Think Afghanistan is bad now? Just wait until American forces leave entirely and the dragon rises again.
The dragon trope is foreign correspondent Smith’s, borrowing from the old cartographer’s notation that dragons lurk in unmapped corners of the Earth. “The thing about modern civilization,” says one battle-hardened GI, “is that we can’t stand those empty spots. The dragons fly out and bite you in the ass.” So they do, and by Smith’s account, the dragons are multiplying. Eloquent and sometimes-hallucinatory, reminiscent at turns of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Smith’s narrative takes us from bad to worse. In one set piece, a coalition soldier lets loose a rocket with the remark, “There goes a Porsche,” precisely because the rocket costs as much as a sports car. Meanwhile, the enemy makes lethal weapons out of scraps, odd bits of fertilizer, plastic buckets and rusty tools. The result is devastating, and Smith does not shy from decidedly not-for-workplace descriptions: “Charred pieces of human flesh stuck to the armour. A television reporter wrinkled her nose at the sight, and I asked her: ‘Can you believe they were trying to sell me a story about how things have gotten better in Panjwai?’ ” Smith is a master of the battlefield description, but he’s even better at slyly noting the ironies and complexities of the war: for instance, destroying a farmer’s opium crop, while falling under the rubric of the war on drugs, would likely turn the farmer against the United States. Solution? Hire mercenaries to “slip into areas secured by NATO troops and raze the fields, without telling anybody they were sent by the foreigners.” Worse, in the author’s formulation, is now that we’re mired, we’re stuck, no matter how we pretend otherwise: “At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war. At worst, it’s a looming disaster.”
A dragon awaits, in other words. Cheerless and even nightmarish, one of the best books yet about the war in Central Asia.