Living Dangerously: A Review of “The Lion’s Grave”

THE LION’S GRAVE: Dispatches from Afghanistan
By Jon Lee Anderson
Grove. 244 pp. $24

Any egomaniac with an audience can do a live stand-up in an alleged combat zone these days, but Jon Lee Anderson is a war correspondent’s journalist. On Sept. 11, while most Americans were still either looking up or glued to their television sets, Anderson sent an e-mail from southern Spain to his editor at The New Yorker in Manhattan. “I am guessing you never made it to the office. I hope everyone at The New Yorker is OK,” he wrote. “I feel like I should be heading for Afghanistan, which I fully expect to be flattened any day now.”

The result is an insightful book of dispatches that are different in focus from, but reminiscent, in their on-the-ground style, of the late Ernie Pyle’s reporting from North Africa during World War II. In London, Anderson bought a portable satellite phone, which he used to file his reports from Central Asia over the ensuing months. A pack of hundreds of other reporters descended upon the region in late 2001, but Anderson, who had been covering the country since the days of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, was nearly the first journalist to reach Afghanistan after Sept. 11. All but one of these dispatches previously appeared in the weekly magazine, but much of the writing remains prescient.

“The sight of women, or at least discernibly human creatures in feminine clothes, is about the only thing that relieves the harshness of the landscape. This visible part of Afghan society is unremittingly male, as is the land, which is drab and muscular,” writes Anderson. “Barefoot boys walk back and forth through beds of harvested rice, turning the grains with their toes to dry them in the sun. . . . Lambs are tethered next to men with long knives who slaughter them and hang the carcasses from hooks, hacking them into a steadily diminishing mess of blood and meat and bone and fat by day’s end. Grain and vegetables are weighed in tin scales that are balanced with stones.”

Anderson also gives his readers a window on himself. The book’s narrative journalism is framed by contemporaneous e-mails that either begin or end every chapter. Most were sent by Anderson via laptop (with a special bullet-proof casing) and satellite phone to his editor, Sharon DeLano. Some e-mails show the hardships of prolonged frontline reporting. “Our compound has mud walls and mud floors and mud everything,” he tells DeLano. “Outside, there is a large dirt patio with two hole-in-the-floor latrines, a vigilant mongrel dog, and — as of yesterday — a scorpion in the washroom.”

Other e-mails reveal another side of a correspondent who is apparently not afraid of talking back to men with guns: “One [Afghan combatant] asked for a cigarette. I gave him one, but chided him, since it was Ramadan, and Muslims are not supposed to smoke [or eat or drink] during the daylight hours. Then another man came up and demanded a cigarette and I could see that the whole group of ten or so fighters were planning on doing this. So I said, No more.”

“A third mujahideen, a burly man with a large PK machine gun slung over his shoulder, leered at me and grabbed me between the legs, hard. Then he darted away and laughed. I followed him and kicked him in the rear end, twice. This made his comrades roar with laughter, but he didn’t think it was so funny, and he pointed his gun at me, then lowered it. I began cursing him in English and he raised the gun at me again and I could tell that he was cursing me too, in Dari. We had something of a standoff.”

The book, as its title suggests, revolves around the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud, “The Lion of Panjshir,” the Northern Alliance commander who was killed by two Arab men posing as journalists two days before Sept. 11. Anderson convincingly ties the assassination to Osama bin Laden, who, like Anderson himself, apparently expected an American retaliation on Afghan targets in response to Sept. 11. In the only new reporting in the book, Anderson explores bin Laden’s former home base south of Jalalabad, where he introduces readers to a heavily armed American named “Jack,” a 46-year-old former U.S. Army Green Beret from Fayetteville, N.C., who claimed, “I have no official relationship to the U.S. government.”

The strength of The Lion’s Grave goes beyond its character profiles to its effective navigation of the crisscrossing lines of Afghan politics. Anderson already knew the country and its players, not only the late Massoud but also many lesser-known Afghans, including noncombatants. Like the dispassionately illuminating biography of Che Guevara that largely earned this correspondent his name, this book captures a time and a place that no one who reads it will forget. The text is interspersed with black-and-white images by Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak that depict austere Afghans usually in a cold landscape. For anyone tired of instant journalism, this book reflects an older art.

Frank Smyth is writing a book on the 1991 Iraqi uprisings against Saddam Hussein.