FULL DISCLOSURE: I was asked by Dundurn Press if I was interested in a review copy of the book reviewed below, and I agreed, saying there was no guarantee about how I would review the book.
ROTOs 1 through 10,
Seven different battle views
Of what fighting’s like.
“What is is like to go into combat … in Afghanistan?”
This is what author T. Robert Fowler (this one, not, as he reminded me in an e-mail, the chap who was kidnapped in Africa in 2008) aims to do via his latest book, “Combat Mission Kandahar” (Dundurn Press, August 2016 – also available at Amazon.ca in paperback or e-book format).
Fowler tips his hat to some books already out there on Canadians in Afghanistan (like “Contact Charlie”; “Kandahar Tour”; “The Patrol” and “Fighting for Afghanistan: A Rogue Historian at War”), as well as to some journalists (like Murray Brewster and Brian Hutchinson), but he says these only look at the war from individual points of view — “small segments of the whole picture”, in his words.
Fowler’s combination of open-source research and detailed interviews paint a broader AND more granular picture of what different types of soldiers did during Rotations (ROTOs) 1 through 10 of Operation Athena, Phase 2, between 2006 and 2011. This is the phase he says “came to be called “the combat mision” as Canadian battle groups engaged in a deadly multi-year war of counterinsugency in Kandahar Province”.
The book starts with a detailed chronological account of the key events and context “the combat mission,” and a chapter explaining counterinsurgency — to oversimplify, how troops help court the locals as part of letting the Afghan government do its job while giving the Taliban less chance to intimidate said locals. Fowler then shares the stories of seven soldiers representing a range of ranks, jobs and times in theatre (the ranks are those they held during the events described in the book):
- Captain Jay Mineault, a combat engineer deployed during ROTO 10 (October 2010-July 2011);
- Corporal Francois Dupéré, a psychological operations (PSYOPS) specialist deployed during ROTO 7 (February-August 2009);
- Corporal Sean Chard, a Coyote survellance/reconnaisance vehicle crew commander deployed during ROTO 6 (August 2008-February 2009);
- Sergeant “Sam,” a combat engineer specializing in dealing with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) during ROTO 2 (August 2006-February 2007). He’s no identified any further because Fowler says such specialists who’ve been to a war zone “do not publicly reveal their names to avoid repercussions in Canada”;
- Captain Rob Peel, an Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT) team leader during ROTO 5 (February-August 2008);
- Master Warrant Officer (MWO) Richard Stacey, an armoured unit Squadron Sergeant Major during ROTO 7; and
- Lieutenant Simon Mailloux (Wikipedia bio in French), an infantry platoon leader during ROTO 4 (August 2007-February 2008).
While all of the “what did they do?” chapters move from offering up some localized context and follow up with details of the individual’s experiences, some stories stood out for me.
Fowler’s account of MWO Stacey’s work during an August 2009 ambush combines, in Fowler’s words, a tone of “duty and responsibility” that’s part of a sergeant major’s job in any unit with all the details of taking care of “beans, bullets and the wounded” during the fight. The pace of whack-a-mole events will feel a bit familiar to anyone who’s been through a military leadership course — in MWO Stacey’s case, though, it unfolded with real shooting and real casualties. For what Stacey considered nothing more than doing the sergeant major’s job, he was awarded the Star of Military Valour in 2011.
In another section, engineer Captain Mineault could be seen as a contract manager/administrator in late 2010, doing work that would be familiar to any civilian project manager or consultant. Fowler’s account, though, shows how tricky and dangerous “contract management” becomes when mixed with the potential for shooting, explosions, Taliban interference and intimidation, as well as tribal politics.
Corporal Dupéré’s segment combined a brief history of how Canada’s military first got into the PSYOPS business around 2003 with his experiences (including those of being wounded in 2011) being part of a specialist team that became an extra set of ears, eyes and minds for commanders, taking in subliminal information that helped assess the mood and intentions of various people they’d have to work with, all while other troops did their own jobs.
I found Lieutenant Mailloux’s interesting both in how it showed his job as an infantry platoon commander in 2007, and in sharing his story of returning to Afghanistan in 2009 after losing a leg to an IED explosion during his previous tour.
There’s a map showing the broader operational area in the front of the book, but I wouldn’t have minded a few more maps showing the tighter operational areas being discussed in some stories. A good example is the map showing the ambush zone in MWO Stacey’s chapter.
I wonder how easy or difficult it would be (or costly, for that matter) to include a tear-out card in a book with a map or maps on one side, and a list of abbreviations on the other? Not just in this book, but others as well? I was able to keep up with the abbreviations, given my limited military experience 20+ years ago and ongoing reading about the military in the media, but some readers without military experience might find it handy to have a bookmark of sorts with key reference material available right there, instead of having to flip back and forth.
I think Fowler’s book succeeds in telling a range of individual stories about being in combat in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2011. You may not be fully satisfied if you want more details about certain individuals, actions or battles, but the book is a reasonably understandable survey of Canada’s fight in that timeframe.
If you have some military experience, you’ll likely get more of the content more quickly. I also think it’s readable if you’re a civilian knowing little or nothing about the military, allowing you to learn a lot about what the fight looks like to different types of soldiers fighting it.
Further comments/insights welcome, via comments below.
I’ve also been asked if I’d like to comment on another Dundurn book, “Shadow Warriors” .
More on that, when it’s ready.