FAREWELL TO KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army.  It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life.  Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees.  By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there.  What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late.  In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia.  She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014.  What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring.  Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.

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One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.  Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven.  Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information.  In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001.  The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.”  Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.

Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul.  Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded.  It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.

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(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)

Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story.  The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across.  Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible.  More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban.  Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency.  James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run.  His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.”  CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11.  Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora.  He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape.  Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq.  A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.

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(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban.  But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.  Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted.  Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying?  Their lips are moving.”

Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994.  In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974.  Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance.  The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989.  The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see.  Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul.  Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.

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(Kabul, Afghanistan)

In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry.  She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment.  Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented.  Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.”  Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf.  Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests.  The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border.  This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan.  By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.

Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe.  Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families.  Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.

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(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)

One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband.  Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes.  Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives.  On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.

Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents.  It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.”  Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc.  Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month.  The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions.  For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India.  The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf.  Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death.  The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.

According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way.  London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban.  A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland.  For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily.  When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.

However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations.  Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers.  A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI.  With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating.  For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.

By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration.  What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting.  He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated.  Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies.  But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing.  In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.”  Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners.  Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower.  Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years.  After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”

There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region.  By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11.  For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape.  Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit.  There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

“After the Islamic State” by Robin Wright (NEW YORKER, December 12, 2016)

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Middle East historian and correspondent Robin Wright has just written a perceptive article for the December 12, 2016 edition of the New Yorker that is worth exploring.  At a time when the Islamic State (or Daesh as it is known in the Gulf States) is now experiencing a number of major defeats since it created its “caliphate,” Wright’s article, “After the Islamic State” is very timely.  Her analysis concentrates on what should our policy be once Daesh is defeated.  As its territory recedes the west faces the prospect of more Paris and Brussel types of attacks as the “caliphate” changes the battlefield as American drones continue to target their leadership and fighters.  Wright recently traveled throughout the region and found ongoing wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq.  Further, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have become sanctuaries for hundreds of thousands of refugees.  On top of this the oil rich Gulf States, she believes are very fragile.  The instability across the region has led to economic distress and high unemployment and the long term viability of certain Arab states is called into question.  The fear is that the destabilization that has manifested itself in Syria, Iraq, and Libya could spread across the region and engulf countries like Algeria, Morocco, or other Arab states.

In addition, Wright points out that the reemergence of al-Qaeda, i.e., the al-Nusra front in Syria is very problematical for the west and the Arab states.  Further complicating matters is the increased role of the United States with roughly 5,000 troops/advisors, drone attacks, and expenditures of $12.6 million per day on the eve of a new presidential administration that has done very little to educate the public as to what its policy might be in the future.  Iraq itself, despite its Mosul offensive against Daesh suffers from political paralysis and corruption.  Above all the dream of a caliphate is still out there and once Daesh is driven out of Raqqa, its supposed capitol, some other jihadi group will try and rekindle the concept.  Wright brings up a number of important issues and it would be well worth the time for the Trump administration and its European “allies” to think long and hard as to how to confront the future.

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YOUNGBLOOD by Matt Gallagher

(Author, Matt Gallagher)

Like all wars before it, the war in Iraq has spawned its own literature.  In Vietnam the war produced the likes of Philip Caputo and Tim O’Brien. Today as our current conflict has morphed into the war against ISIS, writers like Matt Gallagher have come on the scene with novels like YOUNGBLOOD, which takes the reader inside a platoon in the town of Ashuriyah, outside of Baghdad, when the optimism spawned by the “surge” gave way to skepticism about the war, and as we know the rise of ISIS and the American withdrawal in 2011.  When stationed in Iraq, Gallagher began writing in his own blog from inside the war that attracted a large following.  Military authorities eventually shut down Gallagher’s blog, but his new novel has allowed him to express many of the feelings and emotions of his characters, many of which, I am certain, are composites of the men he served with.

The narrator of YOUNGBLOOD is Lieutenant Jack Porter, and through his voice Gallagher expresses the view that “so little of Iraq had anything to do with guns, bombs, or jihads.”  The novel portrays a war that encompasses the locals and their lives, as they try and cope with a form of hell that has destroyed their way of life.  It comes across as a confusing and angry conflict which continues to this day with little understanding on the part of the people who are responsible for the mess that Iraq has become, as many of them are now calling for the United States to dispatch even more troops to the region.  The American mission after years in Iraq had evolved into, “clear, hold, and build, a motto that was extremely difficult to implement successfully.

