William Yeske, Damn the Valley: 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2-508 PIR, 82nd Airborne in the Arghandab River Valley, Afghanistan (Casemate), 2023

There are a few places whose names will forever be etched into the individual and institutional memories of the men and women of the armed forces. Belleau Wood, Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, Hamburger Hill, Desert One, the Highway of Death in Iraq, and Mogadishu. Each one of these is remembered because it demanded American blood in the crucible of combat during the twentieth century.

In this century, there were the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more names permanently seared into the memories of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for the hardship, pain, and every human emotion experienced there. Some of the very worst in Iraq included Fallujah, Sadr City, Mosul, Tikrit, and Erbil. In Afghanistan, there was the Korengal Valley in Kunar, the Mohmand in Nangarhar, Bermal in Paktika, Lashkar Gah and Garmsir in Helmand, and the Tangi Valley in Wardak. The Kabul Airport was the last added to the list during the fateful final days of the American presence in the Graveyard of Empires.

And then there is the Arghandab River Valley, one of the most fiercely contested places in the entire twenty-year post-9/11 wars, an enduring Taliban stronghold, a place where counterinsurgents held strong against billions of dollars of military resources and the constant surging of coalition forces attempting to pacify the place that would defy everything thrown at it.

The Arghandab is the setting of William Yeske’s work, Damn the Valley, a book that submits the memory of what American forces faced there into literary lore. This book is a combat memoir, written in dedication to those of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the renowned 82nd Airborne Division, who lived, fought, bled, and lost brothers in that valley.

Combat memoirs are a difficult medium to write well. Where most such memoirs—especially those from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—fall short is in the too frequent “no kidding, there I was” sequence of gunfight after gunfight, repeated to gratuitous extremes. Many memoirs are filled with the recollection of events that aggrandize the overwhelming supremacy of American warfighting technology, peerless warriors against overmatched goat farmers—the casual and inaccurate trope especially common in characterizations of the war in Afghanistan. Damn the Valley recalls its share of gunfights and exhilarating combat, to be certain. But unlike battlefield memoirs that lose sight of the human element—the psychological impact, which is the most important context—Yeske’s efforts to portray the emotions and survival mechanisms of the men of 1st Platoon make for the most real, raw, and explicit texts on combat I’ve read in years.

Many books that chronicle combat in the post-9/11 wars are written by observers—from a third-person perspective of someone who has interviewed participants—and recall events in a linear, sequential manner sourced by multiple voices and myriad perspectives. Memoirs written as first-person narratives by participants themselves are often more intimate, but because they convey only the perspective of the author, they can face difficulty in providing wider context when required. Yeske’s work, however, balances these approaches. He spoke to other members of his platoon, so while the story is his, it reflects the points of view of other soldiers in way that makes it more complete, deeper, and more multidimensional. It is a nearly impossible balance to strike while retaining a strong narrative thread, but Damn the Valley pulls it off.

In the Army, members of airborne units wear a distinctive beret, a visual hallmark that their mission is different and, consequently, their training is different, their expectations are different, and many paratroopers would even say they are different. Reading Yeske’s work is akin to having a one-on-one conversation with a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne. If you want to learn about the experience of a platoon in Afghanistan, you want to hear from a member of the platoon, making Yeske—a line soldier, radio operator, and rule-bending paratrooper in 1st Platoon who lived these moments along with the men who shared their memories for the book—the appropriate author to write this story. While serving as an Air Force special operations joint terminal air controller, I often heard a mantra—“it’s better to be 82 percent right than 101 percent wrong”—that speaks to the pride paratroopers take in being paratroopers (the 82nd is an airborne division, while the 101st Airborne is actually an air assault division). Paratroopers are a different breed of soldier and reading Damn the Valley gives the reader a very accurate, intimate, and unfiltered summary of what it means to be a paratrooper who served in one of Afghanistan’s most infamous redoubts.

This book is heart-wrenching to read, especially for someone who has experienced combat in places like the Arghandab, because the tenor of the work is poignant and inevitably forces the mind to return to harrowing places. But it is likely not easy to read for those who haven’t experienced those rigors of combat, because this work treads where few others dare: into the chaos, fear, pain, and reality of modern combat.

Despite this, the book is an absolute must-read for anyone who truly wishes to know what warfare in Afghanistan was like. It is a valuable work for veterans to read because of how accurately Yeske redraws the picture of time and space where camaraderie, tribe, and adrenaline makes unrelated strangers closer to each other than most siblings by blood. Lifelong bonds are formed in these places and during these events, which, again, is difficult for anyone to understand who hasn’t experienced it for themselves.

Damn the Valley belongs on the bookshelf of every person who wants to know what war in Afghanistan was like—the remote outposts, the blistering heat and frigid cold, the tasteless food, the mountains, deserts, and terraced valleys, and the challenge of fighting ghosts among a population who called places like the Arghandab Valley home.

Some places will live forever in the collective lore of combat, recognizable in an instant for their notorious names. And if you asked anyone who served in the Arghandab how they felt about it, invariably their answer would be “Damn the Valley.”

Ethan Brown is a senior fellow for defense studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and author of the Visual Friendlies, Tally Target trilogy about air power in the War on Terror. He is on X @LibertyStoic.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Master Sgt. Juan Valdes, US Air Force