The Mirror Test
America at War in Iraq and AfghanistanBook - 2016
A New York Times Editors' Choice
A Military Times Best Book of the Year
A powerfully written firsthand account of the human costs of conflict.
J. Kael Weston spent seven years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan working for the U.S. State Department in some of the most dangerous frontline locations. Upon his return home, while traveling the country to pay respect to the dead and wounded, he asked himself: When will these wars end? How will they be remembered and memorialized? What lessons can we learn from them?
These are questions with no quick answers, but perhaps ones that might lead to a shared reckoning worthy of the sacrifices of those—troops and civilians alike—whose lives have been changed by more than a decade and a half of war.
Weston takes us from Twentynine Palms in California to Fallujah in Iraq, Khost and Helmand in Afghanistan, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming, and New York City, as well as to out-of-the-way places in Iowa and Texas. We meet generals, corporals and captains, senators and ambassadors, NATO allies, Iraqi truck drivers, city councils, imams and mullahs, Afghan schoolteachers, madrassa and college students, former Taliban fighters and ex-Guantánamo prison detainees, a torture victim, SEAL and Delta Force teams, and many Marines.
The overall frame for the book, from which the title is taken, centers on soldiers who have received a grievous wound to the face. There is a moment during their recovery when they must look upon their reconstructed appearance for the first time. This is known as “the mirror test.” From an intricate tapestry of voices and stories—Iraqi, Afghan, and American—Weston delivers a larger mirror test for our nation in its global role. An unflinching and deep examination of the interplay between warfare and diplomacy, this is an essential book—a crucial look at America now, how it is viewed in the world and how the nation views itself.
Baker & Taylor
In a powerfully written firsthand account of the human costs of conflict, the author challenges Americans to address hard questions about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A former State Department official draws on a wide range of voices and stories to explore the human costs of conflict, asking hard questions about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the critics
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Eventually, my black footlockers arrived stateside. It was, at long last, time to unpack. As I emptied the dented, dirty, and once mini-padlocked containers and my hands sifted through their contents, it all came back.
Surprisingly, strangely, gratefully, and, yes, finally, I felt ready to go through what was inside them. . . inside me.
The base [Helmand, Afghanistan] was set in the middle of a gray-yellow desert that turned orange at dusk and dawn. The place looked like Mars, but instead of Martians, I saw only hundreds of Marines whose uniforms bended into the landscape. It was like landing on "Planet of the Marines."
Over cups of hot tea on that hot day, I played at being a good host. A fan blew hot air around the room, disrupting the flight of a few non-aerodynamic flies trying to land on the sugar spoon.
Richard Holbrooke: "No one in Washington knows anything about Afghanistan. And what they do know is mostly wrong."
Our convoy departed well before sunrise. It was late afternoon when we arrived in Musa Kehl District, but the slanting rays of the sun still felt hot. Low-swooping hawks soared on the dry wind blowing peak to peak.
The day seemed primed for lightning strikes. No thunderstorms had been predicted, but I knew they could come fast, rolling down from the far-away, mirage-like mountaintops: a spiked, curved spine of rock like the back of a giant stone Stegosaurus.
I was going from one war [in Iraq] right into another [in Afghanistan], because I wanted to justify my country's actions. . . . Most of all, I wanted to convince them what the United States of America still stood for -- not what we risked becoming because of Iraq. . . our national mirror so cracked. . .a countenance scarred and increasingly unrecognizable.
Iraq had taken a toll on me, too. I saw it in the mirror. . . . But I also felt resilient in a newfound and unexpected way. . . . A forging of something deep inside, a soul, a spirit, made larger, in a way, amid all the broken parts.
A question I should be asked. A question both Republican and Democratic policy makers should be asked. . . and asked not once or a few times, but repeatedly.
"Did you kill anyone over there?"
Congressman Walter Jones (NC): "Congress will not hold anyone to blame. Lyndon Johnson's probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney."
A friend recounted a post-9/11 CODEL [Congressional Delegation] to Paris [as part of a visit to the Middle East] that has since entered State Department lore. A group of House representatives and "spouses" stayed at the Hotel Intercontinental (635 euros, or over $1,000, per night). Before arriving in France, the politicos sent a forty-four-page fax detailing what every member wanted in their minibar. "Not Smirnoff Vodka, but Grey Goose. Not Seagram's gin, but Tanqueray. Not Johnnie Walker Black, but Johnie Walker Blue. Red Bull, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, and Pop Tarts, as well as a premium selection of French wine and cheese upon arrival."
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