Thursday, 23 August 2018

Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle That Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban -- David Fraser and Brian Hanington

Killing Taliban terrorists is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole. It doesn't matter how many times you smash the mole -- in this case, the enemy Taliban -- making it scurry into its dark hiding place. It leaps up again somewhere else, as healthy and energetic as ever, ready to be chased and smacked down again. Like the mole, the Taliban is forever the malevolent underdog. Unlike the mole, it flies out of its hole with deadly force.
   Any soldier who fought the Taliban in the most recent of some 13 Afghanistan wars -- dating back to 1709 -- the one that commenced in October 2001, knows this game well. To this day it is being played out violently in that part of the world, almost two decades after the terrorist organization transformed itself into a murderous insurgency following its quick ouster as an ultra-oppressive Afghanistan government. The fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime fell fast and early in the 2001 fighting -- which started less than a month following the 9/11 attacks on US soil -- and it "folded like a cheap lawn chair," according to one Ottawa writer, but unfortunately it has never been eradicated.

That is not for want of trying. As explained by retired Major-General David Fraser and Ottawa writer Brian Hanington in their 2018 book Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle That Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban, this Canadian-led manoeuvre -- which took place September 2 - 17, 2006 in an area of Kandahar Province about 20 miles west of Kandahar City -- came as close as any other effort.
   Written in the first person by Fraser -- with a highly praising foreword by General David Julian Richards, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a retired senior British Army officer -- the book describes what was a hugely risky venture from the start. Indeed, as the book's inside flap succinctly states: "the odds were solidly against Fraser's forces." The  casualty numbers alone do not convey the danger: six Canadian and twelve British personnel were killed, while more than 50 were wounded; the toll on the Taliban was between 1,000 and 1,500. The battle grounds themselves were fraught with hazards. They were on enemy turf, where the Taliban itself emerged in 1979 out of the Soviet-invasion-rejecting Mujahidin. The Canadian-led International Security Assistance Force had to deal with hidden weapons in "every farmhouse, school, grape hut and tunnel." This Battle of Panjwaii -- the second of 2006 -- turned into the bloodiest fight in NATO's history. I do not want to give away the drama and substance of the fight, the details of which are painstakingly yet eloquently outlined in six middle chapters.
   But perhaps more importantly, the first 13 chapters explain the background and lead up to the operation. As Fraser summarizes in the preface, the "battle was furious [and] uniquely complex." The biggest military fight of Canadian soldiers since the Korean War, and carried out under command of NATO's ISAF, Medusa took about a year to plan. In that planning and deployment, "[a]lmost immediately, things began to go wrong. As the obstacles mounted, we learned enough to understand deeply that the outcome of a fight on this scale with the Taliban was uncertain. The competing priorities of governments, departments, regions, militaries, agencies and even other wars made every single day a high-speed chase along multiple tracks. Even in the retelling, the sheer number of factors that affected us can be hard to keep straight."
   In the chapter called "Tally," Fraser asks if the battle was worth it, if the war itself was too high a price for what was achieved. Before answering, he sums up the "bleak statistics" of death. These include some 50,000 Taliban fighters, including boys, though many insurgents are still around to menace the elected Afghanistan government -- corrupt as it may be -- and innocent civilians of the fledgling democracy. They also include: about 38,000 members of the Afghan army; 30,000 Afghan civilians, including women and children; among the US coalition forces, about 3,500, including 163 Canadians; and some 2,000 civilian contractors. The good? Five million children went back to school. About three million displaced citizens returned to Afghanistan. A staggering 80 percent of the adult population turned out for the first ever presidential election. A free press emerged. The economy slowly came to life. "By the end of 2006 there were sixty eight women parliamentarians."
   So, was it worth it? "Operation Medusa was a costly and necessary fight," Fraser continues, "that achieved a temporary effect that allowed the coalition and the Afghans to  move on. We did not lose this battle. Had we, the consequences would have been grave. The Taliban would have proven the inability of the Afghan leadership to govern; NATO would have been seen as an entity incapable of either protecting or fighting; Canada would have born the brunt of the criticism for NATO's failure;" and there would have been "political fallout" in Canada and Europe.
   So in a word, yes, it was worth it. Though "conducted at great expense, Operation Medusa gave hope and opportunity to people, two precious gifts we all take for granted in Canada."
   If you are not a member of the armed forces or a fan of military books, the 250-page volume is not exactly easy reading, especially in the beginning. For example, the book liberally employs more than 120 different acronyms throughout, abbreviations that become familiar by flipping back and forth to the four pages of explanations at the back, a section called Decipher.
   Refeshingly, Mother -- a nickname for Sergeant Bill Irving, a tough, no nonsense tactical commander, "foul-mouthed as they come" -- is quoted at the start of most chapters, offering his simple philosophy of life and Harley Davidsons, and describing in plain English his love of his troops and his family.
   Another literary technique in the book which is intriguing and unusual -- and which has "style of Brian Hanington" written all over it -- is short titles.  Each of the 20 chapters and the epilogue have one word titles, such as "React," "Bleed," "Slaughter," and "Weep." The five appendices have slightly longer labels in the contents and titles, but are shortened to one word on the tops of the pages inside, including Decipher, Honour and Track. Personally, I like brevity in writing so this method of describing sections is appealing, but it might not suit everyone's taste.
   Another Hanington style is long, long cutlines. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but why not include the 1,000 words anyway? Not that there is anything wrong with lengthy captions. A student of Hanington's early in my book-writing career, he taught me to put lots of information under a photo as a way of squeezing extra facts, maybe odd facts, into the larger story. Where else would the authors include the syrupy details about Mother, who by the way got his nickname from his adoring regiment for his heart of gold. Caught off guard in a restful moment, Mother -- wearing camouflage, a bullet proof flak jacket and military-issue boots laced to the middle of his shins -- is looking unusually restful as he drinks his tea, delicately holding the plate and chalice in his hands, pinky squarely pointed in the air. "I am intrigued that a man to whom I have entrusted my life and whom I respect to this day," says David Fraser in the cutline, "can sip tea out of a cup and saucer with the proper finger etiquette."
   This is an important book on Canada's strength and morality, and it should be required reading in every high school classroom teaching Canadian history. Operation is a must-read for any serious student of Canadian politics.

