People asked if it was hard to adjust back to the real world. My only real difficulty was this: I would wake up spooked that I had lost my weapon. I would start groping for it in a panic and then realize it didn’t matter. Other than that, it was easy.
New York was everything I wanted, although for the first few days of the trip the rain and wind was incessant. Patrick was a gracious host, but he had a full-time job that required his attention if he was going to keep living at Houston and Avenue B. I discovered how to use the subway, bought a coat and set out to wander around lower Manhattan.
Jet lag woke me early on the first days, but there was always coffee, beer or wine at my disposal. Patrick and I would meet for lunch near his office at 59th and 5th, but the mornings and evenings were mine. My first trip was to Battery Park, where I walked the full circumference of the site of the World Trade Center. The new construction was barely above street level, but from the walkways and viewing areas you began to see the scope of it all—the singular enormity of the structures and the wounds they left behind.
I didn’t receive word about the September 11 attacks until the second plane had struck—I was in a locked room taking an 11th grade trigonometry test. I wasn’t even seventeen yet. Walking from one end of my high school to another, unaware of what was transpiring, I heard the excited and panicked voices of kids’ interpretations. It’s World War III. We’re all going to die. A tower collapsed on a TV glimpsed through a doorway. I had no idea what was happening. In the next few weeks the narrative developed. They started airing documentaries about the Taliban, the lunar hell of drought-stricken Kandahar, women in burqas, men in turbans, endless convoys of Toyota Hiluxes. I remembered the early ’90s National Geographic articles I had pored over as a kid. I wondered if I would ever go there.
Now it was 2009, and I stood at the sprawling site, completely anonymous in the crowd of financiers, tourists and construction workers. I looked like any other hipster without a day job, another Midwesterner crowding the L train. The bright red cranes slowly heaved. Construction went on, as did the war, still sending Afghans and Americans under the dirt, Afghans of all ages, Americans young enough to have been in fourth grade when this block evaporated. This was where it all started, the spark that powered the ignition in a million diesel generators across hinterlands and wastes, in firebases, outposts and transit hubs. A feeling welled up in me but the only words I could use to express it would have been more appropriate for a flat tire: “God damn it.”
I didn’t feel any resentment towards the civilians of the US. If anything, I was happy that America hummed along briskly. It was a perfect foil to life in the war zone. I didn’t want to trumpet the facts of my occupation, and a place like New York is perfect for someone seeking to be left alone. All I really wanted was to pretend the fantasy would never end, and that I’d always have time and money for Go Go Curry or Minca or Heather’s Bar. To walk in the rain or the sunlight, to go to MOMA, to wear headphones and walk the streets around NYU in perfect autumn weather, listening to Ride or the Mae Shi, staring out from the Staten Island Ferry terminal to glimpse the Statue of Liberty in orange evening light, the statue reaching away and out to sea. To go see Hercules and Love Affair with my best friend and stay out drinking all night long. The electricity of pure joy struck me during my aimless walks—I could barely keep from pumping my fists like a madman.
Contradictions struck in one moment standing by the water as I dropped quarters into the telescope fixtures. “I am more free right now than I will ever be again in my life,” I thought. “But, the Army owns me and will own me for at least five more years, and I’m going back to war in two weeks.” Then there was the war: we were there because they attacked us, “they” being Gulf Arabs and Egyptians, and in Afghanistan we were getting revenge by building schools and roads, paying truck companies, cajoling results from the police and Army, building fortresses and tearing them down again. The enemy we encountered were a local type, financed by the Pakistani ISI, totally broke and illiterate and, once dead, replaceable.
And sometimes you saw hope—people scaring off the Taliban, sending their kids to school, the security forces taking charge, playing their role, or local elders stepping in to safeguard communities. Other times it was frustration, ugly and cruel when your friends and young soldiers died, darkly comic when all your plans burned to embers when the Afghans got involved. You brought a pallet of solar radios to give to an area tribe, and you hand them to a tribal chief only to watch his sons cart them off for hoarding or sale. You teach the Afghan soldiers how to wear night vision scopes only to watch them smoke a hash joint and pass the scope around, giggling the Dari equivalent of, “Dude, this is awesome!” Nothing works. Things explode. You laugh, sometimes bitterly. But you never truly ponder the dangerous, seditious question of “Why are we here?” It’s moot—you’re already there, and you’re not leaving anytime soon.
In New York, through conversations with friends, with Patrick and his girlfriend Christine, with buddies who came to visit me there, on the phone with my parents, I started to realize that I didn’t have a plausible answer to that question. Geopolitics aside, theories aside, whether or not it was a crusade or a crime or a humanitarian act, there were only two true things I could identify: one, I was going back there; two, almost no one in the US cared.
I took comfort in that. I wanted people to know about the difficulties, the injustices, the hardships, but if people didn’t care, at least they were keeping America running in the meantime, so we would have something to come home to, whenever that was. When the lights went off in the last dining hall, when the last crackle of radio chatter said “out” and shut down. Maybe never.
For me, it was certain: the tour could never end if I never went back, and so it was with excitement that I boarded my flight back to Atlanta, and then to Kuwait, and finally back to my compound. I just had to hope for the best. It might end in flames—for some it surely has—but it was going to end one way or another.
Two hours after I arrived back to my room, a hotel across the street exploded. An explosive device had been set inside a pressure cooker. We suited up in armor and took off to the sounds of sirens and gunfire. There was nothing else you could do.