2015 / Anand Gopal

Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, is the winner of the 2015 Ridenhour Book Prize.

The Ridenhour Book Prize is awarded annually to honor an outstanding work of social significance from the prior publishing year and recognizes investigative and reportorial distinction.

A finalist for the National Book Award, the critically-acclaimed No Good Men Among the Living challenges the narrative about America’s longest war and usual perceptions of the Afghan conflict with intimate accounts of life in war-torn Afghanistan. As one of the few Westerners to extensively interview all sides in the conflict, Gopal demonstrates why the United States’ emphasis on counterterrorism at the expense of nation-building and reconciliation inadvertently led to the Taliban’s resurgence after 2001. The paperback edition of No Good Men Among the Living is set to be released May 5, 2015.

In reflecting upon its decision, the Ridenhour book awards committee said, “Even a decade and a half after we dispatched weapons, soldiers, and treasure to Afghanistan, most of us still don’t have a real sense for what has happened there and the extent of the impact our intervention has had. And we never will until we come to see the conflict and its aftermath through the eyes of the Afghan people. Anand Gopal’s achievement in No Good Men Among the Living is to accomplish just that. Through a blend of intrepid reporting and clear-eyed—even beautiful prose—we see and can begin to truly understand the violence and tragedy of our longest war.”

Anand Gopal is a journalist who has served as an Afghanistan correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, and has reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper’sThe Nation, the New RepublicForeign Policy, and other publications. He is an INCITE fellow at Columbia University, and a former Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

“Ron Ridenhour’s courageous letter exposing the My Lai massacre helped teach a generation of Americans that the grim reality of wars is often a far cry from the lofty ideals nations espouse in fighting them,” said Gopal. “In Afghanistan, he would have found a similar story: what appeared, from a distance, to be a war against terrorism was in fact a messy battle against local communities, in which scores of villagers were wrongfully imprisoned, tortured, and killed. His work helped pave the way for those of us seeking to understand and convey the truth of today’s wars to the American public, and that’s why I’m so truly honored to accept the Ridenhour Book Prize for No Good Men Among the Living.”

2015 Book Prize Speeches

Transcript of the Truth-Telling introduction and speeches:

MATTHIEU AIKENS:  Thank you, It’s an honor to be here. Well, we all know Anand Gopal as the author of No Good Men Among the Living, a masterpiece of foreign reporting that presents a searing indictment of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the winner of this year’s Ridenhour, as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

But you might be less familiar with other facts about Anand’s remarkably varied career. We were close friends and colleagues, I’m always learning about new and weirdly impressive accomplishments, a few of which I’ll tell you about. And please, feel free to Tweet them under the hashtag Anand Gopal facts. So this is not actually Anand’s first book. He’s the author of the 2004 text Quantum Theory for the Rest of Us whose Amazon page describes it as a clear, straightforward introduction to the mysterious science of quantum mechanics. That’s among other things well suited for self study. So check it out.

Now, while the rest of us might be satisfied with quantum mechanics, Anand is also a successful inventor with several successful patents, and one pending, on a new and incrementally improved method of flossing one’s teeth, the details of which I’m not at liberty to share, but it’s entirely true. So Anand began his career as a broke freelance war correspondent back in 2008 in Afghanistan when he was living in a building in Kabul where the toilets would freeze in the winter, being fed rice and beans by a landlord who would later become governor of Wardak Province. Lacking the means to afford a car and driver, Anand would often ride tandem on a cheap Chinese motorcycle behind his fixer, Hamid, sometimes setting out at night from Kabul into the mountains after hearing reports of an air strike that had caused civilian casualties, a scene that always made me picture that one in the film “Dumb and Dumber” when Lloyd and Harry set out for Aspen on a scooter. [laughter]

Now, I didn’t meet Anand until the summer of 2010 in the basement of the Gandamak, a popular expat bar in Kabul. Despite the fact that he was a correspondent then for the Wall Street Journal and that he was wearing an ill-fitting suit, Anand didn’t strike me as a typical newspaper reporter, an impression he confirmed by quitting soon after. At the time, it seemed like an odd career move. President Obama’s surge was in full swing, and along with it there was enormous, if fleeting, media frenzy. But Anand was looking for something more incisive than the patriot coverage of military embeds and clashes between Washington and Karzai that were typical of news coverage then.

