Another book about the Canadians in Afghanistan has just come to my attention – Mon Afghanistan by LCol Steve Jourdain
(http://bit.ly/1o4zrlt). I am pleased to hear that Jourdain has brought out this memoir because the mission in Afghanistan – the first full-out combat experience for the Canadian Armed Forces since 1953 – has now faded away in the public eye, except for the ongoing issues about PTSD and veterans’ benefits. Certainly a number of military historians will be working at publishing some definitive works that analyze what happened over there, but we have hit the doldrums between the past, when newspapers posted reports daily from excited journalists, and the future when new memoirs or histories are published to help refresh the memory of the effort Canadians made. The news has now moved on with concerns about conflicts in the Ukraine and in Gaza, and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
At the same time, Canadian soldiers who went to Afghanistan will not easily forget what they experienced. Even those who do not suffer from PTSD will always recall their tours of duty when their military skills were put to the test in violent engagements with armed opponents. To make sure that Afghanistan does not fade away completely, I decided a short time ago to begin writing a book to help Canadians understand what their soldiers went through between 2006 and 2011. So I started interviewing soldiers about their experiences. I was not looking for soldiers who had done some outstanding deed (although some did) nor were they carefully selected based on some grand criteria; all they had to do was have a willingness to talk about what they had done over there. They had all gone willingly and had taken pride in having done their duty.
The book will not be a military history or a detailed analysis of the campaign, but will simply try to provide a record of what a few soldiers who served outside the wire went through. Each chapter will focus on one particular soldier from a different specialty – a chapter each for an infantryman, a combat engineer, a PSYOPS operator, a soldier from an armoured squadron, a mentor from an OMLT, etc. Overall, I hope that this collection will give a spectrum of experiences that will be of interest to the general public.
I now have written or am drafting the accounts telling the stories of:
· Corporal Sean Chard, crew commander of a Coyote armoured reconnaissance vehicle in “D” Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons, operating in Shah Wali Kot
· Corporal Francois Dupère, a PSYOPS operator whose team operating throughout Kandahar province
· “Sam,” an Explosives Ordnance Disposal team leader operating out of FOB Ma’sum Ghar
· Master Warrant Office Richard Stacey, squadron sergeant major of “C” Squadron, Lord Strathcona’s Horse
· Captain Jay Mineault, leader of an Engineer Construction Team based in FOB Ma’sum Ghar
· Captain Robert Peel, leader of an OMLT team in Task Force Zharey
· Captain Simon Mailloux, platoon commander in the 3 R22eR whose company was based in Panjwayi district.
The tentative title of the book is Combat Mission: the Canadian Experience in Afghanistan
Now I know what PSYOPS is, thanks to help from Roto 3-10! The following is an excerpt from my book "Combat Mission," currently in progress:"
Insurgency wars are not new; they have been occurring since ancient times. What is new is the easy access now possible to the latest technology and the insurgents’ readiness in making use of them. Insurgents in Afghanistan have equipped their fighters with cell phones to both coordinate the activities of their groups and to report on ISAF troop movements. They produce videos to broadcast their messages to local viewers and to international audiences over news channels – on YouTube, on Al Jazeera or on their own Internet site. Islamists believe that an attack that is not publicized is an attack that has not succeeded.
Western militaries have been aware for some time that a key aspect of insurgency warfare is the battle to influence people. Throughout the wars of the 20th century, all sides gradually developed the use of psychological operations to influence both the opponents’ military and its population. In both the First and Second World Wars, significant efforts were made to influence enemy populations and military forces by means of psychological operations. In the American military, however, the emphasis on psychological operations (PSYOPS) became formally significant in the Vietnam War when a dedicated psychological operations group comprised of four battalions was established to support combat operations during that conflict. By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, the role played by American PSYOPS units was sufficiently successful that the British military decided to form its own permanent unit and it has taken part in every significant British military operation since then.
The decision to create a permanent PSYOPS capability did not come easily to most militaries. Mandating and training soldiers to carry out a range of activities under the vague term of “psychological operations” was not easy to understand by soldiers who are trained to fight an enemy with fire power. They can ask if the use of sophisticated psychological tools used to sell consumer products be just another form of “brain-washing; or does it resemble the methods used too often by authoritarian regimes; or is it simply a waste of time? But the American and British experience had successful results in Iraq and produced lessons that sharpened the doctrine. Many critics were impressed when, on television news, they saw thousands of Iraqi soldiers readily surrendering to coalition forces.
