Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan

Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan

Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan

Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan


Award-winning journalist Douglas A. Wissing's poignant and eye-opening journey across insurgency-wracked Afghanistan casts an unyielding spotlight on greed, dysfunction, and predictable disaster while celebrating the everyday courage and wisdom of frontline soldiers, idealistic humanitarians, and resilient Afghans. As Wissing hauls a hundred pounds of body armor and pack across the Afghan warzone in search of the ground truth, US officials frantically spin a spurious victory narrative, American soldiers try to keep their body parts together, and Afghans try to stay positive and strain to figure out their next move after the US eventually leaves. As one technocrat confided to Wissing, "I am hopeless--but optimistic."

Wissing is everywhere in Afghanistan, sharing an impressionistic view from little white taxis coursing across one of the world's most mine-ridden places; a perilous view from outside the great walls surrounding America's largest base, sequestered Bagram Air Field; and compelling inside views from within embattled frontline combat outposts, lumbering armored gun trucks and flitting helicopters, brain trauma clinics, and Kabul's Oz-like American embassy. It's Afghan life on the streets; the culture and institutions that anneal them; the poetry that enriches them. It includes the perspectives of cynical military lifers and frightened short-timers; true believers and amoral grabbers; Americans and Afghans trying to make sense of two countries surreally contorted by war-birthed extractive commerce.

Along with a deep inquiry into the 21st-century American way of war and an unforgettable glimpse of the enduring culture and legacy of Afghanistan, Hopeless but Optimistic includes the real stuff of life: the austere grandeur of Afghanistan and its remarkable people; warzone dining, defecation, and sex; as well as the remarkable shopping opportunities for men whose job is to kill.


Kabul International Airport: incoming soldiers like to chuckle at Kabul’s airport code, KIA—“killed in action.” My Safi Airways flight from Dubai descends at dawn, and the light tints the snowcapped mountains that picket Kabul orange, then pink, then a deep rose. Across the aisle, a muscular American in khaki tactical clothes stares straight ahead, deep in thought, face half in shadow, the sunlight reflecting in his eyes as the plane banks over the adobe-brown city with its yellow dome of pollution.

As we approach landing, I have my own reasons for pensiveness. Beyond the standard war trepidation, I’m uneasy about my approvals to embed with us troops. This is my third trip to cover the Afghanistan War, but getting us military approvals has been far more problematic this time, perhaps because my book Funding the Enemy had revealed the us counterinsurgency’s systemic dysfunction. Didn’t make me any friends in the Pentagon, an intelligence guy told me. So when military PAOs (public affairs officers) repeatedly canceled my approvals for embeds in the volatile eastern and southern battle spaces, l wasn’t surprised. One pao sent a testy e-mail asking if I wrote “The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze,” a critical Foreign Policy article. Seemed an odd question, given that my name was right under the title. Another canceled embed. It was only after I announced I was flying to Kabul to arrange things from there that the embed approvals seem to come back and firm up—maybe. I didn’t know what to expect.

Why am I so intent on going back? I’m afflicted with the writer’s delirium: I want to know how the story ends. After all the scandals, the . . .

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