27 January 2010
Patrol near Shinki Village, Paktika Province, Afghanistan
(20 minutes south of Gardez by helicopter)
I lifted my rifle to the ready position and moved forward slowly. Already I was gasping for air.
I was trudging up a rocky hill, desperately trying to keep up with an Afghan soldier ahead of me. The light-footed enlisted man peered back every now and again to make sure I hadn’t slipped and slid back down into the valley. Clutching a rocket propelled grenade launcher in one hand and two more rockets under his armpits, he seemed amused that this ascent was kicking my ass.
You’re not wearing 50 pounds of armor and ammo, I wanted to say – and might have if I weren’t wheezing.
Moments earlier, I’d stopped briefly to try and catch my breath. My chest heaved as my lungs drew in what oxygen was available in the thin mountain air. Damn, I thought, why is this so hard for me? I’m in good shape. I turned my head back to see how far we’d climbed. I searched the dry river bed below, trying to spot our massive armored vehicles. When I did, they looked tiny. Bad place to sprain an ankle, I thought.
My gaze was drawn to a moving figure on the side of a hill across the valley from mine. Another American soldier. He, too, struggled up an equally steep rise. A hundred feet above him, at the crest of the hill, the Afghan squad with whom he’d been tasked to provide overwatch for the mission had already settled in and started a fire. Jesus, I said to myself, wearing a ton of gear or not, these people are hardy.
By the time I finally reached the top of my hill, the Afghan soldier I was following had already made it down the other side and was now dashing up another. I soon saw why. At the top of the next rise an Afghan man was slowly descending the hill while frantically gripping the handles of a wheelbarrow full of small trees and brush. Though young and seemingly agile, the man was fighting gravity, and gravity was winning. Just as the wheelbarrow appeared ready to break free and tumble down out of control, the soldier leapt in front and deftly guided it the rest of the way down.
I finally caught up to the two just as they reached level ground. When I approached them, still panting, I was struck by the fearsome intensity of the young man. He had feral green eyes, a goatee, and shoulder-length, curly black hair that poured from beneath a Qandahari colla, a bejeweled hat popular among Pashtun men. His hands, which remained gloveless in the icy wind, looked rough and his fingernails were painted orange, another regional male tradition. All that protected the man against the cold was a faded blue Police jacket with missing buttons and a filthy white scarf cinched around his waist.
While I trembled in the frigid morning air, stamping my feet to keep my toes from going numb, the man stood there grinning, unmindful of the weather. More than anything, he seemed touched by the generosity of this unfamiliar soldier, who had just saved him the loss of a morning’s worth of collected firewood. As the two laughed and chatted in Pashto, I couldn’t help but smile. It was the kind of exchange I have rarely witnessed in an otherwise dark and inhospitable country. And I considered an improbable notion.
Maybe there is hope.
In the week since my return from Shinki Village, I’ve been rereading my previous blog posts from this year. The negative tenor of my feelings regarding my circumstances and surroundings in Afghanistan did not surprise me. After all, my natural tendency toward the morose has been coupled with resentment at having been recalled to duty. Still, reading the posts gave me pause.
And I want to set the record straight.
Deployments are not all doom and gloom. Sure, they are challenging: living conditions are unpleasant, hours drag out like days and danger is ever present. Yet amid bouts of fear and long stretches of intense boredom, my three years at war have been punctuated by unanticipated moments of discovery. Indeed, it is in these moments that I’ve summoned the will to carry on.
I believe this sentiment to be true for any American soldier in a modern combat zone. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves in exotic regions of the world most Westerners will never see. In Iraq, it’s easy to take for granted the country’s profound historical significance, to overlook its justifiable claim as the “cradle of civilization.” In Afghanistan, rural villages and urban centers alike offer a captivating glimpse into the lives of the colorful characters who embroider this fractured land.
