From our continuing Afghanistan series, “Snapshots of a Fading War”
By Neil Shea
February 4, 2013
WARDAK TRIPTYCH—The plywood cave I live in is air conditioned so intensely that it forces you to consider global warming. From any perspective you want—good, bad. Perhaps a deal can be struck. For two nights I am cold enough in the AC that I lie in my sleeping bag and shove my hands into my underwear to warm them. The crickets that share the room crawl slowly and do not chirp. To them, every morning must seem like their last, when the snow comes and death, too. This morning I am moving out.
I wake early and pack my bags and drag them down the gravel lanes of the base to the helicopter pad. The sunlight is already warm. It is welcome, and yet I feel it cracking me open; I detect the first breaches, the skin on my knuckles splitting. In the distance lies Maidan Shar, the provincial capital, beautiful in the morning, before the day and the dust. The town is a jumble of mud and light, earthen walls sloping across the foothills, intersecting and plunging, obscured and brightly revealed. Mud houses of incongruous geometry. Dirt waiting to become mud—potential mud. The town is an illustration by Escher.
I watch black goats graze across the fawn foothills of the mountains. They move quickly. I have spent a lot of time watching goats in many countries so I am a good judge of their character. I think they are fast this morning because they are tired of mud and would like some grass. But there is none.
A few other people silently wait at the edge of the landing zone. No one walks upon it, as if it were some Aztec plaza used only in ceremony. In a tiny shack to the left lives the soldier who minds the LZ. He arranges passage, and tracks the incoming flights. He spends his days in a dim room where reflective film covers the windows, waiting for the helicopters to come. There is a low black couch, well worn, and a desk with a large screen TV and a radio and a telephone. Beside the desk a tall bank of cubby boxes is packed with stuff. Smoke grenades, rope, duct tape, old magazines.
In one of the cubbies there are big bottles of Muscle Milk and other body building supplies, which the soldier sells to other soldiers. With money made from this endeavor, he’d just bought some kind of truck-trailer back home. He sleeps in a small room in the rear of the shack. The soldier lives here and never leaves.
“I’m not allowed to,” he says.
“Even when I sleep I have to listen to the radios.”
He is the only one holding this job right now; it is a problem of manpower. The military surge has not provided him with a partner. When someone calls the phone on his desk, the ringtone is a computerized female voice.
“Are you there?” it asks in sultry electronica. “Are you there?” “Are you there?”
It repeats over and over until he picks up. Sometimes he ignores it.
On the big screen the soldier watches the film Risky Business as he waits for the next flight. Tom Cruise is odd as ever but Rebecca de Mornay is stunning, her face is ice and light. Instantly the voice of the telephone becomes hers in my mind.
Occasionally the soldier rises to greet the helicopters. The passengers come and go, the machines circle and land in tornadoes of dust. Green wasps, heavy bodies.
As I wait I find myself imagining what this poor guy’s existence would look like to aliens, or to children. He would seem like some kind of attendant, perhaps a priest. The machines appear in the sky and he emerges from his shack, moving slowly toward them. His body bent against the wind and his hand across his eyes against the dust. It would look like deference, worship, protocol for approaching gods. He greets the machines but they do not really receive him. He never steps aboard, never flies away. There is no epiphany. When they rise and leave he remains, alone, and he returns to his hole. Maybe he is calming the machines and sending them away appeased.
Once, when I visited to his shack to inquire after a flight, he answered the door in his underwear, puffy-faced and blinking, knocked from sleep.
“Come back at 20:00,” he said, and shut the door.
Behind him, in the dim cave, I could hear her voice calling him back.
“Are you there?”
“Are you there?”
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). Follow him on Instagram at @neilshea13.