“War is hell.” How often have you heard that phrase? It’s been repeated by celebrities, politicians, characters in books, all more than can be counted. This saturation has denuded it of its weight.
Hell is everything that Christian mythology paints it as. Hell is pain, death, suffering, bleakness, and fire. But it isn’t some mystical dimension where rapists and Hitler are suffering for eternity. Hell is right here on earth, war is hell; it’s not made to punish evil people, it’s made by evil people and it’s the innocent who suffer. It’s children, parents, brothers, sisters, people just trying to live their lives, all being tortured and killed, brutalized and raped. The innocent are the ones left weeping while the evil ones reap rewards. War is indeed hell in ways that no one can understand unless they’ve seen it. I have not been to hell, but I could see it from where I stood.
Welcome to Kandahar
I joined the National Guard to pay for college. I didn’t really think of the consequences at the time. After all: I’m an American, I was raised to worship my country and adore the military, and I did. Receiving a college education seemed like fair payment for “service to my country.” But that whole illusion of patriotism and “American exceptionalism” began to break down the moment I found myself stepping off an AC-17 into the blinding sun of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2012.
It was surreal, like living inside the beginning of a war movie. But unlike all those movies where the grizzled veterans jeered at the new arrivals, everyone just ignored us as we walked down the tarmac to the building where we would receive our briefing. It was also loud, beyond what I had expected. There was an absolutely constant roar of aircraft taking off, landing, being run-up for maintenance. Aircraft of every size, purpose, and origin, were there. They told us later that Kandahar Airfield, or KAF as it is “affectionately” called, is the busiest airport in the world. I can certainly believe it. The roar was so deafening, so constant, that there was no escaping it. Not during the day, not when you tried to sleep at night. It was the first constant companion I was introduced to, and it started to wear me down in just the first few days.
Once inside a small domed building, the civilian contractor gave his “welcome to Kandahar” brief, of which I paid zero attention. I was too busy looking at the building I was sitting in. It was ancient, and apparently it was a madrasa (Muslim school) before the U.S. occupation of the airfield. It was also the last-stand of the Taliban in Kandahar, and was riddled with bullet-holes. After the briefing, we all shuffled out into the street and waited for the busses that would take us to our RLB’s (Ready to Live Barracks.) It was at this moment I was introduced to the second constant companion that everyone is stuck with in Afghanistan: dust. And I mean DUST. There is no dirt. It’s talcum powder. It just hangs in the air, sticks to your everything, and forces you to breath it all the time. I also realized as I stood next to the dust bowl they called a street, that KAF is a city, not a base. Most of the buildings are simple plywood, and there really isn’t any order to most of them. The streets are mostly unpaved dusty roads, but it is still a city nonetheless.
The runway is almost 2 miles long, and the area from one row of hangers on the north side of the runway to the row on the south side is almost half a mile wide. All that was just the operations area of the base. The south side of the base was all housing and the DEFAC’s (dining facility). It had an area they call the boardwalk, which had shops and restaurants run by both locals and contractors alike. The base even had its own water purification and bottling plant, also operated by contractors working for the company KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. I would see a lot of this company during the next year.
On our way to our RLB’s we passed the “poo-pond.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a huge pond of human waste, sitting out in the heat right in the middle of the base. Despite its scale and its age, KAF still didn’t have a more sanitary way to dispose of sewage. KAF still hadn’t caught up with the l9th century in this regard. It smells as nice as it sounds.
After rolling around in the busses (crappy ten passenger vans with 20 people shoved in them) for a half hour, we finally arrived at the RLB’s. These “Ready to Live Barracks” would be our “homes” for the next year. They are shipping containers that have been cut in half and stacked like an apartment building. On the open end they put a door and a window. They were designed to house two people, and we would be living in them 3 per unit. We unloaded our bags and moved into our units. The rest of the day was spent aimlessly walking around the base. It was strange, like standing in the eye of a hurricane. But it was the last calm day we would experience.
Blood on the Rocks
About a month in we had our first rocket attack. A sudden boom and then a mushroom cloud in the south part of the base. Frankly I had expected more. Looking back on it now, I should have been terrified. Normally you don’t have fiery death-tubes lobbed at you. But the locals had no way to aim them, and I never heard of anyone being killed by one on KAF. The sirens would go off and we were supposed to run to the bunker to hide until the all-clear was sounded, but we never did. Instead we usually ignored it if we could, and stayed where we were to “watch the show” if we couldn’t ignore it. One morning we were attacked pretty badly just as I was getting up, but I wasn’t having any of it. I had a routine, and this routine was everything to me, it kept me sane. I was going to have my shower and coffee made with my french press, even if it killed me. While I was in the shower I felt the whole stack of RLB’s shake. I didn’t hear the rocket roar overhead above the sound of my shower, but a couple of the other guys did, and it shook them up pretty badly. A rocket had managed to strike just a few yards from where I was standing in the shower. It struck a metal container and sent shrapnel flying all over the place. Apparently it shook the DEFAC pretty good, ruining everyone’s breakfast. When I felt it explode, I chuckled a little bit at the thought of it killing me in the shower: “He made the ultimate sacrifice, naked and wet.” I’m not trying to paint myself as brave, I’m not brave. I was fearless. Fearlessness isn’t a virtue, bravery is. Bravery is doing what you know needs done, despite your fears. Fearlessness is just a lack of fear. Fearless people are those who just don’t care anymore. Fearlessness is a kind of depression, a mental illness.
The American response to these attacks always seemed a bit ridiculous. The Apache attack helicopters, that circled KAF at all times, would descend and kill everything in the vicinity of where the rocket was launched. It was like watching someone kill mosquitoes with a shotgun. They often did this before the rocket even struck. They had some kind of tracking system that could tell where the rocket came from before it hit. And they could respond faster than the rocket traveled. Of course, usually the rockets were on some kind of timer, and the people who set them up were long gone by the time they actually launched. But they didn’t always set them up in an empty field. Often they launched them near houses, in a place where they knew people would be. All to ensure that innocent people died.
Noises like this were constant, you could always hear gunfire in the distance, it was like thunder that never stopped. Like natural thunder, the thunder of man heralded a storm. But that storm was one of fire, metal, and death. That storm never stopped. Not for the time of day, nor the change of season. It was constant. And it swirled all around me. I couldn’t escape it.
My job on KAF was to supervise a squad of CH-47D mechanics during daytime operation hours. It was a fast, chaotic and sometimes painfully boring job. During the first few months in the summer though, it was nonstop chaos. It was the height of the fighting season, and we were running a lot of missions in extreme weather and dust. This caused all kinds of problems with the aircraft, especially the engines. I lost count of how many we changed, but I know that we were up to doing two a day. All the other units that worked around us were just as busy. The air force parajumpers (PJ’s for short) were flying non-stop to rescue downed pilots and other people injured in battle. The regular medevacs were doing the same. They both would land on the rocks next to the tarmac to wash the blood out of their aircraft with fire-hoses. I watched them with a morbid fascination, and I could see the red waterful wash out of the opposite side of the aircraft. This would happen every day, all day, for months. The rocks were permanently stained a dark red in that spot.
The summer was a blur, I honestly do not remember much beyond the fact that I was tired and stressed the whole time. However, in the fall it got boring. As the weather got colder, the fighting died down. It was most boring while the aircraft were out on missions. We had 13 aircraft, but only 3 or 4 would be used for missions in a day. This was necessary during the summer because they were being pushed so hard that if they weren’t on a mission they needed maintenance. But now everything was slower, the missions were shorter, so there was much less to do. We had almost nothing to do for the several hours the aircraft were out on missions. This was the most difficult time. During the summer I could just focus on my work, there wasn’t time for anything else. But in the fall I had hours each day where I had nothing to focus on but my own thoughts, and those were not pleasant thoughts.
Our pace may have been slower in the fall, but the war still raged all around us. The heat was still there, the noise of war still thundered, the dust was still choking. It all slowly ate my mind. But the worst part was what I was slowly being forced to accept: everything I had believed in my whole life was a lie. I had always been a patriotic American. I believed we weren’t perfect but that we were “the good guys.” I truly believed that the Afghans wanted us there, that we were protecting and helping them. But now, as I saw the war around me, and why it was being fought, as well as the inhuman attitude towards even the Afghan civilians that my fellow soldiers had, I couldn’t keep believing this lie.
There was no greater example of the lie than the contractors who were there. It was these contractors that first started to hammar cracks in the walls of my mind built by this system. I came to find out that they outnumbered military personnel ten to one. And all of them were doing jobs that they still train and deploy the military to do. But our system doesn’t allow direct investiment in the military, they have to invest in companies. So the government gives multi-million dollar, even billion-dollar contracts to these companies which perform tasks that the military is still capable of doing, but for quadruple the cost. The politicians who awarded the contract now have a safe investment, because they know exactly how much the contractor is going to make since those same politicians are the ones who gave them that money in the first place, straight out of government funds. The roads: built by KBR contractors. The food: cooked and distributed by KBR contractors. Our laundry: washed by KBR contractors. All despite the fact that the military still trains and deploys construction engineers, cooks, and even laundry personnel (or they could have just given us a washing machine and let us do it ourselves). But none of those military personnel doing these jobs can be used to make money for a capitalist. I wrote a Facebook post at that time that explained how I now believed capitalism was heartless. I hadn’t read a single word from any socialist literature at that point, I had come to that conclusion purely based on what I had seen.
Every time a gunfight broke out in the distance, every time an Apache descended to kill “mosquitoes,” every time the base security apathetically fired their weapons beyond the fence, and every time I saw contractors doing the job that there were already military personnel there to perform, another crack formed in the wall that shielded my comfortable false narrative from the reality of the world.
