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The savage war: the following is an excerpt from the recently released book the savage war: the untold battles of Afghanistan by Murray Brewster. The narrative picks up just after the 2006 NATO Leader's Summit in Riga, Latvia.

The time following Riga was a head snap. Within weeks I went from sitting alongside powerful men who spoke ferocious words but killed no one to riding with bloody-minded men who spoke little and killed when the opportunity presented itself. It was like being rocketed from one pole to the other without taking a breath. The longer I spent back on the ground in Kandahar, the more I realized Riga didn't matter.

Let the politicians talk. They had their maps, PowerPoints, memos and backgrounders, all of which were ground up and sliced into bite-sized thoughts and slogans for the cameras. Feeding the beast was all that seemed to matter. As long as they got past the latest news cycle everything was cool, nobody got hurt.

The real war the one everyone wanted to reach out and touch in those days; the one where everybody got hurt--could be found in the devoured expressions of the soldiers I followed on patrol and in the circumspect eyes of the Afghans we passed along the way. Never would the two worlds collide.

Nobody at Riga really wanted to understand what Kandahar was all about and nobody in Kandahar cared much about what was said at Riga. It was one of those icy contradictions you had to wrestle with and pin to the ground. If you didn't get past it, the cynicism was painful enough to eat you alive.

It was a cool, breezy winter day in the desert and I sat at one of the strongpoints that overlooked Route Summit. A column of LAVs pulled up and when the ramps dropped, fresh troops tumbled out. Master Corporal Colin Chabassol was among them, although I didn't know it at the time. We met later in the war, and talked about his first impressions that day. In front of him was a maze of sandbagged fortifications built around baked mud walls and thatch-covered grape huts. Cases of water were scattered across the vehicle marshalling yard and barrels of burning shit created a lazy, inky black stain in the sky. Chabassol looked out from underneath his helmet.

"I gotta live here?" the Pictou County, Nova Scotia, native asked out loud. Other troops had the same reaction, even the veterans who'd been in-country before. Master Corporal Russell Moquin had done a tour in Kabul in the early 2000s, but couldn't get over the winter-wasted desolation of Zhari and the hollow stillness of the rippled farmland around him. It was like something unspoken and heavy was in the air.

"Everything was dead," said Moquin. The son of a career soldier, he was used to the hard living of army life. "When we got there in February there wasn't any green. Everything was brown or grey and empty."

Easter Sunday--April 8, 2007--dawned like most days in Afghanistan, with a hazy, grey repetitiveness that made it indistinguishable from the days on either side. The rhythm of life is totally different in this part of the world.

Friday is the Muslim holy day of rest. Holidays, festivals, even the New Year are celebrated at different times. The net effect can throw you off; you were never quite sure what the date might be. But some days are so terrible they sear themselves into your memory, and no matter where you are in the world, you have to stop and pay respect. A number of us who followed the war closely were home for the holiday then, yet we were still numbed by the news that day.

Ever since Canadian boots had touched the ground, a quiet smugness about the invisibility of their light armoured vehicles had been in the air. Taliban rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire just skipped off the reinforced armour. Casualties happened mostly in G-Wagon jeeps. The LAVs had been impenetrable to roadside bombs. The Taliban tried. There had been blown tires, wrecked drive shafts and some guys knocked about in what the soldiers referred to as M-kills--mobility kills. But there had never been a K-kill--a catastrophic kill. The Taliban hadn't been able to build and bury anything big enough.

Both Colin Chabassol and Corporal Joel Trickey were on a foot patrol along an empty pathway when they heard the explosion. It was about 11 a.m., when the sun was almost at its blinding best. They were dozens of kilometres away from the dull crack, but it made the patrol stop and look around.

"It was a huge hit," Trickey recalled later. "I think everybody in the battle group heard the explosion. I just had that gut feeling that you knew something went wrong."

The sound of an explosion, nearby or distant, does things to your head, nasty things. The mind starts racing. Hunkered down inside a patrol base or observation post, you try to figure out what's happened, but it's like solving a mystery with no clues. One of the guys put it this way: "You hear a bang and you think three things: Who's hurt? Where's it at? And how bad?" The radio is the only window on the world.

About half an hour after they heard the blast, Trickey and the rest of his section set up a patrol base in one of the many pulverized compounds that dot the Zhari landscape. Then they sat and waited.

The war had settled into a stalemate. The Taliban hit and ran. Trickey said he knew that every time they stepped outside a fortification or base they would be shot at.

Consequently, every move became very deliberate. Convoys and patrols were planned with maniacal precision. The one small bit of comfort was that the Taliban, at that time, were lousy shots.

"We'd have rockets shot at us [but] the guys didn't arm them properly so they wouldn't go off," he said.

But it was the random, unmerciful nature of the roadside bombs and booby traps that terrified them the most. Soldiers can be obscenely blunt, but their dread of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rarely articulated itself directly. Some joked about it. Others immersed themselves in technical explanations, as though understanding the inner workings of the devices somehow made them immune to both fear and the flesh-tearing results of the blasts. You learned a lot about dread--how to master it, how to ignore it and how to let it go--by watching these guys step off on foot patrol or button up inside a patrol vehicle day in and day out. At first, they flew on autopilot and with each encounter came the ecstasy of survival, but the weight of the unknown ground against them with a relentless attrition. Some had the courage to know when they had their fill.

"The first ambush was kind of surreal because you didn't know what was going on," said Master Corporal Ryan Hawkyard, of Bravo Company, 1 Royal Canadian Regiment. He saw combat for four straight months at one point.

"When a buddy of mine lost both of his legs [to a mine], I said: 'Okay, that's it. It's f---ed. Enough of this shit; let's just f---ing go home.'"

A still from the Danish documentary Armadillo by Janus Metz reveals the feelings of terror and anxiety this young volunteer soldier feels after being caught in the savagery of a firefight with the Taliban in the southern Helmand province of Afghanistan.
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Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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