An Interview with Chris Wattie

Chris Wattie is a veteran, journalist and writer whose book Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, The Taliban and the Battle that Saved Afghanistan was based on his experiences as an embedded journalist in Kandahar in 2006.

Phil: What first attracted you to becoming a journalist?

Chris: I’ve always believed that journalism is as much a personality disorder as a profession.

Kind of like being a writer!

Exactly! You don’t do it because you want to; you do it because you have to. I started writing for student papers when I was at University of Saskatchewan (The Sheaf), and discovered it was a) fun; b) a potential source of work in summers and post graduation; and c) most importantly, a great way to meet women. I was an English/History major, so it’s not like I could go door-to-door selling people my analysis of the trochaic level of allegory in Canterbury Tales. I transferred to Carleton after one year, and although I briefly considered taking Journalism there, I stayed with the English/History program – mainly because the people I met who were in journalism were almost exclusively middle-class, imitation preppy, tight asses. This was absolutely the right decision: I use my English and certainly my history degree almost every day. Journalism can be taught to anyone who can form clear sentences in a matter of a week or two, and there are a LOT of people working in journalism these days who couldn’t form a clear sentence if you put a gun to their heads.

I agree that a liberal arts education isn’t meant to be vocational training. It’s meant to give you the skills (critical thinking, persuasive writing, etc.) that you apply to some other field. Journalism seems like a way to take those skills and apply them in an immediate way to things that are happening in society.

Very much so. But there’s also an element of compulsive voyeurism: an interest or need in getting a front-row seat to history. I liked being a ground level spectator to things happening: whether it was the mission in Afghanistan or the 9/11 attacks or the Bernardo trials or the South Asian Tsunami in 2006 or whatever. But I liked almost as much the work of processing these experiences or events and portraying them in a way that most people would understand and hopefully relate to. Not all journalists share that second trait, which explains some of the appallingly dreadful writing you see in the media. As George Orwell said, people assume “yellow journalism” is committed by talented writers stooping to make ends meet; in fact, it’s produced by people doing their very best work. When I was embedded, I would wrestle with how best to write stories that would convey what it’s like to be on patrol in a place like Kandahar, for instance. Not many of my colleagues did – it was much easier (and safer) to stay on Kandahar Air Field (KAF) and cover news releases or conferences from the HQ, and of course the all-too-frequent ramp ceremonies. Getting out with the soldiers could be an emotionally draining process, and at times hugely difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. Almost – but not quite – rewarding enough to make up for all the other bullshit that goes on in the media industry.

I see how your education in English/History impacts your approach to journalism, but how does your experience in journalism impact your other writing?

After 20 plus years of writing 100- to 400-word stories in I find it hard as hell to write long. News writing (at least the way I was taught) is a pretty tightly constrained writing style: third person impersonal; inverted pyramid structure; limited or no adjectives, adverbs, or description. As a result, I’m deeply awkward about writing dialogue or long descriptive passages – which may be a good thing in some ways. My tendency is to devolve into long, pretty boring descriptions of scenery, people, etc. which I have to guard against. One thing I’ve taken away from journalism is that less is more. But there’s less and then there’s LESS: it’s hard to sell a publisher on a 1,000 word “novel.” So really, the biggest challenge for me was writing more than a few hundred words: it was very hard for me to avoid repeating words, or phrases in longer-form writing. One of my first editors/mentors in the business was a Canadian Press desk editor named Wally Krevenchuk: a great editor, with a painfully dry sense of humour and sardonic wit. When I was working for him in CP Edmonton, and taking too long to write a story about police busting another crack house (for instance), Wally’s favourite words of encouragement (delivered in a voice aged by decades of whisky and cigarettes) were: “Hey Dostoyevsky: when’s that novel coming out in paperback?”

Ouch! There is a lot of critique in those eight words!

I didn’t take it personally. Wally was a lovely guy, and a great newspaperman. He passed away a few years ago and there are few like him still in the business of journalism. It’s a measure of his success at teaching that I still haven’t quite gotten over the resulting flinch reaction to keep thing short and to the point. Easier to do with a cop brief than fiction.

That said, there is an awful lot of successful fiction out there that could use a heavy structural edit. I can point to a few authors whose work was commercially successful enough that they could dictate the length of their work to the publisher and opted to write novels that weigh in close to 200,000 words. And while that might work in some cases, it certainly doesn’t work in all cases. It’s almost as if they are too important, or it’s too much bother, to have to write concisely.

