Set in the mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan after America's invasion pushed the Taliban into the hills toward the Pakistan border around the turn of the millennium, this novel has been reviewed to fit between McCarthy and O'Brien's similar stories of vengeance and justice. It is really a Western dressed in camo, carrying AR-15s instead of Winchesters, where the horse is still the chosen means of transportation.(1) If you are looking for ethical or political rationalizations between dialogues and discursions, look elsewhere. This is not about the sanctimonious myopia of the military or the wrenching absurdities of fighting a war you cannot reasonably conclude with any meaningful victory. No, this is more like a caper, you know, like that Clooney/Wahlberg film from 1999, Three Kings. It covers one special op that's about burglary not battle, executed by barely a squad of men, but with a unique twist: they maraud on horseback.
After a slow but engaging start, this novel revs up into a pageturner with enough puzzlement and action to keep it interesting. If that's all you require to bide your time—and that's enough justification as far as I'm concerned—this is a recommended read. However, if you want a little insight into the relationships between our boys abroad, the enemy, the managing systems in play, etc., look elsewhere.
This is a story with a single, 3rd-P POV. Like a James Bond episode, Wynne's War starts on the end of a marked incident, then, with orders from his superiors, our hero, Elijah Russell, engages the real plot of training horses—"gunbroke"(p.47)—for a commando-style mission in the hills. After firefighting in the Sandbox, Russell sees Afghanistan as a "world into an alternate place: predatory, carnivorous, a universe of tooth and bone"(p.134). His new CO is Captain Wynne. His men revere him; he's charismatic, has messianic zeal, and he's the question mark of the novel. There's also a love interest with an RN named Sara, which tidies up the final paragraphs into a rudimentary, flushing finish for Russell.
The main thematic conflict of the work is "principles or people"(p.234). And throw horses on the "people" side of the pitch. All the soldiers at Firebase Dodge are elite members of a fighting force. Wynne calls them "children of adversity. Guys with deep psychological scars but whose trauma hadn't wrecked them. . . Stronger and stranger"(p.155). But Russell isn't interested in labels, or heroics, or to sacrifice lives for the sake of their military mission. Wynne, being the in-field Brass, wants successful completion no matter the regrettable human cost. However, these adversarial positions—amped up during the black op mission, of course—are played for effect, because in the end, both positions stand, although Russell loses his best battle buddy.
The most telling line of the novel comes at the end. Confronted by a CIA agent wanting to know where Captain Wynne is, Russell says, "Did you not have any idea who it was you sent?"(p.232).
1) Chinooks or Hueys don't maneuver well in steep canyons, plus they hover, making easy RPG targets. ATVs are too noisy, leading into easy ambushes. But Generals think what worked in the last war will work in this one. But can't count Desert Storm. It didn't last long enough (100 hours) and didn't kill enough people. It wasn't a real war, like the Boonies of 'Nam, right?