Monday, March 23, 2015

Books About Canadians in Afghanistan

As part of my dedication to promoting awareness of Canadian literature, I'm presenting some books I've recently become heard about.

It all started here, at the website "Harper's Crimes" with the page "Lying About the War in Afghanistan." They mention a 2010 book by Captain Ray Wiss (with a forward from stephen harper) entitled A Line in the Sand: Canadians at War in Kandahar:
In his 2010 book A Line in the Sand: Canadians at War in Kandahar, which included a foreword by Harper, Captain Ray Wiss, praised Canadian troops as “the best at killing people … We are killing a lot more of them than they are of us, and we have been extraordinarily successful recently… For the past week, we have managed to kill between 10 and 20 Taliban every day.” Apparently, Canadian special forces are participating in highly unpopular nighttime assassination raids.

Here's a review of it at Quill & Quire:
While there is no doubt that Wiss is a hero, like all heroes he is flawed. Though candour is something to be admired in a diarist recording his truth, the reader’s opinions be damned, Wiss often strays from frank honesty to cringe-inducing bravado in the entries illustrating his status as combat veteran and warrior. Further, his rather disingenuous position that the long-term solution in Afghanistan is educating the locals in the value of liberal thought bears shades of mission civilisatrice, a position unbecoming of a self-proclaimed social justice activist.
A couple of reader reviews at Amazon-dot-C-A:
Dr. Wiss was exposed more to, and sought out local Afghani's more on this mission. The stories he tells are of the Afghani people. When I read this book, I felt that I was privileged to get a window into the lives of human beings that otherwise would be unknown to me. Whether you support the CF mission in Afghanistan or not, it is well worth the read. This is Dr. Wiss' belief: We are privileged to live in a country where dissenting opinions are allowed. Our responsibility is to be informed and engage in active debate on such issues. This is what makes our country great, in stark contrast to the Afghani people.
Captain Wiss, is not only a compassionate Canadian Forces medical surgeon and officer, but also a tough infantryman --so he knows not only of the realities of the camp emergency operating room, the bravery of medics in the field, but also the demanding life of a combat soldier. He takes us along on his adventure on his second deployment to Afghanistan. Through his almost daily diary entries, spanning from May 31st to September 27, 2009, he gives us unique perspectives on the contributions that remarkable Canadian men and women warriors are making to bring a better life and future to the people of Afghanistan. This richly illustrated book is not only about Canadian warriors in combat, but also those in every kind of support role and line of duty. It is about the Afghan people and culture that Captain Wiss and other Canadian warriors have come to know through their humanitarian-military mission
That link brings other books to your attention. For instance, Wiss's first book FOB Doc: A Doctor on the Front Lines in Afghanistan - a War Diary.
Fob Doc is written by Captain Ray Wiss MD, a highly regarded Emergency Physician from Sudbury, ON. (General Hillier wrote the forward.) Dr. Wiss has taught Emergency ultrasound to thousands of Canadian ER docs. This book is the end result of the diary he kept detailing his time as a military doctor in active combat zones in Afghanistan. He tells stories of his comrades, of patients that he has cared for and gives an eyewitness account of the lives of our soldiers and the average Afghani citizen. Whether you agree with the mission or not, this book is still a very worthy read. As Ray says "what makes us different from the Taliban is that we are free to discuss our opinions and disagree without having to fear for our safety if we don't agree". Read this book, discuss Canada's role in Afghanistan and try to imagine how wretched are the lives of the Afghani's. Whether we can help them, I'm not sure, but at least I understand what our military is trying to accomplish.
There's a veritable plethora of books by Canadians apparently!

Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants

A truly beautiful book!

This is a collection of 17 unconnected stories from the Afghanistan theatre; as told from letters, diaries, memoirs etc. of Canadian personnel (soldiers, nurses, carpenters, doctors etc.). Some of these people did not make it back to Canada alive. Some stories are recent, other cover areas back as far a 2001.

