Last summer I took my God Daughter to see Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot (not even knowing that the words were G.I. code for “What The F. . .”.) I figured Tina Fey would be funny and I would be interested in whatever the movie said that sounded real about Afghanistan, while my God Daughter would like the humor and the explosions. Turned out we both liked the movie – it seemed to me a brutally honest and insightful portrayal of what’s going on there, and plenty of laughs and explosions were worked into the credible plot.
A month or so later I read a book that also seemed like an honest and insightful portrayal of our effort in Afghanistan, with the ironic title Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying Through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan by a journalist who had recently been embedded with the troops there for the second time. I asked the author, Douglas Wissing, if he felt the WTF movie was a good reflection of that complex scene and he said he indeed thought it was.
Wissing came on my WFYI – (PBS) radio show in Indianapolis, “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour,” to talk with me and my Co-Host, Will Higgins of The Indianapolis Star, about “Writing from Dangerous Places.” (Will had written from Iraq a few years ago, I had written from Israel and Jordan in 1956.) It turns out that Higgins had offered to loan Wissing his body armor when he went on his first tour to Afghanistan, but Doug has a larger frame than Will and it didn’t fit. I learned that all reporters going to our Middle East wars are required to have body armor, which costs about $250 and feels like it weighs a ton (I tried it on and almost sank to the floor.)
After reading the personal, up-close account of politics, battles, American soldiers and Afghanistan citizens in Wissing’s book, I could easily understand the “Hopeless” part of the title, but it was difficult to discern the “Optimistic” aspect. As best as I could judge, the greatest optimism expressed by the people of Afghanistan was that the American troops would soon be leaving. That was also the most cause of optimism among the troops.
An anecdote Wissing shared on the radio show seemed to sum up the irony of even our efforts to understand what’s happening in Afghanistan. Both Higgins and Wissing remarked on how well fed – maybe even over-fed – the G.I.s were in these foreign wars. Both remarked that they had gained weight on their tours of reporting duty from the good and plentiful food the troops were served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an effort to capture the feelings of soldiers, Wissing noted graffiti on the walls of latrines in G.I. camps. He recorded in his journal one chilling message scrawled in an army latrine: “I am going to die.” Returning to the men’s room in that same camp a few months later, he looked again for that haunting message, and this time he realized he hadn’t seen all the letters in the final word. On closer examination, he saw that the message said “I am going to diet.”
Some die, some diet, some are wounded in body and mind and soul. The main source of optimism I found in Wissing’s thorough and engrossing first-hand report was the hope that our seemingly endless war in Afghanistan war might finally end.