Afghanistan. Have you noticed—noticed how every war has villains and the villains have derogatory names? In the First World War it was the evil Huns, in WWII it was slope-heads and krauts, and then in Viet Nam they were gooks. Nowadays it’s mostly rag heads, although once in a while you’ll hear somebody use the ugly term “sand niggers”—but that’s usually confined to rednecks and hard-core racist types.
I got called up from the reserves and a month later they put me on a transport with a couple hundred other misfortunates. Aside from bravado and post-adolescent swagger, these young guys were every bit as apprehensive as I was; you could sense it in the atmosphere, in their timidities, the misgivings and forced resignations lurking in their eyes.
Eastern Afghanistan—a lieutenant colonel and a stocky red-haired major met us at the military airfield. The colonel’s fifty-something-year-old face was as etched with anal-retentiveness as any officer I’d ever seen, his posture stiffer than an aluminum baseball bat. He was all business and by the book—spit and polish. Except for his boots. He wore a pair of expensive trail busters he’d probably purchased from L. L. Bean’s outdoorsman catalogue, Gortex specials with triple stitching and anti-fungal treatment built into the inserts.
The major barked out orders and we assembled. The colonel commenced a token inspection and pep talk, with a little fatherly chitchat thrown in the mix.
The sun bore down like a hydraulic press.
“Where are you from, son?” His face was closer to mine than necessary, but I held my ground and kept my eyes straight ahead. “North Dakota, sir,” I said, loud and hard.
“Yes sir, close enough.”
The suggestion of a smile gathered on his thin lips. “Hell of a monument,” he said, and moved on. Several yards down the line he threw out a generic encouragement: “Make me proud, people, make me proud.” He gave a thumbs-up and climbed into his humvee.
That was the sky above us, hot, tempered blue, with a relentless sun stuck in the middle, and this was the ground down here, scorched harder than igneous rock, with parched weeds and the arid smell of barren dirt. I could feel the ultraviolet radiation knifing through my fatigues, and an uneasy feeling came over me as if I’d passed through a threshold, a one-way passage fraught with bad omens.
First there was the food—god awful. Plus the heat and cold and about a billion thirsty flies, not to mention the long hours. Then there were the guys outside the temporary barracks. What were they, late teens, early twenties? Big corn-and-beef-fed Southern boys, with cocky expressions and loud mouths. They seemed oblivious, throwing a football and blasting cowboy music on their CD player. The football glanced off a pair of outstretched hands and hit a skinny Latino kid in the back of the head, knocking his glasses askew. They all roared over the hilarity of it, hammered each other’s tattooed shoulders and spit tobacco juice.
The skinny kid dissolved into the sand. I walked toward them, thinking I’d assert my rank, what little of it there was.
“Why don’t you guys take it around the side, where nobody gets in the way.”
Two beefy boys and a taller guy returned a cold sneer. They didn’t recognize me as one of their own, didn’t appreciate the one-of-the-guys tone I’d used. “Maybe you’d like to put a little game together,” the tall one said. “Non-coms versus us grunts.”
“Too hot for me,” I said, and held a hand up to shade my eyes.
One of three gathering behind him said something about how it wasn’t Yankee weather. They all laughed. I was suddenly in the role of high school principal accosting the campus bad boys.
“Just a suggestion,” I said. Short of tattling to the company commander I was engaging a losing proposition. And it was too early in the game to start making enemies, so I shrugged it off and headed toward the barracks, thinking I’d find something to read and a shady place to do it. Ten paces into my retreat I heard rapid, heavy footsteps in the sand behind me, and a split-second later a rifled football spun past my ear. I turned. One of the red-faced morons had stopped short and was showing me a big stupid grin, his cheek swollen with a wad of chewing tobacco.
“Sorry, slick, I was running a post.”
“That’d be Gossy, Corporal Gossy,” I said.
“Watch it, LJ, he’s a full corporal. Don’t mess with him, man,” one of them shouted, followed by a chorus of arboreal guffawing. It was a challenge that had to be answered, much as I didn’t want to do it, and the next thing I knew my feet were moving, adrenaline flowing and my lips drawing tight.
“Which one of you jerk-offs threw the ball?”
Nobody volunteered. They glanced back and forth, exchanging smirks, before the tall one with chiseled features stepped forward.
“I did,” he said. He was young, lean and angular, flat stomach, and broad athletic shoulders.
“You’re a pretty clever asshole, aren’t you?” I said. I figured a strong offense would turn the tide. He had four inches on me and at least twenty-five pounds.
His gaze held steady. “Maybe you should stay out of our way.”
He had called my bluff, and now I’d have to show my cards. I needed a witness, another non-com, someone, otherwise it’d be my word against theirs—and for what? An overthrown football on Sunday? The army was nothing if not regulations, but there wasn’t much I could come up with for a situation like this. It was forge ahead or back down gracefully, and I couldn’t see a way to do either.
No one moved or said anything. It was a hard-eye contest, him and me, and the half-circle of his buddies forming behind him. I looked in the direction of the barracks, hoping by some miracle an officer would appear.
“Okay, maybe we’ll take this little problem up with the CO,” I said, “and I’ll start with your name … huh smart guy?”
In the background a truck rolled up in a thin cloud of dust and parked behind two other trucks and a humvee. A pair of enlisted men got out and walked toward a Quonset hut. There wasn’t even a hint of wind and the sun glared down from ninety degrees, making pools of distorted shadow that followed the movement of their feet.
He flicked sweat from his brow with a finger. “I ain’t telling you shit,” he said. “I say go fuck yourself. Go cry to your daddy if it makes you feel better.”
The others seemed less convicted but they stood their ground—the power of the mob—and I said, “Maybe you’d better fuck yourself, private.”
