Confronting the Chaos – By Sean M. Maloney – Published by the Naval Institute Press – 256 pp.
(This Review by Mike Kennedy was previously published in the Veritas magazine in 2010.)
Not too long ago, an issue of Military History magazine featured a cover story entitled “Indomitable Afghanistan” which discussed the reasons why no foreign power has ever been able to conquer that remote and enigmatic nation. Reading the article, it is not hard to see why: the country’s inhospitable terrain, and the tenacious, resourceful, and incredibly resilient character of its inhabitants, have long made Afghanistan an exceedingly tough nut to crack for any occupying army. This was a lesson that the British learned the hard way during the 19th century, and the same held true for the Soviet Union a hundred years later.
Today, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, soldiers serving under the Canadian flag have been working tirelessly to bring order and new hope to a foreign land that in many ways has changed very little since the Middle Ages. In Confronting the Chaos, Dr. Sean Maloney, a professor at RMC and self-styled “rogue military historian”, paints a vivid picture of the challenges Canada’s men and women in uniform are facing as they attempt to help rebuild Afghanistan into a nation that will be capable of functioning in the modern world.
For readers like myself, Confronting the Chaos can be a somewhat challenging book. The first half of the book, in which Maloney attempts to describe the background of the war in Afghanistan and the complexities and nuances of the current situation, can at times be a rather tedious and confusing read. Things aren’t helped by the author’s very liberal us of a wide variety of acronyms, and the absence of a glossary that explains their meaning.
The situation brightens considerably once you reach the final chapter, which takes up approximately the last one hundred pages of the book. Maloney devotes this section to discussing the work of Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in Afghanistan. Having spent an extensive amount of time on the ground with those who are serving there, he’s able to provide a fascinating and quite realistic portrayal of what he has observed.
In reading this book, a number of interesting messages come out of Confronting the Chaos. One relates to the importance of the need for military personnel to be attuned to the cultural sensitivities of foreign environments in which they may be serving. As anyone who is familiar with the history of the Vietnam war will know, one of the Americans’ greatest failings in that conflict was their apparent inability to understand that country’s unique and distinctive culture. As a result, the massive efforts that were expended to influence the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people proved to be a dismal failure.
In contrast, Maloney’s book demonstrates that Canadians serving in Afghanistan have gone to great lengths to understand the Afghan culture, and have used this knowledge to enhance their operational effectiveness. He notes that this approach was aptly reflected by a slogan that emanated from the Canadian Task Force Bayonet, “Put an Afghan face on every solution.”
Another interesting theme that emerges from the book relates to the issues that can be associated with conducting operations in formations composed of units and personnel representing a variety of different nationalities. Maloney notes that the difficulties that can arise due to conflicting agendas and different ways of doing business can make accomplishing the overall mission infinitely more challenging. He also makes it clear that he was less than totally impressed with some of Canada’s allies in Afghanistan. For example, Confronting the Chaos offers few kind words for the French, and also relates stories of Maloney’s encounters with certain Americans who proved difficult to deal with.
In my view, perhaps one of the most important questions raised by books like Confronting the Chaos may relate to the need to adapt the nature of the program at RMC to prepare future graduates for the kinds of challenges they will encounter in environments like Afghanistan. Certainly, the spit-and-polish focus and obsession with largely artificial standards that was such a central part of the RMC experience when I was at the College 35 years ago produced people who looked wonderful whenever the Cadet Wing went on parade. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that, in at least some important respects, many if not most of my contemporaries would have been woefully ill-prepared to deal with the ambiguous, constantly changing situations that Canada’s soldiers in Afghanistan are now struggling with.
Now that the prospect of serving in a war zone has become a very real possibility for many cadets who are nearing graduation, maybe the time has come to take at hard look at the RMC program, and how it can more effectively prepare future officers for the kinds of missions they may have to serve on. While it’s true that tradition has always served as an important source of strength for institutions like RMC, there’s little benefit to be gained by steadfastly adhering to time-honoured ways of doing things that have been rendered obsolete by changing circumstances.
As an overall assessment, while Confronting the Chaos may sometimes lack the journalistic flair of other books like Christie Blatchford’s Fifteen Days, it will be a nonetheless interesting and worthwhile read for anyone who is seeking to understand what’s really going on in Afghanistan. For sure, Sean Maloney deserves a great deal of credit for his willingness to accompany Canadian troops into the battle zones, and share the same hardships and dangers that they face. His accounts of their day-to-day experiences are excellent, and his book also provides an interesting, if sometimes hard to follow, overview of the big picture issues that have shaped the evolution of this conflict.
Ex-Cadets looking for some interesting Christmas reading may wish to put Confronting the Chaos on their list. If nothing else, this book is a compelling reminder of the fact that the Canadians who are now in Afghanistan are indeed very worthy successors to their forebears who so ably served this country in previous wars.