Book Reviews

First Soldiers Down Book Cover

First Soldiers Down Book Cover

First Soldiers Down. Canada's Friendly Fire Deaths in Afghanistan

by Ron Corbett 
Toronto: Dundurn, 2012
238 pages,  $28.99 (PB)
ISBN-10: 1459703278 

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Reviewed by Bernd Horn

This is a powerful book. But, it sneaks up on you. Ron Corbett, award winning writer, journalist, broadcaster, and university educator, takes a very personal look at the 17 April 2002 friendly fire incident when two American F-16 pilots mistakenly engaged Alpha Company, of the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, while they were conducting live fire training at Tarnak Farm in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The split-second decision to drop a 500 pound bomb resulted in four dead soldiers and numerous wounded.
The event had a dramatic impact in Canada. The dead soldiers were universally described as the country's first combat fatalities since the Korean War. Canadians publicly mourned their dead. The Friendly Fire incident arguably became a turning point. It graphically symbolized the resurgence of Canadian support for its men and women in uniform, support which had dramatically faltered and had reached an all time low by the end of the 1990s, due to a series of scandals and loss of trust in the institution by both the government and the people of Canada.  The tragic friendly fire incident also helped prepare the nation for the difficult service in Afghanistan that transpired in the years that followed.

Corbett tells this emotional story in journalistic fashion. The text is quick moving and very personal. He uses the commanding officer at the time, Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran, specifically his journey to speak to the families of the fallen, as the vehicle to recount the story.  Within this narrative he weaves in the historical details and events, and embeds the personal stories of those affected by the tragedy. He starts by recounting the road to that chaotic night at Tarnak Farms, touching on each of the fallen and their families, and then transitions to the aftermath of the event and the impact it had upon those left behind. In many ways, it is more a story of loss and grief than it is a historical recollection of events. Corbett tackles the difficult issue of grappling with loss, as well as the rationalization of the cost of military operations. The insights at times are quite revealing.

Here is where the book's impact sneaks up on the reader. A fast read, with, on the surface, little ‘heavy slogging’ to understand political or historical nuance or undercurrents, all of a sudden, the readers find themselves entwined in the personal stories, tragedy, and struggle of those involved directly or indirectly in the friendly fire incident. It brings home the impact that was played out across the country so many times during the ensuing war.

For those looking for historical and operational detail on the mission itself, however, the book will ‘fall a bit flat.’ There is scant attention paid to the actual combat mission. Brief overviews of some of the tasks and operations are given, but they provide little real substance or understanding of the mission or its challenges. The description of the friendly fire incident itself, however, is quite dramatic and moving. 
To support the text, the author has included 30 black-and-white photos that depict key personalities, as well as some of the events surrounding the story in question. As indicated earlier, the book really has a journalistic bent. There are no endnotes, references, or even an index. It is, in the end, a story of some personal journeys through tragedy.

Overall, the book is engaging and powerful. The writing is strong, and the emotional narrative moves quickly. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the event in general, and the impact upon those it touched in particular.    

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, is the Chief of Staff Strategic Education and Training Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy.