“There is a nice sound in the expression “war in the mountains”. He has a Ring of Audacity; it feels cleaner than trench warfare and lighter than tank warfare. The only thing that can match it is war in the air, and it’s gotten too deadly to be nice. It has also become too familiar; while the War in the Mountains is still weird enough to seem romantic. Except, of course, to the men who have to fight it.
– McKay Jenkins The last ridge
Like many of you, last week I was in shock watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just when we think we have seen enough defining world events for our generation to last into the next century, Putin decides to flex his imperialist muscle and plunges two nations, including a military superpower, into an unprovoked and unnecessary war. Let’s be clear: there is no splitting the freedom convoy, let’s try to listen to both sides here. On one side are the Kremlin belligerents and on the other are thousands of soldiers and civilians defending their homeland. Millions of people are now displaced. The world stands in solidarity with Ukraine. I am with Ukraine.
I am not a soldier and I am lucky not to have known the war. I enjoy studying military history as a hobby, which leads me to listen to Dan Carlin’s podcasts for many hours. I never believed that war was the answer, but if it comes to your doorstep and threatens your family and your country (as it does for Ukrainians), I believe defending your homeland is justified.
Such an event of this magnitude taking place in the 21st century got me thinking: what if we were the ones being invaded at the behest of a narcissistic autocrat? It’s a highly unlikely scenario given Canada’s fortuitous geopolitical position, but dystopian fiction writers have explored the plausibility of US annexation. So imagine, for a second, that in the middle of a cold winter, Canada is invaded on many fronts by armed forces far superior to ours, and the leader of Canada is calling on everyone of fighting age to take up arms against the ‘aggressor.
If this scenario were to come true, I would volunteer for a Mountain Division. Not because of an illusion that ski warfare would somehow be more fun than urban warfare, but because I know I have the skills to travel through snow and through mountainous terrain quite quickly.
Military skiing has a rich history in the Scandinavian nations. In 1716, during the Great Northern War, a Norwegian general was alerted to an impending Swedish attack by a messenger on skis. After surprising the Swedes and repelling the attack, Norway realized the advantage of rapid mobilization on the snow and drafted all the skiers they could find into their military ranks. In the 1800s, Nordic military ski patrols began to organize competitions which led to the foundation of modern Nordic ski racing. The ability to move quickly over rugged mountainous terrain was essential for armies in the European Alps in the 20th century.
In the context of soldiers on skis defending themselves against a superpower, the best example is the Winter War, which began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II. The Finns were vastly outnumbered and under-resourced, with many recently enlisted soldiers not even having a uniform and making do with their own winter clothes. But they knew their terrain and climate, and almost all Finnish soldiers were skilled in cross-country skiing. They used the cold, the snow, the forest and the long hours of darkness to their advantage. The Finns dressed in layers with skiers wearing light white snow capes, the camouflage rendering them nearly invisible and capable of executing many successful guerrilla attacks against the Soviet columns.
The United States has the 10th Mountain Division, which was active in World War II and until recently served as a dedicated mountain warfare unit in places like Iraq and Syria. Although there are special operations training programs in Canada for mountain travel, the armed forces still do not have a dedicated mountain unit, at least not the one they want us to know. In a 2017 service article titled “Mountain Warfare In The Canadian Army,” Maj Aafaq Hyder, a student at the Canadian Forces College, wrote:
“The [Canadian Army]recent involvement in the Alpine operations in Korea, the Balkans and Afghanistan has highlighted the importance of preparing its leaders and troops to [Mountain Warfare] and fight at high altitude. Currently, the [Canadian Army] little focus on preparing permanent units specially trained or equipped to deploy to a mountainous theater. To remain operationally viable and meet its military commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the [Canadian Army] must develop their skills in mountain operations. It must carve out a place for itself as an expeditionary force capable of rapid intervention in [Mountain Warfare].”
Of all the things I associate with skiing, war has never been one. And I sincerely hope that war never comes to Canada’s doorstep. But if the last week has shown us all one thing, it’s that the tyrants of this world might just choose to do it anyway.
Vince Shuley encourages you to donate to the Ukrainian Red Cross Humanitarian Crisis Appeal. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider, email [email protected] or Instagram @whis_vince.