Book Review: What the Thunder Said

This book is somewhat unique in the emerging canon of history of the Canadian engagement in Afghanistan, in that it focuses on logistics support to Task Force Orion from the perspective of the commander of the National Support Element. Conrad is forthright in his assessment of the challenges and lessons learned from a combat support tasking significantly different to that point in time from any previously experienced by the Canadian Forces. In particular, he examines what he refers to as “nearly 40 years of intellectual neglect of combat logistics by the Canadian Forces”.  He makes the case that this neglect nearly caused the failure of sustainment of Task Force Orion, and required ad hoc responses to combat conditions and sustainment requirements not addressed in current doctrine.

The idea that logistics is not necessarily considered a priority by the combat arms which rely on it for success is not new, but is not often discussed publicly or dispassionately. To do so presents the challenge of identifying and addressing a problem that might have significant potential for disaster in military operations, while at the same time not being accused of mere whining. It will be interesting to learn from the collected experience of our membership what you think of this issue:  is there an elitist attitude on the parts of the combat arms vis a vis Logistics?  If so, could this adversely affect the assignment of sufficient resources for adequate logistics support? Does this attitude prevail in all operational environments; i.e. navy, army and air force? What can we, as Logisticians, do about it?

By February 2006, the focus of Canada’s military effort in Afghanistan had traversed from the relatively stable central region of Kabul to Kandahar province as the Canadian-led Multinational Brigade conducted a “relief in place” with the US 173 Airborne Task Force Bayonet, and assumed responsibility for the volatile area known as Regional Command South (RC South).  Canadian military leadership in Ottawa enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to assume this leadership role within the NATO community, yet from their earliest meetings with their American counterparts at Kandahar Airfield (KAF), it was apparent to the leadership on the ground that this operation was different and much more dangerous than anything in Canada’s recent history.

“I will never forget the electric sense of shared enterprise between Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope and myself as we returned to Afghanistan in October 2005 to begin the final preparations for the mission in Kandahar.  Were we really going to be taking our units, Canadian battalions, into a war?  It seemed impossible and yet the handover briefings from our American counterparts kept bringing us back to the inevitable truth.  You could see this on every line of every one of their faces.  It is dangerous here.”

— Lieutenant-Colonel John Conrad

What the Thunder Said: Reflections of a Canadian Officer in Kandahar, provides a very personal and dramatic account of the Canadian Army’s earliest experiences in southern Afghanistan. While the majority of historical documents on war and its devastation are offered from the perspective of the front-line soldiers and their battle-hardened leaders, this book by Lt-Col Conrad provides us with a brilliant and honest perspective of the unsung heroes of the modern-day battlefield – the logistics soldiers. As the commander of the National Support Element (NSE), Conrad takes us into the heart of his admittedly understaffed support organization, introducing us to some of his troops and sharing their most harrowing and personal experiences. At first glance, the reader may assume that this book is nothing more than a series of recollections and diary notes. However, Conrad uses this anecdotal approach to draw attention to the need for our military leaders to truly appreciate the role of logistics in modern-day conflict, an issue that has plagued our military since the end of the Korean War.

Conrad makes a bold yet accurate statement on the military’s attitude towards its support resources, the men and women of the logistics and medical trades. Despite their history of providing first- rate support with minimal resources, “…military logistics in the Canadian Forces is viewed as something less than merely non-elite.  Military logistics in Canada is viewed with near disdain.” It is a statement that finally sets free the innermost thoughts and feelings of a generation of logisticians and support personnel, whose sole existence has been to ensure the success and survivability of those they serve. Yet, despite the years of neglect and less-than-equal treatment, Conrad demonstrates the depth of commitment and determination exercised each and every day as these soldiers laboured to provide the much-needed front line support.

The battlefield has changed drastically over the past two decades, and the traditional front and rear lines have been replaced with unpredictable attacks and random explosive devices that can take a life anywhere and at any time throughout the country. Conrad paints a vivid picture of the new challenges and dangers facing the support personnel as they venture out in slow-moving convoys through hostile territory to deliver supplies and to recover broken vehicles.

“The logistic soldier in Kandahar rides with passive optimism that he or she will come up swinging after the attack.  But whether you live or die, whether you get to come up fighting, depends not on your physical fitness, your intellect, or your prowess with the rifle.  Instead your survival hangs on such random factors as vehicle armour, proximity to the blast, and pure luck. Providence. That is hard to accept.”

Although a mere 239 pages long, What the Thunder Said includes a brief history of Canada’s military logistics and the vital lessons learned by some of our most successful and influential leaders. Lessons that have been forgotten through decades of budget cuts and disinterest are now resurfacing in dangerous and life-threatening scenarios on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Conrad stresses the urgent need for our leadership to become more active in understanding the vital role of logistics and the principles of support planning before the threads of support dissolve completely. The success of the NSE in Afghanistan is solely due to the courage and determination of its personnel to continue to achieve effects well out of proportion with its size and capabilities.

“My battalion, with its bland and non-sexy title of National Support Element (NSE), deployed to Afghanistan in February after nearly 40 years of intellectual neglect of combat logistics by the Canadian Forces.  As it would turn out, sustaining Canada’s Task Force Orion in southern Afghanistan in 2006 would be a very near run thing: a brush with failure that was all too close.”

What the Thunder Said: Reflections of a Canadian Officer in Kandahar is a courageous and honest attempt by Conrad to acknowledge the accomplishments of the NSE support personnel during their time in Afghanistan, and to bring to the forefront the need for a significant change in attitude within the Canadian Forces. Whether being viewed by a frustrated logistician looking for change, or an inquisitive member of the combat arms, this book is an uncomplicated and engrossing read, recommended to round out any military educational reading list.