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Librarians’ Best Books of 2011: Edward Girardet’s Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan

Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Library, King of Prussia, PA, loves Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (Chelsea Green) by Edward Girardet

What We Said:

With his vast experience inside Afghanistan during different conflicts, Girardet presents strong evidence that foreign powers from the British to the Soviets to the Americans have all made the same mistakes by attempting to impose their own political models and values on a nation that does not fit into any Western mold. While this conclusion is hardly new, Girardet’s excellent work should be of particular interest to historians, foreign policy buffs, political scientists, and military personnel.

What He Says:

Reading Edward Girardet’s moving and tragic memoir conjures up a cheap analogy of Afghanistan as the Rodney Dangerfield of South Asia: a comparison that might be funny if it weren’t so true. Girardet shows that Afghanistan has not only been ravished by the United States and the Soviet Union, but also by Pakistan, China, India, and Saudi Arabia. The tragedy Girardet’s account reveals how the indigenous tribes have become collateral damage, expendable fodder for those in power or those seeking it.

A foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News and World Report, Girardet covered the Afghan beat prior to the 1979 invasion, and his knowledge shows. What most appeals to me about Cranes is the author’s skill at unraveling Afghanistan’s complicated history through stories of individuals, most significantly Ahmed Massoud, the much beloved resistance leader, and Gulbuddin Hekmayer, who butchered thousands of Massoud’s supporters and called for Girardet’s death.

Stories of cruelty are countered by uplifting tales of common Afghanis sharing the little they had with strangers and of Frenchwomen doctors who gave much needed care for some of the millions of refugees. Also mentioned is the shoving match that Girardet got into with the tall Arab, aka Osama bin Laden.

Personal accounts run the risk of becoming creative nonfiction because they rely on the author’s memory, which over time could become selective and flawed. Yet while specific facts of this genre might become murky and challenged by historians, this author’s memoir gives a sense of what life is like on the other side of the bombs and bullets, which eludes or does not apply to scholarly research.

Killing the Cranes would have flown off the shelves during the bleak days that followed 9/11. Interest in Muslim history and culture spiked, as libraries became first informational responders for readers trying to make sense of the terrorist attacks. While that sense of urgency has waned, it has far from disappeared. Girardet’s book reveals Muslim life and the effects of war in an increasingly interconnected global world, so it deserves vigorous promotion now. No doubt, it’s a hard sell with its focus on the pre-U.S. years in Afghanistan. But try the Book-of-the-Day display and word of mouth route. As Girardet reminds us, Afghanistan has become America’s longest war.

Karl’s Favorite Passage:

Afghanistan won’t be the romantic notion of the country that I like to imagine, but I can only hope that it is a country that they can all live in peacefully together. And I still hope to see the migrating cranes one day.

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.