According to Douglas Bland, Alex Gabriel is a leader. Not just a leader, a manly, heroic leader. A natural. Only he can lead the native uprising, and he knows this because The Elders told him so, while he listened in rapt silence without raising a single question or concern. Bland is quick to assure us of this, dropping all sorts of ‘Principles of Leadership’ saying such a ‘leading from the front.’
“…One reason people followed Alex, in the army and now on this raid, was that he always led from the front. A simple concept, and not exactly stamped Top Secret, but a lot of officers never seemed to get it: leading means being in front. How else can you know what’s going on? Call it “operational problem solving” or “dealing with the unexpected 101,” just like bloody “Foxhole U,” army staff college. You will have problems, like this one. Stay on top of them.”
I got my own personal feelings about people who spend time repeating motivational-poster catchphrases as though it was the most profound wisdom, but to give credit where credit is due, Bland does portray Gabriel as training his team personally, drilling them in their ‘Actions On’ and impressing upon them various basic lessons that (I can tell you from experience) are not easy to inculcate into green troops. I have to admit, when I first started reading this novel, I ground my teeth over this part. For a moment it looked as though Bland, for all his nasty, racist premises, might have written something that legitimately reflected the challenges of training civilians into soldiers and leading them effectively against a government with superior firepower. For a few pages it seemed that this book might have legitimately stood up as some kind of racist version of Che Guevera ‘Geurila Warfare.’
Then of course the logistical problems with the raid became obvious, and the issues of risk vs reward, etc…etc…and I felt my initial concerns fading.
But is Gabriel a good leader? He certainly has all the right catch phrases, but do his actions match his words?
At first this seems to be the case. He stays close to his troops, gives reminders and prompts to ensure they remember key tasks, and when it’s time to overpower (and possibly kill) Cpl Newman, he places himself right in the middle of the action, both to inspire his troops and to control them during a crucially dangerous situation. Despite his credulous response to The Elders that we saw earlier on in this chapter, these actions do seem to indicate good leadership: Set a clear standard, give clear direction, double check to ensure everything’s going the way it should, be ready to step in at crucial moments.
Things change almost immediately as the raid comes to an end. His exfiltration done, Gabriel’s team meets up with a supporting unit from the NPA who have been waiting for them at a rendezvous with trucks to transport the weapons and the troops to their next mission. This new group of warriors are led by a mysterious man without a name whom I will call Mystery Man for simplicity’s sake. Almost right away things get…patronizing…
“…Alex Gabriel’s flotilla touched down on the Quebec shore across from Petawawa. An assortment of trucks and pickups rolled down along a trail through the bush off Chemin Fort William to take on the precious cargo. A tall, sour-looking man [Mystery Man] walked towards Alex, and, pulling him aside, glanced over the packs, boxes and weapons crates.
“What did you get?” he asked sharply.
“Much as we planned. We found the stores as described, carried away what we could and got out. We had a run-in with an MP, but she did no harm.
“Did you shoot her?”
“Of course not! What’s the matter with you? We don’t go around shooting people people out of hand.” Alex’s instant dislike for the guy grew legs. He turned to walk away. “I’ll count the stuff off the beach once I’ve seen to my people.”
“Nope. You leave that to me. My guys will take the loads from here on and we’ve got plans for the team.”
“I thought we were going to use this stuff locally. Why the changes? And what plans for my team?”
“Best you remember not to ask such questions. I’ll have your second-in-command get your people into those two trucks there, and you get in the van here. Someone wants to see you elsewhere.”
“I told you not to ask about things that aren’t your business. Anyway, they’ll be taken to a camp somewhere to eat and sleep, then we’re going to prepare them for something else. We can’t just let them go wandering around town. They’ll get drunk or start fighting or bragging to who knows who about the whole exercise. The Mounties will be out in force soon enough without us spreading the word.”
The late summer sun broke over the eastern hills, sending long shadows across the beach as strangers jumped from the trucks and grabbed the cargo, roughly pushing Alex’s warriors to the side. He took one step to intervene, but the tall man grabbed his shoulder and pulled him towards a van parked near the road. Reflexively, Alex seized his arm and started a palm-strike but checked himself. For a moment they stood frozen, glaring at one another, then from the corner of his eye Alex saw Christmas step between the strangers and the team and start coaxing the warriors to the trucks…”
So after training his team from nothing to adequate, then leading them on an incredibly risky assault on the ammo compound in Petawawa in which they almost killed an MP, Gabriel stands quietly by as his team is packed up onto trucks and taken away from him by a group of strangers who won’t even give him the most basic of details. These are his men. He trained them. Now he is going to stand by while some guy so disrespectful that Gabriel is tempted to punch him, takes them away. All in the name of ‘need to know.’
So much for being a true leader of his people.
Despite everything I will say that a lot of Mystery Man’s attitude here rings true, but not (I suspect) in the way that Bland wants it to. From the way this passage is written, it seems as though Bland expects the reader to be impressed by the impennetrable layers of security surrounding the NPA’s master plans. Mystery Man is actually taking Alex Gabriel to meet with the NPA’s supreme leader, but he can’t risk actually telling him that because….
