True to his style thus far, Douglas Bland begins this next chapter with a run-on sentence which manages to be both clumsy and offensive:
Will Boucanier looked out the small window as the Air Creebec Dash 8 made its long, slow approach into Chisasibi, an unattractive Cree Village of some 3,000 souls on the La Grande Riviere, six kilometeres from James Bay and about 100 kilometers from Radisson and the main James Bay Hydro-electric generating plant. But it was home to Will-a soldier home from the wars and on his way to a new one.
As you can see from these pictures, Chisasibi may not be a world renown wonder of architecture and engineering, but I definitely wouldn’t call it unattractive. Based on my experience, you don’t usually find anything as fancy as that Mitchuap building in most comparably sized towns in Ontario. Oh well, to each his own. This opening paragraph introduces us to the next of our heroic, sexy NPA rebels. An aging but tough as nails retired WO named Will Boucanier…oh for fuck’s sake…
For those who aren’t history nerds, Boucan was a Caribbean term for a communal fire pit, and is the origin of the term: Buccaneers. French and Spanish deserters, marrying into local Indigenous Caribbean families along with a sprinkling of escaped slaves created a unique ethnic and language mix who became known (in English at least) as Buccaneers. This group, among other things, famously turned to piracy during the mid-to-late 17th century, leading to its common usage today. We’re going to see more and more of Bland’s habit of giving his characters significant names: Alex Gabriel after Gabriel Dumont, General Andrew Bishop after WWI flying ace Billy Bishop, and now we have Will Boucanier. Bill the Pirate basically.
Will Boucanier is returning to his home in Chisasibi on the coast of James Bay, within reach of the great James Bay Hydro-Electric project and he is a man on a mission. But first, some background.
***I’ll quickly note that the timelines are not going to add up here. In a few moments we’re going to read how Will Boucanier was a Sergeant by the time Yugoslavia disintegrated. Given the path that his career is said to take, this would have had him joining in the early 80s. Yet based on the real-life events referenced in the text, the novel Uprising is clearly taking place some time around 2010 or so. My guess is that Bland had originally meant for his character to have joined in the late 90s, then revised his back story to include the Croatian mission later on without changing the numbers involved. Clearly, Will Boucanier would have served a 25+ year career instead of a fifteen year one, putting him in his mid-to-late forties instead of thirty three. Either way it’s still just as plausible (old enough to have experience, young enough to still lead) and implausible (nobody joining in the 1980s advanced this fast) as before.***
“Long ago, at age eighteen, Will had left the village and the band, travelled to Montreal, walked the streets, homesick yet incredibly happy to be away. The big city had been totally unfamiliar to him, weird, baffling, and threatening, but Will had never felt so safe. In Chisasibi, he had spent every night of his young life afraid, terrified, that Dad would come rolling in the door drunk, and, as Mom would say, “in a mood.”
Three weeks after leaving Chisasibi, Will had wandered off the street into the army recruiting office on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal and signed up. That decision he had never regretted, and he served for fifteen years with distinction. Right from the start he was recognized as a first class recruit….But what really set him apart-a natural gift for leadership, for being in front, for commanding-wasn’t truly evident until he was promoted to infantry corporal, then, in just five years, to sergeant, and warrant officer in five more.
Warrant Officer Will Boucanier: stone cold, emotionless, dedicated to the army no matter the mission…His “people”-though the word carried a profound ambiguity to his native ear-he treated with the utmost care. Everyone equal, everyone his prized responsibility. But he followed the rule: mission first, men second, myself last. He was never nasty, but never soft. That was his code, and the pride it engendered kept him going.
This…I like this. This reads as more real than anything else we’ve seen so far. Will came from a home shattered by alcohol and abuse, and made a new home for himself in the Canadian Forces. Despite the often innate prejudice that characterized the CF at the time (from the timeline I’m guessing he joined in the early 80s) he was tough and rural and earned a place for himself despite what others might have thought of the colour of his skin.
For the first time in Uprising, we actually have a character backstory that seems to ring true. Over the years I’ve met dozens of people who came to the army to escape something worse at home. From people fleeing abusive homes to actual refugee immigrants with new Canadian citizenships, all kinds of people have run from worse lives and found shelter in uniform. Personally, I haven’t dealt with too many kids from the Rez, but in my experience, the recruits who are escaping into the army usually end up becoming very committed soldiers.
I do have a problem with the whole ‘he didn’t want to lead but greatness was thrust upon him’ trope. The CF is an army that is built around the notion of long service and making Warrant Officer (one rank higher than Sergeant for those who don’t know) would have been beyond meteoric for a young native recruit with no ambition. I think the problem here is the whole ‘great men of history’ concept that seems to embrace the idea that the best and the brightest among us will automatically rise to the top, propelled by the natural force of their own awesomeness.1 The reality is that, in the regular forces, especially back in the 80s and early 90s, there were thousands of ‘career Corporals’ as they were called. Soldiers who would never rise beyond the level that seniority and lack of criminal charges could get them.
