by Erik Noonan
Published by The Head & The Hand Press, 2014 | 340 pages
Baudrillard infamously argued that the Gulf War did not take place. Based on the literature that’s been generated about the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he may have a point, at least in so far as the average non-participant is concerned. There are the dry, often maddeningly self-righteous memoirs by former political officials who are impossibly disconnected from war’s effect on the human condition (read: Secretary Gates’ newly released memoir). The ideological rants of former journalists or “commentators” capable only of myopic calculations (read: Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos). And finally, there are the commercially packaged accounts of Special Operations actions that, although irreproachably honest, are undeniably one-dimensional (read: Lone Survivor). Adrian Bonenberger’s epistolary memoir Afghan Post is a refreshing move towards a more complex, provocative, and engaging accounting of the immense burden of war as experienced by all who encounter it.
After studying English at Yale, Bonenberger was confronted with the choice between following his idealistic desire to join the Army to participate in the military conflict of his time, or pursuing the practical notion of ‘success’ that dictates he should leverage his Ivy League education to further himself professionally. Choosing to serve, he goes to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training and Officer Candidate School, an experience that, confronting him with the favoritism and politics of the military hierarchy and the brutish culture of the armed forces, upends his naïve notions of service. With time, however, Adrian comes to admire the ‘endstate’ driven Army culture that values action, results, and experience over rhetoric and paper qualifications. The tension between Adrian’s love for his fellow Soldiers and the service aspect of the Army, and his ideological opposition to the Iraq war and the politics and hierarchy of the Army’s higher echelons dominates much of his correspondence and remains unresolved at the book’s conclusion.
One of the first epistemological realignments Adrian experiences in the Army concerns the function and nature of language. In the academic community, as Adrian himself notes, language is understood to be the foundation of knowledge, and subsequently discourse is privileged. Part of Baudrillard’s premise that the Gulf War did not take place is a theory about the capacity of language to represent the true nature of “war.” This Derridian form of deconstruction is celebrated by humanist intellectuals, not necessarily because they agree with it unambiguously, but because the dialogue and questioning that accompany it do have intrinsic value. The Army’s conception of language, on the other hand, is radically different, derived from a very distinct physical reality. Once the Soldier sees and experiences the reality of conflict on the ground (this applies to any extrema of experience), her moral calculus is necessarily, irrevocably altered. Language, dialogue, and, at times, even morals are subordinated to actions and results that ensure safety and achieve “measurable progress.”
The Army is an institutional manifestation of this endstate epistemology. It has carefully and persistently deployed language so as to provide discrete, nonnegotiable meaning – to eliminate dialogue. The term effects oriented is a perfect metonym for the Army epistemology. It refers to the institutionalized and enforced prioritization of a physical endstate in all decision criteria. The value of any act, including the speech act, is determined by the physical consequences of that act. Upon first encountering this contrary mentality, Adrian initially marvels. He conforms to the new culture, the new ontology, but without complete understanding. Later, when he meets his first platoon, many of whom are already war veterans, and then deploys for the first time to Afghanistan, he sees the conditions that generate, arguably necessitate, such an epistemology. In the face of war’s reality, discourse appears at best fatuous and counterproductive, at worst life-threatening. And yet, Adrian is ever aware that just as the academic community’s overvaluing of language makes it vulnerable to insularity and esotericism, so too does the Army’s devaluation of dialogue make it vulnerable to ignorance and barbarism.
Adrian states in his preface that he chose the epistolary form for Afghan Post because memoirs should be written “for oneself and one’s family,” and he felt correspondence gave him access to the narrative space he needed to be truly honest. It is, indeed, uncanny how effective the medium is to convey the extremities of the emotional spectrum. My stomach tightened as I relived my own correspondence from Iraq and Afghanistan. Letters of hope and longing to my now wife, strength and assurance to my family, the venting of anger and cynicism to my friends. As the famous anthropologist and ethnographer Clifford Geertz posits (via Max Weber), we are all just animals suspended in self-spun “webs of significance.” Correspondence and the epistolary form give access to one of the most primordial means of spinning this web.
Afghan Post skirts the line between fiction and non-fiction in a similar way to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The correspondence, characters, and anecdotes are obviously ‘real,’ but the story was molded by its author to the purpose of communicating. Characters, not facts, are prioritized. The rants and musings on politics, human nature and the military contained within are not static ideas promoting a coherent ideology. On the contrary, the text is dominated by unresolved tension and the author’s perpetual transience. Afghan Post articulates the effect of this impermanence and moral disequilibrium on a sensitive and intelligent young mind, without caveats or justifications.
The Head and the Hand Press made the practical decision to market the text as something less than it is. The cover is littered with quips from exclusively military authors giving it the stylization of the popular war memoir. Each chapter begins with a glossary of military terms that frame the story in Army lingo, which, though meant to help the reader with the technical jargon, instead only interrupt the narrative, contributing to the impression that the text is a shallow, monophonic transmission, instead of the polyphonic dialogue that it truly is.
In Afghan Post’s final pages, Bodenberger recalls sitting in a bar with his girlfriend’s friends. Everyone is mesmerized as he confidently and nonchalantly recounts his war stories. Crucially, however, in Bodenberger’s telling, this is no moment of triumph, but one of extreme disillusionment. He resents himself for the pride he takes in sharing his story, knowing that he is impressing people at the expense of all that he knows to have been lost, and that his confidence and smile mask his inner turmoil. Adrian’s story explores the burdens of war and the profound necessity of human connection, even when we inexplicably push people away. That it addresses these issues in all their true complexity makes it an essential contribution to literature.
Adam Karr graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2005 with a B.S. in International History with a focus in Latin America, and a Masters in English from the University of Virginia with a focus in Medieval Studies and Translation in 2014. Adam also served a 14 month tour in Baghdad, Iraq and a 13 month tour in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan. He will begin instructing English at West Point in August, 2014.