Highlights…The early pages of Ben Anderson’s narrative of his experiences in Afghanistan, full of bangs and expletives, caused my lip to curl sceptically. But as I delved deeper into the book, against my will I became gripped……he has shot combat at close quarters with the British and American armies for months on end, and watched men dying around him. Two generations ago, I did a good deal of war reporting, but suffered nothing like as many near-death experiences as Anderson…It is ironic that most of the soldiers whom the author accompanies into battle are learning their turf for the first time in the course of a six-month tour, while Anderson the film-maker has been in and out of places like Sangin for years, and is thus trebly cynical about the absurdity of suggesting that the allied campaign is making headway…Intelligence about the enemy is woeful. “I wish the bad guys had uniforms,” sighs a frustrated marine. They are often merely blazing away at mud-walled compounds, calling in air strikes that fail to materialise, or go horribly wrong when they do…In the midst of one firefight, Anderson felt a surge of fear that he had pushed his luck too far, and put himself on the weaker side: “The feeling of fragility you get from so many bullets passing so close is almost impossible to describe. Imagine a snowman in the rain, a spider in a toilet or a piece of bread floating along a river that has miles of falls and rocks ahead. I thought that there was nothing I could do except lie down and wait for the bullets to enter my body.” He survived, of course, but the reader feels as astonished as he did…In a dismaying echo of Viet-nam, Anderson describes watching Americans blowing up homes and a mosque in Sangin. When he questions a US Marine officer about how this fits with winning hearts and minds, the man says: “I know that most people in the world probably wouldn’t understand. You’re trying to build a country up by destroying it and it seems like a paradox, but those are people who have not been to Afghanistan. The nature of conflict inevitably includes destruction before you can start to build it the way it should be.”…Anderson’s message is one that has been conveyed by many other authors in recent years — that the American and British armies are wasting their time in Afghanistan, indeed doing expensive harm, and it is iniquitous for some of their commanders and politicians at home to pretend otherwise…What began in 2001 as a limited war to achieve the limited objective of chasing out Al-Qaeda has morphed into a self-perpetuating and futile struggle to make Afghanistan a tractable westward-leaning society, such as it can never be. Anderson’s book makes a vivid contribution to the record of the conflict, and left me gasping at his courage. My own wars felt pretty cushy by comparison with his.
“An unusually courageous war correspondent shares his dispatches from the frontlines of Afghanistan. Anderson’s thousands of hours of recorded video allow him to clear away the fog of war, recounting precisely what happened in some of the most chaotic and stressful situations humans can experience. With humor, compassion and a fine eye for detail, the author meticulously pieces together each scene with the skill of a good choreographer. While the book is too atmospheric and action-based to have much of a grand political narrative, Anderson’s central contention is that our strategy in Afghanistan is confused and ineffectual, and the Taliban is confidently reestablishing its networks of authority throughout the country. The Afghan National Army (“a heavily-armed, badly-dressed version of the Keystone Kops. On drugs”), now taking responsibility for most areas, is poorly trained and motivated and of dubious loyalty. An engrossing blow-by-blow account of the nuts and bolts of modern warfare.”