God yes! The best recent example I can think of (John Milton not being really what I’d call recent) is G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Obviously, it’s been a hugely successful series, even before the Netflix specials, and more power to him. But he desperately needs an editor: there were so many parallel plotlines, characters, and frankly fluff that I go too frustrated to finish them. I’ve heard theories that this sort of overly complex writing is the fallout from the advent of the computer. Writers can move plots and subplots around pretty easily thanks to MS Word, but if you have to write on a manual typewriter, or – heaven forfend – by hand, then you have built-in incentive to keep it down to a reasonable length and complexity. 

I’m curious to know what was it like being an embedded journalist while doing the research behind “Contact Charlie”?

It was simultaneously incredibly rewarding and hugely frustrating. I was embedded when the whole concept was still new to the Canadian Armed Forces, and as a result the bureaucracy in Ottawa hadn’t quite gotten their heads around how to “manage” embedded reporters. So I got levels of access to the officers and men of Task Force Orion that later embeds never really did – partly because I worked at developing relationships and a rep among the troops, but also because nobody in the Department of National Defence Public Affairs machinery (let alone the Prime Minister’s Office/Privy Council Office) realized how much access I had to the troops and what that meant in terms of news stories. After the first year or two of embedded reporting, Public Affairs and Privy Council Office, even Prime Minister’s Office, started directly attempting to control reporters with the battlegroups: to the point that by the end of the mission, decisions on whether or not reporters were allowed to go on section-level presence patrols were being made in Ottawa. That’s literally the central command reaching down to make decisions at the sergeant level. But until then, it was just an incredible privilege to be able to spend time with soldiers on an actual war-fighting operation. The guys were – as you’d expect – unbelievably helpful and accommodating: they did more for the reputation of the CAF than the Public Affairs branch has done over its entire history.

The war in Afghanistan definitely brought out the tendency to try to control everything from on high, whether that was tactical operations or the flow (and tone) of information. It’s contrary to Canadian military doctrine, and common sense, but there is some aspect of the war that seemed to affect the whole institution that way. And no amount of evidence that showed it wasn’t working seemed to sway anybody. It must have been frustrating for you.

It was frustrating because I didn’t get to stay with the troops 100% of the time: which would have been my preference. And not only because I found most of the other journalists irritating at best. I estimate we were out with the soldiers about half the time, at the most. The rest of the time we were cooling our heels in the Media Tent at KAF. Some of that was due to the Public Affairs Officers trying to manage – they would say “balance” – the access reporters from different outlets got. They were trying, in my opinion, to micro-manage reporters’ access to the soldiers, whereas it all seemed pretty simple to me: assign a reporter to a subunit, or rotate them among 2 or 3 subunits, and leave them alone. That’s pretty much what was done in Kabul in 2004, and it worked well.

I was in Afghanistan at various points over that decade, and looking back, I am amazed at how loose everything was near the start, and how over time institutions and rules grew. This wasn’t just in the military – it’s just as true of the Afghan government and Afghan society.

Very true. Gen. Hillier tells a story about how he was able to ram through some key spending and acquisition programs through the system in record time at the beginning of the mission (the Chinooks, new trucks, Leopard 2 tanks, for eg). After a couple of these successes, the rest of the bureaucracy – according to Hillier – realized DND was being successful and started applying the institutional brakes to procurement, largely out of jealousy. But a lot of the issues with the embed program can be blamed on the media, historically not a well-managed industry. Getting an embed spot became a sort of “door prize” for some outlets; a way of rewarding their favourite reporters by letting them play war correspondent for a few weeks. That’s how Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald reporter killed by an IED in 2009, wound up in Afghanistan: she was a health care reporter. As a result, journalists with no background, understanding, or often even interest in the military wound up covering a shooting war in one of the most dangerous countries on earth. Naturally, they tended to get scared and listened to their editors in Toronto or Ottawa who told them to stay close to Kandahar Airfield “in case something happened.” The something of course being a Canadian soldier getting killed. People with foreign reporting experience realized that this was a trap: you wound up spending all your time writing pretty much what the military and political leadership fed you instead of going out on the ground and reporting what the troops were actually doing. It became deathwatch journalism.

You saw that in the military as well, as people rushed into theatre near the end to get the medal and not miss out on the war. It’s such a strange, but very human, reaction to the whole thing.

There were exceptions to this of course: Murray Brewster of Canadian Press being the best example. But they were very much exceptions. All in all, the embedding program turned out to be pretty much a textbook example of how to screw up a public affairs/StratCom messaging program. It was a recipe for losing support for the mission, in much the same way the “Five O’Clock Follies” in Vietnam turned journalists and eventually the American public against the war in Vietnam.

After 2004 in Kabul, when I was one of the first embedded Canadian reporters with the Canadian mission, I told a Public Affairs Officer I knew that the embedding program was such a brilliant idea that even the Canadian Armed Forces couldn’t screw it up. Turns out I underestimated the institution’s ability to screw up.

Well, add it to the list of things that gotten screwed up in the past year alone. Society has really shifted in a number of ways since March 2020. Has the pandemic changed your view on the role of the artists/writers within society?

You always make me think about things I wouldn’t normally think about… please cut it out.

I can make no promises…

Seriously, it seems to me that with all of us spending a year or more under lockdown of one kind or another, it’s more important than ever for writers to provide or support the kind of ties that bind us together as a society. Yet, judging from the news we’re more divided than ever: although as always, it’s far, far worse south of the border than it is here.

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of what artists owe society, essentially creating the stories (in whatever form) that lift us up and build a cohesive narrative about who we are and why we’re better together. The counter-narrative seems to have the upper hand in some parts of the world, though to a lesser degree here in Canada.

It reminds me a lot of what we were doing in Information Operations in Iraq and Syria: narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from. And they can be powerful things: ISIS had a narrative, that was well-constructed and appealing to a lot of disenfranchised Sunnis in the Middle East, and indeed around the world. And that was powerful enough to launch a particularly brutal war that’s still being fought. 

Canada’s issue is that we haven’t quite figured out what our narrative is – Vimy Ridge? The War of 1812? Bilingualism and multiculturalism? Or is it (my best guess) what Northrop Frye called the great question of Canadian literature: “Where is here?” 

I don’t think we’ve really answered that question, and all the questions and issues that follow. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the fault of Canadian writers: our means of distributing our work are paradoxically more open than they’ve ever been (blogs, social media, web zines, etc.) but also have more fractured and smaller audiences than ever. So as usual, it’s difficult to make a living as a writer: probably more difficult than it has been for a long time.

But it’s also fair to say that Canadian writers haven’t exactly risen to the challenge, to overcome these distribution issues and speak to the issues that we face, and the things that tie us together as Canadians: social distancing notwithstanding. I think there are reasons for this, including the trend in Canadian writing/literature to become increasingly self-referential, self-congratulatory, and out of touch with most Canadians’ daily lives. Most of our self-proclaimed literary elite seem consumed with things that James Carville dismissed (and rightly so) as “faculty lounge jargon.”

I would tend to agree with you, and I think that’s the case of small groups everywhere. We become consumed with the matters right under our noses. The literary set in Canada is a pretty small demographic, and so can be insular, though I’m not sure that its really intentional.

Part of the solution is to get a more diverse set of people telling a greater diversity of stories. What advice would you give to other writers looking to make a full-time job of it?

Seek out experiences, by which I mean real experiences. Go out in the bloody world and see what’s actually happening. There’s far too much navel-gazing in the literary world, particularly in CanLit. Nobody cares about the internal monologue of a 20-something, sexually ambiguous, vegan, anarcho-syndicalist moaning about their struggle against online colonialism. Or whatever. Now a vegan anarcho-syndicalist who solves crimes – that I would read.

I’d suggest that some people might be interested in that book, actually! But what we need is a wider set of experiences represented in our literature, that has space for that inner-monologue book alongside lots of other things as well. And that the best education for a writer isn’t in a workshop somewhere, but out in the real world living life.

This is not to say everything Canadian writers produce has to be detective novels, or thrillers, or plot-driven mysteries. But it has to be about something real; something relevant. Joe Boyden’s Three Day Road is a great example: he was writing fiction based on the very real experiences of aboriginal soldiers in the First World War, and what they went through when they returned home. Timothy Findlay’s The Wars is another great read: although I am clearly biased towards war novels.

That is a great example, as I think it appeals to different audiences and represents an important part of Canadian history that has otherwise been overlooked. And Boyden didn’t have to have first-hand experience of the First World War to write it – he could draw on his other experiences instead.

Exactly. Personally, I’d love to read what Boyden makes of the Afghan mission, although I would guess that’s not something he’s particularly interested in writing about. But the best way – really the only way – to get the kind of experience that leads to such great writing is to go out and see the world, look at what’s happening through a lens other than your iPhone or social media. I’m a big believer in digging down into the nitty gritty level of what’s happening, and you can only see that if you get out and look for yourself.

But at a certain point you need to buckle down and do the work. Being a journalist gives you lots of experience with deadlines, and the discipline to write even when you don’t feel like it. Are there any new projects that you’re working on now?

I’m working on a few ideas for a science fiction novel, inspired by Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, but where Haldeman was talking about Vietnam, obviously I’d be talking about Afghanistan. 

