The American soldiers in Combat Outpost Tarsándan deep in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan have just been through a fierce all-night battle. Several of them have been killed. The survivors are exhausted, upset and on edge. It is not the best time for Nizam to come to claim the body of her brother, but that is exactly what she's done.
Nizam, the rest of whose family was killed by the bomb-dropping drone that took both her legs, insists on giving her brother a proper burial, but the soldiers can't trust her. She could be a spy, a lunatic, or a suicide bomber. Besides, the chain of command believes her brother to have been a Taliban leader, and his body is to be sent elsewhere to be made an example of. Nizam insists this isn't true and refuses to leave, forcing this beleaguered group of soldiers to make a tough decision. What are they going to do? See this dilemma solely in terms of black and white-- or in shades of grey? Follow orders, or do what's right?
The story begins from Nizam's point of view, and the author immediately puts the reader on her side-- feeling her pain, her exhaustion and her grief. It is a powerful beginning which then shifts to the men inside the outpost. The clock is turned back a couple of days, showing the time leading up to the deadly attack and its aftermath, which explains the soldiers' emotional mindsets.
Chapter by chapter, we're introduced to them and to the Afghan interpreter assigned to the outpost. As the story advances and the reader compares the American point of view to Nizam's, the misunderstandings that lead to the final outcome are clear.
Some of the men are educated and have made at least a rudimentary effort to learn something about the area, its people, its customs and language. However, most of the soldiers are barely in their twenties and have chosen a life in the military for the paycheck. For these soldiers, it was a choice of the army or a "life in methland." They've made no effort to learn anything about the country they're in or about the people who live there. It's a recipe for disaster.
From the strong, emotional beginning, the book eventually began to lose some momentum for me. The author had a set way of introducing the soldiers, and this formulaic method made many of them appear one-dimensional. The exception to this was the interpreter, a young man who naively believed that all the soldiers were wealthy, well-educated, and in Afghanistan to fight for the ideals of freedom and justice. Since those are two things that he desperately desires for his country, when he's asked to interpret for the soldiers and for Nizam, too often he puts his own feelings above the need for accurate translation.
In the end, I found a great deal to admire in the book, but I believe the author tried too hard to get the point across that America must get out of Afghanistan. Nizam was in the right; the Americans were in the wrong. Seldom in life are things so cut and dried. How much more powerful the message would have been if truths had been dispensed with an even hand.
The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
Hardcover, 304 pages
Source: Amazon Vine