Cotton on Knodell and Axe, 'The 'Stan'
Kevin Knodell, David Axe. The 'Stan. Illustrated by Blue Delliquanti. Annapolis: Dead Reckoning, 2018. Illustrations. 128 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-68247-098-5.
Reviewed by Joshua Cotton (Jackson State University) Published on H-War (November, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54684
The conflict in Afghanistan has drawn on to become the longest war in US history. To date, an entire generation has been born and raised in the eighteen years since the initial invasion of October 7th, 2001. As a result of the near ceaseless conflict, more than sixty-nine thousand coalition troops and thirty-eight thousand civilians have lost their lives in the ongoing conflict. The human cost of such a protracted war can never truly be calculated and at best we can hope to collect and curate an accurate record of the people caught in its wake. Kevin Knodell, David Axe, and Blue Delliquanti’s The ‘Stan does just that in what many might find a peculiar way. The ‘Stan is a graphic novel collection of short comics about the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Told from the first-hand accounts of US soldiers, Afghan security forces, and a Taliban ambassador, The ‘Stan deals with multiple perspectives and reactions to the conflict in seventeen short comics ranging from before the invasion to Americans returning home during the 2013 security transfer.
It may seem odd to some to retell the experiences of participants in such a violent conflict in a graphic novel. For many the format is synonymous with fiction and whimsy, but in the hands of a talented author and artist it provides a medium that injects life and vibrancy into historical accounts. Shifting viewpoints and dynamic visual panels can redirect narrative focus from scholarly interpretation to a sense of active participation in events. Details often drafted by writers are ostensibly shaded by the flourishes of their literary voice and academic interpretation; whereas the medium of the graphic novel allows for a writer to submit only the facts and details essential to the story, which an artist must then interpret much the same way the reader would. This binary revision and perspective help reshape narratives by removing trace elements of bias and are especially effective when dealing with primary accounts as these stylistic choices remove much of the author while maintaining the authenticity of the interviewee.
At its heart The ‘Stan is an attempt to humanize the conflict by introducing readers to very real, very human participants in the conflict. The larger politics of declining superpowers and fanatic theocracies are only passing backdrops to the reactions and experiences of those in the crosshairs of the conflict. The ‘Stan begins with an account of the coming of the Americans as told by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. Zaeef’s story begins with his involvement with the Mujahideen as a fifteen-year-old boy during the Soviet occupation. His story harkens back to the deep resolve of the war-hardened Taliban fighters who had survived not only the Soviet invasion but also the brutality of the warlords who preyed on the nation in the Soviet’s wake. Most poignantly, Zaeef scribbles: “Yet others were dancing to the drum of the Americans. They failed to understand what the future held for them” (p. 3). The next panel sees him bound and blindfolded in the orange jumpsuit of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Zaeef’s story is a fitting beginning for the book. It prepares readers for the sense of futility that seems to permeate much of the rest of the book. Many of the American soldiers display a sense of optimism about their initial mission, which is quickly dashed by the constant threat of an invisible insurgency, malfunctioning equipment, and an inability to create a lasting peace and security for the civilian population and their allies.
There is an absurdity in war. The ‘Stan does not shy away from that reality and it is demonstrated again and again throughout many of the stories. Multi-million-dollar equipment does not work; special operations units buy their gear with Central Intelligence Agency credit cards over the internet and get them delivered by next day mail; and the allies who risk their lives alongside American troops one day are left to rot the next. The insanity of it all is almost laughable until you realize that this not a parody but the reality these people live. Knodell and Axe recount the stories of Private First Class Timothy James who was stationed at Combat Outpost Margah during a night attack. James recounts a malfunctioning M249 machine gun, an armored vehicle’s remote gun that had no power, and an AT-4 rocket that malfunctioned in the same engagement. Two of the most heart-wrenching stories are those of Abdul of the Afghan National Army and interpreter Sami Kazikhani. Both men, having served their nation and aiding the coalition forces, end their narratives as refugees: Abdul living as an exile in Dubai and Sami searching for asylum in the refugee camps of Europe.
The ‘Stan does well in its diversity of story type. There are sympathetic accounts of the local people and their plight, the culpability of the United States in civilian casualties, and inclusion of underrepresented demographics in the theater of war. Specialist Alison Parton’s account of transitioning from chain restaurant employee to human intelligence collector comes as an insightful read of the rigors and challenges faced by modern servicewomen who have to contend with not only American prejudices but also cross-cultural challenges from local populations. Parton’s closing remarks are a stark reminder of the ongoing stigma servicewomen face on the home front: “When people argue about ‘women in combat,’ they don’t get that women have been in combat this entire war” (p. 54).
The dialogue and narrative presented in the book are simple and clean. Most interpretations are left to the reader to divine themselves with a few conclusions drawn by the interviewees. The conciseness of the stories might be the sole drawback of the book as many of the stories leave the reader wanting more. Delliquanti’s artwork is accessible and not overly stylized. Panels reflecting the interviewees break up tense scenes and remind the reader that these stories are matters of fact and that the individuals involved are not exaggerated caricatures but living, breathing people who walk among us. This is no more exemplified than in “War and Fireworks,” the seventeenth and final story in the book in which Knodell takes us back to the home front where he recounts his own tale of the lasting effects of war on the soldiers and survivors of the conflict. Here Knodell recounts communing with returned servicemen and the lingering effects of PTSD. Knodell talks about an incident on the 3rd of July where fireworks trigger a minor episode for him and some of the servicemen. The stark irony of using explosions to celebrate war and its survivors is presented as it has been by many veterans, an erasure of the plight of the soldier in favor of the myth of the glory of war.
. Rod Nordland and Mujib Mashal, “U.S. and Taliban Edge toward Deal to End America’s Longest War,” The New York Times, January 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-peace-deal.html; and Neta Crawford, “Update on the Human Costs of War for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 to Mid-2016,” Watson Institute, International and Public Affairs, Brown University, August 2016, http://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2016/War%20in%20Afghanistan%20and....
Citation: Joshua Cotton. Review of Knodell, Kevin; Axe, David, The 'Stan. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54684This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.