Barnes & Noble Review Salon

Canny Valley

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

Update: Reprinted in Salon.



Reviewed by Graeme Wood


In mid-April, the U.S. military executed what it called a “strategic withdrawal” from Korengal, a small valley in northeast Afghanistan that it had tried for four years to pacify. Dozens of U.S. soldiers and many more Afghans had died violently there. When the U.S. pulled out, the valley was still so dangerous that officers had to offer village elders six thousand gallons of fuel as a bribe not to attack the convoys during their drive to safety.


This is about as close to an acknowledgment of defeat as one is likely to see in this war. Sebastian Junger’s new book, War, is a depiction of one year in the life of the U.S. soldiers who tried to turn the occupation of Korengal around, and whose battle against a steady barrage of Taliban attacks was eventually judged to be not worth the trouble. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and a reporter for Vanity Fair, visited Korengal’s forts and outposts serially for one year, and his dispatches present a sometimes unbearably gritty look at the daily life of soldiers there. As a narrative of combat in Afghanistan from the U.S. ground perspective, the book has no rivals. It makes one wonder how any army could hold ground in Korengal, and indeed why it would even want to.


A Prisoner’s Tale


The saga of a hapless New Zealander who ended up behind bars after seeking work in Iraq reveals the darker side of the U.S.-led coalition’s operations.

When Andreas Schafer was released from a prison in Iraq earlier this year, the Iraqi police apologized abjectly for having inconvenienced him for three months. They made sure he knew that if ever he wanted to get back at the arresting officer by, say, slaying the man’s brother, it would be all right by them. And he could expect not to be prosecuted for the crime.

It says something about Iraqi justice and the American-led occupation that Iraq’s finest viewed an invitation to murder as a triumph of decency and due process. Schafer, a hapless, idealistic 26-year-old New Zealander who had gone to Iraq in search of a job with a nongovernmental organization, ended up languishing in a prison in southern Iraq as an unacknowledged prisoner of the U.S.-led coalition. By keeping Schafer in an Iraqi-run prison, rather than in a prison monitored by Americans or international observers, the United States avoided putting him on the books and having to account for his treatment, even to his own government.