The Canadian army’s attitude to PSYOPS probably softened in the 1990s as some commanders recognized the need for such methods during their peacekeeping experience in Bosnia, where reducing tensions among different racial groups was a big part of the challenge. After Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo, younger leaders understood that the Canadian Forces were ill-equipped for post-Cold War conflicts. Senior officer recognized that characteristics of conflicts were changing during the latter part of the 20th century, so the Canadian Forces commissioned a study of what would be required by the Canadian military to meet future threats in this new environment. As a result of the recommendations, in November 2003, Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier ordered the Army to develop a PSYOPS capability. The initial group was formed in January 2004; it had an authorized strength of 24 reservists from the Montreal area but so great was the response that, within a few weeks, over 60 personnel were accepted for training. A UK PSYOPS course was given in the summer of 2004 by experienced British PSYOPS personnel, supplemented with contracted courses dealing with technical subjects such as information technology, radio and photography. After a six-month’s probation period, the PSYOPS unit pared itself down to its authorized strength as those candidates that did not meet the PSYOPS standards were returned to their home units. The first PSYOPS section was deployed to Kandahar with the Canadian Multi-National Brigade in Operation Athena Phase 2 in 2006.
The revised edition of Courage Rewarded was published on Friday, 18 October 2013 and is now available directly from me or from Amazon.com. It has many editing changes, with some topics condensed and others expanded. But the main reason for the edition was to include a full chapter on the missions in Afghanistan, thereby completing the record of courage in battle as experienced by Canadian soldiers in all the wars from South Africa in 1900. The chapter presents as much as possible of the Afghan missions in 35 pages but I think it satisfactorily encapsulates the whole story .
This revised edition should have come out over a year earlier. Unfortunately, it was held up as DND delayed announcing the final awards until the end of 2012, which seemed to me to be an extraordinarily long time following the end of the combat mission in July 2011. At the same time,, I must thank the Directorate of Honours and Recognition who assisted me without hesitation by providing the citations, statistics and answering questions regarding the Military Valour Decorations for Afghanistan. I also want to thank those soldiers who agreed to be interviewed by me to make sure I had the right picture of the challenges faced by them when under fire.
For an exceprt from the book about awards of Military Valour Decorations, please go to http://www.couragerewarded.com/afghan_awards.html
The combat mission is now fading away in the news and in many peoples' memories, but I hope the book satisfies those who have only had a limited number of books or newspaper articles to help them understand what happened over there. Of course, I could only use open source references since the war diaries will be off limits for years to come. As the full story comes out in coming years, the picture will no doubt change as to whether we made a difference there or wjhether we opposed the insurgency as well as we could have. There is no doubt we did the best we could under the circumstances, and that Canadians had no hesitation in volunteering to serve. But until then, I offer the narrative in my book to those who are intereseted.
On the Night Defence of Ma’sum Ghar, 19 August 2006.
Selected quotes from the book In their Own Words :
Major Mike Reekie and his LAV had been deployed by Major Michael Wright to cover the rear of 3 Platoon, Alpha Company, 1 RCR, which was holding the high ground and northern slopes of Ma’sum Ghar. Suddenly, Reekie and his crew realized that they were being attacked by infiltrating Taliban fighters coming from what they thought was the rear.
"Sergeant Holley was my 2IC and the company weapons commander. We were taking turns firing the chain gun on the LAV with the other guy up with the NVG on and firing the pintle-mounted machine gun. So that way we directed the main armament down the road engaging the targets that Corporal Chevrefils was observing. They were advancing in section strength. We would switch one-up and one-down because you can only look at the thermal site (sic) in the LAV for about half an hour before our eyes start to get a bit buggy. You need to take a break so that you don’t miss something. The two of us were working as one in the turret of the vehicle. In the back of the vehicle I had my other three soldiers – Corporal Nigel Gregg, Private Timmy Wilkins and Corporal Will Elliott. Private Wilkins had a general purpose machine gun on the left sentry hatching engaging an enemy fire base about 75 metres to our left off the road…. Corporal Gregg and Corporal Elliott were on the right side with their C7s engaging guys as they swept around the mountain and into the compounds trying to flank us on that side. So they were picking guys off on that part. Cohesion was the key. Everybody was working together…. It was a good tight team. "
(In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2009. Canadian Defence Academy Press, Kingston, 2013. Page 177)
On the Reasons for Valour Awards in Afghanistan
Selected quotes from the book In Their Own Words.
