Book Review no. 22 – Boileau on Fraser and Hanington, Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban

Major-General (Ret’d) David Fraser and Brian Hanington, Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2018).

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Several Canadian soldiers have written excellent accounts describing their wartime experiences, some of which have become minor classics. On the other hand, the recounting of battles by Canadian generals who were in command is a distinct rarity. Most of them are to be found in lengthy memoirs, the quality of which varies greatly. Such narratives range from turgid prose that imparts little to our overall understanding of events to highly informative accounts that provide overarching analytical insights. And, in any case, before getting to descriptions and discussions of combat, the reader is frequently subjected to many pages of text.

Most military history afficionados would likely be aware of memoirs by LGen “Tommy” Burns, MGen Chris Vokes, MGen George Kitching, LGen Howard Graham, MGen Lew MacKenzie, LGen Romeo Dallaire and Gen Rick Hillier. Dedicated history buffs might even be familiar with some of the more obscure entries, such as those by MGen Bill Griesbach, LGen Maurice Pope, BGen Jim Roberts, Gen Jean Allard, and a recently-discovered one by MGen Ed Morrison of the First World War.

MGen David Fraser is the latest senior officer to contribute to this short list—and it is definitely a stimulating read. Although Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban is not a “whole-life” memoir, it continues the trend started by MacKenzie, Dallaire and Hillier in chronicling command in combat in less-than-total-war situations—a distinction that might be lost on the soldiers fighting and dying in those conflicts.

And it is unique: the only book-length account of a single battle written by the Canadian general in charge. This operation, which ran from early to mid September 2006, has been described in print before, most notably by the late journalist Adam Day in his excellent three-part series in Legion Magazine and by Colonel Bernd Horn in his book No Lack Of Courage: Operation Medusa, Afghanistan. Significantly, first-person recollections of four soldiers decorated with the Medal of Military Valour for their actions during the opening stages of Operation MEDUSA are presented in Craig Leslie Mantle’s In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2007.

Fraser—a brigadier general at the time—had been commander of NATO’s Regional Command South in Afghanistan since February 2006. That summer, he received intelligence that Taliban forces were massing preparatory to a full-scale ground assault against the alliance’s troops. It would be the biggest battle in NATO’s history.

Photo credit: Flickr

The Taliban definitely had the home field advantage. Centred on the Panjwayi District—coincidentally the birthplace of the Taliban almost three decades earlier—the enemy knew the terrain intimately, had highly-trained fighters at its disposal, had stockpiled critical commodities and had set countless landmines and IEDs. Corrupt local officials who passed on information about Canadian soldiers’ locations and movements—and even intentions on some occasions—protected Taliban fighters. The terrain also clearly favoured the defender.

Compounding Fraser’s problem was the fact that his troops had just arrived in theatre—and had never been tested in combat. Add to the mix multi-national troops and assets; multiple chains of communications and command; language differences; and national restrictive caveats, and one can begin to understand the enormity of the problem that he faced.

Things were not looking good.

Fraser and his co-author, veteran writer Brian Hanington, divide the story of Operation MEDUSA—the codename for the campaign to attack and defeat the Taliban in Panjwayi—into two books. The first lays out the almost year-long prelude to the battle (“The Run-Up”), while the second details the two weeks of combat that followed (“The Battle”). Descriptive one-word titles for each chapter cleverly capture its essence: “Study,” “Engage,” “Plan,” “Strike,” “Bleed,” and “Slaughter.”

The Taliban’s actions in massing their troops were a clear break from their previous tactics. In fact, the situation bordered on the bizarre: unconventional troops were using conventional tactics against conventional forces, which then chose to adopt unconventional methods to defeat them—a clear example of how different the war in Afghanistan was from the potential conflicts for which NATO troops had been preparing for a couple of generations.

On 3 August, something different happened after a vehicle hit an IED. Taliban insurgents rose from cover and fired on the Canadians, killing four of them. This was the first time an IED incident had been covered by fire. Fraser admits that something changed that day, but for “a long time we couldn’t figure it out” (p.83). It took a while for the realization to hit him that “they think they can beat us” (p.84).

Photo credit: Ottawa Citizen

That was when Fraser understood that he had to figure out how to defeat a force that was digging in for a conventional battle, something he and his troops were not manned, equipped or armed to do.

“This,” he notes, “is how the rough planning of Operation Medusa started” (p.84). The net result was that, rather than launching a conventional ground assault, Fraser decided he would have to proceed unconventionally: watching, waiting, using a broad range of intelligence assets to find enemy insurgents and the full arsenal of resources at his disposal to kill them—preferably at a stand-off distance.

It is at this point that Fraser explains the book’s subtitle (“The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban”). His reasoning goes thusly: if the Taliban won in Panjwayi, it would create a safe haven from which to launch future operations, isolate Kandahar, remove national control of the area and destabilize the Afghan government. Additionally, insurgent success would strengthen Taliban resolve, bolster recruiting, increase the flow of weapons from Pakistan and weaken the homefront resolve of NATO nations.

It could be argued that this is “a bridge too far,” by ascribing more to Operation MEDUSA than it could or actually did achieve. While it is obvious that Afghanistan has not (yet) been saved from the Taliban, Fraser maintains that the operation did accomplish that goal at that particular time.

This discussion leads into the second book, which is about one-third of the total. It describes the actual fighting in vivid, visceral, no holds barred detail. This section alone is worth the price of admission. Time and time again, it illustrates the old military adage that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” It held as true for Fraser and his forces as it did for generations of their warrior predecessors.

A number of common threads run throughout the book. It appears that even in an age of post-modern aymmetric warfare, certain lessons learned in previous wars remain valid. Among the key ones—backed up by first-hand evidence from Fraser—are the crucial requirements for accurate intelligence and the vital importance of teamwork (both friendly and enemy). Sadly, one lesson learned several times in earlier wars had to be relearned at a cost: the failure to appreciate the effects of artillery and air bombardment on well-entrenched enemy troops.

Fraser also provides honest, critical analyses of the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces, its allies and the Taliban. Additionally, his heartfelt compassion for the wounded and the fallen shows through time and time again.

Quotations—some of them quite lengthy—from participants at all levels in the operation are scattered throughout the book. They provide thought-provoking points of view from a range of rank levels and nationalities. Additionally, several photographs enhance the text, especially those with extended captions that tell a “mini-story” of their own.

Maps—an essential component of all good military history writing—are provided in front and back endpapers. Unfortunately, their dark colour schemes detract from the clarity they should portray.

The writing itself will appeal to both avid military readers and a general audience, not an easy task to accomplish. Despite some minor concerns (sub-title claim, map clarity), David Fraser’s book is a well-written, engaging, thought-provoking, highly descriptive chronicle of the biggest battle involving Canadian soldiers since the Korean War. It is also an all-too-rare and most welcome personal account by a Canadian general in command during combat.


E.L.M. Burns, General Mud: Memoirs of Two World Wars (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1970). This and subsequent bibliographic entries for memoirs refer to first editions.

Chris Vokes, Vokes, My Story (Ottawa: Gallery Books, 1985).

George Kitching, Mud and Green Fields: The Memoirs of General George Kitching (Langley, BC: Battleline Books, 1986).

Howard Graham, Citizen and Soldier: The Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Howard Graham (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1987).

Lewis MacKenzie, Peacekeeper: The Road to Sarajevo (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993). MacKenzie’s  Soldiers Made Me Look Good: A Life in the Shadow of War (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008) is more an autobiography than a memoir about senior command.

Romeo Dallaire, with Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2003).

Rick Hillier, A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War (Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2009).

W.A. Griesbach, I Remember (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1946).

Maurice Pope, Soldiers and Politicians: The Memoirs of Lt-Gen Maurice A Pope, CB, MC (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962). Pope’s time as a general was as a staff officer.

J.A. Roberts, The Canadian Summer: The Memoirs of James Alan Roberts (Toronto: University of Toronto Bookroom, 1981).

Jean V. Allard, with Serge Bernier, Mémoires du Général Jean V. Allard (Boucherville, QC: Les Éditions de Mortagne, 1985). This volume was later published in English as The Memoirs of General Jean V. Allard (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1988). Allard commanded the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade for 45 days before V-E Day.

MGen Sir Edward Morrison, Susan Raby-Dunne, ed., Morrison: The Long-lost Memoirs of Canada’s Artillery Commander in the Great War (Victoria: Heritage House, 2017).

Adam Day, “Operation Medusa: The Battle for Panjwai, Part 1-The Charge of Charles Company” (Sep-Oct 2007); “Part 2-Death in a Free-fire Zone” (Nov-Dec 2007); and “Part 3-The Fall of Objective Rugby” (Jan-Feb 2008), Legion Magazine.

Colonel Bernd Horn, No Lack Of Courage: Operation Medusa, Afghanistan (Toronto: Dundurn, 2010).

Craig Leslie Mantle et al., eds, In Their Own Words: Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan, 2001-2007 (Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2013), Chapter 8, 191-230.

Usually attributted to Helmuth von Moltke, but also accredited to a variety of other strategic thinkers including Carl von Clausewitz, Napolean Bonaparte and  Sun Tzu, among others.

The Canadian Armed Forces defines asymmetric threats as “attempts to circumvent or undermine an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses, using methods that differ significantly from the opponent’s usual mode of operations.” As quoted in Patrick Henrichon, “Protecting the Canadian Forces against Asymmetric Threats,” Canadian Military Journal 3, no. 4 (Winter 2002), 10.

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Retired colonel John Boileau served in the Canadian Army for 37 years. He commanded Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), taught at the British Army Staff College, was Chief of Staff at Atlantic Militia Area/Land Force Atlantic Area (now 5th Canadian Division), and served as Army Adviser at the Canadian High Commission, London. He is a graduate of the United States Army Armour Officer Advanced Course, the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College and the Royal College of Defence Studies. He is the author of 13 books of historical non-fiction (seven of them military history), as well as more than 500 magazine and newspaper articles, book reviews, travelogues, encyclopedia entries and op-ed columns. He is currently Honorary Colonel of the Halifax Rifles (RCAC).

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