The Hooligans of Kandahar: Not All War Stories Are Heroic. Joseph Kassabian. TCK Publishing, 2018.
It seems everyone is writing these days.
Based on true events and told from the perspective of junior enlisted leader, Joseph Kassabian’s memoir, The Hooligans of Kandahar follows his unit through a year in Kandahar. It begins where this kind of memoir must: with soldiers lolling in the sun, smoking, and waiting for buses to come and take them to war. It ends as the experience of many soldiers does, with an exhausted, over-medicated flight home to a country that has moved on while they have been away. If America’s fetishism with soldier-worship has you looking for a cure, Hooligans may be the nostrum you seek.
That combat is simply months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror is a ubiquitous and anonymous soldier’s maxim. This does not make it untrue. Hooligans is such a story. There is nothing strategic about this tale; there are no sweeping campaign victories, no parades, no strategy sessions, no medals awarded for valor. Instead, what readers will find is a simple story of a group of American soldiers doing their level best to survive a year in Afghanistan and return whole to the United States. They succeed, mostly.
I struggled a bit to place the book in context of other similar works. The Hooligans could have walked out of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; they are everyday Americans who struggle with bringing their wartime experiences home to a society whose ignorance of the war perpetuates it. Those who read Phil Klay’s Redeployment will find some similarities in the characters’ formative experiences. To be fair to Kassabian and Klay, we don’t have the balance of the Hooligans’ lives to know if they fall prey to Klay’s post-war trauma narrative. No story of army life would be complete without an incompetent officer—à la Captain Shrinkle from David Abrams’ Fobbit—and this character too makes an appearance in Hooligans, balanced by a quiet, competent replacement who could have next appeared in John Renhan’s The Valley.
The works of fiction above seek to dismantle the narrative of valorous soldiers put upon pedestals by their American citizenry through fictional storytelling grounded in the reality of war. The message delivered is that soldiers are Americans sent to fight a war by their own citizens who upon return want nothing more than to be understood and accepted—not turned into living memorials showered by non-serving citizens with thanks, discount coupons, and magnetic yellow ribbons. It is Kassabian’s position as a first-person narrator in this memoir that changes both the perspective and impact of this non-fiction work and the dismantling of the modern narrative surrounding soldiers. It is easy to walk away from a book disliking a war; Hooligans left me disliking many of the soldiers as well. In some ways this may leave a reader feeling conflicted; for it is one thing to dislike a fictional character, and it is something wholly other to dislike an average American soldier.
Kassabian brings this conflict to bear by touching the pillars of the American forever war experience. His raw, first-person narrative in the patois of an American soldier lays bare the frustration, anxiety, and futility felt by the young enlisted members of all services. There are insightful and irreverent moments, all laced with the profanity, sexual frustration, and the gallows humor of deployed soldiers.
The forever war has returned a whole new category of veterans who are now coming of age in their own ways and providing insights and perspectives that seem in some way fundamentally different than those who came before. Yet, in America at least, the cast of soldiers is always the same. Sailors are no different, nor marines or airmen. In a recent essay entitled “Ship to Shore,” J.E. Curtis reflects on the highly segregated aspects of life on an aircraft carrier and the vast diversity of its crew. What seems to pull them together at sea is what they lack at home, “...an undeniable sense of unity and shared purpose.” A team of service members at war is something struggling to stay the same, at home they are not static, nor is the country which sends them to war. This tension provides the backdrop for Kassabian’s book.
Treating injured Afghans only to be manipulated and extorted in return by their erstwhile allies is a narrative that spans the memoir-fiction gap. The image of an American soldier and an Afghan child kicking dust over blood in the road, while American soldiers bribe their Afghan counterparts to transport a badly injured Afghan man to the hospital captures well the futility of the conflict; a moment of tragic connection and yet one that cannot bridge the divide of Western culture and Afghan opportunistic survival.
“A large crowd of locals slowly began to surround us to see what we were doing. They looked on with concern as someone they undoubtedly knew barely clung to life in the hands of an American medic… I could see Slim leaning against his truck watching a child try to kick dust over the dark blood puddle that stained the dirt road… He walked over and helped the kid, using his large combat boots to smear over and dilute the blood.”
“‘Hamid!’ Slim yelled at our interpreter. ‘Tell those motherfuckers this guy needs to go to the hospital now or he’s going to die.’ Hamid dutifully translated. The Afghan police made dismissing gesture with their hands and shook their heads. “They say if you give them one hundred dollars they will transport him,’ Hamid said with remorse.”
What inevitably follows these experiences is the slow numbing to the suffering of others and the psychological and physical changes that prolonged stress brings upon even the most resilient of America’s youth. The individual moral consequences of ethical vagaries pile upon the Hooligans, manifested in another reality of the Afghan condition: bacha bazi.
“‘They’re Chai boys,’ Rick said, pointing to several other small children who were serving tea to Afghan policemen. ‘They are the Afghans’ slaves. ‘I’m sorry, did you say slaves?’ Nan asked. ‘Yeah. They kidnap them off the street and turn them into sex slaves and tea boys,’ Rick said. ‘Sweet Jesus! Why haven’t you stopped that?’ I asked. ‘We tried. Reported it to every level of the Afghan and U.S. command. No one cares. We tried banning them from the base, but the police smuggle them back in. We just gave up.’ ‘You gave up...on child sex slaves living next door?’”
Though Kassabian does much of this well, the book is essentially observation without the benefit of reflection. Over the course of the book, Kassabian’s indifference to actual outcomes increases as he and his fellow soldiers fall into a routine of waiting, patrolling, and seeking opportunity to escape the conflict through pornography, alcohol, and escalating personal violence exacted upon each other and, in some cases, the Afghans they are ostensibly there to protect.
“Boredom was painful. It made the hours feel like days and the days feel like weeks. We became masters of passing the time doing random bullshit. We played a game called “Marry, Fuck, Kill.”
The reality of combat stress comes home for Kassabian in a way many who have experienced it will recognize. He is eventually confronted by his leadership and referred for treatment. It does not go well.
“I knew he was making sense, but I didn’t want to hear it. We had always been told that if you needed help, no one would ever stop you and it would stay between you and your command. Everyone knew that was a bunch of shit.”
While the increasing tension with their indifferent Afghan counterparts who must be bribed to do their jobs and who sexually abuse children, the personal struggles with the morality of war, and the gathering weight of episodic combat all add up, I come up short on how frustrated Kassabian is at the end of the memoir. This leaves me one conclusion: Kassabian is a conflicted narrator who has not told us the whole story and that is OK. It does, however, leave a hole in this memoir. There is no redemption, there is no personal growth or shift in perspective by Kassabian or the Hooligans. And perhaps in the story he set out to tell those things did not exist, but I wonder what Kassabian would say now about his experiences, how they changed his life, the lives of those he served with? We’re left only with what happened. We’re left to deduce what happened next on our own.
It seems everyone is writing these days. And the conclusion I came to at the end of this book is that Kassabian did not write it for you to read. He wrote it to sort out this chapter of his life, to put his experiences in a book that he could put on a shelf and store them in a way that other life experiences don’t need to be handled. The book is not artfully done. It is disjointed and repetitive at times, but then again so is combat. It is not a slog; the narrative keeps the reader moving and there is enough empathy created to keep one’s interest in the outcome. No general would ever suggest you read this book, and maybe that is why you should make time to do it. The first person perspective offered by Kassabian is unpolished, irreverent, and told from a soldier’s perspective. In a world full of strategic challenges it is, in my view, a good thing for those making the decisions and grappling with the consequences to get an appreciation for what the greatest of plans looks like when 18-year-old Americans are sent forth to implement them.
Tyrell Mayfield is a U.S. Air Force officer, an editor for The Strategy Bridge, and a co-editor of Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: U.S. soldiers rest along a ridgeline on March 31, 2014 near Pul e Alam, Afghanistan. (CNN)
 J.E. Curtis, “Ship to Shore,” Medium, November 8, 2018, https://medium.com/@JackCurtis_WA/ship-to-shore-f0910048c451.
 Tyrell Mayfield, “In Search of Strategy, In Search of Ourselves,” The Strategy Bridge, October 20, 2015, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2015/12/30/in-search-of-strategy-in-search-of-ourselves.
 Joseph Kassabian, The Hooligans of Kandahar (TCK Publishing, 2016), 109-110.
 Joseph Kassabian, The Hooligans of Kandahar (TCK Publishing, 2016), 93.
 Joseph Kassabian, The Hooligans of Kandahar (TCK Publishing, 2016), 100.
 Joseph Kassabian, The Hooligans of Kandahar (TCK Publishing, 2016), 205.