Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reader's Diary #436- Christie Blatchford: Fifteen Days

I went to Blatchford's Fifteen Days, the nonfiction account of Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in 2006, with a lot of trepidation. Surely some of the glowing reviews, and perhaps even the Governor General's award, was based on respect for the soldiers and/or patriotism. What about the writing?

Many of the reviews I've read try to claim Fifteen Days is not at all political. Hogwash. Without even bothering to get into the philosophy that "everything is political," the book oozes politics. I found it especially interesting that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001 (on the U.S.) is mentioned only briefly. Instead of protecting Canada (or the U.S.) from future attacks, some of the Canadian soldiers interviewed by Blatchford talk more about liberating the people of Afghanistan, especially the women, from the Taliban and helping them rebuild their country.

That's political. Blatchford doesn't, however, seem to take an overt stance for or against war. Some of the soldiers do, and Blatchford let's them, and therein lies the greatness of the book. The soldiers, and their families and friends, do most of the talking. (It's interesting to note subtle differences between the soldiers. They may be institutionalized to work as a cohesive unit, but Fifteen Days destroys the myth that soldier's cannot have separate personalities.)

I didn't cry. I was assured by many people that I would, and I consider myself a sap. I came close a couple of times. Both were during funerals. While reading about one, my wife started playing on the piano, a song I hadn't heard of before (Pass It On). Though I've never been a big fan of movie scores, she inadvertently added a soundtrack that, combined with Blatchford's details, choked me up. The second time was the funeral for Vaughan Ingram. Again, while tears didn't actually come, I found it difficult. I can't put my finger on why this one moved me more than the others, except to guess that I've been to Ingram's home town, Burgeo (a small town on the Southern coast of Newfoundland), and I could imagine the funeral all the better.

Blatchford's presentation is gritty, messy, and sometimes confusing. I haven't been around a lot of soldiers. At the Remembrance Day ceremonies I've been, the elderly veterans that have attended were usually very distinguished and quiet. Not that the soldiers in Fifteen Days were a bunch of hicks, but they were usually very young, very fond of the f-word, and energetic. Of course, the aforementioned veterans were probably that way once upon a time as well. And while I'd fit in there like a bowtie at a Hell's Angels convention, I appreciated their human nature. Blatchford quotes Errol Cushey, a soldier's father, on his paraphrase of an analogy believed to have originated from a Vietnam vet,
...what you've got to understand is that most people are sheep. And you've got your wolves that want to harm the sheep, and you've got the 2 percent of the people who want to be sheepdogs, and they stand between the wolves and the sheep [...] now the people, they're frightened of the wolves, but the sheepdogs, they look a bit too much like the wolves, so they don't really like them too much either.
Blatchford did an admirable job of making me appreciate the sheepdogs.

At times, especially during the higher intensity battle scenes, I felt a bit lost. Terminology, abbreviations, and acronyms were flying at me like RPGs. Blatchford was kind enough to provide a glossary and I think the pages started to smoke from my flipping back and forth so often. Still, I found it somewhat difficult to keep track of what was going on. Oddly, that made it even more real for me. No doubt it would be confusing to an average citizen such as myself to be suddenly dropped into such a situation. It's a different world. Fortunately these soldiers are so well trained, the terminology comes second nature and is the least of their worries.

Having the chapters (as the title would suggest, the chapters are the 15 days), not presented chronologically was also a bit confusing, especially as she references previous battles and incidents. In the author's note, Blatchford writes, "I didn't think telling the story in a purely chronological way would work" but she doesn't really explain why. If I pick up the book again, I think I'll try reading them in the chronological order just to compare.

With Fifteen Days, Blatchford proves that the shine Hollywood has put on war is not only unrealistic, it isn't necessary. The public can handle brutal and blatant honesty, and benefit more from it. A spoonful of sugar? No thanks.


Kailana said...

I really need to get around to reading this book! I am curious about it...

Wandering Coyote said...

Great review!

I also found the non-chronological order thing confusing. It almost gave me a sense that she was prioritizing the deaths in a way that was kind of weird for me.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a compelling read. Thank you for the non chronological warning! That sounds like an odd choice.

Anonymous said...

Hey John. I tried calling but there was no answer. Could you drop me an e-mail? We're organizing some blogtastic fun. laura _ power at rocketmail dot com.

Sherrie said...

Hi John,
I've finished my 4th book for the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge. Golden Girl and other stories by Gillian Chan. You can see the review here:

Have a great day!!


John Mutford said...

Kailana: Remember to come back and share your thoughts!

Wandering Coyote: Oh no! I hope none of the families felt any sort of prioritizing was going on. I didn't feel that, but the fact that someone could sense it, is a little troublesome.

Carrie: Really compelling.

Ferry Tales: Blogarama?

Splummer: Another author I'm not familiar with. Thanks for sharing.

Wanda said...

This will be a difficult read for me. I have three nephews in the service. One was thankfully only injured in a roadside bomb while serving in Afghanistan; another accompanied the body of his buddy (his brother in arms) home. Nathan Smith (a distant relative), is buried within a five minute walk of my home. I'm not sure that once started, I'll even be able to finish...

Dreamybee said...

Hi, John! I've just come over from the Reading Room blog. This sounds like an interesting read. Have you read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien? I was just wondering how the two compared.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: Yes, I imagine for people with connections, this would be even more of an emotional experience.

Dreamybee: I haven't, nor have I heard of it. Thanks for the recommendation. Blatchford also recommends several books within this one.

Anonymous said...

Nothing even similar between "Fifteen Days" and "The Things They Carried".

Blatchford's book is great. It's not a fast read, it's not for the faint of heart and looks at the soldiers from the view of those who served with and loved them.