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Why are we in Afghanistan? Four early deaths set the scene for an unsettling future.

Friendly Fire: The Untold Story of the U.S. Bombing that Killed Four Canadian Soldiers in Afghanistan Michael Friscolanti Wiley 596 pages, hardcover ISBN 0470836865

Out of a black sky, one bomb. Four dead. A national tragedy. A nation in mourning.

Four years ago this month I was a low-level participant (as an army public affairs officer) in the Toronto funeral for Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, killed along with three comrades by a reckless American F-16 pilot in Afghanistan. I'd actually run into Cpl. Dyer once or twice previously; it was a shock and surprise to be there at his memorial. But we did our best by him, I suppose; we were dusting off or reinventing some procedures for large-scale public military memorials that it is fair to say had not been seen, at least in Toronto, in quite some time.

Even as I was trying to corral the media in that small downtown church, I recall thinking, "These are just the first." I had internalized the expectation that, as ignominious as these fatalities had been, our national interests in stabilizing a chaotic Afghanistan meant that these deaths would be followed by dozens, even scores, more, and so we had better get our observances straight now. The idea that Cpl. Dyer's ceremony would be practically a "one-off," at least for the next few years, never entered my mind.

As this review goes to press, that has not come to pass. Suicide bombers and roadside mines have struck in their ones and twos in the intervening years, but the "butcher's bill" for Canada's Afghan War still stands at one diplomatic and ten military deaths, including the four of that dreadful night, far fewer than in any Canadian war in the history books and still thankfully below the total fatalities from all causes during our recent peacekeeping engagements in Bosnia (18). Other countries have done far worse from their time in Afghanistan: Germany 18 dead, Spain 17, the U.S. more than 250. Our national luck, such as it is, has held.

That remains, of course, a running total. Because however one wished to define our national objectives in Afghanistan, it is clear they remain undone. This is not a reconstructed country, by any stretch. Indeed, it is historically famous for resisting reconstruction. Its major cities may have been conquered many times, but the Afghan reputation for kicking the foreigners out before they can make any lasting impression remains undiminished. We are there, have no doubt, at our hosts' pleasure.

And some take no pleasure in us being there. From the unrepentant Taliban to the dangerous former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, there are forces that would do those soldiers harm. And lurking, veiled by mountain ranges and local codes of honour, are at least a few who would--if they could--take the war back to Canada: the remnants of the original Al Qaeda band that killed 3,000 on September 11, including 25 innocent Canadians.

There is, thankfully, no indication that those views are widely held in that country. Al Qaeda--themselves foreigners in a sense, Arab Muslims drawn to the mountains first to fight for Afghans and then to hide among them--seems a spent force there now. Their former allies, the Taliban, who could once outrage the world by destroying the "un-Islamic" Buddhas of Bamiyan with rocket-propelled grenades, also no longer command local affections the way they once did. Once able to portray themselves as the providers of stability to wartorn towns like Kandahar, they are now only a threat to that stability, their role as peacemakers, of a sort, usurped by a force of foreigners demonstrably kinder and more concerned about the locals' well-being than they ever were.

And what a remarkable force it is, when you think of it. Straying far from its own original mandate, NATO has taken up the Afghan mission now, acting on a series of United Nations Security Council mandates. The Canadian-Anglo-Dutch brigade within which Canadians are now returning to Kandahar evokes the alliance of 60 years before, when an Anglo-Canadian army liberated Holland from another imposed cruelty. Historically speaking, we have no deeper national allies than those two nations.

And yet the current Kandahar mission is viewed with tepidness and trepidation among Canadians. In a televised debate during the recent election campaign featuring defence minister Bill Graham and the other parties' foreign affairs critics, a show of hands among the youthful studio audience showed a large majority opposed any Canadian presence in Afghanistan. Graham was visibly shocked.

This opposition cannot be because we do not generally wish these people well. There are few more reliable forces in recent Canadian history than our internationalist altruism, however misguided. (The last political leader to try to rally support for disengagement from the world's troubles was Diefenbaker, and that only lasted until the moment the killing began in the Congo in 1960, and our troops were off once again.)

No, our recalcitrance has less to do with the local conditions of Afghanistan than with our feelings about our southern neighbour. The counter-narrative in Afghanistan is that we are stepping in to replace American commitments, so that the arrival of Canadian troops in Kandahar is indirectly sending more American troops to Iraq, a war and occupation that Canadians largely oppose. No one likes to be played for a patsy, after all.

