On Afghanistan

I got into a brief Twitter chat with someone today about Afghanistan, and I think it prompted me to write a bit on my perceptions of how the Afghanistan experience has impacted Canada – impacted me personally, my family, my friends, and the sense I have of its impact on Canadians broadly based on my observations.

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I was in third year university, living in a house with three friends. That Tuesday morning, I was awoken by one of my housemates just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and I managed to collect myself and get out of my room in time to see the second hit. I spent the rest of that day watching television, trying to figure out what happened and what was going to be done about it. That night, being an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Forces Reserve at the time, I headed off to my Armoury and down to a meeting previously scheduled which was overtaken by discussion about the topic. Later I sat in the Junior Ranks Mess of my home garrison with various other people, and I said, “We will all remember where we were this day.” As we watched replay after replay of planes hitting the Twin Towers, I then thought, “This is our Zapruder film.”

Canada eventually sent a battle group built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (3VP BG) to Kandahar to help destroy Al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan and rout the Taliban regime which had mostly controlled that failed state and provided that haven. It didn’t make a lot of news until April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a 3VP group training at the Tarnak Farms Range Complex near Kandahar Airfield, killing four Canadians: Sgt Marc Leger, Cpl Ainsworth Dyer, Pte Richard Green, and Pte Nathan Smith and severely wounding eight more. The outcome of the inquiry into the event would be a massive post in itself, but suffice it to say that not only was it basically the end of the USAF pilots’ careers, but one received a stinging reprimand for his dishonourable conduct in trying to evade responsibility for a decision that was in no way justifiable. In short, he claimed that he acted in self-defence, but he actually turned back to drop the bomb after being well out of danger and was not cleared to attack.

The Patricia deployment wrapped up without any further casualties, and the follow on was a deployment built around the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (3 RCR BG). They went to Kabul, established a large camp (Camp Julian) and got to work on local security and some of the foundational work on establishing Afghan National Security forces – new Army, Air Force, and Police for the country. Things went fairly smoothly. There were no casualties reported until October 2, 2003, when what we would come to know as an “IED” or landmine blast struck a patrol traveling in an Iltis jeep in Kabul, killing Sgt Robert Short and Cpl Robbie Beerenfenger. When a suicide bomber killed Cpl Jamie Murphy three months later, a national debate began about the adequacy of the equipment Canadian soldiers were being sent to Afghanistan with. The Iltis jeep, a small, unarmoured patrol vehicle long due for replacement became a focus in the media, but many, many other items were viewed as deficient and the Liberal government of Jean Chretien began spending a lot more money on improvements.

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan stayed relatively quiet until the summer of 2005, when it was decided to redeploy the force from the relatively stable capital of Kabul to the restive province of Kandahar, one of the strongholds of the Taliban, to which 3VP were initially deployed back in 2002. Settling into Kandahar Airfield, Canadian soldiers began to become involved in a lot more “outside the wire” work, doing battle with insurgents in Kandahar’s vineyards, orchards, and fields. The Panjwaii District, located along the Arghandab River west of Kandahar City, was one of the Canadian Areas of Responsibility. Panjwaii would become a name known to many Canadians starting in 2006 when the fighting became much more intense, and Canadian casualties began to mount starting in the spring of 2006.

The only other deaths before then were road traffic accidents, a sad hazard of any place, but losses grieved no differently.

The first casualty of fighting was Pte Robert Costall, a member of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1VP). Costall’s deal was later revealed to likely have been a friendly fire incident during a pitched gun battle with insurgents. On April 22, 2006 a roadside bomb blew up a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, one of the vehicles bought to replace the Iltis jeeps that had been so controversial, killing four Canadians. May 17th saw something new to Canadians – a female Forward Observation Officer from the 1st Regiment of Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA), Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed by a rocket propelled grenade which struck her LAV-3 while she was calling in artillery during an offensive operation. She was the first Canadian officer to die in Afghanistan, and the first female combat casualty in Canadian history.

It became clear to Canadians that we were in quite a fight and there was a real cost – I think, from my recollection, it was Capt Goddard’s death that hit home for many.

Through the summer and into the fall of 2006, fighting in Panjwaii was intense. August 3 saw a fierce fighting kill four members of 1VP, and fighting during September was similarly costly. September 2, 2006 saw the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (1 RCR BG) launch Operation MEDUSA, a major effort to drive the Talian out of Zhari and Panjwaii districts. 1 RCR suffered the single worst day of the war to date for Canada, September 3, 2006. That day, four fell, including two Warrant Officers and an Engineer Sergeant very experienced NCOs, and many others were injured. The following day, a friendly fire airstrike hit members of 8 Platoon, Charles Company, 1 RCR, killing Pte Mark Graham and injuring several others, one of whom was a close friend of mine. The Crazy Eights, and indeed Charles Company itself, was rendered basically combat ineffective at that point. MEDUSA ultimately was a tactical victory for ISAF, but at a cost.

And so it went from there. I could recap the ensuring campaigns, but that’s not really the point. Following 2006, things became much more dangerous in Afghanistan, and many more would fall. April 2007 saw a massive bomb kill six Canadians, a feat the Taliban would repeat in July of that year. Most were due to pernicious improved explosive devices, planted by a cunning and crafty enemy that studied our tactics and learned how to defeat them. I did want to actually stick to my original concept for this, to try to make some observations on how the public responded to the events, and how it changed their view of the CF.

Many Canadians held a sort of romanticized view of the Canadian Peacekeeper – a UN Blue Beret-sporting friendly sort of armed Boy Scout off to try to save the world in various places, standing between disputing parties to keep them from fighting. Canada basically invented the concept in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, the idea of a neutral party keeping to sides in a conflict who genuinely wanted peace apart while they learned to trust each other. Canadians patrolled the divided island of Cyprus for many years in this role, among other places. A TV commercial, a “Heritage Moment”, played up this cultural myth. When the world watched the horror of the meltdown of Yugoslavia, it was Canadians in blue helmets who raced off to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to stop the bloodshed there.

However, two black marks would come to influence that view dramatically, the failure of the world community to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and a series of incidents in Somalia in 1993 which overshadowed anything else the Canadian contingent deployed there did – a small number of soldiers from a unit riddled with leadership and discipline problems engaged in some atrocious crimes, then tried to conceal them, which failed. In what one writer (regrettably, I can’t remember his name) referred to as a “great act of self-effacement”, the unit involved, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, was disbanded completely, even though most of its members from that era had since moved on. These events certainly cast a pall on the view that many Canadians took of soldiers – in cases they were harassed, even told not to commute to and from work in uniform lest they be recognized according to some stories I’ve heard.

Around the same time, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien came to power and set upon wrestling the great deficit dragon that threatened Canada. When I talk to Americans and Britons about the fiscal challenges their countries face, I am proud to tell them that we went through this before, and it eventually gets better. Chretien began a program of slashing spending, including cashing in the so-called “peace dividend”, downsizing the Canadian Forces and its budget. This came to be referred to by many as the “decade of darkness”, a phrase made most popular by the charismatic Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, who made it public. Through the 1990s, bases closed, including the mass movement of 1 RCR from London, Ontario to Petawawa, Ontario, and the closure of Canadian bases in Europe. Little was invested in training or equipment.

The sun began to come out through some unusual circumstances, according to many of the stories I’ve heard – the Red River Floods in Manitoba in 1997 and the Ice Storm in Ontario & Quebec in 1999 were emergencies where Canadian military personnel came out in droves to help communities, and suddenly people began to think more warmly about the military. It was again possible to wear the uniform with pride. It was shortly after this that I, a university student, presented myself at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in the spring of 2000 to apply to join the Reserve. I was sworn in January of 2001 as an infantry Officer Cadet, beginning a journey which would become a defining feature of my adult life.

Prior to 9/11, no one really noticed us much. We were just ordinary people it seemed. After that, particularly when Canada got involved in Afghanistan, people actually started to take a little more notice. We started to actually have people approach us in public to say “thanks” and acknowledge us, people started paying for our coffee at Tim Hortons, things like that – all wonderful gestures, if a little awkward.

If you’re reading this as an American, understand that the sort of “aggressive” flag-waving patriotism and love of the military that you’d consider normal does not generally exist in Canada. Canadians tend to be much more reserved, to the point that we often find the contrast frankly uncomfortable. The attention was a little weird for many people.

Something else happened, though. Something so incredible that no one would have anticipated it, and what made it so amazing is that it emerged from nothing, as just an idea of ordinary people that caught on.

When a Canadian soldier is killed overseas, there is a process followed. The remains are brought to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, an air force base about 80 miles east of Toronto, which is essentially the air hub for all Canadian Forces operations. From there, they travel to the Coroner’s Office on Grenville Street in Toronto for the normal processing before the remains are released to the family.

The trip travels along Ontario Highway 401, a major expressway. At some point, when word got out that these funeral corteges were passing by, people started to gather on highway overpasses along the way. Eventually, paramedics and fire departments would park on the overpasses and pay tribute to the fallen as they passed. Every time it happened, the turnout got larger and larger.

My first time seeing this, I had just returned from a course at the Infantry School at CFB Gagetown, a sprawling army base near Fredericton, New Brunswick. My flight home into Toronto’s Pearson Airport was mainly made up of military personnel, most of whom were from the Gagetown based 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, returning to Afghanistan after their mid-tour leave. As I and another reservist were picking up our baggage several people approached us and offered the thank yous which we politely deferred to those headed back to Afghanistan. It was June 23, 2007, and Sgt Christos Karigiannis, Cpl Stephen Bouzane, and Pte Joel Wiebe, killed by a roadside bomb on the 20th, were being brought home. Driving east along Highway 401 home, I noticed the fire trucks on a couple of overpasses, and saw the flags, but I had no idea what I was seeing. Then the cortege passed us coming the other way from Trenton. I suddenly understood.

