10 February 2014

Book Review: 'Afghan Post'

Review: 'Afghan Post' by Adrian Bonenberger

Distilling e-mails, journal entries, and letters he wrote home into new content, former U.S. Army Infantry officer Adrian Bonenberger has crafted a memoir of his journey from unfocused East Coast adolescent, to American warrior in the Middle East, to veteran returning home. The 414-page book is presented as a series of letters—the technical term is an "epistolary"—through which Bonenberger addresses with family and friends his evolving experiences and opinions about military service.

The result should be required reading for any future U.S. Army leader—junior officers and senior enlisted soldiers—as well as Army family members. In addition to illuminating the challenges of maintaining long-distance relationships, Bonenberger's meandering map of Army life illustrates the vagaries of military training, careers, and missions.

As such, it deserves a place alongside other titles often recommended to junior leaders, such as James R. McDonough's Vietnam-era combat memoir, "Platoon Leader." (Coincidentally, McDonough and Bonenberger each served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. This is also the unit whose Afghan experiences were partially documented in 2010's "Restrepo.")

After graduating prep school in 1996, Bonenberger attended Yale University as an English major. He graduated college in 2002, then spent a short stint as an instructor of conversational English in Japan. He joined the U.S. Army in late 2004, and gained his commission through Officer Candidate School (O.C.S.). After branching Infantry, he graduated in succession the Army's Basic Airborne Course, the grueling 61-day Ranger school, and the 5-week Reconnaissance and Surveillance Leaders Course (R.S.L.C.).

In 2007 and 2008, Bonenberger deployed to Eastern Afghanistan's Paktika Province with 1st Battalion, 503rd Inf. Reg., 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He was a platoon leader and a company executive officer. In 2010 and 2011, he deployed to Northern Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. There, he was a company executive officer and later, a company commander. (Readers of the Red Bull Rising blog may remember that 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division deployed to Eastern Afghanistan in 2010-2011—the times in-country overlap slightly.)

The letter-writing leitmotif is useful to non-military readers, in that the form requires Bonenberger to tailor both his language and his logic to specific audiences, one at a time. In a letter to a girlfriend or Army buddy, for example, he opens up emotionally. With his grandfather, he begins to compare military experiences. To his parents, he presents an indefatigable optimism.

Helpfully, throughout his prose, Bonenberger also air-drops thoughtful moments of plainspoken paragraphs. He consistently avoids sounding preachy or one-sided. Consider, for example, his clear-eyed take on how Army leaders have to toe the line in expressing their personal opinions:
You can't talk about how nobody knows why we're still in Afghanistan or if things continue on the way they are now well will certainly lose and the Taliban will win or Pakistan is Afghanistan's enemy. This is all heresy. So instead, now that we lack an official department of the censor, I consign it to personal correspondence. It's what everyone's going to be asking me when I get home for leave, right? [...] And I'll have to trot out the same tired smile, talk about the rights of women, educating little girls, blue jeans, bubble gun, and how most Muslims are just good ordinary everyday people, just like you and me. [p. 234; italics in original.]
Or, regarding service in an all-volunteer military:
In Vietnam you tried to avoid volunteering for anything; it was probably going to get you killed. We've kept the Vietnam idea—I suppose our fathers handed it down to us—so that volunteering for a task is a bad thing, even within the military, common sense says don't volunteer—but there's the fact that volunteering is what got you here, and is wrapped up in our idea of what it means to be a motivated or good soldier. [p. 140]
The letter-form and plain-prose aside, however, one other writing tactic proves less than successful for Bonenberger. Before each of the "Afghan Post's" four major narrative sections—those covering the author's civilian experiences in Japan, joining the Army, and his first and second deployments—Bonenberger presents a non-alphabetized "glossary" of acronyms, concepts, and jargon. The tone is conversational and informal. ("I don't know the difference between MEDEVAC and CASEVAC, but ..." is how one entry starts.) Many entries seem extraneous to their corresponding sections. Worse still, the information provided is often downright wrong.

The overall effect diminishes the author's implied expertise. Readers with military experiences of their own may find themselves cringing at factual errors. "Dust-off," for example, is not what soldiers call "brown-out" conditions of zero-visibility during helicopter landings. It's not the "101st Air Assault," it's the "101st Airborne Division." It's not "Bagram Air Force Base," it's "Bagram Airfield." That's why it's called "BAF."

The resulting impression is that Bonenberger's wonderfully personable, plainspoken correspondent may not only be an "unreliable narrator" (that, after all, is to be expected, given the epistolary form), but an inaccurate one, to boot.

Bottom line: Despite its technical shortcomings, Army leaders, families, and future recruits would be well-served by reading this book. In broad brushstrokes, it paints a picture of what a young active-duty officer's career and social life could look like. Civilians without military connections will likewise be rewarded with nicely framed and articulated insights into military life, and, specifically, observations of the United States' involvement in Afghanistan. A persistent lack of attention to military details, however, unnecessarily diminishes what could have been a definitive work.

In trade paperback, "Afghan Post" can be purchased via local booksellers near you, via Amazon, or directly from community-supported Philadelphia publisher The Heart & the Hand here.

Editor's note: A copy of this book was provided to Red Bull Rising for purposes of review.

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