This land is Helmand.
My first and only war tour took place in Afghanistan in 2010. I was a marine lieutenant then, a signals intelligence officer tasked with leading a platoon-size element of eighty to ninety men, spread across an area of operations the size of my home state of Connecticut, in the interception and exploitation of enemy communications. That was the official job description, anyway. The yearlong reality consisted of a tangle of rearguard management and frontline supervision. Years before Helmand Province, Afghanistan, however, there was Twentynine Palms, California. From the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2007, I was trained as a lance corporal in my military occupational specialty of tactical data systems administration (a specialty I would later jettison after earning my officer commission in Quantico, Virginia, in 2008). My schoolhouse was the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School, which was abbreviated as MCCES, pronounced “mick-sess.” For many, the wider location became “Twentynine Stumps” or “the Stumps.” But for me it just became “the Palms.”
Our time at the Palms was preceded by three weeks of marine combat training at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, and, before that, twelve weeks of marine basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. The progression from Parris Island to Geiger to the Palms signaled, on the face of it, a slow return from barbaric intrigue to the tedium of civilization. Boot camp was everything you might have gathered from films you’ve seen or think you’ve seen. There were the recruits on the deck, scrubbing away with their scuzz brushes, like confused termites laboring about impenetrable wood. There were the recruits being called up to the quarterdeck, push-upping or crunching to untold woofs from the mad hats. There were the mad hats themselves, emptying footlockers as we stood at postshower attention, and there were their subsequent commands to have us dress up by the numbers. There were the orders for recruits to hit recruits, and there was the corralling or prodding of recruits into hard surfaces where the laws of physics finished the job. There was the rifle drill position that was called the “fag wrist” and the bayonet training that sounded off with “Kill kill kill haji!” (The last bayonet charge occurred during the Korean War.) There was the platoon sergeant who would abruptly emerge in the squad bay frothing, unhinged, and maybe drunk, flipping over everything within spitting distance, propelling recruits to vault off their racks before the whirlwind struck, all while he ranted about every person who had ever wronged him.
So not long after my boot camp graduation, there was also something appropriate about watching junior enlisted men assemble at a weapons expo to get the autograph of the actor R. Lee Ermey of Full Metal Jacket fame. He looked frail and friendly, not at all the drill instructor for whom he had become known. Apart from the obvious irony of active-duty personnel fetishizing Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar film — at a weapons expo, no less — the way the marines lined up for his signature, like excited schoolboys amid the merchandise, struck me as at odds with the myth of the solemn warfighter set apart from the puerile hustle of American life. I hadn’t abased myself, on my knees, scrubbing toilets at the level and in constant sight of my drill instructor’s crotch just to join a club. That would have been, in the words of Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, “Mickey Mouse shit.”
If boot camp had introduced in me a keen awareness of my country’s violence and the overcompensating sentiment that went with it, my experience in school at Twentynine Palms took longer to register as a narrative. For a while, all I retained was unrelated impressions: a sulfuric stench that would come with the rain, something of which, years later, I would get a second whiff during the wet sand season in Afghanistan, or the sight of meth heads and tweakers (that’s what we called them) on the public bus I’d take to pick up semi-niche items understocked on base, like cheap portable irons or rechargeable Bluetooth headphones. More trundled through the Walmart Supercenter of Yucca Valley, my final destination. They were alive with death, and their deathliness had an aggression to it, one that burned with a spirited rage. When I think back to their torn visages and beady eyes, I can’t help but wonder how much of my paranoid apprehension of the locals was shaped by private insecurities. Professional-class rearing fused with entry-level military training had made me a nervous wreck. Whether I was outside the gate in the Mojave surrounded by what I imagined to be menacing junkies, or outside the wire in the Helmand surrounded by what I knew to be poppy farmers, my head was on a swivel, and the countenances of outsiders all took on the same cast. Writing this now, I’m embarrassed by the comparison. There is something ludicrous about relating foot patrols in a combat zone to Bluetooth shopping a few miles beyond a stateside base. But there was a way in which I had been conditioned, before and during my military years, to be suspicious of the outside, wherever that outside might be.
