No one is sinless enough to cast the proverbial stone—but in this freighted, violence-punctuated novel by Danish journalist Jensen (We, the Drowned, 2011, etc.), the sins mount page by page.
Why are Westerners, including a detachment of Danish soldiers, in Afghanistan, especially so long after bin Laden has been done away with? Well, says a tough-as-nails commander named Schrøder, “We believe in free will, don’t we? That’s why you’re here. That’s why I’m here. And that’s why the Americans are here. To force the Afghans to recognize the existence of free will.” That observation comes toward the end of a long, bloody tale that would do Søren Kierkegaard proud—if, that is, Kierkegaard had been a novelist. Jensen depicts a group of one-foot-in-the-grave fighters, men and women who learn in the decidedly situational arena of Afghanistan that things are never as they seem: The American mercenaries whom they fight alongside have loyalty only to their wallets, a predilection that soon enough infects members of the Danish contingent, who are quick to abandon their philosophical interests in the quest for dollars. “Are you working for the Taliban?” a senior officer asks Schrøder, who answers, “Good question….I work for myself. I take advantage of the chances I get. Today’s friends are tomorrow’s enemies.” Indeed, about the only people to be trusted in Jensen’s twist-full story are the Taliban fighters arrayed against the Americans, Danes, and Brits who populate it: They, at least, have moral clarity and a sense of purpose, as opposed to Schrøder, who had worked in civilian life as a designer of video games in which “skinhead assassins" unleashed all sorts of mayhem—good training, as it happens, for the ugliness to come. Jensen is unflinching in describing that mayhem as it figures in the real world of his novel, from rape and torture to one particularly brutal scene in which flayed bodies line a road like so many victims on the road to Golgotha.
A grim examination of the effects of war on those who would give anything not to be waging it.