The decade-long war in Afghanistan is America’s longest war, Britain’s most expensive war since World War II, and NATO’s first major war outside Europe.
In terms of casualties, the U.S. and U.K. apart, the Afghan theater has seen Canada’s highest combat casualties since the Korean War; Australia’s highest combat casualties since Vietnam; France’s highest combat casualties since Algeria; the highest combat casualties for Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden since World War II; the highest combat casualties for the Netherlands since the Dutch withdrew from Indonesia in 1949; the highest combat fatalities for Spain since the Ifni War in Morocco in 1958; and the highest combat casualties for Poland in a foreign war since World War II. As for Afghan civilian and military casualties, we have no definite numbers.
When I set out to write The Watch, I wanted to give voice to the statistics, especially those counted as collateral damage in our foreign wars of choice. I decided to tell the story of one brave and representative young Afghan woman who refuses to yield her right to bury the body of her brother killed during a battle with an American combat company.
In modeling my Pashtun protagonist explicitly on Sophocles’ Antigone, I introduced a figure from Greek tragic drama – perhaps its purest figure – in order to enable you to feel her sorrow, sorrow of a magnitude to which we’ve become immunized, despite our best intentions, in an age of the ceaseless warfare.
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What lends Greek tragedy its intensity is the importance it attaches to human dignity and honor. Modern technology has unrecognizably altered warfare from Sophocles’ time: our combat casualties are smuggled in during the dead of night, our enemy charred to cinders by unmanned drones. The Watch is both a restoration of what we have lost and a tribute to one woman’s moral courage. I want you to think about her wild and bracing constancy of spirit and her incomparable will as a reminder of the caliber of people we collectively label our enemies.
And here is where my story of writing the book takes a surprising turn.
Once I had a draft manuscript, I sought out U.S. service members who’d served in Afghanistan to check my facts. To my astonishment, they greeted my endeavor with profound support and thanked me for remembering their service in a distant, hostile land. At first, it confounded me but then, consider only this: To date, St. Louis is the only U.S. city to have honored Afghan and Iraq War veterans with a homecoming parade.
As a result, what has come out of writing this book, for me, has been an unprecedented series of deep and moving friendships with my readers in the U.S. military, and a new desire to tell their side of the story as well as faithfully as a work of fiction can communicate spirit and soul.
I hope with all my heart that you will join me in spreading the word.