Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Ten Questions, with Lt.-Col. John Conrad

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Lieutenant Colonel John Conrad is an author with more than 28 years experience in the Canadian Forces. His most recent book, Scarce Heard Amid the Guns (Dundurn) draws on his own experience with Canadian Peacekeeping Forces to examine behind the scenes details of Canadians' military experiences.

Lt.-Col. John Conrad talks to Open Book about Canada's military identity, his favourite writers and the military connection to Star Trek.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Scarce Heard Amid the Guns.

John Conrad:

The night I left Cambodia as a Canadian peacekeeper was one of the most confusing and horrifying moments of my young army career — a hand over of a Canadian Camp to the Royal Cambodian Army that went very poorly. During my third week in Phnom Penh I watched the Cambodian police execute a civilian in cold blood on the street. Our rules of engagement did not enable us to get involved but a large part of me — and the soldiers on the truck with me — wanted to. For over two decades I lived with the humiliation of a command performance that had been barely adequate as well as other sights and scenes from that tour that I felt I could not or should not share — even with loved ones. Tactical occurrences happen in the space between seconds on a peacekeeping tour and yet a soldier can spend the rest of his years thinking about. The reality of the UN peacekeeping stands in stark contrast to the popular Canadian image.

The book serves as a guided tour for all of the Canadian peacekeeping missions to date (from 1956 Suez up to present day in the Sudan). My own tour in Cambodia serves as the emotional tapestry into which the historical overview is woven. I have borrowed the stories of other soldiers to bring these missions to life for the reader. The intent is to provide a highly readable account of a great Canadian institution while at the same time offering the reader an insider’s perspective.

In Scarce Heard Amid the Guns, I have gone back to my peacekeeping experiences in Cambodia and Bosnia to shed light on a corrosive Canadian peacekeeping mythology. Canadian peacekeeping is replete with fine soldiering and moments of uncertainty, courage and terror. I want to give Canadians the inner life of the peacekeeping era — the texture, emotions and smells that are absent from the majority of academic books on the subject. I wanted to put human faces on the institution we all love.


You chose a quote from the iconic poem In Flander Fields for your title. What prompted that decision?


You know I love the title but my working title for the book had been Sundown at the Cambodiana. The Cambodiana Hotel figures prominently in the book however this working title … well … my senior editor at Dundurn and my wife (who takes the first-cut edit of all my books) hated it. I had to agree with them that the title did not really embrace the full breadth of the book and spoke more to a mood that I wanted to convey — what I call, “that old peacekeeper feeling.” Scarce Heard Amid the Guns was one of three or four titles I came back with that I really liked. Fortunately Dundurn and I were able to agree on this one as it was my favourite.

On one level as you have noted it is a tip of the hat to a Canadian Army legend — Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, who wrote that timeless, evocative poem. On another level, the title refers to the sinews and texture of peacekeeping missions that are not publicized — stories and voices that are nearly lost in the information age but do belong to Canadians. We need to have this history. The army is full of brilliant characters, lore and compelling stories and it gives me great satisfaction to share them. As a writer and a long-serving field officer, I can take my pen into dark places where other writers cannot follow.


What are some misconceptions people may have about Canadian Peacekeeping?


I have tackled all of the core misconceptions about peacekeeping in this book. The main misconceptions are as follows: Peacekeeping does not involve combat. It is inexpensive and will enable us to save millions on our defence expenditure if we focus on it. Peacekeeping is done for reasons of selfless altruism. Canada has served with every UN peacekeeping mission (we have not). Canada is heavily involved with UN peacekeeping today (we are not). Peacekeepers are only deployed when there is a lasting peace or ceasefire agreement.


Canadians have fought fiercely and bravely in many conflicts, yet we still are known as peaceful, even pacifists. Why do you think that is?


I am neither a militarist nor a war-monger but I think it is dangerous and in some ways disrespectful to think of ourselves as pacifists. Freedom does indeed come at a price and generations of Canadians have paid dearly for the quality of life and liberties we have today in this great country. I think the idea that Canadians are pacifists in part comes from the peacekeeping mythology — the flawed idea that we only do altruistic missions. Peacekeeping is something that all Canadians should be proud of but if you truly understand it there is more at play than altruism. I have tried to explain the true nature of peacekeeping in this book.


Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?


Absolutely. The general public — the average Canadian. The Canadian Army is so small and tucked away in scant few bases across the country that only a small percentage of Canadians truly get to experience it. There is an old saying that the navy belongs to the King but the army belongs to the people. It’s true in a very real sense. The Canadian army is full of fantastic stories and heroes — that most un-Canadian of terms. What may shock some readers is these “heroes” are people much like themselves — ordinary Canadians who are capable of extraordinary things. I have set out to give some of the army back to the public.

Did you know for example a Canadian battalion in 1993 saved the famous Lipizzaner Stallions from destruction and starvation in Serbia during the Balkan War? Military enthusiasts will enjoy the read but it is the average Canadian I am trying to reach. I have purposely tried to avoid jargon and acronym for that purpose.


What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?


I have noticed a passion for Canada coming through in my last two books. I have never considered myself a “rah, rah, Canada-first kind of person.” There are many countries that I adore and love to spend time in other than my own. But on some level of my subconscious I believe that Canada does not celebrate its heroes and legends enough — outside of hockey heroes of course. Having served all over the world I am mindful that, in the main, Canadians are a wonderful people who have a lot to offer the world.

Moreover, the world cares what Canada thinks about issues and this remains important to us. This concern for our international voice says a lot about us. It is why UN peacekeeping is still relevant today though many would have us think otherwise. As long as there are people on this earth who can look at their neighbour and worry about his or her plight there is a glimmer of hope for humanity. Canada embodies a tolerance and hope as vibrant as the northern lights; this characteristic is at the core of my officership and it certainly has surfaced in this book as well as my Kandahar memoir, What the Thunder Said.


If you could sit down and chat with any writer for an hour, who would it be?


Of writers who have passed away it would be a tight tie between Ernest Hemingway and the great Robertson Davies. I would settle for 30 minutes with each. Both writers have entertained and inspired me. Of living writers I would love to spend an hour with Vermont/Ontario writer John Irving. I enjoy all of his work but his A Prayer for Owen Meany really haunts me. It left me with many questions. I consider it his masterpiece.


If you had to choose a book or books to introduce Canadians to their military history, what would you recommend?


I would recommend G.F. G. Stanley’s, Canada’s Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People. Stanley was a brilliant historian and Royal Military College professor. He actually had a real hand in designing our current Canadian flag which is based on the design of the flag of the Royal Military College. The book was first published in 1954 and has been revised twice I believe in the sixties. Though dated, it is a most fitting introduction to the Canadian military and I love the tongue-in-cheek title. It speaks to the peacekeeping myth I have tried to debunk in Scarce Heard Amid the Guns.


What is on your nightstand to read next?


Don’t laugh. Gene Roddenberry’s Biography (the creator of Star Trek). I have long been fascinated by Roddenberry as a writer. He served as a bomber pilot in the Second World War and then clawed his way through the LA Police Force and into writing for television. As a military man, his journey from the Pacific war to creating one of the most successful science fiction stories intrigues me. Roddenberry was no saint and he was not the greatest writer either — there were many better contemporary science fiction writers that him. But he created something wonderful and enduring all the same — an optimistic vision of our future. I really enjoy reading about the writing craft of the early Star Trek series.


What are you working on now?


I am working on a piece of fiction — a novel actually. The main character is a returned Canadian veteran who is dealing with post traumatic stress disorder. He finds greater enemies for himself in the sinews of government bureaucracy and institutional arrogance than the Taliban ever presented. The kingdom of the mind is amazingly place.

There are numerous Canadian soldiers right now returned from Afghanistan living with these “operational stress injuries” and it is quite astonishing how the condition warps emotion, time and space around an afflicted veteran.

Lieutenant Colonel John Conrad is an author, lecturer and former regular force officer with 28 years of experience in the Canadian Forces. Conrad was commissioned into the Navy in 1987 and after retraining as an army combat logistics officer he has served in virtually every command billet in the logistics structure of the Canadian Army — commanding organizations from platoon to battalion. Conrad has operational experience in Cambodia as a UN peacekeeper and North West Bosnia with the NATO Stabilization Force. He has also completed a tour as the Commanding Officer of the Canadian Logistics Battalion, the unit responsible for sustaining the Canadian Task Force in Southern Afghanistan from February to August 2006 on the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. Lieutenant Colonel Conrad was decorated with the Meritorious Service Medal in October 2007 in recognition of his leadership in Kandahar in 2006. He has written five books the most recent of which will be published in October 2011. His last book, a Kandahar retrospective was a Book of the Month Club selection and a Canadian bestseller. John has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and a Masters in Defence Studies from the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario.

For more information about Scarce Heard Amid the Guns please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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