Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Bonenberger’s ‘Afghan Post’: An unusual and interesting memoir of the Afghan war

I recently read an advance copy of Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post, which is scheduled to be published in January. It is worth reading. He takes about 50 pages to get up a head of steam, but he is a skilled writer, with an interesting story to tell as he goes from being a weenie English ...

The Head & The Hand Press
The Head & The Hand Press

I recently read an advance copy of Adrian Bonenberger's Afghan Post, which is scheduled to be published in January. It is worth reading. He takes about 50 pages to get up a head of steam, but he is a skilled writer, with an interesting story to tell as he goes from being a weenie English major at Yale (yeah, I was too, but I didn't sit in the Elizabethan Club browsing old issues of Punch, and I never affected the British phraseology that pimples the younger Bonenberger's prose in the first part of this book).

The real theme of the book, I think, is that Bonenberger was more comfortable, more real, in the Army, even in Ranger school, than he was at Yale. Being an Airborne Ranger meant a lot to him. ("Feels like New Haven -- or, the way New Haven should've been -- with something more substantial beneath it all.")

Yet ultimately he decided to leave the Army. He's not a "good soldier," in the occasionally pejorative sense of that word. He is thoughtful, observant, skeptical: "No matter how much the Generals, Colonels and Lieutenant-Colonels would like the soldiers to believe it's the civilians' or politicians' fault for not supporting the military better, if the buck stops somewhere it should stop with them."

I recently read an advance copy of Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post, which is scheduled to be published in January. It is worth reading. He takes about 50 pages to get up a head of steam, but he is a skilled writer, with an interesting story to tell as he goes from being a weenie English major at Yale (yeah, I was too, but I didn’t sit in the Elizabethan Club browsing old issues of Punch, and I never affected the British phraseology that pimples the younger Bonenberger’s prose in the first part of this book).

The real theme of the book, I think, is that Bonenberger was more comfortable, more real, in the Army, even in Ranger school, than he was at Yale. Being an Airborne Ranger meant a lot to him. (“Feels like New Haven — or, the way New Haven should’ve been — with something more substantial beneath it all.”)

Yet ultimately he decided to leave the Army. He’s not a “good soldier,” in the occasionally pejorative sense of that word. He is thoughtful, observant, skeptical: “No matter how much the Generals, Colonels and Lieutenant-Colonels would like the soldiers to believe it’s the civilians’ or politicians’ fault for not supporting the military better, if the buck stops somewhere it should stop with them.”

He’s also bothered by how much black Special Operations, he calls “a professional cadre of assassins,” have become the cultural heart of the U.S. military.  He worries, as Andrew Bacevich does, that we have set up a perpetual machine in the belief that “without these assassins, we wouldn’t be safe, that the only way to deal with the bad terrorist men was to keep murdering them. Not until they go away, because they’ll never ‘go away.'”

The scariest line in the book comes near the end: “That was my job, after all, to believe in the mission, to keep it going even when common sense and experience was giving me other information.” I am not sure I agree with that job definition. What can a captain do? He can tell the truth to his chain of command.  

His political conclusion, written in 2008 in Afghanistan: “What our Republic needs is less empire, and more responsible citizenry.” Hard to argue with that. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.