Book Review: The Hill by Aaron Kirk
Imagine you’re twenty-one years old again. You’re in charge of a small squad of US Marines who occupy a strategic outpost in Afghanistan nicknamed The Hill. Troops from the Soviet Union, the British Empire, and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian soldiers preceded you in that high, walled garrison with 360 degree views of the valley below. You delegate the order of movement. Who sweeps for IEDs? Who bears ammo for the belt-fed? What’s the SOP for react-to-contact and medevac operations should worse come to worse? You patrol your squad through muddy farmland and canals under an unforgiving sun, dehydrated while carrying 80+ pounds of armor, ammo, radios, and explosives. Your boots are soaking wet by the time you arrive at the village elder’s dusty house, who invites you and your Afghan National Army interpreter in for tea. Almost thrice your age, he can’t see the Blink 182 tattoo under your flame resistant cammies, but he does notice the Sergeant’s pin on the front of your body armor, even though you’re only a Lance Corporal, the third lowest rank in the military. The false grade and your bearing are the only attributes determining whether the elder respects you enough to tell you what he knows about the IED placed by the bridge a few days ago. You leave the shura unsure of his veracity and slog your way back up to The Hill. When you go home in a few months, you’ll be able to (legally) buy yourself a well-deserved beer.
I finished Aaron Kirk’s captivating new Afghanistan memoir, The Hill, just a few weeks ago when Kandahar fell to the Taliban. The veteran community has expressed mixed and sore feelings about what’s happened since. We all know someone who was wounded or fell in that graveyard of empires. The war that defined so many of our best years did not come to the conclusion any of us hoped for. Yet in that hellish chasm of chaotic mountain valleys and IED-laden farm towns, from Kabul to Kandahar, the best of us had chances to shine and come away with stories of our own. Not always as we’d imagined, but always with honor. Therein lies the ingredient that makes a story worth remembering. In The Hill, Kirk truly captures the essence of those who should not be forgotten: the ground-pounders, the backbone of our military, the Infantryman. He lives up to his moniker in this no-holds-barred account—The Memoirs of a Grunt.
America’s fetishization with special operations is evident in our pop culture, cinema, video games, and bookstores, which often flash exclusive special unit emblems like Navy SEAL tridents and Ranger tabs, and show off the latest gear for wannabe types to scoop up. I feel like this extra affection for SOF detracts from the fantastic narratives of our main body of ground fighters, the infantry. Infantrymen usually deploy for more extended periods with less experience, training, accommodation, and support. They take on missions that are just as dangerous, often carrying more weight and marching more miles than their SOF counterparts. Further, it’s not uncommon for deployed infantrymen downrange to be less than twenty years old. Kirk illustrates the reality of these responsibilities unloaded on the shoulders of impressionable, yet capable youth. He writes with a poetic yet regimented type of prose that adds to the immersion of this story about a rag-tag bunch of young grunts in Afghanistan, doing their best to keep each other alive under extraordinary circumstances.
Kirk’s book begins in the recruiter’s office and narrates through bootcamp and the rowdy barracks life at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Early in the book, Kirk introduces us to what he calls “The Marine Corps Way.” The Marine Corps Way is why one tucks their bootlaces into their boots before leaving the firebase to rescue ANA soldiers. It is leadership’s ever watching eye, calling you on the radio to demean you for wearing an unauthorized hat even though you’re miles away from command and thought you were out of sight. It’s the type of indoctrination that rides the fence between discipline and brainwashing, yet is an integral ingredient to make the elite fighting force out of teens and twenty-somethings hell-bent on killing enemies of the United States.
The meat of the book takes place during Kirk’s second deployment, where he holds a leadership position in a remote firebase. He injects life into his memoir by embodying the boredom and ferocity of Marines on deployment. Stories about making a coliseum for insect fights, how to rub one out in secrecy, renegade snipers, and Afghan goat barbecues bring a funny, irreverent reality to the side of deployment you wouldn’t see in cinema. Kirk also has us on our toes each time his squad leaves the wire where seemingly everyone and everything is a threat. His descriptive immersion has us wondering how any human could endure such conditions and how some don’t. In one passage, he writes:
“I am lean bordering on malnourished. Every bit of excess fat and muscle stripped away as I burn a thousand calories an hour, hours of patrols a day, days of patrols in a week, weeks of war that add into months that take years from my life. I can pull myself out of a canal, I can carry a man for a mile, but I couldn’t bench press my body weight if you paid me.”
After a very difficult deployment and homecoming, Kirk writes a few somber memories that many warfighters will understand. He does so in a way that I believe is relatable enough for civilians to appreciate. Much like Remarque’s classic book All Quiet on the Western Front, the relatable characters of remarkable young men living an unwasted youth is a read that will make an impression on readers from all backgrounds and walks of life. It is not a politically motivated propagandistic novel of Americana, just a down-to-earth memoir of what happened to a young man and his squad in a far-away and misunderstood land. The raw vulnerability and comic relief are the most real and down to earth take on the Global War On Terror I’ve read thus far. I’m confident that as Afghanistan slowly drifts from America’s collective memory, those who wish to understand or seek to remember will find an incisive and realistic adventure with Kirk’s squad on The Hill.
Written By Ryan Sefid