The Huffington Post Canada is proud to be a sponsor of the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the March 10 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing blog posts and excerpts from the five finalists. Here is Graeme Smith, author of the short-listed The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, with an excerpt from his book.
We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart. When I started following the surges of troops into Kandahar and surrounding provinces in 2005, I felt excited by the idea that the international community could bring the whole basket of civilization to the south: peace, democracy, rule of law, all those things. Now the foreign troops are withdrawing. We have abandoned our lofty goals. Now it's all about damage control, about exercising options that limit embarrassment. The years when our armies pounded their way into the south will be remembered for heights of violence that exceeded the gruesome body count of the Taliban wars in the 1990s. Every wave of foreign troops coincided with more skirmishes, more assassinations, more bloodshed. Our attempts to set up a moderate Afghan administration gave birth to a regime that resembled neither a fully democratic government nor a group capable of ruling its entire territory. It failed the basic test of statehood: monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Ordinary people turned to Taliban courts in search of justice less corrupt than the system imposed by outsiders. The insurgents were not defeated. We killed thousands of them, but their movement would not die.
It's not just that the foreigners gave up on dreams of a better future for southern Afghanistan, but that we're leaving a dangerous mess. Like the old bombs and landmines buried all over the stricken landscape, the south is now waiting to explode. Many expect another civil war; others fear anarchy.
This moment when we hold our breath, watching anxiously as the foreign troops pull back, should serve as a time of reflection about our mistakes. Far away from the air-conditioned headquarters where the foreigners made their plans, all of the good intentions collided with reality. The result was tragic, and comic, and should be studied carefully. As this phase of the war lurches to a bitter conclusion, we might also pause to lament.
That kind of self-reflection is not likely to happen inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, because NATO claims victory. The greatest military alliance in human history will probably fail to think clearly about the biggest action it has ever attempted outside its own territory. It will say, accurately, that its soldiers fought bravely. Glossy brochures will get filled with images of aid projects. Photographs of smiling children in the green valleys of the north will misrepresent NATO's legacy, however, as long as violence rages in the dusty south. The historical fact is that nobody has ever ruled Afghanistan without holding Kandahar, the largest city in the southern region. This vital part of the country remains an open wound, needing somehow to get stitched up.
But what kind of surgery can repair a country? Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting, or drilled into skulls to treat madness. With the same ignorant faith in our methods, we now invade a country with crushing force and try to drain away ideas that we find dangerous, as if bombs and bullets could cure the illness of extremism. Not all intervention is misguided, of course; I was standing in Benghazi when the tanks of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi rolled toward us in the spring of 2011, and I've never felt so relieved to hear that NATO decided to take action. The Libyan war may yet emerge as a success story for the nascent science of healing sick countries with military force. Afghanistan looks like the opposite case: the patient may survive, but the doctor wasn't much help.
I wasn't always so skeptical about the effort. A different metaphor lured me into war: an idea that gave me real enthusiasm about the Afghan mission. Somebody told me a story of ancient mapmakers who struggled with the blank spaces on their vellum charts, the emptiness of places never visited by cartographers. They drew monsters at the edges of the known world, inventing fables about lions, serpents and basilisks that might devour an unwary traveller. "Here be dragons" read the most famous inscription. I can't remember the name of the soldier who told me this, but his words remain clear: "The thing about modern civilization," he said, "is that we can't stand those empty spots. The dragons fly out and bite you in the ass."
These blank spaces were what attracted me to southern Afghanistan. Once upon a time, the theory goes, it didn't matter if a state failed. Whole empires collapsed without affecting countries on the other side of the planet. Now the world is looped and threaded with shipping routes, flight paths, optical fibres across the sea floor. The fabric of civilization cannot tolerate frayed edges. You cannot leave a blank space like Afghanistan of the 1990s, ruled by zealots and neglected by the international community. You cannot scribble "Here be dragons" and walk away. The country gets infested by terrorists. Hijacked planes come streaking out of the sky. The dragons bite you in the ass.
Excerpted from The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Copyright © 2013 Graeme Smith. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
What the jury said: "Veteran foreign correspondent Smith delivers an evocative, on-the-spot, compassionate, and ultimately devastating report from the front-line of Canada's confused mission in southern Afghanistan. This is a grim, maddening, and entirely compelling account of an international debacle, told with dry humour, stoic prose and a gallery of memorable, resilient characters. As Canada leaves Afghanistan, Smith analyzes our achievements there and what exactly we left behind in the dust. 'We lost the war,' Smith laments, 'and it broke my heart.'"
What the jury said: "Histories of North America's Native Peoples abound, but few are as subversive, entertaining, well-researched, hilarious, enraging, and finally as hopeful as this very personal take on our long relationship with the the 'inconvenient' Indian. King dissects idealized myths (noble Hiawatha, servile Tonto, the Sixties nature guru) against the tragic backdrop of real Indians abused in mission schools, penned together on reserves, and bludgeoned by vicious or ham-fisted government policies. A sharp, informed eye is cast on Riel, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, on the dark and tangled stories of Native land claims, on Alcatraz, Will Rogers (a Cherokee), and the maid on Land o' Lakes butter; on Batoche, on Wounded Knee. In this thoughtful, irascible account, and in characteristically tricksterish mode, King presents a provocative alternative version of Canada's heritage narrative."
What the jury said: "In 1915, a teenaged domestic servant shoots and kills her master, a scion of the rich and redoubtable Massey family in Toronto. Historian and biographer Charlotte Gray takes this incident as the starting gate for a fascinating tour not only of the sensational trial in post-Edwardian Toronto, but also of the social currents of the period: feminism, nationalism, imperialism, immigration, inequality of rich and poor -- issues which reverberate today. Gray brilliantly creates a double narrative, with the famous trial intensively researched and re-enacted, and the state of the nation shown to mirror and complement the courtroom imbroglio. The Massey Murder is many things -- a crime novel, a family history, a societal x-ray, set in the early months of World War one -- all under the firm control of a masterful historian, researcher, and prose stylist."
What the jury said: "With beautifully lyrical prose, impeccable research, and a menagerie of natural-history lore, this is a completely original meditation on the status of our natural world and its future. MacKinnon takes us deep inside the fascinating field of historical ecology to lay bare an uncomfortable fact: that the nature we claim to love has never really been. Flora and fauna are in a constant state of flux, and we are just one of the many players in its ongoing evolution. A thought-provoking and intensely personal new analysis of our ecological reality, The Once and Future World is top-class nature writing, offering a modest proposal for the health of our planet that every Canadian can embrace."
What the jury said: "Biographer Stouck brings a subtle yet distinct narrative flair to this study of the whirlwind, colorful life of Canada's most famous architect. The genius behind Simon Fraser University, Roy Thomson Hall, and many other private and public gems was a complicated man with more tragic flaws than a Greek drama. Through deeply sensitive portrayals of Erickson's idealistic philosophy of art, his creative and financial troubles, his charisma, his arrogance, and his sexual identity. His full-length portrait also reveals much about the cultural life and personalities of Vancouver in the 1940s and 50s. This book tells all, and in the telling is a work of art in itself."
Follow Graeme Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/smithkabul