I was so caught up in the moment I couldn’t get past the futility of it, standing there in the blistering sun trading tough talk with overgrown adolescents, follow soldiers, young guys, ten years younger—terminal misfits. What was really happening? A pissing match? Generation X versus the Echo Boomers. And I wondered how they saw me. An old guy with the first suggestion of a potbelly that would someday hang over my belt? A receding hairline that would soon claim my entire skullcap?
That was when he turned his head and grinned. He grabbed the football from the one they called LJ and told him to go out long. LJ lumbered half-heartedly across the hot sand and pulled the perfectly spiraling ball from the air. The tall guy brushed past me. “Check you later, corporal what’s-your-name.” They all laughed.
Then it was the mess hall—mess tent that is—a huge sprawling mass of khaki canvas that undulated in long progressive waves whenever the wind blew. Five o’clock Sunday dinner, the sun still hot and plenty of flies. I didn’t have much appetite, but on the other hand there wasn’t anything else to do. By the time I got to the chow line a dozen other men and several female personnel were ahead of me. I spooned myself a small helping of dehydrated mashed potatoes, canned string beans, and a slab of canned ham—the Sunday special. It made me think of Sunday dinners at my parents’ house. How in the hell did I get myself into this? That’s what I kept asking myself.
This was Afghanistan, war central, where the man walking down the street carries an automatic weapon under his camel blanket, or worse yet a bomb. Where people mistrust you and the fanatics want you dead. Where misdirected assets sometimes kill civilians, where nobody has time to slip on their flip-flops and a rayon shirt for a stroll on the beach, where there’s no Starbucks to hang around for hours drinking cappuccinos and mochas, no little girlfriends, no Friday nights with the boys shooting pool, no checks from grandfather’s trust fund—and nobody’s dad is a congressman or senator, no fortunate sons.
Oh, yes, Afghanistan … no grants, no fellowships, no unemployment benefits. A place where religious severity makes Quakers, Mormons, and the Amish seem like party animals. A place where women understand their place. Where nobody flaunts their new Mercedes convertible or their BMW, or trophy wife’s brand new SUV that she simply had to have. No one matriculates, no one is upwardly mobile, no one applies for a college loan, nobody’s twelve-year-old demands his own cell phone, nobody goes to the latest fashionable fat farm or drug and alcohol rehab resort. Nothing but hardship and poverty, cubed.
I stabbed the ham with my fork, sawing at it with a butter knife, and then a commotion started, loud voices and laughter. It was the bad boys pushing their way through the line. They focused their attention on a female. Their heads were leaning together, swiveling on their thick necks, exchanging comments. The girl hurried ahead, grabbed an ice tea and made her way to a table where several other women were seated. I found myself slumping over my plate, head bowed, forking string beans until there was no more room on the tines. The boys must have noticed me; they gathered at the next table, banging their trays and making more loud talk.
“Hey, look, it’s Corporal Pussy.” I recognized the voice, the tall guy with the rifle of a throwing arm. I dreaded looking up, yet to not to look up would encourage the playground bully. Our eyes met. His were confident, challenging, and belonged to someone the luck of genetics had been overly kind to in every aspect except his humanity. I placed my hands on the table and started to rise. One of his henchmen made a piggy noise and shouted that his ham was still moving. He stabbed at it with his fork. This brought another round of laughter and jokes, which distracted the tall guy and he sat down, his hard look leaving my face as quickly as it had assembled itself.
I felt the pressure lift from my body. It was over. I reached for my tray and left.
In the morning, early, the parched dryness in the back of my throat reminded me I hadn’t yet acclimated to the cold dry nights—that and a dull throbbing behind my eyes—so I reached for my supply of Tylenol and swallowed a couple pills with a cold cup of coffee. Corporal Pussy. The sound of his voice still had a grip on me.
The Army had told me that I would be a desk hound manning a word processor, supply and records tracking, and whatever else personnel and logistics required. But of course the Army says whatever it wants and then changes its mind, so instead they assigned me a different desk: processing and paper pushing at a temporary detention facility. Suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives and sympathizers were hauled in from all parts of the north and east, forty or fifty so far.
About ten days into my new job, I was leaving at 1530 when I noticed a group of guards standing just outside the main building. From behind the dirty glass panes of the corner window it was impossible to distinguish their faces, and I didn’t pay much attention, that is until I started down the hall and heard a loud familiar voice. The double swinging doors were propped open. It was the tall sonofabitch and two of his pals, and another grunt I’d never seen before. I stopped short.
“Oh, shit,” I mumbled. I flashed back to that day in front of the barracks. Why had I bothered? Because of some skinny kid who couldn’t stick up for himself? I had stepped right into the breech, and I’d seen their type before. Always riding somebody, pushing to see how far they could push, getting their kicks at somebody else’s expense yet always staying a half-step clear of any real infractions, and like an idiot I’d put myself in the middle of their game, a bleep on their collective radar screen. But don’t get me wrong, I was no pushover; I was five-foot-eleven and 175, and I could bench 225 on free weights.
The tall guy started to turn. I stepped back, behind his line of sight. And then, patting my hip pocket as if I’d forgotten something, I returned to my makeshift cubical of an office. I peeked through the corner window. They were standing in front of the entrance, twirling their nightsticks and admiring their side arms. The Army in its infinite efficiency was a planeload short of trained prison personnel. So in keeping with his proclivity for nonstop incompetence, Captain Moore had assigned twelve infantry grunts to detention guard duty.
After the tall guy and the others had walked down the long hallway to the detention half of the building, I slipped out and made my way back to the barracks. This routine went on for several days, until I finally decided it was to my advantage to leave twenty minutes early rather than ten minutes late. Plus no one gave a shit, especially Lieutenant Barnes, and I hadn’t seen Captain Moore in over two weeks. He spent most of his time preparing busy-work reports for the lt. colonel. And we hadn’t seen The Colonel since we landed.
I wondered about that as the weeks crept by, and eventually my mind went numb from the boredom and the dull ache of misery. I let routine take over, I filed reports, papers, processed list of names, kept track of which faceless name belonged in which basket, stood at Lt. Barnes’ elbow while he grumbled about all the “bullshit” he had to handle.
Some days in the latrine I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror—the good soldier, the reservist who was supposed to learn advanced computer programming—and end up shaking my head in disbelief. Fortunately I had made a friend. Tommy Crews, like the actor, only Anglicized in a less Hollywood fashion. His immigrant grandfather’s name was Hernando Cruz, but Tommy’s skin was lighter than mine. My mother was Italian, dark-eyed and beautiful. Tommy was twenty-five, smart and easygoing. Took the reserves about as seriously as I did, and he’d joined for the same reason. Computer training, but they’d converted him to pharmacy tech.
“Beats the shit out of humping a rifle,” he always said.
It was Sunday, and we had passes to a secured town not far from the base—four hours of R & R. After getting wired on the strongest coffee I’d ever come across, we stopped at a little place that served food and a special kind of ice tea with goat’s milk stirred into the mix. I don’t remember for sure what it was called, but it sounded like “Yavika.” Some of the guys said it was tainted with opium, which seemed unlikely, although it had a relaxing effect, like popping a 10 mg Valium. It took the edge off the caffeine overdose.
I stared idly across the dusty street and enjoyed the way the sunlight washed the tops of trees growing in an open area between two ramshackle structures, behind which the sky fell into the grip of distant mountains. An old man led several goats along the street, close enough that I could smell the pungent odor of the big male. After a second glass of tea, Tommy leaned forward and began a story about something he’d seen the previous week. His voice was hushed, his eyes wandering surreptitiously as if a dark secret was at hand.
He’d been on duty, after dark, and Lieutenant Grebe—the pharmacist—sent him to the detention infirmary with a late delivery that had been lost in the shuffle. When he got there the office was empty. He pushed the buzzer but nobody answered, so he walked to the far end of the building where a light was burning. The door wasn’t locked and Tommy thought it seemed a little unusual.
“Nobody locks doors,” I said offhandedly.
And no one was at the security desk, but a door was cracked open, and Tommy noticed a wedge of light at the end of the darkened hallway. He went inside and saw a metal table with candy wrappers, empty soda cans, and an overflowing ashtray. On the other side of the room there was another closed door and a wire-crosshatched window with a makeshift curtain pinned to the frame. Tommy heard voices: “One of the guys laughs real hard and says, ‘Do it again, Buzz, do it again.’ And then they all started laughing.”
Tommy inched his way to the door and eased back the curtain.
“What’d you see?” I asked.
“It was weird … too weird,” he said. “They got this rag-head bent over a table, his wrists duct-taped to the table legs and his pants down. A tall guy and another guard, a sergeant, are standing behind him, and another couple grunts are watching, and the tall guy’s got a cut-off mop handle.”
Tommy’s face grew narrow as he explained the rest.
“He did what?”
“I ain’t shitting you.”
“What’d you do?”
“I didn’t do nothing, man, they were getting off on it—”
Somewhere, amid the backdrop of milling pedestrians and street activity, I saw a bright flash, followed by a tremendous concussion as if someone had flung open the door of a blast furnace. A wave of debris and compressed air hit me and I was suddenly on the floor, looking up through the legs of an overturned table into the gloom of dust and smoke. Tommy was on the floor next to me, his eyes fixed, blood gushing from his scalp. Then the eerie howling of voices, the death shrieks and frantic cries, all blended into a swirling mass of horror and disbelief.
Then the dust and smoke lifted and brought back the sun, the street, and two humvees roaring to a stop. Soldiers tumbled out, in uniform, all of them young, helmets and rifles and frightened looks. I stood up, wobbly, frozen for the briefest slice of a moment, and branded by images I’d never forget.
Tommy was lucky, me too, except for a persistent ringing in my ears that lasted for several days. A lot luckier than the poor bastards—the five young GI’s—walking down the street when the bomb went off. Two were dead and the others were torn up, along with a half-dozen locals. The remains of the goat carrying the explosives were scattered for a half-block in every direction, along with the old man who’d led him through the checkpoint.
A week or so trudged by before I saw Tommy again. There were stitches in his head, just below his hairline, and he looked forlorn and exhausted when I pulled up a seat and started brooding over my flapjacks and powdered eggs. He was drinking coffee, gingerly touching his forehead, fingers lightly brushing over the stitches. I made a little idle chitchat, and then I brought up the story about the guards in detention.
“Forget about it,” he said.
And I, amidst a bad season that was getting worse every day, dropped my fork and said, “You know, Tommy, that kind of shit isn’t allowed, not any where in the civilized world.”
“Fuck that. He was probably a Taliban sonofabitch, like the old bastard that set off the bomb. Fuck all of them. Nuke this whole fucking country.”
His face was drawn tight, teeth clenched. Tommy had been sucked into the sludge, the hatred and hopelessness. The wind came up, making a modulated flapping sound as it played over the thousand yards of canvas above us. Tommy’s eyes were hollow, blank orbs looking out from an expression that had turned to plaster. I downed the last of my coffee and was on my feet, facing the long line snaking along the serving area. For some reason I thought of North Dakota, the guys I went to high school with, the fishing trips to the Black Hills, Montana and Wyoming, the girl I was going to marry before her patience ran out, my Ford Ranger truck and the beer hall where we played pool on Friday and Saturdays.
But then there they were, all four of them, the tall guy leading the pack. I froze in my tracks, seven paces away, as if a sudden paralysis had taken out my legs. I couldn’t move, couldn’t decide what to do, how not to betray myself all over again.
And that voice, all mockery and sarcasm, pure 91-octane attitude.
“Hey, it’s Corporal Pussy.” The phrase cut through the background clamor, the hum of voices. Outside, beyond it all, beyond the bleak solitude, the pointlessness, the brutal tragedy, I knew the rising sun would soon spread over everything with harsh indifference.
I saw myself moving toward them, and I knew I had to start playing by a different set of rules. “My name is Gossy you sonofabitch.”
“Better luck next time, slick,” he says, nasal and venomous.
The breakfast tray fell from my hands and I lunged at him, making a hard jab at the middle of his sneering face. He stumbled backwards under the force of the blow; then it was all flailing arms and bodies, the clatter of stainless steel trays and forks and knives—the disintegration of something ineffable and impossible to explain.
Helicopters had flown ahead of the eastern surge and dropped us off just south of the village. My platoon reached the far end of the village after midday, and one of the young privates on point shot and killed a Taliban fighter who’d bolted from a deserted shack when he saw us coming. I asked the private if he had ordered the man to halt before opening on him, and he swore he had and told me he’d used the right phrase, and I believed him. Most Afghans speak Dari or Pashto, although with six different languages scattered around the country it’s hard to know who speaks what.
Once the adrenalin rush had subsided and he’d gotten over his nerves, the kid seemed almost jubilant, like an African game hunter after making his first kill. I guess you could say he took it pretty good.
“Dumb-ass rag head should’ve dropped his rifle,” the corporal said from behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder. “He shouldn’t have been here in the first place.”
“Why do you think he was here, Lieutenant?” a young private asked.
“Who knows … bagging some opium maybe.” I grinned and the private laughed along with me. “He had his chance to give up and he ran,” I added. “It’s okay—it’s clean.”
The dead man’s face was gritty and sun darkened, and I told the corporal to find something to cover him. No villagers were coming out to claim the body.
“He got what he deserved,” the corporal said.
“No taking trophies, no personal effects,” I said loud enough for everyone to hear.” Then I told the sergeant to get six men and we’d reconnoiter the north and east sides of the village. There were at least twenty or thirty acres of poppies out beyond the low hills, and through the binoculars they looked like a beautiful flower garden. When we got back forty-five minutes later I ordered the platoon to take positions on a dirt road heading out from the northeast end of the village. It was hot and dry and the whole village seemed abandoned, although we knew people were there—hiding, praying, darting from one shadowy doorway to another, doing what they could until the fighting passed them over.
Just northeast of the village there was a fork in the dirt road and a makeshift bridge over a gully that flooded on those rare occasions when it rained really hard. The wash came through a craggy set of hillocks about a mile away and probably started somewhere up in the mountains farther to the east.
To the west of the bridge about seventy yards there was a grove of palm trees, and a little southeast of the grove a low ridge overlooked the fork in the road and the bridge. Anyone coming from Pakistan had to use the road because there was no other way northeast except through almost impassable territory. “Sergeant,” I said, “I want a setup to cover the bridge from those palms and another behind the ridge.”
He nodded. It was the old buttonhole trick, similar to what we’d done a week earlier. Setting a trap, waiting to see who and what fell in.
The best place was the shady palm grove, but I assigned the youngest guys to the ridge, mostly the blacks and Mexicans because I knew they could handle the heat. And if we didn’t get action by sundown, we’d make camp in the grove and wait for the U. S. companies coming up from the southwest.
Some by-the-book officers might take exception with the way I’d set up the buttonhole. But I knew from experience that rabbits would be running, coming up ahead of the push, or infiltrators would be sneaking in from Pakistan. People in the village wouldn’t warn any of them.
“Lieutenant,” the corporal said to me. “Who’s going to do the talking? And when do we open fire?”
“Have Jacobson nearest the bridge. He knows the phrases. He’ll shout out and if there’s no immediate compliance, start shooting. If it’s a single rabbit, I want only the sniper to fire, and that’ll be on my order. Got it?”
“Don’t sweat it, corporal. I’ll have a radio.”
“I’m not sweating, sir.”
“Sergeant, I also want two men up the road about a hundred yards, just in case someone gets past the bridge.”
“Yes, sir, Lieutenant.”
Twenty minutes later the setup was in place. There were too many flies and the sun was intense, and sweat was dripping from underneath everyone’s helmets. We heard a motor in the distance, coming from the northeast. Maybe the Taliban didn’t realize we were this close to the mountain pass. Through the binoculars I saw something coming over a hill followed by a small dust cloud.
Turned out it was a motorbike with two men, bouncing badly over the bumps as it got closer. The man riding in back had an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. That pretty much sealed the deal, so I radioed the corporal to be ready.
“Wait till he’s just before the bridge,” I told the sniper.
“I might hit them both, Lieutenant—it’s so close.”
“Just do the best you can.”
“No problem, sir.”
The driver lost control of the motorbike the instant he was hit, and the front tire crimped sideways and spilled them both in slow motion, the engine screaming as if the throttle was jammed in the dirt. The passenger got to his feet and hobbled for the wash. His gait was off balance and I figured the bullet had hit him too. A burst of shots stopped him and he jerked and stumbled, looked skyward, then grasped at the edge of the bridge as he fell and rolled out of sight. The sniper was young, twenty or there about, a Montana rancher’s son who’d been hunting all his life. He was like a Zen archer in an odd way; because a strange quietude came over him whenever he shot, and he never seemed to consider what he was shooting at, trance-like and mechanical.
I called the corporal on the radio. “Drag them under the bridge—the motorbike too.”
The men behind the ridge scrambled fast across the crusty sand to the bridge, and one went over the other side and we heard a shot. Then they cleaned up the mess and got back in position. The sergeant gave me a look.
“I guess they were moving too fast to attempt capture—”
“Sometimes I make split-second decisions.”
“I guess that’s why you put the two men down the road, right, sir?”
“Sure … just in case they got by. Always have a plan for the unexpected.”
“It was almost too easy.”
“That’s why we’re still alive, Sergeant.”
Everything was quiet and hot and still too many flies, and the trap was set again. Truth was we were only set up for the basic work of assassination straddling an enemy route. Militarily speaking we weren’t really straddling, because we were only a platoon and not prepared to deal with any sort of armored vehicle, not that we’d ever see one out here.
The intelligence report I’d been given by the captain three days ago said the Taliban coming from the east were headed for Kabul or Kandahar—something was brewing, some sort of renewed resistance. What cen-com really wanted were a few prisoners for interrogation, and that was simple enough and I preferred simple things and easy decisions, although I wasn’t planning to risk my men to take Taliban alive.
Two hours later we hadn’t seen anybody, and I was wondering what was up; then all of a sudden, we saw three men in the distance coming on foot. But they didn’t have rifles. It’s always hard to know for certain, but somehow these guys looked suspicious. You develop a sixth sense, but it’s hard to explain. I radioed the corporal. His voice sounded tired, but I knew he was tough. He was part Cherokee or Chippewa, or part something, lean and hard, with agate-brown eyes and bristly black hair.
“Let’s check these boys out,” I said.
We heard private Jacobson shout the halt and hands up phrase in Dari, then again in one of the local dialects. He was a bright Jewish kid and could speak a couple foreign languages and for him learning to speak some Afghan wasn’t difficult. The three men froze. The two in back threw up their arms and shouted, high pitch and desperate, but the sonofabitch in front pulled a weapon and fired. A moment later all three were splayed on the dusty road. I looked at the sergeant. “Damn it! Why did that stupid bastard do that? Get the medic, get over there and find out if we can salvage any of them.”
The sergeant shook his head in disbelief and hollered for the medic. The medic was a young kid. He had sky-blue eyes and looked shocked, probably his first call. I watched the road through my field glasses while the cleanup was going on. I tried to distance myself from the wounded and dead aspect of things, as much as possible, because seeing too much wasn’t good. Although it wasn’t any worse for me than for the young soldiers, but I was in command and needed my head straight. Too much horror can loosen a man’s head and bad decisions happen. The captain gave me that fatherly advice my first week; and the major had told him the same thing.
Then the corporal was on the radio. “Get those bastards off the road fast,” I said. The radio crackled. The corporal said, “The one in front is dead as shit—the other two are messed up bad, sir. Bradley’s puking his guts, I don’t think there’s much he can do.”
“Shoot ’em full of morphine, drag ’em under the bridge, a dust cloud’s coming about a mile down. Hurry! Cover any blood that’s on the road.”
The corporal hauling one of the men by both legs with his head jarring up and down made his way down the sandy bank and under the bridge. The other men were scurrying like ants to get the other two hidden and then the last young soldier kicking sand over the blood. Everything was quiet, except for the hum-buzzing of the flies. I looked down the road. The dust cloud was closer and I could make out a vehicle of some kind, but the sun was bright, making shimmer-like waves that made it hard to see.
I watched. It was an old white panel van, a really old one by the look of it. Probably local civilians. On the other hand it might be packed with explosives or opium or even Taliban. I hollered at the sergeant.
“Maxwell, it’s a goddamn civilian vehicle. How do you want to handle it?”
“I don’t know, LT. Flag them down before they make the bridge. If they’re civilians they got to stop—if they don’t, fuck ’em.”
“I hate shit like this,” I said, mostly to myself. “Why can’t it be simple?”
The sergeant looked at me with a blank set of eyes. Tough decisions weren’t his responsibility. “Take three men and get down by the road, on the other side,” I said, “go at least a hundred yards, and take a radio. We’ll give them a chance to be smart but if they screw up, blast the fuck out of them.”
The sergeant pointed at three privates and they followed him down a gully that ran from the bottom edge of the palm grove toward the dirt road. I radioed the corporal, told him to get under the bridge with three men and be ready to take the road. The van was getting closer, maybe less than a half mile now, and I could hear its worn motor sputtering up the gradual incline that flattened off at the approach to the bridge. I told the sniper to get his crosshairs on the driver but no shooting till I gave the order. As the van got closer I saw it had side windows, but the windows looked like they’d been blacked out with paint. I glanced over at the sniper. His name was Eddy and he had climbed up on a stump and braced his rifle on another smaller palm growing next to the stump.
“What you seeing, Eddy?” I asked.
“Nothing yet, sir, still too far and the glare is messing me up.”
“I want to know the minute you can see a face through that windshield.”
“Not a problem, sir.”
My field glasses were ten power, but the sniper scope could crank up to double that, so I was hoping he’d be able to see who was driving before things got tight.
“Talk to me, Eddy …”
“Sorry, sir, the van is bouncing and I’m still getting glare off the windshield.”
I trained my glasses on the sergeant and the three men. They were huddled in the narrow gully about twenty yards from the road.
I radioed. “The minute that van passes move up to the road and be ready. And if you get any sort of ID let me know real fast. This one’s gonna be tight.”
“I see something, LT,” Eddy said. “It looks like an old man. I’m seeing a lot of gray beard … yeah, pretty sure it’s an old man.”
“Corporal, take the bridge, now, form a line and wave ’em down. If the vehicle doesn’t stop, open fire. Just make sure the driver sees you, got it?”
The radio crackled. “Got it, Lieutenant.”
I watched through the glasses as the van came over the little hill toward the flat stretch. The men were lined across the road waving for the driver to halt. A fly buzzed my nose and I swatted it away. The van was still moving forward. Stop you stupid bastard, I thought to myself. “Eddy, what do you see?”
“It’s an old man, but I think there’s people in the back, I see something.”
“Hang on,” I said. I called the corporal. “Hold fire till I say.” The goddamn radio crackled again. I kept watching through the glasses. The van slowed and then stopped, about fifty yards from the corporal and the other men. The sergeant and his men were coming up from behind. “No one fire,” I yelled into the radio.
The driver’s door opened and a thin wisp of a man got out, his hands trembling above his head. “No one fire,” I repeated. “Order him forward, and watch the back of the van,” I added, hoping the corporal would get Jacobson talking. Through the glasses I saw Jacobson walk several paces ahead of the others on the bridge. The old man kept bowing his head and waving his hands. The sergeant and his men came up from behind.
I turned to the sniper. “What do you see, Eddy?”
“Can’t tell … but there’s something moving in the back of the van.”
“Maxwell, Eddy says there’s something inside the van. Cover the side door and if anyone breaks for it, start shooting.” I watched them move up on the van. “Corporal,” I said, get the old man.”
The old man waved more frantically as they moved on him. The men behind the van came up, rifles pointed. The sergeant was on the radio. “It’s goats, Lieutenant, the old bastard has five fucking goats riding in back.”
“Let him pass,” I said, and breathed easy. Killing an old man and a bunch of scrawny goats would have been a hard one to swallow.
After sunset the air cooled and we all felt good and made camp in the palm grove; and I guess the old man with the goats felt good too, and I remembered how his rusty old wreck had disappeared up the road trailing a dust cloud. And dinner would be better, because the old man had given the corporal a big block of goat cheese in gratitude for his survival.
Morning came early and hot. It was always hot and dry and the flies were never far behind sunrise. What I really wanted was to just lie around in the shade until the first company arrived from the south, but I knew we had to reset the trap. This time I ordered the white boys to the ridge because the Mexicans and black boys had done so well yesterday.
I told the corporal to stay with me in the grove, and I put Eddy the sniper in charge of the ridge. He smiled like a kid getting patted on the head by his father. I told the sergeant to take two men down to the south edge of the grove, but it wasn’t until about noon that anything happened, and then it was like before. A dust cloud in the distance; in places like Afghanistan there’s always dust and emptiness, flies and never-ending dust. Something was on the road and headed for the setup. I climbed up on the palm stump to get a better view, and at about a mile I saw another little motorbike. I got on the radio and told Eddy to get a bead on the driver. Eddy said the driver had “the look.” That was a term we used—the look. It referred to how an Afghan might appear, subtle things, the telltale signs that indicate he’s probably Taliban. Eddy said he could knock him off anytime I ordered. Wait I told him, wait until the bike’s about fifty yards from the bridge, then take the road and wave him down. The motorbike kept coming up the road, and when the men came up and waved at him, the driver stopped and made a sudden U-turn.
Before I could radio the sergeant to take the south end of the road, a shot rang out. Eddy had apparently exercised his own judgment; and I saw the rider jolt and flip sideways off the motorbike, and there was something tragic about it, the way the body came off the bike and the way the bike kept going rider-less before wobbling back and forth and spilling off to one side. The sergeant was on the dusty road. He radioed, said the man was still alive, but we’d better bring the medic. Bradley looked queasy. I ordered him to get his medical pack and get his ass moving, and we headed out of the grove to the dirt road.
By the time we got there Eddy was kneeling beside the body, and the sergeant and several other men were in a semi-circle several steps back, just watching. The wounded man, kid actually, couldn’t have been more than sixteen. He was trying to speak but couldn’t, because the blood in his shredded lungs was bubbling up his throat and making a frothy mess on his lips. I had the feeling he was trying to be brave, living up to what his superiors had told him—the way a man was supposed to take it when he knew he was dying. I was just hoping he was a Taliban, although there was no way to know for sure since he wasn’t carrying an AK-47 or some other obvious giveaway.
Eddy the sniper put his canteen under the kid’s head and held his hand, in a gesture suggesting some sort of oblique camaraderie between the victor and the dying. I didn’t say anything … what was there to say? The kid was watching Eddy, their eyes locked on each other; but I don’t think he realized it was Eddy who’d shot him. They were both young, and in that way had some tenuous fiber of mutual recognition and understanding. Eddy stroked the boy’s forehead, pushing his hair back.
Maybe I should have done something; maybe I should have stepped in and taken the burden of the moment on myself, but I guess I was already used up, spent, and didn’t have much left inside.
The sergeant looked at me as if expecting I could somehow resolve the situation, relieve the tension and give some sort of meaningful command that would return everyone to their sense of noble duty. The kid was probably the enemy and was hopelessly wounded, wasted, butchered—but what difference did it make? He was an unfortunate who’d been sucked into the heartless vacuum of war, just like millions of others.
“Get his motorbike off the road,” I said.
“What do we do?” the sergeant asked in a loud whisper. He was looking at the kid.
“I’ll stay with him,” Eddy offered.
“Take him under the bridge,” I said. “But be careful … and where’s the goddamn medic? Get the poor bastard some morphine.”
Bradley held up better this time, although he still fumbled through his medical pack before somehow giving the kid a double dose; then he looked up as if I were a priest who could pronounce some sort of battlefield absolution. His eyes were sick and confused. The men cleaned up the dirt road and we all went back to the palm grove.
Tomorrow the U. S. companies would arrive from the southwest, so the setup didn’t matter much anymore. Eddy reiterated his desire to stay with the Taliban kid under the bridge and I told him it was all right, but to get back with us as soon as the boy expired.
But I don’t think we felt like heroes that day; we had a dirty job to do, and of course every one of us wanted to get out alive. I called the men together and they gathered round in a semi-circle, their eyes squinted against the bright sun that was lower in the sky.
“There’ll be plenty more shit to wade through before this thing’s over,” I said, and noticed Eddy walking back from the bridge, his head bent forward and his arms limp at his side. “So don’t nobody go soft on me. It’s why they call it war, it’s why we’re here … because bad shit happens.”
It was the best I could come up with, one of those lame moments you get to think about at three in the morning for the rest of your life.
The Necessary War
For days the wind blew out of the northeast. It bent the fronds of the date palms in the grove where we’d stopped when the sandstorm made air surveillance impossible; and just after midday, as the wind increased to its hardest, the noise in the palms was almost deafening, the sand and dust so thick you couldn’t butter a piece of bread without it getting too gritty to eat. Dead fronds would snap off and sail away like loosed kites, spinning wildly, sometimes rising a hundred feet in the air. We endured nasty windstorms back in New Mexico, in the town where I grew up, but nothing like this.
It made me wonder how people live in such a miserable place. Godforsaken god-awful country, miles after miles of desolate earth and scorching heat. Talk about way east of Eden. No wonder the Taliban and al Qaeda are sanctimonious lunatics, why the whole Middle East is a whirlpool of hatred and insanity. Believe me, I’m not a bigot or racist or anything closely related, but fanatic Muslims are whacked, they perceive the world in absolute terms; everything is set, black and white, righteous or evil, true believers versus infidels. It’s like seeing the entire universe in two dimensions while ignoring the possibilities of quantum physics.
A week before the sandstorm Steve and I were in our tank. We call her Big Sweetie. We were rolling across an empty stretch of nothingness escorting a half-dozen trucks carrying supplies for the big surge in the east. Our tank commander caught a malicious intestinal bug, and he put Steve in charge—in an unofficial capacity—while he gulped down liquid streptomycin mixed with water and tried to sleep. Out of nowhere a small band of Taliban, under what seemed like some sort of suicide order, came at us with an old armored vehicle and about thirty foot soldiers. Steve was on the headphones:
“Mack, we got a dust cloud out there and what looks like some kind of half-track, but it might have an AT launcher. Get a bead on them, quick.”
“Right-o, Steve-o,” I said. The turret swung round and the targeting system did the rest. Really it was almost pathetic. At that range Big Sweetie never misses, and the half-track exploded into burning pieces. Machinegun fire scattered the soldiers.
“I don’t think their hearts were in this one,” I said to Steve.
We both laughed. Our tank commander was roused from his nap and wanted to know what the hell we were doing.
“Just protecting our territorial integrity,” said Steve.
So . . . the wind blew hard for five days and we made no progress, didn’t even try, and no one gave much of a shit. Helicopters were grounded, no satellite images. Just wind and dust. But progress is a relative term, and it depends on your big-picture point of view. For example: gung-ho hero versus survivor—and I’m a survivor. The only progress I’m interested in is progress that gets me closer to home, because moving forward in the midst of a ground war equates to a higher percentage chance that my ass will go home in a body bag.
Tanks are powerful, extraordinary, tons of high-grade steel, invincible almost, until the right kind of weaponry comes at you, then they turn into particle accelerators and personalized crematoriums. Believe me, I’ve seen it before, seen what it looks like when you pry open a blistered hatch and see bodies inside. Or what’s left of them. The spin masters at headquarters keep the news correspondents at a distance when tanks or helicopters get hit. Because we’re running a clean, tidy war, and one of the lessons from Vietnam was simple—don’t let the public see too many bodies, don’t let them see the messy stuff.
Then . . . on the sixth day a message came in from cen-com. The British light-armor and infantry Brigade serving with us was pulling out, going home to jolly old England for teatime and all the other good stuff. We outnumbered them deployment-wise twenty to one, but still it seemed like a slap in the face. I mean, the British and the Americans fighting side-by-side—as it should be—then all of a sudden they’re taking off, leaving us poor Yanks behind to do the dirty work. The new surge to keep the Taliban from flooding in from Pakistan.
And I admit it, I wanted to be the one going home. War only makes sense when you’re fired up, a true believer, but I stopped believing after my first tour was over. I’m not sure how I ever believed in the first place.
Getting killed for someone else’s ideas about wrong and right or good and evil is a tricky proposition, unless of course you’re dedicated like the crazy-ass Taliban and the other fanatics who can’t wait to martyr themselves, go straight to heaven and frolic with fifty virgins. Who do female martyrs get to frolic with? And if I get blown to pieces inside my tank, what’s my big payoff? The minister says we’ll be at the side of Jesus and the golden throne. Let me see . . . fifty virgins versus Jesus . . . that’s a tough call. And what happens if I end up in Muslim heaven by mistake?
I don’t even want to think about that. Does God run separate heavens?
“You’ll be lucky to get to heaven.” That’s what Steve says.
After the wind died down, we weren’t moving anywhere. We were waiting for a fresh battalion to come up from the southwest to replace the British troops headed for home. The British soldiers were happy and smiling, light on their feet. You could see it in their faces. You can always tell when a man’s going home—he’s light on his feet and smiling, but he’s also superstitious. The superstitious part has to do with not getting the short-timer’s jinx. I’ve seen short-timers get the shittiest luck possible.
Like me and Steve’s good friend, Eddy Hawkins. “Hey, you guys, I just got the news,” he hollered. “I’m going home, twenty days and a wake up!”
Eight days later he was riding in a humvee, and we rolled up on a village that meant nothing to nobody, even the locals didn’t give a damn whether or not we were there. But then this wild-eyed camel jockey dreaming of his fifty virgins gets hold of a hand-held antitank missile left over from when the Russians were in Afghanistan, and he fires at the humvee from less than a hundred feet. The damned thing shouldn’t have functioned but somehow it did, and the blast sent Eddy and the driver home for good, what was left of them.
The day before, Eddy was writing home to his wife and kids, telling them the news, and then knocking on wood because of his going-home status. And he was really knocking on wood, because some of the guys kept a big wooden block and all the short-timers could knock on it for luck and to keep away the short-timers’ jinx. But it didn’t work for Eddy. Truth is, it hasn’t worked for a lot of guys. Being a short-timer makes everybody sweat, because now you got something to lose—your impending deliverance.
Knocking on wood or going to heaven. I don’t believe in either one anymore. It’s all bullshit as far as I can see. The only thing that’s real is what a dead soldier looks like, the blood and torn flesh and shattered bones. That’s real. The rest is gullible speculation.
So . . . that night we had a party for some of the British guys whom we’d been close with over the last several months. The lt. colonel was fine with it and said we should go ahead and have some fun while the getting was good, before we headed farther north.
One of the Brits was an Irishman named John Spillain, a corporal assigned to an infantry company. Although I didn’t know him too well, my tank-mate Steve did because they’d gotten into a fight over a poker game and ended up liking each other. Steve’s half-Mexican and my best friend and one of the toughest men I ever knew. His drunken father used to beat his mother, and Steve when he was only eleven or twelve would try to defend her and then the beating would get transferred to him. He had a lot of hard bark, physically and emotionally.
But anyway, the British soldiers had by hook or by crook appropriated a supply of Scotch, four cases was what we’d heard, and John Spillain was tanked up and started in on some London-born Indian who was in one of the light-armored companies.
“Are you a Muslim?” John asked. “You look like a Muslim.”
“I’m a Hindu,” the man replied.
I’d seen him before. He was thin, with smooth dark skin and delicate features, dark eyes and jet-black hair.
Another Brit came up behind John and distracted him. Steve and I were sitting next to Big Sweetie, using the metal wheels as backrests, and enjoying the blazing campfire some of the men had made from dry fronds and cutoffs from dead palm stumps. And we had our own good time going, because one of the medics had commandeered a bottle of hydrocodone bitartrate from supply, and half the guys were in the glow of a nice little opiate buzz. The Brits had Scotch, we had pills, and of course there was some trading going on.
“My grandfather was killed by the goddamned English in Northern Ireland.”
Steve and I looked up. John Spillain was face to face with another young Brit, the two of them silhouetted by the orange glow of the fire.
“Piss off you fookin’ Irish bastard,” the Brit said, and gave John a shove.
The other Brit put his arm around John and jostled him in a friendly way, and then escorted him into the shadows beyond the reach of the fire. John was tall and lean, and a bit wobbly.
I looked over at Steve. “Someone better put your Irish buddy to bed.”
Steve nodded. “Good thing none of the officers came to the party.”
I nodded too. We both knew how it worked. Occasionally the enlisted grunts were allowed to let off unsupervised steam, or allowed to celebrate, as the case might be. And between the Brits and us, we were doing both. Men have the right to relieve the boredom of harsh conditions, relieve anxieties about the too-real possibility of death.
Ten minutes later Irish John was back. “Are you sure you’re not a Muslim? We have too many Muslims in the goddamned army.”
“Yes,” the man said, “there are Muslims in the army, but I am not one of them.”
“But you have the look of a Muslim—”
“I may have a look, but certainly not the look of a Muslim,” the soldier insisted.
Irish John glanced over at several other Brits who were watching. He gestured with his hands. “He has the face of a bloody Muslim. So how do we know he’s not a Muslim?”
“And who in bloody hell are you?” the soldier asked.
“I’m a goddamned Irishman serving in the goddamned British Army,” he said, a blend of pride and indignation. “But I should be in old Dublin, where I belong.”
“So you’re Catholic and you carry on about Muslims?”
John pulled himself erect. “I don’t trust Muslims . . . and I hate all religious fanatics, and I hate al Qaeda bastards and every other Taliban bomb-toting rag head.”
“That’s an extensive hate list,” the Hindu man replied.
“And I don’t trust Jews and Protestants, or even Mormons for that matter.”
“And you distrust them in just that order?”
“Maybe Protestants the most, especially when they’re in Ireland.”
“Glad I’m not a Protestant,” the Hindu man said and walked away.
Irish John stood there swaying, his back to Steve and me, silhouetted by the small fire that still burned. The other Brits left too, along with a half-dozen of our guys, congregating in an area where a crowd had gathered to hear two men singing and playing guitars. Irish John didn’t realize Steve and I were less than ten paces behind, enveloped by the shadow spilling from the side of tank. He moved closer to the fire pit, squatted, holding his hands to the remaining thatch of smoky flames.
“Johnny,” called Steve in a loud voice, “you’re talking like a fucking idiot.”
Irish John swiveled on his boots and lost his balance, then tipped to one side, catching himself with an outstretched hand. He glared at us in the moonlight, not sure who we were.
“It’s Steve . . . Steve and Mack.”
John got to his feet. “Mexican Steve,” he said. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not of the dark Irish?”
Steve laughed. “Irish John you Irish fuck,” he said back.
“Who’s this other fellow?”
“My tank-mate, Mack, the gunner. You met last week—remember?”
“Right. Good to see you, Mike.”
“Right, sorry Max.”
“My ass is getting cold,” I said. “Maybe we better get out of here.”
“Maybe I’m going to sleep,” John said.
“Don’t talk so much and you’ll get in less trouble,” Steve said. “That Hindu might shoot your green Irish ass when no one’s looking.”
“Fuck him. We’re going home, and it’s up to you stalwart Yanks to defeat the enemy. For it’s a noble cause, lads, a necessary war,” he said, exaggerating his brogue.
“Aren’t they all,” I said, “but me and Steve are going to shoot each other in the foot, so we can go home too.”
We all three laughed. The fire was dead now, and above us the Milky Way was a starry blaze in the deep colorless sky. My hydrocodone and Scotch buzz had worn off and I was wanting something more.
“Hey, Steve-o, we got any goodies left?”
“What about you Irish John, you saved us a wee nightcap from all those bottles?”
In the moonlight I saw him compose a sly grin—his eyes mere shadows framed by the pale light reflecting from his face.
“Does the Pope piss holy water?” he said, again the brogue. “I’ve a half bottle tucked safely away. So come on lads, we’ll have us a round or two.”
“And a toast,” said Steve. “A toast to getting home in one piece.”
“Here, here,” I added.
The three of us, comrades at arms, arms around shoulders with Steve in the middle, marched noisily over the crusty sand toward the British side of camp.
“Yes indeed, I’ll have two weeks leave in sweet old Dublin in less than a month,” Irish John said. “I’m a short-timer, as you Yanks are inclined to say.”
“Lucky you,” Steve said, “but don’t go knocking on any wood blocks. Just keep your head down and your big mouth shut, and don’t ride in any humvees.”
We all laughed again and made a left oblique, and marched in cadence toward the secret place where Irish John swore he’d hidden the Scotch.