Some Contemporary Thoughts on an Old Document

Feature photo: Best sample we could find of a commissioning scroll

Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published in the 1995 in Esprit de Corps magazine, at the time when the author was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment at CFB Gagetown. Pat Sweetnam entered RRMC in 1972, and graduated from RMC as a member of the Class of 1976.

Some Contemporary Thoughts on an Old Document

By Col (ret) John Patrick Sweetnam

In twelve moves in nineteen years, I have probably not looked at my commissioning scroll more than a dozen times. I hadn’t consciously decided to ignore it, I merely had lots of other keen Army pictures to hang in my office. My scroll, like that of many officers, had collected a lot of dust.

Coming back to Canada, of course, means to be at once embroiled, like thousands of other soldiers, in the ongoing embarrassment of the Public Inquiry. It was in this context that I read again the words which made me an officer (“A piece of paper makes you an officer” said Omar Bradley, “communications make you a commander.”) and marveled anew at how so much meaning had been compressed into so few words.

The commission scroll is almost quaint in its latter Edwardian style, but the essence of the document, I think, lies in three key phrases (highlighted for emphasis):

We reposing especial Trust and Confidence in your Loyalty, Courage, and Integrity, do by these Presents Constitute and Appoint you to be an Officer………

…..You are therefore carefully and diligently to discharge your Duty…..

…..You are in such manner and on such occasions as may be prescribed by Us to exercise and well discipline both the inferior Officers and men serving under you and use your best endeavor to keep them in good Order and Discipline.

It is no coincidence, of course, that the words loyalty, courage, and integrity are all in one phrase; they are inexorably connected. There is an unfortunate contemporary trait, which many of us hear, that “loyalty up must override loyalty down in the case of a conflict.” That the two could be in conflict in the first place is indicative of a misunderstanding of the very concept of loyalty. As our senior NCOs might remind us, “Loyalty downward is automatic, loyalty upward must be earned.” In other words, it is incumbent upon every officer, from the CDS down to the newest Lieutenant, to ensure that no officer is confronted by such a Hobson’s choice where he must be disloyal to be loyal.

Courage and integrity, meanwhile, are assumed. This is not trite. We simply expect that young officers will die for their soldiers. The tough part is getting them to live effectively for them. Contemporary management philosophy (which is highly relevant in this case) would describe the successful modern leader as one who exhibits the traits of knowledge, integrity, and vision. Knowledge implies that you will be competent in your craft. You must study the history of warfare and be sufficiently skilled in tactics so that you can apply the insights of your education and training to be an effective commander.

Integrity, of course, suggests that you will be honest, truthful, and forthright (and be so “forthwith”, to use a grouping term which amuses many senior NCOs). Soldiers will forgive mistakes (a few) but they will not forgive a lie. Vision, meanwhile, at a national or other higher level, is quite a different concept than that which applies at ours. At the battalion level, vision can simply mean articulating an end-state in such a clear and compelling manner that soldiers viscerally more toward it, even in the absence of further direction.

And for the careful and diligent discharge of duty, Nelson probably said it best when he opined (as any alumnus of Royal Roads will tell you) that “Duty is the great business soft h sea officer, all private considerations must give way to it, however painful it is.” In its practical application, duty means that you will be familiar with (amongst other things) the minutiae of your soldiers’ lives and activities. It doesn’t mean that you will have to participate with them in all things, but you must KNOW everything about them.

Duty is so central to our calling that it is hard to understand when a Somalia or similar event takes place. This is because whatever was our personal motivation when we joined the Army, we learn in training, and on arrival in the battalion, to sublime it to a selfless motivation. This is the sine qua non for the “diligent” part of the discharge of our duty. We learn the hard way upon achieving command of troops that character isn’t just a word, and that soldiers instinctively model their behavior after our example. “Doing what we ought” is not optional. The “never pass a fault” motto of our Regiment, often the butt of jokes by other regiments in Canada, has suddenly become an extremely cogent and topical item. When officers allow a selfish motivation (personal aggrandizement or careerism in any of its ugly forms) to guide them, the results belittle us all.

This leads us finally to the notion of good order and discipline. The way it is usually written at a court martial is something along the lines of “knowing such and such a condition to exist, took no action….” The notion of order and discipline is probably the greatest focus of negative media attention in Canada at the moment. As any RSM would say, well-disciplined troops (self-confident, well-trained, and well-led) will have good morale. The link between soldier morale and the moral timbre of the society from which it springs deserves a lot of attention, but not here. Think of Field Marshall Slim, in Defeat into Victory, and his defeated and demoralized Army in Burma began to rebuild itself by cleaning its kit and sewing on buttons. It focused, in short, on seemingly insignificant things which have nothing to do with the government – military – political interface at the national level with seems to occupy so much air time these days. In other words, we will have to do this ourselves, it is inappropriate to expect deux ex machina when the plot spoils.

The commissioning scroll does not leave us an out; if it is raining and cold, the expectation with respect to duty will remain unchanged. As Kipling said, “There are a thousand reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.” The Canadian people are unlikely to be sympathetic to an effort on our part to deflect responsibility because of bureaucratic interference in Ottawa, dark and stormy nights in a strange and distant land, or any other adversity. They, like the soldier, will expect competent leaders of good character who will succeed in any circumstance.

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10 Comments

  • Darren Rich

    June 4, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    As a Rodent (78-83) and a recently retired Naval Officer whose last duty station was as a Commanding Officer I wholeheartedly agree with Pat’s comments. My Commissioning Scroll has hung in a frame in my study/den since graduation but I confess that I too rarely read it.

  • Tom Rozman

    June 5, 2018 at 9:01 am

    I enjoyed reading this article, it captured well the tendency to immerse in current duties, developing future situations, family and the general press of life…sometimes to the point that context in our service may lose some of its sense of the higher duty to serve. This article is an eloquent and forthright statement of what in Canadian parlance is the Scroll, in the U.S the Commission. The Commission’s text is different in its way but remarkably similar in what it speaks to…in a sense the document underpins the officer corps in our respective armies. The insight provided by the author is on the mark…we all should revisit that document occasionally for context to our service…even in our careers after active military duty especially if in public sector.

  • Clark Beamish

    June 5, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Thanks for reminding me. It’ll be refreshing to take another look at my commissioning scrolls(2). Maybe now is the time to get them framed.

  • Christophe Stevenson

    June 5, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for using my Commission as the image of the article. I am looking forward to read the whole article.

  • Gordon Woollard

    June 5, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    LIKE MY SCROLL ALTHOUGH IT IS POLITUCALLY INCORRECT AS IS ALL IN ENGLISH. BUT I DO LIKE THAT IT HAS HELLIER’S NAME AND THE GOV GENS NAME ON IT A I AM SURE OUR GOV GEN AT THE TIME MUST HAVE GRITTED HIS TEETH EACH TIME HE SIGNED HIS NAME ALONGSIDE THE KILLER OF ALL THINGS PAST.

  • Pat Rossiter

    June 5, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    Interesting and worthwhile article. Also interesting to note that mine says: “Loyalty, Courage and good Conduct” rather than using the word “Integrity”. I guess in my day good conduct was assumed to include integrity.