I want to begin this deconstruction with a fairly simple and straightforward example from the start of the book. As I mentioned before, part of this novel’s appeal is that its ugly conclusions can be excused by the expertise of its author. It’s not racist! This guy’s a professional! He’s just telling it like it is! So before we really dive into some of the more complex subjects, I want to hold up one of the more obvious examples of how the author isn’t as well-informed as he seems. Douglas Bland’s novel ‘Uprising’ is a work filled with errors, inconsistencies, fatal misunderstandings about human nature, a lack of self-awareness and a basic contempt for the craft of writing.
For what it’s worth, the book starts off well enough:
“Alex cut the outboard motor and let his small boat drift in the dark, shallow bay of the island in the middle of the Ottawa River. One by one, the other five aluminum fishing boats of his makeshift raiding party pulled in near him. The boats were painted mud brown, their motors muffled by burlap covers. His party’s weapons, as yet unloaded, were also covered, to avoid clattering against the metal hulls.”
In Medias Res is a literary term meaning “in the middle of things” or, more appropriate to this case: “in middle of the action.” It’s a technique where the author starts the story right in the middle of an action scene, providing the back story later on to fill the details on who the characters are and how they got there. It’s a useful trick that can grab the audience’s attention quickly but it’s something that can backfire if it’s done wrong. Your audience doesn’t know who these people are so you need to work quickly to get them invested in what’s happening.
This calls for a kind of compressed shorthand that has to be used skillfully if the author wants to keep the action going while letting the audience develop an attachment to the characters. We as the readers have to be able to figure out who these people are and why we should care about what’s happening.
Bland starts Uprising off with a promising idea: Dropping the reader into the middle of a Commando raid by Indigenous militants on CFB Petawawa in order to seize weapons for an immanent rebellion is a good way to kick things off: Even someone not familiar with Petawawa (or Canada for that matter) can recognize the threat it implies: A dangerous group of fanatics taking advantage of lax security to seize military grade weaponry is something we can all understand. It’s something that instantly creates drama and tension in a way that is relatable.
But almost right away, the excess of details begin failing the overall narrative:
“The current, always strong in the upper reaches of the Ottawa, tugged at the boats, threatening to pull them back into midstream. Luckily the crews had learned enough from their numerous rehearsals to jockey the boats into the planned order and keep them there for the next dangerous leg across the broad river and onto the beach at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. Well, that’s already something, Alex thought.”
“Twice he flicked his red-shaded flashlight, signalling the helmsmen to shut down their outboard motors in unison – the better to camouflage their numbers from curious ears. Another instruction remembered and carried out properly, even with the adrenaline pumping. That was good, because things were about to get a lot more complicated.
The boats had all been loaded according to his careful instructions. Backpacks, carrying-boards for heavy loads, first-aid kits, and an assortment of straps, ropes, wires and cutting tools – “a place for everything and everything in its place,” as his old Airborne platoon sergeant had never tired of reminding him.”
That screeching sound you heard was the novel’s pace braking hard to avoid building momentum.
Alex’s full name and title is Capt Alex Gabriel, and he is an AWOL member of the Canadian Forces and a full-blooded member of the Agonquin First Nation. The troops in his six boats are all warriors of the Native People’s Army (NPA), the armed branch of a greater Native People’s Movement (NPM-which I’m going to just call ‘the Movement’ to keep things simple). The Movement and it’s sinister leaders will be the chief antagonist of our story of a race war in Canada. Alex Gabriel has just recently made the decision to turn against the CF and his country and this is his first time back on a Canadian Forces Base since he decided.
This will all be revealed in a few pages with a pace wrecking exposition dump that will shatter what little tension has been built up, but at this moment here, when the story’s still new and the reader is still asking questions, Bland makes no effort to even drop a hint as to who these people are or what they want. Alex Gabriel is returning to a Base he has no-doubt visited many times before, except now as an enemy bent on treason. If there’s any hint of what he’s feeling right now, I can’t see it.
It might sound as though I’m being nit-picky, harping on things like characterization and pacing in a novel that is rife with blatant racism and political partisanship, and perhaps I am. But I believe it goes to the heart of the problem with Uprising’s writing and with his philosophy in general: Douglas Bland does not care about people. He is not curious about their drives and motivations, he doesn’t care about hopes, dreams or aspirations.
In Bland’s view, an Indigenous soldier in the Canadian Forces simply decides to turn traitor and that’s all there is to it. Further analysis is not needed. As we proceed with the novel, we will see characters operating as per their defined archetypes: Native radical, stalwart (white) Canadian soldier, limp-wristed liberal politician, etc… With little concern as to the reality of actual human beings or even a basic attempt to imagine how these characters may have become the way they are.
This is, in my opinion at least, a huge problem. When you fail to see human beings as people, you fail to appreciate the very human motivations that may be driving them. You start assigning them characteristics based on their group rather than their individual characteristics and experiences, and then extrapolating risks and threats based on these assumptions.
There is a word for that. It’s starts with an ‘R’ and white people really hate when it’s used on them.
But back to the story at hand! As I said, Bland interrupts the pacing of his raid with a massive exposition dump in which Alex Gabriel muses over his life, career, and the recent events that led to his decision to turn traitor. In the interest of staying on topic, I’m going to skip over this part, and focus on the raid itself. We’ll get back to Alex Gabriel and what passes for his motivations later.
Anyway, the raid continues to unfold, more as an evaluation checklist for a junior officer’s course than an actual piece of dramatic literature. However, in the midst of all this there are a few passages that, while they fail to either develop character or advance the plot, still prove to be very revealing indeed. Consider this passage, in which Bland supposedly reveals the critical moment of weakness that the NPA exploits:
“…Alex and the Central Committee that had planned and authorized the raid knew that most of the base was in “stand down” mode for a special weekend leave at the end of the militia training season. Duty units were on half strength. Best of all, the front-line 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, the top-notch regular infantry unit there, was far away, chasing terrorists in Zimbabwe…the only combat troops in the region were the 390 paratroopers in the three “commandos” of the Special Service Regiment at CFB Trenton, four hours drive away…” [emphasis mine]
In the Credits section at the back of the book, Bland talks about how Uprising had been read, edited and critiqued by numerous friends and colleagues. Some of them were former military but I can only assume that none of them seems have served recently, or in Petawawa for that matter. It’s possible for a person, even an intelligent and educated one, to read the above passage and think it accurately reflects the state of the CAF in 4 Div (or LFCA when this was written). But for anyone who has worked on the base in the last few years (or for anyone who has read the sign outside the front gate) the error is rather glaring…
This is a picture of the display just to the west of the main gate leading into CFB Petawawa. To the left of the Base’s name and the Canadian flag is written 2 CMBG (the French 2 GBMC can be see to the right). 2 CMBG stands for Second Canadian Mechanized Battle Group. Currently CFB Petawawa is home to not only 1st but 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. (Quick hint for civilian readers: when there’s a number ahead of the title, it’s because there’s more than one of them). So even if 1 RCR were deployed, you would still have have hundreds of infanteers capable of being called up on a moment’s notice. On top of that there’s 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (an artillery regiment), 2 Combat Engineer Regiment (an Engineer Regiment), and the Royal Canadian Dragoons (armoured Reconnaissance Regiment).
And that’s just the combat arms units (that is, the parts of the army that are specifically expected to fight directly). On top of that are another half dozen or so support units including 2 Service Battalion (truckers & mechanics), 2 MP Platoon (military police), 2 Field Ambulance (combat medics) as well as several others. And if we wanted to include everybody, there’s also an entire wing from a Helicopter Squadron as well…
Bland is correct that (at the time of his writing) the Special Service Regiment (later to become the Canadian Special Operations Regiment or CSOR) was based at Trenton, although four hours is only how long it would take to respond by car… The thing is, he doesn’t take into account the presence of JTF 2 (Canada’s special forces unit) less than an hour down the road in Dwyer Hill. I’m definitely not an expert in what the boys on the Hill are up to at any given time, but it stands to reason that, at any particular moment there’s likely to be some serious operators within reach of Pet, and more that can be recalled from whatever sketchy mission they might be on at the time.
So while 1 RCR may be deployed in Bland’s fictional Canada, there are more than a few soldiers hanging around, ready to hold the line if called upon.
Then there’s the question of Bland’s own Regimental chauvanism. Bland is correct when he describes CFB Petawawa as “home to over 4400 soldiers.” But to say that 1 RCR as “the top notch infantry unit there” seems to imply that the only troops worth talking about are the boys from 1 RCR. This is not something I would recommend saying if he plans to visit the mess there anytime soon. Am I reading too much into this one line? Let’s keep reading:
“…At best, there would be half a dozen military police on routine patrol, rattling doors and breaking up fights outside the canteens. The base defence force, a gaggle of office and supply clerks-donkey wallopers and jam-stealers, as the infantry called them-was a standing joke and would take hours to organize itself…”
Yeah, he meant it.
On work-up training for Afghanistan, I used to hang out with a couple of guys from Mike Company, 3 RCR over in the Kyrenia Club. One of them, a Master Corporal, was a guy did magic tricks and when he’d had a few he’d slur his words into a nasal drawl making him sound just like Heath Ledger as the Joker.1
But for all his goofing off after hours, he was as tough as they came, and even when he was drinking he still had his priorities straight. I can remember a time when we’d gotten a night off after a month on exercise at CFB Wainwright, when word came that a forest fire had changed direction and was threatening the base ammo compound. There was a whole grab bag of different units in the shacks at the time, and every last one of us was three sheets to the wind, but that didn’t stop my buddy (as the nominal ranking NCO) from kicking open our doors and shouting us out of bed to get dressed and go help the engineers build a fire break. He was as knackered as the rest of us, but when the chips were down he still got us lurching in the right direction in record time.
The tour we were training for was his third.
I wonder how he’d feel about being called a standing joke2?
Now, out of all the units in Petawawa, it’s true that no-one (except perhaps the MPs and the Medics) would have people in a perpetual state of readiness. So as far as our current commando raid is concerned, it is entirely possible to time an operation for a moment when the base is mostly empty or inactive. This is probably the case for most military training bases in most armies throughout the world. But the idea that 1 RCR is the only regiment worth talking about will become very relevant later on in the novel. When the uprising finally begins, somehow Canada is utterly defenceless in the absence of 1 RCR.
We’ll go into greater detail as the novel progresses, but once the shooting starts the Van Doos end up bottled up and immobilized in northern Quebec, and the Patricias get put out of action by the crashing of a single Hercules transport plane. It quickly becomes clear that Bland, despite his claims to have conducted detailed analysis, either has little idea of how the modern Canadian Forces operates, or else he is carrying over his prejudices from back when he was a junior officer.
And as for the militia (the Canadian Forces Reserves, for you civvies out there), we barely register a mention.
What’s really shocking in this paragraph is the world building elements that are touched upon but never developed.
In this hypothetical world of the future(?) the war in Afghanistan ended prematurely and a new mission in Zimbabwe was launched. Bland doesn’t mention it much, which is surprising given that this is a major departure from real life current events and that such a mission would likely be looming large in the minds of any CF characters in the story. But Bland doesn’t have much to say about Zimbabwe other than to later describe such missions as a waste of strength for which the international community is ungrateful.3
This seems a bit surprising given that, at the time that Uprising was written, the mission in Afghanistan looked to be continuing well into the foreseeable future and that one mission is as good as another for taking 1 RCR out of Pet at a critical moment. So why create an entirely new mission when the old one was working just fine?
The problem here, I think, is Mr. Bland’s conservative leanings. While the Afghan War started under the Liberal Party Prime Minister Jean Chretien, it later came to be associated with the Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which had the effect of making it a good war. This led to a problem: Bland wouldn’t want to portray the “good war” as something that might be harmful for Canada’s internal security. Something that might pull good troops away from the homeland at a time of crisis. So instead, he brought ‘the good war’ to an end and invented some milktoast peacekeeping mission to join his army of liberal boogeymen to hamstring the honourable Canadian Forces.
So already we’ve got a number of problems within the first few pages of the novel. But the real howler comes a few pages later when the NPA commandos reach their target:
“…The protective lights surrounding the Petawawa ammunition and weapons storage area, which was located on Menin Road on the outskirts of the base’s built-up areas…the warriors, crouching, sprinted to the front gate, a high wire barrier topped with razor wire, no obstacle really-except to honest people…
Alex was pleased to see Pierre Leger, following the drill, step foward, quickly cut the padlock, and push open the gate…
The ammo compound at Base Petawawa held supplies for most of Eastern Canada and for overseas deployments-everything the army needed: rifles, grenades, explosives, every calibre of ammunition, M72 and Carl Gustav anti-tank rocket launchers and ammo; and of special interest, Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles…”
In case anyone from Petawawa is reading, I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and recover. Especially if you actually live in the shacks or the PMQs that are now on Menin Road.
For those of you who are civilians, I’ll explain: You see, thirty years ago the Petawawa ammo compound used to be on Menin Rd, right across from where the Kyrenia Club is today. It was moved out to its current location (deep in the training area, an extra 20 km away) back in the1980s, which was around the time a lot of security got upgraded.
Now personally, I don’t think it’s fair to expect a writer of speculative fiction to be able to get every detail right (see also: Blowpipes, an obsolete anti-aircraft missile that was replaced by the Javelin in the mid-nineties). So I think it’s reasonable to forgive Bland for not having all the details down perfectly, even if it does make the scenario of a dismounted platoon of radicals sneaking into the ammo compound on foot a lot less practical.
But it doesn’t excuse having some basic knowledge and awareness of how weapons and ammo are currently handled in the CF or the level of security employed to protect them. Not when it’s a central facet of your story, not when the information is public knowledge.
For any younger readers out there who don’t remember this particular event, no, that picture isn’t photoshopped. The character on the right is Cpl Denis Lortie, a CF member who, on 8 May 1984, due to some mental health issues and a painful ongoing divorce, stole some weapons and ammo from a CF vault and went into the Quebec legislature with the intent of shooting Separatists.
He wound up killing three people and wounding thirteen others before finally being talked into surrendering by the Assembly’s Sergeant at Arms Rene Jalbert (seen in the left in this photograph), himself a retired CF Major from the Van Doos and a WWII and Korean War veteran.
Part of the reason Lortie was able to access so much firepower so easily was because, yes, at the time, the CF was not doing a very good job maintaining security on its weapons. Automatic weapons were often just one locked door away from reach, and (in this particular case at least) the ammunition was literally just across the hallway.
But a number of reforms came out of this event, but the most important one was that weapons and their ammunition are no longer stored in the same location, and the people with access to one will not have access to the other.
I’ve personally been in dozens of weapons vaults over the years, seen literally hundreds of rifles and machine guns lined up along the walls, but I’ve never seen so much as a single live round inside any of them. They’re now protected by multiple locks and an alarm system and while I’m sure there are ways to defeat all of this, you’re going to need more than some knuckle head with a bolt cutter.
Simply put: The Canadian Armed Forces no longer stores weapons and ammunition together. This has actually be a big deal for a while now. A commando team breaking into a weapons vault (assuming that they were able to defeat all these locks and alarms) would could potentially obtain hundreds of automatic weapons and all kinds of other nasty implements to go with them. And they’d all be useless until after a second commando raid penetrated the ammo compound.
As those of us who have served in the last few decades will know, at the end of any range or training exercise in which live ammo was used, it is still standard operating procedure for all participating members to line up and ceremonially declare: “I have no live rounds, empty casings, pyrotechnics or parts thereof in my possession, sir!” as part of the process of clearing out of the training area. Being in possession of even an empty casing is technically a chargeable offence.
Some of the younger troops feel that this exercise is insulting and demeaning, as it presumes that all soldiers are guilty until proven innocent. My answer is that it’s all because an asshole named Denis Lortie went and betrayed the trust placed in those of us who wear the uniform.
However, in just a few more pages, even more problems start to arise: the raiding party is travelling on foot. It’s never made clear in the text exactly what they’re carrying for the raid itself, but there are references to “packs and weapons” and at least one mention of a radioman. So they definitely weren’t coming in with just the clothes on their backs. This raises a real question about just how much our intrepid raiders can carry away, for all their trouble?
A Carl Gustav (affectionately nicknamed ‘Mighty Carl G’) is an 84mm medium anti-tank weapon that’s basically an updated version of the old WW II bazooka. It weighs about 16 kg and a pack of two rounds adds another 5-8 kg to the mix, depending on the ammo type. Adding to this problem is the fact that none of these things are ergonomically designed. Thirty men hauling as much as they can carry may sound like they can make off with a lot of firepower, but when you factor in packs, rifles and whatever else Bland has his commandos carrying, it puts a serious damper on how much ordnance this raid might ultimately net. Other than changing the risk vs rewards equation, it highlights one of the other major failures of imagination that plague this novel.
Like most of these failures, what isn’t said speaks volumes.
Several of the members of the raiding party, including Alex Gabriel himself and one of his subordinates with the odd name Steve Christmas, are AWOL members of the CF. It’s first implied in this chapter, and later confirmed throughout the novel that virtually every Native member of the armed forces and the police have been recruited into the Native Peoples’ Army and have chosen to fight and kill their former colleagues. We’ll meet the one, lone exception to this rule later, but for all intents and purposes, Bland has every last Indigenous member of the CF turns traitor.
I’ll have A LOT more to say about this ugly assumption later on, but just consider: the Movement has access to “natives still in the army stationed at Petawawa” and “others who were members of various militia regiments.” Officers, NCOs and enlisted men at all levels….
What was stopping them from just forging some paperwork and driving an entire truck load of ordnance out the front gate in broad daylight?
Historically, there’s plenty of precedent. From Francisco Franco to the Chechen wars, history is full of examples of would be rebels seizing their weapons from the very army they were about to defy.
At first glance the answer might seem to be that the rebels won’t need a lot of firepower since they’re going to be moving too fast, engaging in asymmetrical warfare rather than a conventional standup fight. In such a confrontation quantity of firepower doesn’t matter as much as the ability to deliver it precisely to a target. But the novel Uprising describes a full on war with multiple Canadian cities besieged in open fighting. With the scale of conflict described in the NPA’s master plan, thirty men dragging as much as they can carry on their backs simply won’t cut it.
Douglas Bland’s biography describes him as holding numerous positions in the Canadian Forces, with an emphasis on staff work, and that he retired a Lt Col. It’s quite likely that he’s never had to go through the tedious business of driving an ammunition truck, which probably explains why his opening commando raid reads more like a training scenario from a platoon commander’s course than an actual real-world threat. Throughout the chapter he does the Leadership School equivalent of name dropping such concepts as time checks, rehearsals, and ‘actions on’ drills. The sort of points that heavily influence a young officer’s final assessment is glaringly obvious for anyone that’s been through leadership training.
Yet I suspect that, having graduated his basic officer courses, Bland was the sort of Lt who, when placed in charge of a range shoot would simply hand off the ammo requirements to whatever NCO had been given the job, and never worry about the details again.
This lack of curiosity is unsettling. The fact that Douglas Bland has taken the problem of how to equip his rebel army and produced a solution that’s basically an artificial scenario from a Platoon Commander’s training course suggests that, for all his talk about serious study of a native uprising, he is unwilling to go beyond his comfort zone, or even acknowledge that there is something out there that might be relevant.
Bland is writing a novel about a race war. The people of his home and native land are killing each other over their ethnicities. And he’s decided to start this novel off with a commando raid that’s undermanned, under-supplied, and won’t satisfy anything more than an officer’s need for street cred. To make matters worse, this raid is only possible in a hypothetical world that was of his own creation.
When you fail to study a problem like the Petawawa raid to the extent that you make such blatant errors this, it doesn’t bode well for your ability to handle the really big questions. Writing about a race war demands curiosity, maturity, self-reflection and professionalism. Douglas Bland, thus far, does not seem to be demonstrating any of these traits.
***Image of CFB Petawawa display found on Wikipedia, images of Denis Lorti & Rene Jalbert from Radio Canada and Radio Canada Internationale.***
1 The movie Dark Knight came out during work up training, which led a few of us to suggest that he should sue Ledger for ripping off his act.
2 I think being called a ‘jam stealer’ would only leave him perplexed. Who talks like that anymore?
3 We’ll discuss the Zimbabwe mission in detail later, but when the circumstances of the mission are laid out (in less than 200 words a chapter later) it will become clear that Douglas Bland has no concept of history or international politics.