John Gorman left kindling ready to be lit in the stove before heading off to war.
His story Ready in the Night, A Tank Driver’s Tour of Duty in Afghanistan begins and ends inside his cabin along the Telkwa River. While most of the book deals with his training and the seven months he spent driving a tank in Kandahar province in 2010, the choice to wrap that story with such a safe place gives an insight into why Gorman chose to rejoin the Canadian Armed Forces in his 40s.
The title refers to a quote commonly attributed to George Orwell: “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
Gorman wanted people who read his book to come away with a soldier’s perspective, including his reasoning for why he fought.
“I actually had it mind even before I went, just sort of in the back of my mind this notion that I might do it,” explained Gorman from back inside his cabin.
“I heard a lot of people talking about what went on there, but the vast majority didn’t actually serve there, and I don’t think the vast majority had a personal stake in the outcome; so it’s sort of my notion that why should they own the entire narrative about this part of our national experience.
“If somebody’s actually going to get a word in, I figure at least somebody who was actually there and was part of it should have their say.”
The author did not join on a whim. He served in the 80s during the height of the Cold War, joining the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps shortly after high school in New Hazelton as a 19-year-old. Now in his mid-40s, he waited until 2005, when he was confident that Canada was in it for the long haul.
“It was a well thought out, well considered decision. Basically, for me, the reasons I went there are just as valid when I got back as when I decided to do it,” said Gorman.
That reasoning is described in the first chapter, before getting into the daily life of a soldier in training and on the front. Gorman saw the war as a clash of Western civilization versus extremists with a “supremacist interpretation of Islam.”
He felt that if Canada and its allies did not fight, terrorists would attack again “with increasingly devastating consequences until they accomplished their ultimate objective, our submission.”
But a lot of the book deals with the everyday life of being a soldier, giving an insight into how Canadians deal with the extreme life of a soldier.
There are moments of levity, including an hilarious retelling of a spoon fight between a Canadian and German officer. The antics of young men and women sometimes makes for fun breaks in the book.
During training, Gorman said in the book that he felt like “an old dog trapped in a small cage with a huge litter of overly rambunctious and more than slightly deranged puppies.”
That age difference between Gorman and most of his fellow soldiers was also brought up a few times. After rising to the rank of master corporal, Gorman had to start back near the bottom of the ranks when he rejoined as a private basic.
He describes proving himself, especially during training, before the young recruits got around to challenging his age. He also describes taking on a “kindly uncle role.”
Despite having the advantage of experience, Gorman did say he felt that being less reckless and aggressive was actually a disadvantage.
“If you tried to fight a war strictly with guys my age, you probably wouldn’t get very far. Probably most of us, we just wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Gorman.
He also met superior officers several times who he recognized from his first time serving in the army, which he made sure did not become awkward.
“Maybe they were a little bit harder on me because they expected more from me to start with. But that was one of the things I always had to be careful of, remember who’s the boss,” said Gorman.
Other behind-the-scenes pictures are painted with descriptions of training in Canada and Germany, time spent at the main coalition base in Afghanistan, and the forward operating base Masum Ghar, where a giant Canadian flag made of painted rocks looked down on the battlefield from the side of the mountain the base was named for.
Civilian reactions to his serving were also highlighted in the book. The rousing ovation Gorman and his fellow parade marchers received at the Calgary Stampede before heading to war was an example of a changed attitude towards the military, according to Gorman.
He said he was told stories of harsh treatment during America’s involvement in Vietnam, and that things got worse again in the 90s after video of Canadian soldiers abusing Somalians came out.
“Then it seemed like it was open season on the military. It’s like we couldn’t do anything right, and we were all just a bunch of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals,” said Gorman.
“If you’re in the Armed Forces, you’re actually a part of a visible minority by virtue of the fact you’re in uniform … It got to the point where we were basically treated like shit.”
He thinks a part of the reason attitudes became more sympathetic was because of the focus on the loss of life in Afghanistan.
“And a lot of them were young, and for the first time some of them were women,” said Gorman.
The military lists 158 Canadian Forces personnel who died during its operations in Afghanistan, the most in a Canadian military mission since the Korean War.
Despite the high amount of death and injury in the fight, and the stories of corruption in the Afghan government, Gorman feels an important difference was made by Canadian troops in the lives of the people who live in the faraway land.
“Once you displace the Taliban regime, I know a lot of people suggested they should have just left, but what would have happened then?” he asked.
Gorman said it is now up to the Afghans to build their nation up with the tools put in place.
“It’s been a decade. For example, the first generation of high literacy rates; basic school attendance has increased exponentially. There could be the first generation in a long time that’s actually literate that’s just going to start coming of age in that country,” said Gorman, adding that this allowed people to participate in information gathering and participate more in civil society.
The book should be available in local bookstores and online at baico.ca before Christmas.