‘A study of how do you know anything in Afghanistan’: An Interview with Weston Prize-winner Graeme Smith

The author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now talks with playwright Hannah Moscovitch.

October 21, 2013

Hannah Moscovitch is an award-winning Toronto-based playwright. A contributing writer to the CBC Radio series Afghanada she is the creator of The...

Writing in The Guardian in 2010, Geoff Dyer argued that “the big story of our times—the al-Qaida attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is being told in some of the greatest books of our time.” He underlined the fact he was not talking about novels, but the unprecedented flowering of creative nonfiction and long-form reportage about the wars. Harrowing books such as David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, and Sebastian Junger’s War, demonstrated the capacity to distill and comprehend complex human stories in ways that the novel perhaps no longer could. Given the rather ignominious manner in which the news media covered the prelude to the Second Iraq War and the Bush government’s grounds for it, Dyer said, these books also helped give journalism some of its credibility back. Or, as George Packer put it: “The press redeemed in Baghdad what it had botched in Washington.”

When it comes to the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, a handful of journalists distinguished themselves with their reportage day in and day out. But only now, with the arrival of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now by Graeme Smith, is there a Canadian book about our recent experience of war that might be considered the equal of those Dyer singled out for praise. Last night it was awarded the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction. A former correspondent for The Globe and Mail, Smith works as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul.

To speak with Smith we recruited Hannah Moscovitch, an award-winning, Toronto-based playwright who has made war a focus of her work. A contributing writer to the popular CBC Radio series Afghanada, Moscovitch is the creator of The Russian Play and This is War.  -Cf.

In the post-performance Q&As for my play This is War I was asked over and over if my play was an anti-war play. I did a lot of squirming when I got asked that question, and now I want to make you answer it. Is your book an anti-war book?

I don’t know. It’s lament. I think this idea of sending tens of thousands of NATO troops into southern Afghanistan in that way at that time was a tragic mistake and many thousands of people died as a result. In that sense, it’s anti-war. But I don’t find myself feeling anti-interventionist on principle because after I did that time in southern Afghanistan I went to eastern Libya.

I was there before the no-fly zone was implemented [by NATO forces], standing in Benghazi and everyone terrified as Gaddafi’s tanks were rolling towards us. It’s possible that he would have done a lot of damage in that city of one million people. There would have been a kind of Srebrenica-style moment where massacres on a very large scale would have happened. So I was delighted when French jets swooped in and started smoking Gaddafi’s tanks. I’m not anti-war, period, because no matter how many people died in the ensuing civil war in Libya and no matter how messy it was, it was probably better that those jets came. I think fewer people died in the end that would have died otherwise.

There you go. That’s such a good answer, to draw that distinction. In my case I think I answered that question terribly. Here’s something I’m really interested to know about as a writer exclusively of fiction… your book it reads like a classic disillusionment narrative. A character, you, starts with an optimistic point of view and over the course of a long, excruciating time in Afghanistan, you lose your illusions and are changed by the experience. Was that conscious on your part structurally? How did you relate to that?

I don’t think it was a conscious narrative device, it’s just what happened. I was really excited to be a 26-year-old in a war zone. It was a great assignment. I was getting on the front page all the time. I was vulnerable to this dream of fixing the ragged edges of civilization.

I tell an anecdote in the book about how—I think it was a soldier told me—once upon a time at the edges of the map of the world, you would draw little basilisks and dragons. And you’d write, “There be dragons” or “There be lions,” and you’d ignore those edges of the world. Now our world is interconnected. It’s very easy to get from one side of the world to the other and you can’t afford to leave those ragged edges, you can’t write places off and say “There be dragons,” because the dragons come out of those blank spaces and they bite you in the ass. As a young, excited 26-year-old, that was a very nice, easy, explanation of what happened on 9/11: bad guys came out of the wilderness and they attacked us. The answer is to simply have civilization everywhere, but the world is not that easy and as I got deeper and deeper into Afghanistan, I started to see how difficult it is to try to bring law and order to every single corner of the world.

When I was writing about the war in Afghanistan for the play, I ended up focusing on interviews and soldiers’ subjective experiences. That’s sort of what you do in the book, you do some summarizing, but you focus a lot on lived experience. I wonder if that’s probably because the war is so confounding.

Absolutely. I think a lot of the stuff I heard on Afghanada that you wrote really rang true to me because it did have that subjective voice. It was, “Here’s what I saw, smelled, heard, felt.” I tried to do the same with my book. I don’t try to give you an authoritative account of those years. I say up front in the introduction, I’m not giving you a set of analytical tools with which to dissect this conflict, or any other conflict. I’m just recording my subjective experience, trying to reflect some of the anguish, some of the randomness, some of the funny moments actually, because you forget how much people remember to laugh in the midst of these weird tragic situations.

Partly, it’s just that in any war—but especially a place as alien as Afghanistan—you have to be very careful about the conclusions you draw. I’ve been wrong so many times with so many things in Afghanistan. So many foreigners have misjudged the situation that you have to be so, so cautious about how you know anything. It’s almost a kind of interesting epistemological study of how do you know anything in Afghanistan.

