Brandon Caro's debut novel, Old Silk Road, is an important, tough read, both for the dirt-under-its-nails portrayal of soldiers, and for a complex plot that rewards a reader with insights into America's longest war, in Afghanistan.
But be careful. This is not a typical book by another soldier (though Caro spent a year in Afghanistan as a combat medic.) Almost every one of those books follows an outline you'd think they issue to servicepeople as they muster out: get energized following 9/11, throw in a boot camp montage and then drop into Iraq or Afghanistan all wide-eyed. The death of a buddy and/or local child changes everything. Wrap it up with some angst and ship it off to the bestseller list.
Caro instead gives us three distinct but overlapping stories, the first two only lightly fictionalized.
The first portion of the book is the one soldiers will hand to friends who ask "what was it like over there." Caro captures two of the most common aspects of modern war: endless tension about what might happen next, and endless boredom between occasional acts of horror. The narrator, Specialist Norman Rogers, himself a combat medic, and his small team, drift among America's archipelago of bases, at one point setting off on a "mission" to eat Mongolian BBQ at a Forward Operating Base.
The details are carefully rendered. It's a travelogue of sorts, but pay attention; scenes that seem to drift past play tightly into the book's conclusion. One detail disclosed early on is that Rogers is addicted to the morphine he is issued to use as a painkiller on wounded soldiers.
Caro offers us a training sequence in the second part of his book, but with a twist. He lays things bare in a seminal chapter called The Goat School (excerpt). The reference is to a controversial military training technique, in which medics practice on wounded goats. This is not PETA-friendly. The animals are shot at close range, and left in the care of would-be medics to treat.
The final story told in the book is the most compelling. Rogers' addiction turns him deeper and deeper into the drug, to the point where his hallucinations take over his life, and thus the story. He is guided through his visions by a shaman, appropriately and ironically in the guise of Pat Tillman.
(Tillman was America's once-walking propaganda dream. A pro football player making a $3.6 million salary, he gave that all up and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, his family was told he'd been killed by enemy fire charging up a hill. After media interest tapered off, the Pentagon notified Tillman's family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire.)
Through his drugs and his shaman, Rogers (and author Caro) present a deeply sad meditation on America's war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, and America's longest war is held up alongside others who failed earlier: the Greeks, the Mongols, the British and the Soviets. Echoes of the questions many Americans should be asking are present - Why did we invade? 14+ years later why are still occupying? Why do we believe we will win when everyone else failed? Rogers unwinding as a human being mirrors America's own efforts at war.
Criticisms are few. The book shifts in time, in narrator and between the character's world in and out of his morphine haze. The reader must pay careful attention. Some passages meant to show the hurry-up-and-wait nature of Army life may themselves drag a bit.
But no matter. Old Silk Road is an important addition to post-9/11 war literature. While the message in the hands of others could have been pedantic or whining, Caro is a skilled writer and presents a statement that is not anti-soldier and not anti-American, but clearly anti-war.