I took pictures of everything because I wanted to find some kind of beauty in that place. And it was there if you looked hard enough. More often than not though it was a sort of dark beauty, like the art that was painted on all of the bunkers around the base. Some of it was just pretty pictures, but most of it was anti-authority stencils or graffiti. The sunsets were also amazing, but always marred by helicopters. I really enjoyed watching the farmers outside the fence, who grew watermelons – of all things. I took pictures of all that, and it gave me some relief. It reminded me that there was still a world out there where people were just living their lives, where people weren’t using death to make themselves rich, a world where blood wasn’t being washed out of helicopters with fire hoses.
One time, as we were riding back to the RLB’s in those crappy little vans, we were passing a point along the fence where we always did. Outside this section there was an old Soviet minefield. The U.S. could have removed it, but that cost too much money. What they did instead was to offer a reward to any locals who brought them mines from that field. This was cheaper, and didn’t risk American lives, but it was far more dangerous for the locals than it would have ever been for Americans. The locals had no equipment to detect or remove landmines. Sometimes we would see them working out there at the end of the day as we passed by. But this day there was only one figure out there: a little girl. She couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6, her clothes were rags, and she was covered from head to toe in mud and gore. She raised an arm above her head and stared at us as we drove by. I learned there that the undead are real, but they aren’t walking corpses, just the opposite. Their bodies are very much alive, it’s their souls that have died. Her eyes were hollow and haunting, they were a knife to my heart, and it was the final hammer that brought that wall in my mind down. There in the abyss of her eyes died the last excuse I had to defend what I used to believe. They begged one question at me: “why?” And I had no answer that could defend this system. Capitalism hurt that girl, and the culture that supports it. Greed and the need to increase profits kept that minefield there. I learned in that moment what we all are to Capitalists: a source of wealth, nothing more. And when we cannot give anything more to them, then we are worthless to them. I never took a picture of that girl.
Casualties, Apathy, and The End
A few weeks after that, as we were all smoking inside of a bunker, listened to an old sergeant brag about the moped he had bought from one of the spec-ops guys. He gleefully told the story of how the operator (military slang for special-operations soldier) killed a kid (yes, he said kid) who tried to run away from the operator on that moped. The operator left his body there for his parents to find, and kept the moped as a trophy. Who knows if the kid actually was a terrorist, his only crime was running away. But to them only guilty people run away. The story still makes me want to throw up.
On November 9th, 2012, Spc. Daniel Carlson, a blond haired 2l year old kid who worked in the parts room, put his rifle in his mouth and blew his brains out in his RLB. I had spoken to him no more than a few hours before. He wasn’t someone I knew very well, an acquaintance really, but I did talk to him every day. I had made my job the “parts and tools fetcher” so that my guys could focus on maintenance and didn’t have to run all over the place. SPC Carlson was the only person in that tool room who did their job. Everyone else all but refused to do anything. I don’t know exactly what made him take his own life, but I do know that he had requested emergency leave from his superiors 3 times, and 3 times he was refused because his work ethic “made him too valuable.”
Thanksgiving came, and we were all required to attend dinner at the DFAC for a photo-op, and pretend to be happy patriotic Americans. No one wanted to attend. It really reminded us all of what big tools we were; we were just pawns to make politicians and citizens feel patriotic and supportive of this charade. I hated it most of all, and I scowled right into the camera. All the officers and higher enlisted were smiles from ear to ear. That’s when I learned what a bootlicker really looks like.
By winter the heat suddenly went away. It was replaced by cold and rain showers. The rain pretty much ended most flight missions; there were actually snowstorms in the mountains around us. We kind of coasted our way to January and the end of our deployment. Before I knew it, we flew our last mission, us maintainers posed on the ground as the aircraft took off in the background of the picture. After that, we broke down our aircraft for transport back to the U.S. Then we climbed aboard a C-17 headed for Kyrgyzstan, and eventually the U.S.
I sat on that plane in the dark morning and did what I had fantasized about for a year: I took off my helmet, took out my beat up clunky ipod, closed my eyes and listened to “violence and variations” by Bear McCreary as the plane lifted off and took me away from that place. I had imagined that music as the end of my story, the part of the movie where the credits roll and the audience stretches their legs. But as those promising notes lifted tattered remains of my soul, I knew this wasn’t the end of my story. With all the things I had seen, and all the ways they had changed me, I knew this was just the prologue.
In the morning we landed in Kyrgyzstan. We had been in Afghanistan for only 9 months, not even a year, but no one called it less than a year, it sure felt like even longer. Time is different there, surrounded by all that. It was an Afghan year, and what a year it had been. But all of it was over now, all the things I had taken for granted back home now seemed so alien, and wonderful. There was snow, mountains, and trees: My god, there were TREES. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I found a secluded grove at one end of the base and just sat in the snow for a long time. The air was clear and cool, there was no dust, no mud, no aircraft exhaust, no rockets, no gunfire, no minefields, no waterfalls of blood being washed out of aircraft, and no hollow eyes of little girls. It was just quiet. Everything just sort of hit me at once, and I cried.