In the Heart of the Taliban, Fortified Soundly

NOTE: The attached is largely the result of no electricity and no internet.

Location: a firebase somewhere in southern Afghanistan [precise location undisclosable]

2215h, Thursday (I think it was when I first experienced this)

BOOOMM!!! Pop! Pop, pop . . . thmp.
It is not prolonged, the trauma of hearing this. And I shouldn’t even have called it trauma. But some here will, I am sure.

This is my love letter to the state of things in southern Afghanistan,1 composed in the name of preempting the fraudulent onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. And also written because I want to write it. That, I’m coming around to believe, is a crucial distinction between falling prey to the disorder and appropriating its causes constructively. I think it comes down to control and poise. But who knows. That’s just my feeling, and perhaps mine alone. And as Soderbergh put it in the beginning of The Informant, “So there.”

2217h, the same probable Thursday

A second, successive round. No words can fully convey the teeth-chattering thrust of this everyday device. And yet . . .

2218h, again

just know that it is loud when it comes and it is rude and that there are very few windows here period. It is 155 mm, each shell. No wider than those cans of fruit cocktail we used to store inside classrooms in the Bluegrass State (where I’m from) in case the allegedly delicate New Madrid fault line slipped and the region suffered another 9.0 quake. The last of those quakes happened about a century ago and was felt as far away as Boston, so they said. It feels like a quake every time those fruit can-sized rounds fly to their targets here in an atrium of the Taliban’s heart. They launch incredibly fast, this being the time of modern warfare and all.

As each breaks the sound barrier it crackles limply four times like a mountain echo.

Seldom do we groundlings give thought to a target; there are too many to ponder, not without verging on frustration at the inaccuracy or paranoia of those triggering the awful and awesome device. One needn’t be from Boston to agree it’s wicked loud.

2225h, and again

Your closed eyes receive an electrified yellow charge on the fringes as each artillery ejaculate traces an arc peaking at roughly 4,000 ft. There are two ways in which each one reminds you (in case the calm respite of sleep had you fooled) that you are not bedding down in peaceful America, and so are not free of this strange reality2 yet: first, by defining the edges of your visual sleep field, a place you’d once thought boundless and infinite in its total absence of light; and second, by the throb: the physical jolt of your container’s contents, among which you’ve constructed an honest attempt at western living conditions with the likes of a raised bed, a desk which connects to that bed, and an open, angled counter and shelf system to hang clothes and sort items like books and an iPod and frisbee and deodorant and Q-tips, et cetera. All of these things are at the mercy not only of the rounds but also of your feeble effort with plywood and two-by-fours and eight-penny nails, the entire assembly feeling and sounding with every shell arcing faster than the speed of sound as if it will all come collapsing violently inward with the next volley, the very next one, and you will find yourself emerging from the lumber half-consciously looking in the dust for that one yellow earplug that always has a way of falling out when you sleep on your side like an introvert, in the fetal position, meek and defenseless to the awesome power of the world outside your own head.

1730h, the next day

Ahead of me in line to eat stand two male employees of DynCorps (pronounced ‘DI-nuh-cor’), electricians. Their skin is the color of mud; their hair, dark as the artillery is loud. Both of them are wearing D&G shirts. You can tell because the letters are sprayed in huge diagonal print across their backs. I consider how many other D&G shirts I’ve seen being sold and worn around Kandahar province—there have been a lot. Dolce & Gabbana, I begin to think, has officially gone the way of Tommy apparel in its replicated descent to the lower classes. They obviously cannot be blamed for buying their shirts, these two people of rich, dark color. Why not bring a crappy shirt to get dirty in a filthy country with poor infrastructure? And what do they care what we think?

They know English enough, sure. You can just tell that by how unbothered and frankly bored they are toward all the Coalition soldiers3 in a “chow” line that must be at least 120m long. However, the two in front of me are excited when talking with each other. One is Jamal and he is from Singapore. The other is Shareesh and he, like many of the aproned cooks standing as the light at the end of this long tunnel, is from India. Shareesh is the man to go to if you’d like curry and rice instead of beef steak or chicken cordon bleu—both of which, a sign warns you as you pass in front of the glass partition, MAY CONTAIN PORK. This is still strange to me.

