Afghanistan by Donkey: One Year in a War Zone

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The starkness and magnitude of Finkel's material demand an unerring control of tone. Even at its most matter of fact, his prose finds a hypnotic calm in the repetition of exposure to extreme danger: "Eyes sweeping, jammers jamming, the convoy moved along route Pluto. The moon, not quite full, rose dented and misshapen, and the aerostat, a grey shadow now rather than the bright white balloon it had been in daylight, loomed over a landscape of empty streets and buildings surrounded by sandbags and tall concrete blast walls.

With touches like this Finkel demonstrates how the chaos of events can be given narrative shape by scrupulous observation and phrasing. A lesser but still thrilling book, War plunges the reader into the adrenalin-mist of combat. Like the soldiers around him, Junger is less interested in "the moral basis of the war" than the immediate experience of combat and its "twisted existential" ramifications whereby "each moment was the only proof you'd ever have that you hadn't been blown up the moment before". Often his senses were so overwhelmed by the experience that it was only by consulting video footage he had shot during firefights that he was able to understand and write up what had been going on.

This feeds into another of Junger's interests: the complex mixture of military training and biochemical processes — the body's emergency surges and shutdowns — that enable a person to function in danger while the instinct for self-preservation programmes him to curl up in a ball or flee.

Actually, it turns out not to be so complicated after all. Courage, Junger learns, is love: a willingness to lay down your life for others who, you know, would do the same for you, because in certain situations there is no such thing as "personal safety" "what happened to you happened to everyone". There is also the fact that combat is so "insanely exciting" that "one of the most traumatic things about [it] is having to give it up. War is written in the first person; unlike Finkel, Junger is present in the events he records, but discreetly, unobtrusively.

The most extreme contrast to Finkel's narrative self-effacement is the style of Dexter Filkins, whose The Forever War operates at a comparable level of literary excellence.


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Filkins is obviously an heir of Herr — he is so bad boy, so gonzo, which can be grating at first. Apart from a few details of transport and costume, this early glimpse of the Taliban could have been lifted straight from Hunter S Thompson's Hell's Angels : "Man, they were scary. You'd see them rolling up in one of the Hi-Luxes, all jacked up, white turbans gleaming; they were the baddest asses in town and they knew it, too.

A man who has "lived through everything, shootings and bomb blasts and death", Filkins is the latest incarnation of the reporter as renegade, "untethered, floating free, figuring out the truth by a different set of standards". Like Junger, he is willing to get to the place of maximum danger, but tends, when he gets there, to drift into digressions that wind us more tightly into the scene.

At which point, a still more illustrious antecedent comes to mind: Ryszard Kapuscinski. Perhaps we can also glimpse the ghost of Alan Moorehead, the great Australian reporter of the second world war. This willingness to digress, to operate in territory that shares a border with fiction, does not meet with universal approval.

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Anderson dismissed the question with magisterial impatience. With the bullets flying, any thoughts of literary embellishment were luxuries he couldn't afford; his only concern was to report things accurately. Filkins, I'm guessing, would have been more sympathetic, as even an atrocious incident, such as coming across the head of a suicide bomber who has detonated himself in a crowded market, can become a source of horror-comedy: "They'd placed it on a platter like John the Baptist's, and set it on the ground next to an interior doorway. It was in good shape, considering what it had been through.

The most curious aspect of the face was the man's eyebrows: they were raised, as if in surprise. Which struck me as odd, given that he would have been the only person who knew ahead of time what was going to happen. It's not just a question of tone. The story ends with multiple layers of dreadful, unresolved irony. Both film and TV series are relentlessly gripping, especially The Hurt Locker , where every bit of trash — and there's a lot of trash — is potentially life-threatening.

Indeed, the film is so nerve-shreddingly tense that it's only when you re-emerge into the safety of daylight that you realise how you've been manipulated, how shallow the experience has been. There is a thematic continuity here within Bigelow's work: The Hurt Locker serves up a military equivalent of the thrill-trips that Lenny Nero was hustling in her earlier Strange Days.

