Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Will Mackin. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, GQThe Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere. His debut story collection, Bring Out the Dog, is available now from Random House.

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Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves. A machine gunner three years out of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion, he’d tried to kill himself, four or five times, but he was interrupted each time—once by his dead buddy Kip Jacoby; once by his girlfriend Krissy, whom he met at a strip club; once on a lake by his house in his canoe when the rain stopped and he saw the moon; and once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah and said, “I will kill you if you proceed,” and Caleb said, “No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.”

Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”


What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.


In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”

It was a warm Thursday afternoon on August 5, 2010, in a remote woodland of the Hindu Kush mountains when a band of men with full beards and ankle-length white gowns appeared out of nowhere. Brandishing Kalashnikovs, they walked up to a team of mostly foreign aid volunteers who had just picnicked near their Land Rovers following a medical mission in Afghanistan’s northeastern Nuristan province. The eight men and three women had been bringing eye care, dental treatment, and other forms of medical relief to an isolated highland valley. For two weeks, unarmed and unprotected, they had trekked with packhorses from village to village offering medical assistance to some fifty thousand subsistence farmers and shepherds living in this rugged high-mountain region.

The gunmen forced the workers—six Americans, three Afghans, a German, and a Briton—to sit on the ground. They ransacked the vehicles and demanded that everyone empty their pockets. Then they lined them up against a craggy rock face and executed them, one by one. Only the Afghan driver was spared. He had pleaded for his life by reciting verses of the Koran and screaming: “I am Muslim. Don’t kill me!”

The bullet-riddled bodies of the medical team were found the next day, and news of their assassination traveled swiftly. Theories abounded as to who murdered them and why. The Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, both insurgent groups fighting the Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan, each claimed responsibility. Yet as with so many such attacks against civilians, the perpetrators were never found and never brought to justice.

Two of the executed Americans, Tom Little and Dan Terry, were long-standing members of the International Assistance Mission, a Christian non-governmental organization (or NGO) that has been working in Afghanistan since 1966. “Dr. Tom,” as he was known, was a low-key sixty-two-year-old optometrist from Delmar, New York, who had been working with his wife, Libby, in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. They had first started out helping wayward hippies stranded in Kabul. Running a series of eye clinics, they had remained throughout the Soviet-Afghan war and during the Battle for Kabul of the mid-1990s until the Taliban drove them out. The Littles came straight back after the collapse of the Talib regime.

Dan was a cheerful and dogged aid worker with a dry sense of humor who first visited the country in 1971. During the latter days of the Taliban, when they were destroying villages and killing civilians in central and northern Afghanistan, Dan had mounted a humanitarian relief effort in midwinter to bring food across the front lines.

Both were my friends.

For those familiar with Afghanistan, the killing of the IAM team underscored the brutal reality that much of this mountain and desert country at the cusp of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had become a perilous, no-go zone. Whereas parts of the country, including Nuristan and the neighboring province of Badakshan where the murders took place, had been considered relatively safe for aid workers, the Afghan traditions of hospitality and protection of guests had finally and irretrievably been shattered. Decades of conflict, competing worldviews, and outside interests had turned Afghanistan into a land where neither the Western-backed Kabul government nor the insurgents are in control—and basic humanity seems to have vanished.

For me, the deaths of Dr. Tom and Dan marked the end of an era. They were “old Afghan hands” who, like me, had first ventured into Afghanistan in the 1970s and found themselves inexplicably drawn to this utterly romantic country of cultural contrasts and staggering topographic beauty, but also human tragedy. They kept returning despite being threatened, and despite the personal risk their work entailed. Although both were indeed Christians, they were not missionaries. They were in Afghanistan because of their own convictions and because they simply wanted to help a beleaguered people.

By the time of the IAM murders, the outlook for the future of Afghanistan was already bleak. One senior United Nations official in Kabul with years of Afghan experience was blunt: “It’s become an absolute disaster.” While NATO by early 2011 had largely accepted that there could be no military solution, Western governments were still placing too much emphasis—and funding—on their generals for leadership rather than investing in more imaginative out-of-the-box initiatives and longer-term civilian-led approaches, including talking with the insurgents.

The US-led invasion in October 2001, which was in response to the events of 9/11, helped oust the Taliban but has contributed little to overall security. The American intervention has moved from a limited “war on terrorism” coupled with other agendas, notably counternarcotics, to a full-fledged counterinsurgency. The presence of over 150,000 troops from the United States, Britain, and forty-six other countries as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has led to a situation many Afghans find comparable to the Soviet-Afghan war—a large occupying force, a weak central government, and endless skirmishes and attacks that kill innocent civilians and incite new recruits to the fundamentalist ranks. For a growing number of Afghans and foreign analysts, the Western military presence has proved a failure, with lost opportunities littering the trail of international intervention since the collapse of the Talib regime. Even the killing, by the Americans, of Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was unlikely to bring about much change.

Not unlike their Red Army counterparts during the 1980s, the Americans and their military allies are increasingly perceived by ordinary Afghans as an unwelcome foreign occupation force. Their behavior and lack of cultural awareness often emerge as affronts to Afghan customs and their sense of independence. NATO forces also have been involved in bombing and other military assaults that have inflicted severe civilian casualties. While such incidents may be regarded officially as unfortunate “collateral damage,” Afghans consider them a blatant disregard for human life. This is disheartening for those among the Western troops who genuinely regard their role as one of helping maintain peace and bringing socioeconomic development to a desperately impoverished land.

The growing resentment of Afghans toward the Western presence is not because Afghans necessarily prefer the Taliban and other insurgents, but because they have always resented outsiders, particularly those who insist on imposing themselves. Even more disconcerting, many Afghans no longer differentiate between soldiers and aid workers. Western policies have largely undermined the recovery process by usurping the traditional humanitarian role through the deployment of military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and the deployment of foreign mercenaries and private contractors with little or no understanding of the country. Afghans also legitimately question the purpose of the United

States spending one hundred million dollars a day on its military effort given that such funds might be far better spent on recovery itself. If US troops were to pull out tomorrow, what would they have left behind? The Soviets spent nearly a decade fighting their war in Afghanistan. Little tangible remains of their past involvement today.

