The Afghans who used to live here, more than 10,000, had been gone for several years, their abandoned mud-brick homes slowly melting into the dusty valley. Insurgents were using the place for R&R. At night, all you heard were the jackals, ululating like veiled, grieving women. The fact that Now Zad had no civilian residents, much less any police, had somehow escaped the notice of the coalition planners who had given the Marines their mission.
—Kristin Henderson, in what seems to be an otherwise servicable account of the Marines operating in Now Zad, Helmand province. When I was in Afghanistan, I must have not noticed how all those grieving burqas sound like jackals. Silly me.
But note the language here. Of course, Henderson is adopting the breezy, vaguely 2nd person account so-called creative non-fiction has adopted in an attempt to feel compelling (and which I deeply dislike). It’s misleading while trying to be interesting, but avoids too much fact while not quite straying into memoir or biography territory—sort of like a disappointing bastard child type of journalism, firmly convinced it is relevant. Then again, that’s just a style complaint, and I can’t change the fact that it is a style ascendant in the journalism industry.
On a broader note, I think we’re starting to reach the point at which you can only tell the same story so many times: U.S. military comes to town, finds out things are worse than they realized, learns their training sucks, and must adapt. Cue gunfire, the agonizing death of comrades, and the realization that you finally get it, and the guys who come to replace you in a few months will be better off as a result. Rinse, repeat.
There are a lot of compelling stories to tell about Afghanistan—even within the military, as they try new things, or must face things no reasonable person could possibly have expected. But, and I hope I can say this without disrespecting anyone deployed there, the standard narrative about Afghanistan is really tired now. We know this story, it no longer warrants 4,000-word Sunday features. There are, however, other, equally compelling things going on that are outside the standard American-soldier-in-Afghanistan framework. We’ve tried to highlight some of them here—they do happen. Why aren’t those being written in the Sunday papers?
Update: This AP story about Now Zad is quite excellent.