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American Horse Soldiers In Afghanistan -- Book Review
Book Review of Doug Stanton’s "Horse Soldiers"
It’s stunning to think that we "invaded" Afghanistan only about one month after 9/11. Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers, for the most part, effectively depicts a new kind of warfare, redefining the term "invasion." From a base in Uzbekistan, we learn about our forces coordinating with warlords, calling in bomb strikes, and riding into battle horseback on makeshift wood and cloth saddles with ill-fitting stirrups and no saddle horn. Likely many of us remember the images of those soldiers on TV, but their story has never been told because they were CIA and Special Forces on a secret mission. One can only admire and thank these men. They are American heroes. I believe that our initial invasion of Afghanistan was a just war, and I also think it essential that we salute the service of these men. While Stanton avoids political statements, one picture caption is revealing. "(Staff Sergeant Brett) Walden, as did all the Special Forces, took great care to recognize the custom and culture of local Afghan citizens. He would survive the conflict in Afghanistan and was later tragically killed in Iraq." My criticisms of Stanton’s book have nothing to do these men, their bravery, and our mission in Afghanistan.
Other reviews of this book are likely favorable, and mostly they are deserved, but I believe it’s time that we as "reviewers" start doing a better job. The critic’s job is to point out both the good and the bad, and in this case there is some perfectly awful writing. Mostly, when this occurs, I blame the publishers first who are invariably out to make a quick buck, then I blame the editors who were likely pressured by the publishers. Then the author, but I like to think that if Doug Stanton were to read his book now, he might want to revise. Books like Horse Soldiers deserve better.
For long stretches the story is gripping, and I admire Stanton’s extensive research. However, the writing is much too often interrupted by irrelevant scenes and cheap tricks that are acceptable when they work, and abysmal when they don’t. For example, the prologue is not a prologue at all, it is an event told out of sequence, out of context, with no point of reference. It was intended to capture our interest right from the start with action scenes, compelling us buy the book, but it fails partly because of the clumsy writing, making dramatic real-life events sound like a cheap action thriller, as evidenced by the first two sentences. "Trouble came in the night... Trouble rolled past the refuge camp... the lone cry of a baby driving high into the sky, like a nail." Who compares a baby crying to a nail, especially one that "drives high into the sky"? Then we have "Sunrise was no better; at sunrise, trouble was still there, bristling with AKs and RPGs, engines idling, waiting to roll into the city. Waiting." I can admire understating potential catastrophe as "trouble," but continual repetition of the word degrades the narrative (and just in case you missed it, trouble was waiting.) This is pretentious bad writing, which is... troubling.
Part one opens with "Little Bird woke." A paragraph or so down we learn that "Little Bird" is Mohammed Atta, then a couple pages of information about 9/11 that anybody with a pulse in the past ten years has practically memorized. Perhaps this is an attempt to "remind" us, or teach young people about those events. If so, this should all be a footnote, not integrated into the story. Then we have about 75 pages of plodding, disjointed background information, attempts to personalize these men by providing pages of mind-numbing ordinariness, the Special Forces guys preparing for their mission, poorly dramatized by italics, lack of focus, cliches, and so on.
Somewhere in here the narrative seems to gain focus and really take off but, inexplicably, it is interrupted by jazzed up dramatization of John Walker Lindh’s "normal" upbringing. This is not a story about John Walker Lindh and attempts to weave his story into the Horse Soldiers creates another series of sections for skimming, forcing the reader to search for reentry into the real narrative.
On page 128, a map of the campaign appears. Why there, and why not at the beginning or end? Flipping back to the map was irritating because, unless you write the page number down, you won’t find it. It appears as if randomly placed. Horse Soldiers needs a good copy edit. Some may think I’m being picky. Okay, fair point, after all how much of an annoyance was skimming irrelevant info and flipping around looking for a map? And I suppose we have become so used to poor quality that we are willing to overlook it. And in the grand scheme of things, my minor annoyances don’t really amount to much. Do they?
Even with my criticisms, the core story about bravery on horseback in Afghanistan make this worth the aggravation of having to skim irrelevant sections and poorly written passages. As with all my writing, you may easily feed it to the fish.