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Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart January 1, 2014

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Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart

By Dan Davidson

December 11, 2013

– 894 words –

 

The dogs

 

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

Our War in Afghanistan


Alfred A. Knopf
By Graeme Smith

298 pages

$32.00

I haven’t actually met Graeme Smith, but he became a Facebook friend of mine after I assisted the Writers Trust of Canada in helping to raise the public profile of the contest for the. I photographed the cover of the book, which they supplied me from the list of finalists, against the backdrops of a number of iconic Dawson places, including the London, Service and Berton sites.

Even before it was announced that Smith had won the prize, he had seen the pictures and requested to connect with me. It’s been interesting reading his occassional postings from Afghanistan, where he currently works as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. A fairly recent post commented on an event that occurred during his return to Kabul.

“Just arrived back in Kabul. My colleague Sharifullah Sharaf says he will slaughter a sheep to celebrate our good luck: on the way to Gardez, flying over Logar province, our white UN helicopter was hit with a .762 round which passed through the cabin – not hitting anybody – and lodged near a small fuel tank. The bullet was 10 centimetres away from causing a problem.”

He says his understated reaction wasn’t one of bravery because no one in the chopper knew how close they were to dying until after they had arrived safely at their destination.

I was reading this book at the time and thought that this seemed like a reflection of the whole problem with the Afghan conflict.

Some years ago now I read a book about the history of conflicts in this region. The British called their efforts in the area the Great Game and reputations were made and lost there. The Russians learned the hard way that the place could not be subdued the way they had done in contiguous parts of the world.  The Americans were instructed once again, and once again failed to learn, the lessons they should have learned in so many other states where they financed the anti-Soviet forces only to have their protégés turn out to be problems equally as bad as the regimes they had aided them in toppling.

Smith concludes that the Western powers in Afghanistan have never understood the nature of the place, the fractiousness of the population, the degree to which they were seen as invaders, and the amount of corruption among members of the current elected government.

When a bomb or a drone kills the wrong people, or even when it kills the right ones and just a few innocents, the Afghans do not view it as “collateral damage”, that sanitized vocabulary of modern warfare. No, they see it as a personal affront, and will avenge it with a persistence that we in North America tend to find only in the tales of the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Black Donnellys.

Smith takes us through his life on assignment for the Globe and Mail during the war, beginning in 2005 when he was a shiny new war correspondent full of excitement at the idea that an international force was actually going to go into the mess there and clean it up, “bring the whole basket of civilization” to the state. He arrived during the period when the prevailing theory was that throwing enough troops, ordnance and money at the problem (the first two parts of that equation quaintly termed “surges”) would produce the desired effect: no more Taliban and a transformation of the country into something like a recognizable democratic state.

By the end of his time there he had realized that “Our attempts to set up a moderate Afghan administration gave birth to a regime that resembled neither a fully democratic government nor a group capable of ruling its entire territory.”

The message is not remarkably different from that found in Michael McLear’s 1980s documentary on Viet Nam, The 10,000 Day War. Afghanistan was once described as the USSR’s Viet Nam, but during its 4000 plus days (and counting) it has turned out to be pretty much the same experience for everyone involved in it.

The book’s title comes from an anecdote on page 65, an example of how war hardens well meaning man and leaves them with memories that might begin to account for some recent suicides among veterans.

Aware that the Muslim Taliban did not like to leave their dead behind, but collected them for quick and proper burial services, some soldiers staked out some dead bodies as bait and waited for the Taliban to come and claim them. It didn’t work and later the corpses were devoured by wild dogs.

“The soldiers casually joked about it afterward; in our of my audio recordings an officer sounds casual about it. ‘We hit a couple of guys over there,’ he said. ‘Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now.’”

In addition to the Weston Award, Smith’s book has been nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s a depressing read, but well worth your time. Expect things to get worse over there, though we’ll probably hear less about it as our presence is withdrawn.

-30-

 

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