A love of politics, rare in most countries, is common in America. It is a political project, after all, and not an organic human community that resonates to the same poetry and which acquired a state bit by bit along the way many centuries ago. In such normal countries, individuals become politicians because the profession is more interesting than accounting, requires no specific skill as with shoe-making, for example, and is often well-paid: Italian senators for example receive (earn is the wrong word) the equivalent of $223,683.46 per year because the euro is low right now. But that is still much more than the $174,000 for U.S. senators, and, moreover, Italy with a quarter of the U.S. population offers 321 senatorial seats as opposed to the mere 100 in the United States, with 630 more seats to fill in the lower chamber as opposed to the 435 House members, with more seats in regional assemblies and city councils. In other words, there are lots of jobs for the boys, many more than in the United States. And executive branch officials do even better across Europe, earning more than the measly $221,400 of the U.S. secretary of defense. And that too counts but little for the average minister whose relentless devotion to public service is very often rewarded even before retirement.
For Jason Kander, the author of Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD, all such would have been utterly irrelevant. When he and his wife Diana were starting in the same law school, they “would not talk about babies or houses or cars or vacations. We spoke about campaigns we’d run and offices we’d win and laws we’d change.” Later he specifies how many laws they would seek to change: most of them. “We’d shared two goals: be together and try to change the world.”
We are very far from politics as a profession. This is the all-consuming political passion that leaves no room for the constituents of normal life, which Kander himself lists as “babies, houses, cars, vacations,” except perhaps for one child planned, engendered, and delivered as an electoral accoutrement of use when competing in heavily hetero-normal constituencies, and a well-battered car (one such duly features as Kander’s transportation in spite of some family wealth). And of course it is only people unhinged from any existing reality who could set out to change everything while still too young to have experienced anything much. But they cannot help it: Politics has seized them as an eagle seizes its prey—yes, you literary types, Racine’s Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
Because he is both exceedingly self-conscious (he solemnly recounts even passing thoughts) and honest to a fault, Kander lets the cat out of the bag: “I was jealous of people—the normal people—who could be happy doing a regular job raising kids, and diving into hobbies. I didn’t understand them but I envied them all the same.” One is taken aback by this explicit confession that exposes the stupendous if perfectly unconscious arrogance of contemporary American liberalism: He keeps engaging in grueling campaigns that painfully separate him from his beloved wife and child to lead people whose values he cannot even understand let alone share, and who therefore cannot be governed except by circumvention, or, to put it less politely, by deception (as in the “diversity” discourse that is to mask the realignment of power balances in university faculties, public institutions, and corporate boards subverted by the “stakeholder” expropriation of the shareholder owners).
When and where was he infected? How it actually started perhaps long before, it cannot be known from this book. But in the summer of 2017 a mutual friend introduced him to Barack and Michelle Obama—or tried to: “but the President cut him off: I know who this is! Jason, you and I need to be working together!”
Then it really happened!
Kander goes to Barack and Michelle Obama’s office in Washington, D.C., which of course he describes as classy in an understated yet stylish way, and even before the scheduled meeting he is greeted by Ben Rhodes—the world-famous, universally admired, forever glorious, global expert who greased the slide to the Iran agreement by omitting public mention of its unmentionable parts, including shrinkwrapped $100 bill deliveries.
Obama, who was, inevitably, wearing black jeans and a black sweater (!) teased him for wearing a suit, thereby starting a lively discussion about the origin of neckties (which did not reach back to its Pandur origins).
One waits for the political chat, but there was none. After all, Obama really was all about style—hence he never visited any of our unstylish drugged out slums, and besides, the author had just lost his Senate race because of “voter suppression” (whereupon, inevitably, he started his own “Let America Vote” outfit). But that was back in 2016, before truckloads of money arrived to fund anti-voter suppression outfits everywhere that provide a decent living to many, and executive jet transportation for some.
There is real pathos: “The watch party for my Senate race felt like a wedding—everyone I knew and loved showed up ready to celebrate.” But then: “Hillary lost Michigan. Then Pennsylvania. Then the Presidency. For a few minutes I was still alive [he means his campaign], and then I wasn’t.”
It was inevitable that Kander would next run for the presidency, but having received endorsements and funds he abruptly redirected his campaign staff to pursue the rather more modest office of mayor of Kansas City. But then he withdrew because his furious political passion was overtaken by that very specifically American phenomenon: PTSD—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—something altogether more consequential than the battle fatigue of the Second World War or the shellshock of the First World War, whose intense terrors accumulated over years of combat far more intense than anything known in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan but which were nonetheless cured in most cases by a month or two behind the lines. (The most obvious, if probably disallowed, explanation for the colossal discrepancy is that battle fatigue or shellshock diagnoses did not result in a cascade of benefits. I have often wondered how many PTSD claims would have persisted if they automatically nullified driving licenses.)
Kander joined the National Guard and was sent to Afghanistan for four months ending in February 2007 during which he was assigned to intelligence duties, as they were called. As he was flown home, his first symptom emerged: “a weird little twitch.” It would grow into an all-encompassing and recurringly very acute trauma, accompanied by intensely suicidal thoughts.