When I returned to the Palms for predeployment training in 2009, this time as an officer, I was briefed on how best to avoid killing scrappers during live fire exercises. These most dauntless of addicts, along with equally desperate immigrants, would trespass on small arms, artillery, and rocket or missile impact areas to scrounge for shell casings, unexploded ordnance, and other scrap metal they hoped to cash in at recycling centers or hawk on the black market. During the summer, some would expire from thirst. During the winter, some of their already frail bodies would freeze to death. Some would self-detonate with what they had found. I can’t verify this online, but I remember one brief including incidents where some met their end amid the live fire itself. Some were chased down, cuffed, and sent to prison, sometimes for years. Some were deported.
Surrounded by a desert of suffering, we nourished our emotional lives by inflicting suffering on those we cherished or said we cherished.Tweet
I didn’t think much of any of this at the time, during either my hurried excursion in 2009 or my extended stay in 2006 and 2007. This was how it was, this is how it had been for a while, and I had yet to allow myself to explore the haunting realities hiding behind such a thin layer of bureaucratic instruction. Others had taken on a superior posture toward the region’s lumpenproletariat, much like they did toward most civilians. The lumpen were lazy and undisciplined, the sort that warranted whatever came their way. In a word made popular on Parris Island, they were nasty. That they had managed to find themselves in such a grotesquely helpless state made them all the nastier. I’d like to think the cause of my indifference lay elsewhere. In retrospect, I wasn’t so much contemptuous as I was afraid, afraid of what their bare existence said about me and my place in the world. The thought that I had been living at the expense of others had crossed my mind more than once, but to see that cost in the flesh was too much to bear, and so I didn’t think about it.
Occasionally I’d hear stories about marines who were assaulted by resentful townies or desperate transients. The “town,” as a unified organism, was presented as hostile. I recall the station or unit commands issuing warnings and advisories of their own. Avoid X, Y, or Z bar. Do your Q, R, or S activities on base. W area is off-limits during T hours. Perhaps the superciliousness of some of my peers was related to this underlying fear. We were all eager to prove our toughness, yet anxious about having had it easier than the people we saw ourselves being superior to in strength, courage, and integrity. That is to say, we were soft, and those we considered losers were hard. This self-emasculating possibility, along with an unsurprising bias toward the status quo and propensity to follow orders, conspired to make us uninterested in their plight. At one level this was to be expected. We didn’t sign up to help the stray or downtrodden. But according to the agitprop or many of our own self-rationalizations, this was precisely what we had volunteered for: We were supposed to be nation builders, culturally sensitive agents of humanitarian intervention, winners of hearts and minds. That we were nothing of the sort, even in relation to our compatriots, did not bode well.
Meanwhile, marines were being discharged dishonorably or on bad conduct for adultery. Marines were divorcing after walking in on partners committing adultery. Marines were being punished for pummeling the people they walked in on, or the people they walked in on were being punished for pummeling them. Marines were marrying locals either because they were young and in love or because they were milking the system through contract marriages. Marines were caught in threesomes or foursomes or some other nthsomes. Sometimes these tales were delivered with a lightheartedness they may have deserved. Sometimes they came loaded with hints of harassment, abuse, and rape. New arrivals each week contained a trickle of female marines, who promptly became the quarry of at least half the battalion, and their faces tended to undergo a jaded metamorphosis as the weeks progressed. In short, we (and by “we” I mostly mean the men) were acting like a privileged caste. Surrounded by a desert of suffering, we nourished our emotional lives by inflicting suffering on those we cherished or said we cherished. If we weren’t the ones doing the direct inflicting, we at least took our entertainment from the spectacle of other people’s affliction.
Pain is weakness leaving the body. Most had internalized this boot camp mantra, and all had endured some form of arduous labor, torment, and sacrifice in the service. The marines I served with at the Palms hailed from a vast range of backgrounds, although few came from the upper reaches of society. In civilian life, many occupied lower rungs, and many found themselves in similarly oppressive situations on base (especially the women). But in relation to the area addicts and immigrants, we enjoyed our privilege and whatever semblance of narcissistic happiness or gratification it afforded. Often that enjoyment came at the expense of fellow marines and was frequently of a desperate, survivalist character, a kind of necessary Keynesian stimulus at the level of the individual. It was compulsive, cruel banter to keep the self-esteem sufficiently inflated, basically. But at least we weren’t torturing ourselves for a fix, like those tweaking and scrapping on the outskirts. The political economy of the Palms was treating us better than it was treating them.