….I’m not sure, actually.
No seriously. There’s no good reason for Mystery Man not to tell Alex that the boss has noticed his efforts, and wants to meet him in person. For that matter, there’s no good reason for Mystery Man not to give Alex a name either, but that’s another matter altogether. Sure, he might not want to tell Alex where they’re about to go (the Akwesasne Reservation) or who he’s about to meet (although Bland is frustratingly inconsistent about just how secretive the NPA leader Molly Grace really is), but there’s no reason he can’t tell the NPA leader who led the first raid of the Uprising that their leader wants a word.
On the other hand, having gone back and forth between Reg Force and the Reserves, I can say that Mystery Man’s ‘Get out of the way and let the grownups take over’ is pretty familiar. When you’re the ‘Toon walking into a Reg Force unit, it’s not uncommon to get this attitude regardless of your rank, experience or qualifications. A similar attitude can be found any time you’re in a multi-unit exercise where you wind up as a minority trade in someone else’s outfit. No matter what your trade or background, it’s not uncommon to be treated like a slack-jawed yokel when you walk into the room.
But Gabriel isn’t some inexperienced cornflake here. He’s a Capt in the CF. He’s an experienced soldier. A veteran.
Who is this punk talking to him?
No seriously, why is Gabriel not asking himself this question? There doesn’t seem to be a chain of command functioning here, and Mystery Man hasn’t even given a name. Gabriel does seem to be getting into the standard action movie trope of the macho-posturing-hairy-eyeball thing, giving Mystery Man a steely eyed glare and cocking a fist to show that he’s not a man to be trifled with. But that’s not the thing that should be eating him right now.
Keep in mind, he just raided Petawawa. While his troops may be criminals now, they’re all rank-and-file young ideologues. Most of them are civilians to boot. It’s entirely possible that they haven’t even thought out the consequences of their actions and even if they have, they could still plausibly claim youth and stupidity as a defence in court. Alex Gabriel, on the other hand, has no excuse. As an experienced, veteran officer of the CF he is now a traitor to his country who acted entirely willfully and with malice of forethought.
Who is this man that is bullying him and his troops when Alex Gabriel is the one who’s just assumed all the risk? Does he have military training? If so, who trained him (and why weren’t they using their troops for the raid instead of his)? Throughout the first chapter, there’s all kinds of talk about ‘his instructions’ and ‘his orders’ but who actually has been giving him his orders? The same guy who gave this unnamed NPA bully his? Do they have a commander they can appeal to in order to settle this dispute?
These are not idle questions given the fact that Gabriel is looking at life in prison for what he’s just done. What’s more, he voluntarily did this without ever meeting any high level NPA leader during his recruitment. Now he’s gone and stolen a bunch of weapons that are being trucked away along with his troops, leaving him alone and without any support. Has it occurred to him yet that he might be the patsy in all of this? That this might have been some kind of elaborate trick by say, a criminal organization to get a bunch of idealistic Native kids and an idiot CF officer to steal a bunch of guns for them?So the mystery of need to know falls flat. On the other hand, this instinctive tendency to bully and dominate, to turn every encounter into a contest of wills rings true in a far more unsettling manner. Rather than invoking a chain of command that puts him in charge, or shared experience that would allow him to earn respect, Mystery Man is invoking pedigree. The qualities he has simply from being there. I was here first, I know people and I know where you’re going next. That makes me important no matter who you may be. Douglas Bland may be trying to show us a tantalizing glimpse of the exciting world of OPSEC and secrecy, but what he’s revealing is far more mundane and disturbing. This automatic acceptance of the legitimacy of authority figures (or at least, authority figures with an appropriately pedigree) is a common trait of an authoritarian followers, and expecting such deference is a common trait of an authoritarian leader.
It goes a long way, I think, to explaining Bland’s racist assumption that the First Nations people of Canada will instinctively drop everything to follow the NPA when the Uprising breaks out, even though the text makes it clear that the NPA has done little to actually earn anyone’s loyalty. In Bland’s mind, the Indigenous people will automatically acknowledge the rightful authority of ‘true leaders’ like the NPA over the phoney leadership of their own Band chiefs and councils. So great will this racial knowledge be that they will obey orders without question, maintaining a stunning level of secrecy across 650 reservations and a dozen cities.
The native warriors of the NPA obey because they’re meant to obey. Just as Gabriel is meant to lead. Just as Gabriel will lead his subordinates but instinctively quash his natural distain for any bullying clown that storms in to take over his part of the operation once his usefulness is served.
To wrap up the subject of Alex Gabriel’s leadership, I want to skip ahead a little bit in the book to add one final exhibit to the case before moving on. Early on in the next chapter, Gabriel arrives at the NPA headquarters in Akwesasne and witnesses an encounter between a senior NPA leader (a New Man who replaces Mystery Man as his handler) and a young warrior (not unlike the warriors he just recently trained then abandoned on a country road outside of Petawawa).