NATO forces have now occupied Afghanistan longer than the Soviets. In a war with objectives difficult, if not impossible, to define, Western military casualties have been swelling steadily since 2004, when the Taliban began to reemerge as a formidable force. By mid 2011, over twenty-five hundred American, British, French, German, Canadian, Italian, and other soldiers had been killed. More than half the injuries and deaths were not the result of direct combat. The insurgents have been inflicting increasing casualties by roadside bombs, booby traps, and other improvised explosive devices (or IEDs). In contrast, over eighteen thousand Afghans had lost their lives in less than a decade, at least half of them civilian. A further forty thousand, both military and civilian, have been wounded. While NATO analysts argue that current Afghan casualties are “modest” compared with the 1.5 million believed to have died during the Soviet-Afghan war, others point out that the current conflict could have been avoided had the West adopted a more realistic approach to Afghanistan during the early 2000s and not been obsessed by terrorism, narcotics, and other distracting factors—notably the war in Iraq.

The reality is that overall security, particularly in the countryside, is worsening. Former mujahideen whom I knew in the 1980s and ’90s, and who had contacts with the insurgents, apologized for not being able to take me into parts of eastern Afghanistan. “We cannot guarantee your safety,” they told me. Even friends whom I know are involved with the insurgents, but still respect traditional Afghan hospitality, are reluctant to take me through their zones of control. Traveling has become a highly hazardous undertaking. I had felt far safer trekking clandestinely through the mountains during the Soviet era than today.

But Afghanistan’s problems are not just a lack of security. Too much money, combined with expectations too high and unrealistic, has been thrown at Afghanistan, propping up an ineffectual and corrupt regime. The overall economy is highly artificial and largely dependent on international development aid, military expenditure, and narcotics trafficking. In addition to the foreign aid contractors, the bulk of the revenue has gone to a small but powerful privileged elite of Afghans, notably senior government officials, warlords, and businesspeople with the right connections. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s most corrupt country, with graft permeating all levels of the administration, including President Hamid Karzai’s own family, who have benefited overwhelmingly from the recovery process.



Excerpt of Killing the Cranes used with permission by Chelsea Green, ©2011, Edward Girardet, all rights reserved. Author photo ©Shobhan Saxena.



What prompted you to write Killing the Cranes?

Having covered Afghanistan for so many years, in fact, since three months prior to the Soviet invasion in December, 1979, I wanted to write an informed but highly readable general interest book that would help readers understand this extraordinary country and its people, and why so many outsiders develop such a passion for this place. For me, it’s always been a romantic adventure like being in Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Many Americans just see a semi-arid landscape on TV reports from Helmand or Kandahar, but it’s an amazingly diverse place with some of the most extraordinary topography in the world. You’ve got the snowcapped Hindu Kush range running across much of Afghanistan as an extension of the Himalayas, parts of which look just like Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Then you have baking deserts with churning rivers slicing through rugged gorges, which could be in Arizona or New Mexico. And thick mountain forests and highland meadows looking like Switzerland.

At the same time, I wanted to write a book that explains what happens when outsiders come in with arrogance, ignorance and pre-conceived ideas – and then try to impose themselves.  The British did this in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Soviets did this in the 1980s and now the Americans and other Western countries are doing exactly the same thing. Everyone ignores history at their peril. If there is one thing that one learns from the history of Afghanistan is that no one wins wars, not even the Afghans.

And finally, I just wanted to do a book that reflected my own personal experiences, my own journeys through Afghanistan that would help put across what it was – and still is – like reporting in this incredible country. In many ways, I always felt that, despite the dangers, it was a privilege to have the chance to trek through this country, whether by foot, by horse or by camel. I often felt that it was a spiritual if not romantic journey of self-discovery, at times living as if in the 18th or 19th centuries but dealing with a 20th or 21st century conflict. Nowadays, when I drive by vehicle through Afghanistan or take the plane I feel as if I’m cheating. The real experience is to see the country by foot.

As a people, whether the Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks…one always meets  them on equal terms. Everyone is a king in Afghanistan.  And as a country, to really understand it, you need to understand a thousand Afghanistans. Seeing one part only means that you’re seeing one part. It may be totally different elsewhere. When I look back at my notes – and I’ve got a whole trunkful of them – I could not believe some of the adventures I had, such as going in to attack the Soviets at Jalalabad airport with a bunch of Afghan fighters, many of them former veterinarian students, who hadn’t a clue, or fleeing back to Pakistan with a group of French doctors and other foreigners, always a day or two ahead of communist informers. Some of the things I did were incredibly stupid and risky. But then, that’s all part of the adventure.


Why did you go to Afghanistan in the first place?

I was a young foreign correspondent in Paris. And like so many young Americans, I had gone there to become Hemingway. But I realized pretty quickly that I was not Hemingway. In fact, what I really needed to do was become Girardet. I also kept meeting all these journalists and photographers – American, French, British, German – who had covered Vietnam or were reporting conflicts in Africa, such as the Congo, or Central America. I was always enthralled by their stories about ‘liberating’ some bottle of wine in some shotup town or dealing with guerrilla fighters in the Horn of Africa. I decided that I had to go and find my own war, my own Vietnam, because clearly so many of these reporters had cut their teeth on such conflict zones. It gave them the experience they needed.

