In These Deserts: War Stories From Afghanistan
In 1990, six-year-old Nathan Bradley read a magazine article about Afghanistan and was fascinated, vowing to someday see it for himself. He finally got his chance in 2009 as an Army officer, and he’ll go back eventually. His column chronicles his travels through the concertina wire gates, the bomb filled culverts, the rough adobe castles, the concrete blast walls and the sprawling gravel yards of our longest war—all the scenes that spoke to him—but most importantly it chronicles the stories of the Afghans he’s come to know.
Bombs and the Boy.
I wrote this a few days after it happened. I should feel different about it by now, but I don’t. Nothing has changed.
Most friends don’t ask me about the war. Some have asked what my best memory was, or what my proudest moment was, and I can explain those pretty well. I often tell Abdulhaq’s story, or the story from when we brought Khan’s kids over for dinner. A few others, either fecklessly or in the depths of heroic drinking binges, have asked me what was the worst thing that ever happened there. For that, too, I have an answer.
The blast caught us on a cold Friday morning as we were drinking coffee in my room, my friend and I. The door flew open from the overpressure, and two of my guys came running and pointed out the nearby plume of white smoke. It had been a quiet morning. Our Afghan counterparts were at a prayer service, so without much information or time to get properly dressed, we quickly threw on our gear and moved towards the sound of the explosion.
My guys and I lived out with the Afghans and took advantage of slow Fridays. None of us were in the proper uniform—I wore my fleece, one of my guys was in a track suit and two others were missing their uniform blouses (they had been digging a ditch). We would have looked like garbage to an organized, professional unit rolling by the scene in armored vehicles, tight-sealed and elevated from the street as they were. We heard from an Afghan gate guard that a suicide bomber had killed five people in the city bazaar, and scores more were wounded. Everyone was going to want reports.
Within minutes of us arriving nearby the police began to shoot wildly, and the whipcracks near to our heads convinced me that we would do no good as a four-man team in a wounded, recoiling town. The blast was far enough away to make for a dangerous walk through a now-panicked street, so we returned to the safety of our office. Ambulances and police trucks were tearing by, blasting their sirens and horns, and jumpy policemen were shooting right at us as we were nearing the entrance to our own compound. Crowds massed and then fled from the gunfire. The shots chunked the concrete wall behind us, the point of impact mere feet above our faces.
We left. I delivered my reports over the radio within half an hour of arrival back inside our building. Hours passed. I was in a hurry to make it back to the U.S. compound in order to get lunch before the chow hall closed. Walking out the door, the sergeant who worked for me got my attention. A casualty coming in, he said, a kid with a head injury for whom there hadn’t been any space at the forward surgical team hospital a few miles up the road. We had to make a determination on his condition at the governor’s compound before they sent him back to the U.S. base.
Thus engaged, we took a detour to the gate and waited with the Afghan police guards. In an endless series of ill-painted, single-storey concrete compounds and half-built shop buildings across a snow-covered plain, the governor’s gate caught the eye: it was more than two stories high, decorated with blue and green colored tiles and gabled roofs on each tower. An unusable (but nonetheless menacing) recoilless gun sat on a tripod atop the tower balcony. We stood in the gateway and smoked, our sleeves rolled up, our hands in blue latex gloves. After no more than ten minutes of nervous joking, we saw the Red Crescent ambulance rolling through the serpentine of concrete barriers. Its lights were flashing but no sirens wailed.
The vehicle was a donated Pakistani ambulance van, dented and abused after years (or maybe just months) of service in a war zone. They opened up the back to reveal a kid laid out on a burlap stretcher, his naked body covered with a brown mink blanket. He was about fourteen or fifteen. The ambulance was streaked with blood all over the inside. The kid’s head was a distended bubble of bandages, a gauze ostrich egg. His skull seemed an unnatural shape and size. He had a drainage tube in his nose and IV was running right into his left hand. A Pashtun man was crouching beside him, holding the blood drip in one hand and the boy’s bled-white hand in the other.
