This post touches on three of four books that feature Canada in Afghanistan. It provides my takes on each book and why they are helpful toward understanding the West’s recent departure from Afghanistan.
Like most people, I’ve watched recent events in Afghanistan with some combination of horror and outrage.
Horror, because what’s transpiring is on our computers and TVs is upsetting to watch. The desperation of people trying to leave, the terror of people who cannot escape (particularly the women and girls) and the sheer vividness of certain events.
On the other hand, there is a healthy dose of outrage. Because like most people, it’s abundantly clear that it didn’t have to be this way. While I don’t think leaving Afghanistan was the right thing to do, I do understand why the United States left. But in making a decision to leave, there is no doubt in my mind that the US could have done things very differently with the results being less tragic by several factors of magnitude.
No doubt there are lots of posts or news articles articulating the many things the Biden administration could have done differently, so I’m not going to duplicate those efforts in this post.
What I have been inspired to do is provide a quick overview of a few books I’ve listened to on the conflict in Afghanistan that will help provide context to what we’re seeing on our televisions/phones.
Obviously, because I’m Canadian, three of these books bend in the direction of my country but whether you’re a Canuck or not, I think you’ll get a lot out of each of these books. And not only will you enjoy them, but as mentioned, they will also help to inform/shape your opinion on the events that have transpired in late August 2021. They did for me.
Book Recommendations regarding Afghanistan:
Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army, By Christie Blatchford
By the late and great Christie Blatchford. Just a bit of background on Ms. Blatchford. I think it’s fair to say that she was universally well-regarded as a journalist, but that some of the opinions that came through in her journalism were controversial. Personally, I thought she was spot on about 97% of the time.
In any event, Fifteen Days is a first-hand account of her time embedded with a Canadian battlegroup in Kandahar, Afghanistan. She’s not interested in the overall strategic ongoings of the mission, nor with the West’s larger role in the country. Instead, she’s interested in relating the stories of individual soldiers, several of whom die. It is a raw, powerful, and sometimes profound look into the lives of Canada’s frontline soldiers, the officers who command them, and their families.
Blatchford expertly weaves together the stories of several soldiers that she got to know in the fifteen days she was in-country, but then follows these soldiers back to Canada, where most often, they are interacting with the parents of a fellow soldier who had been killed in action. It is all very Canadian and gripping stuff. The read/listen will also give you a really good feel for the challenges the Canadian Army had in Afghanistan and will give you a solid appreciation for just how alien Afghanistan’s culture is to the western democratic experiment. I highly recommend this read/listen.
This was a first-hand account of a Green Beret who was responsible for training and fighting with front-line soldiers in Afghanistan’s army. It was his third tour in the country (which is saying something all by itself) and the central action of his book is his unit’s participation in Operation Medusa in 2006.
From a Canadian perspective, Major Bradley’s account is fascinating because Operation Medusa was planned and led by Canadian Forces (if memory serves me correctly Blatchford touches on a bit of Medusa in her book). Interestingly, he talks very little about the Canadians and what he does offer is guarded or cryptic. It’s not clear if he’s throwing shade at the Canadians or not. In any event, what he does talk a lot about is the fighting his team of Green Berets and their Afghan allies do while fighting in the various engagements of Medusa, and let me tell you it is riveting bad-ass stuff. The book reads like a Hollywood script.
The Afghan fighters who are working with Bradley’s unit come off well and speak against the notion that Afghanistan’s army wasn’t willing to fight or were cowards. In fact, with the support of the Americans, in this telling at least, they were fierce and determined fighters. Yet, even amongst this determined unit, Bradley identifies duplicity within the Afghan ranks. It is an imperfect fighting force to say the least.
The bottom line with this book is that it is a highly detailed, graphic and perhaps the most vivid account of the biggest battle Canadians have fought in since the Korean War but through the eyes of an American Special Forces unit. If you’re on my site and you’ve read my books, you’ll love Lions of Kandahar. If the soldiers in Canada’s battlegroup did one half the fighting Major Bradley did, they were truly in the shit.
Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle That Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban, By General (Ret.) David Fraser
As I re-read the title of this book in the context of August 2021, mixed emotions hit me. So much effort, resources, and lives were sacrificed and, in the end, Afghanistan was not saved from the Taliban. Sad stuff.
Nevertheless, there are things to say about this book that will help you to understand recent events better, particularly, from a Canadian perspective. Unlike Lions of Kandahar, Operation Medusa is mostly a 5,000-foot examination of the events that led to the operation and operation itself. In this respect, this text compliments Lions of Kandahar and Fifteen Days extremely well.
Fraser is a bureaucrat warrior who in my opinion, is more bureaucrat than warrior. Which is not to take away from the man’s service and achievements as a leader of Canadian soldiers. They are still significant. Nevertheless, I found the portrayal of his leadership of Canada’s military forces in southern Afghanistan to be aloof. No doubt there are advantages to being detached when leading soldiers into battle, but speaking for myself and knowing the type of leadership I like and the leadership that I myself try to project, I found the general’s portrayal off-putting.
This leadership quibble aside, this book is a very good technical overview of the planning of Medusa. And while it did offer some insights into the fighting that took place, I was left hungry for more detail as it pertained to this part of the experience. Thankfully, in her book, Blatchford spends quite a bit of time with the senior officers that were on the ground commanding Canada’s battlegroup and the frontline soldiers. Her novel/reporting delves into many of the missing details regarding the war fighting and is therefore the perfect complement to Operation Medusa.
Unlike the previous three books, this is a work of fiction. Khaled Hosseini is the author of the Kite Runner, the acclaimed bestselling novel. This novel also takes place in Afghanistan but concentrates on the lives of two women over the course of a thirty-year period.
Hosseini is a renown writer. The story flowed, his characters were powerfully written, and his prose was at times magical. I’ll confess that I struggled to get through the story only because of the way women are treated. In a word, their treatment is appalling.
In light of recent real events, this novel takes on a new meaning. Not to spoil anything for you, but there is a cycle of events in the book where women go from being treated terribly to finding some degree of modernity and independence and then back again.
What is terribly sad is that this cycle has once again restarted – all of the progress that women in Afghanistan have made since the early 2000s is out the window. Fifty percent of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million people will once again have to live under dystopian/maddening conditions that are so powerfully rendered by Hosseini in his novel.
I understand that the US could not be in Afghanistan until the end of time and I understand that the funds they were spending on this war annually were not insignificant (approx. $40 billion annually). Most importantly, I understand that I am not American and it was not my government’s soldiers and funding that was being thrown into the bottomless well that was Afghanistan. But in stating all of these qualifications, and after achieving a hard-fought stability, I wonder if these costs weren’t worth it to prevent the recurrence of the nightmare that is so vividly captured in this novel.
A word to anyone who served in Afghanistan
A brief comment on the service of soldiers in Afghanistan. First, thanks for your service. Regardless of your role and whatever country you served with, this was an extremely challenging undertaking. Though Afghanistan is now in the hands of the Taliban, your service in that country was important and does have a legacy for the following reasons:
- You savaged the Taliban and this I suspect will make them think carefully before allowing someone like Bin Laden to set up shop in the future;
- You gave large swaths of women and girls nearly 20 years of basic human rights and dignity . And while this has now been taken away, 20 years is something to be proud of;
- Over the course of 20 years, you gave those that had the means, opportunity, and/or desire to get out of Afghanistan, to leave. In 2017 alone, World Bank data indicates that Afghanistan had a net migration of -314,000 persons. In 2012, it was 512,000. So, while the West was in this country, millions of people would have had the opportunity to make an orderly and hopefully positive move to another country of their choice. That wouldn’t have happened under the Taliban.
- And those are just three outcomes that were position. There are several more to be sure. So, chin up and shoulders back. You did important work in this distant country and you made a difference.
Comments and thoughts are welcome in the comments section below. Or feel free to write to me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing from you and I reply to all correspondence.
Thanks for reading,
Ryan Flannagan (of R.A. Flannagan Writing)
The R.A. Flannagan Writing blog is written by R.A. Flannagan, the author of Take Whiteman: A CANZUK at War Novel, Book 1.
Ryan’s blog is grab bag but tends to focus on defence-related topics, topical items that set off the curmudgeon in Ryan, and updates on his writing projects. If you’re interested in getting regular updates from R.A. Flannagan Writing, whether for Ryan’s writing or blog posts, please sign up here: https://raflannagan.ca/join-ras-newsletter/
Ryan Flannagan is the author of Take Whiteman, A CANZUK at War novel. Visit Ryan’s website: www.raflannagan.ca to learn more about Ryan and his writing.