Sergeant Tower received his decoration for his actions at the White School on 3 August 2006.
"When someone goes down, the next guy takes over. I feel that if I could I’d give a medal to every guy in my platoon that day….Everyone one of them did an amazing job that day and they all own a piece of that medal. They all contributed. I don’t’ see it so much as a medal for me as for all of 9 Platoon.
"A lot of people congratulate you on a medal. But for anyone to get awarded any sort of decoration, something really bad has to happen. If everything is going good, no one is getting a medal. When you read any of these citations, things were pretty much not going as planned. It’s always something going bad."
(In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2009. Canadian Defence Academy Press, Kingston, 2013. Page 155.)
It took me some time, but I've finally got the final numbers right for awards of Decorations for Military Valour (MVDs) as a result of the Afghan combat mission. Thanks to the great cooperation of Major Carl Gauthier of the Directorate of Honours and Recognition in DND, the figures in my data base reconcile with his totals. So now I can proceed to complete the new chapter on Afghanistan for the revised edition of my book Courage Rewarded.
So, for the entire period of Operations Opollo and Athena from January 2001 to July 2011, the numbers of awards to Canadian Forces personnel, from the army, air force and navy, were the following –
These awards were the first to be made since the new Canadian Honours System was instituted because they can only be made for actions in the face of enemy fire. Unfortunately, during peacekeeping operations, there was no declared “enemy” so, in Bosnia, when Canadian soldiers came under fire from hostile local forces and risked their lives to keep the opposing sides apart, no MVDs could be awarded. Courageous acts were thankfully recognized by other awards such as the Meritorious Service Cross or Medal of Bravery, and the recipients should be equally proud of that recognition.
The publicly-available citations for the MVDs can all be found in the annual reports from the Directorate of Honours and Awards. While the descriptions are brief, they give a fascinating glimpse into the intensity of combat that our men and women faced in Afghanistan.
It’s interesting to note that the journalist Murray Brewster has questioned the absence of the Canadian Victoria Cross being awarded amongst the decorations announced ( http://bit.ly/Xx4zml ). He muses that the reason may have been political; or perhaps just the usual reluctance of higher commanders to view acts of courage by most soldiers as being other than just doing their expected duty. It is an interesting and worthy question by a journalist who spent many months in the combat zone. He is correct that often such reasons have influenced awards in the past.
But I think the reason for not having any Victoria Cross announcement is more that the standard for the Victoria Cross is extraordinarily high; and reference cannot be made to similar awards in past wars when the standard was not as stringent. Many of the awards of the Star of Military Valour are impressive; but many Mentions in Despatches are also impressive, at that third level of honour. It seems like the standard for all levels has ratcheted up with each generation as the intensity of combat has changed. Perhaps it is best that we do not have a Victoria Cross winner because many of those were made posthumously.
The combat mission against insurgents in Afghanistan was strange and unique. From all accounts the awards made were appropriate and deserved.
Prominent journalist Matt Gurney published an editorial in the National Post entitled “The Last Big War” (http://natpo.st/11iKemY) in which he argues that a massive military campaign (a “big war”) like the 2003 invasion of Iraq will no longer happen. Conflicts will now be moreas a result of insurgencies, which will be opposed by smaller, specially-trained military units that follow up drones to overcome opposition forces. Many other experts, including noted generals and military theorists, have argued this thesis as well.
Call me cynical if you will, but I cannot help believe that such a dramatic forecast stretches the lessons of history too far. War has been with us for as long as history has been recorded. We would hope we have learned lessons sufficiently that we would not engage in massive conflicts in this modern age. Weapons now are more deadlier than ever, not even considering the terrible thought of using nuclear weapons. But politics and conflict are the outcome of human interaction and drives, and human psychology is little changed. Hate, fear, anger and lust for power still burst out when leaders are blinded by their inner impulses.
