Yesterday my wife Jean, sitting across the lamp-table from me in a Lazy-Boy identical to mine, looked away from her book and said to me (the only other living being in the house being Roller, the orange cat who dozed on Jean’s ottoman):
“This is such a good book!”
I let my book sag onto my lap, met her gaze, visible under the lamp shade, across the table.
“I’ve been to all these places–Durango, Silverton–and here they are where these cowboys bring the herd of longhorns–the San Juan River, Pagosa Springs–and I’ve been there!”
The kind of books where the reader, you, see yourself there as in a mirror. The air, the sand, trees, grass, people are around you. It’s a mirror in which you see yourself there.
You’re not in the chair,you’ve been transported.
This evening, not yet even half-dark, we sat on the covered porch, looking out at Trout Lake across a few yards from our windowed wall, and I began telling Jean about Outpost, a new book about an Army unit in the northeast of Afghanistan, near its border with Pakistan, that country that broke away from India, and the huge, abrupt mountainous lands the two countries share as their boundary,
You’ve heard of the US mission, as announced: Win the hearts and minds, as in Vietnam, Iraq, bring modern facilities–running water, electricity, macadam roads–FREEDOM to a backwards people. And by the way, defeat the tribes, the differing sects, who hold the others in thrall, dominate by force. Terrify them.
There are few basics in war more elemental than TAKE THE HIGH GROUND. But this book’s outpost, fact, not fiction, was set down beside a river with the only road for miles so that the outpost could be reached for resupply. In all directions, EVERY DIRECTION, looming close over the outpost, were mountains thousands of meters high, so steep that the road was a zig-zag once it left the river. Places from which the insurgents, Muslims like the natives, but like the natives even between themselves had fought each other for centuries, a land where Alexander the Great had fought through (but had kept going!)the insurgents could hole up and fire down upon the outpost at will.
Which they did, killing, killing, until even the natives who had responded to the troops at first, taken US dollars gladly for improvements, joined the insurgents or died if not, and the upshot after two years was the Army blew up the outpost and departed.
I joined the First Marine Brigade in Danang early, when things were quiet and we had hopes we were there for a good reason. So now I see myself there when a few VN names of towns or hills show up in print. In that way The Outpost is a mirror. For example, like many, I stood under an aircraft wing whenever one was near to be in the shade, and I took helicopter rides when offered for brief sweat-free periods. As I say, like a mirror. I am there.
But like Vietnam, Afghanistan was bound to be a failure in trying to win hearts and minds, help natives enjoy FREEDOM.
Those efforts in Afghanistan bring, inexorably, reflection. I am not there, it is with me. The mirror effect is brief, can be dropped casually, a passing bit of joy. But The Outpost, the mistake of location down low, the repeated ambushes that at last kept the men bottled up for destruction at the whim of the insurgents, how each was wounded, how they suffered, how they fought on, how they died, how useless was the attempt in more ways than one, was the US effort, remains with me, like a light OFF a mirror in my eyes, bringing the carnage to me, demanding that I reflect on the entirety of the whole situation, coming finally to the thought of the failure’s root: The Islamic dictate of ‘Kill the Infidel’
Of course there were other driving forces: The natives, like natives anywhere, fought to maintain their property, their own ways, to gain stature in the eyes of others, as we all understand and know.
But these men shouted, preparing for their assaults, ‘Allah is Great’, and of their joy at going to Paradise during the battles.
You may respond that the Crusaders were the same. I respond that my arrival at the root cause of the persistence of The Outpost as my reflection is: What a terrible thing any religion can be. Any belief is an individual matter, is tolerable. But beware its organization into a religion.