SWJ Book Review: Always Faithful
By Kane Tomlin
Always Faithful: A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter, By Thomas Schueman and Zainullah Zaki, with Russel Worth Parker, (Harper Collins, August 9, 2022)
My earliest “what I want to be when I grow up” life decision that I can remember was to become a United States Marine. It was sometime in the second half of the 1980s, I was 8 or 9 years old, my dad was a Marine Staff NCO stationed in Barstow California, my brothers and I were visiting for the weekend, and the movie Aliens had just come out for rental at the Class VI on base. It was my first R-rated movie, and I knew this would be an important moment to make life decisions when my dad loaded the VHS player with great fanfare; exclaiming “boys, I want you to know this movie is loosely based on my exploits in the Marine Corps.”
We knew he was kidding… or was he? A boy could never be totally sure. But from that day forward the Marines were the standard for what the “distribution of righteous mayhem” and “overall badassery” should be. Additionally, nuking things from orbit now seemed like a legitimate national security strategy, it’s the only way to be sure. It wasn’t until I was attending High School in Okinawa that I became inculcated to the term “Semper Fidelis” and began to ponder the meaning, implications, and obligations of such a motto might be. Sadly, as usual; life, Poseidon, and Army Dive School conspired against my dream of joining this particular martial cult. Semper Fidelis though, that little piece of Latin stayed with me. I ended up an amphibious warrior anyway, just not quite how I imagined.
So, it is both a great honor and a humbling experience to be granted the opportunity to review a new GWOT-era defining book bearing the English translation of Semper Fidelis. Entitled Always Faithful: A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter by Thomas Schueman, Zainullah “Zak” Zaki, and Russel Worth Parker who is moonlighting from his real job as my Girl Scout Street Distribution Engineer to try his hand at this writing thing. The book covers the Afghanistan War (OEF) from its genesis until its inglorious conclusion in 2021 and the immediate aftermath. However, this isn’t a typical military memoir for a myriad of reasons.
Like all the most prolific war stories from probably the Iliad onward, Always Faithful is at its heart the story of warriors, a retelling of the hero’s journey through modern combat’s unique complexities, and a vignette of “our war” that will speak to many of the experiences of the GWOT community, albeit likely with less intensity (at least in my case) than Zak and Thomas endured and ultimately overcame. Even having served in Iraq during the Iraq Surge in 2006-2008, I cannot fathom the sheer scale and ferocity of the fighting around Sangin in the Helmand Province the authors experienced during the oh-so-creatively named Afghanistan Surge. It is a testament to their uniquely effective working relationship (and ultimately their friendship) and Darkhorse Kilo 3/5’s martial tenacity that they are still here to write their story. As simply a memoir of a junior Marine Officer in some of the hardest fighting since Vietnam it is compelling reading, but Always Faithful is so much more.
Zak and Thomas’s alternating biographical style creates two chronological literary vectors, worlds apart, which are destined by providence, luck, or both to intersect in a war-torn valley in eastern Afghanistan. These vectors share a small window while fighting together only to be separated equally abruptly nine months later, finally intersecting again when the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan comes due. This is the first book I have read with such background depth of both the US and Afghan allies’ experience surrounding the war. Too often the United States views itself as the center of the universe (for better or worse) and it is helpful to be reminded that we are just one country in a very big and complex world. As the world once again finds itself mired in complex security challenges it would be beneficial to practice some the lessons learned by 20 years of blood recounted in Always Faithful.
The combat retelling is artfully woven into the book, creating a cognitive recreation of the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions aroused by close combat that Hemingway would have recognized, and his readers will admire. While the sheer ferocity of combat in Sangin may not be familiar to some Veteran and Active-Duty readers, one thing will likely ring true about Always Faithful; the requirement to achieve mission success despite “echelons above reality” rather than because of them. Sadly, I imagine this is the lived experience of most warfighters to some degree.
As our generation inexorably moves from the “doer” role to that of the “thinker”, it would be wise for us to remember the lessons contained in Always Faithful, or else we are doomed to repeat them, with predictable results to our warrior’s mental health, moral injury, and combat readiness. The Marine Corps is steeped in lore in no small part because throughout their history they have never broken faith with their country or fellow comrades, and the GWOT generation is proving to be no different, even if it feels as though our own government is conspiring against us at times. No better friend and no worse enemy indeed. The warrior tribe is both larger and smaller than the Marine Corps, but as Thomas and Zak aptly demonstrate, it is a bond that cannot be broken by time, geography, bureaucracy, or the enemy. My, what a fantastic little cult you have there!
Always Faithful will be available on August 9th, 2022, at your favorite retail or online bookstore. Be sure to pre-order Always Faithful today to reserve your copy.