The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya has flaws you don’t expect to find in the work of an experienced author, but it’s still a compelling story. It’s a modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, set in a remote military outpost in Afghanistan, and it treats the same theme as David Malouf’s thoughtful Ransom (itself based on The Iliad, see my review), that is, how the respectful burial of the dead is a defining characteristic of humanity.
Human remains at Lake Mungo in Australia provide the earliest evidence of cremation as a burial rite, showing that 40,000 years ago (and maybe more) people took great care to treat the dead with respect. And whether or not rituals for the dead are associated with religion or superstition or simply long-standing customs, these observances raise complications in that other most ancient of human endeavours – war. Cannibals eat symbolic body parts of their enemies to deflect their power, and the triumphant display of the vanquished in one insulting form or another has long been used to assert the power of the victors. What we see of modern conflicts in photography and film often includes bodies spreadeagled on the ground, but the media shields us from mangled body parts and the human face. And the Fallen of our own side are generally brought home to their loved ones with dignity and respectful military rituals.
But in Roy-Bhattacharya’s story, a lone woman confronts the American soldiers at an isolated outpost in the Kandahar region, demanding the return of her brother’s body. She says he wasn’t an insurgent Talib, but rather a freedom-fighter repelling the invaders of his country. The baffled men on the base aren’t sure whether she’s a lunatic, a Black Widow suicide bomber, a spy or a lure sent by the enemy in the nearby mountains, or simply what she says she is – a grieving sister wanting to perform the burial rites that she thinks her heroic brother deserves.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, some more successfully than others. The first chapter, narrated by the woman Nazim, is the most successful. It sets up the tension that follows and it positions the reader in sympathy with her though also alarmed by some of her incomprehensible actions which seem suspicious. This chapter is followed by the perspective of the men, of varying rank, education and sensibility, and of the new interpreter Masood, subject to his own tribal prejudices and cultural impulses.
The narratives of the exhausted soldiers at the end of their psychological tether slip into dreams, hallucinatory conversations with their dead mates, and fraught memories of homes often disloyal or uncomprehending. No character’s account can entirely be trusted because every one of them is damaged by this conflict. But at times the dialogue descends into inauthentic-sounding speeches. The motivations of the characters who join up echo faintly of military propaganda, especially the passage about the noble role of the military in America and how they are crippled in their mission by their political leaders:
The military is the only institution left with any conception of honour – or any of the virtues that once made the good old US of A the place the whole world looked up to. Think courage, endurance, integrity, judgement, justice, loyalty, discipline, knowledge. The rest of them – the civilian leadership, especially – are just a pile of cr–. They’ve saddled us over here with a government that reeks of corruption, they’ve handcuffed us in an operational straightjacket with no clear guidelines, and then they just forget about us and expect us to work miracles. (p. 159)
Now, I can’t speak for other Australians, but it seems to me that this nostalgia about America as a place that the whole world looked up to is misplaced. Australia will always be in debt to America for its help in repelling the Japanese in WW2, and the contrast between the inspiring speeches of President Obama at his inauguration and the orchestrated assumption of power by the new Chinese President is instructive. But if ever America did enjoy universal adulation, it had vanished long before any intervention in Afghanistan. Covert CIA interference in the governments of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s was notorious and America had dragged Australia into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Far from thinking of its military as inspiring, I can’t read a passage like this without thinking of the My Lai Massacre or the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and I also can’t help thinking that it’s probably this kind of ennobling propaganda that entices vulnerable young men to enlist in the military. The effect is balanced somewhat by the author’s acknowledgement that some of these men are lured into service only because they have few other job options. As Duggal tells Sergeant Whelan:
We didn’t sign up to save your country. Most of us signed up to get a regular paycheck and avoid working at the local supermarket for the rest of our lives. (p. 193)
These tendencies towards speechifying imply that Roy-Bhattacharya is a man on a bit of a mission, getting something off his chest. (This was confirmed subsequent to the writing of this review by a look at his website). The author (literally) listing 22 reasons why the Taliban are a bad idea and his character Connolly distributing the list to the troops as reminder of ‘the kind of people we’re up against’ is daft, not to mention disingenuous as the implied reason for this war. Nobody gave a hoot about the Taliban treatment of women until 9/11, but it’s useful as propaganda to arouse female support for sustaining the intervention now. (They still don’t give a hoot about the oppression of women in the Middle East, Africa, the Indian sub-continent or anywhere else, and there’s similar indifference about freedom of religion. These issues have never been used as a reason for war, and rightly so. See the Principles of a Just War at Wikipedia.)
I don’t have a problem with the concept of allusions to Ancient Greek literature through the character of Frobenius and others of the officer class, indeed they serve to highlight the differences in education between officers and men. But quoting chunks of Mozart’s Requeim in Latin and English, pondering the Acheans at Troy, and Tacitus as bedtime reading is overdoing it a bit. (And made me wonder, did the Lieutenant lug his classics library round the world with him or did he have a Kindle? How do bookloving soldiers get by, when they’re on active service?) These passages, and the Lieutenant’s Journal in particular, weigh the book down without contributing enough to justify it.
On the other hand, this sympathetic portrait offers an insight into the competing pressures under which these soldiers work. The claustrophobic sleeping conditions, the lack of privacy, the tasteless food and the awful climate are bad enough, but the psychological damage of the combat cycle is raw. An encounter with the enemy brings an adrenalin rush which the men have learned to savour, along with a grim satisfaction when they inspect the bodies afterwards. But while they wait in anticipation for the next ‘high’ their nerves are on quarrelsome edge and they have a well-justified fear that they won’t be able to fit back into normal society when they return home. Inevitably there is the grief that they feel when they lose a man with whom they have formed a close bond, and they lack a means to express it (because the dead and wounded are taken out by Black Hawk helicopters so there is no healing ceremony at the base, no time or opportunity to mourn.) Whatever your opinions are about the war in Afghanistan, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to care about the psychological vulnerability of these men.
So it’s an interesting book and a useful reminder that while modern warfare doesn’t involve the carnage of 20th century wars, it is still ghastly for all sides caught up in it.
Author: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
Title: The Watch
Publisher: Vintage Australia, 2012
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: The Watch