The Other Side of War: Four Post-2001 Books About Afghanistan
War is human drama at its most epic and most intense.
– Dexter Filkins, in The Forever War
At sixteen years (and counting!), the war in Afghanistan is the longest-running conflict in American history, and another chapter in nearly half a century of fighting in the Central Asian republic. It should be no surprise, then, that the conflict has spawned an array of literature by both the soldiers that participated, as well as the civilians — Afghan and foreign — whose life trajectories have sometimes been shaped by it.
As the war begins another chapter, with President Donald Trump’s authorization to send in thousands more troops, it may be useful for the public back home to understand Afghanistan through more than just the occasional news dispatches. For this, contemporary literature about Afghanistan may provide some clues.
Journalist Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for The New Yorker, began reporting in the country in 1998, with numerous returns to the United States since then that have collectively filled up over 561 notebooks with observations and interviews, which he condensed into 350 pages in his 2008 memoir, The Forever War. Though, the label of ‘memoir’ barely does the book justice; The Forever War paints intimate portraits of both Afghanistan as well as Iraq through non-chronological vignettes. Highlighting the noteworthy, the absurd, and, ultimately, the human, Filkins’ book doesn’t try to convince us of anything or analyze the geopolitics of the region. He lets his anecdotes and observations speak for themselves. And in that, they do, ultimately painting a picture that is real, bleak, and void of easy answers — just like war itself.
Another book that reads like the culmination of years of work is Green on Blue, the debut novel of Elliot Ackermana Marine Corps officer turned essayist and political commentator. In Afghanistan, Ackerman advised a 700-strong Afghan army commando unit, was briefly attached to the CIA’s paramilitary arm, and received a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart for his service.
This military experience in Afghanistan served as the inspiration for his novel, which follows the radicalization process of an Afghan orphan, Aziz, from his rural childhood in Afghanistan to the suicide bombing that left his brother dying, to his joining of a local militia supported by the CIA and, from there, his slow conversion towards radicalization that culminates in the eponymous green-on-blue attack. The novel builds up slowly before terminating in the climactic attack and, in the process, both fills in a narrative gap left by real-life media coverage of such attacks, which rarely goes into the motivations of the attackers, and also brings up uncomfortable questions about the nature of the war itself. Ultimately, Ackerman makes the compelling argument that the war is an economic system that benefits individuals on both sides. Like Filkins’ memoir, he doesn’t profess to have any answers on ending it.
While Ackerman’s novel imagines the conflict from an Afghan perspective, Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body is a war novel centering on the experience of an Italian platoon in a remote forward operating base in Gulistan in far western Afghanistan. Unlike the traditional, perhaps stereotypical war novels, Giordano’s tale centers on the quiet moments in between combat — which makes it in some ways a much more realistic tale of twenty-first century warfare which, despite popular perception, is not all patrols and combat. Rather, life on the sprawling Forward Operating Bases that have become de rigueur in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, is often slow and mundane. The Human Body shows all of this in fine detail.
Another unique novel on Afghanistan is Atiq Rahim’s The Patience Stone, published in 2011 and turned into an acclaimed film the following year. Set “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” the novel takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single room, where a comatose man is watched over, cared for, and spoken to by his seemingly-devoted wife. Outside of that room, the fighting creeps closer while, inside, the wife comes to confide her secrets to her silent husband and, as each layer of secrets are revealed, she herself is revealed as someone that has managed to act with a surprising amount of agency in a system designed to curtail it completely. The wife is a powerful symbol of the silenced Afghan woman — and, perhaps, given the novel’s ambiguous location, women everywhere.
Meanwhile, as is the case with some of the best books, the backstory of the novel is just as interesting as its content; Rahim has become a renowned voice among the Afghan diaspora (his earlier novel, Earth and Ashes, focused on several generations of Afghan men), and chose to write in French rather than his native Persian, because he felt that his native tongue would bind him in an “involuntary censorship”.
But perhaps one of the most revealing works of art to come out of Afghanistan comes from the country’s millennia-old oral tradition. I Am the Beggar of the World is a collection of Afghan landays, a folk poetry made up of 22-syllable couplets, secretly shared between Afghan women. Collected, translated, and given context by journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, this book reveals a slice of Afghan society that is rarely open to outsiders — and that continues to present this other narrative of Afghanistan and Afghan women beyond that of the helpless Afghan woman. The poems are often ironic, witty, and sometimes raunchy, such as this landay on sex:
Making love to an old man
Is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold
While some of them are ‘timeless’, as an oral tradition, they are also dynamic and reflect the changes in Afghan society. One landau that Griswold recorded speaks to the changing nature of love and relationships in Afghanistan:
How much simpler can love be? Let’s get engaged. Text me.
While another speaks to the chasm between dreams and reality — and lends to the book its poignant name.
In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.
These works of literature provide no easy answers to the next chapter of the long-running conflict in Afghanistan, but that’s not the point. We often forget the human impacts of policy decisions made half a world away and sometimes, literature is the best reminder.