****Please Note that I am drawing heavily on Carol Off’s excellent history “The Ghosts of Medak Pocket” for this next section of the deconstruction. While a great deal has been written about the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, Carol’s book is one of the only ones to focus exclusively on this little known battle and on the Canadian soldiers who served in it. Good people might have been forgotten, their acts of courage and subsequent mistreatment lost to history had it not been for the efforts of people like her.****
In the last post, we heard about how Will Boucanier was decorated for heroism as a special forces operator serving in Croatia. Although the SOF element is fictional, the events that Bland places them in were very real. The inclusion of Medak Pocket is an interesting choice, and not just because it actually requires Bland to grudgingly praise his infantry rivals the 2nd Battalion PPCLI (Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry) although it’s a backhanded praise, since he portrays the Patricias as getting rescued by his ultra cool protagonist. So what happens?
In the darkness and chaos of that September night battle, Will watched through his powerful night-vision scope as Croatian infantry, supported by two T54 tanks and intent on slaughtering their neighbours, worked their way around the Canadians’ right flank.
So I’m going to have to include some quick background first. Actually, this is going to be fairly detailed background, since that’s where the devil’s going to be lurking.
Medak Pocket is the name given to a stand off/fire fight between Canadian/French Peacekeepers and Croatian forces in what was then known as the ‘Pink Zone’ between Croatian and Serb nationalists inside what is now the post-Yugoslav republic of Croatia. The “battle” which Bland is referring to was an eighteen hour gun battle between Canadians and Croats over the night of 15-16 Sept. However, this firefight came as the culmination of over a week’s worth of fighting, maneuvering, posturing and negotiating when the Croats launched an attack to overrun and ethnically cleanse a strategically important Serb-controlled region.
The treaty line between the Serb nationalists and the newly forming Croatian government was meant to be guaranteed by the UN as a temporary measure as part of an ongoing treaty negotiation (one of many launched during the dissolution of the state of Yugoslavia). Whether or not a diplomatic solution could have been possible under different circumstances, by 1993 the Croatian government had opted for military means instead. During the late summer of that year, began making secret preparations for a military campaign that would begin with the elimination of the Medak Pocket.
For the Canadians in the Medak region, the battle began on 9 Sept when a blistering Croat artillery barrage came crashing down around them and Croat forces began systematically assaulting and overrunning the Serb-held villages in the pocket. Over the next several days, the Serbs were driven back and several villages fell under the control of the Croats who immediately followed up on their victories with a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign against the civilian population.
Deployed on the Serb side of the treaty line, the troops of 2 PPCLI pushed out patrols and observers, relaying back to their chain of command the reality on the ground that – contrary to official position of the Croat government – this had been a planned assault and that Serb civilians were being exterminated within the Pocket. Over the next several days there was a flurry of desperate negotiation at the UN and at the Croat capital of Zagreb. At first the Croatian government claimed the fighting had been spontaneous clash, possibly even started by the Serbs. But the steady stream of news from 2 PPCLI put the lie to their words, and eventually forced the government to concede to UN demands for a withdrawal behind the 9 Sept line.
On 15 Sept, 2 PPCLI, supported by two of companies from the French contingent pushed their way into the Serb front lines. This was phase one of the operation that would allow the Serbs to withdraw under UN cover. The peacekeepers were then to advance further as the Croats withdrew, and eventually re-establishing the 9 Sept front line under UN protection.
As they took over the Serb positions they began taking fire from the Croat side, and 8 and 9 Platoon in particular became embroiled in serious firefights. 8 Platoon found itself deployed around a farmhouse on the edge of a Serb minefield, and came under fire from small arms, heavy machine guns and mortars. Over the course of the next eighteen hours 8 Platoon shot it out in a series of on-again off-again firefights that culminated at dawn on 16 Sept when the PPCLIs hammered the Croat positions with a sustained barrage of rifle and machine gun fire that finally silenced the Croat troops.
Later that same day, two more companies of the PPCLI tried to open the road (code named Maple Route) through the middle of the pocket and drive through to the Croat occupied side. Although the crossing had been agreed upon with the Croat leaders during negotiations the previous night (even as 8 Platoon was fighting just a few hundred meters away) the Croat leadership that morning refused to clear their barricades and threatened to open fire on the Canadians as they waited on Maple Route.
A tense ninety minute standoff ensued, and both sides seemed ready to light each other up when PPCLI commander (LCol Jim Calvin) brought forward a crowd of recently arrived journalists. With news cameras rolling and a Croat general in plain sight in the background, Calvin denounced the Croats for failing to adhere to their part of the cease fire and implied that the delay was an attempt to cover up ethnic cleansing that was taking place even as they spoke. The gamble paid off and the Croats, fearing the loss of their propaganda advantage, dismantled the barricade and began withdrawing their forces.
Tragically, by the time the Canadians rolled through the captured villages the damage had already been done. An estimated 1,500 civilians had been murdered and in many cases their very homes had been demolished. Entire villages and hamlets had literally been wiped from the map. LCol Calvin and his troops restored the boundary line between the Serb and Croat forces without suffering any direct casualties. But the stress of the mission and the general neglect by the Canadian government of the time meant that dozens of their troops suffered terrible long term physical and mental health consequences.
The fighting at Medak Pocket came towards the end of 2 PPCLI’s deployment, with many of the soldiers returning to Canada just weeks later. Despite their success in restoring the 9 Sept line (one of the first UN successes in the already years old Balkans conflict) many soldiers were haunted by their inability to save the people who were supposed to have been under their protection. This fact was further compounded by the fact that the Canadian government failed to acknowledge their heroism and sacrifices of their troops as well as failing to provide any effective care for PTSD and various other health concerns. Many of the soldiers who served at Medak Pocket would have to wait over a decade for medals and official recognition.
Okay, so that’s the basics of Medak Pocket. Now if this had been the source of Will Boucanier’s bitterness and resentment, then we may have the basis for something realistic. But Will doesn’t harbour any resentment. In Bland’s Uprising, Medak Pocket was a stunning victory:
“Will had reported the situation to the Ptricia battalion commander, but he knew no one in the unit, already under heavy fire, could slow the assaulting force in time to save the villagers. However, he figured that his little force [a six man JTF-2 detachment] off on the flank of the Patricia companies, might be able to surprise and distract the Croatian infantry. Will had stood up, gathered his soldiers, and led them in an attack on the enemy company in the valley below his position. The citation to his decoration read:
Sergeant William Boucanier MMV
Medal of Military Valour
“On September 15, 1993, Sergeant Boucanier, commanding a JTF2 Detachment allocated to peacekeeping duties in the area of the Medak Valley in Krajina, came under heavy Croatian mortar and small arms fire. During the ensuing engagement, he observed these same forces preparing to attack an undefended village inhabited by women, children, and old people. Without regard for his own safety and under heavy fire, he led his small detachment into the village and there successfully defended the villagers from further assault. During the night, he was wounded twice, once seriously by mortar fire, but maintained command of his soldiers, encouraging them and adjusting deployment to defeat the Croatian assault. Sergeant Boucanier’s courageous and skillful actions helped prevent a massacre of the villagers and secured the battalion’s exposed flank until reinforcements arrived at daybreak the next morning.”
For the record, the CO of 2 PPCLI during the mission was LCol Jim Calvin, and the OC of D and C Company, who found themselves in the worst of the fighting during Medak Pocket were Maj Dan Drew and Maj Brian Bailey. The OC of 8 & 9 Platoon were Lt Tyrone Green and Lt. Dave McKillop respectively, and a couple of the key NCOs were Sgts Rudy Bajema and Rod Dearing.
I’m bringing it up here, because Bland decided not to and since his fictional hero wins accolades for rescuing them.
Although Sgt Rod Dearing was in command in the hottest fighting, one guy who deserves particular mention is Sgt Rudy Bajema, and his actions during the week leading up to 15 Sept. Arguably he had the most important task of the entire battle when, shortly after the start of the fighting on 9 Sept, his section was ordered to push out into the pocket and establish an OP on a cliffside that overlooked the region. Of all the efforts by the Patricias, his position probably generated the most accurate picture of what was happening in the midst of the fighting. It was the reports by him and his section which confirmed that ethnic cleansing was occurring in the Pocket, enabling the negotiators at the UN and in Zagreb to bring the pressure that eventually forced the Croat leadership to cave.
If you’re thinking this real life overwatch position sounds a lot like the one that fictional Will Boucanier occupied, well you’re not alone. I don’t know if Bland ever read Carol Off’s book, but the OP occupied by Sgt Bajema seems to fit Bland’s description quoted at the start of this section exactly. The main difference here is that Boucanier (in addition to not being a PPCLI and therefor in Bland’s mind way cooler) somehow descended from their perch (under mortar fire no less!) to single handedly fight off an entire company of infantry with tanks in support!1 It would seem that Sgt Bajema’s role of feeding vital information to the UN negotiators wasn’t heroic enough. No. Nothing short of winning the pivotal battle (and saving those silly Patricias who left their right flank exposed like a bunch of chumps) is good enough for our Will.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in real life there were no actual “flanks” for the Croats to turn during this operation. The Serbs, despite their losses, rushed reinforcements to the front to create a continuous line along the new frontier, and as the Canadians and French peacekeepers moved into their lines and pushed forwards, they more or less maintained that continuous front. The closest they came to being “outflanked” came in the afternoon of 16 Sept when the Patricias had their standoff on Maple Route with Croat forces positioned to fire at them from multiple directions.
Furthermore, on the night of the 15th, all of PPCLI’s D-company was on standby to push down Maple Route in the morning. Had there been some kind of Croat offensive of the kind that Bland describes, LCol Calvin had an entire mechanized rifle company that he could have thrown into the fight.
If I sound like I’m being pedantic here, it’s because Medak Pocket was real. Real soldiers fought and suffered at Medak Pocket. Although miraculously the Patricias suffered no physical casualties during the firefight on the 15th, several men were wounded earlier by mortar and artillery fire, and at least one man in 8 Platoon suffered an acute mental breakdown during the shootout. Those same real soldiers came home to no recognition or support, and in many cases didn’t even receive medals recognizing their heroism for nearly a decade after. In Bland’s mind, though. It seems that all that was needed was for a Real Soldier® to lead a counter-attack that would defeat the Croat outflanking maneuver.
Let’s make one other thing absolutely clear here. Medak Pocket, for all of its heroism, was a defeat. The Croats overran the pocket and killed an estimated 1,500 people and while the Canadians handed them a surprisingly sharp beating and eventually pushed them back over the treaty line, they were too late to save the people who’d been living in the pocket. In Bland’s reconstruction of the events, 2 PPCLI (for all their hard fighting) was saved by Will Boucanier’s JTF-2 team, who not only stopped a flanking maneuver by tanks and infantry, but also single handedly defended an entire village of innocent ‘women, children and elderly.2’
Now as far as the aftermath is concerned, Bland is correct in that news of the engagement was suppressed by the Liberal party government of Jean Chretien largely for political reasons. Many of the troops involved returned home not just absent the fanfare of returning heroes, but without the basic medical and social support needed for combat veterans, many of whom began developing acute health problems as a result of their tour. This was and remains a national scandal, and rightly so.
If Bland was going to cite Medak Pocket as a motivation for Will Boucanier to turn revolutionary, I might actually believe him. For a man to come back from something like Medak Pocket and harbour a long seated resentment toward the government and the army would be completely understandable. That’s not the case in Uprising, however.
In his alternate universe version of Canada, those Canadian Peacekeepers were saved, almost single-handedly by his grand protagonist, who also single-handedly stopped the slaughter of Serb civilians and turned the whole battle into a ‘boys’ own adventure novel’ victory where the bad guys were defeated and the hero won his medal (a full decade before anyone else). I can understand the mindset of wanting to re-fight old battles as a form of wish fulfillment. But this isn’t an old battle, and Bland’s re-writing of history seems to me the kind of arm-chair generalship portrayed most infamously in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’
So if the Croatian Mission was a rousing re-affirmation of Will Boucanier’s sheer awesomeness, why has he decided to put in his papers and release from the CF? I’ve mentioned already how the grossest slur of the novel Uprising is its insistence that every single Native soldier currently serving in the CF would automatically drop everything and turn against their fellow soldiers once called to the cause of their race? This wasn’t an exaggeration. Consider the following:
“Boucanier, too, had been identified by the Movement. Its leaders had reached out to him several times early in his career and as he advanced in it, only to be rejected. But Will’s gut-wrenching, mind-bending experiences in Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Afghanistan changed him profoundly. His sympathy for the people he helped in those places, people forced by history’s whims to surrender their culture to the tyranny of the majority, affected deeply his sense of himself and his people and his homeland on James Bay. The political jumble that was Yugoslavia, which the UN and the Western allies had turned into the even bigger Balkan region mess, convinced Will that nationalism, not federalism, saves lives and cultures.
Please note that, in Bland’s world, it was the UN and Western intervention that turned Yugoslavia into the Balkans, whereas the true hope for the region lay in the nationalism of the Serbs3 (and presumably Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars, etc…). Also, Bland thinks it’s acceptable and professional for a Canadian special forces operator to be contacted by a terrorist organization and not immediately report it to his superiors.
“He learned also from watching certain Serbian patriots and Afghani communal leaders that strong leaders can achieve a great deal if they have the strength and determination to unit people around their own traditions. The key lesson Will took away from his experience, however, was that the people’s success and security depend on one thing: cultural unity, protected by one unchallenged leader, and set free from distracting entanglements in other people’s causes.
Probably the best description I’ve ever heard for the difference between dictatorship and fascism, is that a dictatorship only cares about your obedience. Fascism wants your soul. It’s not enough to follow Big Brother’s laws and serve Big Brother’s rule, you have to love Big Brother with all your heart. The term Fascism comes from the Roman word Fasces, the symbolic bundle of sticks that gains strength when tied together. Submit yourself to the whole, and you will be made greater through the whole’s victories and triumphs.
Keep in mind that Boucanier is not meant to be a villain here, not even a tragic one. According to Bland, Boucanier saw Croat soldiers descending upon Serbian villages intent on murder and longed for a Serb patriot to stand against them (never mind that such Serb strong men were, at that same time, sniping Bosnian civilians in the streets of Sarajevo, and standing off against Canadian soldiers outside of Safe Area Srebernica). Later in his career, he saw an Afghanistan riven by tribal and religious schisms and longed for a strong tribal leader to defend his own.
Boucanier’s storyline in these three paragraphs seems to me to be the perfect description of a man enamoured with power and authoritarianism, rejecting one institution for another he perceived as stronger. There’s a brief throwaway line about how he was angered by the government’s breaking of its pledge to the Afghan people but the fact is Will Boucanier sees himself as greater than the army he serves, and seeks out a master worthy of his loyalty.
“The Canada he deserted had deserted honour first when it walked away from its pledge to the Afghanis he had fought to protect. For Canadian politicians, Will thought, honour is a pliable thing. He and a few others soldiers were the real army, the army of soul, duty, singleness of mind and purpose.
He knew and accepted that race meant nothing in the army. There, only truth, duty and valour command all.
Note the phrase ‘the real army.’ Not like that fake army that people like me might be a part of. They know what real honour is and the proof of that lies in the fact that they’ll happily betray their army and its government in the name of truth, duty and honour. I wonder if this is why Bland expects that Will Boucanier, special forces traitor will somehow be treated with the ‘worthy adversary’ mindset by his special forces colleagues. I suppose a common militia soldier like me would never understand.
Douglas Bland’s bio on the back of the book says he served thirty years in the CF and retired as a Leftenant Colonel. I look at his picture and it could be the picture of a dozen other Colonels I’ve met over the years. Intelligent and composed, but with a couple of hard lines to show where the soldiering went on. Walk the streets of Ottawa and you’ll see a dozen men just like him. But how does he look at disasters such as Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and only see the attraction of nationalism? How does he look at an Aboriginal soldier in CADPAT and see an enemy who is only waiting for the right leader before they turn on him? How does he look back on thirty years of service, and see only reasons to hate his country?
***This post’s featured image is a painting of Medak Pocket by Katherine Taylor, featured at the Canadian War Museum. Image found via legionmagazine.com***
1 A couple of further points to note: 1) By the time the tanks are in the open and moving, the attack’s already in progress, suggesting it’s likely to be over by the time you descend ‘to the valley below.’ 2) Although I’m willing to be proven wrong, as a rule you’re not likely to achieve the element of surprise if you’ve been under mortar the whole time. Generally, being under continuous mortar fire while moving implies that the enemy already knows you’re there because they’re tracking your movements!
2 It’s also a bit unsettling that he emphasizes the people he saved were women, children and elderly. What, is a fighting aged male not worthy of protection? This isn’t an idle question. One of the worst single massacres of the entire Balkans conflict was the overrunning of the UN safe area in Srebernica, in which Serb forces actively singled out thousands of able bodied men and boys for execution, regardless of whether or not they’d been fighters.
3 For the sake of being completely fair, the siding with Serbian nationalists is not entirely bullshit for the time period, and I can cite at least one other Canadian memoir The Sharp End: A Canadian Soldier’s Story by James R. Davies from a veteran who’d served the bulk of the 90s in Croatia that held the same opinion. By contrast, those who served primarily in Sarajevo, Srebernica and Garazhde had very different opinions of the Serbs.