We asked questions and started to prepare an information sheet. I can’t remember the boy’s name. Maybe it was Shah Mohammad. Maybe it was Gul Alaam, Toor Khan, Bismillah. I only knew it in that instant when I talked to him, and even by day’s end it had slipped from my mind. The frothy blood bag held 450 milliliters, and it was marked O positive. The boy’s eyes were half open and he followed my finger when I wagged it across his face. He was moaning, his body shivering from the cold. I placed my gloved hand on his shoulder in an attempt to reassure him and to add a little warmth. He had the first wisps of a beard around his chin and lip, but he had practically a child’s body, an underfed Afghan child’s body. His biceps were nonexistent. His arms were perfectly straight – unmuscled from shoulder to wrist – bones and little else. He couldn’t have been more than five-foot-nine.
I spoke to him in Pashto. Wrura, awree? Brother, do you hear me? Mung te ta mrasta be wukawu. We’re going to help you. Pe qarar sha. Be still. Pe qarar sha. The sergeant with me, an emergency medical technician in life before his enlistment, cut the medical tape and began to unwrap the gauze. I cradled the boy’s neck, my arms across his collarbone and my hands under his head. Our faces were intimately close. I don’t remember any smells. I don’t remember anything but the compactness of the van, the filthy, enclosed space, the shivers of his body against the cold, the wetness of the blood that I felt through my gloves behind his neck. The eggshell was ruptured. The gauze came off, and the distension revealed to be piles of absorbent pads placed on the site of the injury. They were leaden with blood and streaked with reddish-pink globules of brain matter.
We knew he was doomed with the removal of the last bandages. The back of his head had been sheared from its base and the innards of his skull pulverized. Blood and brain poured forth from him, onto our hands and onto the soggy stretcher. We had seen what we needed to see and immediately applied new bandages and tape. We couldn’t clean the wound because it was still riddled with rocks and shrapnel. The local Afghan hospital had not even attempted to treat him. We had to get him out of there as quickly as possible.
The boy had been seated on a motorcycle no more than five meters from where the suicide bomber had detonated. He was an errant passer-by, an unfortunate victim of circumstance. The city traffic circle was packed full of people on a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, the day of prayer, errands and grocery shopping. These were variables that surely factored into the bomber’s calculus, and here was its sum, this now-brainless child, this dying thing heaving with only the flickers of hormones and instinct.
I called my battalion on my Roshan phone and explained the situation. My hands were coated in blood and shaking. They said that we could call a dustoff helicopter from Orgun-E, but the hospital nearby was full. I described the injuries I had seen.
“We can’t call a bird for that—they won’t fly,” the medical sergeant said. “Exposed brain tissue makes him expectant.” Which is to say beyond help.
“Look, we just need to get him looked at and stabilized” I said, “If you don’t do anything, he’s going to fucking die right here in this van. Can we at least stabilize him somewhere?”
The sergeant swore with exasperation. He wasn’t trying to be the bad guy. “Okay, look, sir, I’ll see what I can do.” I hung up.
There was nothing that could have been done. Everyone knew it; even I did. I just didn’t want to believe it. To give up seemed hopelessly lazy and ignorant; it seemed inhuman, but there was a simple cold truth it all, a logistical impossibility that meant he was a lost cause. In the eyes of antiseptic figures, he wasn’t worth the effort.
I later heard that people in the operations center had been joking about my insistence on the MEDEVAC aircraft. “Someone needs to tell Lieutenant Bradley that it’s a war and that people die in wars,” they said.
I had no words to reply. Hearing that it was a laugh to them took the wind solidly out of my sails a few weeks later when I found out. It’s way too easy to be the tough guy, the flinty-cool badass saying things like that when you’re not watching it in front of you. It’s already a foregone conclusion to the ice-blooded distant observer. The difference between him and the guy on the ground is that the latter still has hope.
It was hard for me to hear the word expectant because I knew what it meant. I had learned about the expression because I had been developing a story for the past two years in which the concept of triage was a literary device. It was, of course, a war story:
A good friend of mine from Infantry school was a combat medic before he became an officer. He told us about their priorities, and what it meant to have to leave a fellow soldier dying in order to treat another. Sitting around one day and talking about Iraq, he talked about how triage worked, and a particularly thoughtless lieutenant had said, “Man, that’s why I fucking hate medics. I don’t know how the hell you can just say that and give up.” Silence among the stunned crowd.
