There’s a story I like to tell people about Afghanistan. It goes something like this:
An Afghan Army cordon in Nerkh District. Courtesy of Drew Pham
There’s an insurgent commander we’d chased all year, who’d killed policemen, blown up civilians, and attacked Americans. An informant calls us to say that the commander is at his family home. If we hurry we might catch him. We rush out there with our Afghan National Army counterparts, but he’s gone. The informant calls again to say that the target escaped but we can still get his lieutenant, hiding in a nearby village. We find the village at the top of a steep hill overlooking the valley. We encircle the house. The ANA line up to burst into the house and apprehend the man. The first man in the stack kicks down the door. He doesn’t find a Taliban lieutenant but a goat tied to a crude stove fashioned from an oil drum.
The startled animal bolts through the door knocking the soldier out of the doorway. It runs with such force that it rips the stove out of the wall, charging past the Afghan troops and down the hill. At the bottom, an Afghan soldier posted on the perimeter faces out toward the valley. The lanky teenage trooper pays no attention to the commotion at the top of the hill so he doesn’t see the goat galloping straight for him. My entire platoon watches but none of us has a strong enough command of Dari to say: Look out! There is a goat tied to a stove running straight for you. Instead we only point.
The goat tramples the soldier, who turns into a jumble of limbs. His rifle twirls out of his hands. His helmet tumbles off his head. The animal leaves him in a heap. On his knees he tries to get his bearings but before anyone can warn him the stove strikes him in the head and lays him out flat. The soldier lies there unconscious. The goat trots off into the woods, stove still in tow.
I only lost a year to Afghanistan, but it feels like a lifetime. When I left the Army, I felt like a time traveller set adrift in an unfamiliar future, the people and places I loved changed so much they were almost unrecognizable. I can’t say when I started telling the goat story; I only know that it was after I started confessing other stories to friends, loved ones, and strangers at parties. Perhaps I thought that by talking about the war I would somehow get back the time I lost, get back the sense that the future was a possibility rather than a forfeiture. I told them how I let a pedophile keep his bacha bazi boy because I thought I had no choice. I told them about the dead—finding pieces of them in the trees, chewed apart by dogs, or struck down by a sniper’s bullet. I told them about the man I killed. I thought if I told these stories often enough, the act of telling would dull the pain of remembering.
Bushwick, Brooklyn, taken shortly after the Author returned from Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham
I wanted other people to hear about the place that took me out of time, so that they might feel like they’d lost something too. No matter whom I told, the response was almost always silence. Maybe they felt for a brief moment as I had, maybe they felt nothing, or worse, maybe they were disgusted. Rather than contending with uncomfortable silences, over time I learned to tell them a joke about a goat instead. Soon, the story slipped from my control to the point that it was no longer mine. I recited this tale so many times that I began questioning whether it had happened. But I have proof it happened—the village’s name on a map I saved, a photograph of the commander hidden in a notebook, and the guilt I harbor for what happened afterwards.
I always leave out the part about catching the Talib.
The ANA find the Talib hiding alone in an abandoned shed at the top of the hill, watching us. From this vantage point someone can see the whole valley, the highway and our combat outpost, kilometers away. He isn’t hiding from us; this is an observation post. Here he can count our numbers, guess our intent, give the order to strike. The Talib stumbles as the ANA drag him down the hill. He’s haggard, beard streaked grey, the elbows of his green shalwar kameez are shiny from wear.
The Afghan soldiers close in around the Talib. I ask my interpreter what they’re saying.
He tells me, it doesn’t matter, the Talib is a liar.
The ANA Lieutenant brings his bootheel down on the Talib’s ribcage. The other ANA soldiers strike the Talib with the butts of their rifles, careful not to leave any marks on his face or hands. I just stand there watching, trying to rationalize this brutal act. War is brutal. This one is no exception. My chest is tight, and I’m thankful that when my deployment is over, I get to climb aboard a plane to go home. The Afghans have to go on living with the war—the suicide bombs, kidnappings, assassinations—long after I’m gone. For them, it’s victory or death. The Talib sobs between blows. I turn away, listening to my comrades beat the man. I do nothing, committing my own little war crime.
While no one is watching, I offer the prisoner a cigarette as if that will absolve me. Of course he doesn’t smoke; the devout are forbidden from such decadence. The Afghan soldiers drag him through the village streets. We march into the valley, back to the outpost. On the road back, we pass what seems to be the Talib’s home. His family waits outside the qalat gates; the children wail as he passes. The Talib reaches out to them, but the soldiers shove him onward. When we reach the outpost, the Afghans blindfold the man, and lock him in a room under armed guard. In the morning he disappears.