Reporting on Afghanistan in the Shadow of the “I”

By Helen BenedictFebruary 1, 2014

Reporting on Afghanistan in the Shadow of the “I”

The Four Words for Home by Angie Chuang. Willow Books. 300 pages.The Tender Soldier by Vanessa M. Gezari. Simon & Schuster. 369 pages.

But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it.

— Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own.”

EVER SINCE AMERICAN journalism committed itself to the ideal of objectivity, reporters have been struggling with what on earth to do with themselves in their stories. Should they use the first person, that great “I” that casts a shadow across the page, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, or should they hide that “I” and pretend to have neither opinion nor even corporeal presence?

The convention in newspapers has long been to take the latter approach — to eschew the first person, call oneself “this reporter” if absolutely necessary, and to otherwise pretend one doesn’t exist, telling stories as an omniscient and ostensibly unbiased observer.

This being on many levels impossible, even absurd, reporters with a literary bent soon rebelled, and up popped the “I,” as insistently as a sponge in a bath. This reached an extreme in the early 1970s, when Hunter S. Thompson infamously took that “I” down so many debauched alleyways he almost undermined the credibility of journalism altogether. (I can hear him cackling about that even now.) But once editors got over the shock of writers such as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe mingling the personal with reportage, often to splendid effect, the “I” achieved a new respectability.

Nowadays, the “I” is more ebullient than ever, pushed to the surface by the ever more popular bubbles of literary journalism and memoir. Indeed, most nonfiction books seem to employ the first person these days. That towering “I” is everywhere, which raises the obverse of the question above: Is this “I” really necessary? Or is it casting a Woolfian shadow that actually hides the landscape and obscures the author’s message?

Two recent nonfiction books on Afghanistan, both by reporters, illustrate this dilemma by employing two very different approaches to the use of first person. One has tucked the “I” modestly away, the other has put it squarely in the front seat.

The Tender Soldier by Vanessa M. Gezari, a freelance journalist who has been reporting in Afghanistan on and off since 2002, is a gripping exposé about the muddled efforts by the US Army to use teams of anthropologists as tools for intelligence gathering — a program the Pentagon gave the Orwellian name, “Human Terrain System.” Gezari reveals herself in this story sparingly, deftly stepping out of the way when she isn’t needed, in traditional reporterly fashion. Thus, aside from telling us that she landed at a certain airport or listened while a source told her something, Gezari renders her “I” barely visible, a mere wisp of a column, casting virtually no shadow at all.

For the most part, this faint “I” serves the author well, for her tale is wrapped around the life and death of someone else — a young Army veteran and anthropologist named Paula Loyd, who was doused with gasoline and set afire on November 4, 2008, while conducting research in an Afghan village. Reporting after her protagonist’s lingering death in 2009, Gezari was forced to reconstruct Loyd’s adventures in Afghanistan from other people’s accounts. Loyd’s youth as a determined, intelligent maverick, her education and optimism, and her faith in her ability to help Afghans, are all told through the voices and memories of her family and colleagues in close third person, with no call for an authorial “I,” at all. Take, for example, this memory of Loyd by her fellow team member, Don Ayala, who later becomes the book’s true protagonist:

He felt lucky that Paula Loyd wasn’t one of the fakes. She was an Army vet, after all. She was cordial, focused, and soft-spoken, but there was a stubbornness about her. She knew what she was talking about, and she would tell you what she thought, even if you didn’t like it.

While Gezari largely eschews the first person, she does use other literary techniques to effect, among them a thriller-like structure that explores not only why Loyd was murdered, but why Ayala shot the murderer in cold blood, and whether he should be punished for it. Here lies the most compelling storyline in the book, for it raises all sorts of sticky and intriguing questions about revenge, justice, and morality. And, because Ayala is alive and was willing to talk candidly to Gezari, her reporting here is much more direct than it is about Loyd, allowing her to spin a compelling plot around which to frame her larger political questions about what on earth we are doing in Afghanistan and why our military keeps making so many dumb mistakes.

Gezari gives us history, too, both of Afghanistan and of the cooperation between the military and anthropologists, reaching back to T. E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, in the early 1900s, and moving up through both world wars and beyond. She also makes clear that the use of these “Human Terrain Teams” is highly controversial among anthropologists. After all, it means letting the military use you to figure out whom to trust and whom to kill.

“In 2007, the American Anthropological Association declared its opposition to the Human Terrain System, calling the program ‘an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise,’” she writes. Yet the “Human Terrain System” marches on.

As Gezari’s story moves from Loyd and her grizzly murder to its consequences, she shows us what a smart, well educated “Human Terrain Team” like Loyd’s can achieve in “winning hearts and minds,” versus what a disaster the ignorant, inept teams that followed her have been. In short, she gives us a sound and startling education on exactly why and how we have blundered so badly in Afghanistan, killing too many innocents, missing too many guilty, and creating more anti-Americanism with every step.

Yet, as strong as Gezari’s reporting is, she keeps us at a distance. We never get far inside either Loyd, Ayala, their American partners, or the Afghans they meet; or at least not far inside enough to feel them as fully fleshed people. What we learn instead — and this is the strength of the book — is how American ignorance about Afghanistan is leading to our defeat.


The authorial distance in Gezari’s book is in direct contrast with the way Angie Chuang tells her story of Afghanistan in The Four Words for Home. Here, Chuang is the protagonist, and the entire story is told within the shadow of her “I.” Yet, as much as she focuses on herself, she also offers us an intimate knowledge of an Afghan family by the name of Shirzai.

Chuang was a daily reporter for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland when she began her research, but unlike Gezari, she started reporting on Afghanistan from the United States by interviewing refugees. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, her editor told her “to put a human face on the country we’re about to bomb.” The human face she found belonged to a man she calls Daoud Shirzai, whose family was split between Portland and Kabul.

By 2004, Chuang had come to know the exiled half of the Shirzai family so well that they invited her to go to Kabul to meet the other half. There, she spent a month living in the inner recesses of the household, and thus her choice to use herself as the main character in her book makes sense, for all her interactions with the family were affected by her presence as an American guest. She grew close to the women there, shared their chores and everyday activities, and was virtually taken in as a sister. Her “I” may loom large, but it also gives us a fascinating and intimate view into the friendships, bonds, love, chat, sadness, joy, and daily routine of the young women of the household.

Chuang’s choice to make herself the protagonist works less well in the second storyline she weaves through the book — that of her own Chinese immigrant parents, herself, and her brother. Chuang tries to draw parallels between the families throughout the book, yet this often seems like a stretch. The Afghan family was torn and battered by war after war, autocracy after autocracy — a family clinging to its remains in the wake of trauma. Chuang’s family was not fleeing any such horror. Its problems were personal: mental illness, dislocation, money.

By her own admission, Chuang fell in love with the Shirzai family — mainly, she tells us, because she was so unhappy with her own. Her father was ricocheting between mania and depression, her parents were divorcing, and her brother was emotionally removed. In contrast, the Shirzais helped one another in the wake of 9/11 and the war, their loyalty fierce and their manners warm and welcoming. Chuang soon abandoned her reporter’s distance to nestle within this family, and this is where the book becomes less journalism than memoir, with its large bar of an “I” visible everywhere one looks. Indeed, by the time Chuang left the family in Kabul to return to America, she had almost agreed to marry one of the sons of the household; she had thoroughly “gone native,” as Gezari’s anthropologists might say, as she reveals in this description of her departure:

Stop this plane, I wanted to yell… Turn it around. I didn’t want this to end. What if I had said yes to Rochina? What if she had been serious? What if I did marry Asad? In the thin air of Neither Here Nor There, it all felt possible — or at least more desirable than returning to the complacency of American life and losing that closeness, that sisterhood, I shared with Rochina and Nazo.

Had that rickety jet been equipped with one of those credit-card phones on the seat back and had the house in Kabul had a phone, I might have called Rochina at that moment and declared, “YES! I want to marry your beautiful brother-in-law, learn to pray, and learn to live.”

If Gezari sacrifices intimacy with her shadowy “I,” in passages like this Chuang sacrifices context. The details of her diary-like memoir may be fascinating, but we learn more about her than we do about Afghan society today or how this family fits into it. How typical are the relations between the women in this family? How common are the ways they are treated by their men? Do women in most Afghan families have as much say over whom their brothers marry as they do in the Shirzai family? We are not told. Given all the misunderstandings and mythologies Americans have about Afghanistan, so clearly elucidated by Gezari in her book, it would help to know in which ways the Shirzais are emblematic and in which ways exceptional.

That said, though, both books offer their satisfactions. Gezari gives us history and facts about the US approach to Afghanistan that are still shocking, even as we approach the 13th year of this hapless war. Chuang brings us into the private lives of an Afghan family, truly giving us that human face her editor demanded.

As for the beleaguered “I,” it is well to remember its power. How a writer wields that single letter affects the entire sense of a book: how reliable it seems, how trustworthy, how likeable, how daring, how cool-headed, or otherwise. The “I” will cast its shadow, like it or not. It is up to us writers to ensure that it not obscure the landscape.


Helen Benedict is most recently the author of the novels Sand Queen and The Lonely Soldier, two books about the Iraq War.

LARB Contributor

Helen Benedict is most recently the author of the novel, Sand Queen, and The Lonely Soldier, two books about the Iraq War. She is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.


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