Afghanistan in 2002: Not Much War, But Plenty of Hell

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One of the ATF translators has told the soldiers that there is a McDonald's in downtown Kandahar. It's nothing but a cruel joke, but since no one in the Fifth Platoon has ever seen Kandahar — a war-torn city of medieval bazaars and dirt roads clogged with donkeys and chickens — they have no reason to disbelieve the report. "What we ought to do," says Quast, straining to see the trail ahead through the vehicle's two-inch-thick armor windows, "is send one of the ATF guys into Kandahar and do a run on the McDonald's."

He shouts up to the turret. "You hear that, Swinehart?"

Swinehart leans down, hands still on the machine gun. "Yeah!" he shouts. "Get me Supersize everything!"

The desert is littered with the silver hulls of Russian fighter planes, wrecked tanks and missile trucks. Mosques, old Soviet barracks and schools lie in ruins everywhere. You can tell who blew up what by the style of destruction. Russians and warring Afghans flatten structures and whole villages through massive artillery and aerial bombardment. Buildings hit by the U.S. Air Force tend to have one neat blast down the center, leaving the four corners standing.

The destination for Quast's patrol is the village of Mowmand, about seven miles up a dry riverbed. Homes in Kandahar villages are made of mud brick and stucco, shaped like beehives and nestled between a maze of walls the color of the dust that blows in the wind. The land strikes the Americans as so alien that some have nicknamed it Tatooine, after the planet of mud-hut villages in the Star Wars movies. The soldiers call Afghans "Habib," similar to the way "Charlie" was used to describe friend and foe in Vietnam. They goof on Pashto, imitating it with the sound "abadabadaba." But their attitude toward the people is more complex and decent than their prankish humor might indicate. American soldiers are more willing than other coalition forces in Kandahar to mix with the locals. Canadian recon units, which conduct their patrols in tanklike armored vehicles, seldom stop unless by prearranged plan. Master Cpl. Steve Marty, a soldier in a Canadian patrol unit, says, "We know what they did to the Russians. They'd invite them in and give them food laced with hepatitis. The Afghans in the villages still have all their weapons. If we got into a fight, it would be six of us against a whole village. We don't stop unless we have to."

The soldiers in the Fifth, many of whom share dog-eared histories of the Russian defeat in Afghanistan, are as aware as anyone else of the dangers posed by the villages they patrol, but their wariness is tempered by the particularly American faith, bordering on naivete, that most people can be brought around if, as Quast says, "you treat them with respect and dignity.

"First time we came to one village, the Canadians had been patrolling before us," says Quast. "A man hopped out on one leg, giving us the finger. Kids came out with rocks. Our gunner locked and loaded the .50-cal on a little kid who was aiming to hit him with a rock from a slingshot." The soldiers defused the tense situation by taking a direct approach. "We had our translator ask what they were so mad about. Turns out the patrols had been speeding through the village, kicking up dust, waking everyone up." The Fifth Platoon promised to drive more slowly through the village.

The Humvees stop about seventy-five yards from Mowmand's outermost wall. While Farrar and Swine-hart remain in the gun turrets of each Humvee, Quast steps out of the lead vehicle. Following procedure, he will stay here and send in a couple of soldiers to make contact with a village elder. Sgt. