The March of Folly

The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan BY J. Kael Weston. New York: Knopf. 608 pages. $28.

The cover of The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unique in their sophisticated weaponry and surreal nation-building aspirations, surely demand their own brand of literature, a mode of writing that will capture, somehow, the careless brutality that the world’s most powerful country wrought on two fragile populations. The striking difference between the wars of the past and those of the present is the scale of the imbalance. As one Iraqi in Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near told him just before the invasion, “What is Iraq? This is crazy! The United States is so powerful. It should respect itself. It should use its power wisely. What is Iraq to the United States? Who is it going to fight? We’re not Russia or China. We’re a small country.” In Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living, an Afghan warrior notes the high-tech gear and boots of the special-ops forces, then looks down at his own shalwar khameez and simple sandals, and wonders which side is more insane.

Worthy literature on these wars produced by Americans—whether nonfiction or fiction—would have to address this cruel lopsidedness. During the two world wars, the soldiers fighting for their respective empires endured similar traumas, which led to a literature of universal suffering and empathy. Mechanization was the great equalizer. But the same can’t be said for this century. American writers on Iraq and Afghanistan, especially former soldiers and statesmen who served abroad, will wrestle with their own demons and anguish, but the conundrum remains: When they attempt to understand the plight of the Afghans and Iraqis, will their art still suggest that all human suffering is the same?

Shadid’s and Gopal’s narratives are exceptions because they are told entirely through the eyes of besieged locals, but the field still seems open for more inventive storytelling about the war on terror. Though his book is mostly a conventional mix of memoir and reportage, J. Kael Weston seems at first as good a candidate as any (among nonnative Iraqis and Afghans, that is) to provide it. The Mirror Test spans Weston’s years as a State Department–dispatched regional administrator in two of the scariest places in each country during some of their scariest years: Fallujah in Iraq and Khost in Afghanistan.

In many ways, Weston proves more thoughtful than some early and exuberant American observers of both wars. Once abroad, he treats the Iraqis and Afghans not as generically faceless enemies but as thoughtful, sophisticated citizens of a conquered and divided land. Weston recalls one of his early pitches to the Iraqis: “There is no better long-term partner than the United States, just look at Japan and Germany,” he told them. “We went to war with both. We defeated both—granted, one with two nuclear bombs. They are now two of the largest economies in the world and our allies.” In The Mirror Test, he sheepishly admits that this logic had no place in Iraq—and that the Iraqis also knew better. It is the first (though certainly far from the last) moment in which Weston sees standard State Department rhetoric—the kind of history-distorting self-aggrandizement Americans indulge in all the time—exposed as nonsense.

Not long after his 2003 arrival in Baghdad, Weston is sent to Fallujah, where nearly all his illusions will collapse. Fallujah is the Sunni city where the charred remains of two American contractors were strung from a bridge. The gruesomeness of the violence in Fallujah forms the backdrop to perhaps the book’s most stunning chapter, “The Potato Factory,” named for the original function of the building that later served as Fallujah’s mortuary. Weston’s colleagues wanted to assure the councilmen of Fallujah that all Muslim bodies would be interred as fast as possible, and so for a few days he observed the mortuary workers, to make sure the burials were done properly. On his initial visit, he writes,

The smell hit me first, even though I sat dozens of meters from entering the facility. . . . Many of the toughest Marines, those who could bench press 300 pounds, also avoided the facility. . . . A few trees bordered it, but they too looked overwhelmed with the stench, branches drooping, coated in omnipresent dust. . . . Life-giving oxygen itself seemed to be in shorter supply around the Potato Factory, as if the Grim Reaper had already secured a forever lease on the structure in order to personally oversee the black business under way within.

It gets worse. Inside, a worker smokes a cigar to battle the stench; many of the body bags on tables hold only partial remains; one processing document indicates a corpse with legs so “mashed” the employees speculate the man was run over by a tank. When Weston accompanies the mortuary workers on one of their rounds retrieving bodies, he finds that in one house, “my boots began to slide on the floor. Below me were maggots. . . . Marines were still pulling out half-decomposed bodies. Bloated. Soft. Purple. One lay under a bed. It was impossible to tell if this was an insurgent or civilian. This is something I often think about. Was he hiding out of fear and had no weapon?” The chapter, together with several others in The Mirror Test, offers a gripping chronicle of this horror.

Among other things, Weston’s experience in Fallujah complicates the American notion of “terrorist.” In recounting how he was forced daily to face the eminently reasonable confusion and anger that most Iraqis felt about the American occupation, Weston reminds his readers of the Americans’ rhetorical immaturity during that terrible time: Were any of the Iraqis actually “terrorists”? At what point does a justifiably angry human become an “insurgent”? And how would an American Marine, any more than Weston, even know the difference between civilian and insurgent casualties of that miasmic fight? In contrast, the dogs of Iraq seem to know who their enemies are, Weston writes. In one scene, a large hound attacks Weston’s convoy, even trying to bite the back of their Humvee. “I sensed that dog possessed a clear knowledge that his new neighbors, the Americans, were the enemy, strangers killing Arabs,” Weston writes. “His people. He would guard that compound until a bullet finally killed him.”

