12 July 2016

Book Review: "On Afghanistan's Plains"

Book Review: "On Afghanistan's Plains" by Barry Alexander

A common criticism of contemporary war literature—at least the stuff that gets mass-market, big media attention—is that so much of it seems to focus on kinetic "kill" narratives, such as those of snipers and SEAL teams. Beyond communicating the tactics, heroics, and sacrifices of a few individuals on the battlefield, some would argue, stories such as "American Sniper" and "Lone Survivor" do little to expand our understanding of the wars we have sent our soldiers to wage on our behalf.

War is bigger, of course, than body counts and battlefield actions. For the past 15 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, armed forces have been engaged in various attempts to stabilize and legitimize whole countries. Our national narratives have been targeted toward nation-building, not just killing bad guys.

To tell such a complicated collective story, we need diversity in form: memoirs and movies, poems and plays, operas and dance. We need diversity in perspective: not just stories of generals and grunts, but of medics and military police, of aviators and truck drivers. Finally, we need diversity in voice: the notes of allies, civilians, and even our enemies should be added to our wartime chorus.

Memoirs such as Barry Alexander's "On Afghanistan's Plains" and movies such as the Danish-language "Krigen" ("A War"), deliver on all three counts. They expand our potential understanding of our own wars, beyond the expected kill-kill-bang-bang, beyond our soldierly stereotypes, beyond our U.S.-centric tunnel-vision.

In a 20-year career, British soldier Barry Alexander served as both enlisted and officer, and on deployments to Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2007, he deployed to Southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province. There, he enjoyed a privileged position from which to observe the modern battlefield, not by class or rank, but by function. Alexander's duties as a nursing officer variously located him at cutting edge of the fight; with the A.T.V. used to shuttle wounded back to the company medical tent; and with the battalion-level trauma center. The unit's leadership also circulated medical personnel to different locations within its area of operations, so Alexander takes the reader to more than just a single combat outpost.

Alexander delivers his war story with straight-faced humor, straight-forward insights, and more than a few poetic turns and bits of color. Consider, for example, this application of coalition gunfire and wit:
The bombs hit their target, the orange flicker of the explosion engulfing the hilltop, followed a split-second later by the sound of a thousand roof slates crashing onto a marble floor as a column of thick black smoke and dust climbs into the sky. There is a silence for about thirty seconds before the sound of a lone AK is heard firing in impotent anger in our general direction. We figure that if the guy can survive that amount of ordnance being dropped on his head, he probably deserves to live.
Veterans of other armies will enjoy learning British military lingo. What today's U.S. soldier calls a "Dee-FAC" (short for "dining facility"—and what older soldiers would call a "chow hall") is to Alexander and his mates a "cookhouse." When casualty notifications are being made back home, rather than finding themselves in a "communications blackout," the British troops go into a posture of "minimisation." Rather than "redeploying" to their hometowns, returning U.K. soldiers go through period of social decompression called "normalisation." It is fun to compare and contrast the jargon.

It is in the translation into plain language the tactics and techniques of countiner-insurgency ("COIN") that Alexander most serves the reader, placing his personal experience of Afghanistan and war into expanded operational context. In one passage, for example, he puts a patrol into Kajaki Olya into the dictates of "Clear, Find, Defeat, Reassure":
Our job is to […] clear the village, find any enemy and defeat them, thereby reassuring any local civilians that the Afghan government is providing them with security and that NATO forces have the ability and willingness to take on the Taliban. This tactic is known as 'cutting the grass.' The idea is that each of the District Centres forms the centre point of an 'ink spot' […]
Additionally, Alexander's prose offers occasional pearls of pithy wisdom, some of which seem ideal candidates for posting on garrison office walls. Two favorites of mine:
  • "The enduring folklore of foreign armies operating in Afghanistan tells us that we can borrow an Afghan, but we will never be able to buy him."
  • "There is nothing worse for morale and professional reputation than seeing medical personnel fall ill."
Having spent nearly 246 pages and a vicarious 6 months in Afghanistan with the author, however, my greatest delight was to discover that his post-war reflections transcended into poetry. And not just the poetry of the ages, but his own.

I should have been tipped off, of course, by book's title, which is rooted in Anglo-Afghan history and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The memoir title alludes to Kipling's 1895 poem, "Young British Soldier." During one battle, Alexander writes: "I am surprised to hear a lance corporal quoting Shakespeare: 'Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' […] I reply that Kipling would be more appropriate, reciting 'When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains' […]"

(Personal note: British reservists, apparently, quote Shakepeare and Kipling. In my own experience, deployed U.S. citizen-soldiers are more apt to quote movies, such as 1993's "Tombstone.")

Later, I realized that I'd first encountered Alexander's words in "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets," a 2011 anthology I frequently recommend to writers and readers of modern war poetry. In the last chapters of his memoir, Alexander tells of how and why he started to write poetry, and places a few of his published works into further context. "Writing the poem ['Care Under Fire'] proves cathartic," Alexander writes in his memoir, "and I feel that it has helped exorcise some of the demons that stayed behind to fight a rear-guard action following my time with the psych."

On social media and elsewhere, he calls the "Care Under Fire" poem the seed that grew first into an essay, called "Raid on Mazdurak," and subsequently into his book-length memoir. The poem ends with this stanza:
In camp, a debrief, rifle cleaned, med kit replenished and scoff
Minimise in force—can’t phone home; even if I could, what would I say?
Sleep comes hard, tears are shed, images of the wounded on my mind
A prayer for the boys on patrol tomorrow and the ones that are left behind
In summary: "On Afghanistan's Plains" delivers much-needed new perspective, context, and salve for the modern soldier's soul. I highly recommend.


"On Afghanistan's Plains" is available in print and e-reader formats, including paperback and Amazon Kindle.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.