This is the third story in Drew Pham’s four-part series “Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read,” published the week of September 11, 2018.
I write this for you, my countrymen. There are places your collective memory cannot reach. We remember the towers, the Pentagon, flight 93, but what followed is, for most Americans, shrouded. How little you know of us, your warrior caste.
I spoke to a woman at a party not long ago. A friend of a friend. We talked about writing, the function of stories, if those stories could ever save us. We talked about the war, and I told her about a schoolteacher we’d accidentally killed, the enemies whom we’d shot and evaporated with artillery and airstrikes, and the refugees I met when I came home. Our conversation turned toward an award-winning book that opens with the line, “We shot dogs.” Writers love this line, how strident and spare the language is, how immediately it hooks a reader. I love this line too, as I love this book. But the story that follows leaves something out. The protagonist pivots from the brutality of the sentence—he’s a dog lover. Anyway, the first dog they’d shot had been lapping up human blood; that’s why the characters shot it. I’d seen myself in that opening line, the animal I’d been when I was over there. But not in the justification. We—I shot dogs because I’d wanted to.
I told this friend of a friend a story about an American helicopter that’d been shot out of the sky by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade, how I’d found pieces of the victims in the trees, how the perfume of burnt machinery and corpses had lingered. I told her how no one had cared about the Afghans who’d been on the helicopter, how American officers ordered the Afghan soldiers on hand to do the work of beasts of burden, hauling pieces of the shattered aircraft out of the valley bit by bit. We spent a week there, guarding engineers and bomb techs as they dismembered the downed bird with blowtorches and lumps of C4. The helicopter was of no use, but command didn’t want the humiliation of seeing the enemy posing with the wreckage. On the last night, a pair of dogs wandered into our perimeter. One of my men shot one, killing it. He shot the other in the lung, and it trotted off into the shell of a half-built school. Another man and I followed it, and not wanting to waste ammo, we took stones from the rubble and crushed her head. That award-winning book neglected to mention that special kind of insanity that comes with being perpetually close to death, being far from home, being nearly always powerless to retaliate against an enemy shrouded in the trees and mountaintops and among innocent civilians, the kind of madness that makes you an animal like it made me. It neglected to say that we killed dogs because we wanted to, because our country had made us into killers without considering the consequences. I killed dogs because I could not imagine spending my whole life at war, and by some perverse, twisted logic, killing seemed an act of mercy. We came back, and some cooks and mechanics glared at us, and my whole troop laughed at their faint hearts. We laughed because we were so glad to be alive at least for one more day, even though we all lived in a world of shit. Looking back, those were the laughs of madmen—at least the cooks and mechanics had held onto their humanity. I told this story to that friend of a friend, the party still buzzing around us, and she picked up her dog, a small brown thing, held it close. She’d forgotten all about the bodies and the wreckage and the far-off country and its people.
I can’t tell you why we fought. I’m no general, I’ve never sat in on a policy meeting or drafted a white paper at a think tank, or sat on the board of a profitable company that commissioned said white paper. I can give you only my memories. Like the paint or blood splashed on that Hindu temple. Or how I’d joined the same Army that’d waged war on my parents’ soil in hopes of cementing my Americanness, of striking the word enemy from my name, striking the hyphen in my identity, toppling the wall that dash represented between them and us. How one of my men had been wounded because of a decision I’d made. Or the Afghan policeman who’d been killed because of me. How when we got home, my platoon sergeant had told my wife that he was worried; I was acting much like he had after his first deployment. There’s the time my interpreter called me from Afghanistan, pleading to get him out. When he called, I’d already left the Army. I was sick with cancer, wasting away in an isolation ward. If I died, I’d thought, I deserved it. We come to define ourselves by these experiences, our recollections of them. I tell you about my mother and father and my war because I hope that in listening, you might come to know me, even empathize with me.
I remember the day the sheikh who’d started the war died. I was 23. We’d spent the day on a hilltop exposed to enemy fire in a village in eastern Afghanistan. I had thought I was going to die. When the firefight ended, we got word the sheikh was dead. No one believed it. We thought it was a rumor. We returned to our outpost days later and watched the news broadcast. Young men and women gathered outside the White House chanting, USA, USA, USA! They cheered as though it were over. As though we’d won. I cannot help but juxtapose my father with that mass murderer, not for their individual vindictiveness, but for the way they each clutched their memories, the way memory twisted them. The sheikh said he could not forget the burning high-rise apartments in Beirut during the first Lebanon War, said he’d wished to inflict the same on us. My father, who could not forget fleeing the country of his birth, smiled as the sheikh’s plan unfolded on TV. I cannot forgive either man, but neither can I forgive those young men and women who celebrated a person’s death the same way we might celebrate a championship game. They waved flags for which they’d never bleed, sang an anthem whose meaning had eroded, these centuries past. They were my age. My men’s age. The only difference being that they were at home celebrating, and we were still—are still—in the desert, fighting. I wondered, with our vengeance gotten, when we’d be ordered home. But the war went on, long enough for my little brother to deploy. Twice. It goes on still.
I write this to you, because I fear these unpleasant memories will be lost, that people like my brother and father and those kids’ perverse joy in a man’s death will all be written out of history, just as my parents’ humanity, their countrymen’s humanity, my humanity had been written out of the last long war. Another memory, one I must preserve: On a mission in the middle of the fighting season, we accidentally killed a schoolteacher, a spingir—an elder. I remember finding his son—a middle-aged man—clawing at the dirt, blinded with grief. The wailing villagers. A boy named Omid, who translated for us because we lacked an interpreter that day, the way he cried when he saw the body, all that life spilled out of it. I reported to command that it was an accidental killing, but no one listened. The elder became a number in the kill count. I was as guilty as the officers who’d overruled me, men who hadn’t been there to see how wrong they were. As guilty as the man who pulled the trigger. As guilty as you, my countrymen, for leaving us out there in the desert to continue our bloody work. Guilty because I cheered when I got word over the radio to confirm the kill. We hardly saw the enemy, those men who’d concealed themselves amidst the mountains and treelines and innocent civilians so well, those men who’d wreaked havoc on our nerves and bodies and, in the end, our morals. I, too, celebrated a man’s death, but that was before I’d seen the error we’d made, before I heard his mourning kith and kin. And if the victims of the planes flown into our edifices of commerce and war could hear those Afghan villagers’ cries, would they think screams of anguish were a fitting tribute to their deaths?