One of my friends from TIME magazine, Bill Dowell, a reporter who had covered Indochina, suggested I check out a small war brewing in Afghanistan. He warned that even the smallest of wars have a nasty habit of inflicting long-time consequences, so I should go check it out. Journalistically, it was some of the best advice anyone had ever given me. I travelled out with some freelance assignments, such as the International Herald Tribune and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a radio documentary. I had been to Afghanistan once before as a student hitch-hiking to India from Europe and I had always remembered how staggeringly beautiful it was. But I returned as a journalist, and a highly nervous one at that, because the war was already spreading with attacks against the roads, but I felt I had no option but to travel by bus. The bus was full of Sri Lankan migrants making their way to Europe and they kept offering me their window seats. But I was terrified of being picked off by a guerrilla sniper. Of course, nothing happened, but I did find myself gripped by the defiance and sheer challenge of Afghanistan.I was awestruck. And even to this day, I’m awestruck.

Of course, as I later understood, war is brutal but it always seems more romantic or exhilarating years later. One forgets the awful stuff, but that’s human nature. So I wanted to become one of those reporters. However, I never managed to develop that really hardened attitude of the war correspondent with everything being just a story. I always felt touched, and was sometimes deeply shocked, to see the real and longterm impact of war on people. While trying to remain the cool observer, one also realizes that many of these warlords, military commanders or politicians, regardless whether in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Angola, don’t a give a damn about civilian populations. And this leaves one very angry. This is what I tried to convey with Killing the Cranes. Wars kill people, mainly innocent civilians. Plus the impact of war drags on for years afterwards. The Soviets, for example caused the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Afghans plus destroyed much of the countryside. Ordinary Afghans in the countryside, where 80 percent of people live, are still trying to recover from this damage today.


You were covering wars and humanitarian crisis situations elsewhere at the same time. But you became fascinated by the concept of resistance.

Yes. Throughout the Soviet war – the Red Army pulled out in February, 1989, but the Afghan communists continued to hold out against the mujahideen, or guerrillas, for another three years – I was also reporting crises in Africa and Asia. I covered the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s, reported the civil war in Angola from the guerrilla (UNITA) side, but also reported the humanitarian or refugee predicaments in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Indochina and so on. So I was able to compare these conflicts and humanitarian situations with Afghanistan. At one point, I did a world-wide refugee survey totalling 30 articles over a week for the Christian Science Monitor newspaper. I literally travelled the world for several months as part of this reporting.

But while based in Paris, I had also met former French and European resistance people. I devoured numerous books about resistance And while covering the death of Tito in Yugoslavia, I visited the resistance museum (now gone, I believe) which showed how the partisans fought against the Nazis – and themselves – during World War II. It was interesting to see how all these resistance movements consisted of ordinary people. Many individuals became exceptional but all had to learn the ropes of how to fight a brutal occupation force.  I am always intrigued to see what it takes to persuade someone to go on fighting at constant risk of death and often against all odds. The French resistance was never that large – most French resisted passively, while others collaborated – but sometimes the most exceptional people were originally low key and non-descript. Others were born leaders.

With Afghanistan, I became fascinated by guerrillas such as Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq. Massoud, who was assassinated by al Qaeda on September 9, 2001, and Haq, who was killed by the Taliban some weeks later, were both extraordinary individuals. And I knew them well. Massoud, who staved off at least nine major Soviet-Afghan government offensives during the 1980s, was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, guerrilla strategist of the 20th century along side General Giap of North Vietnam or Tito. He was also Afghanistan’s Jean Moulin, an inspiring French resistance leader who died as a result of Gestapo torture. Abdul Haq was a specialist in urban guerrilla war, but was a man who, even when disgusted by all the infighting that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s had left the country, retained enormous influence in eastern Afghanistan. Both emerged at the end of the 1990s as the only real potential leaders of a new Afghanistan. Massoud, a Tajik, and Haq, a Pushtun, were in the process of establishing a broadbased anti-Talib alliance in early 2001, and yet we (the Americans and British) ignored them. This lost us the big chance for a peaceful resolution to Afghanistan.


Your book often reads like a novel or an adventure mixed with lots of personal insight. Some people have said that it’s exhausting to read because they’re traveling with you. It’s still written in the tradition of American journalism, but you obviously write from your own point of view. You consider yourself part of the Afghan story. How do you deal with this?

One of my editor friends kept telling me that Killing the Cranes had to be the definitive book about Afghanistan. But I told him that there is nothing definitive about Afghanistan. All that you can do is paint a picture with broad sweeps coupled with detailed observation about certain incidents. He also complained that I wrote so much about trekking. But I did this deliberately. Almost all my reporting was done by foot across the Hindu Kush and deserts. This meant walking 14-16 hours a day. You slept in villages, bombed houses, under rocky overhangs, out in the open and so on. But you were always walking and you kept meeting people, such as fighters, refugees or farmers. You were in constant touch with local people.

I was also fascinated by the environment. The thick cedar forests of Nuristan in the east or broad expanses of very dry and brittle terrain east of Kabul. I always carried two or three books on birds and other wildlife in my pack. I was excited when I was able to glimpse Ibex, Markhor or even wolves. Or find leopard prints on the ground. At one point, I really got excited when some villagers told  me that they had shot a tiger only several years earlier. And that there were still some roaming the mountains and forests. This was totally pooh-poohed by a British environmentalist friend, who thought the last Caspian Tigers (same species) had been killed in the 1950s. But I thought it was a great story.

As you walked, you dreamt of food or drinking a cup of tea. Everything in your mind became very basic. Existentialist. A piece of dry bread could be savored like a juicy steak. And then, no matter how tired you were, you always had to talk with the villagers. You were their entertainment or sources of fresh information. They all listened to the BBC or VOA on their short-waves, but the on-the-ground information came from travelers. You also learned what they thought. So the trekking was very important and I loved it. I miss it awfully, but today it is simply too dangerous to return to many of these areas. Even Afghans I know well who support the Taliban are apologetic about not being able to take me to these parts because they cannot guarantee my safety. It’s all part of Afghan hospitality and pride. Afghans are some of the most hospitable people in the world as long as you remain a guest and do not seek to impose yourself. Anyone who imposes themselves are perceived as occupiers.

