From our continuing Afghanistan series, “Snapshots of a Fading War”
By Neil Shea
January 7, 2013
PARWAN PROVINCE—A planeload of American soldiers shuffles into the waiting room at Bagram airfield, the transport hub of the war. Young faces, the soft scratch of dirty uniforms. They are migrating from one place to another, some heading home, some to other bases. They mill around the ugly concrete room, lying on the steel benches, standing, spitting brown tobacco juice into Gatorade bottles and slipping the bottles into their pockets.
A young man—22, 23, possibly younger—slumps into the seat beside mine and begins talking to another soldier he recognizes from somewhere. His story begins with a loose-drawled Fuck.
“Fucking ANP,” he says, referring to the Afghan National Police. “I got into a 15-minute firefight with them, man. Fuckers nearly killed my gunner.”
The soldier beside him nods. “I don’t trust a single one of them motherfuckers,” he says.
“Yeah,” the first soldier says. “And they’re ours. We were out on patrol, passing near one of their checkpoints, and they just open up on us with like everything they have. I mean, I had tracers bouncing off the hood and shit. Who the fuck did they think we were?”
More nodding. The man telling the story is on his way to the military dentist, to have a root canal. In an aside he worries that the dentist will not give him enough anesthetic. Then he continues telling how his allies shot at him.
“So, when it was over, I said to them, Why’d you shoot at us?
“And they said, That’s normal. That’s what we do with the Poles.
“I said, You shoot at the Polish?
“Yes, one warning shot.
“That wasn’t one fucking shot, I said. And then the ANP guy says to me, Why did you shoot back?
The soldier telling the story makes a face of disgust and shows it to the room. His friend shakes his head and emits a laugh and that says I know what you mean. They are young but talk old. Already they have adopted the gestures and sounds of dried out men.
The storyteller continues. “So I tell him, That’s what I do when I get shot at, dumbass. I shoot back.
There is a silence now between them through which meaninglessness and irony move like weak shadows. They talk root canals again, and then it is the other man’s turn to tell a story. It concerns an ingrown toenail. Army doctors failed to fix the toenail, but succeeded in causing him severe pain.
“Man, never let the military do anything to you,” he says. The stripes on his uniform suggest he has not been a soldier for long.
In the waiting room someone begins calling names. The soldiers around us stir, heaving their bags and their armor onto their shoulders. Instinctively they form a line and stand heavily, waiting. Soon they’re slumping out of the room. In relation to all that is larger, they suddenly seem soft and small. They depart like slaves, dragging inert objects across the face of the earth in obedience to masters they will never see, laws they will never understand.
I get up and walk around and find a candy bar in a box on a table. It’s a caramel bar, square pockets of chocolate filled with syrupy brown stuff, the kind I used to sell door-to-door to pay for Little League baseball uniforms. The room is empty now, silent, there is nothing here but chocolate and this strange memory from childhood.
Neil Shea is a Scholar contributing editor. He is also a regular contributor to National Geographic, where he has written about conflict and cultural change in East Africa. His Afghanistan reports for the Scholar include “So This Is Paktya” (Summer 2010) and “A Gathering Menace” (Spring 2012).