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The following is a summary of the CDA Institute Roundtable “Preserving the Modern Past ~ In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2007.” in Ottawa on 19 May 2015. Roundtable discussions are normally held under the Chatham House Rule. But, as this particular discussion was about presenter Dr. Craig Mantle’s recent book, we have decided to eschew that rule in this instance, with Dr. Mantle’s permission. This summary reflects Analyst Celeste Longo‘s perception of the discussion. The CDA Institute thanks Lockheed Martin Canada for its generous sponsorship of the 2015/16 Roundtable Discussion Series.

Discussion began with a general overview of Dr. Craig Mantle’s book, titled “In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2007.” The book is a collection of 23 first person narratives by Canadian soldiers who have each earned a military valour or bravery decoration for their actions in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2007. Each individual had the opportunity to tell in their own words the events that led to the receipt of their decoration.

Out of 23 interviewees, 18 told stories about combat and 5 shared their experience in preventing casualties. Individuals who were involved in combat received military valour decorations, and those who prevented casualties on the battlefield, which were not necessarily in the face of the enemy, received bravery decorations. To avoid any kind of repetition amongst stories, the book is separated into 14 chapters that combine some of the individuals who earned their decoration for their actions on the same day. The book is crafted in such a way to create a narrative that alternates back and forth between individuals, thereby allowing for different viewpoints and creating a greater sense of what exactly happened on a certain day.

The institutional purpose of the book was initially to provide a teaching tool about the values that the military expects its members to possess and carry out, such as Duty, Loyalty, Integrity and Courage. Principally, these stories illustrate positive examples where these values were externalized. Nevertheless, when reading the book, one can easily come to the realization that it provides more than a simple institutional teaching tool. Often, soldiers who are part of the lower end of the rank spectrum do not necessarily have the opportunity to speak about their own experiences. “In their Own Words” gives a voice to these soldiers as they can literally, in their own words, provide insight into the act of battle and into their own minds.

Durant le processus d’entrevue dans le cadre du pour la création du livre, les soldats ont eu l’occasion de non seulement mettre un terme aux mémoires de leurs expériences en Afghanistan, mais ils ont également eu l’opportunité de commémorer ceux qu’ils ont perdus pendant leur service. Souvent, les médias ne fournissent pas de détail sur les derniers moments dont nos braves soldats, en particulier lorsqu’ils prennent part à de missions à l’étranger. C’est pour cette raison que, en prenant part à la création du livre, ces individus ont eu une opportunité spéciale de rendre hommage à leurs camarades de guerre.

The book’s particular methodology was also thoroughly discussed. The book is accompanied by a supporting document, titled “From Start to Finish: The Research Methodology for In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2007.” The second publication is a research document that describes the methodology used to operationalize primary ideas into a published volume. The process was carried out with a great deal of thoughtfulness and professionalism, including having this methodology pass two ethical reviews.

Each potential interviewee was directly contacted by letter mail in order to avoid the chain of command, which could otherwise result in the individual feeling pressured to participate (or not) by peers, subordinates or superiors. The interview process itself was further discussed during the event. First of all, the interviews were conducted face to face, allowing for a strengthened relationship between the interviewee and the interviewers. A central goal behind the interviewers’ questions was to avoid any discomfort for the interviewee. Thus, the interviewees were sent 20-25 possible questions in order for them to acquire a greater impression of what to expect. Rather than asking what went “wrong” on the day for which they received their decoration, the interviewers asked the interviewee to tell them about that day in general – thereby allowing for a more neutral/positive response.

The interviews contained four major parts; a discussion on the soldier’s pre-deployment training; a discussion on their time in Afghanistan; a discussion on their return to Canada; and a discussion on what their decoration meant to them. Some soldiers were not fully aware of the Canadian Honours System and were, to a certain extent, uncomfortable or even embarrassed in receiving such a distinction; they thought of themselves as being part of a team and felt that any other soldier would have done exactly the same in their situation.

En outre, un individu pourrait se demander pourquoi les 23 personnes interrogées n’étaient que des hommes. Il est essentiel de noter qu’aucune femme ne répondait aux critères choisit pour la création du livre, puisqu’il n’y avait aucune femme étant attribué ces types de distinctions au cours de la période choisie. Bien sûr, comme toute chose, ce livre présente de nombreuses forces, ainsi que des faiblesses Malgré tout, la plus grande faiblesse que ce livre présente, surtout aux yeux de la communauté francophone, est l’exclusion de l’unité francophone, les Van Doos, en Afghanistan, par le choix d’inclure seule la période entre 2001-2007. Pour conclure, certain peuvent se demander s’il y aura une suite à ce livre. Après discussion, malgré certaines ambitions, il n’y a présentement aucunes intentions de créer une suite.

Celeste Longo is presently an Analyst at the CDA institute. She attended Dawson College where she completed a Law, Society and Justice Diploma of College Studies and is currently completing her second year at the University of Ottawa in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. Her major fields of interests involve human rights, defence and conflict resolution.

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