A. E. Coussens’ new novel Failed State offers an inside look at what the soldiers who fight in Afghanistan, and really around the world, face on a daily basis.
First, we are introduced to Damien Collins, a contract worker who serves the United States military in Afghanistan. Damien is returning home from his service overseas and looking forward to seeing his wife and little girl. He and his wife have been having some problems, including his wife drinking too much, but Damien has no idea of the full extent of those problems until he arrives home to a shocking scene.
We are then taken back to Damien’s recent experiences in Afghanistan. Coussens writes with great knowledge and deftness in his depiction of the Americans who serve in Afghanistan and try to maintain order in the country. Between locals who side with the Taliban and some terrorists, these men rarely have an easy day. Coussens takes us right into a gunfire scene in the city streets and the excruciating pain that follows when Damien and his comrades realize that Loki, one of their men, has been arrested by the Afghanis and is being treated like a criminal for his actions during the conflict.
What follows for Damien is some red tape and some seeming disgrace in being told by his boss that he can no longer serve in Afghanistan. Damien and his comrade Cam are sent to Dubai to rest and recover from their experiences before they return to the United States. In Dubai, more conflict arises, though it’s more internal as we see how Damien struggles with all the stresses in his life both from his work and his home life-or his inability to have a home life.
Meanwhile, the scene changes to show the latest plottings by other terrorists.
To say much more would be to give too much of the plot away. What I can say here is that Coussens’ writing is searingly realistic. I felt like I was patrolling down the streets of Kabul with the characters, seeing every building and waiting every moment for the unexpected to happen. Here’s just a couple of paragraphs from the novel to give you a feeling of Coussens’ knack for making a scene come to life:
“The Kabul-Jalalabad highway east of the city looked apocalyptic. The team’s late model Land Cruiser began to accelerate on the road as they left Kabul behind them, the long VHF antennae mounted on the back, wagging in the head wind. Cam checked the Blue Force Tracker, the only way for anyone to locate them in distress, and initiated a communications check with the compound. Leo nodded his head, pleased with the routine and his team. They had driven through most of Kabul over the last several months, but never this far out where medieval urban sprawl gave way to industrial compounds, gaping sand, and rock mining pits. Ahead of them, the foothills loomed in the distance, and beyond, the still snow-capped peaks of Laghman Kabul. Somewhere in the defilade was Faisal Rahman, a critical asset who had gone dark on them in the last sixteen days.
“Dog fighting had seen a resurgence in popularity after the Taliban were driven from Kabul by the Americans and Northern Alliance in 2002. Since then, the gambling networks, dog trainers, and fighting cabals had grown on a massive scale. Fights were held monthly on the city outskirts where crowds could gather unencumbered by outside influences like the Afghan National Police or Taliban decrees on the sin of gambling. Although women weren’t permitted unless they served to care for the men or loose children, the attendance and fight numbers swelled like a bloated carcass. The team followed a procession of private vehicles and several Jingha trucks packed with men down the highway past crumbling compound walls half-buried in shifting dunes. Beyond, as the highway rose to crest the first wave of foothills, the landscape became more barren and the wind swirled red sand columns across the asphalt.”
Talk about feeling like you’re really there! The endorsements on the book’s back cover, many by those in the military, testify to how accurate Coussens’ descriptions are both to the setting and to the processes the military uses. In fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to say Coussens writes like Tom Clancy, given his attention to detail as well as his ability to create suspense.
Personally, as strong as the scenes in Afghanistan are, what I most appreciated was the internal conflict Damien feels. This is a man who deeply loves his daughter and wants what is best for her, but he feels torn between his love for his family and his work-the need to protect his country and those who cannot protect themselves. Coussens hits a power-punch to the reader’s stomach when it comes to portraying the pain and angst felt by those who serve.
Consequently, the novel is hard-hitting on many levels.
Ultimately, I was left wanting more, and fortunately, I won’t be disappointed. A sequel, Relapse, is in the works and readers can get a sneak peek at it in the back pages of Failed State. This excerpt shows that the excitement for readers and the agonies for the characters are not over yet.