Archive for the ‘US military and COIN’ Category

Do We Really Want to be Members of a Tribe?

Thursday, July 7th, 2016


Sebastian Junger’s fascinatingly wrong-headed ‘Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging’

By Ann Marlowe
July 7, 2016 • 12:00 AM

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”

This statement early in Sebastian Junger’s new paean to tribal togetherness is, on the face of it, rubbish. Western society’s lack of appeal must be news to the millions of people who try, often at risk of their lives, to enter the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the European Union each year as migrants or immigrants, apparently having decided that all that tribal connectivity in Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria (to name the countries that were the top sources of migrants to the E.U. in 2015) was something they could live without. Such rashness alerts us that Tribe is one of those eccentric screeds where everything looks like a nail because the author has a hammer. (But then, 2016 is a year in which this seems to be a feature of political thinking.)

Junger argues that the loss of the tribal environment in which human beings evolved helps to explain the 2008 financial crisis, mass shootings, and insurance fraud. He even argues against the American and Northern European practice of making children sleep by themselves in their own rooms—after all, our primitive ancestors didn’t do that, so it must cause problems. And yet Junger never defines what he means by “tribe.” The closest he comes is near the end of the book: “Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.” But Americans already have one of the world’s highest levels of community engagement in terms of volunteerism, charitable giving, and attendance at religious worship.

Junger wants something more intense than normal life. Natural disasters, he argues, “Turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” He’s in love with the immediately post-Sept. 11 upsurge of group cohesion, and some of this was a good thing. He points out that there were no mass shootings for a year after Sept. 11 and that “rates of violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbance dropped immediately. … New York’s suicide rate dropped by around 20 percent in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40 percent.” But there was also a circling of the wagons, a suspicion of the foreign and the Muslim, a lot of flag waving by people careful to stay far from danger.

Is American society circa 2001-2 really something we want to revisit? Did we fight smart wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result? Was abridging our freedoms at home really the best way to enlarge the cause of freedom in the world? Is the rhetoric of “homeland” and “belonging” to a larger entity and “solidarity” helpful going forward?

Junger’s book is sorely lacking in analysis, counter-examples, subtlety, and organization. His prose has the rounded homogeneity of best-selling nonfiction. Yet the itch Junger is scratching is widespread in advanced societies, and the regressiveness of his argument is very of the moment, and he knows something about what he speaks: A seasoned war correspondent, he is the author of War, about an extended embed at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan, and the companion film Restrepo. And as a national level distance runner at Wesleyan, he also spent a summer training with Navajo runners.

Yet Junger’s tribalism is vague. He mainly refers to Native American tribes, though he does mention a few African tribes. As anthropologists have been at pains to establish, tribes come in all sorts of flavors, and some are very nasty. It matters, because the crux of Junger’s argument is that human beings used to live happily in a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years in small tribes, and we no longer do, and our genetics change much more slowly than our living conditions, so we are profoundly maladjusted to the way we live now. This in turn leads to greedy bankers who disrespect the tribe by taking more than their share and PTSD for returning warriors, because war used to involve the whole tribe, not just a small segment of society. It’s hard not to see Junger’s model for how human beings used to live as yet another primitivism fantasy, an imaginary paradise loosely gleaned from American Indian life. It’s nostalgie de la boue—a term coined in 1855, just as the lower layers of European society were finally starting to escape the mud.

Moreover, the term tribal today is often used to describe social organization in some spectacularly unsuccessful places, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and (with less validity) Libya. In some places in these countries belonging to a tribe is more or less important. But these societies, unlike American Indian life as Junger characterizes it, suffer from severe gender inequality, endemic corruption, conflict, and often from extremes of wealth and poverty.

But let’s give Junger the benefit of the doubt, say that human beings evolved under something like the conditions of the nicer American Indian tribes, and see what he has to say.


“Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” Junger notes. But so many Americans who do not claim Indian identity have Indian great-great-great grandmothers or -fathers that plenty of Indians must have entered white society. From my anecdotal knowledge, most of the captives lived on the frontiers and were not part of the ruling elites. They had pushed out to the places where the forest met the fields for cheaper land or more privacy; they were not abducted from Boston or Richmond. My hunch is that the captives who chose to stay were predominantly lower income, lower status, less educated: They were making a rational choice in the context of their position in white society. As Junger points out, “Indian society was essentially classless and egalitarian,” and a lower-status white person might do better relatively there.

