Sunday, June 16, 2019

Canada in Afghanistan Reading Round-Up

A while ago I did a survey of books by or about Canadians in the war in Afghanistan. That post consisted of links to various reviews or publishers' blurbs. This post is the start of my own reviews of books that I have read myself (and eventually studies and reports on the war and its impacts) for a book that I may or may not write.

So, at the "Deer Park" branch of the Toronto Public Library system I found two books. The first one I read is by Jamie MacWhirter entitled A Soldier's Tale: a Newfoundland Soldier in Afghanistan. (2013) MacWhirter job in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) was in transport. He was a truck driver. He was in Afghanistan in 2006. On more than one occasion this involved driving a fuel truck in support of the artillery close to the front line. (This would also make him vulnerable to roadside ambushes and IED's.) At one point in his book he discovers that the infantry soldiers he's with have nicknamed him "Fireball" because of his willingness to drive a large tank of gasoline into a war-zone. The fact that the infantry considered him brave surprised him because he felt he was just doing his job. Obviously the infantry soldiers probably think that they're just doing their jobs and don't pause to consider the enormity of respect other soldiers like MacWhirter have for them.

I don't think MacWhirter would object to being described as a simple man. His universe appears to revolve around friends and family and his job and he doesn't appear to speculate about the wider purposes of Canada's role in Afghanistan beyond some vague notions that we were there to "help" and that the Taliban was clearly the problem that the USA and its allies were there to solve.

The book is very much MacWhirter's own, focused entirely on his own personal experiences. But these are valuable in their own way. From the Afghan contractors who "cleaned" the offices at the main Canadian base camp using such filthy water that the place smelled worse than before they went in. To the Afghan truck driver who dove into a tank of gasoline to retrieve a lost wristwatch (and emerged successfully if barely alive). To the elderly Afghan man who enraged him by begging (with a large number of others) at the camp's fence with a baby strapped to his front that later turned out to be dead. Another time he was about to leave the camp in a convoy but the whole thing was inexplicably delayed. He sat in his truck for forty minutes getting increasingly irritated when he sees a stretcher team carrying a bruised and bloody adolescent boy back from the main gate towards the camp's health clinic. From another soldier he later learns that the boy had arrived at the camp gates after having been gang-raped and left for dead. And then there was this:

A few kids from the village next to us decided to come up and see what we were doing. We gave the kids some water and what food we had. Adam was even playing catch with a little girl. He would lightly toss a small rock to her and she would giggle and toss it back to him. It was so good to see Afghan ids laughing and enjoying theselves. Having fun with these kids made me think of Avery. I can't wait to see him and see if he has changed since I last saw him. This moment with the kids almost made me forget about this horrible place I was in.
Off in the distance a small white car had pulled up onto the road and was facing us. The car caught the eye of our officer and he told us to keep an eye on it. Within seconds of him saying that the driver of the car pressed down hard on the gas pedal and came right at us. Our officer quickly fired a few shots at the driver of the car and the shots must have hit him because the car began to slow down. But when the car came to a complete stop, it exploded. The blast blew Adam, Larry and me into the air and we all landed close to each other. We were knocked out from the blast. I sat up, but I was not sure where I was. I was in a daze and I just sat there, a little dumbfounded by what had just happened.
I noticed Larry on the ground knocked out, and I saw Adam on his feet, but just standing there like he was lost. Adam had blood on him so I knew I should get to him to see if he was okay. But when I stood up I saw there was blood on me too. I started to check myself over to see if I was injured but I couldn't find anything wrong. I stood up and took a step towards Adam to check on him and that's when I saw something on the ground.
I was stepping on a child's arm. I stared at it in shock and horror for a minute. It was like what I was seeing was not registering in my brain. I looked at Adam again and this time I took notice of everything. We were both standing in children's body parts and blood. The suicide bomber had killed all the Afghan children who had been playing with us. That is why I was covered in blood, because of the children; it was their blood that was all over me. I walked over to Adam and could hear crunching under my feet with every step. I knew it was body parts I was stepping on. When I got to Adam he seemed to be okay. Just in shock like everyone else.

MacWhirter makes no effort to empathize with how lifetimes of grinding poverty, decades of war, and myriad instances of personal abuse might make the people of Afghanistan act differently from the way Canadians tend to behave. These people have all gone through their experiences with no hope of being able to eventually go home. Because they're already home. And there will be no anti-depressants, or counselling, or quiet retreats for them to access and work through their issues. Obviously, the raping of young boys (and the purchasing and raping of female child brides), using a dead baby as a prop for begging, and driving a car full of explosives into a group of children, ... these are all barbaric. But it is disturbing how western soldiers will insert themselves into situations like this and come to hate the people that live there. In the case of Afghanistan, the government we were defending was brutal and corrupt. Many Afghans joined the Taliban because that was the group that was resisting. And the Taliban's original rise to power was based on its being the best alternative to the corrupt and brutal warlords who dominated after the Soviet-allied government fell. So, some of the people we thought we were helping were on the side of the Taliban. That would make them "enemies." It is the hatred and paranoia that leads to dehumanization that leads to massacres as was documented at My Lai in Vietnam (and which many Vietnamese and critics of war happened numerous other times during that conflict).