That night I moved into a new condo we had just bought in Oshawa, not far from the 401, and we made a point of making sure that whenever a family was making the journey down what had come first informally but now legally to be known as the Highway of Heroes, we would be there – to stand, to honour, to bear witness to the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters. We would return many times, never in uniform, never drawing any attention to ourselves, just to join the crowds.

It became even more real to me on the morning of December 5, 2008. That morning I received a phone call informing me that a roadside IED had killed three Canadians, including Cpl Mark MacLaren, who at the time was serving with 1 RCR. Mark, or Chinaman as we knew him, previously served in the same Reserve unit as I did. He had also been one of the Crazy Eights wounded during Op MEDUSA on his first Afghan tour, while still a Reservist. He came home and immediately transferred to the Regular Force, returning to Afghanistan two years later.

I had chatted with him on MSN a couple of weeks before, a brief exchange where he told me about an ambush he’d gotten in. Long after his death, we learned that he was to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions during that ambush, and subsequently, that along with Captain Goddard, he would be having a new Coast Guard ship named after him as well.

I attended Chinaman’s repatriation the following Monday in Trenton, and after his funeral, attended by some 800 people including many from the community who didn’t know him personally but wanted to pay tribute, we boarded buses for Ottawa and Canada’s National Military Cemetery. Ottawa’s firefighters and the public also lined the streets in the same way as the Highway of Heroes, and I then understood what the sight must be like to the families of the fallen – how much it must mean to them.

Around that time calls went out to for Reserve augmentees for 3 RCR BG’s next rotation. Fresh off the final qualification hurdle I had to jump, I put my name in and started the process to get ready to deploy. Around that time I joined twitter with some grand plan to eventually microblog the experience. Just before the work up training period was to start I learned I wouldn’t be going. Life works that way sometimes, and there were some silver linings to the cloud.

Throughout those times, when things started heating up and the faces of young Canadians lost in Afghanistan became sadly common on the front pages of Canadian newspapers, there was a shift in public opinion, a palpable change in how the military was viewed. At the same time there was much debate – how we got into this war, who put us there, to what end, when would we leave, what was the mission about, etc. Not long after the decision was made to move from Kabul to the relatively more dangerous Kandahar, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was replaced by the Conservative Stephen Harper, and many people came to suggest, completely erroneously, that somehow Harper had changed the nature of the mission or was somehow responsible for the casualties. That simply wasn’t true, and served to cloud any rational discussion for quite a while.

What was clear, though, is that regardless of people’s opinion of the mission, they asked questions and took interest – and they started to treat people in uniform very differently, in a way that made me uncomfortable. I now live in a “military” town so it’s not really a novelty to see someone in uniform, but before moving last winter, it was. I remember walking into a Dairy Queen of all places with a friend, both in uniform, to grab some quick dinner – someone in the drive-thru line paid for our dinner having seen us walk in.

There’s been a lot of war weariness, too, especially as casualties mounted and people didn’t see any sign of progress in the media. From people I know who’ve been and seen progress over multiple tours, I am confident that the picture is nowhere near as grim as some might glean merely from media reports – though it’s often noted that the prospects for really sorting things out there are still not great. Dealing with a tribal population with staggering rates of illiteracy and little in the way of a viable economy in most of the country makes the prospect of building a functioning, unifying state very difficult indeed. Add to that the influence of the drug trade and general corruption, and things look bleaker still. I would hypothesize that a generation of Afghans will need to grow up without war and with education before you’ll see any real progress there, but it is possible when you consider what Afghanistan was like before the Soviet invasion.

In the end, it seems our decision is made – combat operations in Kandahar province will wind up this summer, and we’ll pack up and move back to Kabul, shifting from a combat role to training and development of Afghanistan’s security forces. It will still be a mission fraught with risks, but it will be less taxing on the nation in many ways. However, we now need to look at the situation in the world and decide “what next?”, because there certainly are challenges to face abroad that we can make a difference in.

Advertisements

3 comments so far

  1. 24 August 2011 | Funerals on

    […] instructive as a marker for where Australia might head. Canadian public attitudes have evolved with mounting casualties, though opposition to the war remains at similar levels to Australia (58 per cent of Canadians […]

  2. Matthew on

    My cousin was in the crazy eights and was apart of the friendly fire at the firing range! He was ripped up pretty good, but was able to come home! Thank you for this post, it is amazing.

    • Nick on

      Glad you enjoyed it. I myself finally deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and it definitely fleshed out what I knew about the place. I’m glad all the same you stumbled upon this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: