Sunday, November 27, 2011

Canadian War Writing About Afghanistan – 2011 Update

This blog updates my previous entry listing books written about the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan, completing the list for books published in 2011. Four excellent releases!

  • Ryan Flavelle, The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan (2011). The extraordinary personal account of a Canadian soldier on a seven-day patrol into the heart of Taliban country, fully revealing the physical strain of his kit, constant need to avoid heat exhaustion, and knot of fear when coming under fire.
  • Melanie Murray, For Your Tomorrow: The Way of an Unlikely Soldier (2011). A heartfelt, extremely well written personal account of the military career and death of Captain Jeff Francis and five other Canadian soldiers, when their RG-31 Nyala was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan on July 4, 2007, and the effects of his death on his family.
  • Murray Brewster, The Savage War: The Untold Battles of Afghanistan (2011). A Canadian press journalist’s accounts of his experiences in Afghanistan covering the Canadian combat mission, giving you a view of the forward operating bases, the back streets of Kandahar City, and the halls of power in Ottawa that you will not find anywhere else
  • Sean Maloney, Fighting for Afghanistan: A Rogue Historian at War (2011). Sean Maloney, in his third book on his visits to Afghanistan, now joins Regional Command South Brigade Headquarters (TF Aegis) and 1 PPCLI Battle Group (TF Orion) of the Canadian combat mission in the summer of 2006. Because of his previous army experience and personal relations with officers and men at all levels, Sean is able to participate in and report on all operations to a more knowledgeable extent than any other non-military visitor could do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: The Savage War by Murray Brewster

The World War of 1939-1945 has been called “The Good War” and the Korean War has been called “The Forgotten War;” the Canadian mission to southern Afghanistan, if one interprets the writing of Murray Brewster correctly, could be called “The Unwinnable War.” Murray Brewster spent many months there between 2006 and 2011 as a Canadian Press journalist, immersing himself in the Canadian theatre of operations as well as covering higher level political developments about Afghanistan in Ottawa and in other NATO countries. He divides his writing into 25 chapters which move chronologically through that period, the narrative being almost a series of essays from a very personal point of view about key events that he lived through.

As a journalist, he treads a line in the grey area between official pronouncements about the mission, and what he sees and hears during his travels. Certainly, the life of such a journalist is not a comfortable one: combat troops sometimes segregated themselves from journalists and resented their presence on dangerous missions; some army public affairs officers attempted to dictate what stories should be reported on particular days; insurgents saw them a targets as they travelled about independently in search of stories; and they even became targets for government officials who felt threatened by possible revelations of corruption.

While in Afghanistan, Brewster relied greatly on teaming up with a good “fixer,” that is an Afghan who could translate, chauffeur his car, and arrange meetings with local politicians and even Taliban sources. It is therefore not surprising that Brewster felt a bond with some of his trusted fixers. One of these was nicknamed “Jojo,” a young hustler who was often worked for other Canadian reporters from the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail. He was shocked in the summer of 2007, when Jojo was arrested by US military police, along with Canadian CTV reported Steve Chao, at the gates of the big base at Kandahar Airfield. Chao was later released, but Jojo was sent to the US military prison at Bagram Airfield where he was held for eleven months. When Jojo was finally released, Brewster noted that he was never the same person as before, as a result of the treatment he received. Unfortunately, Jojo seemed to have many enemies. He was finally assassinated in a hail of bullets at a traffic stop in Kandahar City after passing on a story to Brewster about corruption by private security contractors, one of whom was a cousin of Hamid Karzai. Jojo’s death hit Brewster particularly hard as he admired the young man who had liked the Western way of life and been enthusiastic in his job of helping journalists get their stories.

On at least two occasions, a situation arose in which Murray Brewster felt himself to be in great danger, while travelling about independently with his fixer. During one of these times, Brewster and several other reporters were interviewing workers who were harvesting resin for heroine production from a huge remote poppy field, when they suddenly noticed a car had suddenly pulled up to block their vehicle. “We were on our own and it as one of those moments of sheer terror, the kind that usually hammered your feet to the floor.” Without hesitation, the group headed back to their car where fixer managed, by an emotional dialogue in Pashtun language, to talk his way out of a very touchy situation. Brewster had learned his lesson by now to always have a sense that danger lurked around every corner. His very first fixer in 2006 had warned him to always be cautious. When the naive Brewster replied that the fixer was just being paranoid, the fixer simply agreed: “Yes, and so should you be.”

Savage Wars is a well-written account of the war in Afghanistan that will give you a view of the forward operating bases, the back streets of Kandahar City, and the halls of power in Ottawa that you will not find anywhere else. In these places, his keen journalistic senses dig out stories that Western authorities were not aware of; or of things the authorities were aware of but didn’t want to admit.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Remembering Richard Rowland Thompson, awarded the Queen's Scarf of Honour in the South African War

In the small village of Chelsea Quebec, a special effort has been made over many years to honour the phrase from the poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them

In the small Pioneer Cemetery in this village lies the grave of Private Richard Rowland Thompson, a soldier who served with the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry in the South African War. When he died in 1908 from a sudden illness, he was buried with full military honour but, unfortunately, his grave was forgotten for half a century. The memory of his grave was finally revived through the efforts of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society which restored the cemetery and has organized a memorial service on the 11th of November each year since 1986.

