The Savage War: inside the untold

“It’s occurred to me more than once that you have to be either slightly touched or insensibly determined to want to put the words “war correspondent” on your CV.”

I guess that makes me insensibly determined.

As someone who just spent more than a year invested in military stories and embedding on three exercises with the Canadian Forces; putting down war correspondent on my resume seems like a natural next step. And after signing a total of 25 waivers and next of kin papers in that same time span, I can related to Murray Brewster, author of The Savage War: The untold battles of Afghanistan, when he writes: “It’s funny how you don’t ‘think’ about ‘it’ when you are signing all of the papers and liability waivers that the government and your employer shove in front of you.” (p.3)

It being death.

The book is the story of his time as a war correspondent in Afghanistan for the Canadian Press; and the title is far-reaching. The “untold battles” Brewster refers to are fought not only on Afghan soil, but also parliament hill. To understand a war, Brewster not only had to deal with the politics of the media tent – in which there are many, and the military doesn’t like to speak much – but also the issues back home.

Issues handled by people who have no real concept of the Afghan war environment.

Choosing what “works” and what “doesn’t” in this book is difficult because each part lends itself to another. When speaking to other readers, one complaint is the large amount of acronyms.

Yes, military acronyms can make you jaded as a writer – and Brewster himself isn’t a fan: “…Regional Command South – known affectionately in this acronym-laced hell as RC-South.”

LAV, 2IC, NATO, COC, RSM, BS, CFC, FOB, ISAF – at least Brewster was kind enough to explain these at the start of the book, but keeping up with the ABC’s can be struggle if you’re not used to reading them and can understand what they mean.

But now I want to focus on the good; the first of which is the overarching message that nothing beats being there. This book, now another title in the canon of military history, tells a story no journalist sitting at a bureau in Ottawa could ever write.  It comes down to the details, moments in time captured from the field.

“People get torn up in different ways by Kandahar, some obvious, some not so obvious. The dead you can see. You know they’re there, along with the wounded. It’s evident. It’s real, sometimes too real. Talk to any of the guys who washed blood out the back of a LAV or picked up pieces of a friend after a bombing and you encounter a whole different kind of real.” p.210

And it’s this “other” real that makes up the book. The real we as the general public are closed off to – given only snippets of through the eyes of a camera lens.

While reading I noticed similarities to the documentary Desert Lions by Lt – Col. Mike Vernon. He was embedded in Afghanistan as well – but as a soldier with the job of producing a documentary that came to be funded by the Army. It follows the highs and lows of a small platoon of soldiers, stationed at a post far off from Kandahar Air Field (the media haven). See full documentary below.

Vernon came in to speak with our class about the making of this documentary, saying “part of me wants Canadians to see a wounded soldier.” The reality is, what the media gives us is often a watered down version. Refreshingly, Vernon told us, almost all of his hour-long documentary rough cut remained the same ; the Army wanted the story as is, with all the soldiers’ personality and flare (which is often hidden).

The climax of Desert Lions is the explosion of an IED (Improvised Explosion Device) set off while soldiers are on patrol. It’s a road they’ve travelled numerous times and somehow, someone was able to set it up without anyone seeing.

Throughout The Savage War, Brewster touches on the mental toll the randomized explosions took on the soldiers. This sentiment was echoed during an interview with a soldier:

“About two weeks ago, I walked past an anti-personnel mine, like within a foot,” he said, holding up his hands to emphasize the distance. “It’s easy to let your guard down because you’ve seen an area over and over. The area of the mine was one I walked down countless times. These guys are sneaky and you’ve got to stay sharp.” p.128

But it wasn’t just the field moments that made this book – it was the context. Perhaps Brewster was aiming too high to give a perfectly rounded view of the war, but I’m impressed and inspired by how he tried.

Access of information request after request is documented and brought up in relevancy throughout the book. Brewster even uses cables from WikiLeaks to provide context to the book – and add to the “untold” mystique of the Afghan war.

My favourite chapter in the book titled “A Dangerous Life” gives a sneak peek into the life of an embedded journalist. He talks about how the motley crew of journalists all had their reasons for being there, and that “all had unfinished business with that place.” (p.316). Having spent so much time in and out of Afghanistan, Brewster conveys toward the end of the book the feeling of the public, one with which I can certainly relate.

“A sort of collective amnesia took hold, a grey, foggy recollection. People knew the war was coming to an end, they just didn’t know how or when.” p.315

I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to see this war you’ve paid so much attention to, get lost in a country full of blind people. Blind to the actualities of war, and blind to the exhausting toll it’s taken on everyone. And then there’s the idea of purpose – purpose as a journalist: “as journalists, sir, we are supposed to help the people, not get them killed.” (Khan, Brewster’s fixer,p.218).

But how much can we do? Telling stories is within our power, but help is a fickle thing. For example, Kevin Carter was constantly bombarded with the question of “did you help the starving child?” after he snapped his Pultizer-winning photo in Sudan. The guilt of not knowing what to do eventually led him to suicide.

Instead, Brewster makes this sentiment, which is more manageable and speaks to us as readers to engage with what has been shared:

“If this book makes you pause for a moment in the day-to-day hubbub to reflect on the events of the last few years – even for a short moment – then it will truly have been worth the effort.”




A culture of pride

“I saw the sniffers on Main Street and asked ‘are these my people?’”

Colleen Simard is speaking to a class of journalists about finding herself and her Aboriginal culture. She had trouble understanding where she was going when she didn’t know where she’d come from.