The result is that now I feel much more out of touch with the feel of Afghanistan. I really wonder how any of those diplomats in Kabul who do not get out into the country can even begin to grasp what’s going on. They have no idea, and yet many are as pompous and arrogant as ever with their supposed “reliable intelligence sources.” I wouldn’t trust their intelligence sources for a bean. Afghans tell you what they think you want to hear. That’s the way of survival. You keep four or five feet in different camps, and then see how the wind blows. That’s what the Americans and NATO forces just don’t understand. They believe that they have Afghans on their side because they can drink tea with them and because they may seem willing to collaborate. That’s a serious delusion.


You say that the Americans – and the West – failed to learn from history and have made a mess of things in Afghanistan. In fact, you even go as far to say that the US bombing of Afghanistan on October 7 started a new war.

When I say one needs to go back in history, one should go back hundreds, even thousands of years. However, let’s be generous and only go back 30 or so. First, one needs to understand that any of those numerous outside players dealing with Afghanistan have always done so, and still do, as part of their own agendas. They are not there for the Afghans.  This includes the Pakistanis, Chinese, Americans, Indians, Iranian, Russians…

When the Americans began supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets, they did so to give Moscow its own Vietnam. This was not done for any great love of the Afghans. The trouble is that the CIA and Washington handled the whole thing so incredibly incompetently. They relied primarily on Pakistan’s military InterServices Intelligence or ISI agency to provide the political direction and on-the-ground intelligence. I try to explain this in the book with lots of examples and incidents. ISI supported the Afghan Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom – or their sons – are now fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan today. This includes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious and highly ruthless resistance politician who has murdered or otherwise killed numerous Afghan moderates. Another was Haqqani of the Haqqani Network, another key insurgent organization today.

We also supported Osama bin Laden because he was a favorite of ISI. Our policy was totally ludicrous despite all the available information provided by journalists and aid workers who had travelled clandestinely with the resistance. A few US diplomats and intelligence operatives also warned Washington that we were creating monsters who would come back to haunt us, but they, too, were ignored. When you think how many billions of dollars are being spent with all that sophisticated logistical support, I am constantly stunned at the stupidity and incompetence of so-called experts who continue to ignore history and think they know better, and yet keep making the same mistakes.

We even supported the Taliban. In early spring, 2001, former Vice President Cheney provided a 43 million dollar grant to the Taliban for their supposed clamping down on narcotics. At the same time, we ignored people like Massoud and Abdul Haq. Both warned the US not to bomb Afghanistan but to bring pressure on the Pakistanis and Saudis who were heavily supporting the Taliban alongside al Qaeda. The Taliban would collapse without their support. But we ignored this and went to war. We also jailed this young American guy, John Walker Lindh – the American Talib – for fighting along side the Taliban but we let those who abused the US constitution and made a mess of things in Afghanistan get away with it.

And it did not – and does not – stop there. During the post-9/11 period, we brought in the warlords and former Jihadists who were totally discredited in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. And then we brought in the military – and let the military call the shots – rather than focus on intelligent and low-key recovery. We also brought in the big corporations, which are largely corrupt, spend massive amounts on overhead and rely on mercenaries for their security. The result is that we are now fighting a totally pointless war and have spent billions on Afghanistan with little to show. We should be focusing on the way the experienced international and local aid organizations on the ground are operating. They work with local communities and retain contacts without everyone, NATO, the Kabul government, the insurgents and village elders. The only way to resolve Afghanistan is to get people talking. All of them, including the insurgents. But the Afghans have got to this, not us.


How does reporting compare today with before?

It is much more difficult to report. We had incredible access to local communities during the 1980s and 90s. Now it is far more dangerous. There are some excellent on-the-ground reporters, but many prefer to only report from the military side which gives a completely lopsided view of the conflict. They have no idea what Afghans think. The only way to operate in Afghanistan – and to understand what’s going on – is to maintain the contact with ordinary Afghans. Unfortunately, most of the internationals, including the US, British, German and other embassies, now live behind walls and don’t get out for months at a time. This is no way to work. And its frustrating for those who do want to get out, but are not allowed to by the rules because of security concerns.



They come from bars and frat houses,
Chins sporting the last chug’s dregs;
They’ve shut down the POTUS block
Down lawn chairs! Time to tap the kegs!

“Na na na! Hey hey hey! Goodbye!”
Caught in the unstoppered ear—
Perspective fails the sloppy street
It’s just one terrorist’s career!

What giant wheels when Brezhnev sent
Red troops into Afghanistan;
House of Saud and CIA,
Tipped shots to Charlie Wilson’s plan.

river praying for strangers

Read one of River Jordan’s four novels, and her first memoir is no surprise. Spend a few minutes in her company, and it seems inevitable. She’s a person of depth and gentleness, a warm spirit who knows the power of words—spoken, written, or uttered in silence.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit was a resolution before it was a book. At the end of 2008, she knew her two sons—her only children—would be deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that quiet way ideas come upon all of us at times, River received her resolution for 2009. She was to pray for a stranger every day. This would be her way to focus on matters other than fear and worry.

Encouraged by her husband to keep notes, River chronicled her encounters with strangers. She shares the stories of some of them, most who received her offer with gratitude. During that year, she learned about the connections we all share as human beings and what a gift it can be to one’s self to reach out.

(Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, during the shooting of Restrepo. )

By Terry Keefe



I’ll just come out and say this – Restrepo is one of the best films about war ever made. My statement includes fiction and non, although Restrepo’s power is inseparable from the fact that it is a documentary. Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded themselves for a year with the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan to shoot the bulk of Restrepo and have created a non-fiction film which approximates the experience of a lengthy military deployment in the country as much as would be possible without actually going there oneself.  The film is nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category of the upcoming Academy Awards, where it will compete for the gold man with fellow nominees Waste Land, Inside Job, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Gasland.

“Do you want to meet the Taliban?” the Afghan lad who ran the dingy chaikhana, teahouse, on the edge of Kabul’s chaotic Grand Bazaar asked me.

