Paul Gross has done a good job in creating a film on the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar. (in my humble opinion). No, I have not been to Afghanistan; but I know enough about the mission that makes me believe Gross captured the essential elements enough to show Canadians what our soldiers were up against in Kandahar. It was a war where we were immersed in a strange culture, where your allies were sometimes your enemies, where we did not always understand the underlying motives, with a heavy responsibility to accomplish a very difficult task; and where “winning” could be hard to define.
You have to keep in mind that this is a dramatic film, not a documentary, so not all the pieces will line up with reality. But that’s the nature of film. However, the script is good – the plot moves ahead at a good pace with several threads that come together at the end. The main overall theme is the differing perceptions between intelligence officer Pete Mitchell (Paul Gross) and sniper team leader Warrant Office Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland). For Sanders, it’s very simple: do your duty, kill the enemy, and get the job done. But Mitchell from his higher perch sees that the political effects of any action are more important than getting rid of the enemy in the gunsight. He tries to pass this message on to Sanders but this does not work out so well at a critical moment.
The tribal conflicts and Pashtun customs become the main dramatic tension in the background throughout as the plot develops. These become apparent at the outset as a Canadian sniper team is cornered by a Taliban force and they try to save themselves by bursting into a village compound for protection. The oldest Afghan in the resident family sees that the Canadians need help and accepts them as guests, despite the gunfire that is peppering the building. We are then introduced to the code of Pashtunwali as this dignified elder talks the Taliban into breaking off their attack and leaving the sniper team alive. Pashtunwali arises however in later incident without such a favourable ending: a farmer from one tribe cannot pay the levy on his property to the warlord owner (does he represent Ahmed Wali Karzai?); children are seized in recompense; this action violates the honour of the farmer’s extended family; and honour must be restored by violence. All reflect reality in Afghanistan.
Besides the script, the casting and photography are also strong. Poor casting often offsets other qualities in a film but, in this case, all the actors look and talk like what you would expect Canadian soldiers are like. Reality is emphasized by the use of realistic sets and equipment, certainly with cooperation from DND in Ottawa and PPCLI and others in Shilo. There are some fascinating shots of LAVs warming up in a FOB, and I really wonder how Gross accomplished one scene where his vehicle join a convoy of military supply trucks heading into Kandahar City. Some scenes were actually shot in Kandahar, but those were just establishing shots; while the more complex scenes with the actors were done in Jordan where the terrain was similar. Gross has to be given credit for managing to put all these pieces together, blending them seamlessly into a flowing story.
The most impressive contribution to reality however must come from one of the actors that Gross somehow managed to obtain. Niamatullah Arghandabi plays the role of a bearded, turbaned former mujahidin who earned a renowned reputation after fighting the Russians during their occupation of the country in the 1990s. The name of this character is unknown to the Canadians and, because he was always hard to corner, he has come to be known simply as “The Ghost.” In the plot, rumours reach Mitchell that the Ghost has returned to Kandahar from Pakistan and Pete seeks to find out why this fabled Afghan fighter has returned. Arghandabi plays this role perfectly, giving a calm, confident manner no matter what crisis is erupting around him, a picture of what one might imagine a proud, dignified Pashtun elder would be.
Sure the film can be criticized. But these are small details and the film overall is really a worthy effort in representing the main themes of what our soldiers experienced in Afghanistan.
Photojournalist Louie Palu has made a film that holds nothing back in showing the shock and horror of combat in Afghanistan. In his tours between 2006 and 2010, Louie made sure he was where the action was and, as a result, was able to capture dramatic footage. This is the source for his film that had its premier showing at the Canadian War Museum on Sept. 24, 2015. The film is really a kind of visual essay made up of both video and still photos designed to show what the war was like for everyone caught up in it. The extended scenes of combat at Pashmul, Nakhonay and one other location do not need narraative to powerfully convey the tension of soldiers moving frantically along a firing line with orders yelled above deafening noise, punctuated by air stirkes on enemy positions causing gigantic clouds of smoke and dust to rise high above. The scenes are both visually and aurally stunning.
Aside from these combat scenes, there are a number of segments which some audienes may find hard to watch. At the begining, Louie shows the results of a Taliban bomb emplanter who made a mistake. His bomb blew up prematurely, killing and dismembering him. The evidence of what this can do to a body is clearly shown in ugly detail. Later in the film, when embedded in a a US m,edical unit, Louise shows scenes of children who have been wounded, with medical technicians trantically tring to give them first aid while a medevac helicoper lands in clouds of dust.
Not all the film is set in Afghanistan. Louie also has visuals from Toronto where he attempts to show his own personal reactions on returning from a war zone to normal life, always difficult for those who have been in conflict.