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  1. Intriguing and amazingly written as usual!

  2. General David Fraser and I greatly appreciate the care you’ve put into this review. Your comments are both insightful and balanced. You have honed right in on a number of the deliberate stylistic choices we made—short titles and long captions among them—and have weighed their relative merits with (what we suspect is) a twinkle in your eye. We admire that you have sensed the important contribution made by Sergeant Bill (Mother) Irving, and can assure your readers that Bill’s dry wit and unvarnished philosophy was of great comfort during that horrific campaign in Kandahar back in 2006. We have happily passed your review on to our publishers at Penguin Random House, noting that you offer further proof that Canadians do care deeply about the women and men in their military, and understand the role they play on our behalf on the world stage. Thank you, Lynne, for this novel contribution to the critical response to our book. Brian Hanington

  3. It's impossible to know what the soldiers went through fighting that evil force. Your book gives as close as anything a sense of what they experienced, what they suffered, for us. Thank-you for writing this book so Canadians (and others) can know what happened, while we slept safely and comfortably in our beds. Thanks also Brian for your kind words.

  4. Read the review this evening over dinner and was very impressed, Lynne. It is talent unto itself to be able to briefly describe a book…something that I’d have great trouble with. And you encourage readership with just enough details, like mentioning Mother’s quotes.
    You have great skill with words! Thank you for reviewing Brian’s book.
    Deb Johnson

  5. I found this review so intriguing that I am planning on reading the book! You've made me really believe that this is an important book for every Canadian!