‘The Hooligans of Kandahar’ is the war story that needs to be told, but which the U.S. government doesn’t want you to see. This is a true story of the war in Afghanistan told from a grunts-eye view. It is not just a story of war. More so, it is a story of young people struggling to preserve their lives, their sanity, and their humanity.
A note about the reviewer: B.K. Bass is a lifelong student of military history and served in the U.S. Army. All of us here at PSR agree that he has a qualified perspective from which to analyze and review ‘Hooligans of Kandahar’.
I have read many war memoirs in my time, covering periods ranging from the Civil War up to Operation Enduring Freedom. Many of these are written by retired colonels and generals. The narrative style in most of these is the same: We moved into an area, engaged the enemy, used some sort of tactical maneuver, and resolved the situation. Sometimes the plight of the common soldier is mentioned as an afterthought, such as a Confederate officer trying to obtain boots for his men prior to some Civil War battle. Rarely, though, do we come across a war memoir written by one of those common soldiers.
When we do, we find that the term ‘common soldier‘ is a misnomer. The men and women who have fought in wars over time may or may not be heroic, but they are examples of uncommon fortitude.
By the tone of his voice, you would think he had just planned the next D-Day invasion rather than a raid on a sh***y building made of mud.
The narrative in Hooligans of Kandahar is something the likes of which I have not seen since Jarhead (2003) by Anthony Swoffard. The similarities lie in that both books focus on the daily lives of the individual men and women in these challenging situations. The difference lies in while Swoffard saw little action during the Persian Gulf War, Joseph Kassabian’s book is full of tense life-and-death struggles in Kandahar; arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the modern world. The lives of Hooligan Squad are regularly placed in danger by the Taliban, their Afghan allies, and – most often – their own leaders.
From the beginning of the book, however, you can tell that the focus of the book is on the daily lives of the soldiers, not the battles they fought. The realities of how petty U.S. military officers can be is richly illustrated when, while waiting for buses that are late in arriving to take Hooligan Squad to the airport, the troops are instructed to pick up trash in the parking lot. Young people about to be sent to the other side of the world to fight and die are given busy-work.
God forbid a group of leaders who were expected to take this unit into combat could figure out how to wrangle a few f***ing school buses together on time.
From there, the unit takes a flight on an overcrowded commuter plane to Kandahar Airport. The reality of the harsh conditions in Afghanistan is quickly illustrated, and their first battle is against the oppressive heat and unsanitary conditions. This battle continues throughout the narrative as they either witness or are subject to heat injuries, diseases, inadequate sanitation facilities, and a rather staggering lack of any kind of plumbing anywhere in the city. (You can also read that as: There was shit everywhere.)
Hooligan Squad is dramatically shown not to be what one generally expects from soldiers stationed in a war zone. Kassabian wastes little time in pointing out that his squad consists of misfit outcasts. This group of almost a dozen men and women are quickly shown to be a family, and although they hold no heroic ideology about the war itself; every one of them would sacrifice anything for the soldier standing next to them.
Another excellent pastime was playing with our puppy. Even though it was strictly against the rules to adopt local animals, it takes a real asshole to turn down a puppy.
It is this endearing humanity which sucks you into The Hooligans of Kandahar. As you get to know Kassabian, Slim, Cali, Grandpa, and the rest of the squad; you grow to feel like you have shared some of these experiences with them. There are plenty of relate-able moments, such as broken air conditioners, backed up toilets, and phone calls home to loved ones. Even if you’ve never been in the military, you probably understand the stress of taking a crap and not being able to find any toilet paper.
The story of Hooligan Squad traverses assignments to a variety of bases, camps, and outposts. Many of these are shared with members of the Afghan Police Force, as during this period of the war the focus was on handing the responsibility of maintaining order back to the people of Afghanistan. Through examples of corruption, immorality, and complete disregard for basic human rights, we see that this process was not working as expected.
