The rather melodramatic title of this memoir is the local name for a barren stretch of country in the south of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Following a brief stint in Iraq, Captain Leo Docherty of the Scots Guards served there with the British Army from April to October 2006. As a Pashtu-speaking linguist, Docherty was initially happy to be in Afghanistan, participating in what he saw as a humanitarian and nation-building mission. However, he became increasingly disillusioned as he observed what was actually happening on the ground. The corruption of warlords and petty officials, the burgeoning opium poppy harvests, a resurgent Taliban, and the bungled army operations that resulted in civilian and military deaths led him to conclude that the occupation had failed and British troops should withdraw. When he expressed this – undoubtedly correct – opinion in public he was severely reprimanded and left the army in December 2006.
Captain Docherty states honestly at the outset: ‘I’m not a journalist or a writer’ and Desert of Death provides ample evidence for this statement. The writing is flat and affectless and Docherty cannot shape a narrative or analyze a situation. That soldiers’ lives consist of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror is hardly a new observation and to have it described in plodding, repetitive detail makes for an uninvolving and unilluminating read. A book about the reality of the occupation of Afghanistan – ideally from an Afghan perspective – would be worth having; but Desert of Death is emphatically not that book.