Preface: The first time I entertained the idea of documenting my experiences in the Army, to my best recollection, was soon after browsing the Afghanistan War Logs released by Wikileaks. It wasn’t because I found them inaccurate, rather, it was their sterile efficiency, their almost complete lack of context that rubbed me the wrong way, like the reaction of a cat having its fur combed against the natural lay. It wasn’t like I had anything else of value going on. Just the week before a close relative had commented to me in private: “I don’t think I even know you any more?” Words that stung, not due to there inaccuracy, but for there cold truth. Truth was, and is, I don’t even know myself any longer.
Five years later, 2500 miles away, broke, alone, fatalistic, and angry, I have “picked up the pen” so to speak, in earnest, to document my all to vivid memories and drop bread crumbs along this slow path to likely self-destruction. I don’t expect anyone to read these musings, to give a shit or empathize. This is for me. This might be my final grasp at a useful life I once took for granted?
I begin on the battlefield, downrange, as it were, not to glorify war, but to introduce a sort-of literary speed trap. This is my testimony. These are secrets, most I’ve never told. This is the cost of victory in little battles, singular wins that lose the greater war.
PART I – INTO THE BREACH
“Army! Travel to exotic, distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them.” FULL METAL JACKET
Nothing could ever prepare a man for the cacophony of sounds, the putrid, unforgettable stench, the orchestrated confusion and fear associated with infantry level combat. “Smells like victory”; a cute line from Hollywood, I assure you, is not a pleasant affect to anyone’s morning. That permeating odor, so all-consuming, overpowering, the digestive gases, piss, shit, blood and bile; no sane man who’s ever tasted that air could forget. Picture that warm sense that might wash over you while listening to an old, favorite song. Memories lifting from the deep recesses of your romantic past, seemingly out of nowhere, vanishing like a wisp of smoke. Now try to imagine a similar effect in reverse, blinding terror, soot blackened snow.
Welcome to the dark side of the Earth, as we knew it then, some 13 years ago. The cyclonic rotation of the planet slowly painted this moonless night in a witheringly opaque blackness: Perfect for our purposes. Perfect for an ambush. It added up to a sort of vacant, yet vacuous strangled paralysis which turns out, is ideal for the new, high-tech tools of war. We were laying in wait, the trap was set, hidden below an invisible melody, only the sounds of the forest singing its song. A “stand-to,” in Army nomenclature. We were a often violent and seldom patient uber predator, open in wait, not unlike the steel jaws of an old rusty trap, eager to snap shut with the ferocity of the God’s.
This mission was unique for us to that point in the deployment. Seldom did we utilize these sorts of tactics while I served in Afghanistan. Apparently we had acquired SIGINT -Signal Intelligence- combined with human intelligence, prompting command to pay closer attention to the Pakistan border as a causeway for Tali fighters moving to and from the tribal badlands of Pakistan? Really, I mean, no shit Sherlock? Nevertheless, this was an operation Grunts like us trained for, and dreamed of tackling in those days. We wanted to be something more than chum, bait. Let’s take the fight to them, whoever “them” were?
Positioned just below the treeline, straddling a well worn trail the continued up into the lenticular clouds, bending away from the peaks far above, our hopes were high. All we could do is wait. No cigarettes, no movement, no sound until dawn breaks, or the enemy falls. Those hours, slipping far past dusk, yet not quite dawn, awakens our ancestral brain to those instinctual fears. In this space, on a planet facing directly away from the sun, the hairs on the neck will dance, a primitive warning from eons past. The tension now gripping us all, like an endless nightmare, only we are wide awake. Those organic warnings, recorded as rings on every man’s family tree, this ubiquitous and not quite irrational fear of the dark forest lingers. Left alone with only your thoughts, the haunting hour arrives like a tempest, on the edge of panic and exhilaration, the fear of the unknown grips you, as you hope for the known, trained for something else. This is when ghosts seem the least shy, the countless children, digging, playing, screaming in this perpetually radioactive, scorching sandbox. Are they angels coming out to play, or are they daemons waiting to settle old scores? If I only knew now what I didn’t back then, could I make the necessary difference?
Proned out, contemplating the silent life happening now on the other side, a shooting-star caught my physical attention. Was it a sign, some sort of starting bell? The rock, barreling out of the eastern sky, voyaging across the gaping horizon overhead, like a flash from heavens’ gate, a super-sonic meteor crashing into the western cosmos, within a suspended instant, time measured in micro-seconds. The present briefly felt more tangential to peace than it did to war.
Just at that moment, my right eye lit-up as a green silhouette. The optics illuminated a man, moving in silence, about fifty meters uphill from our fixed position. Carefully descending, the extreme heights of the Pakistani mountain border to his back, this lead scout moved cautiously, deliberately, and much quieter than I previously assumed possible. More appeared, twenty-two in all by my imprecise count. Armed men, Taliban most likely, not knowing, perhaps even imagining, the dogs of war waiting just steps ahead in that darkness, killers suspended in a well conditioned silence, ready to violently shut the door on life.
One by one they crept passed my position, in the blackness, the predator as prey. Just five-fucking-meters from a steep, rocky, mountain trail, I laid there watching as they descended past. Were we manning some sort of hell’s gate? If there really is a God, or Allah, or whatever the fuck, I recall thinking, these men, every last fucking one of them better be prepared to have a face-to-face with the twisted mother-fucker. A criss-crossing mesh of green lit our night. This was an ambush. That was the beginning of my own time in hell.