Then we went to Afghanistan. On that front, I would prefer not to have to say anything at all. The commodification of America’s wars tends to know no bounds. It also happens to be unavoidable for those of us who have taken part in them. I can’t really speak about my past or my politics without risking the encouragement and benefits of America’s cheap yet profitable obsession with war, an obsession that predates the now ancient-seeming date of my war’s putative beginning, September 11, 2001. If the war involved any dignity, it is not deserving of an American audience that will make instantaneous patriotic sap from it. The mawkish standard requires pushback.
What I will say is that the explosions were regular and the combat was minimal. I was more a spectator than a participant. No matter how close I got, I was always at a remove. I never pulled the trigger, not even in the foot patrol that resulted in my Combat Action Ribbon (CAR). Everyone on that patrol was awarded the CAR. Rounds were fired by us and at us, and at one point we were forced to sprint and hit the prone behind some shrubbery. But after the initial fire had subsided and we had been ensconced long enough to feel comfortable, we took photographs of each other with someone’s cell phone, waiting for the air strike that never came. I still have the photograph of me in the prone, which I later posted on Facebook for the likes. It’s still on Facebook with the likes. A peasant walked toward us from the village we had been gunning down, and I was worried he might be strapped. I tried to be a good officer by ensuring the farmer was forced to lift up his shawl before approaching us any further. The man casually lifted, and I was ashamed the moment he did. He went about his day and we went back to base. We tried our best to follow in the steps of the men ahead of us, just as we had done on the way out, to minimize the chance of triggering a mine, but we were too thirsty and exhausted at that point to do it right. We were greeted by vehicles and cold bottled water not far beyond the base entrance, and we doused each other as we hopped on the truck beds and let ourselves be escorted back to the headquarter unit’s guarded Shangri-la, where everyone boasted through the evening.
During my most frank interludes in Afghanistan, I’d refer to the grotesque mess as the amusement park ride. There was little amusement for the inhabitants of the villages we were leveling or the tenders of the opium fields we were burning. There wasn’t much amusement for the marines being hit the hardest either, although they had a tendency to surprise when it came to their capacity to be amused. But for so many, myself included, the point, or one point anyway, was to be amused. This should come off as trite. Marines would be the first to concede it. So would the reporters, novelists, and filmmakers who narrate their exploits. But the observation must be closed off from the ethical debate in which it is embedded. The culture has deemed it kosher to note that marines have fun lighting shit on fire, blowing shit up, and dodging death. But when you, and especially as a current or former member of the armed services, move from this basic empirical observation to the question of whether the larger enterprise is just and necessary, you violate a taboo. That day we were shot at but ended up all right, we were amused. That day, months later, when a replacement for one of my marines stepped off on the same patrol, landed on an IED, and died, he was dead. Whether anyone was amused immediately before or after that death is a question we don’t ask.
The list of questions never asked bends toward the infinite: What were the mercenaries I kept meeting truly there for? The ones who couldn’t help letting me know how much they were making for a six-month stint? The ones who kept on bragging about raking in six figures, and how those numbers always paled in comparison to what their bosses were making back in Maryland or Virginia? What about those contractors, specifically in the intel world, who foisted a never-ending line of gadgetries on my men to be field-tested and then shipped off to the global marketplace? Why did the gear never work? Why was it so unwieldy? Why did it slow down ops, and why did no one seem to care that it usually had to be escorted by those with the appropriate clearance, which meant putting my guys at risk from point A to point B and back again? Why so much acceptance in the face of ambitious captains who wanted to be majors, ambitious majors who wanted to be lieutenant colonels, ambitious lieutenant colonels who wanted to be full birds, ambitious full birds who wanted to be generals, and ambitious generals who wanted an extra star, all putting other lives on the line to make it happen?
Then one time I watched a group of marines obliterate the corner of a remote hamlet with the totality of their arsenal, from the M4 carbine to the M249 light machine gun to the M240 machine gun to the Mk 19 grenade launcher to the AT4 recoilless smoothbore weapon to the FGM-148 Javelin missile to the BGM-71 TOW missile. They’d lost friends, they were bitter, and they had come to see their surroundings not only as hostile, as was already the case back in Twentynine Palms, but as damnable. They were heading home soon and had some underutilized weapon systems to play with. I took pictures along with everyone else. I told myself there was something I didn’t know that justified the carnage I was consuming.
