On Dec. 15, one month to the day after I returned to Afghanistan from leave, a bomb exploded in downtown Gardez. The device, which ripped through the metal shipping container that was hiding it, had been smuggled into the guarded compound of an NGO for development. Five civilians were blown to pieces in the blast; seven others were seriously wounded.
The next morning, I walked through the courtyard filled with twisted metal, splintered wood and large pools of dark standing blood. Broken glass crunched beneath my boots, and I stifled an urge to gag at the stench of exposed, pulverized flesh. Nearby, two Toyota Land Cruisers were splattered with dried blood and tiny brown chunks of skin and hair, the little details that weren’t yet swept up in the Red Cross’ recovery of the larger remains that morning.
I didn’t realize it that day, but the explosion had set off the beginning to a very eventful winter.
A week later, heavily armed Taliban insurgents assaulted the Gardez police station where our soldiers mentor the Paktya provincial police force. That one didn’t turn out so well for the assailants, who ran to a hotel across the street to hide after their attack was repelled. Our troops immediately began firing a relentless barrage of rifle grenades and machine guns into the building’s façade.
I watched a live video feed of the action from our tactical operations center on base. I was surrounded by 20 or so other officers and NCOs, who cheered as each volley of lead slammed into the building, producing balls of fire and sparks. It was as if we were watching the last tense minutes of a close Super Bowl. When the shooting finally stopped, two bearded, Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents lay crumpled in a single room, their heads half gone, their pants soiled.
On Dec. 30, our base in Gardez went on high alert following reports that a jihadist had blown himself up at another base’s gym in neighboring Khost Province. That night we learned that seven CIA agents had been killed by a Jordanian informant they’d invited over for a debriefing on Al Qaeda leaders.
And just last week, yet another suicide bomber detonated his vest of explosives packed with ball bearings in front of a Gardez bank. In all, three militiamen, one policeman and six ordinary Afghans lost their lives – among them were four children. All that was left of the bomber were his legs, the news reported the next day. I guess one nearby roof went unchecked. Because that evening, one of our interpreters who witnessed the slaughter proudly displayed to me a photo he snapped on his cell phone. There it was: the bomber’s fat, severed head. His tongue was sticking out.
This winter was supposed to be quiet; it’s been anything but. The heavy snowfall in the mountain passes, it was assumed, would halt the enemy’s ability to conduct operations. And to be sure, the frequency of attacks has petered out since last summer. Yet each one has become more deadly. And the ceaseless drumbeat of carnage has become disturbingly routine.
It is said that one should know his enemy. I’ve tried hard to identify with him, to put myself in his shoes. I have even forced myself through a macabre intellectual exercise in which I attempt to rationalize the deliberate mass murder of innocent civilians to achieve a political end. But this is Afghanistan, a place where reason does not exist and probably never has. I’m increasingly resigned to the notion that all of this – the emboldened enemy, the brash killings, the inexorable spiral into madness – is completely beyond our control.
I just don’t understand this war.
So I try to push it out of my mind. I “dissociate,” as Molly puts it. To do this, to stay sane, I concentrate on what I can control. I’ve built a routine. I’ve ordered my daily schedule around a familiar rhythm of events that makes each day seem almost identical to the last. Here on base, I pretty much know what to expect during every hour of every day. This scheme has a dual benefit: It distracts me from the dreadful bloodshed all around us, at least a bit. And it makes the time pass.
So, not counting the times I am “outside the wire” or traveling to various other bases, the following is a summary of a typical day in my deployment to Afghanistan.
I stumble into my uniform and boots and head across camp to my office in a mud-walled compound. (The qalat, which is privately owned by a local Afghan family, has been “leased” by the U.S. military for the last few years and now houses the unit’s offices and a few living quarters.) Plopping down into my chair next to two other officers with whom I share a working space, I check my e-mail as I devour two pre-packaged bowls of Special K.
I attend a briefing with the battalion’s other staff officers in the tactical operations center, a vast room full of glowing computer monitors, mission maps and squawking radios. We take turns briefing the commander on the significant events of the previous 24 hours and what work we’ll be focusing on for the next 24.