“…The new man in charge motioned Alex towards a small hut. A guard, no more than eighteen, in mismatched camo and an uncomfortable-looking army surplus hat, stood in the doorway fidgeting with the trigger guard on his old army-issue FN rifle. That scared Alex a lot more than his admittedly ominous surrounding.
The serious man motioned Alex into the building and told the kid to watch him. Then, in one swift move, he grabbed the rifle from the boy’s hands and cuffed him on the head, sending his hat flying into the dirt.
“I told you not to load this thing! Do it again without orders and I’ll kick the crap out of you. Understand?”
The kid nodded dumbly, bent slowly to pick up his hat but jumped back as his chief swiftly and expertly pulled the magazine off the rifle, snapped the breech open, emptied the chamber and shoved the weapon back into his fumbling grasp.
As he walked away, he spoke over his should to Alex. “Hard to get good help, captain. There’s a washroom in the hut. You’ve got time to clean up. Sonny here will get you something to eat. Grab a nap. No telling how long before they call for you – maybe tomorrow morning.”
Okay, I’m going to allow myself a small rant here. Since this is a novel, not a film, we don’t actually get to see New Man grab what proves to be a loaded and readied weapon from the young warrior’s hands, so we can only assume he did it neatly. Maybe he used some kind of cool martial arts move to do it, but regardless it would probably look badass on screen.
When I first had to deal with recruits on an actual rifle range, I was told that if you ever had to disarm one of them, the best thing to do was to get both hands onto the rifle and lean hard so your entire body weight forced the muzzle into a safe direction. You then take a knee so that the recruit would either have to let go of the weapon or else fall down when you did.
I’ve had to do it exactly once in my career, and I did it just like this. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m pretty sure it would have looked terrible on film, but it worked.
A loaded rifle is a very real thing, and if you fuck up, the bullet it fires will not give you a second chance. Yeah, there’s all kinds of nifty kung fu moves you can do to rip a weapon out of someone’s hands, but they’re not something you want to try outside of a martial arts dojo. If you think otherwise, you’re more than welcome to try it out with a real 18 year old and a real rifle. Tell me how well it goes.
Rant aside, the young warrior portrayed here is pretty clearly a brand new member of the NPA, and has received very little professional training before being given a weapon and placed on guard duty over a…trusted leader? (It’s never made clear; New Man never really says if Alex Gabriel is a prisoner or not.) Yet despite this, New Man doesn’t hesitate to physically strike the Young Warrior, confiscate and unload his weapon, then berate and humiliate him in front of the man that the young warrior is supposed to be guarding.
Now, leaving aside the fact that, after all this New Man breaks OPSEC by calling Gabriel ‘Captain’ in front of the Young Warrior, how should Gabriel feel about this whole scene? A good part of the previous chapter dealt with the partially trained nature of the young men and women he lead on a desperate commando raid into Petawawa. These were kids just like the Young Warrior. His Petawawa team appear to have been better trained, but it’s not the recruit’s fault if his instructors suck, so there’s no reason Gabriel should see his people as significantly different than this clueless 18 year old who just got smacked around by a man who takes his own security a lot more seriously than Gabriel’s.
His troops, the kids he trained and then lead in a treasonous assault into CFB Petawawa, were left in the care of New Man’s colleague, the Mystery Man. How are they being treated right now? Are they at the mercy of a bunch of punks and bullies, getting slapped around the way New Man slaps around Young Warrior? Or are they surrounded by a bunch of other Young Warriors; poorly trained, badly led, with weapons and ammo but little idea when to use them? Know your men and promote their welfare. This was a principle of leadership when I did my PLQ. So what is Capt Alex Gabriel’s response when he witnesses the treatment of young soldiers in the NPA?
“I think I’ll get some sleep on that cot over there, if it’s all right with you.” [Gabriel says]
“Ah, sure, I guess so. No one ever tells me anything. They just yell at me.”
“Welcome to the army, boy. And remember: keep you finger off the trigger!”
Authoritarianism is the philosophy of bullies. It seeks the “natural” hierarchy of strong over weak. It works insofar as you get a certain degree of order and control, but if you’re looking for the level of dedication and commitment that will fuel a revolutionary army, you need something better.
Alex Gabriel is a bully, not a leader. His troops deserved better.
***Black & White photo is Fig 7-1 from the 1988 edition of the CF Close Quarters Combat manual (B-GL-382-004/FP-001). Colour Stills from 2002’s Equilibrium (Miramax & Dimension Films)***
 In fact, one of the funnier experiences in my own career was teaching on a BMQ course and having a Regular Force officer confidently dismiss my attempts at helpful advice with: “Hey chill out, this ain’t my first rodeo!” It was true. The course we were teaching on was his second BMQ. I was on my sixth. Strangely enough, this “automatic contempt” doesn’t happen as much when you’re overseas and there’s an actual risk of getting shot. Funny thing, that.
 It’s an axiom that I wish would get repeated more often on leadership courses: If one of your troops suck, they’re an idiot. If all your troops suck, you’re the idiot.