If you ever feel the need to find a reason to count your blessings, THE MULLAH’S STORM will provide you with 273 of them. That’s one for every page of this unforgettable debut by Thomas W. Young. Food, warmth, clothes, bandages, shelter, safety, sleep, wheeled transportation…and that is only the start. The book is set in Afghanistan, right in the middle of the current war, and it is an eye-opener to say the least.
Young, who logged nearly 4,000 hours as a flight engineer in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo under less-than-ideal conditions, knows of what he speaks. This is a war novel: unapologetic, straightforward, to the point. As a character says, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” Just so. Ostensibly a work of fiction, THE MULLAH’S STORM reads like a diary or memoir converted to the third person. It may well be. It is, in any event, most certainly a white-knuckled ride that will compel you to kiss the ground in front of any U.S. service personnel you might happen to encounter. I’m not kidding.
THE MULLAH’S STORM opens hot and never lets up. Ironically, it is set during Afghanistan’s winter, when a transport plane carrying a captured Taliban mullah is shot down in the middle of a horrendous blizzard over the Hindu Kush. The survivors, consisting of the mullah, Air Force navigator Michael Parson, and Sergeant Gold, a U.S. Army interpreter, cannot be extracted from the scene by U.S. forces due to the weather conditions. For Parson and Gold, capture by Taliban forces means mission failure and almost certain death. Naturally, the mullah would welcome such a capture as rescue. Parson and Gold are fighting the weather, the enemy, the terrain --- hostile under any circumstances --- an indigenous civilian population whose loyalty is a question mark, and, of course, their own prisoner.
Injured, poorly armed, lacking in supplies and rabidly pursued, Parson and Gold can rely on little except each other and the knowledge that Parson acquired through his Air Force survival training. There are no hotels at the exit ramps (actually, there are no exit ramps), convenience stores, or cell phones. There is only the cold, hostile wilderness that surrounds Parson, Gold and their antagonistic prisoner, in a world where the only certainty is death, and a quick end is an unlikely mercy.
Young’s inspiration for the book came from his greatest fear in Afghanistan. What scared him the most was not the thought of being shot down over Afghanistan and dying, but of being shot down over Afghanistan and not being killed. Back in the day, when literature was actually studied in public schools, Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “The Young British Soldier” addressed this same fear and provided a stark but true solution. Indeed, THE MULLAH’S STORM is a strong 21st-century echo of this, demonstrating how much and how little has changed. And the ending? You won’t believe it --- or forget it. It’s just part of what makes this novel not only a great read but also an extremely important one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 7, 2011