Tales of War: Fact and Fiction and Stories in Between

Marble Surface

Fiona Mackintosh

September 21, 2008

A series of reflections on books about peace and conflict read between September 2008 and March 2009. I haven't updated this to reflect other books read since then so this is kind of an artifact of content I was reading at the time on Afghanistan and Iraq.

[EDITORIAL WARNING:  This is a really long post because it covers multiple books and a six month span.  I probably should have broken it up into date by date posts but am just importing it here essentially as it was originally posted on my first blog].

Sept 21, 2008

So I have been slowly making my way through my various books on the quagmire that is mid- and far-east geopolitics. 

Given the way that I read (i.e. five or six books at the same time) it can take me a while to get to the end of anything quickly simply because I am too ADD or commitment phobic in my approach.  However, I read Outside the Wire sitting at my favourite restaurant in Toronto - the Bloor Street Diner and then at my favourite Starbucks at the Manulife Indigo store in less than 1 day.

I point out the locations because both are in one of the more affluent areas of Toronto, a prosperous city, and looking at the people around me (including myself) spending $30 bucks on dinner and $10 bucks for a couple of lattes at the coffee shop was in marked and stark contrast to the lives of desperation and survival that are described by Canada's soldiers as they write about their experiences during deployment at various stages in the Afghan mission

Outside the Wire is a collection of writings by deployed Canadians in Afghanistan (some in Kabul early in the mission and others by soldiers in Kandahar). The foreword by Romeo Dallaire (Lieutenant-General, ret.)  is especially thought provoking, as, having read his account of the UN mission in Rawanda (Shake Hands with the Devil), his reflections were a poignant reminder, to focus not just on the "now" of the stories, the immediate moment, but also on the aftermath faced by Afghan veterans when they return to Canada.  It is edited by Kevin Patterson & Jane Warren

Whether one agrees with the mission in Afghanistan or not (and I'll put my bias on the table as being in support of the UN state-building mission for that country - even if it didn't start out as state-building) - the fact is that the military deploy where their political commanders send them [more on this below in my comments on The Unexpected War] and it is important to understand that dimension in reading the accounts, as well as understanding that those of us who have had the privilege of living in the developed world have little understanding of the desperate circumstances in which the vast majority of the world live out their lives.

I'll post more on specific vignettes that struck me as being particularly touching and or important later ... 

Oct 10, 2008

Back to the non-fiction version of war - I have started reading Christie Blatchford's Fifteen Days which is an account of the 21st century Canadian military experience in Afghanistan. I'll update as I go but so far my favourite story is of a Newfoundland lad who was the gunner in an LAV and, out on patrol, leaned down to get a cigarette from someone in the LAV. As he was bent down inside, an RPG cut through where he would have been standing, only seconds before. He apparently, "dined out" on his story of "how smoking saved his life." I laughed my ass off, dark Celtic humour - smartass in the face of mortality - what the Scots and Irish do best.

And I'll also try and give my review of Outside the Wire which I realize that I have not got back to yet.

11:54 p.m. Dammit ... she made me cry ... and that's just by the second chapter. I kind of, sort of, almost cried during the first chapter so clearly I am going to have to pace myself reading this or I'll have to invest in more Kleenex than I currently have.

And then I feel guilty because even though in the back of my head, I know how many have died, I realize I actually have no idea how many have been wounded, severely or otherwise.

And guilty because of how I allow myself to be distracted by the everyday mundane pace of life, and how busy I get with being irritated by the little stuff - incompetent people or difficult decision-makers - and as frustrating as all of that can be - it's not life and death - it's not the survival that most of the world struggles with daily - and I'm not even sure that it qualifies as anything as bold or honourable as Dalton McGuinty or President Obama make out. It's not really even sacrifice though it is public service. My public service requires no real risk beyond the political or relational. My public service day ends with watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert making fun of the kind of people that I work for every day. Maybe that's why I've been so restless lately and why I want to go somewhere that public service makes the difference in the struggle for life as opposed to the spoiled, selfish, over-indulged life that citizens of the West treat as an entitlement. It's not that I want to go and live somewhere that life is desperate, after all, as my family would tell you - they have yet to be able to get me to go camping (I'm sorry - how high is the thread count in those sheets?) - it's more the ingratitude of Ontario's citizens that makes me really angry. Our focus in so many ways, is so self-centred, self-serving - no broader perspective or vision than "what's in it for me" and "what have you done for me lately." It's not that I think that public service isn't important - it is - in a way it is testament to "good government" that we get to whine about things like wait times and ambulance response times and set performance targets for surgery. And yet when was the last time we ever heard citizens express gratitude for the things that Canada or Ontario gives them, security, peace, stability, due process, rule of law, health care, education, social services, freedom for arts and culture, human rights, an independent judiciary, balance between state secularity and freedom of religion, academic freedom, unions, free and democratic elections. And that's just the short list. 