Louie Palu made this film to help people in Canada and the US understand what the war was like, and to show to some extent why some returning soldiers have trouible leaving their experience behind. I think he has achieved his goal better than most other films dealing with combat that I have see. The fillm will be shown to the general public on October 6, 2015 at 9 p.m. on CBC's Documentary Channel.
The memories of that mission are quickly fading away in the public eye as new dangers arise in the world. My book is meant to preserve some of those memories, as I write about the experiences of seven soldiers who I think give a broad sample of what it was like to be deployed to Afghanistan. These men are a cross-section of the combat arms, including infantry, armour, combat engineers and the new specialty of psychological operations, all of which played important roles in fighting the Taliban. By telling their stories, I hope that their experiences will give readers an appreciation of what the combat mission meant to men and women who went outside the wire. They are
I was particularly pleased that Dundurn decided to publish my book because, ever since it began in 1972, it has had a focus on Canadian history and biography and has continually published books on Canadian military history. while it now publishes a broad range of titles on Canadian fiction and non-fiction, I feel my book falls well within its original purpose - helping to preserve Canadian history.
The book is expected to be published before Remembrance Day, 2016.
I managed to contact Ronald and found him to be extremely courteous and helpful, and I eventually published an article abaout him in the 1997 issue of Canadian Military History magazine.
I soon forgot about the article but, the next summer, I was surprised to receive a telephone call from a Signals Corps veteran who gave me some praise for the article, He explained that he had known Ronald in the post-war military when they were serving at Canadian Forces Base Kingston, but no one had known Ronald had won the DCM. The caller told me that, because of my article, Ronald had just been invited to be on the saluting stand for the march past during that summer’s Signal Corps annual reunion at Kingston, and I was invited to join them. I could not make it for the ceremony, however, and regretted that I missed seeing the honour paid to Ronald Routledge that day.
Unfortunately, Ronald’s health deteriorated soon after that and he passed away. But in 2010, the memory of his service in the Second World War was made permanent when one of the buildings of the Communications and Electronics School at Canadian Forces Base Kingston was named for him.
I've gone all out this fall to market my book Courage Rewarded, with five book signings and four presentations. It has been tiring, and I am glad it is over now.
I can now get back to writing what I hope will be the last chapter of my new book. That chapter deals with 3 Vandoos and Capt Simon Mailloux with TF 3-07 The interviews and research were all done some time ago, but this marketing effort interrupted it. Now I have to go through the agony of getting my thoughts back together and getting over that initial writer's block that happens with each chapter. But I am anxious to get going because I think it shoudl be an interesting story.
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
During a visit to Esprit de Corps Magazine's offices just before Christmas, I learned that the magazine was in need of an article for their next edition. No problem - I could easily select an excerpt from my revised edition of Courage Rewarded which, with minor editing, could make an excellent article on courage in the Second World War.
I was really pleased with the result and I hope all the readers of the January 2013 issue were also pleased. In this excerpt, I write that it is widely accepted that loyalty to the primary group - an infantry setion or tank crew - is most often the key factor motivating an act of courage. Bonds are created between these men for which they are ready to sacrifice their life when in danger. I agree, but I also argue that it is not the only factor. One of the other very important factors is a soldier's sense of pride and personal honour. I write:
"As a social animal, man requires the respect of his peers and without this his entire being is called into question. S.L.A. Marshall believed that, among combat soldiers, “fear is general among men [but] men are commonly loath that their fear will be expressed in specific acts which their comrades will recognize as cowardice…. Personal honour is the one thing valued more than life itself by the majority of men.”. Jean-Charles (Charly) Forbes of Le Regiment de Maisonneuve strongly believed in this sense of personal honour in courageous soldiers, stating in one of his communications to me that:
The power of pride is beyond limits, even to the point of temerity… I believe a good corporal would never behave in a way that would be seen as a failure in front of his men. That is true of a sergeant, and a lieutenant. Circumstances will therefore provide opportunities for showing pride. Remember the youngster who says ‘Look ma, no hands!’ Being on stage, I believe, has something to do with it."
Charly Forbes used the motivating power of personal honour to solve a problem when one of his men refused to participate in the attack on the causeway to South Beveland in November 1944. Forbes knew the man was not a coward since he had been a good soldier all the way from Normandy. In pondering how to deal with the situation, he gave the man a choice – he put the question as to what do with the recalcitrant to the other men: “If your comrades give me permission to send you to the rear, I will; if they tell me to shoot you, I will carry out their wishes … What do you say boys?” The men replied, “Send him to the rear because he is no good anyway.” With this condemnation of his character, the soldier reacted angrily and declared, “I’ll show you who I am. I am going, and watch yourselves!” The man performed well in the attack and kept on going until he was later wounded.
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.
With the revised edition of Courage Rewarded just released a few days ago, my book signing tour at Chapters stores is now on a rush to get going for the few weeks left before they close such things for the Xmas shopping season. My schedule is:
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.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history