Inside the Wire

The limited but important story told by embedded journalism.

“Afghanistan has been a tortured country for longer than any of us has been paying attention. Now that our own injuries have caught our attention, it becomes clear that if we can help pull the country out of the abyss, we must. And, equally, if we can’t help, we mustn’t make things even worse.

The right thing has to be done in Afghanistan. Whatever that is.”

Canadian troops have been fighting in Kandahar for almost three years and will be there for at least two more. Yet when that ends, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it will in 2011, we may be no closer to resolving the dilemma posed in the introduction to Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants, Kevin Patterson and Jane Warren’s collection of writings and reflections from Canadian soldiers and civilians who have served in Afghanistan. What is the right thing to do?

That dilemma is the subtext that runs through all the books discussed in this review, which look from the ground up at the Canadian military in action in Kandahar in the period from early 2006 through to mid 2007. In that time, three different six-month rotations of Canadian troops came through the region, and they were all trailed by journalists. Those journalists were producing history on the run—daily accounts of what happened on the ground for news outlets back home. A few have now translated those accounts into something more permanent, placing what has happened into a broader context that profiles the Canadian military in the 21st century. To varying degrees each book is based on embedding journalists with units of the Canadian Forces or relies on the words and writings of the soldiers themselves as well as other Canadians in Afghanistan in ancillary roles supporting the troops.

Leave aside the hand-wringing of those who worry that embedding reporters with the military produces captives who simply parrot the military line on the mission. It is certainly true that when you rely on others to risk their lives—even to die— protecting you, you develop a degree of respect and admiration for them and what they do. That is understandable.

It is also true that embedding produces a limited perspective on a conflict because it reflects mainly a soldier’s-eye view of the world. In Afghanistan, that means reporters cannot tell the equally important story of how the actions of Canadian and other troops affect Afghans. The technique provides only a very narrow view of a battle or a war, but as long as readers, listeners and viewers understand that, it plays a crucial role in trying to convey what is taking place in Afghanistan and what happens to those we sent there to fight, whom we will have to support once they return. Embedding reporters with the troops provides a window on the military, the people in it and their families that the media and Canada in general have ignored for much of the past half century.

Embedding also encourages the military to try to shape information to its advantage, even though there is no broad censorship beyond restrictions on reporting deaths and injuries until families have been notified and a ban on revealing operational issues (for which there appears to be no common or consistent military interpretation). In fact, more often than not, the military shortchanges itself by refusing to provide reporters with details of engagements with the Taliban or the roles of individual soldiers in those battles, precisely the details that turn dry incident reports into compelling stories. What emerges from this collection of books is a profile of a war unlike any Canada has fought before, and not just because it is a counter-insurgency and not a traditional war against another nation’s army with the objective of advancing and taking territory that will ultimately lead to victory. Soldiers in Afghanistan regularly travel and fight in temperatures of above 40°C, weighed down by body armour that on many occasions has helped save lives. Sand and dust are everywhere. The enemy is there one minute and gone the next, melting away from a firefight or ambush into Panjwayi irrigation ditches, poppy and grape fields, or the communities scattered throughout the region that Canadian troops patrol. That means the Canadians operate under the belief they are being watched all the time and are never sure who is a villager or farmer and who is an informant for the Taliban, regularly reporting the movement and location of Canadian troops. As a fighting force, the Taliban are respected by the Canadians for their tactics and strategy, so much so that some Canadian commanders have spent time learning the history of warfare in the Kandahar region. They discover the Taliban travel by the same routes and use the same ambush sites as were used successfully by the mujahedeen in their battle against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Unlike the early days of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers now have modern equipment, and the result is a very effective hightech fighting force designed specifically to combat counter-insurgency. They have everything from tanks to artillery to airborne drones to vehicles designed to withstand roadside bombs to the ability to call in supporting air strikes and medical evacuations when needed. In what should be a mismatch, they battle an enemy that drags its wounded and dead away from fights by hand and that relies on the primitive weapons of guerilla fighters everywhere—rocket- propelled grenades, AK-47 rifles, land mines and, their most effective weapon, improvised explosive devices. The IEDs are made from old artillery shells or anything else that might be available and are set off either remotely or by the weight of Canadian vehicles as they drive over them. They have killed and continue to kill and wound more Canadians than have died in combat. They are a faceless enemy, an unseen force that leaves the Canadian troops with no way to hit out at anyone in retaliation. In Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army, Christie Blatchford quotes Captain Sean Ivanko after one lethal attack: “Literally, I was consumed with rage, every single cell of my body was screaming for vengeance, was screaming out with this blind rage.”

