All Along the Afghan Watchtower: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch

The WatchJoydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s 2012 novel The Watch registers many firsts in the burgeoning contemporary war lit genre.  It’s the first novel I know that’s set in Afghanistan.  The first set on a combat outpost, as opposed to a FOB.  The first to feature an extended battle scene—a terrific sequence that describes a Taliban effort to overrun the Americans in their small fortress.  The first to feature prominently the voices of host-nation civilians, in this case that of a young Pashtun woman—a double amputee at that—and a young Tajik male who works as an interpreter for American forces.  Not a first, in fact much like David Abrams’ Fobbit, The Watch narrates chapters through the perspective of several different American soldiers, from junior enlisted to first sergeant to lieutenant to captain, as well as the Afghan voices described above.  But unlike Fobbit’s satirical approach, The Watch is deadly serious—a tragedy.  At story’s end, the Americans and Afghans who have not been killed have absolutely no chance of living happily into the future.

The Watch’s plot adapts that of Antigone, Sophocles’ classic Greek play about a young Theban woman who defies the state by insisting that her brother, killed on the wrong side in a civil war, be accorded proper burial honors.  In The Watch, Nizam, the Pashtun double-amputee, is the Antigone figure.  Her brother, defiant of the American occupiers if not a Taliban by ideology, lies dead outside of COP Tarsândan after a midnight attack.  In the play, Antigone is thwarted by King Creon, the Theban ruler, who represents the power of the State, and her sister Ismene, who counsels moderation and fears Creon’s wrath.  In The Watch, the Creon role is occupied by Captain Connolly, the COP commander, while Ismene is Masood, a Tajik interpreter whose loyalties are split between the Americans who fight the treacherous Taliban and the Afghan cultural codes that emphasize respect for the dead.  Sophocles’ play clearly favors Antigone, a heroic young woman who fights authority, but dramatic space is left open to consider King Creon’s and Ismene’s perspectives.  Roy-Bhattacharya builds this same ambiguity into The Watch, especially in regard to Captain Connolly, on whom the fate of Nizam and her brother’s remains depend.  Portrayed unflatteringly in the novel’s early stages, by the end we see the staggering complexity of interests and consequences he must juggle to effectively “take care of troops and accomplish the mission”—that onerous mantra of military leadership whose twin dictates are usually in stark opposition.  It’s as if Roy-Bhattacharya realized in the course of writing The Watch that Connolly was too sympathetic to be a Creon.  The heavy-handed imposition of authority in the novel is by the greater US military and foreign policy apparatus that organized the war and now issues Connolly orders.  Connolly’s deliberations under the pressure of those orders, like Creon’s under the Greek gods’, are human, all too human.

The Watch’s abiding interest in Captain Connolly intrigues me.  Not to privilege the war experience of the officers, but I’m glad to see at least one portrayed favorably in the skeptical world of war fiction.  I also liked the character of Masood.  In The Watch, Masood is dropped at COP Tarsândan in the middle of the night after the big battle and confronts hostility at every turn from his new American hosts and allies.   Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit.  Frankly, the average 20-year-old American male doesn’t have it in him under the best of circumstances to welcome graciously strangers who do not share his cultural background, and the circumstances of the soldiers on Tarsândan are anything but the best.  Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally Captain Connolly, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security co-exist with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.  This extremely wide diversity in manners and education certainly exists within the American military and our larger society as well.

American soldiers in Afghanistan.  Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.
American soldiers in Afghanistan. Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Roy-Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and did not come to America to live until he began graduate school here as a young man.  In Masood, perhaps we see him replaying the highs and lows of his own first encounters with an America that bestows its hospitality and respect to outsiders in fitful and perplexing lurches.  This perspectival complexity is reflected in Roy-Bhattacharya’s acknowledgements:  one to “the people of Afghanistan” and another to an American he refers to as, “Officer, Gentleman.”  He also writes,

“To the U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan who befriended me and technically foolproofed the book—you know who you are—I have no words to adequately express my thanks.  I remain in awe of your objectivity, in gratitude for your unwavering enthusiasm, and in your permanent debt for your gift of friendship.”

Roy-Bhattacharya himself might be something of a Masood.  He helps us understand the war, hating what it has done and made us do and be, but not hating those of us who fought it.

Afghan elders.  Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.
Afghan elders. Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

A post on my blog 15-Month Adventure about Spera Combat Outpost:  All Hail the Defenders of Spera COP! 

Another post on 15-Month Adventure about Spera Combat Outpost: Spera COP Sector Sketch

A 15-Month Adventure post about interpreters:  Combined Action

A 15-Month Adventure post about a small Afghanistan FOB and its stout company commander: The KG

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