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Book Review: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

By (February 3, 2015) No Comment

the dogs are eating them now coverThe Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan

by Graeme Smith

Counterpoint Press, 2015

Self-described “scruffy Canadian journalist” Graeme Smith spent enormous amounts of time in harm’s way in southern Afghanistan during the long years of the war there, sharing the same dangers and tedium as the many hundreds of soldiers and advisers endured. He went with the troops into bleak valleys, hostile villages, and sudden firefights, experiencing everything with ground-level immediacy.

And if he happened to miss something, he could always turn to the six reporters immediately to his left and ask to see their cellphone footage. Did Phil Gourevitch happen to catch that gunner’s world-weary quip? Can Dexter Filkins recall that group captain’s exact comparison to World of Warcraft? Does Sebastian Junger remember which American pop song the little boy on the outskirts of Kabul was singing when the IED took him out?

So there’s a certain warm familiarity, not to say inevitability, to the somber procession of Smith’s chapters: “The Road to Kandahar,” “The Surge,” “Detainees,” “The Karzai Regime,” “At the Gates of Kabul,” and so on. It would be impious for any fat American civilian to claim war-weariness when reading the steady stream of books coming out of the G. W. Bush Terror Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course; war-weariness must be reserved only for the miscellaneous patriots and homicidal hillbillies who signed up to go and fight in those distant places, only to return so battered by the whole experience that they could barely sign their names to their Random House contracts.

When a reporter like Smith, who covered the Afghanistan war for the Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2009 and has won more awards than even a wide-angle selfie could contain, encounters the vast desolation that is the depressingly common characteristic of so much of Afghanistan’s landscape, you know with leaden certainty that “here be dragons” is going to spring to his mind, and that far from rejecting it as the cheapest of all cheap cliches, he’s going to, as they say in Fleet Street, run with it:

Somebody told me a story of ancient mapmakers who struggled with the blank spaces on their vellum charts, the emptiness of places never visited by cartographers. They drew monsters at the edges of the known world, inventing fables about lions, serpents and basilisks that might devour an unwary traveller. “Here by dragons” read the most famous inscription. I can’t remember the name of the soldier who told me this, but his words remain clear: “The thing about modern civilization,” he said, “is that we can’t stand those empty spots. The dragons fly out and bite you in the ass.”

I can’t remember the name of that soldier either, but I’m pretty sure it was “Hemingway.” He can never quite be found again by the reporters who’ve been taking down his incredibly perfect ad-libs for the last fourteen years, but that’s just as well; it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what the guys of Bravo Company do to fact-checkers in the name of freedom.

And to relieve their boredom: the reporters come from all corners of the Coalition of the Willing, but in their childish readiness to rank boredom as the worst conceivable evil, they’re all American to the core. And Smith is no exception; he’s Canadian (a nationality not unfamiliar with tedium), but like all his comrades in the embedded Fourth Estate, he can wax poetic on all the ways Our Boys fill the doldrums in between peppy afternoons spent slaughtering helpless noncombatants:

Maddeningly, the fights were hard to find. Soldiers waited for days, listening to their radios crackle with rumours and reports of skirmishes. They lolled in the shade of their troop carriers, dazed by the heat and deprived of sleep by their regular shifts to keep watch. They rigged up sound systems inside the armoured shell of their vehicles and hip-hop echoed over the emptiness. Others passed the time watching DVDs, or clipping photos of women from magazines. Their vehicles offered more than protection from bullets, more than powerful weapons; they were life itself, a source of food and electricity and comfort. Soldiers did not even call them vehicles; instead, they were “boats,” sailing through the desolation. Inside the metal armour was civilization. Outside was terror.

Smith’s impressionistic account makes no larger claims for itself than can be supported by its narrow focus and, eventually, brought to gritty life by Brad Pitt. Our intrepid author would be the first to admit he’s not writing history in the formal sense of the word; he’d doubtless echo the carefully-muted braggadocio of his colleagues, some heavily-sighed variation on “Hey, I’m just telling you what I saw.” But even so, when reading his book it’s hard to avoid some larger historical judgements encroaching around the edges (outside was terror, indeed). “One day the police showed up at a checkpoint, stopping cars and peering into their backseats in a half-hearted search for suicide bombers, but the next day their post sat empty,” Smith tells us at one point. “Had the Taliban chased them away? Or were they lounging in the fields, smoking hashish?” In other words, either not capable of defending themselves or not worth defending – the most trusted canard of Empire, the White Man’s Burden, alive and well and right at home in the dirt of Kandahar.

Close to three million members of the combined U.S armed services spent some time in Iraq or Afghanistan during these wars, and many hundreds of journalists went with them. It’s too much to hope that the subtitle of Smith’s book, “Our War in Afghanistan,” places an ironic stress on its first word; every last one of those embeddees will want a turn at the printing presses. And who knows but that a T. E. Lawrence or Martha Gellhorn might turn up in their number and write a book that rips at the conscience of a complacent West? We can wait and hope.