336 pp, hardback, £12.99
Reviewed by D.C. Morrison
This is probably the finest American novel so far about their experience of war-fighting in Afghanistan.
Using a cleverly structured, many-layered approach, it gives a thoughtful portrait of the state of America’s soul through the brutal experience of a group of soldiers in a forward base in Kandahar province. In eight sections, each of the key figures – captain, lieutenant, sergeant, doctor, translator – offers a view of the central events, as they leap in their heads from the dangers surrounding them to reflections of their life in America’s heartlands. These men have, by any reasonable measure, gone mad – from fear, rage, exhaustion, hatred, and most tellingly, from the loss of their moral compass.
Some came simply because they were soldiers; others, because they felt the need to do something after the 9/11 attacks. Most arrived believing they would help the locals. Now they despise them and are despised in return. And they cannot believe they are so hated. The often parodied culture clash gets a beautifully subtle treatment here where the practice of local men walking hand in hand is interpreted as a sign of being gay by the fort’s killing machine, Simonis, a sniper from Sparta, NY who can shoot anything dead at 1000 yards.
The book’s dramatic focus, and what gives it much wider resonance, is the death of an Afghan commander, Yusuf, known as the Prince of the Mountains, in an attack on the fort and his sister Nizam’s demand for his body so she can bury it according to the rituals of their religion. Sound familiar? It is, of course, the Antigone story, as told from Sophocles onwards. Antigone is a princess of Thebes in Greek antiquity, the walled city-state doomed by the fate of Oedipus and his accursed family. The king forbids her from burying her brother Polynices and a tragedy unfolds leading to the death of the girl and those the king holds dearest. In The Watch the comparison is never laboured, yet it gives the author access to a rich mythology and symbolism that intensifies the book’s power.
The Afghan Antigone is a girl from the mountains who appears after a brilliantly described attack on the fort during which several Americans and most of the Afghans are killed. She comes on a wheeled cart, and it transpires that she has had her legs blown off in an American air attack. In such an otherwise convincing story it challenges belief that she could push herself on this wooden chariot some miles down from her mountain village and then have the strength to dig graves for some of the fallen Taliban. But this is a rare quibble.
Like many other events in the book Nizam appears during a dust storm, a troubling, confusing, potentially lethal figure – a possible suicide bomber – hard to identify at distance and impossible to deal with except by crude military methods. Stubborn in defence of her rights she sits in the desert outside the fort for days, in blazing heat and freezing nights, an immovable force that embarrasses and then shames the soldiers.
In a wonderfully contemporary twist, the Americans cannot release Nizam’s brother’s rotting body because the army brass want to display it on television as a PR stunt to prove they are beating the Taliban, although Yusuf is not one of them. By claiming his corpse, Nizam confronts the rigid rules of the army machine with a separate, equally rigid code, and so sets in motion a modern tragedy.
Everywhere the fog of war causes confusion. Fine descriptions of night-time mists, sand-storms, dust-devils make us aware of the inner turmoil and lack of clarity the soldiers contend with. Hallucination is their normal state. Equally, right and wrong are unclear, all the way from grunt to general to government in Kabul and back in Washington. Should they just shoot the damn woman, as the captain suggests? Or, as the chorus of soldiers begins to demand, should they treat her as a human being and not as an enemy?
They are all ‘trapped in the machine’ that perpetually repeats the mistakes of the past. Here the arena is Afghanistan, and how many failed attempts have there been to conquer that patch of misery, from Alexander to the British, the Russians and now the Americans? Marrying the language of the American street with the classical Antigone resonance, The Watch successfully and surprisingly elevates a contemporary war story into a timeless tragedy.