As to the appeal of Native American life to non-Native Americans, it may well have been relaxed and companionable and egalitarian, but it did not offer much scope to the intellectual or cultural interests of cultivated Europeans (or for that matter Chinese or Japanese) at the time. How appealing would it be to spend the rest of your life in a society of 100 to 1,000 ethnically homogeneous people, without access to writing, science, philosophy, more than one type of cooking, chess, more than one type of music, more than one type of dance, more than one type of fashion, painting, or a variety of sports? Even in the 18th century, it meant no horse-drawn carriages, no roads, no Homer, no Shakespeare, no flower gardens, no piano, no silk, no architecture, no metal tools, no fine china, no furniture, no number theory.
‘Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.’

Junger is also curiously silent about the moral and spiritual life of the Indian tribes. He might have noted that at the time of the first settlers, Protestantism was also becoming the dominant religion of northern and Western Europe. Protestantism demanded individual moral judgment and constant self-scrutiny (rather like Judaism). The notion of a career as providing meaning in life was just beginning to grow and with it the idea that one was responsible for one’s success or failure in worldly terms, and that it all had something to do with goodness. All of this is hard stuff; that’s why many people in the West, and even more in the Rest, still don’t like it.

It’s easier to live in a shame culture, not a guilt culture, and that’s what Native America was. The Indians may have lived blamelessly, even virtuously, but without forming independent moral judgments, figuring out one’s identity as an autonomous individual, even opposing the group if one thought they were wrong. When people are caught up in a larger-than-life drama, good or bad, whether a natural disaster or an event like Sept. 11, they find themselves back in a shame culture, where self-interrogation is less important than meeting group expectations. And for some people, this has good effects.

Junger’s two favorite idylls, military life and Native American life, meet along an existential dimension: In both of them, you don’t need to engage in a daily struggle to achieve your purpose in life. Most of us in advanced, urbanized cultures have to confront disturbing existential questions every day. What have I accomplished today? What’s my plan? Am I living rightly? Is everything I’m doing today furthering that plan?

This sort of interrogation is a part of Jewish culture even among non-religious Jews and surely explains the celebrated neuroticism and melancholy of Jews. Which brings me to another issue: I can’t see the word “tribe” without thinking of the phrase, “member of the Tribe.” Maybe it’s the same for Junger, who is half-Jewish on his father’s side. I’ve never liked this phrase, which implies that Jews are born, not made, and which mistakes what is great about Judaism. Our ancestors were not very like the American Indians Junger extols: They invented monotheism and wrote the Bible and started abstract thinking and one of the great schools of legal reasoning thousands of years ago. All of this proved to be essential to modern life. All of it was accessible to people who were not born Jews.


In tribal life, as in the American military, many of the existential questions are answered for you once you make the big choice to sign up. That’s why there are people who flounder in civilian life but succeed brilliantly in the military. That’s also why some 18th-century captives presumably made great Indians, but would have been lost in Providence or Philadelphia.

So, yes; living in the non-tribal world is harder and often sadder. Junger says: “The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.” Of course! If you’re a Chinese immigrant waiter working 18 hours a day and sharing a two-bedroom with 15 other men, you don’t have the luxury of depression. But a Chinese-American investment banker has time to agonize over whether he is really actualizing himself, really married to the right person, really living in the right city. “According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries.” Well, yes. If I’m sure of my food for the day, I start thinking about existential issues, and often this leads to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.

In Tribe, Junger does not mention any of this; war and tribal life are all about camaraderie, never about how they solve the existential questions. Perhaps because of the simplistic view he takes of war, Junger also errs in his argument in Tribe that PTSD is a disease of re-entry into a fragmented society. This is unfair in a couple of ways to the military and rather unfortunate given recent medical research on the physical basis of at least some PTSD. Junger, whose website features a photograph of the author in body armor on an embed, is a great admirer of the American military, but just as he ignores the aspects of military life that are easier than civilian life, he also ignores the burdens of military discipline and of command.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Junger’s fallen into a common trap among military reporters: thinking you’re having the full experience when you’re just an observer. Sentences like, “At one point I and the men I was with made our way to a front-line position” and “We lost one of our packhorses in the barrage” are a clue that Junger misunderstands his role. Reporters have few of the moral burdens of the combatants. No journalist fires at the car that doesn’t slow down for the checkpoint and then finds out that it contains the dead bodies of a not very bright father and his perfectly innocent Iraqi family of eight. No journalist sends a SEAL team on a mission knowing some of them will not come back—or sends four young low-ranking enlisted on a routine re-supply convoy that ends in their crippling by IED explosion. All this must be processed on re-entry.