“Not really!” I replied thinking young Ali was joking.

“But if you want you can, one man I know is Taliban, if you like I can ask him to see you, it’s interesting for you, yes?”

A few days later Ali called me, “Mr Ian, my friend the Talib will come to my shop today, can you come here?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Before I left the guesthouse I was staying in I told someone where I was going and that I was about to meet a member of one of the world’s most infamous organizations, in case I didn’t return.

Before leaving home the New Zealand government’s travel advisory website had warned against setting foot anywhere near the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; EXTREME RISK, SUICIDE CAR BOMBINGS, KIDNAPPING OF FOREIGNERS, BANDITRY, LANDMINES, these were just a few of the treats in store for anyone fool enough to ignore the advice. But at the same time the Lonely Planet guide talked of places in Kabul where one could dine on fresh seafood flown in from Dubai, French restaurants with swimming pools and jazz evenings, the marvels of Bamiyan and the ruins of ancient Alexander’s Balkh.

Afghanistan had captured me in my teens, in the days when mujahadeen fighters trundled about the country in tractors as they took on the Soviet war machine and the conflict was staple news fodder. I’d had visions of fast stepping horses in the deserts, of turbaned men in flowing robes with sword and musket defending their parched lands and the honour of their veiled women, of stone Buddhas in a Muslim land, of camels, silk roads and caravanserais. I’d always wanted to come here but heart breaking civil war had made it impossible. Post September 11 Afghanistan was once more on the nightly news and as I watched I wondered what it was really like there, again I wanted to see for myself how it felt to walk on the streets of Kabul.

Arrival in mid-summer Kabul was an aggravated assault on the senses; omnipresent flies and all-pervading dust, heat to knock you off your feet, beggars, burqas, bellowing donkeys, sandbagged cafes, check-points and Kalashnikovs, flocks of urban sheep in the streets grazing on piles of garbage, helicopter gun ships hovered over the city in constant menace, psychopathic traffic. All this set against the backdrop of a culture 5000 years in the making, deep traditions of hospitality, salams, welcomes, handshakes and friendship, endless invitations to share tea from everyone I encountered.

English was widely spoken in Kabul, dozens of guesthouses waited for residents, restaurants with succulent meals of mutton and rice with raisins had empty tables, artisans and craftsmen with shops bursting with carpets, curios and antiques. Everyone sat idle wishing Afghanistan would return to its glory days on the overland hippy trail of the 60s and 70s when it rivalled Kathmandu as the place to go. But nightly news stories of wars on terror made almost everyone too afraid to come.

Back in Ali’s chaikhana the usual old men sat sharing their pots of tea. Ali greeted me and led me out the back of the shop through a concrete yard, past the reeking toilet pit and down a narrow passage way, ‘Should I be doing this?’ But before I could answer my own question Ali opened a door and ushered me inside.

“This is my friend.” Ali introduced me to a dark skinned middle aged man who sat on the floor with a boy of about five or six in his lap, though his name was never mentioned. The Talib stood up and greeted me with the salams, smiles, handshakes I would have received from any other hospitable Afghan while Ali disappeared to return a few minutes later with a pot of tea and a bowl of pistachios. The man wore the usual Afghan anytime pyjamas, shalwar kameez, his beard was neatly trimmed and there was no black turban.

“E bacha-e shoma ast?” I asked, is this your son?

“Ne, famel-e man dar Kandahar.” No, my family is from Kandahar, he told me. The fact that he was from the notorious southern city somewhat confirmed his credentials. His mobile phone rang and from the conversation I could guess he was talking to someone about moving something to somewhere.

“He has a shop.” Ali told me. I guessed that meant he was a smuggler.

“I worked at the airport as a security officer,” the Talib told me through Ali’s translation, “I can’t read so it wasn’t easy for me to find a job then.”

“But why did you want to join the Taliban?” I asked.

“The Taliban were the government then, I was just working for the government. Lots of men joined because they needed work and there was nothing else.”

“Do you still consider yourself to be Taliban?”

“Yes,” he shrugged, “I’m Taliban.”

“During the time of the Taliban,” he went on, “Afghanistan was peaceful, it was safe, there was no stealing, no criminals, you could leave your money on the street and it would still be there tomorrow.” He showed me where he kept his cash now, in a pocket tucked well away under his outer garments. “I used to keep my money here, like this!” And he slipped a few hundred afghanis into his top pocket half sticking out for the world to see.

No one I met denied that during the reign of the Taliban petty crime and disorder all but vanished. “I would send my son,” the Talib said, “to Kabul with thousands of dollars in his bag, completely safe, but now? I won’t even send him to the market to buy a melon!” I’d heard the same kind of story a dozen times, but it was the only positive thing anyone had to say about the Taliban.

“In the west,” I told him, “we had a view that the Taliban were very bad.”

“Of course,” he nodded, “there were some who were bad like in any government, but ninety-five percent were good, the leaders were all good men but they couldn’t know what every man was doing, does President Karzai know what all his men are doing?”

“But what about Afghan women, they weren’t allowed to go to work or to school?” I countered.

“That’s not true! They could go to the Islamic schools, the madrassas! And as long as they wore the burqa they could go to work, otherwise they should stay at home!”

“What about banning women from wearing white socks and nail polish?”

“Not true! Not true!”

The conversation went on like this. Every atrocity I’d heard of he denied had ever happened, every item of idiotic Islamic law imposed wasn’t true. According to the Talib men were allowed to shave and the reports of imprisonment for not having fist-long beards were just western propaganda. He insisted the Taliban leaders had a deep and excellent knowledge of the Koran, even the halftime executions at football matches at Ghazi Stadium were myth, “No! I never heard of that happening! Just sometimes the players in the teams fought against each other!”

We were soon both becoming frustrated as each of us expected the other to see things differently. I could also sense a rising tension in Ali’s voice as he translated. In the staunch ‘shame and honour’ culture of Afghanistan did he find my accusations an insult to a family friend?

