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.

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