After eighteen years of combat in Afghanistan the war grinds on. The Taliban has reemerged, and it appears that a negotiated solution with some sort of governmental power sharing is far in the future, if ever. The war has produced a number of important novels like Elliot Ackerman’s GREEN ON BLUE, John Renehan’s THE VALLEY, and Nadeem Aslam’s THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN. The latest entry into this genre recently translated from Danish is Carsten Jensen’s THE FIRST STONE. The book is exceptional, and it presents the Danish perspective on the war when most books on Afghanistan tend to focus on American soldiers. Jensen is able to show that there is a universality when to comes to combat in Afghanistan dealing with numerous warlords and the Taliban that knows no delineation between the nationalities of NATO members who conduct the fighting.
At the outset Jensen, who has visited Afghanistan since the 1980s and the Soviet occupation numerous times, focuses on the camaraderie that exists among members of Third Platoon. Each character is introduced and the interplay between them reflects how they believe in and support each other. There are a number of important individuals that emerge; Andreas, a.k.a. “side kick” a filmographer who carries his camera everywhere creating a video record of the war. Rasmus Schroder, the platoon leader, a former video gamer with a strange approach to warfare and life in general will become a major actor in Jensen’s plot. Lukas Moller, the chaplain leads his men through the daily crisis of war shifting his beliefs from situation to situation. Hannah, the only woman in the platoon appears to be ensconced in an emotional straight jacket. Colonel Ove Steffenson, the Platoon Commander will make some poor decisions that affect everyone, and Naib Atmar, an Afghan warlord who for a time worked well with Steffenson. Another major character is Sara, a former medical student from Kabul whose family is wiped out by the Taliban. She is forced to marry a warlord and gives birth to a son which along with the war traumatized her and will lead her to a mystical self that impact all around her. Lastly, Khaiber, a Danish-Afghani who is a member of the Danish Secret Service who is tasked to investigate the platoon when everything seems to go wrong. His task becomes increasingly complex when his father, a mujahedeen enters the picture.
Jensen leads the reader on a fascinating journey of men in combat. First, he explores the special relationship among the soldiers. Second, he places the platoon in a combat situation when two members are killed and how the platoon deals with their loss. Third, the linkage between the war they engage in each day, and the developing violence at home. It appears they are now fighting terrorists in theater as well as in Denmark. Lastly, the ambush that kills thirteen members and what it does to the remainder of the unit. It seems that a traitor may have been involved and what should be done about it dominates a large part of the story. Steffensen as commander faces numerous crises; the deaths of the local mayor, his interpreter, civilians, and his own men creates questions of leadership and how to rectify a bad situation.
Jensen seems to cover every angle of the war. The relationship between violence at home and in Afghanistan dominates. He explores why someone might become a traitor and what that individual hopes to gain from it. Soldiers receive a great deal of training, but they cannot be trained to deal with every situation – how do platoon members react and cope? How does one quantify leadership, effectiveness and failure? What is the difference between a Taliban member setting off an IED with a cell phone and a drone dropping bombs seemingly out of nowhere? The author develops the role of DarkSky, a Blackwater type company led by Mr. Timothy who has contracts with the US military. The role of outsourcing the war is an important aspect of the novel. Further, Jensen zeroes in on certain characters and pays particular attention to Hannah whose love obsession will be replaced by hatred and the need for vengeance and what it does to her and her compatriots. Hannah is transformed from being emotionally involved with someone and being a subservient soldier to a woman with “blood lust,” which is very disconcerting as these feelings spread throughout the platoon.
The author pinpoints the evolution of the Danish platoon from a more “humane” approach to war to a more negative attitude towards the Afghans, particularly when they return home from Christmas leave after confronting accidents and deaths at home. This can be seen in the tone of Chaplain Moller’s sermons as he has moved on from books and science fiction to domestic killing and the need to protect Denmark from terrorists. The result is attendance at sermons skyrockets as he tries to equate the 1525 German Peasants Revolt/Thirty Years War to 9/11 and the period that followed. The novels strength is that it zeroes in on the crisis of conscience that soldiers experience in Afghanistan and how it affects them emotionally on a daily basis. Each character has to learn to mourn, accept the unacceptable, and learn to move on and carry out their duties, which at times makes them behave rather erratically.
The crisis of confidence is evident early on when Girishk Mayor Ali Shar, a purist who believes in the common people and democracy refuses to make deals with the Danes. Steffensen will come to agreements with warlords, but he cannot develop a relationship with the Mayor who will be assassinated, probably by the local police commissioner. The corruption of Afghanistan abounds, the results of an American bomb going astray killing numerous Afghan civilians whose relatives are paid for their lives, the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of Simon, the medical assistant, and the Taliban tribunal whose sentences seem barbaric to foreigners, but justice to Afghanis brings the novel a high degree of tension throughout. These situations are all present for the reader to digest raising the question; why are we still there?
According to Tobias Grey in his September 1, 2019 New York Times book review;
Jensen likes to give his fiction an epic sweep. This worked well in his 2006 novel, WHY WE DROWNED which has, according to his publisher, sold more than a half million copies worldwide in 20 languages. But unlike that novel, which kept skillful control of its seafaring narrative, “The First Stone” is sabotaged by too many baggy subplots. It’s also stomach-churningly violent. The biblical heft of Jensen’s title suggests what he’s searching for, but far too often the narrative devolves into a gruesome parade of suffering.
The savagery of ordinary Afghans toward their enemies appears to know no bounds. Mutilated victims are scattered everywhere: “The villagers have flayed the skin loose from the middle of the forehead and rolled it down to the chin; it resembles a rubber mask pulled halfway down by an exhausted carnival worker.” Truth or fiction? Whatever the answer, Jensen’s novel coldly depicts a region that remains stubbornly cast in Rudyard Kipling’s mold.