My friend, to his credit, just looked at him with the tiredness that comes after strident years have long since been spent and said, “It’s the worst feeling in the world to look into a soldier’s eyes and have to tell him he’s going to die, but if you don’t treat the people you can actually save, they’ll all die.” He said it with earnestness and dignity, and it struck me.
The years leading up to my first deployment were peppered with stories of combat and injury from the survivors I had encountered. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were all around me from the day I started college ROTC in 2003, and I didn’t even deploy until 2009. Until then, the stories were set things—their endings concrete and unalterable – and you didn’t doubt the storyteller or see the casualty with your own eyes. Those labeled expecting died long before the events ever reached you as a cautionary tale. You didn’t hear their breath or touch their blood or look at them and know that they were alive, that they might be saved, that they had just this morning been everyday people. They were instead trivialized as sad milestones in the combat narrative. But not this one.
I sprinted back to our little joint command post and started typing. I didn’t want to tie up the radio net with my agitated voice. I sent it up over the secure mIRC system. I gave all the information and waited. A few questions were prompted, and the answer returned: “MEDEVAC denied as the patient expectant.”
Exposed brain tissue meant he was untreatable in Afghanistan, and he was a local, anyway. He didn’t meet the “medical rules of engagement,” or MEDROE, which stipulated that a civilian only took priority if we had injured him ourselves. A senior NCO who often worked with us had come by to ask what was going on. I shouted the whole story to him. “They’re going to let him die,” I said at the end of my explanation. “Fuck MEDROE, fuck the Army, fuck this stupid fucking war, why the fuck are we even here in the first place if we’re not going to help people?”
I left the room, deciding I was going to be with him if he was going to die. Maybe I was being melodramatic—I was certainly more useful elsewhere, but I was so mad that I had to tire my body in some way. I started sprinting to the gravel lot serving as a helipad, about 600 meters away, no easy task at 7,000 feet for the smoker, the non-exerciser, the stressed-out meal skipper. Nothing could save the boy, at least nothing in country. Nothing could have saved him from the moment the bomber detonated. All I wanted was for a hospital to dignify him, to put him on a ventilator and clean him up so that when the family came to see him for the last time he wasn’t a blood-streaked, cold body.
One of our company medics worked on the US compound and had come out to assess the kid. When I got to the landing zone, completely out of breath, I found him inside the van. The kid had literally moments left to live. His breaths were shallow and had reduced to 12 per minute. We finished writing all the facts out on a sheet and told the men in the van—who turned out to be his cousins—that they might be able to get him into the U.S. hospital with our note. “He’s going to die if we don’t move him out of here,” I said. I told my interpreter to tell them that there was no way to fly a helicopter out of Orgun-E because of the weather. The cousins thanked us and shook our hands, but their eyes shone more of resignation and bitter defeat. As they were driving away in the ambulance, a civilian helicopter landed neatly, a blue Sikorsky S-61 operated by Blackwater’s subsidiary, Presidential Air. They were hauling KBR workers back from vacation.
Standing on that landing zone, I watched the van drive around the tan Hesco barriers and back out into the city. It was a windy, cold afternoon, and the sky was alight with thick winter clouds through which white sunlight was breaking. It was, despite it all, a beautiful day. Snow had recently fallen and melted in the city, but in the distance the mountains sprung across the horizon in different winter-sun colors: snows looked blue and pink atop Afghanistan’s menacing and endless brown.
The kid died on the way back from the U.S. base. He was refused entry at the gate because he was, of course, expectant, and he passed while riding in the back of that same van. I got the word when I was talking to the company commander in charge of the medic who had helped us. Everyone had the same story: “You win some and you lose some,” they said. “You never give up on people, but sometimes you really can’t do anything.”
These were harder people than me, people who have witnessed these things many times over. Most of them were veterans of Iraq—they fought there in the depths of 2006 – and had seen worse sights than this. Many had lost friends in similar circumstances. Everyone was disappointed, but some people can discard the memories faster than others. Some people can better rationalize it when an Afghan or an Iraqi dies versus an American.
