If this link works, it will take you to a story in this week’s New Yorker called “Kattekoppen.” Written by a vet named Will Mackin, it is told from the point-of-view of a SEAL Team 6 member in Logar Province, Afghanistan. The subject is the team’s effort to recruit a trustworthy artillery liaison from the battery of regular army artillerymen on their compound. One of the candidates is of Dutch descent; his mother routinely sends him care packages full of a Dutch licorice called Kattekoppen, which accounts for the story’s title.
Mackin’s story is true to my own fleeting experiences dealing with ODAs, OGAs, Ranger task forces, and other special operators in eastern Afghanistan. My FOB, Camp Clark, was also home to two 155mm howitzers, so “Kattekoppen”’s portrait of its “cannon-cockers” brings back fond memories, too. One of the funny aspects of the war in Afghanistan was how ad hoc it all was. You’d think a SEAL Team 6 would have its own organic highly-trained artillery liaisons, and wouldn’t have to go recruiting among the Joes in whatever unit had recently rotated in. Mackin’s account of the pick-up team nature of the Afghanistan fight is humorous, but also a little scary to contemplate.
Great sentence, describing artillery rounds arcing out toward their target: “And, soon enough, I saw iron scratches against the clear blue sky.” Yes, yes, a hundred times yes.
Realistic touches aside, though, what’s most notable about “Kattekoppen” are its surreal, fantastical, supernaturalistic, and hallucinogenic moments. Midway through the tale, the first-person narration comes unhinged, as if the narrator had suddenly ingested a psychological stimulant. The veneer of verisimilitude tears and the reader is left to contemplate passages such as the following:
“Outside, covering everything was a pristine layer of snow, which dawn had turned pink. I started the pink HiLux. I honked the horn and it made a pink noise. Levi emerged from his pink tent with his pink ruck. I drove him down a pink road to the pink L.Z. The rotator came in sideways, and its thumping rotors kicked up a thick pink cloud.”
Shortly after, not just the narration, but the events themselves grow increasingly strange.
Coming hard on the heels of Brian Turner’s “The Wave That Takes Them Under” in Fire and Forget, “Kattekoppen” suggests that war authors are now pushing beyond the literal and verisimilar to tell their stories. In an earlier post, I made fun of a weird 2008 movie called The Objective, which combined special forces derring-do in Afghanistan with science-fiction and horror elements. But perhaps The Objective was on to something. Looking backward, the precursor texts for this magical war realism must be Tim O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going After Cacciato and 1990 short story “How to Tell a True War Story.” Thinking about it all, my working hypothesis is that nitty-gritty detail and “explaining how it really was” are fine in theory and as far as they go, but that’s not quite enough for our most imaginative and anarchic war writers and artists.