Killing the Cranes

  • Edward Girardet
  • Chelsea Green Publishing
  • 418 pp.

In a long retrospective look, a veteran journalist sees little hope for military solutions in Afghanistan.

Reviewed by Thomas W. Young

Killing the Cranes opens with Edward Girardet recounting an evening with a friend in Kabul in March 2004. Massoud Khalili, then Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, remarked that they should have been hearing the honks of migrating cranes. Khalili then asked, “Have we even killed all the cranes?”

Because he has built up years of contacts with and knowledge of Afghanistan’s newsmakers, the author can share such unguarded moments. Few reporters have covered Afghanistan for as long as Girardet. He wrote for The Christian Science Monitor, known for its thoughtful journalism. (Full disclosure: I have written essays and op-ed pieces for the Monitor, but have never been a full-time employee.) His news sources and interviewees make up a Who’s Who of Afghanistan’s most notorious figures, and he knows the country and its culture well.

The book describes Afghanistan’s recent history while also relating the author’s challenges in covering those events. He tells of the day-to-day difficulties and dangers, problems such as: How will I get to the border? Is this water safe to drink? Is this road safe to travel? Should I get closer to the action if it means I’ll have a harder time filing the story? In the days before satellite phones and the Internet, just getting a story out could be harder than people now might realize.

Girardet has written a wide-angle, long-term account that is richly reported — and somewhat flawed. As a former Associated Press broadcast writer, editor and newsroom supervisor, I admire the way he immersed himself in the culture and learned the beat he covered. But as an Air National Guard veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, I found that a few of his statements about the U.S. fight against terrorists did not ring true.

For example, Girardet says that “unlawful combatants” is a term invented by the George W. Bush administration, and does not exist under international law. That is not correct. As a new Air Force recruit during the Clinton years, I received briefings on the laws of war, including what defined lawful and unlawful combatants. The concept derives from the body of conventions, regulations and treaties that make up the Law of Armed Conflict, and it was old even then. Very old. The requirement for lawful combatants to wear distinctive uniforms and carry arms openly goes back to the Thirty Years’ War, when inability to tell soldiers from civilians led to slaughter. Terrorists who don’t follow such rules are unlawful combatants.

Also, in a prologue titled “Unwinnable Wars,” the author states that from the Soviets and the mujahideen in the 1980s to the Americans and Taliban today, atrocities continue to be carried out with impunity. Only part of that statement is true. Certainly the U.S. military has made mistakes in Afghanistan, sometimes horrible mistakes, but hardly with impunity. Impunity means no consequences. When American forces kill innocents by accident, careers end. In the rare instances when U.S. troops kill innocents deliberately, they go to prison. One of the Stryker Brigade soldiers accused of murdering three Afghan civilians in 2010 received a 24-year sentence in a plea agreement.

In fairness to Girardet, he does not equate American soldiers with the Taliban. His book describes a number of Taliban crimes against humanity, and the list is long. He also provides a good history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, including what is known, not known and suspected about the initial 1979 invasion.

On balance, Killing the Cranes is such a thorough tour that even the most politically conservative reader should overlook the few weak points and go along for the ride. At times it becomes not just informative, but also entertaining. In the chapter “Peshawar: Aid Workers and Assassins,” Girardet describes the bizarre assortment of mercenaries, weirdos and adventurers drawn to the Pakistani town that served as a gateway to Afghanistan. In another chapter he tells of an encounter with frontier Pakistanis who assumed that because he was a writer taking notes, he must be Salman Rushdie.

Killing the Cranes arrives just a few months after the publication of The Wrong War, by Bing West, a Marine Corps combat veteran and an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. From vastly different perspectives, both authors come to similar conclusions: that what we’re doing in Afghanistan isn’t working. West calls for strengthening Afghan forces so they can fight their own battles in a conflict not likely to end anytime soon. Girardet sees little hope for military solutions, and he focuses on a different sort of goal: rendering justice for the Afghan people.

Girardet’s memoir stands as a good addition to the growing body of nonfiction about modern Afghanistan that has come from a wide variety of correspondents, military veterans and officials. British diplomat Rory Stewart gave us The Places in Between, his quirky account of a fascinating, though perhaps ill-advised, hike across Afghanistan in 2002. Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars recounts America’s covert dealings in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani reporter, renders an essential history of the extremists who harbored al-Qaeda in his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.

Killing the Cranes rounds out this collection well, offering the perspective of someone who was there for all of it.

Thomas W. Young is an Air National Guard veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a former Associated Press broadcast writer and editor. His novels Silent Enemy and The Mullah’s Storm were both set in the Afghanistan war. He also wrote the nonfiction book The Speed of Heat: An Airlift Wing at War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his essay “Night Flight to Baghdad” appeared in the anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. Visit his website at

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