Canada’s war in Afghanistan may go without highest battle honour

Within a few weeks, Gov. Gen. David Johnston will bestow a final batch of bravery decorations on Canadian troops who fought in southern Afghanistan, but the list likely won't include the nation's highest battle honour: the Victoria Cross. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

OTTAWA – Canadians are a humble bunch. Maybe too humble.

Within a few weeks, Gov. Gen. David Johnston will bestow a final batch of bravery decorations on Canadian troops who fought in southern Afghanistan, but the list likely won’t include the nation’s highest battle honour: the Victoria Cross.

The notion that Canada will exit its first major shooting war in 60 years without such recognition has some asking what precisely a Canadian soldier must do to win the honour – and whether the criteria in a professional, often self-deprecating military is too stringent.

The British, the Australians, and New Zealand have all given out a handful of VCs for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the United States has awarded 10 Medals of Honour, the American equivalent, in both wars.

The lack of Canadian Victoria Crosses is also strange in light of the intensity of fighting that took place in the heartland of the Taliban insurgency, as well as the Harper government’s apparent fondness for military pageantry.

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The military recoils at the suggestion that politics comes within a country mile of deciding who is awarded the country’s highest decoration for “extraordinary valour and devotion to duty while facing a hostile force.” The stringent process that sees a nomination pass through no less than three committees of senior officers ensures that selection is based on merit.

Even still, throughout the war in Afghanistan, there were quiet murmurs within the ranks and questions about why some of the 17 Stars of Military Valour, the country’s second-highest decoration, handed out to date were never considered worthy of elevation to the Victoria Cross.

That concern -along with the perception that medals were handed out more freely later in the Kandahar campaign than at the beginning – prompted former chief of defence staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk to quietly strike a special committee which reviewed the files.

“What I said to my guys, there was no intent here to change any of the awards, it was just a review to make sure we were consistent throughout the conflict,” said Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Bob Cleroux, the military’s top non-commissioned officer, who served on the committee.

“After the review, we found that two were a little bit weak, but were still deserving and two were very, very strong. And that’s all that happened.”

Cleroux, who spoke recently to The Canadian Press, stood by the decisions that were made, saying “we award medals based on what we see is in the file. And if medals are awards, it’s a decision of his excellency, the Governor General.”

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Final approval does belong to the Queen’s representative, but it is almost always a formality and relies heavily on the recommendation of the chief of defence staff and the Defence Department’s awards and honours branch.

Asked about the last batch of bravery decorations on the vice-regal desk, Cleroux would not say whether a VC winner is among them.

“Because it’s honours in confidence, I can’t say anything else.”

The last of Canada’s 94 Victoria Crosses were handed out during the Second World War, at a time when the British still oversaw the award on behalf of Commonwealth nations. The Canadian version was created in 1993, but the actual medal was not struck until 2008.

The country’s last living recipient, Pte. Ernest “Smokey” Smith, died in 2005.

An extraordinary 71 of the medals were presented, many of them posthumously, during the First World War, with another 16 bestowed just over 20 years later in the Second World War. The rest came in other conflicts, including the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Boer War.

The puzzle of why there have been no VC winners in Afghanistan deepens when one compares some of the past citations with those of modern-day soldiers in Kandahar who were given the Star of Valour.

Capt. Francis Scrimger was honoured for his actions on April 25, 1915, when in the lush farmland outside of Ypres, Belgium, under intense shelling and with German troops in sight, he directed the evacuation of wounded and carried a badly injured officer to safety. At one point, he was forced to lay his wounded comrade on a road and covered him with his body.

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Fast forward 93 years to Nov. 16, 2008, in the gnarled, dusty laneways of Taliban-infested Zhari district, outside of Kandahar city, where Master Cpl. Jeremy Pinchin’s small sniper detachment was surrounded. With a fellow soldier badly wounded and bullets smashing into his body armour, Pinchin administered first aid and shielded his buddy with his body.

The military says it’s not accurate, or fair, to compare two wars fought almost a century apart, and suggest a better view comes from looking at the citations of allied nations who’ve awarded the honour in recent years.

“The way we recognize people has evolved a great deal,” said Maj. Carl Gauthier, of the defence department’s Directorate of Honours and Recognition.

“They were awarded a lot more freely than they are today because the concept of war has evolved and we have also created a whole host of different decorations since then that recognize, maybe, lower levels of gallantry that were not available back in the Boer War and the First World War.”

The way the VC has been awarded has evolved over time, Gauthier added.

New Zealander Lance Cpl. Willie Apiata received the only Victoria Cross his country has awarded since the Second World War following an Afghanistan battle in 2004 where he carried a wounded fellow commando to safety under fire.

Australia, just a few weeks ago, honoured Cpl. Daniel Keighran for a 2010 battle in Urzugan province, north of Kandahar, where he repeatedly exposed himself to draw out Taliban fire, allowing his buddies to treat a wounded comrade.

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In barrack halls, the explanation for the absence of a Canadian Victoria Cross in Afghanistan is two-fold.

The five-year combat mission, which ended last summer, was politically unpopular and there is a sense among troops that the Harper government is no longer eager to draw the attention of the nation to the war.

They point to, among other things, a persistent reluctance to carve the dates of the conflict into the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

As a professional, volunteer army, the troops also believe the prevailing wisdom among commanders who write up the citations is that soldiers are expected to go above and beyond.

That raises the question of whether expectations and criteria are too high.

“The bar is very high. There is no doubt about that and for good reasons,” said Gauthier.

“If somebody meets the criteria, it will be awarded, there’s no doubt.”

The bar has always been high for the VC. A perhaps apocryphal story says that when Queen Victoria was first presented with a design for the medal that would bear her name, she objected to the inscription, which read: “For the Brave.”

All her soldiers are brave, she sniffed. The inscription was changed: “For Valour.”


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