“They’re chai boys,” Rick said, pointing to several other small children who were serving tea to the Afghan policemen. “They are the Afghan’s slaves.”
Through the course of the story, Kassabian and his squad must deal not only with Taliban insurgents and their own oft-inept leadership, but the same Afghan police and army that are supposed to be their allies often are a major threat. On more than one occasion, these so-called allies and the Hooligans standoff in tense moments that may have resulted in a slaughter. The Afghan National Police were supposed to be helping to keep the peace, but at every turn the American soldiers had to wonder if their allies would murder them in their sleep.
Through all of this, the soldiers of Hooligan Squad all try to maintain some sense of decency. They often step in to stop the atrocities being committed by the Afghan Nationals. They even go out of their way to help the common people by rendering medical aid or even just handing out some candy to children. Often, they find that their efforts are futile. This doesn’t stop them from trying to do some good in a land full of so much suffering.
I was one of the few people who would still give out candy my mom sent me in the mail. That was mostly because she asked me to, and only a real asshole doesn’t listen to his mom.
Other than being genuinely nice people, Hooligan Squad has one other redeeming factor. Despite their disregard for rules and regulations, they are a pack of fierce warriors. In several situations they prove that they are not only good at their jobs, they are all crazy enough to enjoy it. And by ‘doing their jobs‘, don’t think I mean building schools and training the locals. Although those were part of what they were sent to do, Hooligan Squad was really good at fighting.
Time and time again, the Hooligans display the ability to react and adapt to an ever-changing environment. No matter the situation they find themselves in, they manage to make it through. Often, their margin of success could be measured by a microscope. Through luck, determination, camaraderie, and the sheer refusal to give up on one another, they survive one more day in Kandahar.
Their proclivity towards violence and mayhem is mentioned towards the beginning of the book, but it is proven time and time again as the year-long deployment creeps by. After a harsh winter, things heat up both in regards to the weather and the war. Something happens that changes everybody in Hooligan Squad forever.
“Send second squad.” In the middle of a fight for their lives, they had requested us, and only us, to come save them.
I didn’t realize the message that the book was really conveying until this point. Kassabian’s closing to the book is thoughtful and poignant; in stark contrast to the wild series of misadventures leading up to it. There are hilarious moments throughout the book, such as the stealing of a goat or pranks inflicted upon fellow soldiers. There are moments of humanity like sharing a meal with Afghan Nationals. There are moments of sheer terror when bullets start to fly or a grenade is thrown out of a market crowd.
In the end, though, we are reminded of the true cost of war in human lives. Blood shed, bodies forever damaged, and minds that cannot forget the horror of war. I believe that the message that Joseph is trying to convey is that no matter how much one tries to be a decent person when thrust into such a horrible environment, everybody loses something of themselves in Kandahar.
I can not stress enough how important ‘The Hooligans of Kandahar’ is. This book is a piece of history described in a level of detail not often seen. We can read many sources to see what made the headlines during the war in Afghanistan, but memoirs like these are a way for us to try to understand what these young men and women have had to live through. I say try, because you can never truly understand something like this without living it. With the help of Joseph Kassabian’s remarkable work, however, we may attempt to relate.
I wished to close this review with a dedication to the soldiers who have fought and are fighting in Afghanistan. I will defer to Joseph Kassabian’s own words, from his book’s dedication.
This book is dedicated to the 2,326 U.S. military men and women who have been killed fighting for some long-lost ideal in the mountains of Afghanistan. It is dedicated to the 20,083 service members who have been wounded in action. It is also dedicated to the untold thousands of veterans who have taken their own lives since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Joseph Kassabian is an author, a U.S. Army Veteran, and a student of military history. He is also the host of the Lions Lead by Donkeys podcast.
Follow Joseph Kassabian on Twitter
About the Reviewer
B.K. is a full-time author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror inspired by the pulp fiction magazines of the early 20th century. Find more from B.K. at his website HERE.