Our favorite pick for February 2020.
The First Stone
Amazon Crossing (2019)
On December 9th, 2019, The Washington Post published a damning expose called The Afghanistan Papers. Their reportage was the result of years of legwork and legal battles, and revealed what most sentient Americans suspected already—the war in Afghanistan is a failure, not only as a war, but as state-building. It demonstrated unequivocally that the American public, not to mention the Afghan people and our allies, have been lied to about the nature of the war as well as its results.
Though the American government instigated and spear-headed the conflict, we drafted plenty of other nations into the fight, which is where our author, Carsten Jensen, steps in. His novel, The First Stone, follows a Dutch platoon stationed on the Afghan front, and extrapolates his story from the inane, endless brutality of a war that cannot be won.
We meet the platoon after they’ve just arrived on the ground. Most of the soldiers are young and inexperienced, attempting to make sense of the alien world into which they have just been dropped. They daydream about how it will feel to kill a person, and itch to engage the enemy as the initial days of training and waiting for battle stretch out slowly over the desert.
Jensen paints a bleak picture of military camps and how they operate as the troops begin to realize that the war is not quite what they were pitched. Their true enemy is hard to spot, often more spectral than specific, and their enigmatic platoon leader, Schroder, paints the fight in mythic terms as he attempts to explain to them amorphous nature of the front. His initial moral lessons lay the foundation for the thematic arcs of the novel, and they lead the reader as well as the men into a trap of Schroder’s making when he defects to lead a group of Afghan insurgents, murdering several of his own platoon before taking flight.
In the wake of his attack the political underpinnings of the war are revealed as his platoon attempts to take revenge. When the troops choose to pursue Schroder into the desert to avenge their fallen comrades, they begin to understand that his twisted takes on battle were actually clues meant to teach them how to play the game of war, lessons on how to survive a land where enemies and friends often trade places. In Afghanistan ambitions and shifting alliances blur out what is right, creating impotence where there should be strength and cruelty where there should be compassion.
The extremities of violence and nihilism in the book might seem overwrought if the reality of The Afghanistan Papers did not echo them so completely. Douglas Lute, a three-star American General who served under both Bush and Obama is quoted as saying: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing. What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
Few of the soldiers or politicians in The First Stone have more clarity than General Lute. As the soldiers are betrayed, embattled, hunted, and picked off one by one a hopeless inertia takes over, and the repercussions of their hapless vengeance spread, taking innocent civilian casualties and entire communities with them. Jensen does his best to shed light on both sides of the conflict, especially as he pushes the soldiers, Schroder, and the reader to face the consequences of thoughtless aggression played out ad nauseum.
Jensen’s Heart of Darkness-esque tale is gripping, hellaciously violent, and vividly graphic, playing out like a video game made reality, and its rampant savagery is often disorienting and off-putting. One of the soldiers spends much of his time documenting their confessions and battles on camera, and this narrative trick allows Jensen to probe the evolving psyches of the soldiers as well as the efficacy and purpose of war reportage when the battlelines are fraught with duplicitous characters, directionless men, and destructive actions. Finding truth and justice in this landscape is nigh impossible, and breaks the best of intentions.
Eventually the soldiers catch up with Schroder and there is a reckoning, but like the War in Afghanistan itself, the ending is less than satisfying and comes at high human cost. The First Stone shows the new generation of warfare in its full futility, and it makes the perfect companion reader for the news today, which exposes every politician for a liar and every war as an annihilation machine.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.