In part, this perception is due to the Americans' own blending of Afghanistan and the far less popular Iraq intervention into an overarching "war on terror," a formulation to which neither the current nor the former Canadian government have readily subscribed. But at least some of the apparent Canadian apathy regarding Afghanistan also has to be fallout from that devastating night in Kandahar when Cpl. Dyer and his three friends were killed, and the judicial and political aftershocks that followed. Those four pointless deaths overshadowed the success of the rest of that first Canadian Afghan mission and poisoned the well of popular support in this country for future Afghan efforts, at least any that happened to be in the company or to the benefit of the Americans.

No one came out looking good from the Kandahar bombing: certainly not the American military, or their Canadian counterparts, or the press that covered them. The efficient military legal apparatus once flatteringly portrayed in popular movies such as A Few Good Men seemed utterly inadequate to the task of checking one arrogant fighter pilot. The best that could be said of the way the Canadian military response was portrayed was that it did not seem as obviously party to a cover-up as it had been in Somalia. These impressions had much to do with the utterly irresponsible behaviour of both the Canadian and American media at times, oscillating wildly between accusation and exculpation, frequently ill-informed or sensationalist.

It is this tragedy and its aftermath that National Post reporter Michael Friscolanti covers in his first book, Friendly Fire: The Untold Story of the U.S. Bombing That Killed Four Canadian Soldiers in Afghanistan. Friscolanti, who covered the tragedy and the ensuing inquiries for the Post, does a commendable job of knitting together a complex narrative. Relying heavily on transcripts and interviews with the principals, he is at his best when describing the horrific facts of the night in question and the immediate aftermath. The months of inquiries and judicial proceedings that followed are also covered methodically and accurately. Friscolanti succeeds where so many other Canadian writers fail, in conveying basic facts and terminology about the Canadian army, with no more than a few excusable errors.

Indeed, if one looks for the flaw in this book it must be that same "just the facts" approach, which seems inadequate to the task of situating the lay reader here. No doubt, by reprinting pages and pages of testimony, Friscolanti has added considerably to the publicly accessible record, but that by itself does not make a book. Lacking is any sense of conclusion that the author has drawn from it all, or any assessment of culpability beyond what the various official inquiries and witnesses have been willing to attest to. I read the whole book patiently, fully expecting the conclusion that would tie everything together in the manner of a trial lawyer's closing address, but it never came: it is as if the final arguments to the jury were left solely to the court stenographer. (Indeed, because the errant pilot Harry Schmidt's extended self-exculpatory interview effectively closes the book, his excuses take on a weight they probably do not merit: he certainly deserved some stronger rebuttal. The latter chapters of Friendly Fire effectively turn into one long case of "he said, he said," with the accused villain--Schmidt--fortunate in being granted the final word.)

This mask of objectivity does not prevent the reader from seeing the dreadful toll this tragedy took on the Canadian survivors and the families of the victims: broken marriages, descents into alcoholism, painful disabilities, all the second-order effects that come with every personal disaster in every family, but effects we very rarely consider in the balance sheet. You don't need Friscolanti's input either, to be perturbed by some of the American defence counsel's slimier tactics or the errors of their prosecution counterparts that effectively ended any realistic prospect of a court-martial conviction. (Schmidt and his flight leader, Major Bill Umbach, would end up only receiving formal reprimands. Schmidt was also fined a month's pay, and was removed from flying duty; Umbach opted to retire.) Friscolanti apparently trusts his readers not to need the obvious pointed out to them; kudos to him for that.

Perhaps the author's diffidence stems from some misguided sense of a writer's limitations: after all, is Friscolanti--is anyone?--a suitable judge for the deadly actions of a highly trained fighter pilot? Perhaps, also, this reporter's open-mindedness could have granted him some access he might not have had otherwise to the personalities or the documents, and he should be credited for that, as well.

But still, at the end, you are left with one question. Why? What was going through that pilot's head? Were his actions remotely reasonable? Did the punishment fit the crime? Friscolanti leaves you to decide all that for yourself.

Specifically, there is the matter of the Katyushas. As Friscolanti relates, Harry Schmidt's squadron was doing double duty, over both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, then under no-fly zones and embargo, there had been recent attempts by the Iraqis to use volleys of Katyusha artillery rockets, unguided high-explosive projectiles fired en masse, as surface-to-air weapons, specially fused to detonate at a certain altitude, above the range of their light missiles and guns. Given that this was completely unaimed fire, capable only of increasing the amount of shrapnel in the air that some plane might fly into, it was a technique of minor utility at best, a forlorn hope by a country (Iraq) without effective modern air defences. At night, lacking any kind of radar or optical guidance, even fired in large numbers, they would have been utterly useless as anything more than fireworks, boosting the morale of the ground defenders.

