“Interpreters are the forgotten heroes who played a significant role in the war against terrorism.” Reading these words in Special Forces Interpreter: An Afghan on Operations with the Coalition (Pen & Sword) by Eddie Idrees reminded me of the frustration I felt late last summer when I heard that those Afghans who sacrificed so much to help the coalition forces involved in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during so many years were threatened by the withdrawal from Afghanistan decided by the Biden administration and followed by other countries like my own, Canada.
While I was keeping abreast of all developments happening in Kabul airport at the time, social media algorithms suggested I read a memoir from a courageous young man who took the fight to the enemy alongside American and British soldiers. In that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that I would review this book, if only to better understand the crucial role played by the interpreters in the “forever war”.
The author – who writes under a pseudonym for understandable reasons – summarizes that “it was the Afghan interpreters who provided information on cultural issues to avoid misunderstandings between the village, tribal leaders, Afghan forces and US forces. In this way they ultimately reduced casualties.”
In a clear and passionate style (he loved the “beautiful noise” of the engines of the Chinook helicopters carrying him and his comrades on a mission and relished at “the chance to put the terrorists in their holes”), the author shares the poignant story of his fight against those who took his country from him.
Since childhood and against his father’s advice, young Eddie’s dream had been to walk in his old man’s footsteps and become a soldier. His father was a former colonel in the Afghan Army. Having lived in exile in Pakistan with his family as refugees, Eddie’s ambition was to return to his beloved home country and “[…] eliminat[e] terrorism from Afghanistan.” In 2002, at 17, he came back with his dream intact. After hearing that the American Forces were looking for interpreters, the young man started working for a construction company operating at Bagram Air Base. Work regulations – and security requirements, obviously – kept workers like him away from the military personnel. It would have been easy for him to despair and call it quits.
That was until Eddie took his courage in both hands and reached out to his would-be employers. Ignoring the rules – one of the dominant traits of his non-conformist personality – his opening came with approaching soldiers sporting long beards, wearing baseball caps and Oakleys. Unmistakably, these guys were Special Forces. That’s when he made his move.
“So I flung my shovel down, jumped out of the trench I was digging, and approached what appeared to be their officer. The man stopped and looked at me. ‘Please sir, I want to work for you guys, I would like to be your interpreter […].” Eddie’s boldness was to be rewarded, opening the door to living what he himself calls the best years of his life.
For this story alone, the book is worth devouring. Close your eyes for a moment. You’re stuck in a depressing job or situation you don’t like and there are risks in trying to better your situation. Against conventional wisdom, you jump on the opportunity when it arises. And we’re not talking about a simple promotion or change of job here. No, we’re talking about “bullets flying around”, threats from corrupt Afghan soldiers, resentment from some of your own countrymen because you are part of “the infidels’ puppets” and, down the line, another exile.
“An army without interpreters is blind and deaf”, writes Eddie. I don’t think we will ever be able to repay these men for their service. There will come other episodes when we need people like Eddie to help us in other parts of the world. We better make sure they value our loyalty as much as we need their gallantry. Eddie admired the calm under duress of the Special Forces he worked with, particularly the famous British SAS. Although not written explicitly, you can read between the lines that he loved these men. Rightfully so. Between these two covers, one can easily grasp that his courage and determination were no less admirable. The same certainly applies for those who consented a similar sense of duty as interpreters.
All in all, Special Forces Interpreter is a captivating story not only about Special Forces operations in Afghanistan, but also about human fortitude in difficult times. I will probably never meet in person the man behind Eddie Idrees, but his memoir will always remain among the great books I will have been fortunate to have read.
For those of you who are starting to think about ideal Christmas gifts for loved ones who are interested in military history and bravery, don’t hesitate to order a copy of Special Forces Interpreter and place it under the tree.
Eddie Idrees, Special Forces Interpreter: An Afghan on Operations with the Coalition, Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2021,160 pages.
I would like, once again, to thank Daniel Yesilonis of Casemate Publishers, for his continued and valued assistance in permitting me to review this book. I apologize if I repeat myself, but Daniel is a real class act.