The ‘Stan. Kevin Knodell, David Axe, and Blue Delliquanti. Annapolis, MD: Dead Reckoning, 2018.
The ‘Stan is a graphic novel created by journalist Kevin Knodell, writer David Axe, and cartoonist Blue Delliquanti. It features seventeen vignettes centered on stories of people, the United States, and Afghanistan. Most of the work’s stories relay experiences of U.S. service members scattered throughout Operation Enduring Freedom, though a few include American civilians and the Afghans themselves. The work reads as a light graphic novel that can be completed in a half hour. According to the work’s authors, the stories told and the persons portrayed are real, but are unconnected to one another—barring the war in Afghanistan. The work opens with a provocative preface from David Axe, who argues the war “had also made the United States what it was…and still is. An angry, resentful, increasingly powerless superpower. A country where, to many millions, killing foreigners, and especially Muslim foreigners—however pointless their deaths might be—somehow represents a political end unto itself. As long as the United States can still slaughter brown people, America is still great. Right?” Given the author clearly has an axe to grind (pun intended), one might expect incendiary rhetoric to produce a work that challenges the reader to think critically about the war, the U.S. service member, the veteran, the Afghans, and the reader’s own role in the war’s perpetuation. Unfortunately, it does not.
The work’s principal failing is its thin chapters. Five to ten pages is too brief to contextualize a single person and their relationship to Afghanistan. Take for instance Specialist Alison Parton, whose chapter is titled “From Hooters Waitress to Soldier.” After losing her job at a Waffle House only to find work at a Hooters, the seventeen-year-old deceives her mother into signing a waiver to join the U.S. Army. She scores high on her aptitude tests and is assigned to work in intelligence collection interrogating detainees. She travels outside the wire where she attends shuras to build trust with local Afghan leaders, and remarks that she also traveled with combat units looking for terror suspects. Parton’s chapter closes with her stating that women have been in combat the entire war. Though true, this final statement is more ephemeral than profound. We do not see Specialist Parton in combat, nor do we get her thoughts on anything related to her service beyond this simple, well-established fact.
In another chapter, an Afghan National Army service member receives a career-ending wound and must leave Afghanistan, since it is no longer safe for him in Afghanistan. In still another, a Green Beret who transitions to working with the CIA notes the war in Afghanistan changed when the U.S. Army’s large conventional units arrived—he states the Army does not perform counter-insurgency operations well. What are we meant to draw from this, other than the inferences that, “War does not care about your gender, it displaces locals, and it is complex?” The material is simply too thin. Rather than challenge the reader to critically consider the war in Afghanistan and its relationship to the people most affected by it, the brief forays into seventeen moments in time fizzle without significant impact.
It might have been possible to offset this weakness with striking visuals, but here as well the work is lacking. Afghanistan is 1/15th the size of the United States, yet the nation is filled with striking mountains, valleys, rivers, qalats (Afghan homes), mosques, wildlife, and ecosystems. Afghanistan hardly seems to receive sufficient visual representation, here; in a graphic novel that spotlights complex human interactions in a remote location, Afghanistan is barely visible. Most of the images are drawn with a human center-stage and muddy backgrounds featuring qalats or brown hills; the work is completely devoid of shots that might frame U.S. soldiers and Afghans within Afghanistan’s tremendous and multifaceted landscape. Doing so might have better accentuated what the front cover intimates: even in a country so small, the best of intentions are easily lost in all of Afghanistan’s terrain, whether on its flatlands or its tall mountains. This is made all the more unfortunate, as it is clear the work is written and drawn with a great deal of empathy toward those who find themselves in the middle of this conflict—U.S. and Afghan alike.
Several graphic novels on Afghanistan have already advanced narrative technique while immersing readership in the war’s complexities. Take, for instance, Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frederic Lemercier’s 2006 work The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. Focused on the Soviet-Afghan War in 1986, the book interweaves Guibert’s artwork with Lefevre’s black and white photographs. Placing the two in parallel on each page, the authors added captions and word balloons to the illustrated narrative examining, among other topics, efforts to build a hospital amid war’s destruction while the real photographs rested below. More recently, The Breadwinner: A Graphic Novel, based on the original book by Deborah Ellis and adapted from the feature film directed by Nora Twomey, tells the story of an eleven-year-old Afghan girl named Parvana who disguises herself as a boy to perform work during the Taliban’s rule.
One need only look to the contemporary fascination with superheroes to see the visual novel’s potency in asking readers to consider the human condition, its conflicts, morality, and our relationships to one another. Yet, it is not enough to point out that these conflicts exist and infer that they have consequences. They do, and we have 18 years of conflict—and counting—to prove it. A November 2018 study by the Watson Institute at Brown University estimated Afghanistan has cost the U.S. $975 billion dollars. The same study estimates Afghan war dead at 147,000—including 38,000 civilians. The Department of Defense estimates roughly 2,500 U.S. war dead in Afghanistan and over 20,000 wounded in action. In addition to its service members, the U.S. has also lost civilian and contract personnel. In 2015, a Department of Veteran Affairs report found 1,218,857 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan using their services.
Large though these numbers appear, within them exist thousands of profound and meaningful moments from which the world can learn a great deal. They deserve the writing and visualization necessary to give voice to their meaning. And we, the reader, would be better for it.
Michael Doidge Michael Doidge is a contract historian working for the Department of Defense. In 2013 he created the digitally interactive military history Vanguard of Valor while working at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He defends his dissertation, “An Army Worth Fighting For: Doctrinal, Strategic, and Bureaucratic Transformation in the U.S. Army from 1946 to 1963,” in September of 2019. The views expressed are the the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: A frame from The ‘Stan (Knodell, Axe, and Delliquanti)
 Knodell, Kevin and David Axe. The ‘Stan. Annapolis: Dead Reckoning, 2017, Vi.
 “Costs of War,” Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, November 2018, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/civilians/afghan
 “Casualty Status,” U.S. Department of Defense, updated daily, https://dod.defense.gov/News/Casualty-Status/
 “VA Health Care Utilization by Recent Veterans,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, contains data from October 1, 2001 to June 30, 2015, https://www.publichealth.va.gov/epidemiology/reports/oefoifond/health-care-utilization/