“What about the three foreign aid workers, the three women who were shot dead in Lowgar,” my final assault recalling the recent murder of the three women, Canadian, British and American, who were pulled from their car not far from Kabul and shot dead along with their Afghan driver, “the Taliban claimed responsibility but how can they call themselves men, how can they call themselves warriors of Islam when they shoot dead unarmed women who cannot defend themselves, women who had come here to help the poor, how can they be so cowardly?”

“Those women were not killed by Taliban! They were killed by criminals who said they were Taliban! Anyone can dress like a Talib and say ‘I am a Talib’!” The boy in the man’s lap looked around at the three of us nervously at the raising of his voice. He stood up and slipped outside into the courtyard to play in the dust with a broken kite. “And anyway,” he went on to justify their murders, “those women were not wearing Islamic dress! This is an Islamic country!”

“I hardly think they were wearing miniskirts and bikini tops!” I said, thankfully perhaps Ali was unable to translate this, “And besides, is that reason enough to drag a woman from her car and shoot her dead?”

We sat in silence for several minutes and sipped the last of our now cold tea.

“Mr Ian,” Ali whispered, “if you don’t have any more questions I think we can go now?”

“Sure, perhaps this is enough.”

We all stood up and I shook hands with the Talib. His anger seemed to have vanished and he smiled. He didn’t strike me as being someone inherently bad, there was simply no way to reconcile our opposing views and each of us just had to accept that we had grown up in different worlds.

Back in the teahouse Ali stood with me in the doorway and added his point of view to the already existing complexities.

“Mr Ian, many of the Taliban were not bad people, the leaders even wanted a more free life for Afghan people.” He told me how the mullahs had wanted Afghanistan to have television, to have the internet, to have educated women and foreign investment. But the real power lay with the foot soldiers, illiterate villagers who had grown up in refugee camps, men who had never learnt to read their precious Koran and who had been brainwashed into the belief that an orthodox Islamic state was their God-given birthright. The mullahs knew that if they didn’t give the men what they wanted they themselves would be overthrown and lynched. Afghans have a history of turning against their masters.

Whatever the truth, from my conversations with the people I met in the three months I spent Afghanistan it appeared that the rule of the Taliban was not the time of eternal darkness those days had been portrayed as in the western media. It was more like a shade of grey, dark grey perhaps but not utterly black.

“Tashakor Ali-jan,” I thanked him and laughed, “it was an interesting conversation.”

“You are welcome Mr Ian,” and I turned to go, “oh Mr Ian, please don’t tell anyone who you met today and how you met him, okay?”

“Of course.”

“And perhaps don’t come here for a few days, I will call you when it’s better to come back, alright?”

“Whatever you say Ali-jan.” We shook hands. He never called again.

So, why Afghanistan?

That’s something I’m always asked and I don’t really have a compelling answer, other than the country was a place I’d long been interested in visiting. I guess there was an element of trying to test myself. After lengthy and very challenging journeys in Mongolia and Tibet, I wanted see if I could cut it in a place that was actually at war. Could I personally handle being there? Aside from that Afghanistan is a country that has made almost daily headlines for the last decade and I wanted to see for myself what it was like there — what were the people like, how would they react to me, what was it like to walk on the streets of Kabul? It was something I wanted to find out for myself.


And how did you spend your time there?

I flew in to Kabul from Islamabad in Pakistan and stayed at a guest house in the city where I was hosted by a group of French journalists and photographers. I spent probably half of my three months in Afghanistan in Kabul but also visited the cities of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, and spent three weeks travelling alone by horse in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the country’s north-east.


Was it easy to get into the country?

Yes, very, I was given a one month tourist visa from the Afghan Embassy in Australia, I had to provide a letter of invitation from the French production company but other than that there was no red tape and no questions asked. Once inside Afghanistan it was easy to extend the visa, or just let it expire and pay a fee for an exit visa.


And what was the average Afghan like?

Very friendly, very hospitable, welcoming and warm! I couldn’t count the number of invitations for tea I’d receive in a day! No one seemed to care that I was from the west, which I guess could be painted as being the enemy, no one cared that I wasn’t Muslim, people were open and tolerant which is perhaps not what one would expect given the reputation of the Taliban.


Any hostility?

Definitely there was, but for the most part it’s not openly expressed, I did meet people who weren’t overly pleased to see me for whatever reasons they held personally. And those reasons might be justified — after all Afghanistan has been meddled with by foreign powers for centuries. It was rare, however, for someone to be openly hostile to me.


So is Afghanistan a dangerous place to travel?

Yes, it is! There is no escaping the fact that Afghanistan is a country at war and it is a country with a violent element of extremism. While I was there, there were regular incidents such as suicide bombings, kidnappings, murders of foreign aid workers, in and around Kabul and at times quite near to where I was staying. On the other hand as long as I was careful, and a little lucky I guess, I was able to travel through much of the country without incident.


What was the closest you came to real danger?

Travelling anywhere by car is the most dangerous thing you can do — the driving there is insane! Apart from that I was in a town in the north which came under rocket attack one night, someone having a go at the local governor. It was amazing, two rockets were fired in the middle of the night which must have woken the whole town but no one even got out of bed to investigate, I was expecting to hear sirens in the street or people running in panic but after the booms died down there was silence, the next day no one even seemed interested, just another night in Afghanistan! The other brush I had was when we were tipped off that the guest house in Kabul was to be targeted by the Taliban in a plot to kidnap or kill us. Everything was packed and moved in two hours to a safer address. That really brought home the precarious position foreigners live in there and it made me wonder as I strolled the streets of the city if I was being watched or followed.


Let’s talk about the horse trek….

