Somalia Coverup

By Peter Desbarats

In March of 1995 the Canadian Airborne Regiment was finally disbanded after suffering through two years of relentless scandal and controversy, fuelled by photographs of the brutal torture-murder of Somali teenager Shidane Arone and videotapes of revolting hazing rituals.

Confronted with such an obvious collapse of discipline and morale, many Canadians wanted to know how things had gone so wrong. In a typical government response, a Commission of Inquiry was established, headed by two judges and the dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario, Peter Desbarats.

As their investigation proceeded it became clear that the Department of Defence had not been forthcoming in providing the Commission with information. A new scandal quickly developed, one that involved what came to be called the Somalia “coverup.” In an unprecedented government response, the Commission was cut short, leaving many important questions unanswered. At the same time, many new questions started being asked. Despite a 1600-page report, it seemed that nothing had been resolved.

And so this new book takes its place as part of an ongoing story.

It is important to note the subtitle. What Desbarats has written is not the Somalia story, nor the story of the subsequent coverup. Instead, it is a journal of the “long, disappointing, and disillusioning journey,” of the Commission’s hearings. While this gives him the opportunity to provide many interesting personal reflections, it also causes the book to wander in areas that are never made relevant.

Thus, there is too much time wasted on things like the author’s family life and early experiences as a journalist, while other matters get short-changed. The epilogue, for example, attempts to do too much in too few pages as Desbarats unofficially extends the inquiry into the question of who knew what when about the murder of Arone.

Still, the book has much to recommend it. While the author’s faith in journalism is laid on pretty thick, it does provide a balance of idealism to the bureaucratic dishonesty, selfishness, and cynicism he discovers in government. And it is in this analysis of the evils of the modern “system” that Desbarats really excels.

Ideally, books on current affairs should place their subject within a larger social context. Thus, for example, the recent Bre-X books are most interesting when they see the events they describe as emblematic of a culture driven by hype and greed. In a similar way, Desbarats is at his best when he discusses how the Somalia coverup can be seen as a fable for our times.

As the hearings proceed, he reflects on how “standards of dedication, sacrifice, and honour . . . have lost their hold on most professions in the brief space of my own lifetime.” Public servants, whether in the fields of education, health care, or the military, have been demoralized and corrupted by the prevailing social climate of bitterness and resentment. Meanwhile, our leaders seek only to evade responsibility – in part by playing on the mood of public cynicism that they created.

On more than one occasion this leaves Desbarats shaking his head over the fate of democracy. Still, always an optimist, Desbarats believes that the true story of the Somalia affair will ultimately come out. This may be wishful thinking, but as his journal makes clear, one has to believe in something just to keep going from day to day.

Review first published November 8, 1997. Canada has a history of ignoring its Royal Commissions anyway.


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