He was searching for a more fundamental explanation of the troubling contradictions that had become apparent in the war; perhaps not as fundamental as quantum mechanics, but something that would nonetheless account for how and why the U.S. mission carried the seeds of its own defeat.

The fruit of that gutsy move is, of course, No Good Men Among the Living. In my biased opinion, it’s the seminal contribution towards a revisionist history of the American war, one that locates the causes of a renewed and escalating conflict, not in a lack of U.S. troops and resources, nor in cross-border meddling by Pakistan. But in the brutal and misguided counterterrorism strategy adopted by the U.S. military and its warlord allies after 2001 invasion, which proceeded from a fatal arrogance and disregard for human rights and the rule of law and continued under the name of counterinsurgency.

To give one example, Anand shows how special forces raids were responsible for driving much of the Taliban’s leadership across the border to Pakistan after they had already accepted defeat and returned to their communities. He convincingly shatters the myth of the good war. And while these are, of course, arguments that others have made and have gathered force as the public has become increasingly skeptical and weary of American misadventures abroad, what makes the book so persuasive is its research characters and engrossing narrative, the product of meticulous reporting from the front lines. Anyone who reads this book will come away remembering Hila, John Muhammad and Mullah Cabel. Anand has done something truly remarkable; he’s foregrounded both American power and Afghan lives. Congratulations, Anand Gopal in winning this year’s Ridenhour Prize. [applause]


ANAND GOPAL: Well, thanks so much, Matt. What Matt didn’t mention is that for many long and dark years in which I toiled over this book, mostly in a library in New York, Matt was there by my side, even when there was moments where I thought I wouldn’t complete it. Matt was the one who inspired me just as he continues to inspire me with his journalism and his courage.

I would also like to thank Tom Engelhardt and Anida Sreedhar, two people who on the one hand took meticulous attention and care to my book and helped make it what it was, but also took the equivalent amount of care to my life and helped make it what it is today.

And finally, I’d like to thank Gregory Tobias, my editor at Metropolitan, who I’m thrilled is here today. I’m not sure where he is, but he’s here somewhere; there he is. I’ll never forget when I handed him the manuscript, he came back a couple of weeks later with a detailed outline of the very complicated narrative and structure and really helped make it sort of the book that is on these tables today. So, thank you to him as well.

As Matt mentioned, this book is born from a motorcycle trip that I took back in 2008 where I traversed the Afghan countryside. I lived with tribal elders and village heads and took advantage of really the seemingly infinite supply of hospitality which Afghanistan is famous for. And what drove me in that trip was a very basic question, which was what would compel these often very destitute villagers to– villagers who in many cases had nothing more than sandals on their feet, to ally with a movement as obviously retrograde as the Taliban and take up arms against the world’s greatest super power.

And I received many answers, many compelling answers, to that question. But there’s one in particular that’s always stuck with me, and that came from a villager, an old villager who had lived through a lifetime of conflict. And I had asked him, “Why do you think the Americans invaded your country?” But, of course, he’d heard of 9/11. But for him it was a very vague and far-away occurrence the way maybe for some of us some conflict in Africa might seem. And instead what he said was that, “The Americans invaded my country because they hate our culture and they hate our way of life.” And you may recognize that phrase, of course, right? Because after 9/11, we were told again and again that the terrorists attacked us because they hate our way of life.  And that opened up a question for me, which was how might the war on terror look if we took the stories of the people on its receiving end seriously?

And actually, as an aside, this reminds me of a joke I once heard about Bill Clinton. So the former President dies and goes to hell, naturally, that’s a joke– dies and goes to hell, but because he’s such a great leader he was given a tour of the premises and offered his choice of accommodations. So the tour guide takes him past a few bleak affairs of fire and brimstone and medieval torture wheels and what not. But then he happens upon a room, a nicely outfitted suite with plush sofas and soft music, and sitting there on one of the sofas was Richard Nixon, who is engaged in, shall we say, amorous embrace with Marilyn Monroe. So, of course, Clinton sees this and he says, “Well, you know, I wouldn’t mind being in this room at all,” to which is tour guide says, “Well, certainly Mr. President, but you should know, there is not a room in hell for Richard Nixon, but for Marilyn Monroe.” [laughter]

