Haute tension: Des chasseurs alpins en Afghanistan
Sylvain Tesson, Thomas Goisque et Bertrand de Miollis
Gallimard, 2009, $49.50

As the Canadian military draws down in Kandahar to focus on a training assignment in Kabul, this book offers some timely information about a province adjacent to Kabul.

Haute tension is a record of the 2009 tour of French battalion “27e chasseur alpins” in the mountains and valleys of Kapisa Province, which has Kabul at the southwest corner and Bagram airbase, nerve centre of American military operations, at the northeast. Kapisa was formed in 1964 from parts of Kabul and Parwan Provinces.

The book is in French, but the 134 illustrations by Bertrand de Miollis and the 154 colour photographs by Thomas Gosique could carry it on their own. I found the sketch maps of the battalion’s area of operations as well as the major battle that the unit fought in the Alasay Valley particularly useful.

The composition of this GITA (Groupement tactique interarmee) will seem similar to our own operations in Kandahar. There were the 2e, 4e companies and a logistic company of the battalion, an attached armoured platoon of AMX-10 RCs (105mm cannon), 50 mountain gunners with 4x120mm mortars (the infantry had 80mm mortars), sappers from a Foreign Legion engineer battalion and signalers.

The battalion had two forward operating bases. The U.S. forces provided the PRT, aviation and close air support for Kapisa Province, which fell within an American-led region (no surprise due to proximity to both Bagram and Kabul).

27e chasseurs alpins fought one major battle for control of the Alasay Valley. Since mountains of 2000-3000 metres dominate the terrain, the battalion seems to have followed the Indian Army practice of piqueting the heights. The use of paragliders in actual operations by the commando sections found in each company could not be confirmed. Presumably the sniper rifles seen in photos of hill top positions were used.

Sapper Sokolski’s story provides an ironic human touch. As a Siberian in the Foreign Legion he found himself dealing with improvised explosive devices (IED) where his father had fought as member of the Soviet forces. Sokolski was himself a veteran of Russian combat in the Caucasus hotspots.

Author Sylvain Tesson offers a French “take” on the situation in Afghanistan, ISAF and French participation, so some readers may take issue with comments on the Americans sprinkled throughout the book. The readers will also note that the word “impossible” appears often in discussions about Afghan allies and foes.

The book does have its weaknesses – the IED aspect is not well covered as the only vehicle casualty shown is an American Humvee, and logistics is given rather cursory treatment – but if you feel the need to maintain your proficiency in French, then this is the book to read.

The 188th Crybaby Brigade
Joel Chasnoff
Free Press, 2010, $21.95

The UN headquarters was asked to come and retrieve the bodies of two Iranian peacekeepers, shot after taking a wrong turn on patrol by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). At the time, in 1977, listening on the net, I wondered how the force that had held up the masses of Syrian tanks could have made a mistake!

The explanation is perhaps found in this book by a Chicago Jew, Joel Chasnoff, who joined the IDF to serve as a Merkava 3 tank gunner in South Lebanon and delivers a hilarious account of his life in the Israeli armoured corps.

As might be expected from an American-based comedian, his handling of death in the chapter “House of Mirrors” is sardonic but authentic. I can relate to the friendly fire killings, fatal “Sabbath Switches” and the toll on “Final Tours.”

Disturbing for those few Canadians who still deploy to South Lebanon with UNTSO (UN Truce Supervision Organization) will be the evidence that UN blue does not show up well on tank night vision devices. Perhaps it was just as well that I forsook my combat dress for the unauthorized work dress so as to stand out as unique when I served there.

The annex on how to use a Merkava searchlight to grill a cheese sandwich reminded me of how we kept our rations warm on February exercises in Wainwright under the mufflers of our Centurion tank.

While this book offers insights into the conscript force that is the IDF at a time when uncertainty is once again prevalent in the Middle East, Chasnoff gives us some comical food for thought: “If the skinny, lactose-intolerant Jew from the suburbs is the strongest soldier in your platoon, how safe can Israel be?”