25 June 2010

Book Review: 'Afghan Journal'

'Afghan Journal' by Jeff Courter

Illinois Army National Guardsman Jeff Courter weathered a 2007 deployment to Afghanistan with plain-spoken good humor, quiet faith, and a passion for trying to put it all together. A former Marine cook and Navy Reservist, he deployed to Afghanistan as an Army communications sergeant. Along with his Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) mates, his mission was to train Afghan Border Police (A.B.P.) in Southeastern Afghanistan's Paktika Province, along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The ABP were even less-funded, -trained, and -equipped than the Afghan National Police (A.N.P.). At one point, the ABP personnel at Courter's location mutinied and disappeared. (Courter later found out the police revolted after a self-serving translator had knowingly driven a wedge between ABP and their American allies.) Throughout his time in Afghanistan, Courter struggled to do what he could to make a difference. At the same time, he maintained a blog called "Afghan Journal," which he later collected and published as a book.

As the title promises, the organization of the book is chronological. Sometimes, this can prove deadly for a writer--writers get caught up in the mundane details and forget to breathe, and to add perspective for those of us who weren't there to see things first-hand.

In delivering his punchy posts, however, Courter successfully avoids this pitfall. All along the way, he probes his own assumptions, questions his own observations, and even lays his views and traditions alongside those of his Afghan hosts and European colleagues. There are a few choice war stories, of course, including one about renting camels for an anti-Taliban patrol that, if you don't mind me saying, had me on the edge of my saddle.

The result of Courter's efforts is a conversational, easy-to-read chronicle of how one man and one Army approached a "war on a budget" in 2007. Because of its simple-but-not-simplistic approach, I think it one of the first I'd recommend to those Red Bull friends and family with only a casual knowledge military life and purpose.

Toward the end of his Afghan journey, Courter was able to start making sense of it. Not only for himself, but for others:
I was talking to a young U.S. Soldier who was complaining about the local villagers who come to our front gate. He asked, "what would they do if we weren't here? They should do whatever they would do if we weren't here!" I told him that some of those villagers would die [...] He did not seem concerned about that fact, so I went on to say that we can't ask what would happen if we weren't here [...] The question to ask is what we should do, now that we are here. [...]

I asked the Solder how many times [Forward Operating Base] Waza Khwa had been attacked this year, and he replied it hadn't been attacked at all. I suggested that the jobs we provide for local laborers and the medical support we sometimes give may make many of the local villagers reluctant to help our enemies. After considering this for a moment, the young man agreed.
I've been in official counterinsurgency (COIN) briefings that were less applicable and understandable than than Courter's quick, common-sense counseling session with that young soldier.

Courter later resolved to continue telling the story of our involvement in Afghanistan, not only through his book, but in his ongoing "Life, Love and Truth" blog. He's also now a recruiter for the Illinois Army National Guard.

His journey continues, as does ours.


By the way, Courter's book is recently available in an Amazon Kindle version! I mention this because so many of my Red Bull buddies are apparently considering deploying with an e-reader of some sort, whether a Kindle, Nook, iPad, Sony Reader, or similar device. It's tempting--I know that I, for one, both deployed and returned home with too many books my last time around. I'll keep you posted on what we learn!


  1. I read this book and agree with Sherpa. Jeff Courter shows a great effort to understand the people and their culture and try to make a real difference. Not an easy task many days halway across the globe!

    I am now deeply mired (appropriately enough) in the book "In The Graveyard of Empires" by Seth G. Jones and it reinforces on the larger Afghan national level much of what Courter documents. Lack of governance at the rural level, locals supporting the Taliban not for religious or political reasons but out of fear and the general lost opportunities early on running what Courter calls a K-Mart war.

    WAR by Sebastian Junger is a must read as well! PDV

  2. Sherpa - Many thanks for your support of my book. Your comments mean a lot to me, as I know you are getting ready to go there yourself...I hope it has given you some mental ammo for your own deployment. If anything I wrote helps you come home safely, it will have done more than its job.

    Keep your head down and your powder dry, bro. You and your team will be in our thoughts and prayers -

    Zool, out.


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