There are two types of war correspondent. The first ends up in the midst of a conflict with a map and some contacts and delves into the local language, tradition, culture and people. They may or may not join rebel groups such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Sandinista in Nicaragua or the Chechen fighters during their two wars against Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After September 11th, a new generation of war reporters emerged: the embedded journalist. They usually join a unit or battalion – usually one from the journalist’s home country – and delve deeply into the soldiers and their war. The reporters, who are housed directly with the military, have unprecedented access and often deliver spectacular bullets long before their colleagues. You can see the conflict firsthand and report it immediately.
Wesley Morgan’s Magisterial The Hardest Place: The American military train in the Afghan Pech Valley is embedded reporting at its best. It is important and important reading, thoroughly researched, spectacularly executed, and urgent now that Afghanistan’s future is once again so uncertain. Morgan was 22 years old when he landed in the Pech Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in 2010, during the summer of then-US President Barack Obama’s boom – one of the most dangerous regions in the country. Still in college, he was preparing for his senior year at Princeton University and was just starting his freelance reporting career.
One of Morgan’s first missions was at Combat Outpost Michigan, a small US military camp deep in the heart of Taliban land – and a magnet for attacks from the surrounding hills. The book takes the reader into the life of an embedded reporter: explosions, chaos, machine gun fire. Morgan describes his initiation to be attacked as “volleys of rocket-propelled grenades that look more like heavy rain”.
Morgan interviewed more than 200 soldiers for this book, scanned maps, and delved into Afghan regional history. This makes this book one of the most amazingly researched books on Afghanistan that has ever existed. It’s detailed, and The Hardest Place should – and will – perish as the definitive portrayal of what happened in this extremely harsh and difficult region of Afghanistan. At the same time, the book shows a masterful ability to delve deep into the soldiers’ world and shows us the microcosm of their concerns, their fears and their insecurities.
Morgan’s book will appeal to those looking for bubble-wise reports of helicopter attacks and special maneuvers that went fatally wrong. One chapter tells the exciting story of the unfortunate Operation Red Wings, a mission from 2005 to disrupt local Taliban activities. Red Wings is a symbol of the combat disaster in Afghanistan: three of the four participating Navy SEALs were killed, one helicopter failed and one survivor, Marcus Luttrell, was rescued. He went on to write Lone Survivor, which became a film with Mark Wahlberg. While Morgan wasn’t there for Red Wings – he didn’t come to Afghanistan until 2010 – he’s looking for those who were. Here, too, its detail is impeccable.
In addition to the bang-bang, Morgan has also written the epitome of the doomed United States engagement in Afghanistan by focusing on a small but treacherous region. In the years to come, if people want to understand why the United States is investing so many resources in such a remote country, they will find the answers in Morgan’s detailed account of bad luck. That’s an amazing feat when you consider that Morgan was only in eighth grade as of September 11th – the event that made Morgan an avowed “military nerd” and eventually led him to Afghanistan.
Morgan is able to shed light on the utter hopelessness of the war. He describes a Red Wings rescue worker who thinks about his comrades in search of his comrades – and with this description he reminds us that these are not just soldiers, but also young men who are afraid and far from home . “The smell of fire and man remains made in the hot sun [him] Think of a mass grave that he came across during an assignment in Bosnia. When it began to overwhelm him, Hatch looked up to the beauty of the mountain; Aside from the occasional screaming of monkeys, it reminded him of his Utah home, ”writes Morgan.
The book pays homage to the young men and women who waged a doomed war from the start: dependent on old Russian maps, with far fewer resources than the United States used in the war in Iraq, and with treacherous battles face land of steep mountains and deep canyons that make classic terrain warfare impossible. Even trained mountaineers struggled to get to some of the passes they had to go to in order to take out the Taliban fighters.
The Hardest Place is a classic example of embedded reporting that has a number of pitfalls. Since it was written from the perspective of someone who is almost entirely a member of a military unit, we see the conflict through a very narrow lens. In the book’s 600+ pages, there are few Afghan voices other than a few local businessmen or some strange observations from warlords. Morgan describes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the Afghan politician, former mujahideen leader and former prime minister who every reporter in Afghanistan has come across – funny: “[W]With his long nose, thick brows and drooping eyelids, he bore a slight resemblance to actor Christopher Lee. “I will never see Hekmatyar again without seeing him as Saruman in the Hobbit.
Embedded in his army unit, Morgan has little contact with the Afghan community or with other Afghan friends as translators. In a country where topics such as women’s schools, health care, and local governance are major issues, the book focuses solely on the experiences of U.S. soldiers. Again, this is not Morgan’s fault – it is in the nature of the embedded reporting. On patrol, there is very little interaction other than firefights other than the strange Loya Jirga, where US commanders meet high-ranking community leaders, or the occasional walk through a village. Morgan would not have had the opportunity to meet with regular Afghans or develop long-term relationships, as do many other correspondents stationed in Kabul, such as Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press, considered the doyenne of Afghan reporters.
That kind of complete immersion in a country would have produced a different story of the war. The classic of this genre is still Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake from 1972: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. She sets out to describe the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people – her country, her society. She describes the conflicts between communists and anti-communists, the villagers who revere their ancestors, the disturbances caused by French colonialism and how the US intervention left a completely devastated country.
Morgan focused solely on the US side of the conflict and may have looked more closely at one or more soldiers. In his 1988 masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan shared with a Lieutenant Colonel – Vann – the full story of how the United States invaded Vietnam and lost Vietnam. Along the way we also see the moral ruin of a man who sets out to wage a “good war” but is doomed to fail in his complicity. The book grabs the reader and immerses them in a compelling narrative that is essentially the story of one person against the backdrop of an impossible war.
While Morgan’s book doesn’t focus on storytelling, some of its characters stand out. One of them is Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Cavoli, a Princeton and Yale graduate who grew up on mountains in northern Italy. In a poignant scene in the Korengal Valley near the Pakistani border, the deployment of Cavolis “unfortunate attack company” has just been extended from 12 to 16 months. They had already spent months punishing fights. Sixteen months in Afghanistan for soldiers who were “thin and filthy, their uniforms tattered, sunken expressions on many faces” was difficult for Cavoli to think about. Nowhere in the Korengal Valley was it safe, and Cavoli had an enormous responsibility to keep his men alive and to make life and death decisions about their use. As expected, things are going wrong. When his troops are killed we are told that it is his strong Catholic faith that keeps him going. As a reader reads this, they may wish for more detail that teaches us what these soldiers endure and how they deal with it.
I would also like to have known more about young Morgan in this excellent book. It’s very much in the shadows – but a reader might wonder how a journalist who was just a teenager produced work that is so important and so mature. What did he learn and what did he gain? How did he feel about going on patrol with these very young and very brave soldiers who were always aware of the terror of the street bombs and the Taliban snipers who could take them out one by one?
Ultimately, however, Morgan’s book pushes the boundaries of the embedded reporting genre. The Hardest Place will stand out as one of the most important books from the Afghanistan war. It describes in great detail and with great finesse the few triumphs and the massive failures. It should be read by policy makers, intelligence officials, and diplomats to understand what to expect.
US President Joe Biden’s decision this year to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the modalities of which are constantly changing, will have a huge impact on Afghanistan, the entire region and the world. The Hardest Place is an urgent book that will help us understand what could happen if these US troops leave.
Morgan deserves kudos for his firsthand account of the men and women who fought in an impossible place, their dedication, perseverance and courage. And for his own courage that led him there as a lonely witness.