Eight Lives Down
Chris Hunter
Bantam Press, 2007
$34.95, 369 pages

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the number one killer of Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan.

Eight Lives Down puts a personal face on the never-ending mind game between the soldiers who disarm such devices and those who design them, and is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the trials of soldiers in combat and the heartaches of separation from family (see also A Special Kind of Courage reviewed in Vanguard July/August 2007).

Make no mistake; this is a deadly game. For much of his tour in Iraq as a counter-terrorist bomb disposal operator, Major Chris Hunter was the direct target of the bomb makers and their paymasters.

In one incident, the author’s coolness was evident by his use of smoke grenades to provide cover as he disposed of a bomb left deliberately exposed in the open so that he would be an easy target for snipers firing from all sides.

In another, he disarmed a bomb set up just outside the headquarters of Basra’s Mahdi Army, who had gathered on a rooftop to witness his demise. Only his order to take photos of the leaders and their suspected Iranian advisors forced some of them to step back out of photo op view from their prime vantage point.

Hunter survived to describe this and many others cases in such detail that almost make the photos accompanying the text superfluous. He provides a vivid picture for anyone who wants to know how it feels to walk alone to the site of a bomb intended to trap the disposal expert. Current tools of the trade are revealed, though constant ingenuity by bomb makers and disposal experts alike mean many are probably already out-of-date.

For Canadians focused on Afghanistan, Eight Lives Down offers insight into British combat operations in Iraq at the tactical level. British forces, of course, are also providing the major ISAF contingent in Helmund Province, which borders the AOR of Canada’s own combat component of ISAF in Kandahar. In describing an ambush of his team, Hunter takes the reader through what every convoy in Basra faced, and by extension, what every convoy in Afghanistan must confront.

The book also offers a glimpse into the murky world of intelligence as it relates to bombers in Iraq. Hunter reveals a bigger picture as he takes us through his duties and experience when tasked to work on a special group with Americans as they track bombers in Baghdad. More important, the significance of human intelligence emerges from these particular pages.

For all those working in headquarters, whether military or civilian, there are some insights as to how staff can unnecessarily endanger soldiers. The rotation of Hunter’s team from Basra to a smaller, benign locale a helicopter ride away, was not requested or wanted – fortunately, no one on the team died – and the move was eventually reversed after a great deal of unnecessary risk.

There are also lessons on the difficulties that missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan impose on family relationships. The added tour length of a specialist such as a bomb disposal operator, to say nothing of the nature of the work, make the separation even more precarious to any relationship.

In his final chapter, Hunter shares some of the emotions that arise in a close-knit team when death or disablement strikes, key insights for anyone with leadership aspirations.

In a job like Chris Hunter’s, there are no completely happy endings. But he survived to write Eight Lives Down, a book that deserves the widest possible audience. Few books provide so much in less than 400 pages.