At left, Berlin, Germany. February, 2012.
At right, Kabul, Afghanistan. March, 2013
The year of haircuts and narrowed eyes.
At left, Berlin, Germany. February, 2012.
At right, Kabul, Afghanistan. March, 2013
The year of haircuts and narrowed eyes.
River Town - Peter Hessler
True North - Jim Harrison
Thy Neighbor’s Wife - Gay Talese
Officers and Gentlemen - Evelyn Waugh
Cobb - Al Stump
The Year 1000 - Danny Danziger
The Gun - CJ Chivers
The Forever War - Dexter Filkins
Europe: A History - Norman Davies
Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin
A Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England - Ian Mortimer
The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
Wartime - Paul Fussell
You Know When the Men Are Gone - Siobhan Fallon
The Places In Between - Rory Stewart
Everything Is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer
A Hologram for the King - Dave Eggers
Black Coffee Blues - Henry Rollins
In The Woods - Tana French
The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.
From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.
(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)
Almost unbelievably, six months of my time here has elapsed. In one sense I feel as though I just arrived yesterday and woke up this morning without knowledge of what happened in the intervening half-year. In another sense, it’s like I haven’t slept at all. For 182 days I’ve been a semi-insomiac, a jittery and pulsating organism that absorbs new knowledge and regurgitates some of it. The fast pace and high stress has me acting on instinct and without rational calculation. In short, I’m an ameoba with glasses and a short temper.
So it’s with ravenous anticipation that I head home on vacation next week. While I’m screaming to get out of this place, part of me finds it hard to break the spell. I’ve talked before about the crippling working schedule here, but now I find comfort in the lack of variation in my days, the rote hours of and the absence of choice I have in what I can do with my days. I sit at my desk for twelve hours, I read the news and intel and groan about the state of things, stress over short-deadline missions, steal away for meals and exercise when I can, sleep when I’m able - usually dozing off 15 minutes into a rerun of The Sopranos to remind me of home. On Fridays I treat myself to extra-long workouts, but otherwise every day is the same.
I make no choices, I weigh no judgments. I just act. Grueling yes, but difficult no. I live in an eternal present tense of toil.
So even though it’s a short break home, I’m feeling off about a world with unfettered movement, no daily itinerary, no enemy to be furious at. Maybe I’m institutionalized, maybe I’ve reached a plane of enlightenment.
Part of my job is paying close attention to the news. I’m disgusted several times per week at stuff happening back in America. A political rally (Democrat? Republican? Does it matter?) where a demonstrator claims “These policies are going to have us living in a third-world country!!” The demonstrator is overweight, clean, well-groomed and standing in front of a laden picnic table next to a meat-filled grill.
The next day I drive from ISAF to Kabul airport, along the streets of the most prosperous city in this country. I’ve been driving more often to keep things interesting, to break away from the endless hours at my desk. There are invalids lying in the gutters. There are dusty, hungry children running in traffic. A lone aging goat carcass hanging on a hook, for sale I suppose. A man defecating against a wall on a primary thoroughfare. The only foodstuffs in abundance are doormat-sized loaves of naan bread. A row of stalls is selling what seems to be gnarled, rusty scrap metal and old tires for burning. To whom are they selling? From where do they get their inventory? I’ll show you third-world, TV fat lady.
Or yesterday, when we watch CNN raptly to see how protests against an anti-Islamic film are taking root in various Muslim countries. We sit with unspoken dread, hoping the anger doesn’t spread to the streets of Kabul (I have a silent, shameful personal stake, as a city in chaos would delay my trip home). There is footage of streets aflame, of fanatical rioting, the corpse of a US ambassador. CNN cuts away to a ‘story’ about the impending release of the fifth iteration of the iPhone, and the salivation of expectant purchasers. It’s slightly smaller, and will make its users’ lives immensely better. There is no more footage of the middle eastern riots.
Last Saturday, a person-borne suicide bomb detonated just outside our gates. Though the bad guys claim the attack was intended to strike a US CIA base, the only victims were Afghan civilians. The ‘attacker’ was a fourteen-year old carrying a backpack full of explosives. The victims were street children who sell trinkets to people like me. The blast shook the windows of my office, and was located about 50 meters from where I sleep (though a 20-foot concrete blast wall intervenes). There were pieces of children strewn in all directions.
One of the major complaints about the newest iPhone is that there’s a different-sized plug on the bottom.
Ode to Kirk. Arbon, Switzerland. July, 2007.
2nd Lt. Abdullah Muhammad, ANA Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Camp Shaheen, Balkh. July 2012
District gathering to celebrate opening of a road. Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan. July 2012.
Among the bright spots of this long, lonely, dusty year is the rare honor to work among uniformed service members. When among those truly sworn to dedicate themselves to this cause in Afghanistan (not casual, timid participants like myself, or other civilians that seem like mere tourists), there’s a rare sense of solemn meaning in everything that happens.
Over the nearly four months I’ve been here, I’m finding it difficult to feel as cynical as I once was. Sure, we trade daily cracks around the office to the effect of our frustration with our Afghan government counterparts. There’s regular, necessary gallows humor about the gruesome stories spinning across our desks every day, snide barbs about our regular cast of bureau journalists, or sarcastic levity about the general hopeless circus it sometimes feels like we’re in the middle of. But about my own actions, everything is nearly too momentous for these young shoulders. In short, I’ve been a soft touch lately.
So it was with complete earnestness and thanks that I stood among a gathered crowd of 150 assorted US Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines this morning. Gen. John Allen joined a holiday visitor, Sen. John McCain for an Independence Day ceremony that included speeches from both powerful men. A younger me would have poked fun at the Republican legislator and the stern military commander from the back of the room. But, reader, I wept.
McCain has spent 3 of the last 4 Independence Days in Afghanistan. He was funny (“Don’t thank me for my service, it didn’t take any talent or bravery to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane”). He cited the rare bravery and sacrifice of the uniformed folks standing before him. He laid out the grisly, decisive conflicts in our history, and deemed himself lucky to be able to spend his 4th of July in the company of servicemembers. I’m with you, old man.
Gen. Allen holds a special place in my heart, if for no other reason than I work in his imposing shadow every day. Sidebar—last week, on Sunday morning, I was enjoying a quiet, hard work out while everyone else slept late. Maybe 5 other souls were in the upstairs weight room at the gym. I had my headphones on, jamming. While picking up a dumbbell, I felt a welcoming clap on my back. I looked over my shoulder and saw the boss himself, sweating and smiling in US Marine Corps green PT kit. “Good morning,” he said with a smile. I mouthed hello, dumbfounded. He’s compassionate, decisive, calculating, personable, experienced, fearless and sorrowful, all wrapped into one. A man that powerful (commanding 130,000 troops in theater) cuts a wide swath.
So after I got over the starstruck feeling of watching McCain from 15 feet away, I settled into the familiar voice I hear every week, the face I see every few days walking around camp. Allen drew a tenuous, poignant metaphor between the American Revolution (aided by myriad Britain-hating countries) and the current coalition of nations here at ISAF. He quoted Eisenhower, he mourned the civil war, he noted the foreign contributions of Kosciuszko, von Steuben and Lafayette during the Revolution.
Oh, Lafayette. The French nobleman that renounced his title and fortune in the name of aiding the cause of Liberty in America. Leading troops into fiery battle. A genius, youthful commander fearlessly charging in service of a country that wasn’t his own. I’ve always shed tears amidst talk of Lafayette, and this morning was no exception. At this point in the speech, I didn’t even bother to wipe my cheeks.
But despite my raw emotion, the boss was missing a point. If I was his speechwriter, I’d try this:
“Today we celebrate not the official founding of a nation, not the naming of our first president, not the signing of our constitution, not the decisive battle of our war for independence or the signing of the surrender treaty that untethered us from the Crown. The only thing we commemorate on the 4th of July is a declaration. A common agreement among forward-thinkers that was committed to paper, etched in history.
The only act the signers of that declaration accomplished was a mutual promise between themselves and the people they represented that something, somehow, some way would have to change. They’d figure out the means later. They were years away from facing the most difficult struggles of the fight for independence or the most soul-plumbing acts of courage necessary to win their freedom. When they signed the declaration, nobody knew if that promise would ever be fulfilled, if that pledge for freedom would ever come true.
But then, as now, we were a determinist band of citizens. Succeed or fail, we’ve never been deterred by a seemingly insurmountable struggle. We’ve never been stood down by the looming uncertainty of a doomed future. We’re a nation of believers, settled by dreamers, expanded by malcontents. And this sheer will to achieve, to accomplish, to change; this is what’s impelled us through over two centuries. No matter how daunted, we’ve insisted things will get better.”
And that’s all I feel today. I’ve never been more juxtaposed: the day commemorating independence is spent in a confining pen, in a foreign country that I’m restricted from moving around. But my goofy, misguided, naïve American insistence that life is better than it seems tells me I’ll see sunnier days, and so will the Afghans I’m working on behalf of.
Or maybe I’m just a wrong-headed amnesiac, weeping at the 1st Infantry Division Brass Band belting out patriotic songs in the style of J.P. Sousa, silently composing even sappier lines than the maudlin politician is saying himself, queuing in line to have a photo snapped of me shaking the war veteran’s hand in front of a flag, saying I’m thankful for the bravery and service of Soldiers who are fighting in a war I protested in the first place and cowered in fear from for a decade. Or maybe I mean everything I say nowadays.
Like I said, I’m not cynical anymore.
Afghan Army recruits, hand in hand. Kabul, June 2012.
Soldier praying in the Afghan artillery school. Kabul, June 2012.