Seven Days in Afghanistan

If you attended a Remembrance Day service, you may have noticed this: it’s not just senior citizens anymore. A lot of young guys are combat veterans.

A decade at war produces reams of writing, memoirs and reporting, some of it good, but most of it bad. The books at the top of my list lately have been No New Day by Mark Owen and American Sniper by Chris Kyle. Owen’s book is an engrossing, professional account of SEAL Team Six and the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. Kyle is a SEAL who holds the US record for most confirmed kills by a sniper. Both are worthwhile, but there’s another (Canadian) book that’s truly essential.

The forward to Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan (HarperCollins, $19), by Ryan Flavelle, compares the book to Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Fifty pages in, it’s clear that the comparison is not hyperbole. It’s become my favourite Canadian war memoir, replacing Terror in the Starboard Seat, by Dave McIntosh, a lively account of bombing the hell out of Germany in a wooden plane and sleeping with ugly nurses.

Flavelle wasn’t a navy SEAL, nor were any of his missions headline news. He was a reservist and a radio operator attached to an infantry regiment during Canada’s often-ignored war in Afghanistan. Like Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, which Flavelle mentions reading at the beginning of his own war, Flavelle is an average soldier but a great writer. His language is frank, his eye for minutiae is astute, and his tone flits from philosophical to vulgar seamlessly. Unlike most war memoirs, his writing is not soaked in bravado, nostalgia or sentimentality. Also, non-combat veterans looking to buddy up over peacekeeping in Cyprus, take note: “Cyprus is where we got to take a vacation from our real war.”

Each November, it’s become a point of pride to don a poppy. It’s a beautiful custom, but while we’re busy remembering, we should also be trying to understand. We never can, but a book like Patrol moves us one step closer.

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