Arja Salafranca talks to writer Hamilton Wende about his latest novel, Red Air, set on the war fields of Afghanistan
‘I have made a life of witnessing other people’s hells, but now, for the first time in my life, I stand at the threshold of my own.’
Red Air, Hamilton Wende’s latest novel, is set in contemporary Afghanistan. The country was rocked by the Russian invasion in 1979, and since 2001 it has been embroiled in an ongoing war following the US invasion that began when the US and its allies drove the Taliban from power in order to deny Al-Qaeda a safe base of operations in the country. Red Air opens when CIA operative Al Morris is kidnapped in Afghanistan. His son, Danny, is a foreign correspondent from whom he is estranged. Danny writes an article about the terrorist group which unwittingly betrays an Afghan warlord, Azmaray Shah, and leads to his son Turan’s capture.
Azmaray Shah insists that Danny come to negotiate for his father’s life and for the release of Turan.
Despite their estrangement, and his initial hesitation, Danny joins a mission run by the US marines to rescue Al.
Writer Wende is also a foreign war correspondent, having covered some seventeen wars across the world from Africa to Iraq and Afghanistan. But this is fiction, as Wende pointed out to me as we sat talking about his novel in his writing studio in the home he shares with wife, Lianne, and their children, in Parkview. This idyllic scene – a view of lush gardens outside – is worlds away from the blood and violence of war, any war.
Inside there are wall-to-wall bookshelves on one side of the converted garage, and on the other side there are photos, pictures and posters of some of Wende’s other books – he has written other novels, two children’s books, as well as collections of his journalism. A laptop was open on his desk as we spoke, sitting in two wingback chairs facing the bright exterior view.
I have witnessed war often before, but from a distance, with a hotel room to return to at night. I thought I knew war, but I realize now that I had no idea what it meant.
Red Air, though fiction, was born from the time he was asked by National Geographic to be the producer for a series on the US marines, called Battleground Afghanistan. Wende chooses his words carefully and is quiet spoken: ‘I was asked back in 2012, really out of the blue. And I don’t think I realised how difficult it was going to be, but how often do you get asked to do a series on the marines, you know?
‘My dad also was quite ill with cancer at the time, he subsequently has passed away. So he was like, go and do it, you know, it’s kind of it’s a real-life experience, you must go and do it. And so I got dragged out of doing bits and pieces of freelance work here, as I still do and into this world of, you know, Camp Leatherneck, Camp Bastion, which was the British camp next to them. And they said to us, you’re going to go on a kinetic mission within the next 12 hours.
‘Now, I’d expected to kind of be driven to the front lines and witness some things and then write stories about it and then come back. I didn’t expect that we were going to walk for fifteen days to Helmand Province [one of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces] carrying our own stuff. I never carried a rifle. I was never issued a rifle, unlike Danny in the book. But I certainly did ask the lieutenant to show me how to use the gun so that if it came down to it, I wasn’t going stand there like a useless panicked person. It never came to that. And I’m happy to say that.
I had not killed anyone. I had not even taken out a weapon, but in the heat of battle I had discovered within me an even more insidious weakness– the possibility deep down inside that I did not have the strength to face fear, that I might rather kill myself than continue to feel so terrified of the reality of what was happening around me.
‘But this was real life, being shot at three times a day by the Taliban. But this is not that story. So, my story is totally fictional. It doesn’t have any characters in it that are related, except in so far as a as a platoon will have a captain and will have a lieutenant and so on.
‘It’s a much deeper investigation on what might have happened. And I thought, what if anything did go wrong? And the title Red Air came from the idea that the air is so filled with dust that it’s too dangerous for the helicopters to take off and for landing. And it’s too dangerous for the drones to operate in. And it’s too dangerous for the jet planes to operate at low levels, so that the marines are left to fight on a pretty much equal level with just machine guns and rifles. Like the Taliban.
‘So the idea was to really, it might sound strange, but to humanise the conflict. It wasn’t asymmetrical warfare. Do you know the concept?’
I shook my head.
‘Asymmetrical warfare is what most western armies fight. They’ve landed, you’ve got a drone, then you’ve got the choppers, then you’ve got the C 130 gunships. Then above them, you’ve got the jet planes that have flown off the ships nearby, sometimes all of them circling around. And at times, if you’ve got a group of soldiers who have got separated, three or four of them, and they need to get some sleep, they’ll put a drone right over those guys, and they will defend them from their base back in New Mexico. That’s how far the technology can work.
‘Okay, so this was non-asymmetrical warfare. That kind of technical stuff isn’t talked about in the book, but it’s implied ‒ we got no radios, we can’t radio for extra men. They can’t come to us. So, we can’t call the cavalry, they can’t come until the radar settles. So, we’ve just got to make it through this moment where our humanity becomes all that we have, you know, in conflict. And by that I don’t only mean humanity in terms of compassion, but our humanity in terms of courage, of fear. And these people facing us have the same humanity.’
Flies are everywhere; some of them rise into the currents of the wind, disappearing into the dust like tiny black holes in the universe.
In Wende’s hand the conflict is certainly humanised. Although the book is centred on two alternating points of view – that of Danny, with the marines on a mission to save his father – and that of Al, captured, waiting, suffering, Wende shows us the other side of the conflict, of how the conflict has harmed and shaped the lives of ordinary Afghanis. Al, despite being a spy, has ‘never been this close to the interior, family lives of the people’ as he lies injured by Azmaray Shah’s men. As one of the men reties a blindfold around Al’s head, he says to Al:
‘That child,’ the man says as he is tying the blindfold. ‘His father was killed in a drone strike. His body protected the son, so he lived. Do you know how many compounds here have been hit by drone strikes? What happens to the “collateral damage”? That was his mother making bread. Because the father is dead, the family has almost nothing to eat now. How do you think they see the “freedom” you think you have brought them?’
Later on, Shah explains what has happened to a teenaged girl:
A shadow appears at the doorway. It is a teenaged girl wearing a pale blue burka. Her face is hidden by the fine mesh. She comes into the room and stands there mutely. Shah says something to her. She turns and looks at him through the mesh. Shah repeats himself and she turns back to look at Al. Slowly she raises her arms under her burka until the folds hang down in front of her. Shah steps forward and lifts away the cloth. Where her hands should be are two ragged stumps. One mutilated arm is slightly longer than the other. Al can see her eyes, bright and hard, staring at him from behind the mesh. ‘I won’t show you the rest of her broken body,’ Shah says.
Wende and I spoke more deeply about the cost of victory: his words brought alive the conflicts and contradictions of war in a way that is echoed in the novel. Although Red Air reads as a thriller – and is a taut, well-written one – it also illuminates the complication of war’s horrors and contradictions. Danny, the married war correspondent with a wife and two children, all of whom are constantly in his thoughts as he moves with the marines, is a nuanced character. The kidnapping of his father makes him reflect on the past, and the reasons for the estrangement from his father. There is a lyrical engagement with his feelings and thoughts, a self-analytical and thoughtful streak, as he reflects on his past and his life, which is contrasted and blended with the action-filled scenes as he and the marines circle closer to where Al lies wounded and kidnapped. The red air of dust and storm surrounds them too – as well as the metaphorical red air of obfuscation that has tainted Danny and Al’s father-son relationship, blinding them both to each others’ realities.
Probing the cost of war, Wende brought the scene alive: ‘I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to do the National Geographic series. And I never had to pull a trigger. I never had to kill anybody. I never had to order any time for you to be killed. So, I don’t face that true paradox of the soldiers, guilt and shame and joy, and victory. Because even victory comes at a cost to your own psyche. I never had to enter into that paradox, but I certainly felt extreme fear, extreme fear, and at times, I just [had to] act like the marines. Just act, just do. You know, think of home a bit.
‘So victory comes at a cost to your own psyche. We had an example where these guys were chasing us with mortars. In fact, one of them shot at me with a Russian heavy machine gun at about six o’clock in the morning. And I sort of did the township thing: I lay down and started looking where it was coming from and the marine just grabbed me, said Sir, get the fuck up to run and they grabbed me.