The Wakhan Corridor was one of the main reasons I went to Afghanistan in the first place, it’s that odd little tail on the end of the country between Pakistan and Tajikistan. The region is incredibly beautiful, lying between two mountain ranges, it’s also the safest and most stable part of the country and has never been fought over in modern times, there are no insurgents there, no landmines etc. I had to get a special permit to travel there which was extremely difficult and I was very lucky to get one at all. At the entrance to the corridor I bought a local horse, borrowed a saddle and set off. Along the way I camped or was hosted in villages by ethnic Tajiks. About half way up there is an almighty gorge which I had to trek through on foot as it was too steep to ride. Foolishly, I didn’t bring much in the way of supplies and so spent three days with a very empty stomach. However, the top of the corridor opens out in to the Pamir grasslands inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads who live as herders of yaks, sheep and horses.


What concerns did the Afghan people express to you?

Naturally the main concern the average Afghan has is peace and stability. Many Afghans have grown into adulthood and know nothing but war; first the Soviets, then the civil war, then the Taliban and now the coalition forces. Ironically the time of the Taliban was probably Afghanistan’s most stable — petty crime was almost nonexistent — but of course the human rights abuses were extreme. I don’t think Afghans have ever expected a lot, they just want some security and a reassurance that they have a more positive future.


Do you have any opinions as to what the solutions might be?

The problems Afghanistan, and any other country involved with it, face are mind-boggling and extremely complex. The problems extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself and into Pakistan and the wider area, so solving Afghanistan’s problems is never going to be enough. One of the main dilemmas is that the nation of Afghanistan is made up of a dozen ethnic groups none of which feel any particular loyalty to any other and in fact they might have been tribal enemies for hundreds of years. One day someone drew a line on a map and said ‘OK, now you’re a country’. The problem is that you can’t have a president or even a government that is universally accepted by everyone. It made me wonder if the western ideal of democracy can actually work there? Personally I don’t have much in the way of opinions, what I wanted to get from Afghanistan, and express in Tea with the Taliban, are the opinions of Afghans themselves, whether they are right or wrong. When I was there local people talked about including elements of the Taliban in a future government, it’s not something many would want to see but as it seems virtually impossible to defeat the Taliban then many people said if including them is the answer to peace then why not? The inclusion of Taliban ministers in an Afghan government is now being openly discussed by the United States government and other coalition states.


Would you go back?

I always answer yes and no! Yes, because I’d love to go back to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and travel to all the places I couldn’t get to, to experience the warmth and hospitality again. And no, because a peaceful and stable Afghanistan doesn’t look likely for some time.


And why write Tea with the Taliban?

I wanted to portray the country from the point of view of an ordinary traveller, like any other travel book, but set in the extreme environment of Afghanistan. Most books which have been published recently have been written by Afghans in exile or by foreign ‘experts’. I wanted to produce a book by an ordinary guy who just went there to see what it was like.  I wanted to tell the stories of the Afghans themselves as they were told to me, the average Afghan I met on the street or in tea houses everyday. I wanted to show the way local people live there against the backdrop of violence and chaos.



What does the title of your book even mean, how can an army officer be the “Father of Money”?

In March 2004, I was appointed the governance officer for Al Dora, one of Baghdad’s most violent districts. My job was to establish and oversee a council structure for Iraqis that would allow them to begin governing themselves.  The nature of persuading Iraqis to support the coalition quickly progressed from simply granting them privileges to a more complex system of bribing them to display some semblance of loyalty to various American initiatives.  Those Iraqis who worked successfully with the Army in this system made quite a bit of money from me, hence the nickname Father of Money.

So, you sat down and wrote a memoir. Thousands of soldiers have also gone to Iraq, some multiple times. Do you think your experience was somehow remarkable?

I admit, a memoir sounds presumptuous – at any age. In my case, the narrative is less about me, as a person, and more about the circumstances in Iraq, as they existed when I was there.  I actually do think my experience was quite typical, which is what makes the conclusions so jarring. In fact, if anything at all was remarkable, it was that I seemed to be one of the few people in my unit who acknowledged how disconnected our mission was from the political reality in the United States, yet it should have been obvious to everyone.

Do you consider yourself some type of hero or what?

I don’t even know what that word means anymore, hero. Look, society, at least American society, is saturated with labels.  For example, you asked me about heroes. Well, there are CNN heroes, there are people who think all soldiers are heroes, likewise with people who give to charity, fight cancer, single-moms, working dads, etc. All of them are called heroes and I just don’t think that is true. I admire those people, and they make me proud to be a human, but hero is a little much.  We often overstate our own importance so frequently and view the world so starkly that it makes us susceptible to being led into situation like Iraq and makes it almost impossible to get out. I am just a guy who wanted to describe what it was like to try and make peace in a world where there are literally no labels. Everything is some murky degree of right and wrong.

Did you have an adjustment period when you came back? What were some of your first impressions upon returning to the United States?

It seemed lonely. My first few weeks were a blur, but I remember being startled by the volume of cars on the road with one passenger, the number of single people walking around shopping malls and the general lack of meaningful interaction that Americans seemed to have with one and another.  The Iraqi lifestyle, filled with communal meals and families huddled together seemed more coherent to me, despite the lack of security.  I walked around annoyed every time someone drove by with a yellow-ribbon or congratulated me for my service. It was obvious that this would be a war that the public could easily forget about and I was not in the mood to indulge people’s sense of self-satisfaction by accepting their platitudes. I guess you could say I had an adjustment period.

Okay, fast forward. You are a lawyer now, living in London. Iraq is barely in the news these days. There is an increased emphasis on Afghanistan. Why is your story even relevant any more. Isn’t Iraq over?

Yeah, I heard, Mission Accomplished. Listen, Iraq has been ‘over’ at least a dozen times. ‘Iraq’ will never be over, because it represents more than a conflict or geography. ‘Iraq’ is the latest homage to the idea that a superior military force can remake a foreign population according to some drawing on a whiteboard.  Iraq is an American institution that will continue to exist as long as we continue to fight wars that do not demand our total commitment.  Just look at the news and you can see several new ‘Iraqs’ on the way in Korea, Iran, and Somalia.

If you could say one thing to people about your time in Iraq, what would it be?