I had been trained my entire life not to connect what, in the course of a slow and painful unlearning I am now so insistent must connect.Tweet
Then the time, while pissing on a small outpost before heading off to the next base on a convoy, I spotted a detainee crouched in a makeshift wooden box not much larger than his crouch. I found the sight wretched enough to jot it down in a notebook, but nothing more. Or the time I was asked to make sure another detainee sharing a back seat with me in an armored vehicle wasn’t allowed to pull his shawl above his forearms, for fear he would find a way to remove the zip ties from his wrists. I watched the kid, a teenager really, shiver for fifteen minutes — it was wintertime in Helmand, and at an altitude of well over three thousand feet, the temperature was in the high twenties — before relenting and allowing him to cover up. He looked too much like my marines.
Fifteen minutes was a long time to discover the humanity of someone sitting a couple feet to my left. Then again, I had spent over twenty-five years lapping up a political culture that had erased everything that made him human, so maybe it was more startling it took only fifteen. That other provisional detainee cage would likely have failed detainee treatment regulations at a battalion or regimental base. The razing of that community was easier to accept because we were a good kilometer from the shells’ impact. So many of the field and general officers at division-level headquarters were able to keep congratulating themselves for a job well done because they relied on secondary or tertiary reports from company officers looking to keep their jobs or advance their careers. And if their superiors ever bothered to visit the front, they did so under curated conditions.
The locals and vagabonds skirting around my schoolhouse in the Southern California desert were almost always, for me and my peers, over there. They were the immiserated background, and the only time we allowed them to come to the fore was when we skittishly passed them while going about our mundane chores. Either that or when they became a problem. When they scuffled with a member of our tribe at a bar or on the street out of resentment, or when they slinked through the perimeter of our impact zones in anguished search of some means of subsistence, they were liable to enter our sights. Some at that point were then chased, rounded up, and maybe even put away. That we never thought it was our responsibility to help them somehow, to serve and protect them, as it were, seems reasonable. It wasn’t our job. However, according to the prognosticators of the postmodern military, working as trustworthy, socially responsible facilitators of a diverse and healthy civil society was exactly our job: David Petraeus had told me so in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, David Kilcullen told me the same thing in The Accidental Guerrilla, as did David Galula in Counterinsurgency Warfare. And everyone serious agreed with the Davids.
I’ll never forget the exhilaration in a battalion briefing room as forward-deployed Drug Enforcement Agency operatives crowed about their latest opium raid and burning of poppy fields. And it took a while for these memories to hark back to triumphant newspaper headlines or TV news segments of police swoops on Mojave meth labs. The juxtaposition of the Palms and the Helmand is not a perfect fit. Discerning the continuities at all is not something that came easily to me. Too many received wisdoms got in the way, especially the dichotomies among them: jargony distinctions like “schoolhouse” and “the fleet,” predeployment and deployment, or stateside and “in country” (originally “Indian Country”). Also more widely recognized ideological divides between domestic and foreign, national and global that have always, in turn, been attended by the tacit distinctions between civilization and chaos, enlightenment and areas of darkness. I had been trained my entire life not to connect what, in the course of a slow and painful unlearning — an unlearning of which this essay is very much a part — I am now so insistent must connect. The gated perimeters, violent diversions, and rent faces in the background are not just over there, in the theater of war. They have come home, or were part of our home to begin with, exported and imported a thousand times over, across the earth. They are borderless, even ubiquitous.
Looking over my old emails to family and friends from Afghanistan, I am struck by how little distance I’ve traveled in terms of what I understand. I am still inundated by a torrent of ghastly revelations I can neither fully contain nor channel. I still find available mediums of communication offensive to the task of honest speech. I still intuit something emancipatory about this paralysis, this failure I’m subject to. I still adore my marines just as much as I am beset by our shared past. So much of my daily routine I continue to think of as an act of moral quarantine: still stuck in the Afghan muck, I obsess over my bit in the killing and beseech others to join me in the obsession. Most of all, I still understand my misadventure, as I did in my most candid and tortured dispatches, more as a lesson about the meaning of the United States than a lesson about “war.”
I now conceptualize the society I came from and the war to which I went as part of the same grotesque amusement park ride. If I have discovered anything since my homecoming, it is not that I never came home. It is not that my soul resides in Afghanistan. It is that my home has lost its peaceful veneer, stripped bare, like Twentynine Palms. An American who leaves for war never leaves America. The war that is America, rather, comes to the American. The war is the society and the society is the war, and one who sees that war sees America.