There are five-inch-diameter pizzas served here daily, like little personal portion ones. It looks like they have never moved and peering a little closer I learn that even the pepperoni is pork. Shareesh tells me it’s pork spiced with like pepperoni extract. My guess is that this is what happens to East Asian pork supplies in an Islamic country4 where a majority of the inhabitants are non-Muslim. You dice, extract and pack that extra pork in wherever you can get it.

Meantime the beef choices rotate, morph, as the DynCorps cooks5 manifest their resourcefulness. The supply lines have been feeling a pinch and drivers (whose faces are so wrapped in cloth, it brings into question their navigational abilities) are increasingly known to have to dodge bullets—not always successfully—while behind the wheel of fanatically-decorated and positively colorfucked “jingle” trucks.

Shareesh and Jamal, though, they are not truck drivers, and it is unclear whether or not they have weapons. It’s hard to tell with the non-Westerners. You never fully know who has been a killer and who is just dropping by the firebase on a short-term contract, simply cashing in.

0900h, the day after that

Our bathroom containers are waiting atop jingle trucks just inside the gate. As I wait for a local crane operator to arrive, I have little else to do but look inside these things. Each container is broken down in roughly a 1/1 ratio of showers to water closets. Each space where you are to expel your waste looks at first American glance unfinished. There is no seat. There is a declination of rounded white piping which slants toward a hole of tepid water. To the left and right of that approximately 6-inch-wide set-up are white plastic boxes angled smoothly to indicate foot placement. There is a spray nozzle to the left attached to a flexible hose very much like the kind you find on most American kitchen sinks. Once in the containers have been put in place by the crane, the man in our camp heading up construction efforts steps inside one, takes one look and shouts, “Squattin’ shitters!” Another moves in and picks up the nozzle, adding, “Kind of like a bidet.” The rest of us converge looking as confounded as the African with the Coke can in The Gods Must Be Crazy. As it happens, directing your urine into the hole is not an impossible task, though some are clearly better at it than others. Approximately one week passes before the first man tires of walking to the portajohn and breaks the seal, as it were. Most, to this day, prefer the walk to the squat.

2340h, feels like Monday

There is always soil in the air; flashlights reveal this at night in shaking gold cones as one meanders over powder-fine stuff called moondust to a portajohn thick with the smell of ammonia, so acrid you can taste its bitterness in your sinuses and on the back of your tongue. You taste it as you try not to bite down and disturb the dirt that has settled on your teeth in just that brief walk from your bed late on a chilly low-illume night.6

1100h, probably a Tuesday

In practicing with my weapon and becoming quite good at it again, I began feeling the relentless urge to buy an assault rifle when I return to the States. I knew right off that it would be awkward at best trying to find a place for it in the home I share with my wife. And yet I wanted it anyway, had to have it. After a week, that spell and its wash of brain chemicals wore off forgettably. I consider it today and laugh.

1640h, unsure

The Canadian who supervises the security guards on this base has sped up to our camp and hopped out in a cloud of dust to say someone has fired a recoilless rifle at their southern tower. Our guys grab their sniper rifles and hop in the Canadian’s Toyota Hilux (basically a Tacoma lite) and I follow in another vehicle driven by one of our interpreters. The interpreter follows the speeding Hilux impressively well and it begins to feel like being in a movie, speeding around curves and obstacles through a channel of rising dirt and dust. I realize as soon as I’ve followed our sniper up to his well fortified position that all I’ve got is my camera. I feel stupid, but that passes. The sniper and his spotter with binos set to work at once, and are seemingly an undisturbable duo. I make no noise while they track the movement of at least one person who only seconds ago looked to have been holding a rifle in the shade of a treeline, approximately half a mile away. There’s what could be a car out there beside the shady farmers. That car would be an obvious place to stage if you’re popping off shots at a firebase, one of the guys says. Why is he staying near that car?

“Is that a car? Well you see it, right?”

“Yeah I just don’t know if that’s a car or a truck. It’s in the shade about halfway is what it looks like.”

“There were two people. Just behind that thing.”

