Former Navy medic Brandon Caro's new novel provides a look into what it’s like to be a non-combatant in a conflict in which there’s no such thing.
Years after it’s taken, Brandon Caro will include this photo on the jacket of his novel, Old Silk Road. He’s squatting in a poppy field, grenade-sized seed capsules jutting up all around him. One plant stem snakes through his tactical vest, its pod appearing to poke him in the neck near the carotid artery, as if eager to empty its contents into his bloodstream. Desiccated leaves in the foreground match the desiccated mountains behind him, everything nearly colorless under a thin patch of Afghanistan sky. Caro, squinting against the sun, wears a bemused expression, as if unsure whether it’s OK to smile here, in a poppy field in a nation that is the main source of the world’s — and his own — opiate addiction.
As a journalist writing for the New York Times, among other publications, Caro has been painfully open about his struggles with alcohol and opiates before and after his tour in Afghanistan, where he served as a combat medic. He’s remained sober for four years now, something he attributes, in part, to the cleansing effect of writing about his addiction. Working on Old Silk Road, Caro said in an interview, “was cathartic,” but “it was sad and it was very dark.” Reading the resulting novel — among the darkest in post-9/11 war literature — it’s easy to believe him.
By 2012, novels about our recent wars had begun to proliferate, a charge led by a pair of Texans, Kevin Powers with Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Almost all of these books concerned the Iraq War rather than Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Caro was an undergrad at Texas State University in San Marcos, struggling with his book, but sharing a campus with his lodestar, Tim O’Brien, a writing professor whose The Things They Carried is considered by many to be the definitive work of Vietnam War fiction. At a low point in Caro’s writing process, O’Brien, on his own time, read some early pages from Old Silk Road, and his feedback “helped me keep going,” Caro said. “I kept writing because of him.”
And then Caro began sharing his work. As the conflict in Iraq wound down, Americans developed a hunger for reports from and about Afghanistan. And so Caro began publishing raw accounts of his experiences in Afghanistan and his ensuing struggles in San Marcos and Austin (where he now lives): the drugs and alcohol, the suicidal depression, the time he asked an Austin police officer to shoot him in the head.
Because these struggles are reflected in the book, one might wonder if Old Silk Road is autobiographical fiction. It’s a shitty question to ask any novelist, but particularly one whose protagonist endures as much as Caro’s does. Thankfully, he answered before I could even ask. “It’s not a veiled memoir,” he said. “The character is a departure, and the stuff that happens in Afghanistan is complete and total fiction.”
But surely the novel is representative of the experiences a combat medic might have, and in that way, Old Silk Road provides a window into what it’s like to be a non-combatant in a conflict in which there’s no such thing, in a place from which the United States, like so many world powers before it, can’t seem to extricate itself.
“The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man,” reads the opening line of the novel. “He was more of a boy, really.” Combat medic Norman “Doc” Rogers, rather than inject the suffering Afghan boy with soothing morphine, takes off his own vest, rolls up his sleeve and gives himself the hit, “the warm gravy wash[ing] over me from head to toe.”
And there’s your conflict: Rogers is an opiate fiend with easy access to drugs intended for wounded soldiers and civilians. (Caro, it should be said, is quick to stipulate that he never took drugs while in the service.)
The first half of the novel is a tightly structured account of Rogers’ constant search for more drugs, and his unit’s unauthorized hunt for comfort food after an IED attack takes out five soldiers, a fiery scene Caro writes in brutal detail. But nothing in Afghanistan is simple, least of all a convoy through sun- and war-scorched desert.
With the drugs running low, temperatures running high, and the unit’s base seeming further and further away, Rogers begins to lose his grip on reality. The second half of Old Silk Road is a vivid, at times gruesome, portrayal of Rogers’ descent into drug- and trauma-induced psychosis, a wandering madness that comes to serve as a metaphor for the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires,” a nation that has been a quagmire for, among others, the British, the Soviets and Alexander the Great — hallucinations of whom Rogers will cross paths with.
“They say this land is cursed,” a Soviet officer says to Rogers. “Don’t get stuck here.” But Caro makes it clear that whether or not Rogers finds his way home, he will always be stuck in Afghanistan. What he doesn’t make clear is whether or not Rogers does find his way home.
If this all sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. It’s meant to be. And war literature should be challenging. But Caro is far from self-indulgent here; the disorientation he engenders in the reader is carefully orchestrated, and he rises to a challenge O’Brien lays out in The Things They Carried: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”Old Silk Road does make the stomach believe. Rogers’ withdrawal from opiates and then reality is somehow even more harrowing than the combat scenes Caro interjects, and the combination of the two wars, internal and external, appears to address a question often posed to both war veterans and opiate addicts: “What’s it like?” But, as both Caro and O’Brien know well, this is an all-but-impossible question to answer.
Like many writers, Caro has an easier time expressing his strong opinions on paper than he does in person. For example, unlike in his book, he stops just shy, in person, of accusing the U.S. military of taking an active role in the opiate trade. The closest he comes is to say that he wants “to open a dialogue about how 90 percent of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, and [how] since the U.S. has had a presence there, the output has actually gone up.”
We discussed this and other matters after a Veteran Artist Program performance at Lincoln Center in New York City in November. During the show, in front of several hundred spectators and possibly thousands more via livestream, nearly a dozen veterans read aloud from their war fiction, poetry and stage plays. Caro, afforded the same opportunity, chose instead to sing a Radiohead song. Afterward, I asked him why. “It’s in my vocal range,” he said.
As the crowd filed out, Caro and I sat near the exit at a display table, on which he’d propped up five copies of Old Silk Road. His interactions with passersby were, at best, restrained. The nearest he came to earnestly peddling his book was when he told one man, “Yeah, you can look at it.” Another potential customer told Caro she’d “probably buy it from Amazon,” and when Caro merely shrugged, the woman, like every other audience member, left bookless.
It seemed odd that nobody in the crowd, many dozens of whom were clearly veterans, would pick up a new war novel. But perhaps it’s not. Many war veterans refrain from reading war fiction. Some will tell you that’s because they’ve “been there, done that.” For others, war is an experience just too difficult to revisit. So Caro might be forgiven for not actively hawking Old Silk Road to other vets. He had a hard enough time writing it.