Schmidt's immediate testimony upon hearing he had killed Canadians--his first excuse--was that he thought the Canadians on the ground were Afghan guerrillas who had obtained one of these Katyushas. Despite any evidence whatsoever that the tactic had ever been transmitted from one country to the other. Only a few kilometers from the gate of an immense American base. In the dark. A single, ineffectual rocket at a time.

This does not seem a reasoned conclusion for Schmidt to have drawn, a crucial point that Friscolanti fails to underline. In so doing, he raises the whole question here: no one doubts that Schmidt honestly thought some guys on the ground were firing up at aircraft that night. But the American judicial proceedings hinged entirely on the question of whether thinking that fire posed a real threat to him and his wingman was a reasonable belief on Schmidt's part. For Friscolanti to offer only other people's opinions on this key question is bad enough, but by never tying together all the scattered bits of evidence he has on Katyushas, some of it previously unpublished, into one coherent summary, he makes it extremely difficult for readers to evaluate the prosecution case or Schmidt's conduct themselves, either.

One also looks in vain for the historical context. How does this tragedy compare in any respect to the 1944 American bombings of Canadian troops in Normandy, for instance? What punishments did previous friendly-fire court martials levy out, if any? What were the most common causes of previous fratricidal incidents in Afghanistan? What changes in technology or military practice would be required to prevent it ever happening again? Can the same tolerance for occasional fratricide in previous wars apply in a "hearts and minds" situation like Afghanistan? Every tragedy may be unique, but it is impossible using Friscolanti's book alone to determine how much this one tragedy was an inevitability of war and how much it was a singular case of malfeasance.

Never mind the even bigger question: why were those Canadian soldiers there at all? What combination of circumstances led to their deployment to the other side of the world? Was it justified? Did they die in vain? Friscolanti, again, offers no opinion, steadfastly maintaining a tone more appropriate to a book on, say, shark attacks or tornadoes than this sort of deeply contentious material.

The reader is left at the end with the general sense of the bombing as an act of some capricious god, not any human agency. Those who attempted to draw other conclusions--the Canadian board of inquiry, the American tribunal--seem almost deluded in their efforts in this context. Was this Friscolanti's intent? Hard to tell, but it is the inevitable result of his self-constraint here. You might call it a clinical approach, but it is not: clinicians do still attempt to divine cause from effects, after all. "Fatalistic objectivity" would be the better way to describe the author's tone. Bombs will fall. Que sera, sera.

One is tempted to relate this one reporter's dispassion, his unwillingness to render a verdict on others, to our current national dispassion about our military involvement in Afghanistan. Who are we, many would say, to impose our form of peace on them? The Taliban versus the Northern Alliance, Hekmatyar versus Karzai, Americans versus Al Qaeda: isn't choosing sides in all this just neo-imperial arrogance on our part? Can we not just grant them all equal time, send them all humanitarian aid and avoid making all these difficult judgements?

But it is not clear that we can. At some point one is forced to conclude that real succour cannot come without stability, and real stability without enforcement. We must also recognize that some forces in Afghanistan would prefer that that never come about. Before we can export our goodwill, we sometimes need to export something else. I am referring to a human universal well described by a uniquely Canadian phrase: "peace, order and good government."

Here I am going to stray into territory the author of this book shunned, and state my own unequivocal belief: that it was the pursuit of that noble aim that first brought to Kandahar both the Canadian infantrymen and the jet pilots who were supposedly there to protect them. When you drill right down to it, all involved were there, in that same deadly space that night, as executors of our beliefs that there is a wrong and a right in this world, that human tragedies are not just personal affairs, that faith in human universals will sometimes lead us to oppose those who reject them, and that sometimes we need our soldier-proxies to make their appearance, as the poet Alan Seeger put it, "at midnight in some flaming town."

Four years ago, as is the case again today, that town happened to be Kandahar. We were either going to go there, even if some of us would not return, or we would not have been who we think and say we are. It is as simple, and as complex, as that.

Bruce Rolston is an army reservist and military commentator.
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Title Annotation:Friendly Fire: The Untold Story of the U.S. Bombing that Killed Four Canadian Soldiers in Afghanistan
Author:Rolston, Bruce
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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