Then there is the impact of IEDs. It’s not uncommon for American soldiers with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to have experienced several IED blasts. This is very different from a World War II soldier’s experience. Junger notes that “roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.” He’s right to notice that there is a mismatch—and some fraud and freeloading—here. But that 10 percent figure is as sketchy as it is hard to verify, and it’s irrelevant in the new wars, where combat is not what’s most likely to kill you. Supply specialists, drivers, cultural experts, or engineers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong convoy can die or receive disabling injuries in an instant.

Junger’s view of PTSD as a mainly or wholly psychological ailment is also turning out to be incorrect. Medical studies are emerging now which prove what seems common sense: The human brain is injured by being multiply concussed. Just in the last months, it’s emerged that there are distinctive changes in the brain from concussions that can affect reasoning, mood, and behavior. Here is the key medical article and here is the New York Times Magazine piece about it.

More than 340,000 veterans have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (admittedly most not from IEDs), which can take months or years to manifest. Part of the reason for the high numbers of vets applying for disability is that people are surviving what would have been lethal wounds in earlier wars. Junger views it as a paradox that disability claims rise as mortality falls, but it makes perfect sense: We have a lot more injured vets coming back who would have died in WWII from the same injuries. So, if PTSD is often a response to surviving IED explosions that jar the brain, it doesn’t make much difference what kind of integration into society the returning vet has.

But again like that man who happens to have a hammer, Junger is intent on seeing all of life through the lens of the military and tribalism. Something Junger says about the current debased political discourse is applicable here: “Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.” Sympathetic though I am with Junger’s message, America should not be looked at as a combat outpost—either by foreigners, or worse, by Americans.

We have never been Sparta; the founders were clear that we were not to be a garrison state with a standing army but a nation devoted to “the pursuit of happiness” in whatever way individuals wished. And it’s precisely because figuring out one’s desires is tough that life in the contemporary world is tough. Jews learned that, perhaps, before most other people. But regression to the values of tribalism is no answer.

Playing to Our Strengths (the USS Georgia)

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

originally published in The Weekly Standard, 12/21/2015
MAGAZINE: From the December 21 Issue
Playing to Our Strengths
A visit to an Ohio-class submarine redesigned for counterterrorism

Dec 21, 2015 | By Ann Marlowe

Key West

It’s one thing to read debates about Navy budget decisions and the aging of our submarine fleet, and quite another to visit one of our 71 submarines and see what the fuss is about. This November, I spent 24 hours on the USS Georgia—one of four Ohio-class subs redesigned in 2004 for counterterrorism, with Tomahawk cruise missiles replacing nuclear warheads and some missile silos retrofitted as lockout chambers to allow Navy SEALs to exit in combat zones. I came away with a profound respect for the submarine culture.

Many of my expectations were wrong. Happily, I didn’t feel claustrophobic for a minute. In fact, being on the 560-foot-long Georgia was blissful compared with getting on, which involved a rough trip of about an hour off Key West on a “rigid inflatable boat” out to the surfaced sub, then a short scramble up a well-worn rope-and-wood ladder. Topside, you’ve got 18,750 metric tons beneath you, and it feels very stable indeed.

Public affairs officer Lieutenant Lily Hinz (who accompanied me on my visit) and I descended from topside through a hatchway about 20 feet down a narrow fixed metal ladder in what’s called the port lockout chamber (another former missile silo). We were led to our bunkroom: very compact, but not much tighter than a sleeping compartment on a train. Down the hall was the “head” with two stalls and a shower; a sign on the door could be shifted from “Male” to “Female.” The ceilings hold a jungle of wires, cables, and pipes, but the Georgia’s faux wood paneling and speckled tan linoleum tiles reflect its 1979 vintage.

Then we climbed up a longer internal ladder to the cockpit, where the officer of the deck leads the ship when on the surface. This is part of the bridge—the area that includes the Ohio-class sub’s two periscopes, one visual and one digital. Captain David Adams and Lt. J.G. Jake Christianson were standing on the top, on what’s called the sail, tethered to the periscope tower. A junior officer, Ensign Laura Wainikainen, was getting certified for a “man overboard” recovery. Ensign Wainikainen would be directing the crew in the control room below to stop the submarine and reverse course to enable recovery of the “man” (a foil-covered box). This was accomplished in about 15 minutes in rough seas.