It is a war that is full of frustration, anger, confusion and uncertainty, as well as pride, accomplishment, heroics and camaraderie in the face of death and dismemberment. With a journalist’s eye, Blatchford reflects all of that in telling the stories of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Her open admiration for the soldiers she met and travelled with in Kandahar and the families who have lost their children produces empathetic vignettes that capture the personalities of the soldiers and their successes. It also generates an often overwhelming sense of sadness at the losses. Yet all that does not blind Blatchford to things a journalist should note. She watches for military news management and finds it behind the sudden removal of herself and other journalists from a forward operating base just a day after they travelled there with a Canadian patrol and a day before military confirmation that a Canadian and a U.S. soldier had been killed by friendly fire, recalling the storm in Canada when four soldiers were killed by a U.S. air strike in 2002.

My suspicion, then and now, is that we were removed to avoid inflaming that sentiment and fuelling doubts about the Afghanistan mission. The lid was on—and stayed on tight. The military doesn’t have confidence that we in the press understand, and can put into context, what a friendly-fire death does and does not mean. Keeping the thing secret only feeds the sense there is something to hide.

All the books also note that the objectives in Kandahar are much more murky than in any of Canada’s past wars. In Outside the Wire, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Ian Hope, who led Task Force Orion, the initial rotation of Canadian troops in mid 2006, talks about the staple of Canadian military action in Kandahar, the patrols that keep the Taliban off balance:

These tactical military actions were conducted not to inflict casualties, because the enemy had a phenomenal capacity to reconstitute, but instead to continuously increase Afghan confidence and to keep the enemy disrupted. Only by doing so could we buy time for the Afghan National Security Forces to grow and develop, and for governance and reconstruction reforms to gain traction. This will take many years.

The books all note the pride many soldiers take in increasing security in communities and establishing schools and their hopes that these achievements are worth the cost. As Captain Martin Anderson describes in a visit to an orphanage in Outside the Wire, “I believe that the answer lies not with the adults—who are already entrenched in their views of the world—but with the children … Hopefully, it will help the children there realize that a better future awaits them, and that the international community won’t turn its back on them as it has in the past.”

That means overcoming the setbacks and frustration of taking and retaking the same ground. Blatchford quotes Regimental Sergeant Major Randy Northrup after returning home to St. Albert, Alberta: “That’s hard for our soldiers to swallow. The same piece of ground. We’ve been here twice now. Three times now. And each time it costs you. And that’s probably the hardest thing to swallow, that cost and it’s probably the highest cost you can pay.”

That uncertainty, frustration, confusion and fear, always present in warfare, are completely absent from Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson’s Kandahar Tour: The Turning Point in Canada’s Afghan Mission. This is a volume written about the third rotation of troops to Kandahar from February to August 2007. While the subtitle is bold and, in retrospect, naive, it reads like the official view of the war by National Defence and the Canadian government. On its pages all leaders are inspired and all troops are well prepared, resourceful, experienced, cool under pressure, knowledgeable and disciplined. They fire with careful precision that avoids harming the civilian population and do only very limited property damage. Whenever one of their colleagues is killed, the soldiers pause briefly to remember and then get back to the job at hand. The media concentrate, meanwhile, almost exclusively on soldier deaths, looking for someone to blame while ignoring the reconstruction and diplomatic efforts and successes that are part of Canada’s mission. Windsor, Charters and Wilson offer a solid review of Afghanistan’s conflict filled history and a good analysis of the rise, activities and current state of the Taliban, but Kandahar Tour presents an antiseptic view of Canadians at war starkly different from all the other accounts, at times reading more like the script of a World War Two newsreel about troops in action.

By contrast, split into sections on service, sacrifice and stories, On Assignment in Afghanistan: Maritimers at War tells the personal stories of that same group of troops, the members of 2 RCR, the Royal Canadian Regiment battle group based in Gagetown, New Brunswick, that included reservists from all over Atlantic Canada. A project of Halifax’s Chronicle Herald, the book is published largely as a pictorial tribute to the local men and women who served in Afghanistan from a region of the country that has always been the backbone of Canada’s military.

The photographs highlight the conditions under which the troops live, patrol and fight, and remind Canadians that not all of Afghanistan is dust and dirt, since many of the pictures come from the agricultural regions of the Panjwayi. The text is largely about the personalities of the soldiers, even including such asides as the annual premium of $20,000 paid to all those who serve in Afghanistan and the frustration of some that the pay is the same for those on dangerous patrols and stationed at forward operating bases as for those who never leave the comforts and safety of Kandahar air field. Author Chris Lambie also touches on many of the themes found in the other books, such as helping communities, educating children, training local soldiers, coping with the deaths of colleagues and improving the poor quality of local Afghan police.