(Author, Matt Gallagher inside a Stryker vehicle in Iraq)

Porter faces a number of obstacles as a platoon commander.  First, he had to deal with bribery and the overall corruption that existed.  American military payments were made to numerous groups including sheiks, both Sunni and Sh’ia, and militia leaders in order to combat al-Qaeda, and other groups to obtain their loyalty.  Further payments went to Iraqi families that were victims of collateral damage, even more money flowed to projects to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, but it seemed that little was being built.  Porter’s second problem was Sergeant Daniel Chambers, a military lifer who had already served tours earlier in the war.  Chambers had been foisted on Porter by his superiors and his demeanor and discipline became a threat to Porter’s command which undermined his relationship with his men.

Once Gallagher introduces his main characters we learn that Chambers may have been involved in the killing of two unarmed Iraqi citizens who were mistaken for jihadis the military was looking for.  Porter wants to prove that Chambers had violated the rules of engagement and begins to investigate the shooting in the hopes of getting rid of the ornery sergeant.  A second major plot line is Porter’s relationship with Rana, a local sheik’s daughter.  Rana, who was involved with an American soldier who converted to Islam, and wants to marry her, is killed.  It is left for Porter to pick up the pieces.  As the novel evolves, Gallagher integrates past events as a means of trying to understand the present.  His relationship with his brother Will, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq, and his girlfriend Marissa, who seemed to have drawn away from him, play on Porter’s mind throughout.

The reader acquires a strong sense of what it is like to be a soldier in Iraq.  The fear of death, having the Stryker vehicle you are riding on set off an IED.  The friendships that result in sick jokes, games and other amusements that fill the void of limited down time.  The exhaustion of carrying 60 pounds of body armor and weapons during patrols or having to maintain a sharp focus for long periods as they try and survive.  Gallagher writes with verve and humor as he tries to convey Porter’s experiences, who is fully aware that no one will understand him, not his brother Will or his girlfriend Marissa back in the United States.  Porter must live with his memories as he faces the reality of war each day, a war where he exhibits empathy for the Iraqi people he comes in contact with, and the men he commands.  The end result is that Gallagher portrays the horror and inequities of war, and how it has eroded the fabric and foundation of Iraqi society.  After one puts the book down one wonders what will be the final chapter for Iraq as a nation, as it continues to struggle with sectarianism, a corrupt political system, the constant threat of violence, and the legacy of the American invasion.

(Author, Matt Gallagher serving in Iraq)

GOD IS NOT DEAD by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Russell Edmonds

(Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds)

In 2008, Joseph E. Stiglitz’s THE THREE TRILLION DOLLAR WAR laid out the financial cost of our war in Iraq.  In the book the author speculated that the cost for our ill-advised invasion would probably be significantly more due to the long term care needs of our veterans who suffered numerous physical and psychological injuries.  One area that was not really spelled out was in the realm of one’s own morality and how it might have affected our soldiers years after they fought and returned home.  In Lieutenant Colonel Bill Russell Edmonds new book, GOD IS NOT DEAD the public is exposed to a new type of wound that is finally being recognized almost thirteen years after our incursion into Iraq – the “soul wound,” or “moral injuries.”  Because of Edmonds’ superb new memoir we as a nation must confront the debilitating effects of such injuries.  For people like Edmonds the answer to the question, “What the hell happened to me?” is not only important for his own sanity, but for the thousands of others who experience similar feelings, but are also at a loss to explain why.  This paradigm is the core of Edmonds’ memoir and its conclusions, and lack of conclusions provide superb insights in dealing with the collapse of ones’ belief system and moral compass caused by his wartime service as a special operations officer dispatched to assist in implementing America’s counter insurgency strategy by overseeing the interrogation of suspected Iraqi terrorists.  It was that experience that Edmonds came to believe could utterly defeat ones’ necessary moral beliefs when faced with the decisions and experiences that he was forced to make.

Edmonds’ left for Iraq in 2005 and spent an entire year working with his Iraqi counterpart, Saedi, in trying to gain information from suspected terrorists.  Edmonds’ task was to apply American rules and regulations to those arrested, and the interrogation process that in many cases brought conflict with Iraqi allies.  For them the confession was the key to their legal system, and it did not matter how it was obtained.  In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, the US military would not approve the type of torture techniques that the Iraqis believed would be successful.  It took until 2011 while stationed in Germany for Edmonds to collapse emotionally.  According to Dr. Bill Nash, the former Director of Combat and Operational Stress Control programs for the US Marine Corps it took Edmonds six years to realize how far he had fallen emotionally because of the nature of moral injuries as compared to physical ones.  “Moral injuries are wounds to beliefs and secondarily, to the identity of the person holding those beliefs, inflicted by events that violently contradict them.  Contradictions between expectations and reality are often not immediately apparent to the person whose brain is laboring to reconcile them…as the contradictions sink in-as they are being processed in sleep and wakefulness-cumulative stress not only continues, but it actually grows over time, as the moral war is slowly digested.”  Therefore, Edmonds has been at war continuously since 2005. (16-17)

