In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel. If you have not finished reading The Watch, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.
Just as The Things They Carried transformed our understanding of America’s war in Vietnam, The Watch is a gripping, eye-opening novel of Operation Enduring Freedom – the war against Afghanistan’s Taliban that has lasted for more than a decade and claimed the lives of over 2,000 U.S. troops.
Unfolding in a series of captivating scenes, The Watch opens with the voice of an unlikely narrator – a lone Afghan woman who arrives at an isolated army base in Kandahar and demands the return of her brother’s body. Is she truly a grieving family member, or is she a suicide bomber? As individual soldiers and their translator tell the rest of the story, the answer becomes a haunting revelation that gives voice to all sides in this heart-breaking, history-steeped conflict.
Taking us deep inside the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the camp, where military personnel struggle with the constant threat of terror and undefined battle lines, The Watch delivers a powerful portrait of modern warfare. Bringing readers much-needed clarity about a conflict marked by complex tribal divisions and an elusive mission, The Watch fosters important dialogues, putting a human face on the many perspectives that have taken Afghanistan – and U.S. troops – to this pivotal moment in history. We hope this guide will enrich your reading group’s discussion.
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1. In ancient Greek lore, Antigone (pronounced anne-TIH-guh-nee) is a defiant young woman willing to risk her life so that her brother’s body can receive proper burial rites. Their uncle, King Creon (KREE-on), has become blinded by power, decreeing that no one will honor the remains of this nephew, whom Creon considers to be a traitor. Anyone defying the king’s order is to be executed.
As Nizam confronts the army, what timeless questions of religious faith versus secular power is she raising? What gives women like Antigone and Nizam, living in male-dominated cultures, the strength to wage wars of conscience?
2. What were your initial theories about Nizam? How did your opinion of her, and of the U.S. soldiers, shift throughout the novel?
3. As with Antigone’s brother, the guilt or innocence of Nizam’s brother makes for a provocative debate. The motivations of Nizam’s brother are probed in-depth in “Captain,” at 0545, a scene in which Tanner asks, “Will someone please tell me who the good guys are?” What’s the best answer to his question?
4. In “Lieutenant” and “Lieutenant’s Journal,” we see Nick Frobenius struggle with his memories of home, particularly his relationship with his former wife, Emily. What is at the heart of his struggle? How does his story capture the chasm between a tour of duty and the requirements of civilian life?
5. What healing power does Doc Taylor have beyond medical treatments? What other wounds – psychological, social – does he attempt to treat?
6. Ismene (is-MAY-nay) is Antigone’s less-daring sister in the play by Sophocles, who fears the wrath of their uncle but also fears the gods. How does this parallel Masood’s role? How did you react to his naïve assumptions that the U.S. soldiers would see themselves as his rescuers, and that Simonis might become his best friend? What aspects of his situation were especially hard for him to interpret?
7. As Second Lieutenant Tom Ellison recalls his father, what dialogues about America’s involvement in Afghanistan overall is he bringing to light? Did you side with Tom or with his father in those discussions?
8. How did First Sergeant Jimmy Whalen’s aunt help to strengthen his psyche? On page 196, what do we discover about his leadership style as he listens to the de- scription of Pratt’s disturbing dream (which echoes a premonition in the Antigone saga)?
9. As you witnessed the chain of command within each chapter, what did you notice about the characters’ use of authority? What distinctions did you observe between officers and enlisted men?
10. Ultimately, what leads to the transformation of Captain Evan Connolly (whom Masood calls “Coman- dan Saab”)? How would you respond to the question Masood asks the captain in the closing lines of the book? What broader answers about war can be delivered in response to the “Why?” of Masood?
11. Reread passages from the first chapter. What does this exercise reveal about perception and interpretation, from the word “wire” to the soldiers’ attempts to protect Nizam?
12. Before reading The Watch, how deep was your understanding of Afghanistan’s history? What can a novel reveal about history that a memoir or history book cannot?
13. The coda is spoken by Creon in Sophocles’s play Antigone. In that scene, Creon is justifying his actions to his son, who is in love with Antigone. What are your reactions to Creon’s defense? How does it resonate in global politics today?
14. Which aspects of The Watch echoed themes of mystery and identity in previous Roy-Bhattacharya books you have read?