One thing that’s really striking in the book is how often you fault yourself. Not only are you exposing some of the failures of the mission in Afganistan, but you also confess your own failures.

Partly it’s just that I’m really sick of the authoritative voice of journalism, the way journalists have been supposed to talk for the last half century or so. This kind of voice of god, the gravelly baritone delivering the news. It’s not the way people talk and it’s not the reality. The reality is it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. You can figure out a few things and you can tell people what you know and how you know it. That’s the best that you can do.

It’s good to admit failure. It’s good to admit the flaws in what you do. Probably the most successful project I’ve ever done was something called Talking to the Taliban [for the Globe and Mail online], where we stuck small video recording devices in the faces of 42 or 43 Taliban and had them talk about themselves. Right in the introduction is the methodology, I describe all the various flaws of this project, and I was aggressive about highlighting those flaws because people need to know what they’re getting. Once upon a time, if you just put Campbell’s Soup on the label, people would buy it because they assume it’s good soup. But now they want ingredients lists. They want to know what chemicals are in here. The same is true for journalism. People really want to see what goes into making the soup.

I was surprised to read your account of Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led offensive during the second Battle of Panjwaii. Because of the research I’ve done on Afghanistan there were things in the book that were familiar to me, but some of it shocked the shit out of me. One of them was Operation Medusa and the possibility that it wasn’t the Taliban Canadians were fighting, it might have just been disgruntled farmers. But sergeants and privates come home and talk about that as our great military victory. Has anyone else reacted to that, to your description of Operation Medusa.

I think we went through a whole transformation in our understanding of who it was we were fighting. Operation Medusa was that moment for me where I started to think, “Oh, okay, maybe we’re not fighting Al-Qaeda in the fields, maybe we’re not fighting people who intend to fly airplanes into buildings in the West. Maybe we’re fighting a bunch of ignorant farmers who have decided to join the Taliban because they’re really pissed off.”

If you look back in the record, especially 2003 to 2006, people would use Al-Qaeda and Taliban in the same breath when talking about our enemies. As things progressed, they started to make the distinction. My friend Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, two very good academics, wrote an entire book called An Enemy We Created. It’s a fantastic book, I think they’ve only sold fewer than 700 copies which is a terrible shame because it describes the distinction between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and how they were connected briefly and how they fought each other.

You’re right, there was a sort of uprising of farmers in those fields west of the city. We put down that uprising with extreme violence.

Have any soldiers reacted to hearing that version of Operation Medusa?

Some soldiers hate my guts. Some of the guys like me. Really depends on their own experience. A lot of these guys saw the same thing I did and reached the same conclusions. Others lived a different experience, and as I say, that’s totally normal in a chaotic and confusing war zone. It was a mess. Everybody’s going to see something different.

I heard so many of our returning soldiers talk about it as our glorious cavalry charge.

It can be both things. It was a glorious cavalry charge. There was amazing bravery and amazing commitment by these Canadians. They were fighting with no sleep, sometimes under ridiculous circumstances. I learned a lot about guts, how to be a better person, from a lot of Canadian soldiers.

It’s amazing to me that both can be true, that soldiers can be acting very bravely in our interests and at the same time that the goals of the mission have gotten obscured.

I think the task they were given, the tools and the task were never really matched up.

When you broke the detainees story, we started torture stories on Afghanada for the first time. We read all of your articles very carefully, because we were trying to create fiction based on your articles. You talk in the book a bit about feeling good about breaking that story. Does that last? Do you still feel good about breaking that story?

The changes that any of us are able to make in the world are always small and incremental. Yeah, I feel a little bit good about having been part of the conversation. It wasn’t just me—other human rights workers and journalists were working on this as well. There was an uproar in Parliament in the spring of 2007. We published a bunch of stuff about detainees who were captured by the Canadians and handed over to the Afghans, and they were being beaten and whipped and choked and mistreated, electrocuted, and Canadians paid attention, parliamentarians paid attention. And two weeks later, we got a new bilateral agreement with the government of Afghanistan with new safeguards in place.

What that meant was Canada caught up with its NATO partners and had the same kind of monitoring that the Dutch and British were already doing. Did anything particularly change in those Afghan prisons? Sadly, probably not dramatically. We might have made a little bit of a difference. A brilliant Canadian named Georgette Gagnon became head of the human rights unit for the United Nations. She assigned a huge team to keep investigating this. They produced groundbreaking reports that confirmed what I had seen and went further. They introduced the phrases “genital twisting” and “human biting” to our vocabulary. I don’t know what that means exactly and I’ve never asked her because I don’t really want to know. The reality is torture has continued and remains a significant problem in Afghan custody.

So that tempers your feeling?

Sure. You try to make a difference but with anything, I think with any of these diplomats or UN workers or aid workers, anyone in Afghanistan who has struggled to make things a little bit better, they’re all small, modest gains, you have to cling to those little gains sometimes so you can keep going.