There is something that transcends normal story telling here; mainly because the stories told are true ones. The quality of writing makes you feel the anxiety of leaving home, smell of the garbage and sewers in Kabul, feel the heat and boredom of an Afghan summer and appreciate the fear and tension of firefights in a hostile country (especially at night). Truly writing at its best.

Three things really stuck with me about this book...

1.)how virtually all participants of this book felt so much empathy towards the Afghan people and their plight.

2.)the chapters were arranged in such a way as to make you aware that some of the contributors to this book actually knew and spoke about some of the other writers (whose letters where also used in this book), who had already died or would be killed later on. I find it hard to express in words just how much this moved me when I came across one of these few occurrences.

3.)and finally, this book could easily be described as a set of 'snapshots' of how the war has changed (for the worst) over the last couple of years. And although, to a man, the writers of this book feel that they are doing some good over there, you begin to realize that with the paltry number of forces (NATO) that have been sent there, they have almost no chance of making any substantial difference in this tribal based, sectarian country.

1.)A book that will make you stop reading and think.

2.)This is a book about war participants that have the qualities of good, caring human beings; who demonstrate all the emotional strengths and frailties that go with this distinctive attribute.

3.)The quality of writing, the telling of their tales will absolutely leave you stunned; but for all the right reasons.

5 Stars...more if I could


No Lack of Courage: Operation Medusa, Afghansitan 

Operation Medusa was NATO's first major battle in Afghanistan and Canada's largest combat offensive since The Korean War. Prior to telling its tale, Horn sets the stage starting with September 11th through to Canada's response and the events which led to Medusa in 2006. The Canadian Forces (and the Government back home) soon found out that Kandahar was a province at war so peacekeeping doctrine and many of its tactics were irrelevant (ironically, many Canadians drew on training originally meant for engaging the Soviets). The fighters encountered were not "farmers". They were experienced fighters well versed in small unit tactics and tenacious in combat.

The author shares the frustrations and challenges in fighting within a coalition covering national agendas, different operating procedures, communications, languages, and inadequate resources. All of which had an impact on the frontline soldiers who were struggling with their own issues like trying to determine who were Taliban amongst the local population.

The battles and firefights are well described with Horn dropping the reader into the action while ensuring the overall strategy and context remains clear. Canadian Forces fought well and experienced significant casualties such as five killed and over forty wounded on Labour Day Weekend alone. Horn captures the anxiety and adrenalin in each fight, provides interesting material like the benefits of the LAV III, and how simple innovations like employing bulldozers helped in operations (akin to the drive through Normandy's hedgerows in 1944).

The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan

Ryan Flavelle has written an extraordinary account of what the war in Afghanistan looks like from a foot-slogging infantryman. His account brings us with him almost every step of the way as his company, from the Canadian army's Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, makes a seven-day patrol into the heart of Taliban territory in Panjwayi district of Kandahar province. From his journal and from his incredible memory, his narration allows us to follow him and his inner thoughts from the time he first puts on his full kit and cleans his weapon in Forward Operating Base Ma'sum Ghar, until he collapses on reaching Patrol Base Mushan. Most military memoirs end up being like diaries with no feeling presented; Flavelle lets us feel the pain of carrying a 70-kilogram load on his back, the sweat dripping down from his helmet in the heat of a pitch-black night, and the sudden fear he felt when insurgents opened fire on the column. A truly personal and informative account of a young soldier at war in the 21st century.  


OK read, rather dull. Like a book written by CBC.

Felt like I was reading a novel about hiking as the book spends 90% of it's pages in regards to walking/falling/sweating/sore shoulders/rehydrating/sweating/smoking cigarettes/watching out for danger. No firefights, few IED's, little action on anything really too exciting. Did I mention that if felt like a book written by CBC?

I expected more. No character development at all. Just anther war story and not an interesting one even if he is Canadian. A letdown.