I was able to visit the Georgia because she was certifying for combat readiness, and boats were going out to her almost daily, bringing SEALs and others involved in training. I saw some drills that did look claustrophobic: A group of SEAL divers spent hours in a lockout chamber and then entered a tiny sub, called a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV), that was playing damaged. The SDV holds six divers, submerged in water, breathing from air tanks. Again, the crew had to turn the Georgia abruptly to find and lasso the SDV.

Ohio-class subs are facing mass retirement now, just as military budgets are under pressure. Their estimated useful life has been extended 10 years, to 40 years, because the Navy’s ship-building budget is $17 billion a year, and building one Ohio-class sub is estimated to cost $7 billion.

This sounds ridiculous, until you see what a complex, profoundly unnatural ecosystem such a sub is. To put the cost in perspective, the $25 billion the United States spent training and equipping Iraqi troops who ran away from the fight would have bought three new Ohio-class submarines. The argument can be made that putting more of our military budget into technology and less into training dubious foreign fighters is a vote not only for American industrial might and innovation but for American military culture. In fact, the Navy is arguing for a special budget just for the Ohio-class replacements.
The USS Georgia arrives at Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Martinez)

Adams points out that the more reluctant the United States is to commit boots on the ground, the more sense it makes to rely on precision-guided missiles and on special forces delivered from stealthy platforms like the retrofitted Ohio-class subs. The Georgia’s sister ship, the Florida, fired more than 100 Tomahawks on March 19, 2011, at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. These took down some of Qaddafi’s air defenses.

“Our advantage is massive underseas,” Adams says. “We can take on anyone, though China has a lot of good subs and is gaining. Why not play to our strengths?”

The Georgia will be deploying in the general direction of the Middle East this spring, relieving the Ohio-class USS Florida, with which she rotates deployments, and she could well be used to support U.S. operations against the Islamic State.

Besides us, only the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and India have nuclear-powered submarines. Our new nuclear submarines don’t have to refuel during their estimated life of 30 years; conventional diesel-and-battery-powered submarines must keep returning to the surface for oxygen, limiting their ability to stay at depths where they can lurk undetected.

Submarines are zero-tolerance-for-error workspaces. As Adams put it, “The people are the platform. One man can kill all of us here by making a mistake.” (The United States hasn’t lost a submarine since 1968, when the USS Scorpion suddenly disappeared in the Atlantic under circumstances that remain unclear.)

So it makes sense that submariners are a tiny elite, just 6 percent of the Navy, 20,500 people in all including 2,500 officers. You have to be in the top half of your Annapolis class to apply for billets on submarines or nuclear surface ships, that is, aircraft carriers. You also must be interviewed in person by the top sub officer, a four-star admiral. There’s no other service where this is the case.

After commissioning, whether through Annapolis, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, all officers go through six months of Naval Nuclear Power School and Naval Nuclear Prototype School to learn to run the nuclear reactors, then a three-month Submarine Officer Basic Course in Groton, Connecticut, to learn to drive the ship. So they have 15 months of graduate school before they even deploy on a sub.

Ohio-class subs have two separate 160-person crews, “blue” and “gold,” which spell each other so that the sub can spend as much time as possible deployed. The crew I met, the blue crew, will leave the Georgia in early December and return to Kings Bay, Georgia—the home port of the Georgia and Florida—for training, while the gold crew takes the sub to its next deployment, usually about six months. After that, the blue crew will take over again. Since the Florida can’t come home until the Georgia relieves it, pressure was on the Georgia blue crew to certify as combat-ready as soon as possible.

Unlike the Army’s brigade combat teams, where enlisted personnel, NCOs, and officers deploy as a unit, submarine officers rotate on and off (in groups) every six months or so, while the enlisted sailors and chief petty officers (“chiefs”) may remain attached to the same submarine for five or six years. Sub officers serve three years on a submarine, then two to three years off, then three years on. This puts a premium on a unified culture throughout the submarine service, so that everyone can quickly find his or her place—and it attracts the kind of people who have no sharp edges.

Every submariner I interviewed on the Georgia said that the main reason he or she applied for the submarine service was the caliber of people.

