Your story this week, “The Lost Troop,” is set in Afghanistan between
September and December, 2008. Were you there then?
I was between deployments and in Utah for most of that time. My job
while deployed was to direct air strikes, so I’d train on bombing ranges
all over the state. In addition to refamiliarizing myself with the
geometry and pacing of an attack, I’d reacquaint myself with the
targeting gadgetry: laser, G.P.S., infrared, and radio. These things
took very precise measurements of the target location. It seemed,
however, that the more precise the measurement was the less certain I
became of the target’s location. Sometimes, I’d get so far down in the
weeds that nothing seemed fixed. And it wasn’t until I’d leave one range
for another—driving on the interstate for fifty miles east or west, with
the desert speeding by on either side—that things would settle down
The story revolves around a troop of American soldiers at an outpost in
Logar Province, who don’t have a mission or any intelligence to pursue
and have to invent missions for themselves. Would that ever happen?
While I was deployed, our intelligence was very good, so mission
planning typically consisted of connecting a few well-defined dots. On
those rare nights when the dots weren’t completely filled in, or didn’t
exist at all, we’d have to extrapolate. Our mission was to hunt H.V.I.s,
or high-value individuals. We’d take into account each individual’s
so-called patterns of life. These were his habits, faults, and
desires, converted into something like vectors. Occasionally, those
vectors would triangulate. I wouldn’t call that process inventive,
necessarily, but there was a creative element to it.
The narrator imagines his troop as abandoned or suspended in time—like
the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima who hid underground for months,
unaware that the war had ended—or else killed on the spot by an
asteroid. Is he afraid of these possibilities or is he, in a way,
fantasizing about them?
I think it’s more projection than fantasy. The narrator wonders how the
war will end for him, and, if he survives, what life will be like
There’s a certain lawlessness in this troop: we think of these men as
decent people, but, at the same time, the final mission they choose has
some moral ambiguity to it. I assume that’s intentional?
That fictional lawlessness has roots in reality. Of all the men and
women who join the military seeking discipline, very few become true
believers in it. Most, I’d say, simply figure out how to get by, while a
very small minority learn how to weaponize their more chaotic
tendencies. These are the ones who gravitate toward special operations.
The American men’s relationship with Joe, their Afghani-British
translator, is a complicated one, isn’t it? The narrator seems somewhat
irritated by Joe, and his constant proximity, and yet Joe is the only
person who tries to alleviate the guilt that he feels for the role he
played in his fellow-soldier Yaz’s death.
My guess is that Joe’s attempt to alleviate the narrator’s guilt annoys
the narrator, too. I’d say he doesn’t want to let himself off the hook
“The Lost Troop” will be part of your collection, “Bring Out the Dog,”
which comes out in March, and some of the characters here reappear in
other stories in the book, including
and “Crossing the River No
which were also published in The New Yorker. Was it always planned as a
story collection, or did you think about writing about this group of
soldiers in novel form?
Whatever plans I made while writing this book were repeatedly undone,
and the resulting frustration would throw me off for months. I’d have to
launch some unrelated project in order to get back on track. So I
rebuilt the engine in my truck, and I dug up and replaced all the
sprinkler lines in my back yard. These tasks lent themselves to planning:
I could set a goal, make progress toward it, and take stock at the end
of the day. I could enjoy the satisfaction that comes from physical
exhaustion. Eventually, I’d go back to writing. My only plan toward the
end was to try to capture the weirdness.
*Do you have any favorite war stories by other writers? *
My benchmarks are Donald Barthelme’s “The Sergeant,” Isaac Babel’s
“Squadron Commander Trunov,” and Barry Hannah’s “Midnight and I’m Not
Famous Yet.” I know I’m onto something, writing-wise, whenever Hannah’s
narrator starts reading my words back to me.