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Tuesday, March 1, 2005

WHAT SECRET? WHAT WAR? - The Ghosts of the Medak Pocket


 March 1, 2005,  Books in Canada

The Ghosts of Medak Pocket
The Story of Canada's Secret War
by Carol Off
Random House Canada
ISBN: 0-678-31293-5

The flyleaf of The Ghosts of the Medak Pocket tantalises:
"Off introduces a group of Canadian soldiers who fought valiantly against the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and won.

...a unit of Canadian peacekeepers planted themselves between besieged Serbs and the advancing Croat army. The Canadians held their ground when attacked and engaged the Croats in the most intense combat Canadian forces had seen since the Korean War. After eighteen bloody hours, they stemmed the advance, saved the UN protected zone and rescued an embattled peacekeeping mission from irrelevance.."

In almost every detail these claims are untrue.

This is the story in a nutshell: In 1991, in the first phase of the Yugoslavian wars, Serbian forces took large areas of the newly independent Croatia where there were Serbian populations, expelling the Croats. In early 1992 former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance brokered a ceasefire under which the Serb gains would become United Nations Protected Areas patrolled by a United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR. The Serbs were content with their gains, which were in effect frozen by the Vance Plan, and Croatia was too weak to do anything about them.

Canada contributed a battalion of about 900 soldiers to UNPROFOR. In the third rotation of Canadians in UNPROFOR, what was called the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry but made up of soldiers from several units, including reservists, arrived in Croatia in March 1993. In September Croatian forces took the Medak Pocket, a bump in the Serbian held South UN Protected Area. After a few days the Croatians agreed to withdraw. Soldiers from the PPCLI were to take over the Serbian lines, go across to the Croatians and follow them out of the Pocket. On September 15 and 16 one platoon was repeatedly fired at by Croatian soldiers in a neighbouring wood. The Canadians fired back. The Croatians went away. It seems likely that some were killed. There were no Canadian casualties.

This is billed as the first time Canadian soldiers were actually in battle since the Korean War. Off undertakes to set it in context and assess its implications. The actual fighting is described in a few pages two thirds of the way through the book. On the way there Off attempts a brief history of Yugoslavia, introduces us to many of the soldiers who served in the rotation and describes the rough and often harrowing time they had in Croatia. She also tells the stories of Canadian Croats who were involved in the most chauvinist tendencies of Croatia's politics. The rest of the book describes evidence of Croatian atrocities discovered by the soldiers after the Croatians withdrew from the Pocket, the mental and physical disabilities many of the soldiers suffered after they returned to Canada and the alleged neglect of the story until in 2002 a special Governor General's Commendation was invented for the soldiers and the engagement came to be talked of as a major victory in the line from Vimy and Ortona to Kap'Yong. The language of the Commendation is even more extravagant than that on the flyleaf:
"Under conditions of extreme peril and hazard, facing enemy artillery, small arms and heavy machine gun fire as well as anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, the members of the 2 PPCLI BG held their ground and drove the Croatian forces back. The exemplary actions of the 2 PPCLI BG caused the Croatian Army to cease their ongoing tactics of "ethnic cleansing" in the sector, without question saving many innocent civilian lives."

The book is written in the style of "good magazine writing": our author will tell us all we need to know and what to think about it. People are introduced with thumbnail sketches and seem to come from central casting: "a sternfaced man with intense blue eyes", "a muscle-bound rock-jawed man". We get to follow the author's own footsteps as she visits the places where the Patricias served. She overwrites: "the unfathomable maw of Balkan history". She jumps back and forth from Croatia to Canada and from the 1990's to World War II. There are no pictures, only bits of conversation and one page of pretty well useless maps.

The book raises many questions, which Off seems not to want to answer.

Did Canadian soldiers win a victory? Some other soldiers fired on them and the Canadians, for once, fired back. The other soldiers went away. We have no Croatian account of the engagement. Officially it did not happen. So we do not know why the Croatians opened fire on the Canadians. Did they think they were Serbs? Did they, not unreasonably, think they were helping the Serbs? Did they just want to delay their withdrawal? The Croatians were certainly dragging their feet. We cannot say the Canadians won a victory for we cannot say what was at stake for either side.

We cannot even say for certain, if it matters, and it seems to, that our soldiers killed anyone. The men who were there believe they did. Off suggests it may have been as many as 27, because the Croatians admitted that that many of their troops died in the Pocket, but most of them must have been killed by Serbs. One of the odd things in Off's story is the number of times she describes Patricias being shelled and shot at, in whatever quarters they managed to find, without firing back and without any of them being killed or wounded. The combination of danger and impotence was grim for the soldiers. But why were they being shelled and how did they emerge unscathed, unless in their minds?

