Dispatches

Christmas Day

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From our continuing Afghanistan series, “Snapshots of a Fading War”

By Neil Shea


 

KUNAR PROVINCE—It’s Christmas morning, and I stumble out of the plywood cave I share with a half-dozen soldiers and contractors and a thousand brown crickets—and into a warm, blinding light. My first conversation comes in the tiny chow hall with soldier who in his life back home is a rodeo clown. He is enormous, nearly bald, enormous, and speaks with a Midwestern drawl. He sits eating Cocoa Puffs and does not mention Christmas.

“Bein’ a clown is all about controlling the bull, sir,” he says. “They can’t turn good. They can charge straight, sure, but turn? Naw.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?” I ask.

He looks around. Beside him on the floor is a large machine gun.

“Yeah. But so’s this place.”


 

I take my coffee cup and walk toward the plywood shack that is this small outpost’s headquarters. A skinny sergeant runs out of the barracks beside the HQ wearing a Santa hat, shorts, and gray socks pulled up to his knees.

“It’s Christmas!” he shouts.

He turns and looks east toward the mountains, and says, “Fuck! I’m still in Afghanistan.”


 

Christmas falls on a Friday this year, a Muslim prayer day, so the little town near the outpost is quiet. No missions are planned, no soldiers will hike into the mountains delivering the latest message from America to Afghanistan: It’s time you stood up for yourselves. Instead, softball.

From a large open space at the center of the outpost comes the aluminum clink of bats as 3rd Platoon warms up for the tournament. Soon the game begins. Batters wearing fatigues and combat boots swing for the razor-wire fences. There is the soft thud-slap of the ball and the rasp of it racing through the dirt, throwing up dust like a tiny white comet. The first baseman smokes a cigar. The umpire wears a pistol, as though to settle disputes. A fly ball soars to the helicopter pad in right field, a line drive blazes left to the machine gun nest. At the far back of the outfield rises a Gray Monster of blast barriers, but no Babe Ruth emerges to clear it. After several innings, Dagger Company wins the game, though when I ask no one really knows the score.


 

In the afternoon, I sit on a pile of sandbags, reading.  Suddenly I hear rifle shots near the chow hall. A soldier beside me swings his rifle off his shoulder and runs toward the noise, me following. We find a lieutenant and a corporal hunting along the western wall, shooting at the stray dogs that haunt the base. They’re grinning and laughing as they stalk through the tall, dry grass inspecting their kills. A Christmas combat safari, three dogs down. One of the animals kicks a little and the corporal dispatches it like a gangland executioner. Brains splatter the earth.

The men pause for photos with their kills, young Hemingways, before dragging the bodies over to the burn pit, a gash in the earth that glows all day and night with the outpost’s smoldering trash. It’s right beside the plywood cave where I live, and I’ve learned to mostly ignore its scent—burning batteries, plastic, toilet paper, chemicals—and mostly deny its airborne danger.

“You have to do it,” the lieutenant says, meaning the dog hunt. “These things get on base and they start breeding, and they carry diseases. Sometimes they attack people.”

A few days earlier I might have called bullshit and sympathized with the dogs. But several times already, when I’ve stumbled out of my barracks to relieve myself in the oil-dark night, I’ve heard the dogs growling at me, heard them chasing and nipping, invisible, coming closer. I’ve wondered—can you run from dogs and piss at the same time?

I look over the bodies. They are enormous. Thick, dirty coats, tongues like wet ribbons. Heads covered in scars. Ears chewed into leather flaps. Life is brutal here for all creatures. The men heave them onto the fire and I realize as the breeze catches what I’ll be smelling in my bunk all night.

“That was fun, sir,” the corporal says.

“Yeah,” the lieutenant replies, smiling. “It was.”


 

That evening, tables in the chow hall are lined with men. There is the click of poker chips, the bang of dominoes slammed down. Other men play the video game Call of Duty 2, otherwise known as the Combat Simulator, on a flat-screen TV, killing each other with their thumbs. Along the wall, the dessert table is heavy with pies, cakes, cookies, and an ice sculpture of a militant eagle. The tablecloths are decorated with holly prints and lined with empty bottles of Welch’s sparkling grape juice. A string of cardboard snowflakes runs the rafters.

Just before turning in, I stop by headquarters. The young platoon leaders are telling stories of weird things they have seen. Many involve local characters who have earned special nicknames from the Americans, men like the Douchebag of the Watapoor Valley, a village elder who treats the soldiers “like they’re a Walmart.” Then there are criminals, like a mysterious man named Aziz the Rapist, who perturbs locals by lurking at the roadside and stopping cars. He then steals cell phones at knifepoint, and occasionally, it is said, he rapes men.

But my favorite tale begins with an odd-looking Afghan man that one of the lieutenants noticed while patrolling through a bazaar.

“He just looked really fucked up,” the lieutenant said. “More fucked up than usual.”

The lieutenant passed the man without speaking, and his platoon crossed the only bridge spanning a local river. Looking ahead, the lieutenant saw the old man watching them from the other bank. Puzzled, the lieutenant stared at the man but said nothing and walked on. A short while later, the platoon arrived at one of the countless graveyards scattered through the valley, where blank headstones jut from the earth like broken teeth. The man stood beside the graves, waiting for the soldiers. How the fuck did he get in front of us again? the lieutenant thought.

The man approached the soldiers. “We need a retaining wall here,” he said.

The lieutenant looked around. It was a common request. But there was no field, no irrigation channel, no slope of earth. No need for a wall.

“Why do you need a wall?” the lieutenant asked.

The old man waved a hand at the graveyard.

“Well, because the ghosts are getting out and bothering the villagers.”


 

Christmas Day is done. The valley grows cold and dark. Featureless mountains loom above the outpost, pyramids cut from black cloth. Some soldiers stumble over to the recreation room and try calling home, or checking email. They wander past a holiday wreath made by a Navajo soldier from barbed wire, candy canes, and bullets. In the burn pit, the dogs slowly roast, and by the barracks door, a small, plastic Christmas tree blinks red, green, and blue.

 

Neil Shea is a former Afghanistan correspondent for Stars and Stripes. Since 2006, he has covered the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for National Geographic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. His Afghanistan reports for the Scholar include "So This Is Paktya" (Summer 2010) and "A Gathering Menace" (Spring 2012).


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