Book Review: The Paradox of Survival

New and Notable

December 2023

Reading time min

The Mercenary book on a sky background

Photo: Narvikk/Getty Images (background)

Imagine a boy in a place—a small town near a European city, the campus of an American university, or the outskirts of Kabul. He watches his classmates aspire to hold public positions or inherit family businesses, or his peers chart careers in law or finance; or, in a city swarming with Taliban, he walks the dusty streets, hungry and longing for a life he’s seen through a contraband satellite dish hidden in his fatherless family’s dried-up vineyard.

The first of these boys was me. And while I hesitate to compare myself with a wartime journalist who coordinated massive postwar evacuation operations or a street-raised taxi driver who became a millionaire arms dealer, then a refugee, and then a business owner, I think we have things in common, and I believe that the whole reason to tell and retell a story is to find these commonalities and the ways we relate to them. 

Alex was this country to me. He was the most important thing in it, and he was keeping me safe, and I thought nothing would ever happen to us so long as we stayed together. It didn’t occur to me that it might be different for him.

Jeffrey E. Stern, MA ’12, in The Mercenary: A Story of Brotherhood and Terror in the Afghanistan War, PublicAffairs

In The Mercenary: A Story of Brotherhood and Terror in the Afghanistan War, journalist Jeff Stern, MA ’12, the second of these boys, traces his friendship with the third, Aimal, aka Alex, Stern’s driver, translator, guide, and protector. They drift apart, and Aimal grows in ways that Stern learns about only when his friend, who left behind unimaginable wealth to evade both a warlord and the Taliban, ends up in a Canadian jail.

We were all there, in Afghanistan, in the summer of 2009. Me trudging through powdery sand and muddy riverbeds, following the Marines whose blood it was my job to keep pumping to their vital organs; Stern reporting on the country’s presidential election; and Aimal becoming what he would soon have to flee. We all watched a friend die from a bullet; we were marked by the tangled flesh of what should have been a body. We distressed our mothers and, in our anger, strained relationships with our caring friends and co-workers. At the core of the story, I feel this conflict: Between the belief that you are worth more than the world tells you and the hard truth that whenever you strive to show it, the people you love most are left churning in the wake.

We must tell these stories—not because it is the best thing to do, the right thing, or even a good thing, but because it is all we have. And I believe that whatever animates the void and makes us anything more than atoms tumbling over one another works also through selfish people, lost people, and broken people, to unfold the universe into everything it will become. But we, selfish, lost, and broken, cannot see all that. All we can imagine is a place and a boy.

Nestor Walters, ’22, MS ’24, is studying applied mathematics and researching the resilience of Antarctic ice shelves to tsunami waves. Before Stanford, he served in the U.S. Navy for 10 years, including five as a Navy SEAL. Email him at

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