“No one can win here,” I found myself whispering as I looked at the distant mountain peaks surrounding Bagram Airfield. Single file out of the C-130 we came. It was 2013, a point at which we were told the war was all but over. We were not here to fight; we artillerymen were here to train the Afghans to shoot their Soviet-era howitzers and supervise. Most of the younger soldiers were disappointed, feeling as though they’d missed the war and were relegated to cleanup crew. I was one of them, itching to be a part of history, active history. At the back of my mind were the memories of watching the towers fall, watching the news coverage as soldiers entered Afghanistan. The silence surrounding my father’s Vietnam Era service. I hadn’t joined right out of high school, but the urge to be a part of history never went away. The urge to do rather than to speak. I found myself in my mid-20s, with a wife and children back home, surrounded by mountains larger than I’d ever seen, with a duffel bag on my back and an ill-fitting boonie cap on my head half a world away just so I could feel like I did something. I believed in America. I believed in democracy. And a healthy democracy demands participation. This was my service to the country. My civic duty. My moral duty.
“Looks exactly like Arizona!” echoed back and forth between the Arizonians in our platoon. They felt oddly at home. I felt foreign. The terrain very unlike my native New England. Speaking a non-native language. Carrying a gun. I felt a defiance in the mountains. You do not belong here, they were saying in chorus. Nowhere else have I felt a terrain more alive than Afghanistan. The glowing purple mountains, the stark lines in the rocks, the snow that fell so unnaturally slow. Every rock pulsed with a soul. I fell in love with it instantly. I fell in love with the sunsets, the snow, and the defiant mountains. A bittersweet romance from the moment boot touched tarmac.
Equally alive are the people whom the mountains have chosen. A selection of tribes who mirror the mountains in beauty and complexity. Prior to deployment, I had immersed myself in Afghan history and politics. I’d read every book I could. I also received an abbreviated training in Dari, which alongside Pashto are the two official languages of Afghanistan. The idea was that every platoon, regardless of job, would have one Dari and one Pashto speaker. With only so many interpreters and since we were no longer technically fighting, but training, having someone around at all times with a passing knowledge of terms was thought to be helpful. My elementary level Dari proved to be an open door to the Afghans I met. My faulting attempts at speaking with them was always met with surprise and enthusiasm.
I found myself torn between so many differing sides of reality. I was madly in love with Afghanistan – its people, its land, its soul – All of which both embraced me and held me at arm’s length. You do not belong here, said the mountain chorus. Most of my fellow Americans did not share my love. Uninterested in the humanity of the land, they were content to stay to themselves, get the job done, hopefully kill someone, and then get the fuck back to ice cold beer and football on tv. I don’t blame them. My love affair with Afghanistan has given me nothing but heart break. Many nights I would find myself sitting cross-legged in front of a tv watching an Iranian soap opera, drinking chai and chewing sugar candies with the Afghan interpreters. The shows improved my conversation skills and the interpreters were always willing to point things out for me to pick up. These nights like any other night of friends sitting around watching tv. Except the moments they would speak Pashto between themselves, and the M4 carbine of mine I left resting on the door frame, that reminded us of our differences. Of a gap between what could be and what was. I would return to the American side those nights to snide remarks and questions regarding my feelings toward the Afghans. Many of the Afghans I worked with would say of me, “You are not American! You are Afghan!” They said this as a compliment. The truth was, I was neither Afghan, nor American. I was foreign. On all fronts.
I was, and am, a lover. I love people. I love the land. I found myself, much like all of us, trying to grapple with what it was to be a citizen of your country. What it was to be a part of a piece of the Earth. So much gray area. All one human race? One nation helping to build another? Most Afghans aligned more with their tribe than the made up “Afghan” national idea. Were we truly helping these people? Were we avenging 9/11? There were, and still are, no clear answers. An existential crisis distilled in the air of that region.
Our job, as well, was one of contradiction. We were not, as stated, training the Afghans to shoot artillery. There was a team who oversaw the Afghan battery of old Russian D 30 howitzers. On the other side of the base was our guns. When we were fired upon or needed to assist an Afghan platoon out on patrol, both Afghans and Americans would be called up. But only one fired at the enemy. The Afghans would be allowed to shoot, always before us, and never at the target. They were not trusted yet and the consensus from the team overseeing them was that they were a long way off from being ready. Our platoon was left feeling as though we were doing something, while being told we were not to be open about the something we were doing. The Combat Action Badge, that shiny piece of metal non-infantry combat men covet, was denied on the grounds that the Afghans officially engaged, not us.
No end in sight. No clarity. It felt as though, on all sides, there never had been clear cut objectives. The existential paradox of that region radiating off those mountains confused and obliterated any idea of linear goals. Reflecting those mountains, the Afghans were never clear either. Many Afghans we worked with would hoot and holler when our guns went off. They’d cheer and yell “Yes! America!” But, in the quiet of the night, in the glow of an Iranian soap opera, I would hear brief wistful talk over the chai, “Sometimes I do miss the Taliban. At least with them you knew things. No smut around. People did right.” The divide between a religious state and a liberal nation were on display. Even the Afghans were unsure of our intentions, unsure of their own leadership, and unsure of what path would give them what they truly wanted.
I’m sitting on a granite boulder on the edge of a pine forest. Woods and mountains. The only places I feel at home anymore. Only wild areas show any clarity. I’m on my phone, talking with a battle buddy from deployment. He too moved to the woods for clarity. We’ve been watching the American troop withdrawal. Seeing the bodies cling to the same C 130s that brought us there. Receiving the million and one emails from every veteran organization under the sun with links to crisis lines and resources to talk. I think about the Vietnam vets. The support they lacked. How truly on their own they were when Saigon fell. I owe them a lot. Many crying alone. Many sitting at wood’s edge alone. They found each other. They built vet centers. They advocated and lobbied so that soldiers like me would not be alone like them. I sit alone in the woods, a place I wouldn’t have been able to get to had it not been years of help from all those organizations and crisis lines they built. My friend is nonchalant about the Taliban’s quick retaking of Afghanistan. Numb, I feel. Both of us. Numb to all.
So hard to not be cynical. To shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, so much death and suffering for nothing.” It would be true, of course, to say that. But it feels so inhumane. However, we just experienced twenty years of people not telling the truth. Not being brutally honest and it only brought more suffering. It feels as though we all wanted a linear story. What is our purpose? How do we get to it? Without those questions answered there’s no winning, whatever winning would mean. What was it we wanted to do with Afghanistan? What is it the Afghans want? Again, we are in an existential grey area. To feel nothing. To feel too much. Maybe my friend and I are just overwhelmed and our brains are protecting us from what could happen if we dwell on it. I am, after all, more content to be alone in the woods. “Fuck it, man, I’m just going for a hike,” my friend says before hanging up. “Me too,” I say, slide off the boulder, and walk into the woods. Only two days later we’re on the phone again, “I’m just so torn up,” he says, “I don’t know what to think or feel.” Me too. I think about the news coverage. The phone calls I’m receiving from concerned people, many of whom I haven’t spoken with in years. Why care now? Why the moral outrage now? Afghanistan’s withdrawal is just the newest outrage of the month for people. Last month was the Uighurs (remember that genocide still happening?) and tomorrow will be something else. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to die and the veterans will continue to mourn. I never much respected moral outrage, less so now. The same inclination against it brought me to serve. I needed to do something. Action. I find that many people love to be outraged, but few are willing to follow that up with action. Moral outrage has its place, it can humanize us animals. Provided we do something to help, even something small. But it can also be addicting. Make you feel good. Feel like a good person. Then go back to your beer and tv – no sacrifice required. Sadly, this is the majority position. I don’t blame them, though. Entering into these things, truly entering into them, requires a blood sacrifice. It requires your time and your effort with no hope of reward. It’s not thirty second videos you watch one after the other, it’s a rich story in which you must be a character and hold out until the end.
And me, and all of those decades of veterans. And all those Afghans. Families. Children. We stand before those mountains having offered our blood sacrifices. Years of it. Palms outstretched, waiting for an answer. For connection and honesty. To feel victory. As though we did something and won.