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.”

 

 

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