What the Thunder Said: Reflections of a Canadian Officer in Kandahar

Quill & Quire

What the Thunder Said, Lt.-Col. John Conrad’s account of his six-month tour in Kandahar, introduces us to new perspectives on the Canadian experience in Afghanistan, and contains the foundations of a better understanding of that experience. Conrad was the commander of the logistics battalion supporting Canada’s Kandahar-based Task Force Orion during the hard-fought summer of 2006. Every day, he and his 300 soldiers ran the harrowing gauntlet of IEDs and ambushes to deliver ammunition, fuel, food, repairs, and a myriad of other supplies to the Task Force. Although a logistics officer’s perspective on these matters is unique in Canadian military writing, what truly elevates this particular book from other, similar works is Conrad’s startling ability to capture the many layers of dissonance inherent in being a Canadian at war in Afghanistan. Conrad recalls being “shocked” by news of the aggressive deployment to war-ravaged Kandahar, and reflects that Canada’s dreams for Afghanistan are “almost un-Canadian in their boldness.” He and his soldiers find themselves in an environment utterly alien, fighting a war fundamentally different from the 20th century Weltanschauung of the Canadian Forces. The fact that Conrad is in logistics, historically somewhere between soldier and civilian, in a war where such distinctions are largely irrelevant, adds another surprising layer to his account. Conrad brings to the book a raw storytelling talent and an introspection yet unseen in the canon. Passages in the book soar to the sublime. Is What the Thunder Said Canada’s answer to Michael Herr’s classic about Vietnam, Dispatches: the definitive description whereby we will come to understand our national experience in Afghanistan? Perhaps not: on a line-by-line basis, Conrad lacks the technical writing skill to match his storytelling ability. Nonetheless, Conrad has done us all an inestimable service by putting his story on paper, and for that alone his book is worth reading.

And, then there's this one from Canadian Globe & Mail journalist, Graeme Smith's The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan

I picked this up in a book store, as I knew exactly to what the title referred. Unfortunately Graeme Smith is an awful reporter! I read the chapter related to Op Medusa, where Smith was embedded with my unit. His relating of what actually happened is terribly inaccurate. The taliban were not "baited" with bodies. In this case, two insurgents engaged our men, and my unit returned fire. The insurgents were killed. Personnel moved forward to the bodies, it was confirmed that they were dead, and everyone pulled back. Before leaving, chemlights were attached to the bodies, so that anyone coming to move the bodies could be seen. At night dogs came and ate them. Nobody is moving into enemy held areas to wave off dogs. That is ALL that happened. Recce Platoon was not involved (it was also not "a" Recce Platoon, there is only one Infantry Recce Pl per Battle Group, Recce Squadron operates in "troops", and are armoured). Reconnaissance platoons are not the ones who lay in ambush even if that were the intent. It is going to be a hell of a mess when the media gets a hold of this book, and somebody inevitably starts talking about "war crimes"- rather than the fact that we didn't move enemy bodies after they attacked us (where we were supposed to put them I don't know- the Afghan Army was there as well and I have never seen them move bodies of insurgents they don't know).

Through this whole time we were short on manpower for the operation we had to undertake (which is why Op Medusa was so difficult). If we had trippled the numbers it would not have been so difficult, but sometimes that's how the Army works.

I also take issue with Smith's regular use of "a" person. He will use a specific name in a quote, then shortly thereafter refer to "a" Major/Warrant Officer etc, but I happen to know that they are often the same person he quotes multiple times. I recognize the circumstances in his quotes, and can pick out with 99% certainty who said them. He should have had all the names in his notes as he was only embedded with ONE platoon during this time. Each company only has one major, and each platoon only has one warrant officer and three sergeants. If he couldn't be bothered to write down the names (which I find hard to believe, I think it is an attempt to seem as though he had a much wider ranging experience than he did), it would have been VERY easy to speak to anyone who was there and confirm the details.

Be very suspect of what is written in this book, it appears to be an attempt to show off about his "wide ranging" knowledge. I only bothered to read this chapter in the book store, then put the book down and will not waste any of my money to read the rest. I can't verify or contest anything else he wrote, but as for this chapter he failed to report accurately or responsibly.

 A review from the LA Times:

Smith arrived in Kandahar full of optimism and a sense of the "nobility" of the mission to oust the Taliban. He admits that at first being in a war zone provided a kind of coyote-howling fun. ...
In the beginning he followed Canadian troops for his newspaper, the Globe and Mail. On repeated trips back to Kandahar he began to explore, among other things, the condition of prisoners in Afghan jails where brutality was common and Western officers — often Canadian — looked away and pretended not to know what was happening.  ...

"Over and over, in separate conversations, the men [former prisoners] described how the international troops tied their hands with plastic straps, covered their eyes and handed them over to [Afghan] torturers. They described beatings, whippings, starvation, choking and electrocution."
Smith wrote about torture for his newspaper, careful to report only those cases that could be documented: "One prisoner, for instance, said he was shoved into a wooden box and tormented with boiling water; I didn't publish that anecdote in the newspaper because I couldn't cross reference it."


Finally, it ain't Canadian, but it was strongly recommended on CounterPunch, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal:

“Gopal’s book is essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong. It is a devastating, well-honed prosecution detailing how our government bungled the initial salvo in the so-called war on terror, ignored attempts by top Taliban leaders to surrender, trusted the wrong people and backed a feckless and corrupt Afghan regime. . . . It is ultimately the most compelling account I’ve read of how Afghans themselves see the war.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Astonishing stories. . . Such investigative reporting is very rare in Afghanistan, where foreign journalists have been targets since 2001. Gopal pursued his stories into the most active centers of the insurgency. He learned Dari and—more difficult—Pushtu. He won the trust of insurgent leaders. But his real genius lies in binding all these sources together and combining them with thousands of hours of interviews. . . . All this allows him to bring life to figures who have hitherto been caricatures.”
—The New York Review of Books

Note: "Operation Medusa" was mentioned here at the Schoolyard a few times before. Here are the links with the quotes. 


Warmaking trumps "reconstruction" In early September, the 2,300 Canadian troops in Kandahar launched a massive ground assault in Panjwaii district, code-named "Operation Medusa" and backed by U.S. troops and airpower. Residents were warned in advance of the offensive to leave their homes and villages.

The assault was declared a huge success several weeks later. "More than one thousand" enemy fighters were said to be killed. But reporters saw few bodies of resistance fighters.

Canadian and NATO authorities admitted that fighters had staged an orderly retreat and appealed for more troops into the area. Canada quickly dispatched several hundred more soldiers, and for the first time it will be deploying tanks. Deadly attacks on Canadian and other NATO forces resumed within days of the "victory."

Meanwhile, some 20,000 residents were made homeless after their homes, villages and crops were destroyed in the fighting. Winter is approaching and they face an uncertain future.


One notorious incident took place during the summer of 2006 in Panjwaii District, a volatile area just west of Kandahar city. A predominantly Noorzai district, Panjwaii is a lush river valley crisscrossed by thick orchards and mud-walled compounds, and it provides an excellent springboard for attacks on Kandahar city. During the course of the summer, Taliban fighters had infiltrated the valley, and eventually the district governor, an Achakzai, called in Abdul Razik’s border force.

What followed was a debacle. The Noorzais, fearing their tribal enemies, rose up and joined forces with the Taliban. Razik and his men responded to the unexpected resistance with brutality. “They were killing women and children,” said Ustaz Abdul Halim, a Noorzai and former mujahideen commander who lives in Kandahar city. “After that, everyone was with the Taliban.”

Capitalizing on the tribal dynamics, the Taliban installed a Noorzai, Mullah Rauf Lang, as their commander in Panjwaii District. Later that fall, newly arrived Canadian troops in the area would launch Operation Medusa, a large-scale assault that killed hundreds of fighters and scores of civilians in weeks of close combat and withering bombardments. Today, the area remains one of the most violent in Kandahar Province—the Canadians suffer many of their casualties there and have recently abandoned two untenable forward operating bases in the area—and anti-government sentiments still run high.
Well, that's today's link-fest.

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