Book Reviews

The Patrol Book Cover

The Patrol Book Cover

The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier

by Ryan Flavelle
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
251 pages, $29.99 (HC)
ISBN-10: 1443407178
ISBN-13: 978-1443407175

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Reviewed by Marshall S. Horne

Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, but for an entire generation of Canadian soldiers the memories of war will never be fully expunged. Most will probably never share their stories with the outside world. They are simply too personal for those who have no concept of what it is like to carry a C7A2 assault rifle across an Afghan grape field. Yet some, such as Master Corporal (now Sergeant) Ryan Flavelle, a recent graduate of the University of Calgary’s Master of Strategic Studies program with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, will constitute a small minority of Afghan combat veterans who will share their intimate experience with a wider audience. Consequently, memoirs like The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan will come to define how the Canadian public understands the nature of the Afghanistan War, and what it is like to be a soldier on patrol.

As a reservist with 746 Communications Squadron, Flavelle augmented the seven-month rotation of Second Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) in 2008. Attached as the signaler to the officer commanding of Bravo Company, he spent the majority of his deployment at ‘Castle Greyskull,’ better known as Patrol Base Sperwan Ghar in the northern region of Kandahar Province. Flavelle lived, worked, and patrolled ‘at the sharp end’ of the Afghan conflict, far removed from the Tim Hortons, shopping outlets, and “mind numbing boredom” of Kandahar Airfield (KAF). Although The Patrol frequently details Flavelle’s thoughts of home, Afghanistan, and the Canadian military in general, its focus depicts a single seven-day combat patrol between Sperwan Ghar and Mushan that “served as the focal point” of his Afghan experience and how Flavelle came to “see myself as a man.”

The Patrol is exceptional for several reasons.  Most obviously, it is the particular insight it provides into combat patrolling in Afghanistan. Simply put, patrolling is the ritual and tradition of the infantryman (or woman). Its basics can be easily learned - “keep your spacing, cover doors, and take a knee” - but Flavelle makes it painfully obvious that patrolling is more of a physical and mental challenge than a technical or tactical challenge. The unrelenting heat of Afghanistan, the weight of a seventy kilogram kit, the unquenchable thirst, and the constant threat poised by unknown IEDs characterize just a few of these challenges. In many ways, the Taliban combatant exists almost as an afterthought. And yet, central to the tradition of patrolling is the soldier’s devotion to endure any hardship without complaint. To display any form of reluctance or weakness is to disrupt the ritual and to question your capability as a soldier in front of your peers. At one point, Flavelle risks succumbing to heat stroke rather than admitting weakness by seeking immediate medical assistance. This is only one of the several examples of personal endurance that Flavelle describes.

The Patrol is also somewhat unique in that it describes the many identity conflicts existing within the current Canadian military. As a reservist augmentee, Flavelle often feels excluded from the close-knit camaraderie of the regular force PPCLI. As a signaler, Flavelle self identifies as a nerd, more at ease in repairing a radio than among the “high school locker room” of regular soldiers. He identifies these soldiers as “warriors,” but quickly dismisses - perhaps a little too quickly - any such notion that he is one of them.  Instead, Flavelle simply remains honoured to have lived and patrolled among such dedicated warriors.

Another contradiction exists between the officer and soldier “WOGs” (an undefined derogatory term) of KAF. There is an instant disdain for anyone that wears a red maple leaf insignia, bloused trousers, or field caps, the clear identifiers of soldiers that do not journey “outside the wire,” and have thus not shared the burden of the army’s patrolling tradition. But perhaps the most interesting contradiction is Flavelle’s ‘take’ with respect to the “new” and “old” army.  Specifically, he challenges the notion that today’s soldiers are somehow part of a softer, kinder, and gentler army. Toward the more senior members of the “old” army, Flavelle gripes that he is “… tired of hearing about how drunk you were back when you were peacekeeping in Cyprus.” Although there were certainly dangers to Canada’s long-standing peacekeeping mission to Cyprus, they are simply incomparable to those of the Afghan war. “Cyprus,” retorts Flavelle, “is where we go to vacation.”  The “new” army may appear to some as soft, yet the operational hazards it endured in Afghanistan were unparalleled since Korea.

Ultimately, the strength of The Patrol is derived from two different sources. The first is in the nature of Flavelle’s memoir. In the main, the power of The Patrol is in its depth, not its breadth. Instead of broadly recapping his seven-month deployment and simply providing the cursory details and highlights of his war experience, Flavelle focuses upon the single event that is unquestionably forever etched into his memory.  Thus, the reader gains a deeper appreciation of patrolling, the life of a Canadian soldier, and the war in Afghanistan in general than would otherwise have been achieved in a more expansive and superficial memoir. The second strength is Flavelle’s honest, naked portrayal of the events contained within the patrol. The emotions are raw, and there is no attempt to make himself into a hero or political motivation to justify the Afghan War. Instead there is only an attempt to understand himself and his constitution as events unfold around him.

This memoir is deeply personal, vulnerable, and refreshingly candid. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, or those that ponder the nature and traditions of soldiering.

Marshall S. Horne is a third year PhD Candidate with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.