Nowhere else I'd rather be

Sleep? I barely remember it. Mud, on the other hand, is very familiar. I'm lying in it. It's 4:30 a.m. I've been up since 1:00 (yes, a.m.). I know if I close my eyes I will pass out. And there's nowhere I'd rather be. The same thing, oddly, is true of the 30 or so Canadian army reservists sharing my cold, foggy field very late Saturday night or, arguably, very early Sunday morning in Fort Drum, New York.

You see, I'd been given an extraordinary opportunity to join the Brockville Rifles and other army reserve regiments in an urban warfare exercise at a special facility on the home base of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.

If you're wondering what I was doing there, which I think the Brocks were at first, I had insinuated myself into the exercise in the role of CMD ("Clueless Media Dork").

Embedded journalists have become, like mud and mosquitoes, a part of war that soldiers must learn to deal with because there's no way of making them go away. But I was also wondering what the men and women in the reserves were doing there.

When I was first invited, I think the general idea was that I would hang around the administration building and get the big picture. The big picture is very important. Did you know the reserves have contributed a fifth of our soldiers in the former Yugoslavia for years? They also fill vacancies in staff positions in Canada. Our regular forces are hanging on by their toenails, and the reserves are helping them do it.

Also, there are 133 militia units in 125 communities in Canada. If disaster strikes, natural or man-made, they'll get to a lot of places in this vast country a lot faster than the regular forces. It's one reason they're trained to the same standard as the regulars, though on a part-time basis: If terrorists carry out a chemical, biological or nuclear attack, the reservists will need to know what to do about it.

Should the worst occur, at home or abroad, a lot of people will be very glad to discover the reserves even exist. As in, say, 1939. It seems there are perhaps 15,000 reservists today, possibly fewer (top DND brass and politicians have every incentive to inflate the numbers to disguise how disgracefully neglected every aspect of national security is in this country). It's around 0.0005 per cent of our population, as against 0.0067 per cent in the U.S. and 0.0054 in Britain.

There was probably a time when most Canadians had some understanding and appreciation for the militia as for the military generally. Today far too many of us have fallen into the trap C.S. Lewis described, of thinking we can obtain peace and security by reading the newspapers and jeering at colonels.

It's one thing to argue, as I've tried to do in my newspaper column, for more defence spending and to remind Canadians the world is a dangerous place. But it's quite another to do something about it. And that's the main thing, other than mud, that I acquired over the weekend.

Sure, reservists get paid. But even if it's why some of them join it's not what keeps them there.

Nor are they playing silly games. Yes, it was a simulation; instead of live ammunition, the C7 rifles, C9 light machine guns and C6 machine guns fired blanks whose impact caused a box on the barrel to fire a laser pulse. But it's not laser tag (nor is their paint-based simulation system paintball, not least because paint pellets fired by cartridges raise, I am told, painful welts).

They're doing it because they want to serve, and if they take pride and pleasure in it so much the better.

When Canada sends troops abroad, as we regularly do, some of them are reservists. And though I didn't have a sensor vest and so couldn't be "killed" (the militia aren't given enough even of simulation gear), I can tell you urban warfare is ugly, difficult and confusing even by the standards of war.

But if we're going to protect civilians from armed maniacs in the slums of Haiti, and boast about how humanitarian we are, it's some of these folks who will actually go do it, not me and probably not you. We owe them better equipment, better training opportunities and more colleagues. But above all we owe them recognition. Even if they are having fun.

At some point in an hour-long ride in the back of a cold lumpy truck on a bad dirt road early Sunday morning, I told the sergeant as he bounced off me that I had at least figured out they didn't do it for the perks. He laughed and said the job had lots of perks. "It's just that most people wouldn't consider them perks."

Like lying in cold mud at 4:30 a.m. exhausted and damp. And knowing there's nowhere you'd rather be.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson