The Patrol by Ryan Flavelle

The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan by Ryan Flavelle
Harper Collins, 2011
Reviewed by Rebecca Colbeck

“Nothing can prepare a person for the reality of bloody, concussive warfare….Those who like war are aptly named warriors.  Some, like me, are fated never to be warriors, as we are more afraid of war than fascinated by it.  But I have the consolation that I have walked with warriors and know what kind of men and women they are.  I will never be a warrior, but I have known war.”  Ryan Flavelle
I recently had an opportunity to hear Ryan Flavelle speak about his book, The Patrol, and although this is a topic far outside my interests, I found myself completely absorbed in the stories he had to tell.  So much so, that I immediately began reading the book after the event.  I found myself underlining passages I wanted to remember, dog-earring the pages to which I wanted to return.  Not because Flavelle’s experiences were more horrible or less traumatic than those of other soldiers, but for the honesty he shows in his writing.  His insights are unaffected by any romanticism of war.  So real are his memoires that I could viscerally feel the heat of the scorching sun and the weight of the heavy pack on his back.
In 2008, Ryan Flavelle, a reservist in the Canadian Army and a student at the University of Calgary, volunteered to serve in Afghanistan.  Twenty-four-year-old Flavelle, a signaller attached to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, spent seven long months in the dusty, war-torn country. He endured the extreme heat, the long hours and the occasional absurdity of life as a Canadian soldier in this war.  Flavelle spent much of his time at the Canadian Forward Operating Base (FOB), living among his fellow soldiers.  The Patrol tells of one pivotal seven-day stretch, were Flavelle and his fellow soldiers stepped out from the wires of FOB into Taliban country. This gruelling patrol would fundamentally change who he was as a Canadian, a soldier and a man.
Flavelle describes the realities of this modern war in an anything-but modern country, with unapologetic candor. When he describes the eeriness of a line of soldiers snaking its way through the poppy and marijuana fields that dot the landscape, he is at his best. 
As a reservist, he is an ideal person to narrate this story, making it relatable to his civilian readers.  As an intellectual himself, he artfully mixes his story with deeper musings on war, the army, heroism, war, love and mortality. He explains the ostracism he felt trying to fit in with the regular forces, and also his new awkwardness in trying to fit in with his university peers, knowing that “they no longer understand me, that I know things my intellectually self-aware peers do not.”

Flavelle says he only caught “A glimpse into the black maw that is warfare, and unlike some I recoiled from it….Perhaps this is what separates me from those poor souls who continue to live in their memories after their war is finished.  None of my memories was strong enough to survive the influx of newer memories….My tour will always be with me, will always be part of me but the memories have lost their power.”
It may be a gritty, boots-on-the-ground memoir, but it’s so much more. It is about why we fight, why men and women choose such a dangerous and demanding job and what their lives are like when they find themselves back in the ordinary world. Flavelle does not romanticise war or its consequences.  He expressed his experiences without making himself into a warrior or a hero, both of which would have been tempting. He gives voice to the individual soldier, but he careful to remember who this book is really about: the fallen soldiers.  The Patrol reads as the truth – one that all of us should learn.  This book is available at all fine bookstores, including your U of L bookstore