I was a 23-year-old lieutenant when the U.S. invaded Iraq. I was naïve, untraveled, and untested in war or the world. 2003 was the year I grew up. Today, seven years on, I find that my memories of that time are shaded by a restrained nostalgia.
For instance, I will never forget what it felt like to happen upon a mural of Saddam Hussein for the first time. The image of the hand-waving, sunglasses-wearing tyrant, somewhere on an empty desert highway southwest of Baghdad, was so arresting that I felt as if I’d come face to face with the dictator himself. Throughout my teens I’d been conditioned to hate this man, who lorded over his people with a particularly diabolical brand of despotism. For me, this crude, isolated portrait of Saddam reinforced for me the suffering of the Iraqi people. It reminded me that their torment was real.
In June of that year, after months of continuous operations in central and western Iraq, my company set up camp along the Euphrates River to rest and refit. We found a secure location atop Anbar Province’s awe-inspiring Haditha Dam, a commanding yet elegant 190-foot structure with a Soviet design. On a map, this section of the river, and the man-made lake formed by the dam, resembled a python that had just swallowed a pig: skinny on two ends and bulging in the middle. In the afternoon heat, we soldiers plunged like children into the warm water of the Fertile Crescent’s ancient lifeline. In the evenings, we washed our soiled clothes and wrestled each other down under the water while magnificent sunsets painted the lake gold.
Later that summer, while on a mission south of Baghdad, our company took a detour to the ruins of ancient Babylon outside the modern city of Al Hillah. Babylon’s crumbling city walls enclosed a 3,000-year-old statue of a lion mauling a man as well as the room where Alexander the Great is thought to have died from typhus. I tried to envision what the great Mesopotamian city might have looked like in its heyday – the Ishtar Gate, Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, the Hanging Gardens. It was here, in one of the greatest cities of antiquity, that generations of architects, intellectuals and great military minds converged. I believe there are few places in the world where a person can feel so connected to the wisdom and accomplishments of our forebears. Babylon is certainly such a place.
And then there’s Afghanistan, a country so shattered by decades of brutal war, it’s as if it has no history at all. The acute hatred, ignorance, and raw survival that characterize Afghanistan’s rural areas place its civilization as close to a state of nature as anywhere I have ever seen. But therein lies its morbid appeal. It’s nothing at all like Iraq, yet for a curious mind Afghanistan holds thought-provoking treasures of its own.
What strikes the foreigner most in this “country of 40,000 villages” are the peculiar anachronisms present in everyday life. Here in Paktya Province, less than a hundred miles from the raucous capital of Kabul, donkeys trot along dirt roads outside of brightly colored cell phone shops. Shiny new motorcycles buzz through bazaars in villages with no electricity and raw sewage running in the streets. And poor villagers with rotten teeth and plastic sandals are greeted by government officials wearing turtlenecks, blazers and gold watches. Traveling through Afghanistan can be as disorienting as a room full of funhouse mirrors.
In his book, “The Forever War,” journalist Dexter Filkins poignantly illustrates this indelible aspect of Afghanistan by recounting an execution he witnessed at a sports stadium in Kabul in 1998. In his chilling account, Taliban leaders prod the brother of a man killed in an irrigation dispute to shoot an 18-year-old condemned for the crime named Atiqullah. Filkins writes:
“Just then a jumbo jet appeared in the sky above, rumbling, forcing a pause in the ceremony. The brother stood holding his Kalashnikov. I looked up. I wondered how a jet airliner could happen by such a place, over a city such as this, wondered where it might be going. I considered for a second the momentary collision of the centuries.”
Similarly today, the introduction of modern machines of war into what is – by most measures – a medieval society may be Afghanistan’s most enduring feature.
Nothing is more dramatic than the sight of our helicopters, which have become a permanent fixture of the landscape. Without a coherent road system connecting the country’s important regional centers, helicopters are an essential part of travel for U.S. Forces here. (Last fall I traveled by ground to Gardez’s closest city, Zormat, some 15 miles away. On a bomb-scarred dirt path, the trip took three and a half hours.) Not an hour passes when one cannot see a Blackhawk or Chinook swooping low against the backdrop of baked-mud, mountainside hovels. Sometimes helicopters fly near villages so isolated that their residents believe the Soviets have returned.
Traveling Afghanistan by air has been one of the most stirring experiences for me this year. On repeated trips to Paktya’s mountainous neighboring provinces of Paktika, Ghazni and Khowst, I am always mesmerized by the raw physical beauty of the countryside. In some places, the mountains – often resembling giant mounds of dirt – rise sharply out of vast expanses of desert, as if they were atolls jutting up from a sea of sand. In others, jagged brown peaks stretch clear to the horizon. Scanning the draws of roadless canyons, I discover clusters of qalats that point to a brutish and unforgiving existence. When the helicopters skirt hazardously close to sheer, vertical cliffs, I can occasionally make out the blue or red or gold dresses of women moving along goat trails.
On one memorable trip in August, I was flying back to Gardez from a U.S. outpost in Khowst. An Afghan Army sergeant hitching a ride sat two seats over from me on an otherwise empty flight. At one point, over the treacherous Khowst-Gardez Pass, the sergeant tapped my shoulder and pointed to a jumble of buildings below.
He said something, but I couldn’t hear him over the helicopter’s roaring engines. I just shrugged my shoulders and smiled dumbly. When he said it again, my hands went up.
“I don’t understand!” I hollered, shaking my head.
He drew a pen out of his chest pocket and scribbled something in his palm. Then he reached over the seat that separated us and put his hand directly in front of my face.
“mayAngL,” it read.
That must be the name of the village, I thought. So what?
“Mayangl?!” I yelled.
He nodded vigorously.
“Taliban!” he said with a toothy smile. Then he ran his finger across his throat.
Once the man with the wheelbarrow headed home at last, our patrol took us into Shinki Village, which was known to be “friendly” to U.S. Forces. We greeted and solicited grievances from village elders whose replies were typical: the mosque needed repair, the well’s pump was broken, the closest school was miles away.
It may seem callous, but I was uninterested in listening to the usual gripes. This was likely to be my last patrol in Afghanistan – in less than a month, I’ll be back on U.S. soil – and I wanted to savor it. So as our mission commander continued to engage the growing mass of men and children, I slipped away quietly to survey my surroundings.
A light snow began to fall as I walked among the simple, mud-walled dwellings that have become so familiar to me this year. I marveled at the spectacular mountains encircling the town. I found the village well in a courtyard and pumped the handle a few times to see if it was really broken. It was.
Four adolescent girls squatting along a wall giggled at me. When I glanced up at them, they coyly ran away. Other children darted about barefoot in the freezing cold. And a teenager approached me to try out his English.
“How arrre you?” he said.
“Verrry good,” he replied, before I could respond.
Three days later, I boarded a helicopter bound for Gardez. We swept past the familiar towering mountains, which were now, for the first time this year, cloaked in a fresh blanket of snow that evoked the Alps or the Rockies. It seemed impossible that the same mountains that provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and generations of hardened Pashtun fighters before them, could appear so peaceful.
As the peaks turned from lacy white to soft pink in the sinking afternoon sun, I wondered how I would ever be able to explain such a place to people back home. I imagined telling tales of my experiences to my grandchildren one day and wondered if they would grasp what it was like to come of age in such heady times. I wondered whether I could ever attenuate the dread and uncertainty my parents have endured this decade by reassuring them that my time at war has made me a better man.
Most of all, I wondered whether I would ever be able to revisit this place, in another life, many years from now. Will it one day be possible for me to bring my own family to Gardez – or Haditha, or Babylon – the way thousands of World War II and Vietnam veterans have returned to the battlefields of their youths?
I wondered all that. And I hoped.