Ontario citizens don't disappear in the darkness of night. We aren't tortured by our government officials. Our prisons, while not without issues, are far more humane and balanced than those in most of the world. Our police are independent of politicians. Our politicians don't, as a general rule, syphon off public money into private bank accounts in offshore jurisdictions (even if we don't always like how they spend our money). We have strict standards of non-partisan public service, conflict of interest rules and independent auditors. 

Yes there are times where our police screw up, where individuals are racially profiled and unfairly treated, where our politicians make bad or poorly thought through decisions, periods where our markets implode, and days where we wonder why Bloor is ALWAYS under construction! However, the fact of the matter is that we don't appreciate that our politicians are probably far more professional and less corrupt now than they have ever been, transparency and accountability are greater than they have ever been and that Canadians are privileged to live where they do. We don't appreciate the fact that while our wait times may result in not having instant access to the health care we want on demand, the vast majority of humanity has no health care at all beyond what is provided by emergency NGOs and humanitarian organizations. We don't appreciate the fact that our maternal mortality rates are lower than the vast majority of the world, that our female children are growing up, largely ignorant of the fact that there was ever a time in their country where they were not considered people, never mind equal. We don't appreciate how far men in the West have changed with us in terms of behaviour and values, so much so that the misogyny in heavily patriarchal cultures is as abhorrent and alien to many of them as it is to women. 

We spend so much time striving for what still remains to do, that we fail to stop and express gratitude for how far we have come and how much we have.

Don't get me wrong, Canada is far from perfect. We continue to struggle with our treaty relationships with First Nations and our responsibilities under them as well as on indigenous issues more broadly.  Other issues such as poverty, human rights, integration of immigrants, tolerance, equal rights still remain very much works in progress. I get that. But like clinician's illusion, if all we are focused on is the sick, we forget that there is health beyond our focus and things that we OUGHT to be profoundly grateful for.

Feb 14, 2009

Just finished The Forever War by Dexter Filkins - a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. It's an interesting read and is written, like Christie's book as a series of episodes or vignettes. Filkins starts out in Afghanistan and then the narrative moves to Iraq where he provides first hand accounts of his experiences of the war in Baghdad and Fallujah. The most poignant paragraphs are contained, for me, in the final few pages where the journalist reflects on his return home and I thought it was worth reproducing in its entirety as I think I don't often think about the effect of what being a witness to war does to a journalist who is there to bring the conflict home for those who are not there to witness directly:

"When I was in Iraq, I might as well have been circling the earth from a space capsule, circling in the farthest orbit. Like Laika in Sputnik. A dog in space. Sending signals back to base, unmoored and weightless and no longer keeping time. Home was far away, a distant place that gobbled up whatever I sent back, ignorant and happy but touchingly hungry to know. And then I was back, back in the world with everyone else, looking back on the ship myself though not returning all the way, still floating like Laika, through the regular people in the regular world.

Back in the world, people were serious, about the fillings in their sandwiches, about the winner of last night's ballgame. I couldn't blame them, of course. For me, the war sort of flattened things out, flattened things out here and flattened them out there too. Toward the end, when I was still there, so many bombs had gone off so many times that they no longer shocked or even roused; the people screamed in silence and in slow motion. And then I got back to the world, and the weddings and the picnics were the same as everything had been in Iraq, silent and slow and heavy and dead. Your dreams come alive, though, when you come home. Your days may die but your dreams explode. Not with any specific recollections; they were more the by-products of the raw material I carried back. Rarely anything I ever actually saw. 

People asked me about the war, of course. They asked me whether it was as bad as people said. "Oh, definitely" I told them, and then, usually, I stopped. In the beginning I'd go on a little longer, tell them a story or two, and I could see their eyes go after a couple of sentences. We drew closer to each other, the hacks and the vets and the diplomats, anyone who had been over there. My friend George, an American reporter I'd gotten to know in Iraq, told me he couldn't have a conversation with anyone about Iraq who hadn't been there. I told him I couldn't have a conversation with anyone who hadn't been there about anything at all."

A reminder that PTSD can affect all those with boots on the ground, be they civilian, military or journalist ...

February 15, 2009

I am taking the opportunity of the Family Day long weekend to try and catch up on some reading in my ever growing pile of mid-east and Asian politics tomes. I started Canada in Afghanistan: The War so Far by Peter Pigott and am now completely depressed after the first 75 pages. And I haven't even got to the current mission post 9-11. The first section of the book deals with the geopolitics of The Great Game and all the various empires that have, throughout time tried to either bring Afghanistan into "submission" or prevent someone else from taking it as a strategic corridor in Asia. 

How in the world do you get from where they are to where they need to be to even start thinking about things like human rights and woman's rights? 

How do you build capacity in a nation of millions of multi-generational PTSD sufferers?

.... [a day later ...]

The reason I would recommend this book is that it is one of the first that I have come across where it actually talks in any detail about the work of the PRT teams [Provincial Reconstruction Teams]. And a reminder in the section, written by Capt. Tony Petrilli, a CF reservist engineer with the PRT, that 

We have to be willing to make the effort and pay the price. Afghanistan is not Disneyland nor will it be solved in a time frame that makes it understandable to us, be it a rotation, this year in time for Christmas, or before the next election.

