The Huffington Post Canada is delighted to once again be partnering with the Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. In the weeks leading up to the April 2 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.
A note from the author Graeme Smith: My book is a lament for our lost ambitions in Afghanistan, and a grisly examination of how things went wrong with the NATO surges in the south. It's focused on Kandahar, because that's the only part of Afghanistan I can describe in any detail -- by transcribing audio and notes from my years in the southern provinces. I want you to emerge from the book feeling a bit uneasy, perhaps a little tainted, unable to shake off the lingering images of war. You need to read about the days when I got the charred flesh of suicide bombers stuck in the treads of my shoes. You need to hear about the night when Canadian soldiers used human bodies as bait for insurgents - which resulted in the title, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. Why? Because we don't have clean hands in Afghanistan. It's morally repugnant to declare victory at this point, while the war is not over. But that's the message you're hearing from Western leaders: that the job is finished. Troops are withdrawing and aid money is dwindling. It's all too easy for the international community to switch off, moving along to the next crisis without reflecting back on this awful war -- and most tragically, abandoning the Afghan people to deal with a mess in the south. The book concludes with a plea for continued engagement. Our troop surges failed to bring peace and stability, but we need to stay involved with Afghanistan and find better ways of helping the country.
The soldiers were brave, generous and devoted to their friends. I was basically an excited kid, recording what felt in some ways like a climactic battle between the forces of barbarism and civilization -- but my notes include scraps of information that I should have investigated more carefully. My translators called me with reports of civilian casualties, and I documented some of them, but forgot about many others. I wrote down the name of a man rumoured to have lost his entire family in an air strike ("perhaps five sons, two daughters, one wife killed") but I never found him. Such professional failures would haunt me later when I ranted about the lack of media resources to track events in southern Afghanistan. Some of that anger would be secretly aimed at myself for allowing stories to slip away.
One of those missed stories that still bothers me was passed along from a reconnaissance unit prowling ahead of the front lines at night. The soldiers usually found no trace of their enemies except blood trails disappearing into the undergrowth, because the insurgents were efficient at removing their dead and observing the Muslim custom of a quick burial. But in the chaos of Operation Medusa, some of the bodies were left behind. One night a Canadian reconnaissance platoon decided to use Taliban corpses as bait, dragging them out from the leafy cover of the farmland and marking them with infrared glow sticks. The soldiers hid themselves and waited for the insurgents to collect their dead. Hours ticked by, with the troops poised to fire -- but nobody fell for the trap. The stench of death attracted wild dogs, which spent the night ripping chunks off the bodies while the Canadians watched through their gun scopes.
The soldiers casually joked about it afterward; in one of my audio recordings, an officer sounds casual about it. "We hit a couple of guys over here," he said. "Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now."