Lieutenant Emma McCarthy, a 2011 Naval Academy grad and the Georgia’s strike officer, has been on the Georgia for three years.

“[Submariners] held themselves to a very high standard,” she said. “For me it was either Marine Corps or submarines, and in 2010 the first group of women were authorized to be on submarines. I had an engineering degree, which helps.” She’d only spent one day on a submarine when she made her career choice, but it turned out to be a good fit: McCarthy has won one of four scholarships for graduate study awarded to submarine officers annually and plans to use it to get an MBA.

As McCarthy took me around, I realized that life aboard is relentlessly disciplined and focused. Copies of Travel + Leisure and Popular Mechanics in the head and two enlisted sailors watching a boxing video for a few minutes in the evening were about it for amusement. I got glimpses of the bunkrooms of the female officers, and they were almost devoid of personal decorative touches, unlike the Army officer tents I’d seen in Afghanistan.

The Georgia is also as close to a social-media-free zone as one finds these days. Underway, subs get communications from shore only every 12 hours. At periscope depth—about 80 feet—the captain can send and receive email, slowly, but when I was on the Georgia it was usually around 200 feet under the surface. (It has an unclassified depth limit of 800 feet.)

So the young people—average age 23—who run the Georgia spend their spare time working their way through loose leaf binder paper manuals explaining every aspect of the operation of a 560-foot-long traveling nuclear reactor carrying up to 154 3,000-pound, 20-foot-long Tomahawk missiles as well as a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant.

The Georgia has four levels and three compartments (engine room, missile compartment or MC, and forward compartment or FC), but you can’t simply walk all the way up or down on one set of ladders or stairs, nor can you walk all the way through any level from bow to stern. This is to prevent fire or flood from spreading. The control room is on the top level, 1L, while the torpedos are on the bottom level, forward compartment, FC4L. Enlisted men bunk in MC3L, and some visiting officers are housed there. Enlisted mess is on FC3L. The captain and second in command bunk on FC2L, as do the female officers.
A Navy diver and member of SEAL Delivery Team 2 train outside the USS Florida, twin sister of the Georgia. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle)

Young officers begin working in the engine room, where standing watch means monitoring machinery. I wasn’t allowed to visit the engine room, which includes the nuclear reactor, but I did get to see the Tomahawk silos in the missile compartment in the center of the sub, with well-maintained pieces of aerobic exercise equipment and weight stations nestled among them. Along the walls of the missile compartment are the enlisted bunkrooms.

Six of the Georgia’s 19 officers are women, and like other Ohio-class subs she will receive her first female enlisted sailors in a year or two. The presence of women on the Georgia seems a nonissue, though there was a flurry of attention when we became the first nation to allow women to serve on nuclear submarines in 2011. The reason, Captain Adams points out, wasn’t to be politically correct, but to deepen the talent pool for this very selective service. To a woman, the six said they had not met with any hostility on the Georgia, though a couple mentioned instructors at the Naval Academy who opposed women’s presence on submarines. Navy women are currently 17 percent of active-duty officers and 18 percent of enlisted. All new ships are built for habitation by both sexes.

While the drills were taking place, most of the officers, even those who were not on watch, converged on the compact control room to follow the action. It takes two crew members just to adjust the ballast, allowing the submarine to go up and down or maintain a level position. Another group steers—this involves monitoring lots of screens. One, a sonar picture of the Georgia’s (and nearby ships’ or large fishes’) passage through the underwater landscape over time, eluded my efforts at understanding. Passive sonar (listening) is the main way the Georgia makes her way around without bumping into the sea floor or surface ships.

I wanted more time to learn more; basic questions were occurring to me just as it was time to leave the ship. (Who cleans the heads? Answer: everyone, including officers. This is called Field Day. Does the crew ever get to go swimming? Answer: Yes, occasionally when the sub is on the surface the captain orders a “swim call,” and people jump off and climb back up on ladders. How does the Georgia get rid of trash? Answer: They shoot it into the sea, except plastics, which are recycled. Do submariners still adhere to the traditional naval sleep schedule of 6 hours on watch, 12 hours off, where you rotate your sleep times? Answer: No, the Navy recently moved to a watch schedule where each man goes to sleep around the same time every night, though there are still three different watches.)

I left wishing more people had the chance to visit a submarine. A complex, thriving system like the Georgia inspires respect not just for the Navy but for American culture, with its rigorous standards, openness to newcomers, and commitment to teamwork.

