Soldier and surgeon

War diary gives human portrait of Canadian army doctor in Afghanistan

It can be difficult to distinguish a conflict’s politics from the struggles of its participants, which is what makes Canadian Captain Ray Wiss’s war diary FOB Doc so refreshingly unique. FOB Doc (an abbreviation for “forward operating base doctor”) may seem unavoidably political at first, as it details Wiss’s voluntary 2007-2008 tour of duty as a medical doctor at the forefront of Canada’s operations in Afghanistan. However, Wiss’s true achievement, and the book’s most significant quality, is the way in which it presents a gripping and honest perspective of a conflict without politicizing the account beyond recognition.

To depoliticize the book’s motives entirely would be a disservice to Wiss, who unapologetically admits to being a “hopeless idealist” in FOB Doc’s first entry and consistently describes the Afghanistan mission as a just cause. Few entries pass in which Wiss does not praise the war as a noble effort by the Canadian government to liberate the Afghani people from the menace of the Taliban.

However, what holds the reader is not Wiss’s staunch support of the mission or his contempt for the Taliban, but his honest portrayal of life on the base. It is his wry accounts of wayward rocket-propelled grenades, the inconveniences of bathrooms riddled by shrapnel hits, and the mine sweeper whose bumper sticker reads “Do all jobs SUCK…or just mine?” It’s the abject fear and longing for home during late night bombings or treacherous journeys through Taliban territory. But most significantly, it is Wiss’s compassion for all of the patients he treats on his tour, be they Canadian soldiers, Afghani citizens, or Taliban prisoners of war. Wiss’s unflagging honesty makes FOB Doc an enthralling take on the Afghani conflict for supporters and detractors alike.

Even the least military-savvy reader will find FOB Doc an easy read. While “accessibility” has become a disparaging term in serious art circles, ease of comprehension is undoubtedly one of FOB Doc’s primary strengths. Although Wiss prefaces the book with a glossary, his years of experience writing medical articles render it unnecessary. Wiss’s ability to describe complicated medical procedures in layman’s terms translates well to the genre of military nonfiction, and is evident on every page. Readers who have never seen Black Hawk Down or picked up a Call of Duty controller will walk away from FOB Doc able to confidently discuss frag vests, IEDs, and a veritable lexicon of other military terms.

FOB Doc also pays constant respect to the underrated beauty of Afghanistan itself. The book itself is gorgeous, featuring colour photographs of dusky Afghani terrain that contrasts starkly with the military vehicles in the forefront. Wiss himself jovially samples passages from Lonely Planet’s guide to Afghanistan and continuously conveys his deep reverence for the Afghani countryside and the people who inhabit it.

But where the conflict’s politics enter into Wiss’s account, they do so uncompromisingly, risking the loss of readers who hold certain political inclinations. Former Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier’s foreword, while lending a certain legitimacy to Wiss’s account, reads a little too much like a pro-war pamphlet, and gives a more militant support of the conflict than the rest of the book intends. Wiss’s own opinions, meanwhile – though frequent and firm – form a crucial component of his character and are more lovable in their honest morality than they are offensive in their political content. To strip the book of all its politics would leave an incomplete portrait of Captain Ray Wiss, MD.

To describe FOB Doc as “fun” might seem somewhat disrespectful, but Wiss’s character and the clarity of his prose heighten what could have been a sordid account into a thoroughly compelling read. Wiss has composed a gripping book that manages not only to familiarize the reader with the Afghanistan conflict’s grittiest details, but also to enthrall audiences of any political bent.