The annual memorial service includes an invitation, not only to all local residents, but also to representatives from senior officers of the Canadian Forces and a contingent from Thompson’s regiment, now The Royal Canadian Regiment with two battalions based at Petawawa in the upper Ottawa River valley. On November 11, 2011, Commodore Hans Jung, commander of the Canadian Forces Health Services Group and the Military Surgeon General, and contingents from Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment and from CF Health Services Centre gathered here to participate in that years’ service. A photo gallery from this ceremony can be viewed at Chelsea Remembrance 2011

Private Thompson’s gravesite is significant because he was the only Canadian to be awarded one of the eight scarves personally knitted by Queen Victoria for presentation to private soldiers for special gallantry in South Africa. Private Thompson had first exhibited exceptional courage at the Battle of Paardeberg on February 18, 1900, when Canadians suffered heavy casualties during a failed attack on Boer positions. As darkness fell, one wounded Canadian soldier had been remained lying between the lines where he could not be rescued. Richard Thompson chose to remain with him until help could arrive and he saved the wounded man’s life by holding bandages to his wound to keep him alive. While they lay huddled between the lines, the Boers continued to fire on them in the moonlight, at one point shooting Thompson’s helmet off.

A few days later on February 27, The Canadians were ordered to attack the Boer lines again, this time by advancing under cover of darkness. The Boers spotted Canadians about sixty metres from their trenches and opened up a murderous fire on the attackers. Again, one Canadian soldier was wounded near the Boer positions, unable to get back to safety. Thompson, now back in the Canadian trench, jumped up and, against orders of his company commander, raced out several hundred metres through Boer fire to rescue the man. Unfortunately, just as Thompson reach his comrade and grasped his hand, the wounded man died. Thompson somehow managed to get back to the Canadian trench without being hit and reported the fate of the man to his commanding officer.

Thompson exhibited one of the key characteristics of courage under fire. The most common motivator of courage has been the importance of the bonds established between men whose life is threatened in battle. Men often take extreme action to help each other survive while accomplishing their mission, sacrificing their life if necessary to help others. It is significant that, on receiving praise for his act from his company commander, Thompson remarked that he preferred to call his race between the lines as “pure foolhardiness.”

The South African War was a hard-fought struggle between British and Commonwealth forces and their Boer opponents. As the number of casualties continued to be reported back in England, Queen Victoria decided that she should create some special mark of personal gratitude for the men fighting for the Empire. To do so, she knitted several scarves from deep gold wool and included the royal cipher “V.R.I” in the design, attaching a small metal cross in a wreath to it. Private Richard Rowland Thompson was selected by the Canadian contingent to receive this honour and it is held today in the collection of the Canadian War Museum.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ottawa Paramedics Receive the Medal of Bravery. Just Doing Their Duty?

On October 28, 2011, Governor General David Johnston awarded the Medal of Bravery to two Ottawa paramedic despatchers, Tara Josey and Nadine Leduc, for their courage during a shooting incident on January 7, 2008. The two despatchers were off-duty and were just finished enjoying a coffee at a Tim Horton’s outlet in Ottawa when a series of gunshots rang out in the parking lot. A car sped away leaving a young man lying on the ground. While onlookers raced away in fear, the despatchers ran in the opposite direction – toward the victim and covering him with their bodies in case the attacker should return while they applied pressure to his wound. These two despatchers were among 58 Canadians awarded Medals of Bravery by the Governor General that day.

These two despatchers were the latest in a series of bravery awards earned by Ottawa paramedics. These included Christopher Bugelli who received the N.H. McNally award for rescuing a man from a flooded creek in below-zero weather in March 2011, and four paramedics –Craig McInnes, Virginia Warner, Patricia St. Denis and Amanda Walkowiak – who attempted to save the life of Ottawa Police Constable Eric Czapnik while fighting off a mentally disturbed attacker in December 2009.

In all these incidents, the paramedics showed their professionalism by coming to the aid of someone in trouble through immediate instinctive action that is a result of their training. It is not surprising that Bugelli disclaimed any display of courage by his action: “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal but everyone else did…. Preservation of life is what we do, right? … Any one of the other crews would have done something similar.”

Simply doing their duty – what they are trained to do while on-duty but which becomes part of their ethos even off-duty. It is a refrain that comes up from all emergency services personnel – medical services, police, firefighters – and from members of the Canadian Forces, all who place their lives in danger when their mission requires it. The risks they take was highlighted by most recently by the death of Sergeant Janick Gilbert, an experienced Canadian Search-and-Rescue technician in the Royal Canadian Air Force who lost his life on October 27, 2011 while carrying out a rescue mission in the Canadian Arctic.

Courage is most often defined by the observer and, if that observer is a civilian, he can rightly give credit to all those policemen, firemen, paramedics and Canadian Forces personnel who indeed may simply be doing their duty. The people in these special occupations accepted the fact that, when they chose their professions, the bar of courage would be raised higher for them than for most other people. As a result, simply doing their duty will be considered admirable by others in times of special crisis.