There’ll be more (a lot more) about Douglas Bland’s notions greatness and natural leadership as we go on. But the short version is that his ideas seem to directly affect his assessment of strategy and his evaluation of Canadian society as a whole.
So a fast-tracking Will Boucanier, newly promoted to Sergeant, deployed into the Balkans and distinguished himself at the forgotten Battle in Medak Pocket, and even received recognition for the fact with a Medal of Valour.
“Will Boucanier, as everyone of experience in the army knew, “walked the talk.” He won the Medal of Valour during the Battle of Medak Pocket-the night-long battle in the former Yugoslavia in which, on September 15, 1993, the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry-the Patricias- stood and fought a much larger Croatian force that was threatening four Serb villages with “ethnic cleansing.” It was the first major battle for the unit in the post-Cold War era, and one the Liberal government hid from Canadians for years. There were no news stories, no ceremonies, no homecoming welcome or remembrance for the casualties, just officially imposed silence, lest Canadians discover the consequences of the “decade of darkness” which had swallowed the Canadian Forces.
I’ll take some time to properly dissect the Medak Pocket reference in the next post, since I want to focus primarily on Boucanier’s background and life story here. But I do want to go on record as saying this is problematic as hell. The battle of Medak Pocket was in fact covered up by the then Liberal government although it was hardly a ‘consequence’ of the ‘decade of darkness’ given that said decade was only just getting started. The short version though is that Medak Pocket was a complex and desperate event during the Balkans missions that did indeed challenge many of the popular perceptions of classical ‘Peacekeeping’ and was shamefully covered up by the government at the time. This does not in any way justify Bland’s co-opting of the event for his own purposes here in Uprising.
So that’s the life story of one Will Boucanier. And now he’s on a mission to fight against Canada.
“Only last month, Will had abruptly taken his release from the army, despite persistent, heart-felt urging from his superiors to stay, and unanswered pleas from the sergeants’ mess for reasons. He was sick at heart to leave the only home he’d ever known, a home made safe by order, merit and predictability; a home where things had made sense. After a childhood of chaos of feeling worthless, he’d found a real home among soldiers. A special group set aside by society for a special purpose. But just as he had fifteen years earlier, he felt relieved as well as homesick. Across the country, he knew, were villages like his, full of homes like his, and getting himself out of there, no matter how successfully, had always felt a bit like running away. Like going to school and leaving Mom alone with that man. Well, not any more. He had fought the white man’s wars, “for peace and freedom,” they had told him. Now he was coming home to fight for the same things, to fight the only way he knew against the despair he’d escaped so long ago.
If I hadn’t already known how this was going, this paragraph would have stopped me in my tracks. Huh? WTF? How did we get here? He escaped pain, shame and abuse of his home, gained acceptance and prestige in a new community, and now just like that it’s all over?
“The Canada he deserted had deserted honour first when it walked away from its pledge to the Afghanis he had fought to protect. For Canadian politicians, Will thought, honour is a pliable thing. He and a few others soldiers were the real army, the army of soul, duty, singleness of mind and purpose.
He knew and accepted that race meant nothing in the army. There, only truth, duty and valour command all.
Truth, duty and valour. This is one of the favourite mottos of the CF from the last few years. Bland seems to think he’s establishing his credibility by quoting it. But from where I’m sitting, invoking these words as a motivation for rebellion represents a sin as greivous as the Canadian politicians he’s castigating. As Will is sitting in a plane, watching his home town draw nearer and musing about honour, he is ignoring the most important fact of his entire situation:
In the very near future, retired Warrant Officer Will Boucanier will have to betray and kill his former comrades.
Not just vaguely defined Canadian politicians, or liberals, or the Canadian Government or even other, generic Canadian soldiers, but his own people. Soldiers that he has trained and led. People that he lived with and fought alongside for months and years on end. He will have to look them in the eye, and kill them.
There’s no getting around this. Despite years of (nominal) budget increases, the CF is a very small organization and the Special Forces even more so. Even factoring in a reconstituted Airborne Regiment (called the Canadian Special Service Regiment in the novel, called the Canadian Special Operations Regiment in real life) we’re still talking about less than a thousand people, all ranks. Just a month out of the service, Boucanier would still probably be on a first name basis with many of them and would probably have seen combat with some.
Even if he doesn’t meet the special forces directly (he will), Boucanier must know that his colleagues must be deployed against the uprising at some point. And yet the only emotion he will ever display will be an abstract sense of grudging respect. Conversely his old comrades, rather than being consumed with white hot rage at the treason of one of their own, when they come to realize who they’re up against will only respond with the same vague manly respect.
But then there’s the question of whether the NPA army is a real army or not:
“Will reached for the bag under his seat and checked his watch. If his luggage had comes through without damage, and his contact from the local cell was on time-and sober-he would get straight to work training whatever “warriors” the local band chief had assembled for him. He had low expectations for his new troops, but that was okay. He didn’t need JTF-2 for his mission. The kids only needed to do as they were told and show some steadiness in the initial attack. He would do the rest.
