The Dark Absurdity of American Violence

Jamil Jan Kochai’s story collection reveals the surreal farce of the War on Terror.

collage of fragments of book cover and photos of children
Library of Congress; Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

Less than a year ago, the U.S. military, on its way out of Afghanistan, added 10 more names to its ledger of collateral damage in the war it had waged for two decades. A few days after 13 American service members and almost 200 Afghan civilians were killed in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, U.S. officials went looking for a white Toyota that they believed contained a car bomb. They found one, and they vaporized it. Officials initially thought that the strike had killed someone affiliated with Islamic extremists. Instead, the final tally of the dead consisted of one aid worker, two other adults, and seven children. Having fallen within some faraway officer’s acceptable margin of error, those people are now, in the official accounting, no more than details of a tragic but blameless accident. The military investigated itself and decided not to punish those responsible. Before the investigation, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had called the strike “righteous.” After the investigation, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, called it a “tragic mistake.”

American literature is necessarily littered with meditations on violence—its ubiquity, its marrow-deep kinship with this country’s mythology of frontiers tamed and destiny manifested. But although Jamil Jan Kochai’s writing touches on these themes, his profound and visceral short-story collection, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, is much more an interrogation of another central facet of modern American violence: its absurdity. More than almost any other work of fiction I’ve read in the post-9/11 era, Kochai’s collection lays bare the surrealism that colors nearly every interaction between one of history’s most powerful empires and the people it considers disposable. By using a fantastical style to describe the ordinary lives lost over the course of the war, Kochai brings into relief the farcical nature of a conflict in which an army can investigate itself for the death of phantom terrorists killed remotely from a control room. The result is a dark literary impeachment, a fable in which the emperor is missing not clothes but a conscience.

Simply detailing the scope and nature of the War on Terror’s carnage is one thing, but Kochai, whose stories feature anthropomorphic monkeys who instigate revolutions and a child’s severed limbs dutifully reattached by his mother, opts for a far less-traveled road, creating a world so preposterous that the violence seems like just another type of everyday absurdity. In a vacuum, Kochai’s characters and scenes would come off as ludicrous, but framed against the past two decades, they reveal how inured we’ve become to the strangeness of war. The book’s central means of indictment is to show us just how terrifyingly routine violence became for anyone who lived through the U.S. military’s prolonged campaign in response to the September 11 attacks.

Many of the central characters in the collection’s 12 stories are Afghan Americans, immigrants from other parts of the world, or Afghans whose lives the war has ruptured. For the most part, the U.S. is on the sidelines. Kochai creates a deeply powerful inversion, stripping it of agency and giving it as passive a voice as it has given the men, women, and children killed or maimed by stray Hellfires. Coupled with the phantasmagorical streak that runs through many of these stories, this reversal underscores the nonsensical imbalance between the world’s most powerful military and people from one of the poorest places on Earth.

In clumsier hands, such subject matter might result in monotonously dour pieces of fiction. Kochai—who is from Logar, Afghanistan; was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan; and is now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University—achieves the opposite. The stories in this collection are wildly divergent in form and style, veering from surreal to photorealistic to, in some cases, both at once. In “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” a young man scrounges enough money to buy a new video game set in Afghanistan, only to find his real-life relatives, both dead and alive, populating the game’s open world, to be killed or ignored at the player’s leisure. In “The Tale of Dully’s Reversion,” an Afghan American Ph.D. student steps in front of his mother’s prayer mat and is transformed into a monkey, setting off a chain of events that culminates in a failed revolution. In “Return to Sender,” the child of a couple living in Kabul disappears, only to be returned to them, gradually, in pieces—a finger, a toe, three eyelashes—which they stitch back together.

There is violence of one kind or another in almost every story in this collection, but in passing so much of it through the prism of impossibility, Kochai condemns both those who perpetrated that violence and those who looked the other way. To ignore the suffering of so many Afghans over these past two decades requires thinking of them as less than human—in his fiction, Kochai simply extends that callous disregard to its illogical extremes. Many of his characters are something other than human: cursed but defiant animals, digital ghosts, giants who toss scimitars into the air hoping to murder Allah but stabbing American fighter planes instead.

Some of the stories are reminiscent of work such as Tommy Orange’s There There—not in substance, but in the way the author pinpoints a strain of wrongdoing not by focusing his attention on those responsible, but instead by simply listing their actions, sometimes in passing. It’s a technique that shows up several times in Kochai’s work, as in the description of Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel in “The Parable of the Goats.” Casteel, a fighter pilot, glides through the Afghan sky, having “just completed his twentieth bombing mission of the year by successfully obliterating forty-six insurgents, twenty-eight of their young wives, one hundred and fifty-six of their children, forty-eight of their sisters, seventy-three of their younger brothers, nineteen of their mothers, ten of their fathers, twenty-two of their chickens, eight of their cows, three of their bulls, an orchard of their trees, and three thousand honeybees, whose death, it was hypothesized, would eventually lead to the extinction of the human race.” While the mismatch of tone and subject matter emphasizes the grotesqueness of this degree of destruction, Kochai also challenges the American tendency to center itself: Here the perpetrator is given only fleeting attention; the victims and consequences afforded the spotlight.

Reading The Haunting of Hajji Hotak is jarring in this moment of chronic domestic failure. In part, that’s because the Trump era and its aftermath have rendered the violations of the War on Terror ancient history in the American consciousness. But it’s also because so much of our current flavor of violence—the gun massacres to which the favored solution of some Republicans is more guns, a deadly coup attempt during which, as the White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the January 6 committee, the president told staffers that he thought his vice president deserved to be killed—seems tailor-made for the kind of surgically astute absurdity that marks Kochai’s writing. Kochai’s fiction speaks to the human need to make sense of overwhelming violence—who survives it and who doesn’t; who is held culpable and who isn’t. Such questions are often considered the domain of distant others, but Kochai makes his readers confront them head-on. His stories aren’t about some faraway people. There’s no such thing as faraway people.