Zohar Gurevich

A Mag to Call Their Own

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Do The Canadian Military Journal and The Maple Leaf really give soldiers a place to express themselves?

“In my 20 years in the military, I’d seen a lot,” says Dr. Barry Armstrong, “but this was something you can’t forget – or forgive.”

Twelve years after it happened, Armstrong is still fighting for the truth to come out about the Somalia Inquiry. In 1993, he was the doctor who examined the body of 29-year-old Ahmed Afraraho Aruush, a Somali who was shot and killed while fleeing from one of the troops in the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, a unit that had been stationed in the civil-war—ravaged country for peacekeeping purposes.

Soldiers claimed they had shot Aruush because he had penetrated the barbed wire surrounding the Canadian compound but Armstrong discovered Aruush posed no threat. He wasn’t armed and that, according to Rules of Engagement for peacekeeping, meant soldiers had no grounds to shoot him, even if he was caught inside the compound and was attempting to flee.

Armstrong trusted his commanders to investigate and punish those involved. He was wrong in doing this. Even after a Royal Commission into what would become known as the Somalia Affair, most of the soldiers involved went unpunished.

Maclean’s recognized Armstrong’s fight for justice, naming him to its 12th annual honour roll in 1998. But what he really wanted was for the military to step up and create a forum where events like Somalia could be critically examined by the Canadians it affected most – the soldiers.

In 1998, the Department of National Defence (DND) answered Armstrong’s call by creating the Canadian Military Journal and The Maple Leaf. Canada’s largest military publications, the Journal and the Leaf are where events such as Somalia would be written about and discussed. There are hundreds of military publications in Canada – practically every base has its own – but soldiers turn to the Journal and the Leaf to catch up on everything from the latest inquest update, to changes in their monthly pay cheques.

For soldiers who want to play journalist for a day, these publications are the perfect place. Major Ric Jones, the Leaf‘s managing editor, says military personal are always more than welcome to temporarily trade in their guns for computer keyboards. Jones and five civilians have run the weekly since 1998. Its circulation is 34,000, and he says about 80,000 people read it each week. The Leaf has “something for everybody” in it, both “green and brown” (sea and land) soldiers, as well as partners and friends not in the military. Basically, everybody in the family reads it, he says. “It’s like picking up a local newspaper.”

“Snowbirds say goodbye to fallen pilot,” read one headline in a January edition. The story dealt with the accidental death of a pilot – how he died (one Tutor jet collided with another), and a description of the funeral (who was there, what they said). The headline was as emotional as the piece got. When it comes to personal material, says Gloria Kelly, the Jones’s assistant, the paper must deal with it professionally, like any other weekly.

While the Leaf focuses on the harsh realities of day-to-day military life, the Journal concentrates on “policy driven issues – articles that will provoke debate and promote dialogue,” says editor-designate David Bashow, who took over the quarterly in August 2004. The articles are longer, and there are opinion-pieces on topics such as improving responses to terror and defence in the Maritimes. It even has book reviews. Essentially, it’s a general-interest magazine that focuses on military issues.

Both publications are edited and then copy-edited according to CP style, just like in the outside journalism world. However, it’s unlikely anyone would confuse the Journal and the Leaf with works of civilian journalism. While there is room for tales of the dark side of military life, a line is drawn at the discussion of national secrets or harsh criticism of high-ranking officers. Writers who want to work in an environment of free speech should look elsewhere.

While committing libel is never acceptable, the Journal and the Leaf are extra wary of anything that might bring the thought to a high-ranking military official’s mind. Discussing national-defence secrets is also strictly forbidden. The result is a well-defined line of criticism that writers can’t cross.

But it wasn’t always like that, says Scott Taylor, the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps, an Ottawa-based independent military magazine. “In the early days, they tried to make the Leaf a newspaper like the Stars and Stripes (a U.S. military publication Taylor likens to CNN). They actually had people writing in saying, ‘I think the general’s decision on so-and-so was ill-founded, and here’s why.’ It was refreshing. But then the general said, ‘I don’t want that,’ and, very quickly, they clamped down.”

Almost overnight, the Leaf went from being a critical voice to toeing the military line. While negative issues are looked at, they are usually done so with a positive spin. The overall emphasis is on feel-good stories. As for the Journal, Taylor says it’s a great publication, but its long lead-time and peer-review nature keep it from getting involved in current debates.

There are other aspects that make the Journal and the Leaf different. For example, they cannot accept any form of advertising. Their funding is wholly derived from the DND. Unlike other parts of the military, though, they haven’t been as affected by government cutbacks. About $20 billion has been slashed from military spending over the past 20 years.

Bashow says the Journal hasn’t been touched by DND cuts because the Canadian government recognizes the need for transparency on military issues. “This is the one open forum,” he says, “where the uniforms really have the opportunity to express their views.” The Journal is issued to all military units, headquarters, and government departments, and 10,000 copies are sent to troops overseas.

The Leaf has had to deal with some cutting. Its response, remembers Kelly, was to “suck it up and keep going.” Demand for the paper from university libraries and some research institutions has resulted in the Leafmaking its contents less “militarized” and more appealing to non-military members. This increase in circulation has helped make up for some of the money lost.

The cutbacks have had zero impact on the publications’ freelance budgets. Writers never struck gold with military publications in the first place. The Journal offers symbolic, honorary payments, while the Leaf can only offer free copies.

Due to their low or non-existent pay and lack of freedom of speech, few full-time journalists write for these publications. While both papers do accept submissions from internal and external writers, it is military personnel who send in the majority. For these soldiers, the lack of freedom of speech doesn’t matter; they’re just looking for a place to describe the inter-base curling tournament.

While they may have been created to be places of critical discussion, the military attitude, one of hierarchy, secrecy, and unquestionable loyalty, has kept the Leaf and the Journal from becoming true journalistic enterprises. Still, soldiers are writing for and picking up both publications. They’re just happy that they finally have a place where opinions about honour, loyalty, and solidarity can be expressed in a way that only those who pride themselves in being part of military service can hope to understand.


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