Land of the Blind, by Andy Owen

Adam Staten

Peppered with humour, this novel draws widely from philosophy and literature.
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Land of the Blind is the fictionalised memoir of the author’s time serving in the British Army as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. The story follows the operational tour of a small unit of four soldiers with a wide range of operational experience, from Chris, the idealistic young corporal who is at the start of his career, to Gary, the senior Royal Marine who is at the end of his. Set in 2007, the sixth and supposedly ‘decisive year’ of the long running conflict, the unit works closely alongside the Afghan security services as they try to navigate the complex and dangerous world of shifting political, tribal and pragmatic loyalties of Afghan society.

Drawing on his personal experiences, Owen paints a world that is full of rich and carefully observed detail, with well developed characters whose behaviours and thoughts are full of nuance. When one of the team is killed by an Improvised Explosive Device, the remaining team members are left to contemplate the cost of war, the morality of seeking revenge, and the means by which they can exact that revenge. This leaves them with dark and difficult decisions to make, and uncomfortable consequences with which they have to live.

This is not just a war story, but a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking portrayal of the complexities of the Afghan conflict and why things went so wrong there and, more widely, of the morality and ethics of warfare and soldiering in general. Perhaps more than many other conflicts, Afghanistan is a rich landscape in which to explore these difficult subjects because it is a land of such cultural and social complexity. Land of the Blind makes it clear that the coalition forces never fully understood the people they were theoretically there to help, and it is this lack of understanding that resulted in so much chaos.

Amongst the Afghan characters, we see Omar the Poet who pines for the romance of an Afghanistan from a time before it was ravaged by decades of conflict and oppression, and we meet Khalid, a man at the centre of a spider’s web of informants who knows he will have to survive in the country long after the British soldiers have finished their tour of duty and gone home.

On the British side, Owen gives a stark portrayal of how the individual ambitions of British officers seeking a good write up for their operational tour had real world impacts on the lives of both junior British soldiers and Afghan civilians.

Peppered with soldier’s humour, drawing widely from the wisdom of philosophy and literature, I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand more about this conflict in particular, or what it means to be a soldier more generally.

Land of the Blind by Andy Owen is out now. Adam Staten is the author of Blood Debt.