Matthew Trevithick's Reviews > The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

The Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes
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Mar 26, 2011

it was ok
Read from March 26 to April 16, 2011

Great title, not a very informative book. Despite Sebastian Junger's line on the back ("Every American who wants to know why planes flew into buildings on Sept 11 must buy this book"), this book has nothing to do with that. Nor is Ahmed Rashid or Steve Coll right in their reviews.

I work in Afghanistan (been here 7 months, will be here for 15+ more) and to be honest... by and large, the things she describes are just not all that significant. The murder of her friend (and subsequent investigation) were interesting, but the rest of it... not so much. She makes huge sweeping statements about minor things - she discusses how, when one foreigner working in Kandahar was killed, 'a line had been crossed.' Really? This country sees dozens of people die every week. The project she worked on (building a few houses) will not contribute substantially to the well-being of Afghanistan in the future. Her ideas ("How to fire a warlord in 8 easy steps" - really, she writes the full thing right in the book) are silly - she introduces this topic (how to fire warlords) with a bit of humor, but then later gets angry when her document isn't taken seriously by... anybody, be they US Ambassadors or Karzai. Her chapters go all over the place - during her personal narrative (the book reads more like one long diary entry than anything else) she bounces around to big topics like 'the coming of islam' and chronicles various past empires and their involvement here. Towards the end of the book, we're getting chapters summarizing one or two months - she clearly just flew back into town, checked up on things, and left. These chapters are also only a few pages long - literally, less than 5 in several cases.

As for her conclusion, she writes the words 'this isn't much of a conclusion.' I totally agree - she wanted this book to be something taken seriously (clearly) but all in all, she didn't have a really unique experience that would let her do that. She knows a few people, but everyone (really) has met the people she writes about. She has a few ideas, but many people have better ideas. She has built a few houses - most people do far more than that while they're here. Many work on long-term, big-picture projects designed to give Afghanistan what it really needs (infrastructure and education) rather than cosmetic updates - a house painted here, a farm cooperative there. She had a few interesting lines on the impact of the Soviet invasion and what it did to Afghan 'courage'.

Don't let this be the first book you read about Afghanistan.

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message 2: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Rassie what book do you suggest for a better understanding of Afghanistan


Matthew Trevithick Hi Catherine,

Thanks for your note. I'm by no means an expert, but think that these two books could provide a lot of useful information for you:

Decoding the New Taliban (collection of essays by people here)
The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia

Think that between those two you'd be pretty good to go.

Best,

Matt


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