I read an article about soldiers having sex, I think that it was yours. I’m almost sure you wrote about it. It was around the time General Ménard was sent home for fraternization. I had asked one of the military consultants on Afghanada if fraternization occurs and his stance was it never happens.

Oh, come on.

I showed him your article and he admitted that it does sometimes happen, so I got a lot bolder with my non-frat stories. I’m interested to know, do you think there’s something about war that increases the need for love and sex?

I saw a psychologist right after leaving Afghanistan for the last time, or I thought it was the last time in 2009, and he’s a guy who specializes in the psychology of war correspondents, and he said you have to watch out for increases and decreases in appetite. They can be trouble signs. So if you find yourself eating a lot of food, or if you stop eating food, if you find yourself needing a lot of sex, a lot more than before, or if you become celibate all of a sudden, that these sort of changes can mean that you had a stress injury of some kind, you may have PTSD. I think proximity to stress like that can…

I hung around Kandahar field enough to know that shenanigans were going on. That’s for sure. It may have been less than you’d think considering you had thousands of young men and probably hundreds of young women, trapped in a razor-wire perimeter in the middle of the desert with nothing to do in the evenings, except smoke illicit Cuban cigars and tell war stories.

And smokin’ hot young people at that, probably.

Very fit young men and women. It went on. I think, shockingly they had tame social lives though. Sometimes at night I’d see these young boys, as you say, finely-aged specimens of men, 250 pounds of muscle with an automatic weapon beside them. They’d be slouched in front of an Xbox playing video games, simulating their own jobs. They’d be playing shooting games at night. That always struck me as a bit strange. The evenings were always pretty quiet.

The way I framed the play This is War is that four soldiers are interviewed about events that occurred in Afghanistan by a journalist who’s off stage, who we never we see. I read Murray Brewster’s book The Savage War, and he talks about how the Canadian Forces can be hostile to journalists. I think you talk a bit about the U.S. Special Forces trying to stop you from reporting a story about civilian casualties. Does that sync up with your experience?

I was standing side by side with Murray a lot of those days so the stuff he saw, I saw for the most part. There was this one really uncomfortable moment in the spring of 2007, I was at an operating base in Helmand Province and there were three nations there, the Canadians, the Brits, and the Americans. The Americans there were all Special Forces. They went out at night and stirred up some serious trouble, lot of civilians got killed that night.

Strangely enough, the people from that valley, started bringing their dead and wounded to the military base, to show them, “Look, these are the people you killed.” And for the wounded, they knew they could get medical help at the base even though the people who did the killings were there at the base as well. It was a strange parade of carnage through the front gates of the base. Trucks piled with bodies, some people alive, some people dead. I was photographing them and these Special Forces guys got really pissed off. They knew what kind of story would come out of this. We got in a bit of an argument and they threatened to kick me off the base.

Which is death, right?

That’s a death threat. In Helmand Province at that time and Zanjan district, that’s a death threat. At times it got tense with the militaries, but for the most part, I was actually amazed, with the Canadians in particular—I single them out with praise, for being incredibly tolerant. I was there, for a period of three-and-half years, annoying them, really. I did some stories they liked. Most of the stories I did, they didn’t like. They were incredibly good about it. They were incredibly Canadian about it.

Our side seemed to feel so strongly that we could pacify Afghanistan by just increasing troop numbers, the NATO claim that it was the solution to the problem. Why doesn’t that fly for you in Afghanistan?

Endless books will be written about why this didn’t work. We’re just now reaching a point in the conversation with ourselves where we’re able to reflect on why this didn’t work. It’s a good moment for that, the Canadian troops are leaving in March, it’s a good time to start hashing this out. There’s an American retired general and former ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who just published a piece in Foreign Affairs, saying the whole theory of counter-insurgency was flawed. This idea of clear, hold and build—you go in, you clear away the enemy, you hold it in under your control, and you build lots of nice things, girls’ schools, clinics, hospitals, whatever, and therefore, the people will love you.

He just said, “Look, that whole theory didn’t work in Afghanistan.” I saw that over and over again. I think I devote a lot of time in the book to the Sarposa prison because it was such a clear example of that. Canadians went in there with millions of dollars, they were clearly in military control of that area, it was just on the west side of the city, they held it, they built all kinds of wonderful stuff that gave training to the people, and yet, over and over again, there were jail breaks there, and local betrayals, people who should have had our backs, people who we helped, turned around and betrayed us. I don’t know why that magical formula wasn’t such a magical formula. I think partly it’s because of the whole idea of magical formulas. If you cling to a doctrine like that without keeping your head up and paying attention to the reality on the ground and being aware when things aren’t fitting the plan, that’s a key part of the problem right there, how we think about these things when we’re in the middle of them.

About Afghanistan, I had that classic experience of the more I read and the more I listened to soldiers and returning journalists, the more confused I was about what the fuck was happening.

It’s a very humbling thing, working in Afghanistan.

Hannah Moscovitch is an award-winning Toronto-based playwright. A contributing writer to the CBC Radio series Afghanada she is the creator of The Russian Play and This is War.