Most contemporary war narratives have tried to carve out some capital-M meaning from such notions as patriotism, brotherhood or at least noble sacrifice. Not so in Old Silk Road, the viscerally bracing and inventive debut novel from Brandon Caro, a former Navy corpsman who served for a year in Afghanistan as an advisor to the Afghan National Army. The book stands out for its relentlessly bleak and essentially nihilistic depiction of the American mission in Afghanistan, which could have only come from someone with first-hand experience.
Norman “Doc” Rodgers enlisted after his father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. His reasons for joining up, however, are realistically variegated. As Doc explains, with the candor of one who doesn’t have to concern himself with giving offense: “The active and deployed military did not constitute a fair showing of America’s best and brightest. Rather, we were the ones who were willing to incur the risk of bodily harm in exchange for the invaluable currency of meritorious wartime service.”
In the book’s opening scene, Doc is forced to watch helplessly as four of his comrades in the Afghan theater are burned alive in their vehicle after being struck by an IED. To help keep this and other memories at bay, Doc administers to himself the powerful sedatives that are meant to ease the suffering of the wounded and dying. Doc is a smart kid, but, as a more-sensitive-than-most soul, probably isn’t cut out for this. With shootable targets rare and elusive, his war is one primarily against reality, fought with drugs and memories: “With eyelids closed, I did my best to push away the ugliness, to find that curled-up, vulnerable feeling alongside a past lover in my mind, or safely nestled between two loving parents.”
When Doc’s unit decides to concoct an excuse to visit another nearby base famous among the ranks for its Mongolian barbecue, their convoy heads outside of the wire, accompanied by their Afghan counterparts. In the long tradition of military misadventure, things begin almost immediately to go wrong; Doc slips deeper into his drug addiction and suicidal depression, and the coherence of the narrative begins to go fuzzy as well.
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First, Doc begins to see and have conversations with a vision of the reappearing figure of a deep under-cover Pat Tillman (the U.S. serviceman who gave up a lucrative NFL contract to enlist and who was killed by friendly fire in 2004). Later, as the convoy drifts further from anything resembling an objective and deeper into the surreal hellscape of a hostile desert, they receive visitations from spectral soldiers from the armies of the various former empires who met nothing but ruin in Afghanistan, including Alexander the Great, who describes how he convinced his men to follow him this far.
“They need to believe in something greater than themselves. How else could I demand of them to lay down their lives in the service of my cause?”
The hell that Caro depicts here is one of ice, in which the danger of war is less physical injury to the body and more a horrible clarifying effect on the mind, in which the meaninglessness and essential terror of our condition is laid out flatly by evidence placed directly in front of your Humvee. As Doc explains to his squadmates, “It’s innate to our being, this desire to be deceived. But the deception must be somewhat plausible, otherwise we’ll tear it apart in our minds.”
In its laying bare the many deceptions of our war in Afghanistan, this novel is not light reading. But for anyone of this generation or those forthcoming who wants to know what being there felt like, Caro has offered an invaluable primary document that illuminates a violent hall of our history in the way that only fiction can.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.