(The author on patrol in Mosul, Iraq in 2005)

In the book Edmonds uses alternate chapters taking the reader back and forth from his year of combat in Iraq describing his experiences in 2005, with chapters that take place when he is stationed in Germany in 2011, when his emotional crisis becomes apparent, and how he copes with his feelings and emotions especially as he thinks back to the war, and how it is now affecting his wife and two daughters. Edmonds presents the reader two timelines, the first the 365 days of his deployment to Iraq, and the 30 days in which he grows aware of his personal crisis in Germany.  In conveying his story he intertwines the course of the war in 2005, a year that the United States finally acknowledged that there was an insurgency and created the Iraqi Assistance Group (IAG) that Edmonds volunteered for.  He would spend one year in Mosul, Iraq, “a potpourri of religions, ethnicities, and tribes seeking revenge for some long-past but not forgotten wrong…a city just waiting to boil over.” (52)  An environment whereby it would be very difficult to maintain one’s moral equilibrium.

Edmonds reviews the skills and techniques that are needed to be a successful interrogator.  As he tries to apply American values to an Iraqi detention prison and rein in his Iraqi counterparts from employing the types of strategies used during Saddam’s reign, he becomes frustrated and angry and questions his role and what he can accomplish during his tour of duty.  Edmonds is right on when it comes to describing the war.  The conclusion he reaches that Iraqis have internalized “learned helplessness” is accurate and he correctly points out that it will take a generation for the Iraqi people to do for themselves and create a secure environment.  Eventually Edmonds begins to wonder why he started to care more about why the terrorists fought, and less about how to obtain their confessions.  As he works with Saedi in arresting and interrogating prisoners Edmonds comes to believe that maybe his Iraqi counterpart is correct in his assumptions because if the confessions where not obtained prisoners would be released, and many would eventually return after committing other atrocities against American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, a cycle that would be repeated over and over.  His internal conflict rests with his role of preventing the use of techniques that will make the streets safer.  Edmonds dilemma is clear, his assignment is to provide advice on the rule of law in a lawless society and instill morality in a place devoid of human decency.  He has control over people’s lives, but he no longer feels comfortable with that power.

Edmonds provides insights into his emotional state by discussing his relationship with his then girlfriend, Amy who he believes has no concept of the reality he must deal with, and soon realizes that the woman he loves may not be the person he thought she was.  This is compared to his wife, Cheryl who he loves dearly, and is trying to understand what he is going through and help him.  It is heart wrenching to read what Edmonds is experiencing in 2011 as he tries to deal with his past inner conflicts.  The flashbacks to the torture techniques, his struggle to maintain his belief in god, his feelings about Cheryl and his daughters all tap strong emotions in the reader.  Edmonds adores his family and fears he is driving them away because of his thoughts and erratic behavior.  He is at a loss as to how to cope with his own fragile mindset, and wonders how he will survive.

A turning point in the narrative occurs when Edmonds forms a relationship with an insurgent.  After numerous discussions with the individual, Edmonds internalizes what the Iraqi is experiencing.  As Edmonds writes; ….this insurgent represents a truth I cannot escape.  His words describe a belief I am starting to share: our actions over the decades, over the past years, make this war unwinnable.  Have our past deeds, do our current actions, do these things unintentionally create the anger I now see in this man?  Did we create this insurgent?  I’m conflicted because I am starting to believe this is true, but then I am having a hard time believing that anything is true anymore.” (229-30) As Edmonds begins to recognize why this insurgent and many other Iraqis hate Americans his moral confusion is exacerbated and feeds a state of mind that at times he feels his own persona is slipping away.  How Iraqis see Americans compounds Edmonds’ moral dilemma and he begins to hate seeing “the truth in their words.” (243)  Once Edmonds has crossed over the line and questions his task and sees the world from the Iraqi viewpoint and internalizes it, he becomes almost totally lost emotionally and morally.   Edmonds tries to cope by seeking help from the military.  This exercise is useless, as he does not fit the correct “bubble” in their questionnaire.

The book concludes with a short note from Edmonds’ mother, who correctly points out that the United States government, which made the decision to send our people to fight in Iraq have totally failed them by not providing them with the proper care when they returned.  GOD IS NOT HERE is a troubling journey taken by an exceptional young man who will eventually learn how to cope his conflicted emotions, however those feelings will always be a part of him.