It seems as though it took years for fiction writers to process the impact of the Vietnam War in a meaningful way. It also seems as though the fiction emerging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is more immediate, rawer, and as significant as any that came out of Vietnam. I don’t know why the two wars differ in that respect, nor which of the newer novels will survive, but in terms of sheer impact, The Watch has a good chance of being that book.
The story: at a remote outpost guarding access to the mountains of Kandahar, American soldiers maintain a vigilant watch against Taliban fighters. After a brutal night attack which leaves the Americans on edge, a legless young woman arrives on the plain outside the base. She has wheeled herself on a cart through the tortuous landscape to retrieve the body of her brother for proper burial. Suspicious of her motives, afraid of a suicide bombing attempt, and unable to communicate with her, the Americans order her first to leave, then to stay outside the perimeter. Negotiations, if her stubborn refusal to leave and their refusal to release the body, can be called negotiations, proceed very slowly, until an uneasy truce is achieved. While the events are slowly unfolding, we see through the eyes of the various characters that this culture clash is both unavoidable and irreconcilable.
The moral heart of the story is occupied by Nizam, the Pashtun woman, and by Americans Lieutenant Nick Frobenius and First Sergeant Marcus Whalen. Frobenius brings the benefit of his classical Dartmouth education to the reader, recognizing Nizam’s stand as parallel to that of Antigone in Sophocles’ play. He also represents the disillusionment of men who joined the military from patriotic motives only to discover that they were being used as pawns in a game of chess with ill-defined goals, as well as one whose relationship has suffered during his deployment. Whalen is the competent career man, the bridge between the officers and the lower ranks whose sense of duty keeps him going despite his exhaustion. And Nizam is the person who has right on her side but no power to claim it. Now her family’s sole survivor, she wants to fulfill the final rite of a courageous warrior. It is impossible for her to envision anything outside her traditional role in Pashtun society, but she brings the dignity and strength of a person secure in her identity to the battle of wills. Other chapters are narrated by different characters, but their stories revolve around their interactions with these three, and around the questions raised by the force of their characters.
Roy-Bhattacharya uses the atmosphere of the war zone effectively. The Americans are running on uppers in the wake of the night attack, drowsing on their feet and experiencing vivid and all-too-short dreams of home. Isolation and vulnerability, and the harsh conditions—dust storms, freezing nights, hot days—reinforce to them that they are aliens. Their base is cramped and smelly, but the expansive plains and looming mountains outside the walls may conceal threats. And the close quarters can make them hate the comrades they must depend on.
Who should give way when an individual with right on her side meets powerful people with might and a strict code of conduct? That question has been explored in literature and art, and lived out by individuals determined to change their world. That question isn’t on Nizam’s mind, but the reader can’t help but confront it. This is a tragic tale, told with power and precision by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.
Check the WRL catalog for The Watch