J. Kael Weston spent seven years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan working for the U.S. State Department in some of the most dangerous frontline locations. Upon his return home, while traveling the country to pay respect to the dead and wounded, he asked himself: When will these wars end? How will they be remembered and memorialized? What lessons can we learn from them?
...an ambitious, uneven, but closely observed and illuminating memoir ... At its best, Weston’s reportage recalls the finest foreign correspondence of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Yet his perspective is that of a government insider, one shaken by the human costs of the failures he participated in and especially by the strategic folly of the invasion of Iraq ... His book’s last chapters chronicle his journeys across America to visit the hometowns and graves of Marines who died on his tours. The memoir becomes a kind of scrapbook, not always satisfyingly so. Its final entry, however, is a stunning map of the United States with dots marking all the hometowns of US war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
In many ways, Weston proves more thoughtful than some early and exuberant American observers of both wars. Once abroad, he treats the Iraqis and Afghans not as generically faceless enemies but as thoughtful, sophisticated citizens of a conquered and divided land ... Weston sees standard State Department rhetoric—the kind of history-distorting self-aggrandizement Americans indulge in all the time—exposed as nonsense ... The gruesomeness of the violence in Fallujah forms the backdrop to perhaps the book’s most stunning chapter, 'The Potato Factory,' named for the original function of the building that later served as Fallujah’s mortuary ... Iraq’s extremes translate into better writing in Weston’s case, the raw chaos of the landscape and the imperial project’s utter bleakness somehow exposing the futility and corruption of all such occupations. Weston’s prose is more precise, more blunt, and one senses he’s mostly angry with himself ... But then the book takes a dizzying turn. 'Four years in a wrong war, three years in a right war, and now home,' he suddenly writes. Really? There was still a 'right' war? The ample evidence he provided for four hundred pages seemed as if it would eradicate all such sentiments. What follows, however, is a profile of an American businessman who was inspired by the story of a US soldier stationed in Afghanistan getting baseball equipment sent over 'so that the entire village could learn how to play America’s favorite sport.' The businessman started an organization that Weston believes is allowing people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to experience 'American greatness through American goodness.' I just kept writing WHY WHY WHY in the margins as I read this bizarre lurch into flatly irrelevant American cheerleading.
The emotional core of The Mirror Test is Weston’s profound love for the Marines, whose stoic warrior culture and bottomless commitment to one another he embraces. This reverence, however, blurs the book’s intellectual outlines, since Weston’s buddies don’t share either his horror of the wars or his commitment to putting politics and diplomacy first.