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Ending conscription could end Regiment, warn former COs

An end to conscription could be the end of the Bermuda Regiment, according to a former commanding officer.

Government announced in this year’s Throne Speech that it intends to abolish conscription, but Gavin Shorto urged Government to reconsider such plans, saying: “It’s a pill that can’t be sugar-coated.

“From a purely practical standpoint, a smaller, full-time unit will mean the Regiment’s command structure will shrink drastically.

“There may be armies in the world in which colonels and staff officers and adjutants and quartermasters and training officers are commanding what will amount to little more than a platoon of men, but I don’t know of any.”

He said a smaller Regiment would likely not require Warwick Camp, and sooner or later, it would me merged with a larger force, like the Bermuda Police Service.

“That will no doubt be a sad process to watch for those thousands of young men and women who have served their country in the Regiment, some of them for many years. But the greater change for Bermuda will be less obvious, and much more destructive,” he said.

Mr Shorto said that one of the best things about the Regiment is that it makes a positive difference in those who are conscripted by forcing them out of their comfort zones.

“They are challenged to be more than they would be capable of becoming on their own,” he said. “No one who has watched the transformation of a silly recruit into a self-confident young leader in a matter of weeks can be in any doubt that the real purpose of the Regiment in Bermuda is to encourage that transformation over and over again.

“It’s a good thing that the Regiment can help the country deal with civil disobedience and hurricanes, and a good thing that the soldiers can put on a parade half a dozen times a year. But there is nothing quite as important to the Bermuda society as turning boys into men.”

He acknowledged that not all those conscripted make such a change, and many young people avoid the Regiment altogether, but said: “The ones it does work for are quietly part of the backbone of this country. We would be much the poorer if we didn’t have them, or if we were not able to count on the process that gives them such a push along life’s road.

“That process simply won’t exist without conscription. It’s hard work to be a soldier. There are young people who will volunteer to do it, but not very many — in my time, there were fewer than half a dozen a year. Most young Bermudians, given half a chance, will skip it and do something else.

“The arguments against conscription are specious, to me. The thought that a young man who gives a little time to the service of his country is being deprived of his rights, or turned into a slave, is just nonsense, embraced only by those who hope to profit by it.”

Another former commanding officer, who asked not to be identified, expressed doubt that the Regiment would be able to support itself without conscription. He noted both Customs and the Bermuda Fire Service have recently faced difficulty in finding qualified Bermudians for even entry-level positions.

He argued that the size of the Regiment should be determined by its role, but no details have been given about the Regiment’s revised role.

“The roles and responsibilities of the Regiment determine the number of people who are required,” he said. “You tell me what the role is and I can tell you how many people are needed to manage it.

“We have heard nothing about the roles the Regiment would play. They have talked about an increased maritime role, but there has been talk and no action on that for 20 years. Study after study has been done about it.”

And while he said Government has talked about using the Regiment as part of Border Protection, there still does not seem to be a well-thought out plan of action.

“They talk about things and make changes, but they have never done them in a logical and complete manner,” he said. “It makes me think it’s all just politics.”

Eddie Lamb, the current Commissioner of Prisons, said: “I wrote a detailed submission to the Independence Commission in which I suggested the creation of a full-time Regiment, consisting of at least a company-sized contingent of soldiers.

“I posited that this full-time unit could then be supplemented by a part-time unit of volunteers, thus, in theory at least, ending the need for conscription.

“This full-time Regiment would have a wider remit for soldiering and providing military assistance throughout Bermuda. My views are now as they were then.”

In the Speech from the Throne in November, Governor George Fergusson outlined the Government’s plan to phase out conscription, saying: “The Government will further amend the Defense Act 1965 to provide for an expanded full-time element in the Regiment and an end to conscription.

“The focus of a 21st Century Bermuda Regiment will be on an enhanced maritime role, greater engagement in border control and increased operations with the other uniformed services.”

Elaborating later, National Security Minister Wayne Perinchief said that a review of the Regiment’s role has begun with a focus on formulating a strategy for the Regiment to have a full time, 24-hours-a-day component tasked with the maritime aspect of border control.

Questioned about Regiment’s historical difficulty in attracting an adequate number of volunteers, he said: “We have never had enough volunteers, but with the scaling-down of the Regiment in size and having a full time commitment we feel we will get enough volunteers.”

Former commanding officers have questioned the wisdom of ending conscription. File picture.

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Published December 12, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated December 12, 2012 at 12:24 am)

Ending conscription could end Regiment, warn former COs

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