***The following post is a follow-on to this one in the deconstruction.  My intent is to expand on some of the points I made in the post, and tie them in with some of the ideas I’d been kicking around for a Personal Philosophy post.  Be warned that it deals with issues of character building in a basic training context, as well as reconciliation of historical wrongdoing on a national level.  Both subjects which I understand are liable to be triggering to some readers.***

One of the big misconceptions about basic training is that it’s a kind of frat house initiation where the whole point is to dump a ton of shit onto the recruits so that they can prove how much they want to join.

That’s…not the point.  At all.  At least it shouldn’t be.


If your BMQ (Basic Military Qualification) course was like some 80s college movie, then something went wrong.  Okay?

Okay then.  So, just because BMQ is training, not hazing, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t suck.  It should.  Just that the suck-age is meant to have a constructive purpose beyond the gratification of your instructors.  Gratification’s just a bonus.

Morning inspection is a good microcosm of what I’m talking about.  You have a ton of things to get done in a very short period of time and a ton of hatred coming your way from your instructors when (not if) you screw up.  Even worse, most of this stuff is arbitrary.  Hospital corners on your beds.  Spare combats, rain jacket and PT gear hanging exactly right on the evenly spaced coat hangars in your closet.  Floor swept and mopped, garbage cans empty and with fresh garbage bags in them.  You yourself will have showered and shaved[1], and be dressed in clean combats and boots with a properly formed beret.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover the collective tasks.  God help you and your section if I find a pube on the toilet bowl.

The key thing here is that most of this stuff (not counting basic hygiene tasks) is technically arbitrary.  Technically.  That’s the thing.  Nobody ever won a war because they could form a perfect hospital corner on their bed.  But having the attention to detail, being willing to take the time to do something right, then being able to do it in half the time necessary while your cubicle-mate is freaking out next to you…that’s is useful.  That’s the sort of mindset that can translate over to say…being able to clear a stoppage on a C6 machine gun in combat.

This is where shame comes in.

When a recruit fails at a task, it needs to grate on their last nerves.  It’s not enough to just say ‘you done fucked up, Troop’ and move on.  As instructors, we need to lay into them.  We need to cut through any excuses or bullshit they may have and dismiss anything else they may have done right as worthless in the face of the one thing they got wrong.  We need to generate shame.

boot laces
On the left, how to lace the ankle boots worn with Dress Uniforms.  On the right, how to lace up combat boots.

The featured image for this post is from the CF PAM (Personal Aide Memoire) Canadian Forces Dress Instructions (A-AD-265-000/AG-001) and it illustrates the proper manner in which the recruit will lace their boots.  Yes, there’s a right way and a wrong way to lace your boots and as obvious as it looks from the diagram, recruits will screw it up.

This actually became a theme on the last BMQ I taught on.  Half the recruits in my section kept getting it wrong, or getting it right once then somehow screwing it up the next time.  We actually went so far as to print out and post this diagram on the wall, but even then some troops would get it backwards.  Sometimes they would lace the boots up before they put them on, creating a mirror image by mistake.  Sometimes they’d do both boots the same way.  What mattered was they screwed it up, again and again.  So we laid into them, cursing them out for failing to properly tie their boots.  Everything they may have done right was dismissed and all focus was directed upon their boot laces.

“What is wrong with you Private-Recruit?  These are bootlaces!  Don’t you understand the concept of lacing your boots?  There’s a diagram on the wall!  Can you not…do pictures?  Did you just fail Kindergarten?  It’s pictures!  And bootlaces!”

This is crucial.  The recruits have to feel regret at their failures, and must focus on these failures more than their successes.  This is how we produce that commitment to getting the details right.  In a lot of the things we do, a 90% solution is not enough[2].  You do it right, or you fail utterly.  And after training, once you’re out in the real world, failure can cost someone their life.

“Well…most of it’s good…”  This is not an acceptable excuse.


So to be absolutely, brutally, cold-hard-numbers honest: In the grand scheme of things 24,000 Canadians of Japanese descent getting thrown into internment camps is not that huge a deal.  Canada’s population at the time was 12 million, making the Japanese-Canadian part 0.002% of the total population.  Barely a blip if you’re tallying up votes which is the way we usually measure clout in a democracy.  During the Second World War there were battles fought that involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers[3] and single days in which the death toll was in the tens of thousands.

The Japanese-Canadians weren’t even killed[4].  No big deal, right?

“Okay, my boots are laced up backwards from the diagram, but the rest of my room is fine.  So it’s no big deal, right Sergeant?”

A lot of the people who object to us – in the present day – revisiting the failures of our past, say that it’s because they don’t see why we – in the present day – should feel ashamed of our past.  Before they were even born.  Meanwhile, one of the common refrains from people who want to confront these issues is that they don’t want to inflict shame, they just want reconciliation.

I say bullshit.  I want shame.  We need shame.

Shame is a motivator.  Shame burns.  Shame can take all your best efforts and reduce them to nothing in the shadow of your one (or more) failure(s).

Shame makes you want to do better.

This is something that should never be forgotten.  In the midst of a war against the Nazis, the Fascists, and Imperial Japan, we looked at a group of our own countrymen and saw them as enemies for nothing more than the circumstances of their birth.

My paternal grandfather served in the Canadian Army during that War.  He was in Army Intelligence and – because he had a working knowledge of Italian – during much of the war he worked with the Italian resistance fighters as the Allies battled their way up the Italian boot. As the war wound down he was transferred to Northern Europe where one of his jobs was to sift through refugee and POW camps, looking for high ranking Nazi officials who were trying to escape justice by posing as common soldiers and random civilians.  He was a first generation Canadian, born of immigrants and naturalized citizens.  He fought to defend democracy against fascism and I am incredibly proud of and grateful to him.  Yet even as he was searching for those Nazi criminals, other first generation immigrants were sitting in camps back in Canada, surrounded by barbed wire and menaced by Canadian soldiers just like him.

You can’t separate one from the other.  Nor should you.

Just like the recruit has to feel shame in order to overcome their failures and become soldiers, nations have to feel shame in order to overcome their pasts and become greater as nations.

It sucks.  I’m not going pretend otherwise.  But it is an inescapable part of the process.

I don’t really blame civilians for getting upset over this process.  It’s not something I expect civilians to understand.  Just right here in this post it took me about seven hundred words to explain how this works.  And that was after two failed drafts that I had to throw out which totalled another fifteen hundred wasted words before I realized they were junk.  I don’t really blame non-military types for getting upset.  Shame is complicated and upsetting.  Civilians don’t always get it.

What blows my mind is when career military men act the same way.

Lt Col Douglas Bland?  Sir?  You’re supposed to know better.



[1] I used to think this was one of the few ordeals limited to male troops, but I have since heard at least a few stories from younger female soldiers who were ordered to shave their faces out of solidarity.  Then there was the time when a female troop accidentally won the Cheesy Moustache contest at the end of summer concentration.  That was awkward.

[2] In some cases literally.  The explosive safety test that you must write and pass before you’re allowed to actually handle real explosives has a pass mark of 100%.

[3] Millions, if you’re talking about the Eastern Front.

[4] Just unlawfully imprisoned for 4+ years and robbed.  Technically that is better than dying.

One thought on “Shame. You need it.

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