If the Canadians had won a victory, what would it have meant? As the flyleaf suggests, we should have been fighting for the Serbs. Situated as they were among Serbs and with the Croats eager to get back their land the Canadians tended to think they were on the Serb side. As Off writes: "The Serbs became the white hats." Why should Canadian soldiers have been fighting for the Serbs. Did anyone in Ottawa intend that? Did Canadians want it?

The Canadians did not stop ethnic cleansing. It doesn't take much time. In the few days the Croatians were in the Medak Pocket they did, as the Patricias discovered, a pretty thorough job. The most likely explanation for the Croatians firing on the Canadians is that they wanted a bit more time. They got it.

Nor did the Canadians "save the UN protected zone and rescue an embattled peacekeeping mission from irrelevance." The Patricias tried, as other UN contingents did not, to disarm the Serbs in their areas, but they had mixed success. None of the key elements in the Vance Plan were carried out. When they were ready the Croatians simply took the UN Protected Areas back from the Serbs. UN peacekeeping and all the international activity over Yugoslavia proved irrelevant. The only question is whether it prolonged the conflict.

Canadians are supposed to be experts at peacekeeping. Judging by Yugoslavia we haven't a clue. Far from our having invented peacekeeping, it would be truer to say that peacekeeping has yet to be invented. Extraordinarily, despite the neglect bordering on contempt that the army faces in Canada, the Patricias seem generally to have made of themselves pretty good soldiers. But once they were in Croatia no one seems to have had a clear idea what they should do.

It is insinuated that Lt. Col. Jim Calvin, the Patricias' commander, was spoiling for a fight and too keen to put his men in harm's way. He did not have to look hard to find it and there seems to have been  no responsible chain of command leading either to the UN or Ottawa to rein him in or unleash him.

Frequently Off sees military action as a kind of extreme sport, a route to an adrenaline rush: "After each successful encounter...they would run around...hugging each other, high on adrenaline. It was a kind of lethal sports match...". This suggest a military vocation cut loose from its purpose, the service of the country, cut loose by neglect and the peacekeeping conceit.

Then after the high there was the down. There were many stories of psychological and physical ailments in returning soldiers. Whether some were ill because of exposure to contaminants in Croatia and whether Warrant Officer Matt Stopford was poisoned by his men Off does not know. We can know that an army cannot defend us if its men come back from deployments psychologically and physically disabled by the experience itself and not from enemy fire. Exactly what our men suffer from remains a mystery. The explanation is not a bureaucratic cover up, still less the age old horror of war, but the false position Canadians put them in, pretending to recruit soldiers while insisting they will be peacekeepers.

In a statement before the Sharpe Inquiry into the Potential Exposure of Canadian Forces to a Contaminated Environment Sergeant Chris Byrne complained that they had been led into a war " when they had only signed on as peacekeepers.":
"If I sound bitter in this statement it is because I am.... We were not peacekeepers. We were not soldiers. We were nothing over there. We weren't there to establish peace because there was no peace to begin with."

In the typical Canadian peacekeeping assignment our role was better described as truce observers. We arrived, as in Suez, well after the fighting had stopped. Not because of our peacekeeping, but for military and political reasons, both sides no longer wanted to fight. In Yugoslavia there never was a peace to keep. There were only lulls in the fighting. In the end Croatia simply took back the UN Protected Areas in August 1995 committing its fair share of atrocities under the noses of the peacekeepers. It was a move that coinciding with NATO strikes against the Bosnian Serbs led directly to the Dayton Accords and at last a kind of peace.

Was the story of the fighting of September 15 and 16, 1993 suppressed or unfairly neglected? The Globe and Mail reported on September 17:
"When peacekeepers first entered the area on Wednesday, they came under sniper and anti-aircraft fire, and they returned fire."
That about sums it up. On the inflated view Off takes of the engagement is was not enough. But no Canadians were killed and Canadians had other things on their minds. The election that would bring Jean Chr├ętien to power was in full swing. Lewis Mackenzie was on his book tour. The main news from Yugoslavia was about Bosnia. Canadians have seldom paid much attention to what their soldiers were doing since the Korean war ended. It would have spoiled the conceit of the peacekeeping nation to look too closely at how pointless and questionable our activity had been. It took time for the uniqueness of the Medal Pocket fighting to sink in.

The story is partly an artifact of journalism. A highly dramatic account of the Patricias deployment in Croatia entitled "Canada's Secret Battle" by David Pugliese was published in the Ottawa Citizen in October 1996 and immediately taken up by newspapers and television across the country. The actual fighting of September 15 and 16 was conflated with the general difficulties and dangers the Patricias faced. Pugliese's secret battle has now become Off's secret war.

The story of the fighting in the Medak Pocket was not that a big thing happened and no one heard about it, but that an unusual thing happened because no one in Canada has given any thought for decades to what our soldiers are supposed to be doing and Canadians still do not know what to think about it. Off's book will not help them.