Dispatches

Do Not Kill

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The first report in our new Afghanistan series, “Snapshots of a Fading War”

By Neil Shea


KUNAR PROVINCE—The MPs stand by their armored trucks, waiting for a briefing before they head out on the road. The morning cold wanes as the sun rises, and on the base the day is taking shape. Civilian contractors resume their work, the details of material sustenance—food service, computer service—that keep the military running. Local Afghanis resume their jobs, too, emptying trash barrels, loading the coolers with bottled water, soda, and Gatorade, the official beverage of the war. Beyond the walls and blast barriers, smoke rises above the houses and villagers walk slowly along the solitary road, along the edges of fields, faces wrapped against the fading chill. In the cemetery, dogs bark among the jagged, unmarked headstones.

The soldiers smoke and tease, shift on their feet. Waiting. A pair wrestles until one suddenly seizes up and grabs his back; immediately the others pounce—oh, hurt your back again, pussy? Always the same. From the east a small dog trots into view, her face at ease, her tail held high. She is white with brown patches. The tip of her brushy tail is weirdly green, as though she’d been painting with it.

“Here comes Lucky,” a soldier says. “Means we won’t get shot at today. Yesterday she didn’t show, and we got fucked up.”

Lucky is sweet and hopeful, she curls between the camouflaged legs of the soldiers and they speak to her but are not allowed to touch. Regulations. I’m not bound by them so I kneel and whistle and she bounds over and folds herself softly into me. Someone has fashioned a collar for her. From the collar hangs a single silver dog tag. It reads DO NOT KILL.

“First Sergeant shot the last dog,” someone explains. The army does not allow mascots. The men discuss whether Lucky lives up to her name.

“She is. She is,” says an MP in dark sunglasses.

“Naw, man. The other day she came by and we still got shot at.”

“No, dude. She is—look at her. She don’t even like hajjis.”

By hajjis he means Afghans, and Lucky has just run off after one, his shalwar kameez flapping in the breeze. Lucky nips at the loose cloth while the man, embarrassed, hurries away. Afghans are rarely kind to dogs, and dogs behave accordingly.

“Get ‘im, Lucky! Bite hajji!” someone calls. The running Afghani laughs; probably he does not understand the insult.

Lucky loses interest. She walks a few feet off and settles down in the dust and sunshine, watching, listening. A tall sergeant arrives carrying breakfast in a foam tray. Lucky perks up and walks toward the sergeant, expectant. She rises slightly on her back feet sniffing at the tray, and the sergeant kicks her with all his weight, his boot smashing into her thin ribs. She tumbles and flees, tail folded tightly, howling and running. The sergeant spits.

“Fuckin’ dog don’t get my breakfast, fuck that,” he says.

Other MPs stare after the dog. They shake their heads and toe the dirt, ashamed.

“That was fucked up,” several say, just out of earshot of the big sergeant, who outranks them all. “Back home, someone does that to my dog, I’d fuckin shoot them.”

Finally the soldier in charge arrives and the briefing begins. We must watch out for certain kinds of attacks on our drive through the valley, he says. In case of attack, we will do this; in case of breakdown, we will do that. No civilian casualties, please. Wave children away from your trucks and don’t, I repeat don’t, shoot them.

Lucky reappears in the distance toward the end of the briefing. Possibly she is limping. She does not come near. As we move out through the gate and into the valley, old men stand silent and still on the roadsides. The soldiers in my truck place odds on whether the Taliban will shoot at us. No one is optimistic.

 

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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