As for me, I always wanted to be an unflinching witness. I collect the stories I hear and see and I incorporate them into writing. I’m not smart or creative enough to depict human truth just from imagination, at least not anything plausible. I just collect; I talk to people about their experiences, I go where I can and I absorb all that’s possible to observe. The black humor, the coincidences, the pathos, these things are so easily distilled from others’ experiences and then controlled by the writer to effect the lesson sought. There will always be some irony that the fiction writer creates when he takes these truthful things and makes from them something cogent and instructive and altogether untrue.
Now that those words stem from a tragedy witnessed, I can’t tread on them so guilelessly. I had seen plenty of death before. I had carried a blown-up friend’s body off a helicopter months prior and I had regularly fingerprinted dead insurgents, some of them as young as this boy. I went on dozens of combat patrols, mounted and dismounted, fully ready to kill if the enemy would fight me, and after my friend died, I wholeheartedly wanted them to do their worst.
I had never fought to save a life, though. I had never fought with the middle management of war or lived their decisions. I thought I understood my friend’s story from Iraq and how letting people die would change you. I thought it clever to extrapolate it. But this time the irony is for the writer, living now in the flesh what he had trivialized, learning now that the lip service paid to war’s unfairness doesn’t mean that it won’t hesitate to reach out and crush his faith, either.
Because the truth is that we, the survivors, are not heroes or winners but rather just fortunate souls. We ducked to tie our boots when others were standing. We stepped left when others, stepping right, detonated a mine and left this earth in a ball of flame. We lived while others died, and there’s a natural tendency to feel guilty because there is no way to explain why friends, young children, old men, neutral civilians – better people than us, more innocent, less connected, not volunteers, not willing participants – are, by contrast, no more.
I wanted to be a witness, left unscathed but still enlightened, full of unimpeachable authenticity. But eventually, every witness to atrocity becomes a participant. And every witness to tragedy becomes bereaved. You can never excise their changes once you are changed.
This was just a heartless moment in time–an unfortunate collection of events. I wish I could have saved this boy. I wish he had never been hurt in the first place. But more than anything else, I wish that war and war stories didn’t have that biting human validity that draws us to them, that creates heroism and sacred martyrdom out of the meanness of the deaths that war brings. Because we all have our martyr legends, Muslim or Christian, Afghan or American, and we have never escaped their sway. They guide us and tell us that the sacrifice is worthy, that the act is justified.
Until we can recognize that each unfortunate casualty in war is as much a human being as our fondest loves—that above all politics, theory and dogma, it brings only destruction to living things—then we humans will still think it a moral crucible, a proving ground, a test of national resolve, a bargaining chip, a solution. It will always shock us to know that our friends and lovers and children don’t die heroes’ deaths but rather just die whenever death comes to them. And our savaged, unflinching witnesses—once strident, and often still young—will be tired for the rest of their lives.
They were right: people die in wars. That’s the only lesson I can derive.
I wonder what the boy thought of Americans. I wonder if he had bought into the legends of the Taliban and of the self-professed righteousness of their struggle. I wonder if he felt admiration or contempt for his countrymen Afghan policemen near to him, the target of the suicide attack. Did he even care either way? Did he believe we went there to fight his religion? How pious was he? I wonder if he had even given thought to the issue. I wonder if he was as apolitical as most Western 15-year-olds. I wonder if he had ever heard the gassy Taliban songs that they play on pirate radio stations, singing:
Oh brothers, do not be slaves
They are searching your mothers
They are searching your sisters
Fight the invaders at every turn
But even though I held him and tried to reassure him with kind words in his own language, I don’t think he heard me or saw me, the invader playing Samaritan. Nor did he see how much his death grieved me, or left me without platitudes or anecdotes as anchors.
Nor did he see—when he died in the care of his cousins on the road heading back to that lonely city of trash—the starkness of the day, or the beauty of the snow fields and clouds, or the jutting peaks in the distance, oblivious to all those who wrong and are wronged.
SUGGESTED READSIn These Deserts: War Stories From Afghanistan: Column 1: The Misunderstanding
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In These Deserts: War Stories From Afghanistan: Column 3: Watching Airplanes in the Dark
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