Target Practice


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

Photo by Todd Huffman

By Neil Shea

January 21, 2013



KUNAR PROVINCE—“Oh, hey look. Goats.”

The lieutenant looks up at the rocks looming above the base. The sergeant follows his gaze. Shaggy forms step along the faces.

“Bet I could hit one with my 9 mil,” the sergeant says.

“No you couldn’t.”

“Yes I could, sir. Not on the first shot maybe, but I could definitely.”

He raises his pistol.

A door slams. The captain walks out of headquarters and sees the sergeant with his weapon drawn.

“What are you guys doing?” he says.

A short time before someone had launched grenades at this base from the steep slopes that surround and smother it, the base like a knot sinking into whorls of earth. One grenade hit the roof of a barracks, blowing down tin and wood. But everything is back to normal now.

The captain looks up. “Oh. Goats.”

“He thinks I can’t hit one, sir,” the sergeant says.

“I wonder if I could,” says the captain.

“We should do it.”

“Hah!” the captain laughs. “The village elders’ll be down here in like five minutes saying ‘Sir! You killed 10 children! You must pay us!’”

But still. The captain slips out his pistol, sights a large, dreadlocked billy chewing through the dust. The goat has been dashed with red paint, a brand or decoration, and it seeps like blood through his white coat.

“Be pretty fun,” he says.

“I’m gonna go tell HQ not to worry about the shots,” the sergeant says. He walks off grinning, looking over his shoulder, waiting for the captain to call it off. The captain says nothing and looks down his barrel.

The sergeant returns. “You should probably shoot first, sir. Or, actually, we should both shoot at the same time. They’ll run off.”

Metallic clicks as rounds spring into the chambers. The goats, oblivious on the ancient stones, gnaw near a crater made the other day during a Taliban rocket attack in which two Afghan laborers were killed. It is not yet 3 p.m., but the sun has already sunk below the ridges.

“On three, sir?” the sergeant says. “One, two … three.”

A pause, as if they are waiting to see who will shoot first.

The sergeant fires, the bullet thuds into the dirt. The goats lift their heads. The captain fires, and the goats grow suspicious. The sergeant fires again and again and now the goats are running and shitting, scrambling for the shelter of a stone house a couple dozen yards away. There is the odor of gunpowder and the echoing laughter of the soldiers who point to me and say Do not write this!

“No wonder they hate us,” someone says.

“Who, the goats?”

“Fuck it. They shoot at us everyday. We’re just returning fire.”

After a few minutes, the goats return to grazing and the soldiers return to working and life eases back to normal, back into its contours, like liquid.


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.

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