At this moment there is only a boy in the field. No men and no one with a rifle. There may have been someone else there just before the discussion on the automobile but the trigger man didn’t see him well enough to be sure. And this is no longer the war where decisions can be made on an uncertain basis. Time passes. Complete stillness on our side. All the while bombs are going off some kilometers to the south, near a jagged medium-sized mountain on which, with the help of zoomed-in photos on my Nikon, I can barely make out an Afghan flag sticking out the top of a dirt compound. That’s closer to one of the main rivers in this region of desperate irrigation and literally acres of marijuana.7

I pick up a pair of binos and begin scanning. Farmers are filling the field to the west, a few children peppered among them. To the east come more farmers, some carrying piles of corn stalks, some holding rakes. Most are barehanded at this point. The southern bombs are still sounding. Dirt rises just visible in distant plumes. And yet to the fields these guys march, shackled to life in Taliban country.

1100h, Sunday

Contractors are allowed to carry out business, eat, and generally do their thing in ordinary clothes. Soldiers, obviously, are in uniform. Interpreters strike different poses. They may be in uniform like the soldiers or they may not. One group of four Afghan women is never in uniform. One of these women in particular always wears a brightly colored shirt. Today it was rich aqua blue, the kind of blue that is not anywhere near here, and therefore attracted all sorts of attention as more than five hundred of us waited in line to eat. The four women had just finished eating, which was odd because the place opens at 1100h.

The blue shirt woman looks to be about 30 and obviously relishes being the youngest in the group. She also enjoys being pretty much the most eye-catching person on this base of approximately 6,000 personnel (though I suspect that number is inflated8). Today she was eating an ice cream while looking terribly unimpressed. I have not seen her laugh; though I have seen her smile, it was only toward men as obviously dashing as she is herself. I have chosen not to look at her.

1510h, same day

I learned during the recoilless rifleman episode that the Canadian has wireless internet in his room. Leechers are prevented by virtue of the mighty T-walls of dense concrete and countless rebar reinforcing each section, many of which are joined in a semi-perimeter around his compound. They are a thick and awesome structure and I wonder what one of the famous shells would do to the walls of this well-fortified base.

He’s a very cool guy, this Canadian, a soldier turned contractor. He’s told a number of stories about his job that cannot be told here. One notable exception. During a recent patrol, an ordinary infantry unit began taking fire and reacted in its usual, well-trained manner. Everyone did what they were supposed to do, assuming their designated positions and returning fire, except for Private Anonymous. Anonymous decided this was the day when things would be different. So he got up, hefted his big machine gun up with him, and just stood there, in the middle of a firefight. Accounts vary as to whether or not he ever pulled his trigger. But the consensus is that Anonymous did a very unintelligent thing. He wanted to die, the Canadian said.

Not long after, when things had calmed down momentarily on this tiny corner of the planet, who came lumbering toward the firebase’s exit but Anonymous, in full kit, carrying two drums of ammo and his trusty machine gun, and with not a thought at all visible in his eyes—this was the most worrisome tell, the Canadian said. He motioned to his guards to be still.

“Whatcha doing there, buddy?” the Canadian asked calmly, sounding almost humored but without a doubt on guard for any damn thing this kid might do.

“Going for a walk,” Anonymous said.

“Kind of dangerous out there.”

“Got my C2,” he said, giving the gun a friendly pat. (C2 is the Canadian variant of the American weapon Anonymous carried.) “I’ll be OK.”

“You know I can’t let you go out there, buddy.”

What exactly happened afterward doesn’t matter. Anonymous returned to his supervisor and today is still alive and unharmed. His mental state, on the other hand, will likely require assistance for some time to come.

1710h, same day 

Still at the Canadian contractor’s place. After some discussion of origins with another contractor—who elected to vent on the critical blue-collar and ghetto difference between Kansas City, Kans., and Kansas City, Miss.—we decided to take dinner at the dining facility. Once inside, we met a medic in the US Special Forces. Our discussion of birthplaces continued behind plates of beef-pork loaf and mashed potatoes. A college graduate with six years of service behind him, the medic told us his plans for returning to his home state and becoming a doctor. The shells started up again. They were, by now, an afterthought—still rude, but an afterthought nonetheless.