This is what becoming radicalized has meant for me, and it has been jolting. Not long after my discharge in 2011, while I was struggling with severe panic attacks and depression, close friends convinced me to try psychedelics. I found it healing at first, but the last trip landed me in an emergency room. Everyone had become a demon and I was the only human left in their company. From time to time, the psychosis reverberates. I have trouble with elevators and subways, especially when I’m intoxicated, it’s off-hours, and I’m approaching absolute aloneness. Once I shared a metro car with only one other passenger, a man stretched out asleep across the seats, and I became convinced the car would never stop, the man would never wake up, and I would never escape. I would never die either. In Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot describes being on an “underground train” that stopped “too long between stations.” He saw “behind every face the mental emptiness deepen / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.” For me the terror runs deeper, where resonances of finality and emptiness are replaced by ones of eternity and hell. I originally attributed the contours of the bad trip to a gnawing sense of guilt. Another telling would have underlined the psychic costs of being shaken into seeing the killing fields behind the facade, even as everyone around you just kept seeing the facade. Such an isolating awakening can trigger, even without the self-reproach, an alienation akin to biblical doom.
I have tried my best to keep the treasured ones close, although I have lost a few along the way, and others have threatened to break with me. These have included fellow veterans. One fought in Israel’s Lebanon war in 2006, around the same time I was making my way through the boot camp crucible. The other served as one of my most able linguists in Afghanistan. The latter is a Purple Heart recipient from a subsequent deployment, although he saw a great deal the first go-around, and we formed a bond in between the outbursts. I even got him and his wife to befriend my grandparents once he was out of active duty and attending graduate school in New York. My grandfather, who survived being shot in the head at Iwo Jima, has been doing therapy work with combat veterans at the VA for years. He still asks about my buddy.
I’ve had exchanges with each that imply recognition of the porousness of authorized propaganda. The linguist, for example, admits the war in Afghanistan has been a disaster and there is no hopeful path forward. But both, despite their time spent on the edge of the abyss, remain beholden to a colonial logic. For them the United States and Israel are flawed but necessary bulwarks against barbarism. For me the empire is rooted in the barbarism it pretends to oppose. It is exhausting having to declaim the same talking points over and over again: That the majority of the United States’ official adversaries were once clients and allies. That almost every intervention comes with an ex post facto assessment from the government acknowledging the failure of the mission. That investigative reporters and historians almost always unearth internal documents betraying motives that not only run counter to public rationales but undermine all claims to humanitarian intent. That the United States supplies the world with a preponderance of its weapons and fuels a plurality of its animosities. That the United States is the only power to have ever dropped the bomb, that it did so twice, and that it did so not to end a world war (a war that was about to end anyway) but to launch what became a half-century-long cold war on superior footing. While not alone as a global malefactor, the United States is the world leader in conventional foreign invasions since 1945, with 12; has engineered at least 38 coups or regime changes since the Spanish American War of 1898; and has offered direct military support and training to dozens of governments with no regard for human rights. The United States incarcerates the most people today, both in absolute and relative terms. It has incarcerated the most people for at least thirty-some-odd years, and it either led the world in its incarceration rate or trailed closely behind the Soviet Union and South Africa for the preceding decades. As early as 1976, one study described America’s rate as the “highest in the world and still rising.” By any standard, the United States empire ranks among the world’s most formidable producers of violence, and one would be hard-pressed to defend such all-consuming production on liberal democratic grounds.
I read Michael Walzer’s The Company of Critics en route to Afghanistan. I was still a reluctant believer in the gospel of American righteousness then, and Walzer was the last, never mind the most refined, preacher I could believe. When he wrote in Arguing About War that the global fight against terrorism was “not backward looking and retributive, but forward looking and preventive,” that was enough to keep me faithful. Walzer had come after a more vulgar procession of neoconservative evangelists like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. These were the men who had ushered me to the right as an idealistic high school student, and I became quite the campus missionary when, weeks into my freshman year of college, the two towers fell. I became an opinion columnist and an op-ed editor for the school newspaper, where I penned romantic paeans to the democratizing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of my final contributions was a somber explanation for why I felt obligated to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and don the uniform. But by the third month of my deployment, even the subtle apologetics of Walzer struck me as dangerously absurd. If only Walzer and others could see what I saw. If only those who saw it with me could really see it.