Book Review: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now by Graeme Smith

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now – Graeme Smith (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2013)

Graeme Smith was a journalist in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2011, writing primarily for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s major national newspaper. This book is his look back at his trips to Afghanistan, his experiences, and his changing opinions.

When Smith arrives in Afghanistan for the first time in September 2005, it is a place of optimism. Heavy with international and military presence, Afghanistan seems to be on the cusp of big change and many foreign workers believe that things will only get better for the country and its people. We follow Smith over the next few years as he (and others) come to realize this is not the case. Smith follows along with the military (not just Canadian but British and American too) but also makes an effort to interview locals, politicians, and fighters on both sides. There is a broad spectrum of experiences and opinions on display here. The book is not a memoir but neither is it a piece of pure reporting. Smith and his own reactions are fully on display and we see him evolve and adapt as the country changes around him. There’s no denying that simply being a foreigner means that his experience will be different from a local citizen but he does present a broad array of characters, even working to collect interviews from those involved with or connected to the Taliban. (He does this with the aid of a more neutral party who conducts the interviews themselves.)

Perhaps the most powerful section is when Smith details his investigations into prisons. Insurgents are captured, often by foreign troops, and then handed over to local authorities and police. There is a myriad of evidence that these men are then tortured in prison and held without trial or charge. Smith does a fantastic job of laying out where the responsibilities of a government and military like Canada’s lies. How can we as a nation condemn torture but then place human beings into a situation where they are likely being tortured?

There is also the question of whether we should have been there at all? Was this truly a situation that warranted international involvement or was it a tribal conflict that the West became involved with for their own interests? Can you force another country to adopt a lifestyle that the people themselves might not want? These are big questions and Smith doesn’t attempt to offer cut and dry solutions for them. He lays out the things he has witnessed, sometimes with his own opinions quietly lurking behind them, sometimes not. Overall, the book is a snapshot of Afghanistan, as Smith experienced it, in those years. Already, I’m sure, the situation has changed quite a lot and will continue to change. I think the strength of a book like this lies in helping the average Canadian become more informed about what our country is doing internationally, what it stands for, and what we want it to stand for.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now by Graeme Smith”

  1. This sounds like an interesting read! The war in Afghanistan is definitely a period of (recent) history I want to read more about at some point- I was a kid when it started and even as I got old enough to follow along in the news I never quite caught up on all the politics, so this has been something of a blind spot for me. I like the idea of presenting so many different viewpoints in a work like this, even if it does center the author’s experience in the end.

    1. I don’t know as much as I should and it’s been going on for so long that it can feel so complicated to figure out. I read another book about Afghanistan by a Canadian journalist a couple of years ago, though that was less focused on the military. The two combined have given me a better understanding of the tribal conflicts involved but there’s a lot I don’t know or understand.

      I didn’t mind that he used his own experience as the centre. It made the book feel more honest and I didn’t feel like he was necessarily on either side, he simply had his own reactions, which we all would.

  2. This sounds really interesting – especially since he managed to arrange interviews with people connected to the Taliban as well as the military. With something like this, it’s probably right that he acknowledges his own emotions or reactions – no-one would ever be able to be objective about something they’d lived through in such a direct way, I think, so it’s natural that it would inform his analysis and reporting.

  3. I get frustrated by nonfiction books that aren’t clear about what they’re doing, because it’s easy to mislead readers. I either want objective reporting presented in a nonbiased way, or I want a memoir in which the author acknowledges that what he/she is writing is from a personal viewpoint and experiences. Both are perfectly fine, but it’s important that the reader know if he/she is getting an informational text or an opinionated one with theories posited based on experience rather than verified facts.

    1. That’s definitely fair. This does fall somewhere in between. I wouldn’t have wanted more of Smith, like I don’t really care about his personal life or background, but at the same time he is detailing his own experiences. To me, the way he presented it all felt honest. It was as if he started out trying to be objective and then learned about things like torture in prisons or the way the War on Drugs was destroying peoples’ livelihoods and couldn’t stay objective. I think his reactions were very human. But if you want straight facts and reporting about Afghanistan, this isn’t it. I am curious whether the book is reflective of his reporting style.

    2. Currently, I’m reading a new true crime book called The Babysitter. It has two authors. One is the woman who spent her summers with a serial killer when she was seven, never knowing he was a serial killer. The other author uses straight reporting with letters, articles, interviews, and video recording. I think it’s a brilliant way to get both that human reaction and the honest reporting.

    3. That does sound like a really interesting approach and a good way to get a personal perspective while also relaying the story in a factual manner. With something like those years in Afghanistan, it seems hard to imagine who would be able to tell the story from a completely observational level. This is the second book I’ve read by a Canadian journalist in Afghanistan and both struggle to stay emotionally distant.
      Also, I looked up The Babysitter and, yikes! I can only imagine the horror that family felt when they find out later. I can’t imagine learning that I had trusted my kids to a serial killer!

    4. The mom dumped her kid off with anyone standing nearby with a pulse. She would be pumping gas and ask the person at the next car over if they ever babysit.

    5. Yikes! That does put my mind at rest though that I may unwittingly have hired a murderer to watch my children at some point!

    6. Typically, you have Sharon down the street, or whatever, who can vouch for the teen you’re hiring. Even that would be better than some rando at the gas station.

    7. Yep. We’ve never hired a stranger, it’s always been someone’s teenager. I would never have been allowed to babysit for a stranger as a teenager either.

  4. This book sounds familiar to me but I’ve definitely never read it. I’m fascinated by this stuff b/c I just know so little about it, so reading reporting like this feels like the ‘right’ thing to do, in order to get a more global perspective on these wars.

    1. Agreed! This has been on my TBR for a while. I don’t remember where I heard about but I’m pretty sure that was my motivation for adding it.

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