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Book Reviews

Book Cover: NO LACK OF COURAGE ~ Operation Medusa, Afghanistan, by Colonel Bernd Horn

NO LACK OF COURAGE ~ Operation Medusa, Afghanistan, by Colonel Bernd Horn

Reviewed by Matthew Sprague

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NO LACK OF COURAGE ~ Operation Medusa, Afghanistan
by Colonel Bernd Horn.
Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2010
203 pages, $30.00 (trade paperback)
ISBN 978-1554887668

Reviewed by Matthew Sprague

 

Operation Medusa began in the summer of 2006. A quick ‘Google’ turns up some 66000 results, which vary from interesting to completely irrelevant.1  Included are a number of references to papers and books that have covered Canadian operations in Afghanistan leading up to and including Operation Medusa. Adam Day's trilogy in Legion Magazine,2  as well as Christie Blatchford's Fifteen Days,3  are two that pop immediately to mind as examples that reside near the top of recommended reads. That Operation Medusa was a significant milestone in Canadian operations in Afghanistan is fairly obvious, but its importance to the province of Kandahar, the country of Afghanistan, NATO, ISAF, and indeed, Canada, is a subject that future historians may well ponder, with opinion and perspective both factoring heavily in their conclusions.  Even now, four years having passed since this momentous battle was waged, there is precious little in the way of a detailed and historically factual examination of the events that transpired during that time.

Enter Colonel Bernd Horn, an experienced infantry officer with a significant operational, professional, and academic background. An adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, Dr. Horn has already penned or helped author or edit nearly 30 books. In his capacity as a historian, he now offers No Lack of Courage, which provides a thorough examination of Operation Medusa through the lens of personal perspectives from a vast array of participants during the summer and autumn of 2006.He manages to capture thoughts and comments from virtually every level of both the political and military hierarchies, and presents them in a very logical order. Assembling this mass of data, and presenting it in an organized fashion must have posed a considerable challenge, given the occasionally significant differences between personal recollections with respect to the details of the same event. In fact, the presentation of these variations of history is one of the major strengths of this book, and it really drives home how confusing even the most simple of situations can become. The degree of conviction by which every witness believes their particular account is astonishing, and  Horn does a very good job of providing background analysis and discussion that puts all of these narratives into perspective.

The book begins with a general outline of the events that preceded Canada moving into Kandahar; information that is key to understanding some of the difficulties the Canadians eventually encountered. However, an in-depth examination is neither warranted nor required, and therefore, this brief overview is sufficient. Horn then moves into a more detailed and essential examination of some of the very fine soldiering accomplished by members of TF 1-06 that set the conditions for the launch of Medusa.  Indeed, the exploits of Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope's Battle Group4  in its capacity as, arguably, the first Canadian unit to see non-stop combat since Korea, is clearly captured in the book’s title. The brief recounting of TF 1-06’s exploits is essential to understanding the genesis of both Operation Medusa and Canada's role within it. It is also interesting to note that many of the personal accounts and observations from the veteran soldiers of Task Force 1-06 are remarkably similar to the follow-on comments and notations made by the relatively inexperienced soldiers of TF 3-06.

One of the common threads throughout is the respect that the Canadian soldiers have for their Taliban adversaries. Interestingly however, there appears to be a limit beyond which this regard for the enemy does not seem to extend. Certainly, that was my impression upon reading the comments and thoughts of all the various levels of command leading up to Medusa. Whether this is a function of the degree to which soldier gives way to politician is not clear, but it is hinted at enough times that it tends to lurk in the back of this reader’s mind throughout. This portion also segues nicely into the role that politics plays in NATO, and played in Medusa. Potentially one of the under-explored aspects concerning Afghanistan was the limitations brought about by the ‘political beast’ that is NATO. The lack of support from NATO is an interesting component, and the restrictions, limitations, caveats, and frustrations felt by the senior commanders are well documented.  Many of these issues, and the degree to which this was a factor in Medusa, would probably come as somewhat of a shock to most Canadians.

A second, but equally important and recurring theme is that Canada somehow held together NATO at a critical time, and this, perhaps more than any other element, was the true value of Operation Medusa. Certainly, this concept is continuously examined throughout, although its validity is left to the opinion of the reader. That said, Colonel Horn introduces the influence of politics enough throughout that it is impossible not to notice how significant a role politics had to play, and there are enough examples and quotations that it is difficult for the reader not to form an opinion on the subject.

The core of this book concerns roughly the August-to-October time period during the autumn of 2006. Much of it follows the significant events of the period, and the individual soldiers whose acts of gallantry and bravery were witnessed by fellow soldiers on the battlefield. Every single event is substantiated by numerous witnesses, and the courage displayed by all Canadian soldiers is really quite remarkable.  Some of the discussion clearly concerns the significance of Medusa, especially in its perceived role as saviour of NATO, but far the more interesting are the recollections of individual soldiers at all levels and how they remembered and perceived given situations. Horn has done an excellent job of capturing the confusion of the moment, and supporting statements from soldiers on the ground make for some very interesting and thought provoking reading.  Framing all this discussion are supporting comments from various levels of command in headquarters both internal and external to Afghanistan, as well as some reflection upon the political influences that shaped decisions and directly affected the battlefield. It is all very compelling, and, at times, even overwhelming to consider the degree to which key events are managed, and at what level.

Clearly, an enormous effort has gone into ensuring the accuracy of this work, and it is almost worth acquiring it just to read the notes. They clearly reflect the attention to detail of a diligent historian, their accuracy is evident, and they contribute immensely to sheer volume of knowledge present within this book.

No Lack of Courage is clearly aimed at a military audience, or, at least, at someone familiar with the military manner of speech and is not intimidated by acronyms. I personally enjoyed this book, and I learned much about a battle with which I thought I already had some familiarity. When the final history is written about Canada in Afghanistan, I fully expect Medusa will constitute one of the chapters. Until then, Colonel Horn's No Lack of Courage makes a fine addition to anyone's Canadian military history collection.

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Major Matthew Sprague is an infantry officer with The Royal Canadian Regiment. He is currently on staff at the Land Force Doctrine and Training System headquarters in Kingston, Ontario.

Notes

  1. http://www.google.ca/#hl=en&source=hp&biw=1920&bih=1041&q=operation+medusa&aq=
    f&aqi=g-s1g-v9&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=&fp=6a0673dc5c3f3912
    . 66,300 results as of 21 December 2010.
  2. Adam Day, Operation Medusa: The Battle for Panjwai, Part 1 (September 2007), Part 2 (November 2007), and Part 3 (January 2008). Legion Magazine.
  3. Christie Blatchford, Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2007).
  4. Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope's Dancing with the Dushman: Command Imperatives for the Counter-Insurgency fight in Afghanistan (Kingston, ON: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2008), is an excellent companion read for the TF 1-06 perspective.

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