An experienced WO hitting the ground in unfamiliar territory (at least recently) and taking charge of unfamiliar troops, but he’s already salted his preconceived notions with plenty of bigotry. Wonderful.
There’s also the idea that a great leader can pretty much ‘do it all himself’ regardless of how switched on his subordinates may be. We’ll encounter this over and over again as the novel progresses and ‘great leaders’ actively withhold vital information from their followers for no discernible reason. In a way it’s almost comforting that if anyone tries to launch a real life uprising based off of Bland’s novel then it will probably fall apart at the seams.
So just to make it clear why this is getting to me, I’m going to talk a bit about my own career in the CAF.
My personal story bears very little resemblance to Will Boucanier’s. I came from a stable, middle class home that still had both parents. I was bullied in school, which left me seriously introverted and with a few anger issues, and I joined the Reserves mainly because I was looking for a summer job. I figured I’d just get kicked out a few weeks later but it might make for an interesting experience.
I wasn’t a natural born soldier, being a introverted loser slacker and I quickly accumulated a stack of red chits on my file (this was before they switched to the ‘Counselling, Initial, & Formal Warnings that they have now). A huge part of my QL2&3 (basic training and trade course) was a blur of people cursing and swearing at me, along with a bunch of paperwork (written in red, mostly) explaining in detail just how useless I really was. But somehow I thundered my way through and suddenly I was a soldier, with a cap badge and a Regiment, and a trade. And strangely enough, I loved it.
To be completely honest, for the first year or so, I was what was politely referred to as ‘a bag of hammers.’ I was the weirdo who screwed up regularly, walked into every bit of trouble there was, and got stomped on by multiple levels of the chain of command. The only reason I hung around was, quite frankly, for the first time in my life I had a real, tangible sense of pride in what I was doing, and because once in a while I got to shoot or blow something up real good.
Then, bit by bit, I started figuring things out. Gradually the hostile jokes and criticism faded, and the friendly jokes and the constructive advice started. Slowly, I went from being ‘maximum supervision’ to being the ‘go-to guy.’ Now I do share something in common with Boucanier in that I had no real ambition. But in my case it meant that I didn’t get offered a position on a PLQ course (basic army leadership) until several years in, and then only because another guy with more seniority turned his offer down2.
Leadership training was as much a confusing blur as my QL3. And I came out of it feeling just as clueless as I did when I was a recruit. Then I got loaded to teach on a BMQ course (what they now call recruit training), and everything changed.
There’s a lot of things I’ve done in the army (up to and including going to war), but teaching and leading troops (especially recruits) is-for me-the most rewarding. Seeing the recruit who was enough of a knuckle head as to break down and cry during weapons handling drills, slowly pull themselves together under your instruction, and become an effective soldier is an amazing experience. To then watch that screw up of a soldier evolve over the years into a smoker & joker of a master-jack who is now teaching recruits themselves is like being King Kong on cocaine. It is a life changing thing to watch the turn of generations in the army, to see recruits turn into soldiers, and soldiers turn into leaders.
I’m not going to claim that anything I’ve done is on par with Bland’s fictional WO, or with Bland himself for that matter. But I’ve done enough to say that the Army’s my family and I love it. Maybe something could happen that might cause me to walk away from it all. I could maybe imagine some change in government or policy that would lead to take off my uniform and leave the service in disgust. But to betray it? To betray my friends and colleague? To conspire to murder them in cold blood. I really don’t think I could do it.
And if they came at me? If one of the troops that I trained from being a slack-jawed cornflake into a soldier suddenly turned around and tried to kill me in the name of some abstract ideology? If they were going to break the bonds of our shared service in the name of truth, duty and valour?
I don’t know where I’d be at that point, mentally. But there’d be no going back.
And people wonder why civil wars are so much uglier than regular ones.
What army did Bland serve in, that he can’t see how alien this contrast is? Between Will Boucanier, the soldier and Will Boucanier, the native rebel? Is it that he never felt that sense of belonging, of family? Of all the hundreds, or more likely thousands of soldiers that he knew, mentors and subordinates, friends and rivals. Could he really just turn his back on them all? Declare war on all that he knew and see it burn before him in the name of some abstract notion of honour? Or does he simply assume that his Indigenous comrades think that way?
***All photos found at http://www.chisasibi.org/HTML/community_pix.html***
1 The flip side of this belief being that, if you think you’re awesome and you’re NOT rising to the top, then clearly you’re being held back by lesser men who are jealous of your natural greatness. Dictators and fascist regimes have long made use of this commonly occurring bitterness.
2 For the record, the main reason I accepted is that the next most senior guy (literally the guy sitting next to me on the bench outside the RSM’s office) was an asshole and I decided that I’d be damned if I ever took an order from him.