I’m back in my office sipping black coffee –a vaguely coffee-flavored sludge, rather – from a tall Styrofoam cup. The office at that hour is always buzzing with activity, and I tackle what little work I can before lunch time rolls around.
The office empties and everyone heads across the base on foot to his mid-day meal. Everyone, that is, but me. I walk briskly back to my room, tear off my uniform and put on my ARMY-emblazoned PT uniform, a gray shirt and black shorts. It’s time for the gym, the best part of my day.
My exercise strategy is simple and synchs well with my obsessive routine.
Day 1: Chest and back
Day 2: Abs and cardio
Day 3. Biceps and triceps
Day 4. Abs and cardio
Day 5: Shoulders and legs
Day 6: Abs and cardio
More than any other activity, my workouts offer the best time to detach, to escape this place, if only for a couple of hours. On run days, I listen to hour-long segments of On the Media, This American Life, or 60 Minutes on my iPod. In the weight room, it’s shorter pieces: Talk of the Nation or BBC documentaries. These programs, particularly those from NPR take me home. They remind me of cold winter mornings with Molly at our East Village apartment in New York, when the friendly voices of WNYC – Brian Lehrer and Soterios Johnson – caught us up on the news of the day.
But I digress.
I take a shower in a nasty little trailer with fickle plumbing. Sometimes the drains get clogged, causing foamy water to slosh about my ankles. At the stainless steel sinks, an occasional placard posted next to rusting mirrors cautions that the water is not “potable.” It’s only to be used for personal hygiene, we’re warned. This always confounds me: does that mean I can brush my teeth with it or no? Then I remind myself of a recent rumor that toxic traces of arsenic had been found in the water supply. Pass. A water bottle always does the trick.
I’m back in the office answering phone calls, sending e-mails and preparing for an afternoon of planning meetings.
Miscellaneous meetings. (Stuff I’m not supposed to talk about.)
I head to dinner with a fellow captain and friend from Milledgeville, Georgia, named Paul. A hopeless dreamer, Paul is good conversation, talkative but interesting. He’s among the more worldly people I’ve met on my deployment with the Georgia Army National Guard. During cold, dark walks to supper, Paul tells me about his Russian wife back home, about his annual trips to visit her family in a provincial town in the Urals, about his prized sail boat and about his plans to become pilot one day.
We sit down to dinner in a vinyl tent that shudders violently from a continuous blast of heat passing through a low-hanging inflatable duct just above our heads. Television screens in the corner deliver the incessant drone of football or Fox News. The processed food we eat – the menu rotates every seven days – is served on cardboard trays along with wrapped plasticware. Friday night is Surf’n’Turf – dry steak and fried shrimp – the best night of the week.
We head out into the now frigid night, back to the qalat. On most days, we’re trailed by stray dogs who are no doubt attracted by dinner’s odor clinging to our clothes.
I’m in yet another meeting, this time conducted by teleconference with our units spread across Paktya.
I’m free for the night, but I spend two hours or so wrapping up what work is left to be done.
Now, all alone in the office, I settle down at my desk. A pair of bulky, noise-canceling headphones feeds me Chopin and Mozart and Tchaikovsky while I write or read well into the night.
I take a break to call Molly in New York, who also uses the time to take a momentary pause from writing her book. I prop my feet up on the desk in my office and lean back in my chair. Molly walks north on Broadway toward Union Square and the Farmers Market. Sometimes, the harsh sound of honking horns, police car sirens or a brusque winter wind will briefly muffle Molly’s voice. On cold, snowy days, she ducks into a Whole Foods Market, where jabbering customers and ringing registers virtually drown her out. The sounds of the city, which I, as a transplant to New York, have often found so disagreeable, remind me of how much I miss it there.
We hang up and Molly returns to her book, I to my thoughts.
It’s time for bed. With a flashlight in hand, I walk back to my plywood-walled room in a “B-hut” about 200 meters away. As quietly as I can, I yank off my boots, hang my uniform on a crooked nail in a two-by-four next to my bed and set my alarm for morning.
Then I tick off another day in the worst place on earth.