Lost in the War on Terror

The author of Godsend watches CNN.

By John Wray

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Illustration from Godfrey Thomas Vigne’s A Personal Narrative of a Visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan (1840), page 325. Internet Archive.

Each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, addresses a theme—States of War, States of Mind, Food, Youth, Animals—by drawing on primary sources throughout history, finding the rhymes and dissonances in how these topics have played out and been perceived over the centuries. In this new series, we open up the sleuthing beyond our staff and four annual themes by letting historians and writers share what they have come across in their recent visits to the archives.

This week’s selection comes from John Wray, author of Godsend, now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I know of no story more emblematic of the costs and contradictions of our country’s so-called War on Terror than that of John Walker Lindh. A good-natured, studious kid from Mill Valley, California, John became interested in Islam as a teenager, initially by way of Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X; at the age of sixteen, he converted. Three years later, while studying the Quran in a small town in Pakistan, John—who was now calling himself Suleyman—became convinced that the conflict raging just over the border in Afghanistan, between a grassroots movement led by religious scholars and a brutal coalition of warlords, was one that it was his ethical obligation to take part in. Within six months, Lindh was a soldier in the army of that onetime grassroots movement: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, better known to the west as the Taliban.

It was a disastrous decision, one fueled by faulty information, extremist propaganda, and a young man’s susceptibility to the romance of war—but it was not, in any legal sense, a treasonous one. The Taliban were not on the State Department’s list of hostile nations in the spring of 2001, or even on its no-travel list; in fact, a consortium of United States interests were ironing out a deal to run a pipeline across Afghanistan, from oil-rich Turkmenistan to the Pakistani coast, the nearest point accessible to American supertankers. We wanted to do business with Afghan regime at the time, not demonize it. Within a few months, however, the twin towers would fall, Osama Bin Laden would be traced to Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, and John Walker Lindh—after giving a brief interview from a prison hospital on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif—would be famous, across the world, as the American Taliban.

The original footage of that fatal CNN interview, which an opportunistic reporter conducted with Lindh as he lay in his hospital bed, is likely degrading, slowly but steadily, in some climate-controlled corporate vault; but its highlights are readily available on YouTube, in a series of reports, dating from 2001 to the present, on the fate of the most reviled American traitor since Lee Harvey Oswald. The video is a historic document in the most literal sense: it was aired within hours of its being filmed, sealing Lindh’s fate long before his trial. He resides, to this day, in a maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, forbidden to speak Arabic, the language of Islam—or even to pray with an open mouth.

I watched the CNN footage many times as I was writing Godsend, a novel inspired by Suleyman’s story. It makes for fascinating viewing, especially when one knows the circumstances of its making: the young man being questioned had just spent seven days and nights in the flooded cellar of Qala-i-Jangi prison, during a prisoners’ uprising in which nearly two hundred had been killed, and he himself had taken a bullet in the leg. In the footage, he appears strangely calm—due to the painkillers, perhaps, or to his elevated temperature—and speaks in an oddly stilted, formal accent, as though he’s forgotten, or repressed, the Northern Californian kid he once was. In spite of all of this, he is anything but guarded with his questioners: he seems neither defensive, nor guilt-ridden, nor even especially cautious. He freely admits his allegiance to the Taliban—“My heart,” he says, “became attached to them”—and his approval of the events of September 11, the details of which he has yet to learn. It’s easy to imagine that this young man feels some measure of relief that he’d been captured—that over a year of marching, malnutrition, illness and fear are now finally at an end. There is no trace anymore, on his gaunt, filthy face, of the nineteen-year-old boy who once crossed the mountains to lay down his life for the glory of Islam. There seems to be no trace, in fact, of John Walker Lindh at all.

Want to read more? Here are some past posts from this series:

Imani Perry, Looking for Lorraine

Ken Krimstein, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

Scott W. Stern, The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women

Katherine Benton-Cohen, historical adviser for the film Bisbee ’17

John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk

Nicholas Smith, author of Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers

Victoria Johnson, author of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic

Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy

Christopher Bonanos, author of Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

Anna-Lisa Cox, author of The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality

Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

Linda Gordon, author of The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition

Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Ben Austen, author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing