What is your take on Don Ayala? I have complicated feelings about him. I’m quite friendly with Don because we’ve been talking to each other about the stuff in this book for a few years. He was incredibly open with me about what happened. I couldn’t have written the book without him. Personally, I like him. But what interests me about his story is the moral ambiguity of it. You should not be too comfortable with how you feel about him. You should have mixed feelings, that’s appropriate.
What struck me about the last chapter is that I can read about Afghanistan day after day, year after year, and rarely be forced to think about Afghans in the way that this chapter made me think about them. Could you talk a little about how you approached that chapter? The last chapter is really key to the book. It was a huge part of what pushed me to do this. No one got at that story about who this guy was who attacked Paula. It was totally lost. It’s often totally lost. We just don’t see these people as full human beings. I’ve never had as tough a time getting access to somebody as I did to Salam’s family. I wanted to go out and meet his father and see his wife and his kids. That’s generally been possible, but this was a very special case. Maiwand is a difficult place to get to. I couldn’t go with the soldiers; that just wouldn’t have worked. We had to kind of triage it. We got enough in the end that I know what I think happened. I think this guy was mentally ill. He might not have been particularly fond of Westerners and there might have been some Taliban guys or sympathizers who kind of goaded him. When we talked to his father, I thought, ‘Okay, I know what’s going on here.’
But to get to that understanding you had to hear a range of stories—delivered as fact—about who Abdul Salam was and why he did what he did. It was a great gift to me that we got all of those other stories first, because it showed how difficult it is to get to the bottom of anything in Afghanistan. This kind of reporting isn’t often done because it takes two years, three years, to do that investigation. I don’t know if you’ve read Nick McDonell’s e-book, Green on Blue. He’s a Time magazine reporter. It’s about one of these attacks in Helmand by an Afghan Army soldier on some marines. It’s a great piece. Similarly, it takes 60 pages to get to the point of, ‘Who the hell knows?’
If we say we really want to know about these people, let’s really know about them. Let’s not just tell the story that we think is the right story. Let’s not turn this into a cartoon; let’s not turn this into a myth. With Paula Loyd, that was happening and it will no doubt continue to happen.
Not unlike how the military, with considerable help from the media, did with the stories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. These stories really bother me. I have a strong negative reaction to stories that feel glossy, because I know from being in these places that the truth is much more interesting, much more complicated, and much more rough and disjointed than that. And I wanted to convey that.
Is there a way to approach that kind of complexity in daily reporting, or do you have to write a book? I think there’s a way to approach it, but I have real concerns about the way the pace and structure of daily reporting force certain kinds of narratives to be told and retold, especially in a moment when there are fewer and fewer reporters, especially overseas, to tell different stories. There’s less and less interest and demand for the story behind the story, the unexpected story, from the desk. There are some great editors out there and some papers that still have a deep bench—The New York Times has published a lot of wonderful stories off the news about Afghanistan lately.