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Lenny sells virtual reality experiences of everything from a girl showering to armed robbery. And that — right down to the same camera techniques — is what we get here. The new twist is in the nature of the simulated environment: all the thrills and spills of combat and bomb disposal in the privacy and safety of your own home-entertainment environment.

So impressive is the technical accomplishment that one forgets that the action, while ostensibly unfolding in the context of a real and recognisable war, is operating safely within the absurd liberties of Hollywood convention. The series Generation Kill is, along with everything else, a sustained critique of the structural and conventional fictions of The Hurt Locker.

Taking no liberties with the facts of Wright's account, it follows a convoy of US marines as they make their way from Kuwait to Baghdad. Certain characters have more screen-time than others but there are no heroes. As in a platoon, everything comes down to teamwork and ensemble playing. The action is never contrived to assume the shape imposed by the demands of a good story.

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This is one of the reasons why, ultimately, the immersion in the experience of war is more complete than in The Hurt Locker. Despite their expertise and marksmanship, the extent to which the marines control their own destinies is minimal; it pretty much ended, in fact, before the series began, when they signed up.


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From the start we are sealed within the acronym-intensive argot and worldview of the USMC. Our point of view is absolutely that of the marines. The lessons dished out by their experiences are never moralistic but, as the situation deteriorates around them, the larger ethical and strategic impossibility of their position and purpose becomes unavoidable. We are back to the quandary observed by Finkel in The Good Soldiers.

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We are also back, more generally, to the relative strengths of non-fiction over fiction. Of course one could easily imagine a novelist doing without any of the liberties enjoyed by Bigelow — but we would be left, then, with a novel that was almost a carbon copy of the best of these non-fiction books.

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For the assumed skills of the novelist — an eye for telling detail, stylistic flair and so on — are deployed in abundance by many of these reporters, at least the ones who are there's no dodging this bullet American. Within every comparable category or type of book on Iraq and Afghanistan the Americans do it better than their British counterparts. On either side of the Atlantic the books by journalists are, naturally, better than those by the people they are writing about.

It is clear from Generation Kill that Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick is a remarkable officer and human being. In his partial autobiography, One Bullet Away , however, Fick is not able to impose his authorial personality on his version of the story from which he emerges with so much credit in Wright's account. This is inevitable; we don't expect Wright and Kiley to be able to shoot more accurately or march further in full equipment than Fick or Hennessy.

But once we start comparing like with like — soldier with soldier, journo with journo — the Americans come out unambiguously ahead. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. American writers are the beneficiaries of the deep pockets of the magazines that initially sponsored them. In this respect the situation has not changed greatly since Vietnam when the photographer Larry Burrows was working for Life.

What his son Russell called "the real luxury" of that gig — that the magazine was "prepared to let somebody go and work for however long it took" — still holds true for print journalists lucky enough to be working for Rolling Stone Evan Wright , Vanity Fair Junger or the New Yorker Packer. More generally, American journalists writing about the US military are the beneficiaries of the all-round flexibility and versatility of American English as deployed by the soldiers on whose lives they depend.

Afghanistan by Donkey: One Year in a War Zone

Officers and non-coms alike share a common idiom which is varied and animated by the racial and cultural make-up of the army. In the British military, by contrast, the lack of this shared linguistic medium reflects the basic class division of the army, between officers and men, toffs and proles. Instead of variety there is a straight choice.

And this applies not just to reported speech but to the register adopted by writers when operating outside the class perimeter of inverted commas. As can easily happen when choice is demanded, the worst possible result is compromise that rinses out everything that might make either idiom compelling. There seems to be no space between them as if they are being poured from a hose. Rounds are smacking into the ground; the dust is leaping around their feet. Des can hear the fizzing sound made by bullets which are within a foot of his ear.

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He can feel the hot whip of them on his face. This is not to say that, by turning their attention to Afghanistan or Iraq, American reporters and journalists are on to a sure-fire success. Even more of a hero. Then word begins to creep out that he was killed by friendly fire, and the military try everything in their power to conceal the truth.

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