Weston appears to have had little love for Iraq. This is a sentiment that seems common among foreigners who were there, especially in comparison to Afghanistan. Iraq was too scary, too hard, the people full of rage. And, of course, the Iraq war had no basis in reality. There was no reason for Americans to be there, and perhaps it is often their own guilt and shame that leads them to look back so darkly at the country. But Iraq’s extremes translate into better writing in Weston’s case, the raw chaos of the landscape and the imperial project’s utter bleakness somehow exposing the futility and corruption of all such occupations. Weston’s prose is more precise, more blunt, and one senses he’s mostly angry with himself.

An aerial gunner, Khost province, Afghanistan, 2010. US Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero, Khost Prt Public Affairs/Wikicommons
An aerial gunner, Khost province, Afghanistan, 2010. US Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero, Khost Prt Public Affairs/Wikicommons

When Weston gets to Afghanistan, by contrast, he finds it enchanting. And because it is enchanting—the people warm, the terrain gorgeous—Weston believes in America again. There, Americans can see themselves; Afghanistan is the opportunity for redemption.

And as a result, it seems, his writing loses its clarity. Before he arrives, he writes, “I was going from one war right into the other because I wanted to justify my country’s actions, to remind Afghans and myself what America represented. I wanted to show what we could accomplish. I was not just seeking collaboration or commiseration in my new State Department assignment. I was looking for more. I wanted to regain a sense of place and purpose and to connect with the Afghan people.” And then: “Surely, US actions in Iraq had not damaged irreparably our American core—America’s spirit—and traditions.” We know, and Weston knows, the violence and disorder he will eventually find in Afghanistan, so undoubtedly he included this damning passage for dramatic effect. He deserves some credit for so nakedly evoking the standard American mind-set about the country’s relationship to the world—that our imperial ventures might also be a source of individual self-renewal. But one can’t help but be surprised—and scared—by the resilience of an American’s belief that he’s justified in shaping another country with his own hands, as if the failures in Iraq were somehow the fault of Iraqis. As the years pass in Khost, Weston befriends Afghans, listens to the rage of hostile students at a local university, faces off against bitterly angry former detainees at Guantánamo. His record of these meetings is valuable and instructive. But whatever “progress” he and his tireless Afghan partners make is destroyed by night raids by the special-ops teams who exist only to kill. Innocent Afghans die on Weston’s watch, and so do some ninety Marines. Weston leaves Afghanistan feeling wrecked, perhaps chastened at last by the knowledge that there is no self-renewal in illegal wars, and questioning where that kind of selfish thinking (wrapped in feel-good charity) came from in the first place.

But then the book takes a dizzying turn. “Four years in a wrong war, three years in a right war, and now home,” he suddenly writes. Really? There was still a “right” war? The ample evidence he provided for four hundred pages seemed as if it would eradicate all such sentiments. What follows, however, is a profile of an American businessman who was inspired by the story of a US soldier stationed in Afghanistan getting baseball equipment sent over “so that the entire village could learn how to play America’s favorite sport.” The businessman started an organization that Weston believes is allowing people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to experience “American greatness through American goodness.” I just kept writing WHY WHY WHY in the margins as I read this bizarre lurch into flatly irrelevant American cheerleading.

Why is the epilogue to each of our imperial adventures always this sort of sepia-toned nostalgia? Can’t we Americans just feel bad for a while longer? In a similar non sequitur flourish near the book’s end, Weston offers a didactic flashback to the US’s moon landing, an example of America’s “soft power” that, he notes, had a powerful effect on his friend Jamshid in Afghanistan; he wraps up this scene with the empty phrase “An enduring American story.” I wonder what effect Weston’s book would have had if he instead just let his readers drown in the US’s bloody, morally reprehensible failure. It couldn’t have hurt.

The title of The Mirror Test refers to a stage in a disfigured soldier’s recovery. The doctors peel off the bandages and ask the soldier to look at his damaged self in the mirror. “Will the patient’s gaze into the mirror signal [a moment] of recognition—horror, sadness, pity, surprise, resolve—or will the patient instead turn away? Will he or she begin to accept the same, but different, person now inhabiting the glass?” Weston asks.

There is no question, despite Weston’s optimistic detours, of just who caused the suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, in one of his last chapters, he repeats the litany of horrors now afflicting those two countries, as well as the many crimes woven into the American past since the beginning of the republic. The only question now is whether the patient will be able, at long last, to grasp how the distorted history of oblivious, self-hymning American greatness has produced the mangled face in the mirror. That’s the only point at which something like real recovery can begin.

Suzy Hansen, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, is working on a book about being an American abroad in the age of American decline. She lives in Istanbul.