So shifting your perspective can have a radical effect on your understanding of a situation. In Afghanistan, taking seriously the viewpoint of Afghan villagers means that the mythologies that we’ve built up about the war on terror immediately come tumbling down. And what is generally perceived here as a war against terror is perceived on the ground over there as a war against local communities in which thousands of innocent people have been wrongfully arrested, abused, and even killed. These are people like Abda Ali [?] who’s age 28, he comes from Kunar Province and he was arrested and found himself in the custody of a CIA team. He was beaten so savagely by the CIA contractors that at one point, he begged them to shoot him to put him out of his misery. They didn’t, but they still beat him until he succumbed to his wounds and died.

Or people like Jamal Nasser, age 18, who is wrongfully arrested because of false intelligence from a warlord who is backed by the United States. He was arrested by the special forces, he was hung upside down for hours on end. He was stripped naked, submerged in icy water. He was electrocuted, he was beaten, and he, too, succumbed to internal bleeding and died.

Or like many, many other people, some of whom were only just beginning to understand their stories. People like Muhammad Syari [?] who was murdered after he was taken into custody by U.S. military investigators in Afghanistan. And we know he was murdered, but we don’t know why or what the circumstances were. We only know about his case because of a series of heavily redacted DOD documents which we were able to obtain under the Freedom of Information Act.

And so we were told that these instances, and I can be here all day giving you other examples, we were told that these cases were isolated cases, that like Abu Ghraib, these were the works of a few bad apples. But in fact, the history of the Afghan War in the last 14 years, is a history, in part, of hundreds of little Abu Ghraibs all across the country which poses the question, how many bad apples do we need to see before we recognize that there’s a problem with the tree itself?

And if we take this view, if we ask these questions, then we begin to understand why the crimes that were committed were in such a large scale and why the abuses still continue today, even though the wars have been declared officially over. So in Iraq and Afghanistan today, where most U.S. troops have departed, we’ve in fact outsourced a coercive logic of the war on terror to a series of local proxies. In Iraq, these would be Shi’a militias, in Afghanistan these would be a series of local strongmen who are effectively fighting America’s war on America’s behalf.

So for example, in Kandahar Province, one of the methods of torture that was in vogue fairly recently by U.S.-created and backed strongmen, was the application of power drills into the skulls of people who are accused of being so-called terrorists. And this is where I and many other journalists are profoundly indebted to the life and legacy of Ron Ridenhour, and as people here, I’m sure know, of course he was famous for his letter exposing the My Lai Massacre. But what people may not know that throughout his life, he was also somebody who consistently drew attention to the fact that abuse, this type of abuse, was systematic, it was pervasive, and it was deeply characteristic of the American system of global power.

It’s something that he called the perpetual war. In fact, there’s an essay by him called “Jesus was a Gook,” which if you haven’t read, you should read. It’s a really extraordinary piece of work. And he writes– I’m just going to quote from it real quickly, he writes in there that, “because few allegations of direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam War style atrocities surfaced in the pages of America’s newspapers, there’s not much president or public interest in the perpetual war. The U.S. is, nevertheless, still orchestrating the slaughter of gooks throughout the world; massacres, assassinations, disappeared ones, the forced relocation of rural poor, government secure zones, death squads, the torture of innocents, the labeling of any and all opposition as terrorists.

All of that has a familiar ring. We provide the money, the guns, the strategy, and plenty of on the scene advisors to our friends, the good gooks. And they, in turn, steal most of the money, do the dirty work on the bad gooks, and if someone gets caught, they take all the blame.”

Now, the was writing about the 1980s, the contra wars and the drug wars in Central America and elsewhere, but when I read this, I couldn’t help but think how closely this describes the current American proxy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. And if that’s true, then I think there’s a particular urgency in his words today, and where today so much of the dirty work is being done by corrupt regimes and drone strikes and informal militias who are either allied with or drawing funding from the United States.

So, if we don’t take this legacy seriously, I’m afraid these crimes will continue to remain buried. And that’s why I found Ron Ridenhour’s work so inspiring and why I find his message so necessary. So, I thank the Fertel Foundation and The Nation Institute for allowing me to get to know him through his work and for this wonderful and humbling award. Thank you very much. [applause]