Monday, November 8, 2010

A Remembrance Day Must-Read

It has been a few weeks since my last update and I am glad to be back in the saddle. Originally I had intended to talk about Fifteen Days by Christine Blatchford over a week ago and not a few days before Remembrance Day, but sometimes things work out the way that they are supposed to.  I wanted to read this book for years and never got around to it until I saw it a few weeks back on the library shelves.  When it first came out, I heard positive reviews and filed it away in the back of my mind.  My boyfriend brought it up again when we went to the bookstore, saying that when he was in basic training, all the guys were reading it.  Upon reading this book I soon found out why it was so popular amongst future soldiers.  It gives a great snapshot account of how life in Afghanistan really was for our men and women in uniform in 2006.  Blatchford was covering the war for The Globe and Mail and had a knack for getting the soldiers to open up about their experiences in a manner that hasn't been duplicated.  Her voice as a writer is very singular and I think it gives the reader a clue as to how she could succeed in her pursuit of the stories of her subjects.  To me, her tomboyish style and willingness to put her life at risk probably endeared her to the soldiers she accompanied and allowed her more access.  

This access gave her a tremendous amount of material for the book which posed a large problem for Blatchford when she decided to finally compose it.  She begins the book by outlining this dilemma in her Author's Note, where she explains how she came up with the format.  Each chapter represents one day of fighting and its repercussions.  The action as detailed by Blatchford and the Canadian soldiers is just plain riveting.  I considered myself to be an informed person, but I really had no clue as to what Canadians faced in their battles against the Taliban.  With few exceptions, I think that the coverage of the war tends to focus on the deaths of individual Canadian soldiers without giving the public much of an idea of the daily struggles they deal with.  I had some idea as to the brutal conditions  that soldiers continue to battle, but didn't fully comprehend how burnt out our overstretched military was.  Blatchford chronicles how Canadian units were often sent into battle or on supply runs without sleep or reprieve of any sort because there was no one else to get the job done.  The other thing that I didn't have much knowledge of is the terrain of Afghanistan besides the caves, opium fields, and desert.  One element that proved problematic for the soldiers in the same manner as in Vietnam, is the green belt of jungle that the Taliban retreated into.  I was not aware of any such greenery nor did I know about how many times Canadians fought in towns.  Often (especially in the Panjwaii District) NATO forces had to fight over the same collection of buildings on multiple occasions which provided a lot of frustration for our troops.      

Though the revelations the book provides about the situation on the ground are compelling, the stories of the individual soldiers and their families are equally riveting.  I came to this book from the unique perspective of someone who is both within and apart from the military community.  As time goes on, I feel more and more connected with other women whose partners are serving, but the experiences of army spouses is something that I can only relate to on an extremely superficial level.  The story of Darcia Arndt, the wife of Master Corporal Ray Arndt, really touched me.  She always kept the phone next to her when she slept in case her husband was trying to get in touch with her and only stopped a week before he was scheduled to return home.  He was killed in a motor vehicle accident during the last week of his deployment.  Before I read that story, I often kept the phone on my bedside table because my boyfriend called at odd hours from the ship, and I found the connection extremely eerie. 

The book ends, appropriately enough, with the soldiers discussing Remembrance Day. They are in a unique position within the community of Canadian veterans because they are the only group to have seen serious action since WWII.  Sure we have been peacekeeping in various locations throughout the world, but Afghanistan is an entirely different kettle of fish.  Blatchford successfully conveys this point with her stirring and detailed analysis of the lives of Canadian soldiers and the challenges they faced.  As a Canadian, I felt even more proud of the troops and was more awed by their everyday issues.  Though I'm sure I've said this about a number of books, Fifteen Days is definitely required reading for any Canadian, not just those in basic training.  


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