Review: It Was 38° With Many Snakes

It was Canada’s longest military deployment. On Sunday March 15, 1964 peacekeepers landed in Cyprus and stayed 29 years. The mission cost some $700 million and even saw deployment of the nation’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure.

There is no library of literature on the Cyprus mission. The island itself was a beach resort for English tourists; no Victoria Crosses were awarded; no wounded veterans came home to parades. For all that, Under the Blue Beret should be required reading for anyone who is thinking of joining the military.

In crisp prose author Terry Burke captures the minutiae of army life. It is neither heroic nor desperate.  It is nothing like the military caricatured by non-combatants. It is what it is.

Burke’s account of his service as a peacekeeper in Cyprus and the Middle East runs as a series of indelible vignettes. Here’s one: Christmas, Cyprus, hot and snake-infested, soldiers assemble in a mess hall to watch a film of holiday greetings from families back home. It was a bad idea, Burke writes. The film became a sequence of crying children and frazzled spouses. “At some point I heard someone suggesting that maybe the projector should be turned off, but it just kept going as the images of family after family rolled across the screen,” he recalls. “Even in the semi-darkness of the room you could see the tightly locked faces of those watching.” Later they got drunk and started fist-fights.

Cyprus beyond the beach resorts is an oven where the average daily temperature is 38 Celsius. More than 25,000 Canadians were deployed through the island, mandated to enforce a ceasefire between warring Turks and Greeks: “All that separated the opposing groups was a small outpost, with a U.N. soldier patrolling the road between them.” Burke writes that one observation post was nearly the size of a phone booth, equipped with a Korean War-vintage radio and a hot tin roof.

Later the Canadians made barracks in a bullet-riddled structure in downtown Nicosia that had once been a five-star hotel. He remembers the chandelier in the mess hall.

And, there were the people. Burke recalls a Turkish lieutenant who spoke fluent English; he’d been a student at Boston University. Or the street peddler, a 10-year old boy, who sold coffee to soldiers at a handsome profit, 20¢ a cup. Or the little girl trampled at a refugee camp as Burke tried to hand her bread. Or the Canadian corporal who became unhinged and started decapitating cats.

And, he remembers being reunited with his own son as a 10-month old infant who screamed in protest when Burke tried to give him a hug: “The look of fright in his eyes told me he wanted absolutely nothing to do with this man in the strange uniform.”

Under the Blue Beret is neither a celebration nor exposé of military life. It is just the truth.

By Holly Doan

Under the Blue Beret: A U.N. Peacekeeper in the Middle East by Terry Burke; Dundurn; 256 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-08327; $22.99

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