“Horse Soldiers,” a book by Doug Stanton, Men’s Journal staff writer (previously, staffer for Sports Afield, Outside and Esquire,) is pretty much waiting to be directed by Tony Scott.
Stanton’s book reads like a summer action movie, or maybe a Spike TV miniseries, about gutsy soldiers with waiting wives back home, fighting for Uncle Sam in the War On Terror, against Al Qaeda terrorists in the deserts of Afghanistan”¦ you know, fighting The Bad Guys for America. Politics doesn’t enter into the equation at all, since, as the book jacket screams, the story is about “a band of U.S. Soldiers who rode to victory in Afghanistan.”
It’s even structured like a movie. Ready? Act 1: get the team together. Act 2: deal comically with saddlesores and miscommunications between cultures as the teams prepare for Act 3: Assault on the Terrorist stronghold.
Is it wish-fulfillment that America beat Al Qaeda on horseback? The meta-narrative of the book isn’t even glossed over: It’s cowboys vs. Indians writ large, with Freedom at stake; the perfect thing to read on the beach next to your wife, who’s probably reading something like “The Ya Ya Sisterhood” if you’re in the target demographic for this simplistic blockbuster.
In the interest of fairness, here’s what I liked about the book, before I go further with what I didn’t like: the description of Afghani tribal warfare realpolitik; the quiet times in the lives of soldiers, where they emerge behind Stanton’s ham-handed macho prose, briefly and sweetly, to appear as people; and the strange craving I’ve been having for goat curry as a result of reading the book.
I suppose I must also give Stanton props for not turning his book into some jingoistic tract, though he flirts with this notion several times in several ways. The early parts of the narrative told from the Afghan perspective read differently, as though Stanton wrote them with a different “voice” in mind. The voice frequently marvels at the strange American super-high-tech and speaks with many, many fewer contractions than the American sections.
Sections written about John Walker Lindh (whose chosen Muslim name is only alluded to) begin and end with pompous declarations like, “So said the voice of God,” another awkward attempt at “othering” the Muslims. In the hands of a better author, these might have worked. Here, they don’t.
It’s a fun — if completely brainless — book, one you will likely only find worth it if you don’t think too hard. It’s written by a guy who spent, I kid you not, dozens of pages salivating over GPS units and EMS catalogue items at the beginning of the story, with detail that eclipsed virtually every other part of the book. I got a better feel for the palleting system used to gather together the commercial-grade gear CIA agents used in Iraq than I did for the agents themselves. I may be exaggerating a little. I liked a couple of the soldiers”¦ but for the life of me, I can’t remember their names.
Which, I suppose, is the biggest problem Stanton has created for himself. The soldiers aren’t really people except when they’re remembering their wives, who are all, if the Men’s Journal staffer is to be trusted, cleaning floors on their knees and weeping into buckets of sudsy water, waiting for their strong men to get home, or, if they are dead, waiting for their buddies to get vengeance.
The disappointment I felt nearing the end of the book had multiple layers. First, the middle hundred pages or so (leading up to the climactic battle scene, which is spoiled in the prologue anyway so whatever) put me to sleep. Second, I never got enough of the personalities of the several soldiers Stanton interviewed to care about any of them. Third, the complete disconnect I felt from the narrative made the book’s attempt to Tell the Soldiers’ Story (which, if handled by a better writer, would have been incredible) a little more than insulting, since they are all reduced to cardboard Action Movie cutouts.
Want a similar narrative? Since this book is a movie waiting to happen, skip the wait and go rent “Lawrence of Arabia” and watch it on your huge television. Sure, it’s about the British soldier T.E. Lawrence, and not a bunch of American Cowboys, but the basic structure is the same: Westerner(s) network with Middle Eastern Tribal warfare, blow stuff up, and go home. The saddle sores, cultural differences, and goat curry love are handled with more dignity, care and skill than this forgettable beach read.