‘And then we went into a compound and one other small unit of marines was panicking a bit, the corporal or someone had mistaken the compound. And the senior one of the seniors said, Get the hell get to that compound. You know, that’s the plan. It was like the movies. And we sat in that compound with these guys tracking us down.
‘The rules of engagement were very clear. We couldn’t call in airstrikes. We could occasionally call in artillery, which is cannons firing from a distance, but you couldn’t have drones coming in to do an airstrike. The Afghan president, quite rightly, was tired of seeing his people killed accidentally in drone helicopter strikes, you know. So, they managed to track three guys who through various levels of command managed to confirm that they were a legitimate target. They were the ones probably shooting at us with the mortars. I felt quite sick. I stood deep underground in the karez system. It’s an amazing old version of watering the fields.’
In the book Danny explains the system:
I know from previous trips to Afghanistan that the karez is an ancient network of tunnels and wells developed by the Persians over 2000 years ago. It was so sophisticated they used to connect some of the tunnels to circular wind towers that could keep ice cool in the desert. The system spread out across central Asia, through Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond over centuries. The techniques were used from Moorish Spain to China, and are still being used today in many places.
Wende continued: ‘I just found the had the manhunt very, very disturbing. But first of all there I was. Second of all, that’s what war is. And third of all, I had absolutely no right or ability or even desire to contradict what was going on around me, but all my instincts as a liberal journalist were somewhat challenged, and one of the sergeants said, You know, we’re gonna have to put a suicide watch on you. And I said, No, it’s okay. But I mean, I can still feel a little bit…
‘So when the young men, they were mostly young men, obviously, the officers were older, in their thirties, late twenties. When they shot these three guys with a missile, and they all started cheering and doing exactly like the young men would have done in the Iliad, on the on walls of Troy, you know, they started dancing and singing the Top Gun [anthem], which is an immensely popular movie in the Services Unit. And I didn’t dance and sing Top Gun. But I certainly would say that I felt a great sense of relief, that we would no longer getting ambushed with mortar shells from those individuals. So they did get the right guys.
‘So I took those emotional experiences and imagined action sequences that would give some expression to those kinds of emotional experiences.’
All he wants to do is survive this ordeal, and see Danny again, but he can’t imagine what he might do with the rest of his life once they leave here. There are enemies out there, but someone else will have to fight them. He will try to tell whoever he can that this way hasn’t worked, that there will have to be different ways to fight. What those might be, he doesn’t know now, he can’t know now, he is too weak, but he will be haunted by what he saw in the eyes of those children forever, and that is what he will tell people. Speaking of those children is how he will start.
What Wende describes is echoed in the following lines in the book as Danny reflects:
‘Two days ago I thought of war as something bizarre – an ugly offshoot of the human psyche that I witnessed, but wanted no part of for myself. I had rejected my father and his world so completely. And now. I have to smile grimly in the cool darkness, I am beginning to understand it for the first time.’
Darkness surrounds me, but the wind has stopped blowing. The silence echoes every sound after so many days of hearing nothing but the thrum of wind.
And that is a huge part of the power of this book: Wende has written a first-rate thriller, his immense skill and craft come to bear on the book as he cranks up the action. The descriptions of war and the land are lyrical and cinematic. But embedded within the story of action is a deeper one. Wende is telling the story of war, and he is grappling with the sometimes-fraught dynamics of a parent-child relationship. But there are still more layers – as the experience of war for Danny, and capture, for Al, provoke self-analysis and change within each of them as the red air finally clears.
Hamilton Wende is the author of two children’s books, Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella, the King and the Amulet from Timbuktu (2018), House of War (2010), The King’s Shilling (2005), Deadlines from the Edge (2003), True North (1995) and Msimangus Words (1992).
Watch Battleground Afghanistan on YouTube. The first episode can be found at: https://youtu.be/RaeJKCUbPoE