Forecasts of the end of war were common at the end of the 19th century. The most famous book on this subject was perhaps Is War Now Impossible? By Ivan Bloch, published in 1899 (http://bit.ly/15qygo2 ). Bloch argued very rationally that the industrialization of European society and the development of weapons of great destructive power at that time would make future wars impossible. He believed that the power of weapons developed at the end of the 19th century would make it impossible for armies to achieve decisive results, and stalemate would occur. Despite his confident analysis, a massive war did break out fifteen years later, and it was followed by others throughout the 20th century.
Yes, we are in an era where insurgency or unconventional warfare is effectively challenging conventional forces. Revolutionary changes are taking place in weapons, technology and communications that have made past tactics obsolete. So modern military forces must adapt their training and methods to deal with both asymmetric warfare and the tools of war. However, power politics and national ambition have not gone away. Author Dan Gardner, in his book Future Babble, (http://bit.ly/15qNXeT ) has nicely shown how forecasts in all spheres of life (besides the military) have proven to be false – the more confident the forecaster, the more unlikely that he has not got it right.
So what to do? We still have to analyze and use our best estimates of what kind of conflict is likely to take place on the international stage, and what role Canada can usefully play within the international community. For now, asymmetric warfare is the most obvious type of conflict taking place. But one must remain prepared for something bigger and more conventional; the 21st century still has a long time to play itself out and large areas of the world are very unstable now.
The conclusion: we still need a Canadian Armed Forces that is well trained, agile and ready to serve against whatever challenges arise. Semper Paratus, if you will.
I know the definition of Psyops but nothing much more. But I also know that it is an essential element of military action in 21st century warfare. I am excited that one soldier who served in that function in Aghanistan has agreed to talk to me and I will learn more on a trip to Montreal.
If all goes well, he will take up a chapter in my new book, adding his experience to the rest of the group that I will be writing about. The group of eight Canadian soldiers who have agreed to speak to me will present a fascinating cross-section of experiences: regular infantry, armour, artillery, OMLT, POMLT, now Psyops. A few earned decorations for military valour, but most just did their duty - and that was dramatic enough. Some were injured - serioulsy - but I admire the reslience they are showing even today. The Canadian public needs to know more about what they did, before news about Afghanistan (or at least the Canadian role there) fades away completle under the barrage of Arab springs, Syrian civil wars, Malian insurgecies, and who knows what next!
I had the privilege to speak to a former officer of D Squadron, RCD, who helped me understand more thoroughly what happened during their tour in Afghanistan in 2008. They basically held the northern approaches to Kandahar City with only two troops of Coyotes and one infantry recce platoon. That's a big task to ask such a small force to do. But that's the most that the 3 RCR Battle Group could afford, as the main force struggled with the Taliban in Panjwayi and Zharey Districts.
The Taliban were not pleased that this small Canadian force operating out of FOB Frontenac would insert itself in the middle of their transit route down which they moved supplies and fighters from the north to threaten Kandahar City. In fact, the insurgents had only recently made it clear that they intended to continue to threaten the city when, following the Sarposa Prison Break, they were reported as having flooded fighters into Arghandab District from Khakrez and Uruzgan Provinces. Faced with a rapid Canadian and ANA reaction on that occasion, however, the insurgents rapidly withdrew .
During D Squadron's entire tour, the Taliban concentrated on trying to intimidate the Canadians, launching an aggressive IED campaign against their daily vehicle patrols. The resuilts were not pleasant, with four Canadian troopers killed and many injured. That was difficult to absorb out of a small force of just over one hundred personnel. But the officers and senior NCOs of the unit were determined that they would not let the Taliban lock them up in the FOB where they would become even more of a target. It inspired MWO Shawn Mercer to reflect that after each IED hit, the men and women of his unit kept going with the mission. "What inspired me daily, and to this day, is that even after the worst of days, they got up on their horse and went out on the very next day. You can't put a price on that. And if I could get evey one of them medal, I would."
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history