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The new guidance was: no more air.
No more planes or helos. No more drones. No more Hellfire missiles, Hydra rockets, chain guns. No more evacs. No more rescue.
I was interpreting for Major Karzowsky and Sergeant First Class Boyle, who sat on the barracks floor across from Lieutenant Mustafa. The platters of rice and stewed goat had been cleared away; one of Mustafa’s boys had brought in a plastic tray with a thermos, glasses, individually wrapped caramels, and a box of sugar cubes. The glasses, like everything else in Dahana, were glazed with an opaque film—what the Americans called “moon dust.” Mustafa rinsed them by swishing a finger of hot tea in one, pouring it into the next. Meanwhile, Karzowsky and Boyle admired the artificial-flower arrangement that sat on the metal filing cabinet beside Mustafa’s cot. The filing cabinet was a holdover from when the barracks was not yet a barracks, from when the war had not yet reached Dahana. Mustafa had tipped it onto its side to serve as a kind of low-slung buffet. The flowers he had confiscated on patrol. Every plastic petal was a different color; at the end of each plastic filament an LED pulsed.
“Do they want sugar?” Mustafa asked.
Boyle took a cube and popped it in his mouth. He sipped his tea. That was how the sergeant ate: inserting one item at a time—a bit of mashed potatoes, say, and then, separately, a bit of gravy—rather than mix them on his plate. About this, Boyle was fastidious. The commingling of foods repulsed him.
After a polite attempt to sit cross-legged, Major Karzowsky had reclined on an elbow, feet out. He regarded his stiff, rheumatic legs the same way he regarded all disappointing things: as if they were his problem, not his fault.
“He doesn’t look too concerned,” Karzowsky said. “It were me, I’d be concerned.”
Mustafa had produced a wrinkled pack of cigarettes, removed one, twisted off its filter, and drawn it across his tongue. He held the cigarette vertically, like a rose.
“That’s his way,” Boyle observed.
“What do you want me to tell them?” I asked Mustafa.
The lieutenant unplugged the flowers. Then he extinguished his cigarette, careful to preserve the unsmoked remainder, which he returned to the pack.
“Tell them their tea is getting cold.”
Once, early in the deployment, back when the Americans and Afghans were still conducting joint patrols, we came under attack from a lone compound in a field. The Americans called for air; presently, two Kiowas appeared. The show was brief and loud and bright. Each missile sounded like a jet plane taking off. When we went to view the damage we found that the walls of the compound enclosed a small pomegranate orchard. Several of the trees were on fire. A motorcycle leaned on its kickstand beside a stack of poppy stalks. Chickens ran amok. There were two cows, and the front legs of one were a gruesome combination of mangled and gone; it was lowing insanely, using its hindquarters to push its face across the dirt. The other cow, or calf really, was still tethered by its rear ankle to an iron stake. The calf jerked against that tether with such adrenalized power it looked certain that something—tether, stake, or ankle—would have to break.
I noticed, in the orchard, some of the Americans assembled by a tree. As I approached I heard laughter. The man sat in the leaves, his back against the trunk. A scrap of shrapnel had hit him in the brow. The crown of his skull had been sliced off. A flat surface remained that resembled one of those anatomical models showing a cross section of brain. The reason the soldiers were laughing was that someone had stuck a lit cigarette in his mouth, adding to the impression that, minus his exposed cerebrum, the man was just a man.
It looked funny, and I admit I laughed as well. I was still laughing when I realized that Lieutenant Mustafa had joined us. He stared right at me until I literally hung my head. Then he walked up to the dead farmer or Talib, plucked the cigarette from his lips, and ground it under his boot.
Thereafter, whenever Mustafa smoked in front of me—prolonging the elaborate ceremony: twisting away the filter, drawing the cigarette across his tongue, and holding it between us, vertically, like a rose—I understood that it was meant as a reminder, a rebuke.
Before us, a Polish unit had the district. When we reached the outpost we found them in a state of siege. Karzowsky, Boyle, and I arrived with the advance party, a month ahead of the rest of the company, in the dead of winter. As our helo approached the HLZ, a chaotic gaggle of Poles came scrambling down the hill, slipping and sliding in the snow, inexplicably eager to help us with our gear. Later, we learned that the Wojsko Polskie awarded its soldiers additional hazardous-duty pay each time they ventured beyond the wire, and that the landing zone, though safely ensconced behind double-stacked bastions, technically qualified as such.
The kapitan, unkempt and possibly hungover, assured Karzowsky and Boyle that his men had been conducting presence patrols every day since day one. But when we met with the Afghans, Mustafa told us this was false, no Pole had set foot outside the base in months. Despite his effusion—he’d been stuck on that outpost with the indolent and under-resourced Wojsko for nearly a year, and he spoke now with the fluent urgency of someone who could finally be heard: how many more Americans were coming? what kinds of weapons were they bringing? would Dahana at last get the armored vehicles it needed? bomb technicians? air?—what I remember best about that initial conversation is that for most of it, as he talked and as I translated, Mustafa never looked at me. Not until Karzowsky and Boyle stood to leave did the lieutenant abruptly turn and say, “And you? Where are you from?”
I hesitated. “I was born in Kabul.”
“When did you leave?”
“When I was three.”
Mustafa nodded as if that explained it. “Why did you come back?” he asked.
I was about to say, Because this is my country or Because this is my homeland—something like that. I was trying to decide what phrasing might be most appropriate when a rough voice behind me remarked, “What he means is, how much are they paying you?”
I turned and discovered several Afghan soldiers crowded in the doorway. They were grinning in an amused way; I realized they’d been there the entire time. In the middle of them stood the pock-faced sergeant. “Well?” he said. “How much did they have to give you to get you to come back?”
I muttered something that I regretted.
“Homeland!” the pock-faced sergeant repeated. He addressed his comrades. “Homeland!”
Mustafa rose and offered his hand to Boyle and Karzowsky. “The Americans are here now,” he told the sergeant. “Maybe things will be different.”
We went home. The company returned together to their base, and I returned, alone, to my apartment. All of my aunts and uncles wanted to know about Kabul. Was it true about the traffic? The Western-style restaurants? The compounds and the blast wall? When I told them that I hadn’t been to Kabul, they became confused and asked, “Where were you, then?” When I told them about Dahana, they became more confused and asked, “Why?”
About a month after we got back I received an email from Major Karzowsky—an invitation to an awards ceremony at the company’s home station. I packed a suitcase and booked a few nights in a motel room just outside the base. I was very pleased that the major had thought of me; I’d been growing anxious to spend some time with my old friends.
It was a four-hour drive through fragrant sunshine, wooded hills. The base had the pristine, landscaped feel of a college campus. Following a xeroxed copy of a hand-drawn map, I arrived at a large white tent erected in a blooming flower garden. The unit was already in formation, the soldiers kitted out in creased slacks, gold-buttoned jackets, and black berets. I had difficulty recognizing some of them. Their faces were free of moon dust and fear.
I took a seat among the other civilians, the proud wives and parents, and we watched as the ribbons and the medals were bestowed. When it came time to honor the men who had died in Dahana, the CO gave a speech. He looked so much the hero in that getup, it was like he’d never had a choice. He talked about sacrifice, and soon after that it was over. People were getting up, hugging one another, leaving.
I looked around with a feeling of panic and was relieved to spot Major Karzowsky coming my way. He seemed surprised to see me.
“You actually came,” he said.
“Of course. Where’s Boyle?”
“Boyle?” Karzowsky glanced at a woman standing near us, rooting in her bag for Kleenex. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.
We followed a footpath that paralleled a newly asphalted road through sprawling lawns. Karzowsky explained that Sergeant Boyle had been demoted because of an “altercation” with his wife; the MPs had had to get involved. Then he’d gone and volunteered to fill a slot in a deploying unit—most likely, he was back over there by now.
Karzowsky told me about his new desk job and how much he missed being out with the grunts. I told him about the car I’d bought. Tractor mowers turned slow, broad circles, and the air was heady with cut grass. When, finally, I asked whether he had any news from Dahana, about Mustafa and the platoon, Karzowsky shook his head.
“Mustafa. . .” he said, as if it were all so long ago that only the name survived. “Remember how much he loved that hat I got him?”
“So you haven’t heard anything?” I said.
Karzowsky winced, pained or annoyed, as if his knees were acting up again. I tasted bile in my mouth. I waited for the major to tell me what had happened. I waited and waited and then, as I waited, I realized I didn’t need to be told.
On our way back, a squad of fresh recruits came jogging up the way. Their heads were just shaved, their cheeks flushed, and their sergeant ran alongside them, calling out a cadence that they echoed in unison, with gusto. Before Karzowsky and I reached the tent full of decorated veterans and their loved ones, I had time for one more realization. I realized I’d been a fool to pack that suitcase and book that motel room. There wasn’t going to be any big reunion.
Image: Murals adorn the T-walls of the soccer field at Resolute Support Headquarters, Kabul, June 2015 © Jason Koxvold
What do two men who decide to live together do? Men like you and me? Those who don’t want children? Those who don’t have the old to look after or the young to raise? No one would visit us because we’d be living together as social outcasts.
Such must have been the scenery that greeted writer Winston Churchill when, in 1908, on his first African journey, he finally left the Kenya of cantankerous British colonial settlerdom and crossed into the British-protected African kingdom: “Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where the ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. . . . Does it not sound like a paradise on earth?”