Having been in combat myself in more than one war, I am ashamed to say that I never experienced any subsequent stress, though artillery shells landing at random around me (it was no World War I barrage) must have been alarming at the time I suppose, and shooting at enemy infantrymen who were returning the favor must have been pretty exciting, and I do still remember that upon landing after my only lean-out-and-shoot helicopter ride, when I tried to undo the holding belt’s buckle I discovered it undone—I was only alive because the pilot pulled his turns all in the right direction.
With characteristic honesty, Kander does not merely reveal but actually emphasizes his complete lack of combat experiences in Afghanistan: He was never fired upon from any distance, and he himself never fired any weapon during his four-month tour.
But any impulse to dismiss him as a wimp cannot withstand the evidence presented in the book. Upon reading his sometimes very detailed account of his days in Afghanistan, I was forced to conclude that had I been in Kander’s place I would have avoided his traumas, but only by mutiny or desertion.
It starts with Kander’s intelligence duties. He was to collect information on the Taliban and drug-dealing gangsters, a.k.a. warlords, by meeting dubious informants—mostly drug-dealers themselves—in their own abodes, getting there in unarmored vehicles in a farcical attempt to maintain a low profile, with a handful of escorting combatants sent by another command that was apt to pull them back at any time.
Kander had not been sent to a language school to learn the Pashtu of the Pathans prevalent in the south and present in most parts, or the Dari, the Afghan Farsi, of the Tajik that dominated the north, nor any other Afghan language, not even Uzbek, a plain Turkic tongue very easily picked up.
The U.S. Army was in Afghanistan for two decades, long enough to train intelligence officers to read, write, speak, and even compose poetry in more than one local language—but preferred to do nothing, and neither could it call on the CIA to provide language officers because that is the world’s only intelligence service that requires no language skills and has almost none (Michael Scheuer, head of the Bin Laden office, knew no Arabic, was not ordered to learn it, and made no attempt to learn any while failing to catch that most verbal of enemies—his deputy was equally bereft). And besides, CIA officers willing to leave Virginia mostly insisted on staying inside well-fortified headquarters, just as well because they could only converse with English-speakers in any case.
Therefore Kander, like all other Army “intelligence” officers, was entirely dependent on interpreters who typically had their own more pressing priorities, from their need to avoid irritating any of the bandit-informants, to keeping the local Taliban well-informed of all that transpired, to avoid their own sudden death or attacks on family members. (Unsurprisingly there was no trace of a post-conquest Taliban manhunt for our supposedly loyal interpreters.)
Hence Kander faced the ever-present danger that a meeting would become an ambush, which could easily overwhelm the few soldiers serving as bodyguards.
This made the U.S. Army’s lunatic parody of intelligence work (little or no actual intelligence was ever gathered) inherently very dangerous because informants of course had to know the time and place in advance.
Kander’s patriotism and earnest desire to serve (he tried hard to return after his four months) did not blind him to the fatal defects of the entire Afghan enterprise shaped by willfully ignorant but media-savvy and mostly photogenic generals exemplified by Petraeus. Having flatly refused to raise ethnic regiments, which might have been cohesive in combat, they foolishly insisted on the fiction of an Afghan Army even in the absence of an Afghan nation in pre-national Afghanistan. Nor did the Karzai clan appointed to run the country ever tell the truth—they made billions from the racket. Remarkably, Petraeus & Co. even ignored the flood of U.S. Army reports of Afghan officers who did not show up for “joint” operations, or refused to fight if they did, or could not fight if they tried (it did not take much of a bribe to enter the Afghan Army as an officer for the extra pay without any training to speak of).
But there is one limit to Kander’s honesty: He records without any comment whatever that his informant interviews were not individually conducted by himself but rather by a three-person team that included a female officer and a black officer. Having to choose between Afghan realities and current U.S. societal imperatives, the U.S. Army simply ignored its own mission requirements. Afghan informants, brought up to think of women as the highest version of domestic animals, naturally refused to respond to any question whatever when it was obvious that it had been posed by the female officer (who nevertheless refused to pass her questions to the interpreter beforehand so that she could remain silent at the meeting). As for the black officer, he was an object of mild curiosity given the total absence of Afro-anything in Afghan culture, but he too was mostly ignored. Instead of glorying in his primacy, Kander was trapped by his embarrassment.
To die for one’s country is sweet and decorous as unsurpassed Horace wrote. But to die while conducting utterly useless interviews (informants could not possibly reveal secrets apt to reach the Taliban right away through the interpreter), in pursuit of the quixotic fantasy that the U.S. Army could engender a patriotic Afghan Army in the absence of Afghans in a country of Pathans, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, is too maddening a thought to maintain one’s mental balance.
Though I wish Kander well, I hope that unlike his many peers, he will abjure any form of political leadership over a majority population whose preferences he does not share, or even understand—those strange people with their churches and their guns as the stylish one said.
Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD
by Jason Kander
Mariner Books, 224 pp., $28.99
Edward Luttwak, a consultant to governments and militaries, is author of Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, and other books.