That is a book I would read.

This was the first war Canada fought since Korea, and the longest war in our history, and it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the national narrative. This is mind-boggling to me. It’s true that it takes time for these things to emerge: witness the gap between the end of the Vietnam War and the emergence of movies and books that really dug into that conflict and its impact on the U.S. So my thinking is that the way around this is to write about Afghanistan without writing about Afghanistan, in the same way that M*A*S*H wasn’t really about Korea and Forever War wasn’t really scifi. But it’s coming slowly so far… it turns out that writing a roman a clef is harder than it looks.

It’s not easy to write something simple! That is my experience, at least. The war in Afghanistan has shaped my writing in a lot of ways, even when it’s not the subject of my work directly. It’s weird to think that my experiences in Afghanistan were really the formative ones of my adult life, but it seems to be true.

It’s interesting to me that the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq) don’t seem to have been the spark for a whole new generation of writers in the way that the First and Second World Wars were. Perhaps veterans have other outlets for their messages. But there is something to the fact that, throughout history, being a writer and being a soldier have gone hand in hand. 

There’s a long line of soldiers/writers going as far back as Aeschylus – basically, the father of all playwrights – and more recently Churchill or Hemmingway. But that seems to have fallen off in the past few decades, with a few notable exceptions like Sebastian Junger. I think that’s partly because of the nature of the military experience and the military’s role in post-modern societies – we’re very much a tiny minority, even a warrior caste if you will, within most Western democracies. Where the experience during the First and Second World War was mass enlistment and a full societal commitment to war, since the 1980s most people in Canada or the U.S. have only experienced wars on TV – in the Balkans, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The number of soldiers fighting these wars is an ever-shrinking percentage of the population and warfare just hasn’t been part of most people’s experience. There’s also been a growing disconnect between the “arts” community and the military – most self-proclaimed artists (including authors) tend to define themselves as vaguely left wing, if not aggressively anti-military.

That disconnect is true. Mass conscription meant that having been a soldier (or sailor or aviator) was a more common experience, and so harder to see as an “other.” 

So that leaves Canadian readers looking for writing (fiction or non-fiction) about Afghanistan with either soldiers’ memoires or semi-autobiographical books by journalists – neither of which tend to be particularly well-written. Memoirs by soldiers can be very hit or miss in terms of quality – John Conrad’s What The Thunder Said is a good example of the better class of these – and aren’t particularly literary. Books by journalists can be painful to read: Christie Blatchford’s Fifteen Days for instance is not a particularly good read although I loved Christie dearly; and the less said about Patrick Graham’s Afghan Luke the better.

And don’t get me started on Hyena Road…

Because we couldn’t call the movie Route Molson! Canadian writers just don’t seem to “get” the military, its culture and foibles, characters, and many, many absurdities. I don’t see anyone in CanLit circles capable of producing anything even close to the quality or command of the subject matter you find in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for instance.

Though that’s a high bar, perhaps even a once in a generation kind of thing.

Even so, it’s a shame. Afghanistan was Canada’s longest war ever, and the literary community seems to be happy to pretend it didn’t really happen. Maybe because the general public seems happy to do the same.

I’m always curious to know what writers are reading, because to me the two things are inseparable. What have you discovered recently that you’d recommend?

I’m working my way through the great Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, which is the first classic scifi stuff I’ve read in ages. They have really re-invigorated a genre that everyone assumed was pretty much played out after authors like Heinlein or Larry Niven (Star Wars notwithstanding).

I just finished Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile, which is a fabulous look at the daily life of Churchill during the crucial first years of the Second World War. Who knew that he favoured brightly coloured floral patterned silk bathrobes after his daily bath?

It nearly inspired me to go out and buy one, to be honest. Nearly.

Thanks for that mental image. I’m also working my way through The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey. I actually got to meet the author at an English bookstore in Paris – just around the corner from the garret where Orwell lived and upon which he based Down and Out in Paris and London – and had a great chat with him about what Orwell was like as a person, which is best summed up as: “a complicated son of a bitch.” It’s a book about a book, but manages to touch on a lot of things I find fascinating, particularly how the ideas in books weave their way into our collective consciousness and there’s no better example of this than 1984.

It was interesting watching my kids read that book in high school, and see their minds get blown by it. They didn’t know much about Orwell and thought that it must have been written sometime around 1984 (which is of course ancient history to them). That his work is so relevant today, eighty years after he wrote it, is both fascinating and frightening.

I’m going to find Lynskey’s book and read it myself! 

I’ll loan it to you: as you know I’m a book socialist.

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Phil Halton

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