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Working on To Kill the Other took me places. No, I didn’t really travel by foot or plane, but I read as much as I possibly could. Hoped to understand something I couldn’t even name—a new culture, and a religion largely unknown to me called Islam—something that appeared to be elusive, strange, and deeply foreign.



I started working on my novel almost immediately after 9/11, and the first book I read was a war memoir, Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, by Robert D. Kaplan, a renowned  journalist. The book is an extraordinary account of Kaplan’s travels with the brave “soldiers of God,” Islamic  guerrilla fighters, who fought the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s.

Kaplan’s account of the months of living with the mujahidin offers a deeply personal perspective. And 11 years after, I don’t remember many details from the book, but I remember how Kaplan, with every day of his extraordinary journey,  marveled at the astounding landscape of Afghanistan (like the Panjshir Valley in the picture above), missed his wife, and grew closer to the guerrilla fighters.

For example, in a moment of bonding, Kaplan wanted to show a photo he carried of his wife to one of the mujahidin. There was one problem: The image showed his wife standing at the shore of an enormous lake wearing western clothing that revealed her arms and legs. And Kaplan was afraid that this might offend the mujahid, whose religion forbids a man from looking at the face of a woman other than his wife or sister.

Finally, after many weeks of hesitation, Kaplan decided to show the picture. The reaction of the mujahid surprised him. The mujahid said: “So much water!” The buildup of Kaplan’s hesitation and the mujahid’s reaction underline unexpected moments of revelations—how much we can discover about the other in the midst of our misconceptions.

The mujahidin fought the Soviets in their war in Afghanistan for almost ten years. Finally, with foreign involvement and U.S. aid, the mujahidin succeeded in 1988 at forcing the Soviets to withdraw. Afghanistan then fell into a civil war and the unprecedented tyranny of the Taliban rule that followed.

Today, more than a decade after 9/11, Afghanistan is different—and Afghanistan is the same. It is a country devastated by decades of war and the neverending agony of tribal conflicts, and still, in many places, the Taliban rules. Our military is still there, and, in my opinion, it is questionable if leaving is the best solution. Even though I, like many others, want our soldiers back home, I understand the consequences of withdrawal. After all, we went through the same history lesson in the 1980s. The more my skepticism grows, the more I look up to those who do not share my conviction, and this summer and had the privilege of meeting one such person, Jamie Bell. 

Jamie Bell, who first studied criminal law at the University of Delaware, then joined the Marines, and after serving ten years and two tours in Iraq, became an Apache attack helicopter pilot for the Army. I met him during his homecoming from Afghanistan in Morristown, New Jersey.

Bell looks at Afghanistan from a different perspective. For him there is hope, “definitely there is hope.” He admits that the biggest challenge is fighting tribal relationships, but this too can be overcome. In answer to a question on Afghanistan’s prospects by local journalist Kevin Coughlin, Bell said: “We build the ground for peace, but it will take a commitment of our government and our citizens.” Bell believes that decades of war and devastation can be overturned, if we continue on the path. 

With time my memory won’t preserve the details of that evening, but it will safeguard the feelings: Bell’s unstoppable energy, his joyful spirit, his openness, professionalism, and his commitment to his beautiful wife Lidia and their children. What surprised me most was Bell’s demeanor, something I will never forget. He displayed an unbroken spirit and an untarnished faith in the mission of our country. And talking with Lidia, I will always remember the grace and devotion she exhibited. She is the rock that makes everything else possible.

By sharing his wife’s picture, Robert D. Kaplan discovered that his hesitation was based on presumptions and expectations that turned out to be inaccurate. By talking to Jamie Bell, I learned that giving up on presumptions (no matter how strong my argument might be), I too might find an unexpected relief or perhaps even epiphany, and discover a new source of pride. Maybe, I say today with hope, but without the conviction one might wish for in the end. Not yet.

To learn more about Jamie Bell’s homecoming from Afghanistan go HERE.

Photo in this post is from: here

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