I would encourage them to learn as much as they can about these types of conflicts.  It is a special type of hell for everyone, on all sides. Yes, soldiers sometimes kill the wrong people, and yes sometimes young people who could have done so much more are the victims of what seems like tragic fortune.  But, this is the indiscriminate nature of war. To make judgments about it, or to presume that it can somehow be done better, neater, or more cleanly, is both insulting and demoralizing. After all, if you can comfortably critique the methods of war from a sofa thousands of miles away, then maybe it is a war that your Army should not be fighting in the first place.

Soldier On

By Greg Olear


“And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”

—President Barack Obama, December 2, 2009


History, as the old saw has it, is written by the victors.

Had the South prevailed in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln—who suspended habeus corpus, jailed dissenting journalists, and pursued a military strategy based on attrition, maximizing casualties on both sides, all to bring to heel those states who had legally declared their independence—might well be viewed as a dictator on par with Hitler or Stalin, and Ulysses S. Grant a war criminal. Instead, their visages adorn our currency, and the widely held, albeit bogus, view of that internacine conflict is that it was fought to free the slaves. Thus Lincoln is honored, disingenuously, as a champion of blacks.

In truth, war is never the clear-cut Good versus Evil described by St. John the Evangelist and George W. Bush. Consider the Second World War. The prevailing mythology is that the U.S. entered the fray to save the Jews and prevent a Nazi takeover of the world. So fanatical is this belief that to suggest otherwise amounts to heresy.

In Human Smoke, his brilliant pacifist’s history of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, Nicholson Baker suggests otherwise. I bought and read Baker’s book last spring, because the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a liberal whose columns I agree with most of the time, slammed it with such vitriol.

In a March 31, 2008, column entitled “Yes, It Was a Good War,” Cohen (who, incidentally, supported enthusiastically our ill-advised foray into Iraq) begins by lauding Baker as “a supremely talented novelist”—in other words, a guy who has no truck with actual non-made-up events—before pronouncing Human Smoke “dead wrong and very odd,” and concluding thus: “World War II was fought for several reasons but above all—and proudly—because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.”

Cohen dismisses Baker’s thesis with derision: “Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not—that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic.”

At times, his arguments have all the complexity of a four-year-old’s. Were the pacifists right?  Cohen replies, “No, they were not.”

Well, OK then.

Based on Cohen’s column, I expected Human Smoke to be a long treatise in defense of pacifism—the make-love-not-war ruminations of a bleeding-heart novelist on his high horse. Not so. Baker tells his story in short blurbs, most no longer than a page, that encapsulate primary sources. These are presented as dispassionately as possible. For example:

Winston Churchill wrote Joseph Stalin a letter. It was July 28, 1941…Churchill assured Stalin that England would do all it could do to help Russia. “A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany,” he wrote. “No one has yet had what they are going to get.”

Human Smoke is 474 pages long. 472 of those pages consist of these short blurbs. Only on the last two pages does Baker editorialize, but by then his point—which has eluded Cohen, who almost certainly did not read the entire book—has been made:

War is hell. All war, without exception.


It was a similar visceral reaction in an otherwise staid newspaper that drew me to The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Nazi opus that is, in many ways, a fiction companion piece to Human Smoke. In this case, it was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times—with whom, like Cohen, I generally agree—throwing the proverbial tomatoes.

(Originally published in French as Les Bienveielles, The Kindly Ones won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in France three years ago. HarperCollins reportedly paid seven figures for the English-language rights, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. The English translation, by Charlotte Mandell, came out earlier this year, to decidely mixed reviews.)

“The novel’s gushing fans,” Kakutani writes, “seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” The Kindly Ones, she avers, is “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent” and “reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”

And the kicker: “Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.”

In other words, Kakutani hated the book. Which, perversely, only piqued my interest. If not Höss by way of Patrick Bateman, I was expecting a bloated epic in the vein of Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, a brutal work of questionable quality that was nevertheless lauded in the land which apotheosized Jerry Lewis. What I found instead was something altogether different: challenging, depressing, overwhelming, but riveting—and not at all pointless.

In one respect, Kakutani is bang-on: this is not pleasant stuff. You don’t want to bring The Kindly Ones to the beach. You don’t want to suggest it for your book club. You probably don’t want to read it at all. There is so much grisly material here that even if you excise the hundreds of pages concerning the Jews, you’d still walk away shaking your head. The experience of a German officer in Stalingrad alone is a horror show. As the novelist Michael Korda, a Littell admirer, wrote on The Daily Beast: “This is the real thing, a journey into the belly of the beast, a chance to live through the doings of mankind at its worst, a book that is relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope in that it tries to show us in every unforgiving detail what we least want to see, and which never once lets the reader, or the Germans, off the hook. You want to read about Hell, here it is.”

Which begs the question: why would I—why would anyone—want to read about Hell?

To make sure it never happens again.

“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, insists at the end of the prologue. And while most of us are not matricidal former Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrers with a taste for sisterly sodomy, the guy has a point. Littell’s book couldn’t be more timely. In the two weeks it took me this summer to complete this leviathon of a novel—983 pages, tiny margins, small type, no paragraph breaks for quotes, and enough verifiable horrors to make the Saw franchise seem like an episode of Barney—President Obama declassified documents confirming what most of us already knew: despite assertions to the contrary by former president George W. Bush, the United States was engaging in torture.

Never mind who was right and who was wrong. The supposed Land of the Free was capturing people, holding them without trial, and torturing them, on the pretext of national security—just as the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. It’s hard not to read The Kindly Ones as a cautionary tale.

And now, ominously, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has announced a plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. I trust Obama’s judgment, and I believe that he understands the consequences of sending soldiers in harm’s way more completely than his predecessor could ever hope to. If he believes that the defense of the United States mandates that many troops fighting half a world away, I might arrive at the same conclusion myself, knowing what Obama knows.

But after reading Baker and Littell, I’m not so sure.