All of that and more emerge in greater detail in Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, the Taliban and the Battle That Saved Afghanistan, former National Post reporter and army reservist Chris Wattie’s record of his time spent in 2006 with C Company of Task Force Orion. He argues the Canadians’ objective was to prevent the Taliban from scoring a public relations coup in 2006: the insurgents had been planning to take over a prominent building in Kandahar, at least for a brief period of time, as a psychological blow to NATO that could also undermine support for the mission back in Canada. The Canadians succeeded, but at a cost of soldiers’ lives. Wattie details the tactics of the task force, recounts the battles and deaths and produces almost a diary of the mission centred on the individual soldiers. Along the way he is critical of the degree to which the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Canadian International Development Agency pulled back on diplomacy and development after the death of diplomat Glyn Berry in an IED attack in 2002, leaving only “defence” of Canada’s “three Ds” on the ground in Kandahar. He also notes acerbically that the U.S. military did not appreciate or understand the role and successes of the Canadians in Kandahar. That may not bode well for the coming months as the United States puts an extra 30,000 soldiers into the country and focuses its attention on Afghanistan.

The aftermath of the Berry attack is the subject of The Long Walk Home: Paul Franklin’s Journey from Afghanistan, which tells the story of Master Corporal Paul Franklin, a medic and the driver of the vehicle in which Berry was killed. It follows his difficult recovery from near death to walking again for his eight-year-old son. He had lost one leg in the attack and, uncertain of recovery, decided to have the other subsequently amputated. Edmonton Journal reporter Liane Faulder skillfully mixes past and present, personal and practical, touching everything from the physics of what happens to a body when an IED explodes nearby to Franklin’s psychological difficulties in coming to grips with the fact that the story he had told everyone about using his medical training to save his own life was fabricated. The mild brain injury he suffered in the explosion created the memory of an incident that never took place. He was “humiliated to have claimed he had tied his own tourniquet. Paul worried what people might think of him. He was also disappointed that, in the end, he hadn’t used his medical skills when it mattered to save his own life. Intellectually, he knew it wasn’t his fault. Emotionally, he was crushed.”

Of all these books, The Long Walk Home is the most important. It takes Canadians behind the scenes to show how the military supports the families of those who die, reunites families with their wounded at a U.S. hospital in Germany when they have been flown out of Kandahar and helps with medical treatment back in Canada. It is a very personal story, told with compassion but also with the honesty that comes with good journalism, about the strain a military life, deployment and reintegration creates in families and relationships, made even more difficult when the soldier comes home wounded or disabled. It is a story about how Franklin confronts replacing the fear of dying with the fear of living without his legs. With tenacity he can walk again, but he must accept the fact that he and his identity have been changed forever.

Franklin was among the first Canadian casualties from Kandahar. He and his wife, Audra, decided they would be role models for the Forces, allowing the media to turn the spotlight on them. Not all have coped with the difficulties of returning to Canada by subsuming them in a personal mission. Captain Casey Balden, wounded in an IED attack three weeks into his tour, recounts a darker vision in Outside the Wire when encountering troops back from Kandahar in Brandon, Manitoba.

What I see in these soldiers is chaotic: the desire to apply focused violence; the outrage at being helpless; the shock of our silly North American culture; the attempt to deal with deep pain … People have come back from Afghanistan and have changed. Relationships fail. Personal safety is ignored. Identities are fragmented. Ordinary Canadians, those who have not been to war, do not and cannot understand.

Yet understanding and helping are precisely the challenges that Canadians face and ones that, on evidence so far, we as a country are hopelessly unprepared to address. One unanswered question in all these books is how do we as a society support those who have served and lived these experiences, when they return to Canada hoping that their sacrifices and the lives of their friends have not been wasted.

That brings us back to the need to do the right thing in Afghanistan, whatever that is.

Captain Kevin Schamuhn was two metres away from Lieutenant Trevor Greene when Greene was attacked with an axe to the head while sitting at a village council meeting in Shinkay. Schamuhn then spoke to the media about the attack, raising the ire of Canadian Forces public affairs officers. Since then he has thought long about the incident and what it means. Back home, he told Blatchford it is hard enough for Canadians to see soldiers as distributors of foreign aid, let alone for Afghans who for decades have associated foreign occupation with turmoil.

We never really help so why would they trust us? All we really do is ask them the same questions they have been asked for decades. Do their crops get better? No. Do schools get built? Rarely. Do living conditions improve? Hardly. We ought to try to come up with a little more incentive for the locals to side with us rather than accuse them of siding with terrorists.

Schamuhn’s challenge comes at a crucial time. Canada has agreed to broaden the rationale for its presence in Afghanistan from providing security to aiding the Americans in targeting and combating Afghan drug traffickers. That hardly seems the kind of help Afghans need to persuade them this group of foreign invaders is ultimately any different from the many that have come and gone before.