A Book About Afghanistan: Chapter One, The Trip

When I drive down the 10 through the desert wastes from Arizona to California, my experience, for all its multiplicity, is fundamentally bound by two factors—the path of the road and the field of view.

The road’s path was never my decision. It is the collective product of my ancestors, the nearest surface in an infinite causal expanse pushing back towards the event horizon. The field of view is similarly a collective manifestation. Perhaps I have chosen this particular vehicle, but this choice is the crest of a wave which swelled and rolled through the darknesses of many nights, hidden beyond my shore-bound purview.

One can hardly be said to have gained much knowledge of Arizona or its people from the side of the freeway, but it is nonetheless something. From the glass and steel observational probe, one gets a limited but cohesive experience of an expanse of land, cohesive because of its limits. It is from such a vantage, so obviously constrained, that a nascent transcendence emanates—the experienced becoming of the self as an ancestral epiphenomenon, obliterated in expansionary connection.

***

The cliché is adventure, traipsing about the world, exposure to other countries and other people.  And perhaps in an earlier time, or in the stubborn time of rural Afghanistan, it would have been.  But technology, as its logic of removal from nature dictates, allows us to circumvent much of the journey. Seemingly only in terms of time and space, but actually in exposure to the strange.

These two things, proximity and time, are connective forces. Convergence, though, is inimical to the project of warfare. It is no accident that the system of sterile conveyance is designed the way it is. The patients are moved from hospital to hospital to ward off potential allergens and pathogens which might weaken the desire to fight, or strengthen the desire to leave.

One doesn’t simply go to Afghanistan. In this respect, and perhaps only in this respect, the experience is decidedly pre-modern. It mimics the itinerary of the pre-modern journey—there are stations on the way: Ft. Bragg, Baltimore, Germany, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, each with its own stays, delays, packing and unpacking. But here each station is utterly discrete, de novo like the beginning of a new sitcom episode, eerily familiar but ahistorical and denuded of context.  The travel pattern is essentially a series of warps. There is no in-between. “Journey” has gone from a mass noun to a count one through the vagaries of modernity.

These concentrated bursts of energy defend against sudden shocks—the warmth retained in your coat as you hurry from your house to your car. Borrowed warmth that lasts just long enough to prevent the shivers from kicking in. Resistance is unnecessary. Adaptation superfluous.

Just as some lull themselves to sleep with a TV on, to have something familiar and human as machine-mediated comfort, so does the deployment apparatus sedulously maintain a background of canned familiarity, to shield its servants from the discomfort of confronting the other. Turning American bases into habitable museums of a lowest common denominator culture, the flower of the international corporate, unfettered by the organically social. A Weimerica proto-capsule launched, pre-fabed, and inserted onto the map at profitable intervals.

The illusion of familiarity must be maintained. And this illusion of course requires the collusion of the participant. One wants to believe in the reality of a Dairy Queen at Bagram Air Field, but it is a shabby chimera which only serves to amplify the absence of the signified. Something hearkens back to Lot, offering a grotesque sacrifice to placate the devils—something divinely unright filling in the terms of the abstract schema of the righteous act. The nauseous wooze in the bowels upon entry into this hyperreal envoy is soon abated by the willful insistence that all is well, that this is in fact what it purports to be.

Who is fooled by this? Look around, and if you watch closely you’ll find that the participants are doing a favor to the masters who have arranged this display. They can point to the soldiers enjoying a Blizzard in Kabul and praise themselves, ease their minds, placate the beast. The soldiers, too, can use such self-congratulation for their own purposes: it becomes evidence of the reality of the happiness and comfort they are supposed to be deriving from it.

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When we return to our own people after our journey to other countries, what should we tell them?  What do we tell them about these other countries, other peoples? We have been invested, anointed by society with the authority to speak about the things beyond the walls, but only after we have been properly shielded from actually experiencing them. Those who do are psychologically quarantined—the diseases they suffer, we are assured, are all those of fantasy.  The hallucinating priest must live in the woods just beyond the village. To be feared, placated and scorned.

Demand for the vicariously liminal is high, and her purveyors are many. Even one’s own thoughts are tinged with falsehood, as falsehood is rewarded. The sense of unease created by this situation might very well be the reason that so many prefer to keep their experiences private.

It is all part of the exotica one is supposed to bring back from war—the accouterments of the conqueror, or the conquered: souvenirs, stories and a different yet familiar self. Hence the perennial “Did you kill anyone?”—spontaneously engendered by the thrill that one is perhaps in the presence of a tame and familiar, yet novel being. Alas though, the only relic one obtains is an esoteric one, one that crumbles when its name is spoken.

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2 Comments

  1. This article reminds me of the now non-existent air base in Kyrgyzstan. Manas was a startling curiosity to me in my youth. I remember its distant snow-capped mountains, seemingly so near, and it’s bitter, cold weather. There was a distinctly foreign feeling amidst the Cyrillic alphabet and murals of horse-mounted men in front of the famous steppe. Waiting there on my “journey” to Afghanistan, was much as you described. A Mercedes-benz dealership and incredible chow hall on base felt familiar in a grotesque way.

    Although we longer conduct a traditional insertion comprised of long expedition. I still feel that the perspective gained on a deployment is golden. It fills my life with some sense of authenticity that I am certain is lacking among other modern youth.

    Great perspective. Thanks for this piece.

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  2. Manas was where the commercial flights ended and the military transports to Bagram began. I always felt stifled, nauseous and bored on Bagram. Thus the frozen lobster and steak on Friday nights. Still, I thank my lucky stars that our convoys took us “outside the gate” and that I was afforded the opportunity to participate as a “machine gun tourist”. I’ve been attempting to replicate the feeling of freedom that I experienced “out there” since. In that, it was a worthwhile experience. I enjoyed this piece…and no, I didn’t kill anyone.

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