The Canadian held our attention with stories of remote wilderness right outside his doorstep, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. My wife and I almost went there for our honeymoon, I told him, with renewed interest in the place. I pictured the snowy mountain cabin we saw in a wedding magazine and how enamored we were by the whole scene. The conversation turned to significant others and in no time I was showing off pictures of my wife and I in northern Virginia, practically as close to mountains as we could get on the East Coast.

The medic looked at me and said, “You don’t seem like a killer to me. Like I don’t think you have that killer instinct, not like Special Forces guys.”

“I don’t,” I said. “I’ll kill a bad guy if I have to; believe me,” I started to explain. But there wasn’t a whole lot more to say about it than that.

The complicated boredom of life in a warzone: I think there lies much of the problem for returning soldiers trying (some needing) to relay the experience of being in a place like this. This warzone is brimming with information; just not much of it is sexy. Like the lay of Kandahar province itself, my experience on the whole has been more valleys than peaks.

If the day ever comes when I can give a full accounting of what I’ve witnessed and those brief bits I’ve endured, I bet you interest in this conflict will have faded. Meantime, if anyone really wants to know what’s going on over here, they have to run to reporters for the record of what’s been vetted as official. I can’t tell you how many soldiers go the journalists for the story of what’s happening here. Their reports are the dots of light, the few stars in this dark sky. Afghanistan is vast, and in many respects it’s a circuitous and low-illume story. The experience of being part of that story, of toiling between the dots of light, waiting for your time to spring into action (which like the artillery could come at any moment) is a different matter than the corrupt adventures and compressed dramas found in the best media reports.

Nearly all soldiers read those reports during the dreadfully long gaps between missions when even firebase luxuries—the sight of a woman, the smell of vanilla ice cream—are just endured, rather like the artillery. Me, I stay busy. We have a camp to finish where I’m at. I don’t know what day it is. I never do. And that is a nice place to be, suspended in time. Until, that is, the next shell rips apart the sky. Which come to think of it, could happen any moment now.

  1. Can you write a love letter to such a thing? Watch me. My love is dynamic. Think Stockholm Syndrome, if duty doesn’t do it for you. 

  2. Whose purpose is to create the conditions necessary for a freedom that will endure in a country often described as the Old Testament but with Kalashnikovs, Toyota trucks, and cell phones. Another description, referencing the country’s intermediary time zone (EST +8.5 hrs) and primitive living conditions, says that it’s 2,000 years and half-an-hour behind the rest of the world. As with nearly all jokes, there is sadly recognizable truth in each of these. 

  3. And all the soldiers have full kit on: body armor, gloves, helmet, protective glasses, weapon. What’s funny is that not one of them has a magazine in his weapon. It seems that in numbers like these, no one can be trusted to carry a loaded weapon. One soldier has even gone so far to adapt to the absurd circumstances by placing a pack of cigarettes in his weapon’s magazine well. This is either a clever retort or sadly asinine. 

  4. Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is its official title. 

  5. It’s admittedly a little confusing what services DynCorps has a hand in. Its employees can pop up anywhere, anytime. Short of a comprehensive investigation, I can say it’s more or less taken for granted that DynCorps takes care of all the incidentals (food, laundry, plumbing), which, as the Coalition footprint grew, became something of a drag on military logistics. Again, this may not be entirely accurate; it’s just the impression of most folks living here. 

  6. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the moon again the same wistful way I did before arriving in this warzone. Quarter moon, low illume, means you can hardly see anything without a flashlight, and flashlights draw all sorts of attention. Full moon, high illume, gives enough light for bad guys to do their bad stuff at night, for the most part without being caught. I think these are something like fundamental concepts in the strategy and practice of war. I just hadn’t given them much thought before this summer. 

  7. Wind brings the smell, which is sometimes burned and sometimes fresh, in our direction. You don’t even need a trained nose to know what’s going on somewhere nearby. 

  8. Often, though, it feels to be something near 6,000. There are so many people on the base—often walking in the middle of the roads for sport, it seems—they have almost crowded off the vehicles. In parts of the base, there are 8’ x 8’ x 24’ shipping containers with stickers slapped on the outside reading “12 Man Sleeper.” I can only imagine what storm of crap ensues every time a round soars over the heads of those twelve sardines and all their things. 

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