the mass of released documents had already filled two bookshelves. They covered a surprising range of issues-from a major general’s explanation of his grievances, to the rules of engagement for the mission. There was also a copy of one of the famous videotapes. Clearly, a rich mine of story material.
Reporters welcomed the information; it afforded glimpses of a hidden culture that is otherwise difficult to penetrate. “What you need is something like this inquiry, with subpoena powers, and the documents start coming out,” says CP’s John Ward.
But one officer sees the media focus on the inquiry as a cop-out. “The Somalia story only became a story again it became an Ottawa story-who told what to whom about what when. It is not a military story,” says Kennedy. “It is a political story, which all of a sudden is happening in Ottawa, and finally Somalia could be covered just by strolling over to the National Press Theatre. My contempt is unbounded.”
But Esprit de Corps’ Scott Taylor feels that the inquiry, by providing a starting point for a small group of journalists, has done much to improve coverage of the military. “The facade of the uniform is no longer enough to deflect [reporters]. They are delving into it. They’re now students of this whole thing. The people, the characters, the personalities, the way it interacts with the bureaucracy.”
Taylor, who looks a bit like former Maple Leafs’ coach Pat Burns, has been a gadfly to the military establishment for years. His Ottawa office is decorated with military prints and clippings, trophies of his magazine’s exuberant war with the powers that be at National Defence Headquarters. Founded as an in-flight magazine for military charter aircraft, Esprit de Corps has since settled into a role as an abrasive defender of the ordinary soldier against what it sees as corrupt and careerist leaders.
It is these ordinary soldiers who supply the magazine with an unceasing flow of brown envelopes, faxes and furtive telephone calls. In his Ottawa office, Taylor gestures at four linear feet of documents on a bookshelf: “Almost every one of those is an unreported example of corruption which we can’t get to.”
There is an argument about the coverage of the Somalia inquiry that keeps coming back to me. It goes like this: all of the daily revelations about the misconduct of the Airborne are an indictment of the media’s earlier relative apathy. Why did we hear after the Airborne left for East Africa that there were severe problems in the regiment on the verge of its deployment-that members were eating their own excrement and blowing up cars and that the brigade commander fired the unit’s commanding officer? Why didn’t we hear about these things when they happened, so that questions could have been raised publicly about the regiment’s suitability for its mission?
To this charge, I think the media has to plead guilty. After all, the public, which pays for the armed forces and in whose name they operate, deserves strong and aggressive military journalism-strong enough to tell us about the problems in the Airborne before they went to Somalia, and strong enough to make sure that a family knew the truth immediately about how a son and husband died.
“We still don’t know who killed our son,” says Peter Gunther. “I’m sure somebody knows. What really upsets me and my wife is: We had a Somali incident; there was a Somali killed. And you notice all the hoopla that is going on about that. The investigations, the boards of inquiry, the courts-martial, because a Somali was killed by a Canadian. My son was killed by someone, and that’s it. That’s all they did. Too bad, he’s dead. There was no effort to find out who did this, and to bring that person to justice. That’s what upsets us the most. Somalia is a war zone, Yugoslavia is a war zone. Big deal. You could still find out who the hell did this. There was no outcry here in Canada, because it was never stated that this was a murder, and it was a murder; the vehicle was directly attacked.”