Additionally he talks about a key project on the part of the Canadian PRT in Kandahar to secure ammunition so that it could be properly accounted for and distributed. It ended up being the largest secured ammunition "depot" in southern Afghanistan. This may seem like an odd project for me to highlight, as opposed to say some of the others discussed such as education for women etc. but this one struck me as being critical as elsewhere in the book it discussed examples of village elders asking for help to rid the latrines of ammunition that had been "buried" there to prevent the children from playing with live rounds. 

So many children in Afghanistan are hurt or mutilated by the proliferation of landmines that this project might seem peripheral but it is project by project that security is built in situations like this so every mm or inch counts. 

February 16, 2009

Now I've finally started to read the Pulitzer prize-winning Ghost Wars by Steve Coll which is about Afghanistan as The Great Game played itself out between America and Russia during the 1980s. But I have to go and read something fluffy for a while because reading too much about Afghanistan and mid-east politics at one time is enough to drive one to drink.

March 4, 2009

I think that Ghost Wars may end up being one of those books that I keep starting to read and then never finishing because it is just so utterly depressing from a long term strategic perspective. Makes you want to bang your head against a wall. So, instead, I went on to read The Road to Kandahar by Jason Burke, an "award winning" journalist for The Observer in Great Britain. In many ways this is like Dexter Filkins book The Forever War reviewed above. Both journalists are of an age (i.e. mid to late 30s) and have covered Middle and Eastern politics/war throughout their careers. Jason Burke is truly fascinating as a character in and of himself and the first chapter describes how he and a fellow Brit spent their gap year fighting with the peshmergas in Kurdistan - not, as far as I could tell, for any particular ideological reason but rather for the "adventure." Turns out they didn't get to do much fighting as the peshmerga paraded them around the "front" lines in Kurdistan as sort of "trophy" fighters to prove the cause was just ...​

The rest of the book unwinds from there as Jason's career as a journalist takes him from one hot spot to another, following the trails of violence across a decade and through some of the most impoverished and destitute parts of the world. Like Filkins' book, there is a very episodic feel to the narrative where each chapter is a window into a particular time and place. The thread that binds the narrative as a whole across the various incidents, times and places is Burke's search to understand the evolving nature of radical violence and the ways in which it was tolerated or overthrown/minimized.

I think, I am still a long way from understanding, but every book I read on the current major conflicts/on the war (and I am reading books on both left and right) is helping me internalize the circumstances and threads in a way that hopefully at some point will lead to a glimmer of understanding.

I have also just started to read, The Unexpected War by Janice Stein and Eugene Lang. It is surprisingly readable after Janice's last mind-numbingly bad Cult of Efficiency so perhaps having a co-writer helped. It is engaging and provides, at least in the first 40 pages a sense of the swiftness with which events moved after 9-11 and through interviews with various decision-makers in Ottawa (Art Eggleton, John McCallum etc) a sense from the participants themselves of how things evolved from a small, support role by the Canadian Navy in the Persian Sea to a full combat mission in Kandahar.

March 5, 2009

Truly this may be one of the more interesting books on the issue of Afghanistan that I have read in my journey since September. It has a weird kind of overtone of gossip, or, well ... gossip isn't quite the right word. The authors clearly had some quite phenomenal access to folks in both the American and Canadian power circles, political and bureaucratic, and so they actually reconstruct conversations at various points pre and post 9-11. This gives the book a weirdly "fireside armchair conversation" kind of feel. It's actually an incredibly good, critical, in a neutral kind of way, analysis of the domestic and international events that led to Canada's role in Kandahar. Well worth reading, not just for the Afghan war analysis but also for a fascinating look at how the whole Martin v. Chretien dynamic/hatred ended up influencing the direction that Canada went from a foreign policy / international perspective. I'm not sure how I feel yet about the fact that the egos of men-children led to the deaths of 111 soldiers, 3 of them as recently as 2 days ago. Though I suppose how we ended up there doesn't detract from the importance of the mission currently to the future of the Afghan people but it shows how so very little of what we do, be it investing in stocks or making a decision about where to go to war, is a rational process, bounded rationality or otherwise. 

[Editorial Notes - Since 2002, 118 Canadian soldiers have been killed serving in the Afghanistan mission. One diplomat and two aid workers have also been killed. The DND has reported as of 2006 to 2009 more than 400 Canadian soldiers had either lost limbs or suffered horrible shrapnel wounds since the beginning of major combat operations in Kandahar Afghanistan and that number does not include those injured battling the Taliban in Kandahar and Kabul between 2002 and 2005.

The number of NATO/ISAF soldiers killed in the Afghan mission can be found at: Coalition Casualties in Afghanistan

The number of Afghan civilians killed or injured due directly or indirectly to combat operations since 2002 is not clear and attribution is often difficult and fraught with political complexities - estimates from 2002 to 2009 for direct & indirect civilian deaths range from: 10,960 - 30,557 depending on who is counting and what methodology is used in the estimate process.]

Further details on civilian casualties can be found at Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan

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