Book Cover – Fighting for Afghanistan

Book Cover – Fighting for Afghanistan

Fighting for Afghanistan. A Rogue Historian at War

by Sean M. Maloney

Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2011
352 pages, $53.50 HC
ISBN 978-1-59114-509-7

Reviewed by Bernd Horn

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I suspect that many historians will make their judgment on the book from the cover alone.  As one can determine from Dr. Sean Maloney's remarks in his acknowledgement, he has a polarizing effect upon many. You either like his work, or you do not. Having said that, I believe his title is appropriate. Many historians would consider Sean's work roguish, if for no other reason than his approach. He has written a history of the early phase of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan, namely Spring/Summer 2006, from a very personal perspective. The book is, in essence, a literary reality show starring Sean Maloney. It is a snapshot of his personal time, travels, and experience in-theatre. His history of events, their genesis and execution, are all based upon his observations, investigative questioning, and assessments. He admits as much.

Puritans and traditionalists will undoubtedly cringe. There are virtually no endnotes or sources. The few that are provided reference only his own previous work. In the end, you are left with two simple choices - you either accept what he says and his assessment at face value, or you do not. Adding to the potential discomfort of some historians is the fact that the narrative text is gritty, very personal, and replete with expletives.

Having said all of that - I liked it. The account of CTF Aegis and TF Orion is fast-paced and detailed. Importantly, it provides insight into the decision making, complexities, and challenges with which leaders at the company to task force level had to wrestle. Where Christie Blanchford's renowned work, Fifteen Days, tells the tale of the Spring/Summer battles through an intimate detailed account of events from the perspective of a number of soldiers who fought in those climatic engagements, Sean's account helps explain how and why our soldiers engaged in those deadly combats.

The book is raw in its narrative delivery. However, it captures the complexity and terror of war and conflict better than sterile accounts based upon memorandums and reports, where the smells of cordite, fear, sweat, and death are not at all present. His reflection upon those who deal with the dead and wounded brings to the fore the true cost of conflict, and the price still being paid by survivors. In all, the book is very real, and he captures many of the underlying issues of the conflict well. He very ably provides a riveting account that describes the scope of the fighting in southern Afghanistan from an insider perspective close to decision making at various levels during the time period. Maloney also commendably explains the complexity and difficulty of balancing security and development, as well as the challenges of operating in an ambiguous, alien, and harsh environment while attempting to conduct counter-insurgency (COIN) operations.

To support the text, the book also provides 15 black-and-white photos that capture key personalities, as well as some of the equipment used by Canadians, and the terrain with which they had to contend.  More importantly, the volume contains seven detailed maps that allow the reader to understand and follow the operations and battles described. The book also includes three graphics that help explain COIN theory.

Undisputedly, Dr. Maloney is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable historians with regard to Canada's engagement in Afghanistan. He is the Canadian Army's designated historian, and is currently writing the history of the Canadian Army in Afghanistan. He has spent many months in theatre with virtually all the Canadian battle groups that rotated through Kandahar. He is well-connected and knowledgeable on the subject, and, as such, he brings insight not available elsewhere. Maloney helps fill in gaps that are not readily available in archival files. Nonetheless, the most significant criticism I have with the book is that Sean makes no effort to provide substantiation of his conclusions or assessments. The complete lack of any sources or justification for conclusions leaves the reader, as noted earlier, in a tough bind. It almost comes across as an arrogant, ‘… take my assessment at face value or too bad for you, I don't have to explain myself.’ In the end, it detracts from the work, as the reader is left wondering what really happened in a given circumstance on occasion. For instance, he refers on  numerous occasions to the "assassination" of Canadian diplomat Glynn Berry. However, an exhaustive Board of Inquiry that investigated the incident, and all those involved for months, determined categorically that this was a case of ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ Sean's choice of stressing the "assassination" conspiracy theory without providing any context or substantiation, or at least making known why this was done in light of official findings contrary to his viewpoint, is unfortunate.

Overall, I found the book interesting and provocative. The writing is crisp and moves quickly. I strongly recommend the book to military historians, military practitioners, and the general public alike. In the end, it provides an excellent snapshot of COIN in the Afghan theatre of operation during Spring/Summer 2006.

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, is the Chief of Staff Strategic Education and Training Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy . He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada .