A Soldier’s Life
Note: Although we here at SteveDeace.com have a “no anonymous authors” rule when it comes to publishing articles, we will be making a national security exemption exclusively for this series.
Hell is often depicted as the center of the earth. I am just past hell and the last exit on the left—Afghanistan, otherwise known as the other side of the world.
I am in Tower 1 overlooking the west entrance to our Combat Outpost, it is 4 a.m. I am enduring the haunting morning call to prayer from the village mosques that surround our small outpost. They start sporadically like a song sung in round.
Alone in the dark on a night without moon, and nothing to do but think, the realities of this country keep creeping into my mind. I keep seeing his face. I see his fear. Most of the time, the army seems like a game we use to play as kids. A game of make believe like cops and robbers. We are hunting bad guys that are so elusive they seem like ghosts. Even the first time I was shot at, it didn’t completely sink in that someone is trying to kill me.
It was unreal, it seemed like a game. This psychological defense mechanism has its advantages, for if I were to consider the reality it would not help me to survive. Mortar fire, walking in on my position is not something you should ponder the serious implications of. Wondering if you can see the mortar round that kills you like a foul ball headed toward your section, or what the grisly effects will be on your body and the man next to you does not bring clarity. You should react, and the reactions come like instincts like a player on the court or the field. He reacts, it is intense. It is just a game but played by serious men.
A couple weeks ago, the game had me interviewing detainees. It was fun for me to figure out what kinds of questions I would ask, and how I would try to work past their defenses. The first was the owner of the home that had the explosives buried in his yard. He was your typical old Afghan guy. This is the second time I have been to Afghanistan and I have seen this character a hundred times in this storyline of the game. Like in a computer game where there are only four kinds of people in the village, he is the old guy and his script was just as mundane.
He denied knowing anything. I told him that we would find prints and that I didn’t want his sons to be put on lists that could get them killed. He acts outraged and denies that his sons would do that kind of thing. It goes round and round. I play my part, he plays his. It’s a game. Like the old cartoon with the wolf and the sheep dog we both clock in and spend the day locked in conflict, then clock out for the night.
The next man I have to interview is brought in. I look at him and he is nervous. It is the same game but the roles have changed. He is shady guy type in the cast list who will be playing the scared villager who knows nothing and just wants to be left alone, and I get to play the U.S. soldier who just wants to find “the bad guys”.
I take a drink and start my questions. I ask about his nephew who I know was involved in an IED attack. Then his line when he tells me that he is not around. He said he was in Pakistan.
Of course he was. They always are. The game continues.
But when I look up I see something that I haven’t before—fear. The reality of it hits like a slap, and the fear on this man actually radiates off of him. It is physically repulsive. I fight the urge to get up from the table and move away like I would from a revolting smell. He is not afraid of me. He is afraid of the ‘bad guys’. He doesn’t have the luxury of my delusions of a game. This is his reality. This is his home.
In the next few days, someone will come to his house and ask him what was talked about when he was detained. They will beat him and threaten his children. If they don’t like what they hear they could kill him. The preferred method is decapitation with a knife. I have seen videos of it done. It takes longer to die from then expected. Not recommended for someone looking to go quick and peaceful.
This man can see that knife and I can smell his fear. It crawls on me. I should ask him more questions. That is the part of the game, that is the goal, and it is how I win. If he is that scared it means that he probably knows something about his nephew and he is willing to tell me or has already told the Afghani Officer who was interviewing him before me, but I don’t want to play the game anymore.
There is only one way to fight the pity I feel for this man and that is to hate him. I want to shake this man, slap him, scream at him, and tell him to fight. But he is not that kind. He is a sheep. He would be one of the thousands of Jews in Europe back in the day who scuffled onto a train because one man with a gun told him to do it. He is afraid to die and that is what condemns him to death.
I try to hate him, but in my eyes I see a small boy. This man is in his thirties, same as me, but I still see a small boy. I want to protect him. I tell him so.
Then my anger builds for the ones who scare him. These men would beat this man, just for talking to me. I want to meet these men, these elusive bad guys in my game. Suddenly it is personal. I want to protect this man. Not Afghanistan, just him and his family to end his fear.
I tell him this. He looks sad, and I see the pity now in his eyes, which is pity for my naiveté. He has pity for the soldier boy, who is just playing a game. He is so programmed by his fear that he believes there is no way to win. He has no hope.
I believe he is a good man, but I also believe he will do nothing.
A few weeks later a 13 year-old boy told us about a weapons cache near his home. He takes us to it. I can’t help but wonder if he is brave or naive. This act could be a death sentence for the boy, but he is confident and smiling. He feels proud and I love him for we share the same naïve delusions.
It is just a game. And God help me, I love this game.