An Afghan Tale

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard:

An Afghan Tale
Reality and unreality at a Combat Outpost.
Ann Marlowe
July 6 – July 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41

The Valley is marketed as a police procedural set in a remote American military outpost in Afghanistan, and it is a page-turner, all 448 of them. It’s also so cunningly constructed that I had to read it twice to be sure I understood everything that was going on—and there are still a few loose ends. But it’s also an ambitious, if reticent, novel about good and evil, friendship and leadership, courage and shame that mainly succeeds.

Like a classic Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery, The Valley has a very limited geographic area and cast of characters. We follow Lieutenant Black—no first name—who’s been sent to a small American combat outpost to conduct a routine investigation: A villager’s house was damaged when an American soldier fired a warning shot in an unruly Afghan crowd, and the village chief complained to a passing civil affairs captain. Lieutenant Black is due to spend a week filling out the paperwork. Meanwhile, he has his own demons: Something has gone very wrong in what should have been a promising Army career, and this is a chance for him to prove himself.

The ramshackle Combat Outpost (COP) Vega—supposed to be the furthest-east, most isolated, and most dangerous American outpost in a Nuristan valley that ends at the Pakistan border—is home to 47 soldiers and one translator, or “terp,” named Danny, the major Afghan character. The men are fighting with not only the Taliban but the villagers, who are also fighting the Taliban. Five days before Black’s arrival, a soldier from Vega fell behind 10 meters on a nighttime patrol and got snatched by locals. His end was gruesome.

In Army-speak, COP Vega is a “self-licking ice cream cone”: an isolated fort so poorly situated that it mainly exists to defend itself rather than to extend American control over terrain or people. Small wonder that the men are half-crazy with stress and treat Black as an enemy. It’s not even so odd that one soldier may be a killer. It is odd, though, that a soldier no one has heard of is listed on the personnel roster, and that another soldier Black meets in the flesh isn’t on the roster.

The U.S. Army doesn’t lose track of soldiers. Or does it?

The Valley draws as much on the conventions of gothic fiction as crime fiction: COP Vega is a castle clinging to a fog-wrapped mountain, surrounded by hostile, poorly understood forces. Black’s trip to COP Vega on a classically pitch-black, rainy night is full of ominous foreshadowing. There’s a joking road sign pointing to “Xanadu,” a cryptic warning to “beware he who would be king.”

The Valley gives the best description of the American military base environment (and the post-9/11 Army) that I’ve ever read, both accurate in the details and evocative in atmosphere. John Renehan nails the big Forward Operating Bases (which are anything but forward) and the tiny, patched-together COPs up in the hills or on dusty plains where the rubber meets the road. He also captures the tensions between noncommissioned officers and junior lieutenants, and between junior enlisted and NCOs. This is all, by extension, a portrait of America today. Consider this:

The room was standard-issue meathead. Heavy-metal posters and jugs of workout powder. An Xbox video game system sat on a shelf beneath a small and beat-up monitor.

Or this description of Lieutenant Pistone, the commander of COP Vega:

He became your squared-away super-soldier, in his own way. Fastidiously organized, diligent about physical training. Not necessarily a good leader. He walked around with the sound track of his freshly awesome life playing in his head. He tended to forget that succeeding in the military was not so much about his own cosmic journey to heroism as it was about how good he was at dealing with people, handling people, taking care of people.

It comes as a shock to read in Renehan’s acknowledgments that the pain-stakingly observed Afghan setting is a work of imagination. Renehan served as an artillery officer in Iraq and has never been to Afghanistan. As this suggests, Renehan is not only a brilliant writer, but a very clever one. Still, there are some first-novel fault lines here: The Valley is written in a close third-person, almost entirely from the point of view of Lieutenant Black. (The couple-dozen pages that take the points of view of other characters are far less successful.) But there’s a major surprise at the end, and the closeness of the narration makes it seem as though the author is pulling a fast one on us.

More seriously, I wish the novelist had opened up his main character more toward the end. He has elegantly avoided all the redemption clichés we might have expected, but the ending feels a bit choked, and The Valley ends on an uncertain note.

Renehan has spoken in an interview of writing a sequel, and I can’t wait; I hope there’s a movie, too. “You are [a] man who needs the truth,” the Afghan terp Danny says to Lieutenant Black. And we need these truths about our wars and our soldiers, too.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, was embedded with the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in Afghanistan.