The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

By Graeme Smith

In The Dogs Are Eating Them Now journalist Graeme Smith, who now lives in Kabul and who reported on the fighting in Afghanistan for the Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2009, presents a series of dispatches from “our” war in that country, tracking Canada’s involvement in the unstable region around Kandahar.

It’s very much a grunt’s-eye view, and readers looking for geostrategic analysis or an answer to the question — one that has its origin in the American experience in Vietnam — of “Why are we in Afghanistan?” may be disappointed. Suffice to say it all had something to do with responding to a terrorist threat and building democracy, but these weren’t entirely convincing rationales to begin with and in the end haven’t produced great results. “At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war,” Smith concludes. “At worst, it’s a looming disaster.”

“Over a decade of war in Afghanistan,” he writes, “has settled nothing, and that in itself is profoundly unsettling.”

Such an assessment makes Smith’s analysis of where things went wrong (and, in some cases, right) all the more important. In-depth, investigative reporting — journalistic “boots on the ground” — is becoming ever more essential in a world of media-controlled conflicts, where the battlefields are clouded with the fog (or, in Smith’s preferred metaphor, the sand) of war.

Smith has a case and he makes it forcefully: “The world needs to understand what happened and draw lessons from this debacle — and the only way of reaching those conclusoins is by visceral immersion.”

Such immersion is offered as a counterbalance to spinmasters intent on pumping out “industrial-grade propaganda” for public consumption. Spin can be dangerous stuff, especially given the “frightening possibility” Smith raises that the generals and politicians running the show in Afghanistan may have actually come to believe their own press, living in bunkered intellectual green zones.

The reality check is that Afghanistan has become a violent place where politics is intensely local and government thoroughly corrupt. The seemingly endless fighting (which has gone on for decades now) has had the effect of creating a moral callousness and “life is cheap” attitude.

There are many examples provided of this casual morbidity. The book’s title comes from an incident Smith witnessed where Canadian forces used Taliban corpses as bait to draw out insurgents, but instead had to watch the bodies eaten by wild dogs. Elsewhere we visit a morgue overflowing with so many corpses the staff can no longer document them, see anonymous body parts stuck to the side of armoured vehicles after a bomb blast, and meet an Afghan governor staring “with mild disappointment” at gruesome carnage left after a Taliban attack (he had expected more bodies).

“Death does not inspire the kind of seriousness in Kandahar that it does in rich countries,” Smith concludes. And what a world of tragedy is in those words.

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the narrator Marlow finds a note written by the mad trader Kurtz, where Kurtz revisits his earlier ideas about bringing civilization to the Congo and suggests instead that the Company “exterminate all the brutes!” The same line appears in the movie Apocalypse Now, the updating of Conrad’s story to the jungles of Vietnam, where it’s found scribbled among Kurtz’s papers.

At the end of Smith’s journey we get another version of the same sentiment, this time scratched into a bathroom door at the Kandahar air base: “NUKE AFGHANISTAN.”

The many echoes of Vietnam in the 9/11 wars have been often pointed at and argued over. Comparisons are usually avoided by politicians and military leaders, for obvious reasons, but they can still be instructive, especially if we want to avoid that conflict’s long and unhappy legacy.

Accepting a moral responsibility to do better, where do we go from here? Smith does not seem very hopeful, but advocates staying engaged. What this mostly means is that “the foreign money needs to continue flowing.” It’s unclear, however, how much money can do to prop up a corrupt government or help rebuild a damaged and dysfunctional economy, especially given the level of mistrust that many of the Afghan people feel toward the West.

Let’s hope that some lessons have been learned.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 6, 2013.

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