I just finished Robert

November 23, 2001 12:46 p.m.

I just finished Robert Kaplan’s Soldiers of God, his book of reportage of the Afghan mujahidin’s fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, and I really recommend it. The read is engrossing. The prose is disciplined yet colorful. And reading the book, the Afghan people and place-names you’re seeing on CNN will slowly break out of two-dimensions into three.

It surprises me that I’d have such a positive reaction because I’ve always had very mixed feelings about Kaplan’s work, particularly based on his Balkan reportage, much of which is in Balkan Ghosts.

Kaplan’s writing is about foreign cultures and geopolitics; but it’s essentially travel writing, if of the very highest sort. And good travel writing is an inherently and deeply subjective genre.

Yet I always felt Kaplan had a tendency to go too native. A good writer has to understand the prejudices of the people he writes about. But in Balkan Ghosts, with respect to the Serbs, he seemed to adopt them. His view of the Serbs’ self-explaining myths was such an internal one that they seemed to become his governing, if not wholly uncritical, vision of what was happening in Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This caught my attention in Balkan Ghosts because I knew a bit about the topic. And so I had my eye out for it in Soldiers of God, which is about a subject I know much, much less about. And certainly sometimes it’s there. As in this passage, in the chapter on Kandahar, where Kaplan describes the southern city’s culture as “pure Afghan, untouched by the culturally corrupting influences of Iran that had bastardized Herat or those of the Indian subcontinent that had bastardized Kabul.” (p.192)

But this fault, if it is a fault – and I’m not certain of it – is more than outweighed by the quality of the reportage and the wealth of very internal knowledge Kaplan is able to convey.

A few other small points. The book was first published in 1990 and this republication has a new chapter, ‘The Lawless Frontier’, which I think is based on a recent essay in The Atlantic. It’s more rushed and overview-like than the rest of the book. And there’s little editing to make it flow from the rest of the book – a shortcoming I’d have imagined could have been easily rectified, even in the rush to get it out quickly after 9/11 . But this new final chapter does give a chilling and Kaplanesque view of present-day Pakistan which makes you think that getting things in order in Afghanistan may only be a prelude to getting a handle on this wrecked and disintegrating country.

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