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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Waiting for the Taliban

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 I have had a strong interest in what is going on in that country. These are the books about Afghanistan at war that I value most.

The order of the following books does not correspond with how valuable the books are in my opinion. But I can say without a doubt that the one that is most explosive and adrenaline-filled, is this one:

Briefly put, this must be the ultimate book about life and death at an American outpost in Afghanistan. Reading this book is simultaneously addictive and painful. "Very hard to put down" is such a cliché, but for me, in this case, it was true.

I believe that the author, Sebastian Junger, has done more research in Afghanistan for this book than anyone could demand. But then he was at the same time making the documentary "Restrepo" together with Tim Hetherington.

Having a special interest in soldiers from Swedish American families I was amazed by how many Swedish names pop up at the featured remote US Army positions.

There is one thing I do not like about this book. War gives the impression that the book could be about war in general. It is not even about the current war in Afghanistan in general, it is a book specifically about the fighting in the Korengal Valley, seen almost exclusively from an American perspective. On the other hand, Junger in War goes to impressive lengths to understand what war in general does to man. But I still think Combat in the Korengal (or something like that) would have been a better title.

Before moving on to the next book I must ask if anyone out there knows if Sebastian Junger had read the German WWI stormtrooper Ernst Jünger before writing War (could they even be distant relatives?)? In some respects I would say Junger compares to Jünger, I am especially thinking of the latter´s Storm of Steel. For clarity, I do not mean this in any negative way (re. Ernst Jünger there is this brilliant companion to Storm of Steel, written by the Swede Nils Fabiansson).

There is a book about the Soviet war in Afghanistan that I would compare to War, this one:

I read The Hidden War when it came out in 1990 and can say that it really made a lasting impression on me. In contrast to War it is not limited to one valley or one unit but is about the whole Soviet war in Afghanistan. I believe the author, a young Russian reporter, probably wrote the best Russian civilian account of that war.

I have not read many accounts written by Soviet soldiers who served in Afghanistan. I only have two such books. The most recent one I can absolutely recommend:

This is the 2010 Swedish edition of the book. The title translates as "The Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan: an Airborne Soldier´s Account". This book provides a very detailed and critical view of how Soviet airborne units operated in Afghanistan. Aside from a unique text it contains a number of very interesting photos.

At the time of writing it is only available in Swedish and Lithuanian - it was first written in that language. Hopefully it will be translated to English.

Now I have come to the final two books and I would say that they are the best I have found so far about the general situation in today´s Afghanistan. The first one is entitled I väntan på talibanerna ("Waiting for the Taliban") by Swedish reporter Jesper Huor. Here is the cover:

To date the book is only available in Swedish. There is a new book in English with the same title, but that is a book I have not yet read and can say nothing about.

About Huor´s book I will say this: it is one superb read and gives insights not only about the fighting in today´s Afghanistan but also about the country itself and its many peoples. Jesper Huor has been able to experience more than most western reporters because he blends in quite easily in Afghanistan - he is half Cambodian and thus can pass as an Afghan.

Jesper Huor has really talked with all sides, even the Russian ambassador to Kabul. The interview with him is just one of several really amazing ones.

Finally we come to a book as recent as Huor´s and somewhat similar to it, but so far only available in German: Eine Nacht in Kabul ("A Night in Kabul") by the Austrian reporter Ulrich Ladurner:

Quouting from the preface by the former Chancellor of West Germany Helmut Schmidt (in my translation from German): "Nine years ago the NATO intervention in Afghanistan began. The operation thus has lasted longer than WWII, longer than the Vietnam War, longer than the Korean War. There is still no end in sight". Schmidt then concludes that regardless of what one thinks about how to best tackle the issues ahead we will have to deal with Afghanistan also in the future, one way or the other.

In addition, as Helmut Schmidt also writes, the current situation in Afghanistan speaks not only of Afghanistan, but also a great deal about how the world of today functions.

The author Ulrich Ladurner´s method for trying to explain to us what Afghanistan is and what is going on in Afghanistan consists both of reporting about his own many travels in Afghanistan and the visits of other foreigners, not least British ones in the 19th century and the German adventurer and officer ("German Lawrence of Arabia") Oskar von Niedermayer in the early 20th century.

Importantly, Ladurner has spent time not only in Kabul (in spite of the title), but has also been to Taliban-rich areas in the south and to the area where Germany and Sweden has most of its troops.

Eine Nacht in Kabul does not have the adrenaline of War but I believe it is one of the most important and well-written books ever about Afghanistan and today´s NATO in action. Hopefully someone will have it translated to English. Like real soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this blog post. I shall share it on my own, The Kitchen Dispatch. By the way, my husband is a US Army Surgeon, and his forebears come from Sweden!