(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The convoy stops and the lieutenant lowers his binoculars and opens his door and points at four Afghan men standing on a ridge beside a red telephone tower. They look little more than dots against the horizon. Boulders lie strewn across the slope of the mountainside and some have tumbled down to the pitted dirt road. The lieutenant gets out. He picks six men and a translator. The four Afghan men watch as the soldiers trek uphill toward them, walking first to their left and then to their right, weaving back and forth, back and forth in continuous motion to lessen the strain of the steep ascent.
“I hate it here,” one soldier says.
“Some people look at you weird,” another soldier says. “Kind of a glare. They’re just backward. They’re not used to hammer and wood. Not to the point of building walls and standing them up. They’re used to rocks and mud huts. They’re just trying to survive. I get that.”
“Fuck,” the first soldier says. “I hate it here. They can’t read their own language. You tell them not to do something so you can do what you have to do and they do it anyway.”
The second soldier offers him a cigarette and they keep climbing until they stand with the lieutenant, the translator, and the rest of the soldiers beside the four Afghans. The Afghans smile and ask if they want tea. They point at a pot and a small fire made from charcoal and twigs. They extend their hands and the soldiers shake them except for one soldier who served in Iraq. He stands apart and stares across the ridge and then turns and faces into the wind.
The lieutenant moves toward the telephone tower. Beside it in the rubble of what had been another telephone tower, he sees an unexploded IED. The Afghans walk up behind him and the lieutenant spins around sharply and the Afghans stop.
“Put your hands on your heads,” the lieutenant says.
An interpreter speaks to them in Pashto. The Afghans put their hands on their heads. They continue smiling but look confused. One of the Afghans tells the interpreter that they work for Roshan, a telephone company. They had discovered the IED moments before the convoy stopped.
“Do they have weapons?” the lieutenant asks the interpreter.
The Afghans shake their heads no.
The lieutenant stares at the IED. He lives in St. Louis and joined the Army after September 11, so he could say he did something for his country. He might go back to his job at Budweiser. Stocking supervisor. But the economy back home sucks. Some European company now owns Budweiser. He doesn’t know if he wants to work for an American company owned by foreigners. He looks at the Afghans. Hands on their heads, still smiling at him. When he arrived here in Khost Province, a drill sergeant told him to be prepared for lots of contact. Nearly six months later and halfway through his tour, he hasn’t seen a firefight yet.
“They want to keep it,” the interpreter tells him.
"The IED. So they can use it against the guys who put it here."
“They know them?”
“They think a relative one of them has been feuding with put it here.”
“What are they feuding about?”
“The relative works for another phone company, AWC.”
“Jesus,” the lieutenant says.
He looks up at clouds ballooning across the sky. He faces the interpreter.
“We’ll detain them. Tell them to sit down. If they have cell phones, tell them to put them on the ground.”
The interpreter translates. The Afghans place their phones on a rock and sit calmly on the ground with their hands behind their backs. One of them tells the interpreter that his brother is an interpreter at Bagram Airbase. The interpreter says nothing. He remembers the Russian retreat from Afghanistan and the civil war that followed, his father’s death by heart attack, and the emergence of the Taliban. He fled to Pakistan and then Australia. Now he lives in New York. He signed on with the army as an interpreter for the money and to be a part of history. To be able to tell his kids, "I was part of this." He doesn’t like Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Karzai is too much like the Mafia and very corrupt. The interpreter doesn’t know how this war will end.
“I found AKs,” the Iraq war soldier says. He collects three guns beneath some rocks and carries them to the lieutenant. One of the Afghans starts talking.
(Photo by J. Malcolm Garcia)
“They hid the guns when they saw an army helicopter,” the interpreter says. “They say they need the guns to protect the remaining tower. They knew we’d take their guns if they told us they had them. They are sorry for this. They want to know if they can keep the IED and show it to their employer.”
“What the fuck kind of question is that?” the lieutenant says. “No they fucking can’t keep it.”
One of the Afghans complains that the ground is too hard to sit on. He stands.
“Sit the fuck down,” the Iraq war soldier says. “Get the fuck away from me.”
He shoves the Afghan back down to the ground by the shoulders. The soldier lost a friend to a roadside bomb in Iraq. He was walking behind him when his friend stepped on it. The explosion damaged the soldier’s hearing. He did two tours in Iraq. Now he’s in Afghanistan. He hates the slow pace, the lack of contact. He wished he had fought in Vietnam. No fucking rules of engagement in Vietnam. You did what had to be done. You wasted motherfuckers in Vietnam.
One of the Afghans’ cell phones rings. At the third ring, the lieutenant tells the interpreter to answer it.
“Are you Khalid?” a voice on the other end asks.
“Yes,” the interpreter says. “Who is this?”
The caller hangs up. The interpreter looks at the lieutenant, shrugs and puts down the phone. Some birds fly above the remaining tower and the wind picks up. The lieutenant radios in for an explosive-ordnance disposal team. After they blow up the IED, he will transport the four Afghans to Fort Salerno for questioning. Their names and fingerprints will be taken and run through a computer. If they’re not listed as “persons of interest” or wanted for terrorism, they will be released. Maybe they’ll be recruited as informers. Maybe not. The lieutenant will never know. He feels sure he won’t see them again.
When the EOD team arrives, the lieutenant and his men crouch behind some boulders.
“Fire in the hole!” the EOD team leader shouts followed by a second man’s yell, “Fire in the hole!” The explosion rips the very fabric of the air, spewing dirt and rock over the soldiers. The ground quakes and the lieutenant lets out a long whoop. He stands and shouts again and his men join him, screaming at the sky and pumping their arms.
They all laugh, feel the mountain shake until it no longer does. A weighty stillness follows. The lieutenant looks toward the road. So much time in front of them. He starts walking. The four Afghan prisoners and the interpreter and the Iraq War soldier and the other soldiers follow him downhill weaving back and forth, back and forth toward the waiting convoy.
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