“There isn’t enough Aboriginal stories out there,” says Simard, who is herself a graduate of the Creative Communications program at Red River College and pens an “Ask an Indian” column.

What Simard suggests is a disconnect between the Aboriginal representations we see in the media – mainly focused on crime and various abuses – and the actual culture. In a circle of students, she shared a beautiful smudge ritual with the group and we each poured the sage smoke over our bodies and thanked our creator.

I’ve never had the honour of experiencing such an amazing ritual, and it’s something most of the class hadn’t even heard of before.

The reason it was so beautiful is how organic it felt, not some stuffy made-for-TV spectacle, and Simard agrees: “these rituals come out for special events, but why not everyday?”

In many ways, this was exemplified by the 2010 Vancouver Olympics: in the video below, journalist Tim Lawrence talks about the Olympics’ use of the Inukshuk in its logo. It’s a symbol of welcoming and peace, and paired with the Aboriginal dancers in the opening ceremonies, promotes an image that all is balanced and inclusive in Canadian society. But accordingly to the video, none of Canada’s athletes are Aboriginal.

What I struggle with is why it is so hard for Canadian culture to provide room for Aboriginal culture. In many ways, this still stems from Residential Schools. While Aboriginal people are still healing from the legacy of trauma these institutions left on many, those behind the schools (for lack of a better word we’ll say Europeans) are also dealing with a legacy that needs to be accounted for.

The legacy of racism and ignorance.

The ignorance part is an easy one to skip over. Perceptions of Aboriginal culture are often formed in very black and white terms. For example, I always assumed most reserves are horrible and that indigenous communities don’t like it there. Why I thought this, I’m not sure – all the CBC specials and newspaper reports on squalid conditions perhaps; but then Simard told me this:

“Reserves aren’t all bad – it gives a place for our community, and it insulates us from racism.”

I couldn’t understand the last part; are we just supposed on rest on our laurels and say racism toward the indigenous can’t be fixed, let’s all stay apart? Or is it that these communities are enriching because it’s a collection of people rejoicing in their culture, a culture torn at the seams by mandated assimilation.

It was not until I went up to the Northwest Territories to the town of Gameti – a place of 300 indigenous people, I noticed a difference between the Aboriginal people of the north, and those I see in Winnipeg. These are proud people, whose culture hangs on their sleeve and they are so happy to share with you experiences and stories without hesitation.

In this town, people share a balance of westernized lifestyle, driving large trucks and wearing non-traditional clothing. But they still share a distinct connection to their roots, and none more so than the Canadian Rangers, who trap animals, cut wood and cook animals the way people living on the land have been doing for centuries.

Joe Black, Elder Canadian Ranger

One Elder Ranger I met, Joe Black, is 78 and his joy was passing on his teaching to young males and females in the community. He was living – “very happy” he told me – on the land just like he had from the time he was born in 1935 to when he bought a house in the 80’s.

The children I met have the same hopes and dreams as any child, and no one there to undercut these dreams. I spoke with people at the health clinic and the stereotypical “Aboriginal problems” experienced in the south aren’t pervasive: alcoholism, suicide, unemployment. People work in industry or by selling furs.

In so many ways Gameti is an untouched gem, and that’s why it works.

This is not a usual blog post, I don’t have some conclusion I feel strongly about. As an immigrant Canadian, I love seeing all cultures more than applauded, accepted. And not just making room for, but including this in the country we share. If Gameti is any indication, cultural pride promotes healthy people in spirit and mind, it promotes opportunities – the kind where children of any origin can have dreams of being in the Olympics – and it promotes understanding: something one blog post can only begin to chip at.


Media in the Military

While it may seem I’ve been an inactive blogger, I am here today to prove just the opposite.

This here budding reporter has been blogging everyday on my Independent Professional Project website:

It all started when I spent my spring break in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories with the soldiers from the Arctic Response Company Group. For ten days I went on the snowy and icy roads from Yellowknife to Gameti, involved in their daily duties as soldiers.

Some of my favourite moments came when doing a walking patrol in Gameti, a town of 300 people. Everyone drives trucks, taking pictures through their windshields, and they smile and wave – even cheering “we’re your number one fans.” Those of course are the ones excited to see us there.

Others watch silently, forming their own thoughts of our troops behind their weathered eyes.

We also learned how to hunt and fish from elders who have lived on the lands for more than 75 years, and understand true wilderness survival.

Lft Donna Riguidel and I after my IPP Presentation March 9, 2012

These experiences are all chronicled on my IPP blog, along with my biography and links to the 38 Canadian Brigade Group newsletter I write for and design.

I also posted my video, slideshow and speech I presented at the Convention Centre on March 9, 2012 in front of my peers, instructors, family and clients.

The progression of this project has truly been worth the very positive responses I’ve received on Facebook, Twitter and the blog itself.  With over 1,100 views since it launched Friday, during my IPP presentation speech, my blog is being seen across Canada and the United States.

Recently The Western Sentinel, the Army newspaper for Western Canada, has contacted me to say it’s interested in publishing my work.

The outcome of this work was far from my mind when I had to actually experience the exercise; often I was cold, tired and in pain. But I feel so much stronger for it.

So if you’re thinking I don’t blog, try following Media in the Military – I’m posting daily articles from my time up north until they’re all posted. In total, I wrote 13 articles and put together 4 photo essays.

But I will continue releasing blog posts of other events featured in the March issue of The Brigade. 

%d bloggers like this: