The Savage War by Murray Brewster – book review

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The Savage War The Savage War by Canadian Press Defence Correspondent Murray Brewster should be on the reading list of every Canadian historian, academic, student and politician. This is not only a fascinating account of our 10 years in Afghanistan in a questionable war, it captures the hot and cold truth at once. It has been said that literature is the hot truth while history is the cold truth, and here Brewster brings to life a work of both literary and historical merit. Brewster spent 15 months with the Canadian troops in Afghanistan, but also covered the war in Ottawa, Paris, London and other NATO capitals.

Brewster captures the extreme disconnect between the troops fighting "the insurgency" in Kandahar and the politicians in Canada and Europe who convened to natter, but refused to commit. The soldiers, on the other hand, committed fully to the war, but were not in control of the ultimate dispersion of troops and equipment.

Troops didn't know just what to do with the politicians who made flying visits to the base in Kandahar. The cultural divide between Afghans and visiting politicians was hilariously exhibited when then Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae visited. "After listening to one Afghan army kandak commander in Panjwaii, Rae embraced the startled colonel and kissed him on both cheeks in European fashion." The colonel, a male in a stoically masculine culture, stood wide eyed, apparently thinking he had been hit on, says Brewster.

Brewster is an admirer of the individual soldiers and calls them poets, in terms of their telling of their stories, when permitted to do so, but has little time for the ham fisted obfuscation of their bosses, both military and political, who tried to control the message. He expresses sympathy with the soldiers who had to escort and were expected to take a bullet for the motley crew of journalists who covered the war, but frustration with luminaries on the home front who thought that telling the truth from the battleground, and not just the good news stories, meant that there was not an A-team of journalists covering the war. While the likes of critics Senator Romeo Dallaire and broadcaster, now Senator, Pamela Wallin held forth, comfortably seated in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, Canadian journalists with the troops "leapt out the back of Chinooks into the powdery crud of rural Panjwii and slept in the desert trenches alongside soldiers."

Brewster brings to life the Afghan players in the story: Jojo, the talented Afghan fixer for the press, who is later arrested and mistreated by the Americans and eventually murdered; Khan, Brewster's Afghan guide and interpreter, to whom he had to entrust his life; Ahmed Walli Karzai, the corrupt half brother to the president; Ghulam Hayder Hamidi who spent 30 years as an accountant in Arlington Virginia and returned to Afghanistan to become mayor of Kandahar, only to be murdered for his trouble.

Brewster details the evolution of spin from selling the war as an assault on terrorism when we answered the U.S. call to NATO to invade Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, to the building democracy justification which emerged when politicians realized that the Canadians were simply not supportive of the war. Did we really need to occupy an entire country for a decade in order to quell al Qaeda's destructive plans for the West? In both the beginning and the end, there was no clear goal, no clear strategy, no clear justification, no clear measure of success and no clear exit, revealing pointedly how much easier it is to start a war than end one. True, good work was done, particularly by Canadians who rebuilt a vital dam, among other projects, but Canada and its allies not only suffered, but unwittingly inflicted suffering on many Afghans. Political considerations also made us focus our aid priorities on health and education, important to Canadians, which were not those of the Afghan who desperately needed electricity and jobs.

Tournament of Shadows, an excellent tome on the dangers of going into Afghanistan was, we hear, required reading for members of the U.S. State Department on the eve of the Afghanistan invasion. The book, published in 1999, traces the struggle for domination of central Asia from the 1830's to the expulsion of the Russians from Afghanistan. The great nations invaded with bravado and force, but none were a match for the Afghans themselves,many of whom, in the rural districts, live a bronze age life. The great nations all became entrenched in expensive military actions and eventually left, bleeding men and money. Foreigners come and go and create or support wars, but the Afghans simply endure. It is their country, after all. Evidently, the lessons in that book were not heeded.

Canadians, at the urging of then Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, volunteered for Kandahar, the toughest of missions and home of the Taliban, perhaps to mollify the Americans for our refusing to participate in the Iraq war. They knew it was going to be hard, but were unprepared for how hard. The Americans, who were running the show from afar, thought Canadians were exaggerating, until they came to take over themselves as Canadians prepared to withdraw. While we foreigners thought they would welcome us, many Afghans, deeply Muslim, look down on the NATO troops as infidels and resent our presence. The Taliban may be "insurgents" to us, but they are frequently the sons, daughters and neighbours of the Afghan populace.

The book is by turns funny, sad, incisive, bitter and ironic. Brewster does not try to tell "a soldier's story" as Sebastian Junger did in his  best sellling  War which recounts the Afghan war from the point of view of a platoon on patrol. Brewster sits in the middle distance, that is, he recounts his experiences in Afghanistan, but he also provides an overview to the war and its political implications for those at home. In the end, the spin doctors controlled the rationale for the war in a face saving exercise for Western governments, but no matter how spun, the public simply did not support it, especially as the ramp ceremonies multiplied "If you asked most journalists to pick the point when they believed the wheels really came off the bus, it would be that awful first spring and summer of 2006, when what had been sold as a peacemaking mission on steroids devolved into an ugly guerrilla war" Brewster states. Prime Minister Harper, who supported the war and inherited its conduct when he took power, finally announced Canadian withdrawal, seeing no exit strategy on the part of our allies. Other governments, who had refused to step up to the plate in Kandahar, did not hesitate to criticize the Canadian decision and try to change political minds, even hiring Ottawa pollsters to help.

This is not only a good book, but an important book. It reads with the clip of a good novel but there are important historical elements. To what do we commit when we commit to war? War takes on a life of its own and events spiral out of control, leaving political leaders to breathlessly race after it while those fighting it slog along dying and being wounded. After the crucible of the first world war, Vera Brittain, who had worked as an English nurse during that war, wrote the classic Testament of Youth. She lost a brother, fiancé and two male friends to the war and said bitterly of it, "the old men sent the young men out to die". That is the reality of war and we should not forget it.