The book is, like the experience of war itself perhaps, fragmentary, confusing, and the impressions are jumbled together, juxtaposing horror and joy, cruelty and kindness, in a way which is deliberately disorienting and shocking for the reader.
From the very beginning of the book there is a fundamental question in the author’s mind regarding the contrast between Western and Eastern values and lifestyles. The first chapter, Hells Bells contrasts the playing of loud rock music with the exhortations of the Imam shouting from his tower. Both noises are clear statements of the two different dominant cultures: one an artistic and rebellious celebration of satanic power, the other a religious message from officially sanctioned authority. The American troops are labelled “kids” and this signals one of Filkins’ central themes: the front line role that youth plays in war, as contrasted with the backroom role of generals, high officers and politicians who make life and death decisions from their position of safety. (pp. 1-2)
The first full chapter of the book “Only This” presents a chilling account of Afghan Islamic justice: a murderer’s fate is given over to the victim’s family to decide. They choose death, and the execution is conducted by the brother of the victim. Filkins notes the droning of the Imam’s loudspeaker which repeats “In revenge there is life” while an unnamed Afghan comments “In America you have television and movies – the cinema…Here, there is only this.” (p. 16) The rest of the chapter highlights areas of overlap between the Afghans and Western culture, showing how the natural inclination of the Afghans is for the trappings of western culture like hotels, cinema, Michael Jackson music, but how this is suppressed and replaced by the extremes of fundamentalist Islam. (pp. 13-37)
Later in the book, there is a chapter called “Disease” in which a visiting American dignitary listens to the calm and