The Next Chapter

Kevin Patterson on "the moral chaos of war"

The former Canadian Armed Forces doctor on News from the Red Desert, his war novel set in Afghanistan.
Kevin Patterson volunteered as a civilian physician on the Kandahar Airfield base in 2007. (Lawrence Melious)

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States lead a coalition to destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the Taliban didn't disappear — it resurfaced a few years later. This is the time and place that Kevin Patterson, a doctor and veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, writes about in his novel News from the Red Desert. The story is about the war in Afghanistan, but not just from the perspective of the soldiers.

Kevin Patterson spoke to Shelagh Rogers from Toronto. This interview originally aired in January 2017.

On expectation vs. reality in a war zone

In the 1990s, I was a military medical observer for about three years or so. I had been drawn to the idea that the West could help in difficult situations, that we could go and help desperate people where security was lacking and conventional aid was not possible. This was how we articulated the mission in Afghanistan — I think it's really true that nobody, from Canada anyway, had particularly malign intentions in Afghanistan. We weren't there for treasure or conquest. Everyone really wanted to help. That's why I volunteered to go.

Then of course, the experience of going there — what one sees is chaos. The way violence just disrupts, the way it erodes all the social conventions and presuppositions of goodwill and everything we take for granted in a more secure situation. And I was really fascinated by the moral chaos of war.

Why the novel is narrated in many different voices

There's an ordering narrative that's created by examining something like war through just one perspective. One sees it in the reportage that comes out of war zones, especially if it's electronic media, especially if it's filmed. As soon as you put a frame around things it starts to all seem to make sense that it really doesn't make. It's much easier to grasp just how confusing and disordered the phenomenon is by looking at it through many different perspectives.

We talked ourselves into a very simplified version of what that war was. We understood it in a non-complex way, and really averted our eyes from the troubling complexities of that war. There was this notion, for instance, that we were welcome, that everyone wanted us there. We were able to sustain that notion as long as we looked at that war from our perspective. But if you put in many different perspectives and look at how things seem from other eyes, then another reality starts to take shape.

Kevin Patterson's comments have been edited and condensed.