Elizabeth D. Samet is the editor of “Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers.”
J. Kael Weston has written an angry book — perhaps too angry. “The Mirror Test” documents his seven years as a U.S. State Department political adviser to military units operating in some of the deadliest regions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It concludes with his departure from government service and homecoming to the American West, his geographical and moral foil for Washington, which he seems to regard as a Death Star of corruption and betrayal.
The title alludes to the “defining moment” when a disfigured patient, bandages just removed, first looks into the mirror. Will the patient accept or reject the “new self” reflected? When and how, Weston demands, will the United States confront the transformations these wars have etched into its image?
This problematic book’s three parts explore the “the wrong war” in Iraq, the “right” if neglected war in Afghanistan, and the “disconnect” between those Americans who have been touched by war’s violence and the many more who have not. The third section, partly an elegy for several Marines, chronicles Weston’s visits to families and grave sites from Texas to Colorado — to the small towns where he locates the real America.
From his first war-zone posting to Iraq in 2003, Weston, at great personal risk, determined to know the people whose countries he was meant to help rebuild with infrastructure projects, elections and newly constituted governance structures. Despite working through interpreters, Weston formed durable bonds with Shiite truckers in Baghdad and Sunni sheiks in Fallujah. Later, working in Afghanistan’s Khost and Helmand provinces, he bravely cultivated diverse constituencies: madrassa and university students, village elders and ex-Taliban members.
It is difficult to begrudge Weston his anger. He witnessed the bloody consequences of a war strategy greatly shaped by an amalgamation of hubris and inattention that helped set conditions for the displacement or death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans as well as for thousands of U.S. casualties. His book is appropriately unstinting in its depiction of horrors: from the potato factory where a Marine mortuary affairs team processed Iraqi remains after the battle of Fallujah in 2004 to the Helmand field hospital where a wounded Afghan child lay alongside maimed Marines.
Numerous front-line accounts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been written by journalists and military veterans. As a former Foreign Service officer, Weston is perfectly positioned to provide a different perspective on these wars’ sometimes-particular complexities; he did just that in a co-written 2012 Foreign Affairs article on the Afghanistan troop surge.
“The Mirror Test” offers insights into tribal, cultural and religious dynamics; the limits of military power as a political instrument; the use of drones; the heavy reliance on special operators; cooperation and failed cooperation among military services, agencies and allies. Yet the analysis is somewhat impoverished by the fact that the diplomatic cable Weston regards as his most significant is classified, together with other material to which he occasionally alludes, and thus unavailable for this book.
But Weston is hampered chiefly by his indignation, which, as Virginia Woolf once noted, causes a writer to “swerve” from the story when it most demands attention. The prose itself seethes with staccato fragments, disorienting congeries and comparisons gone haywire: “It was like we were all living through Iraq’s version of Picasso’s Guernica, if not also a hellish Hieronymus Bosch-like Last Judgment scene, Fallujah-style.” Sometimes, just as it does in those books Woolf describes, anger “contracts” Weston’s narrative “with a spasm of pain.”
Anger often betrays by making us small when we need most to be grand. Disgusted by the war tourism of congressional delegations to Iraq — shocked that politicians engage in politics, even during war — Weston reports his enjoyment when mortars landed just close enough to one convoy to rattle Sen. Sam Brownback and his staff. For Weston, this happy accident vindicates his claim that Marine jobs are “a lot more stressful than senatorial duty in Washington.”
He likewise expends significant energy in condemnation of “Fobbits,” those “service members who rarely, if ever, left increasingly cushy military bases,” in contrast to the “grunts” who daily patrolled the streets of Fallujah with him. Fobbits, according to Weston, “read reports” (and Tolstoy) in climate-controlled cubicles, drafted novels, applied to MFA programs and had the soft “bellies” that come from eating too much of the ice cream supplied to American bases.
The gulf between tooth and tail is an old one. To Weston, “grunt and Fobbit” are different “species.” This dichotomy is too easy: No war can be prosecuted exclusively with combat troops. If some personnel took advantage of the relative safety of a base, many more worked diligently at the duties assigned them. If Weston believes “war is a racket,” he should look to the senior leaders who contracted for the ice cream rather than to the personnel at the other end of the chain.
Two faiths survive the wreckage of Weston’s seven years in war. The first faith is in the Marines: He calls them “my tribe” and continues to advocate generously for them. The other faith rests in an old-fashioned “American Story” about pioneer values and an entrepreneurial spirit that can wield the “soft power” and accomplish the “Big Things” of which he believes government no longer capable. Weston’s bitter rage thus finally gives way to gauzy nostalgia. Neither sentiment especially conduces to the national mirror test he justly demands.
By J. Kael Weston
Knopf. 585 pp. $28.95