253 pages | Buy this book
Capt. Benjamin Tupper was deployed to the front lines against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2006 as part of an Embedded Training Team (ETT), a small group of U.S. soldiers tasked with training and mentoring the ramshackle, newly formed Afghan National Army. Each two-man unit gets a company of about 100 Afghan soldiers, about whose language, history, and culture Tupper was—admittedly—entirely clueless. The result is a candid (if only mildly probing) series of snapshots of the challenges he faced, both cultural and military.
What’s the Big Deal?
Tupper’s got as good a view as anybody of, as he puts it, the “tip of the counterinsurgency spear” on the ground in Afghanistan. And building an Afghan army is key to withdrawing U.S. troops. Tupper’s take? He’s simultaneously faithful to the mission and highly critical of its execution, convinced that success is impossible using military means alone. The medium matters, too. Much of the book derives from the blog Tupper kept while deployed, which he did over the objections of some of his superiors.
Buzz Rating: Whisper/Hum
When he was blogging from Afghanistan, Tupper’s posts caught the attention of “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, who published them on Slate’s military blog, The Sandbox. From there, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” picked him up. When he returned home last year, Tupper self-published some of the posts and caught the attention of a major publisher. He’s not a talking head, but all his media friends will likely kick in coverage.
One-Breath Author Bio
A Syracuse University graduate, Tupper seems an unlikely soldier. He spent his college years and early professional life protesting CIA recruitment, organizing unions, and heading off on escapades through Central America. Back from his tour in Afghanistan, he now rents housing to Syracuse students. And he’s still a captain in the Army Reserves.
The Book, in His Words
“To understand Afghanistan’s culture, its potential for modernization and democracy, and its remaining military challenges, one must walk in the shoes of the Afghan people and its Army. From May 2006 to May 2007, I walked in those shoes. These essays are the footprints of my journey” (page 2).
Judging by the Cover
Do you feel a tug on your heartstrings whenever a U.S. Army advertisement comes on television? Do you long for the dirt, the testosterone, the metallic shine of a polished firearm? If yes, then this cover design will surely catch your eye.
Don’t Miss These Bits:
1. The U.S. military is in way over its head. Tupper’s instructors back in the States designed his training program based on a model they learned from Iraq. Too bad that comparing the two is like comparing “apples and hand grenades” (page 87).
2. Tragically, it’s really easy to screw up. Tipped off by local tribal leaders, Tupper prepares to order the bombing of a supposed Taliban holdout, but is delayed by what felt like a pointless bureaucratic rule requiring that he be able to see the enemy. At the last minute, though, one more tip comes to tell him he’s been duped. There were no Taliban there; he’d been set up by rival tribes to do their dirty work, which means his bombardment would have killed civilians. Bureaucracy, as it turns out, isn’t so pointless after all.
3. Out on combat missions, it’s all machismo, all the time, and virulent virility courses through every single page of this book. But it’s not just U.S. soldiers feeling the surges of testosterone. As Tupper sees it, Afghanistan’s troubles can be summed up as an inevitable explosion of the pent-up sexual frustrations of men denied any contact with the fairer sex. “The men are frustrated, sexually frustrated, to the point that they pick up guns, put on their finest suicide vests, and get their energy out through holy war” (page 108). He tells of the local mullah at an Internet café in Kabul (page 146) who, in the privacy of his computer stall, would fill his monitor with hard-core porn, and of the Afghan soldiers who condemn premarital sex but are making it on the side with cross-dressing male prostitutes.
4. Reconciliation? Not so fast. Making good with the fairer factions of the Taliban gets nods of approval from some wonks in Washington, but Tupper says it’s going to be a rough road. The Taliban’s preferred method of terrorizing the population comes in the form of photocopied letters nailed to doors and scattered on streets, threatening with death anyone who so much as cooperates with the Afghan government. Tupper recounts the story of an Afghan National Police officer killed in combat in Ghazni (page 57). Buried in a local cemetery, his body is found exhumed the next morning with a night letter nailed to his forehead. Even death was not enough to shield him from the Taliban’s brutality. What was that we wanted to reconcile again?
5. Big Brother is watching, always. Tupper is a self-described progressive, “skeptical of the simplistic justifications for war and the saccharine feel of good stories that hide the true costs of combat” (page 250). He waits until the end of the book to declare his liberal biases, but he never hides his disdain for the decision to keep the occupation militarized or the way the narrative of the war is carefully controlled back home. “It’s not that it was wrong to use force to overthrow the Taliban; it’s that once we did this, we basically considered the war won and rested on our laurels,” he says (page 136). In keeping the war’s focus on the military, not development, “we have alienated many [Afghans] with our heavy-handed resort to violence as the main weapon for defeating the Taliban” (page 138). Interestingly enough, however, the brass never once censored his blog. Even when some of his superiors objected, higher-ups always came to his defense to fight off any redactions.
Swipe This Critique
Tupper is a sharp, honest guy, but Dexter Filkins he is not. He’s no meathead, but he’s still a dude, prone to chapter titles like “Embrace the Suck” and “Of ‘POO’ and Pop-Tarts.” While such touches are part and parcel of the soldiering life, they’ll produce eye rolls from any reader looking for a highly self-aware sociological dissection of Afghanistan’s complex realities. When Tupper comes across a group of Afghan soldiers applying henna to their fingernails, for example, he likens them to 13-year-old girls at a slumber party, feminizing and infantilizing Afghan men in one swipe. At times reading his account feels like watching an MTV reality show: you learn more about the psychology of the protagonists than about the cultural phenomena they’re purporting to describe. Then again, given that his goal is to provide snapshots of U.S. efforts there, that’s kind of the point.
Tupper says the majority of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan aren’t in combat day to day,
but instead hold down logistical and support roles. They’re called “fobbits,” or FOB, since
they never leave the base. And on those bases, they’re treated to an array of “creature comforts . . . from massages to pedicures to smoothies to 24-7 coffee shops and deluxe
chow halls,” according to Tupper.
Tupper really should’ve double-checked his translations with his Afghan buddies. Inshallah isn’t a noun, dude.
Prose: The phrase “embrace the suck,” is not just a chapter title; it pops up regularly. ’Nuf said.
Jargon: The militarese is constant, but hey, that goes with the territory. In fact, it establishes the tone.
Bottom Line: An interesting look at the culture clashes between U.S. soldiers, Afghan soldiers, and Afghan civilians, but it probably won’t challenge any of your presumptions about this fight.