Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

Finally we have a journalistic nonfiction big and detailed enough to show the humanity behind the war in Afghanistan. I knew it could be done, had been done in fact, beginning with Rory Stewart’s chronicle of his walk though Afghanistan in 2002 just as the Taliban government fell. That book, The Places in Between, stands as the clearest, most in-depth view of the people and places with whom America has been involved for a decade. This book by Anand Gopal goes in that class. I am eternally grateful to both men for finally exposing for us the beating heart of Afghanistan.

Gopal’s exceptional journalism didn’t take hold of me at first. At first I was cringing at what I know to be true: that our military, acting on orders from above, landed in Afghanistan like creatures from outer space. They were good people, all, but their mission was undoable. They had no idea what was going on, who to trust, and how best to fulfill their mission, i.e., to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The people shifted. The mission shifted. Our soldiers struggled, and we got reports of raids gone wrong. No wonder. Gopal tells us now how any American mission could never have worked in an Afghanistan as torn and bloodied as it was in 2001.

This is the absolutely indispensable companion book to other books recounting American involvement in Afghanistan. The confusion on the ground was experienced by everyone, not just soldiers: no one knew whom to trust, who to follow, who to support. If you ever wondered who, in fact, is in Guantanamo, you have to read Gopal’s chapter “Black Holes.” By the time you have finished this chapter, you must see the absurdity and madness in the fog of war. “You survived one way and one way only: through the ruthless exploitation of everyone around you.” Men under fire just act like men after all.
"Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed would up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo. No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda."

The most affecting portrait Gopal shares is that of Heela, the Kabul University-educated wife of a UN worker in a farming village in Uruzgan. Her story illustrates the confusion and prejudice suffered by provincial residents though the period of the first election in 2004. A changing series of governors, and officials, each murdered by the one before, left in place one of the most ill-tempered and combative.
“this whole land is filled with thieves and liars…”--Hajji Zaman.

It takes one to know one.

Gopal gives us in-depth views from a Taliban leader, warlords, militiamen, fathers, husbands, wives, collaborators, militants, prisoners, and tribal leaders, but three portraits in particular: "Akbar Gul, a Taliban commander who quit after 2001, only to rejoin the movement and become an insurgent commander fighting against the U.S.; Jan Muhammad, who rose from humble origins to become a major warlord who worked closely with American forces; and Heela, a housewife from Kabul who fled to the countryside to escape the civil war."

These people we understand. Gopal allows us to see their motivations, their striving, their joys, their defeats. The dangers involved in the reporting is only mentioned in passing, but in a country where seismic shifts in alliances is everyday, it is a gift to have a journalist curious and capable enough to have done this work. An interview of Gopal with TurkeyAgenda gives his thinking about the book.

This book was a Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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