We've read about victims of a violent assault who suffer PTSD. MacWhirter describes several situations where, even though he was "just" a truck driver, he was in life or death situations. Perhaps it was the case that being able to return to the relative safety of the main Canadian base made going back outside the wire more of psychologically difficult than might have been the case for soldiers who stayed out at the front for longer periods of time. Whatever the case, MacWhirter does a good job of describing the onset of the PTSD that would eventually plague him after his tour of duty was completed. Towards the end of his tour some of his fellow soldiers begin to crack and he himself finds his hands shaking and he only continues to accept assignments because he's ashamed to think of someone else being forced to do them if he refuses.

MacWhirter takes perhaps a quarter, but more like a third of the book talking about his return to Canada. He describes his paranoia. His anger. His awareness that he's now "different" from the person his loved ones saw leave Canada. He expresses his frustration at how the CAF transfers the mental health professionals he finally begins to see to deal with his issues. Anytime he met one he connected with and liked they'd be sent somewhere else. Almost all of them are quick to recommend pharmaceuticals. And all of them want to start again at square-one and get him to explain what's angering him. He accepts a transfer to his home province of Newfoundland & Labrador and finds that this is a greater benefit than anything the military did for him. He now does a lot of work helping fellow soldiers manage their PTSD.

So, that's the first of two books for this post. Be sure to check back for the other review. Or not. I'm mainly doing this for myself.


The second book I read was Chris Wattie's Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, The Taliban and the Battle that Saved Afghanistan. (2008) Wattie was a war correspondent for The National Post. Evidently he's also a reserve member of the CAF. His book deals with Afghanistan during the same period as MacWhirter's book. 2006. Except Wattie attempts to tell a bigger picture. His story is that a Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah Akhund had a plan to break-up the NATO alliance in Afghanistan by inflicting heavy casualties on a US ally and by briefly taking the city of Kandahar for propaganda purposes. (This would be akin to the propaganda victory achieved by the NLF in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.) Wattie has Mullah Dadullah telling Taliban head-honcho Mullah Omar that unlike the US government, the governments of its NATO allies were weak and would quickly leave if they ever suffered large numbers of killed and wounded. (This is probably the deleterious impact of the namby-pamby peace-activists.) It just so happened that it would be the Canadians who occupied Kandahar and who would bear the brunt of Dadullah's offensive. Wattie describes the men and women of the CAF and how they managed to thwart the Taliban's plans.

That's essentially it. There's very little analysis of the origins of the conflict. Of the causes of the resistance to the western-backed government in Kabul. Of the resilience of the rebels. In Wattie's writing, CAF members are angry when people shoot at them and their brothers-and-sisters in arms. They become even more enraged when their friends are wounded or killed. Wattie doesn't bother to speculate about the thoughts of Taliban fighters. What are their thoughts about people coming from foreign countries to shoot at them? How do they respond to the deaths of their comrades?

The book is interesting for describing the details of small scale combat (generally at the platoon level); how the CAF patrolled an area, the weapons they used, the strategies they employed, the cooperation of other NATO countries' air-support. (French "Mirage" jets; US "Apache" and "Blackhawk" helicopters and drones). I was a little mystified as to why NATO would use ground-troops to take Taliban strongholds. There's a couple of encounters, especially at a place called "the white schoolhouse" where the CAF takes casualites and calls in air-strikes or artillery, which (after the various groups of Canadian soldiers retreat to a safe distance, tended to obliterate the targeted buildings and everyone inside. I mean, if you're trying to keep your own casualities to a minimum, wouldn't it make sense to just identify the stronghold and call in the big guns at the beginning. (You have to wonder about the courage ... or the ignorance or insanity ... of the Taliban fighters who don't have body armour, artillery, helicopter evacuation, etc., etc., )

At one point the Canadians can't get any artillery or air-support because some desk-rider back at headquarters worries about damage to civilian buildings nearby. If that happens once in a while it seems to be an anomaly, because numerous sources refer to civilian casualties and destroyed villages.

At the end of the day, Wattie's book needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It tells a very one-sided story of an important part of the conflict. I don't doubt the courage of any of the Canadian Forces soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. I've encountered enough soldiers (mostly through their writings but a few I've met personally) to know that there are some good people among them. Which is why I find their involvement in Afghanistan to be such a tragic waste. Let's review:

The Taliban rank-and-file was prepared to take their guns and go home at the fall of their regime but the US-backed Afghan forces decided to take advantage of rewards and bounties and began capturing former Taliban and handing them over to be tortured by the Americans.

The Karzai government and its warlord allies behaved abominably to the mainly Pashtun people who occupy much of former Taliban area. The Afghan police are brutal, corrupt or even murderous.

Our military activities create volunteers for the Taliban.

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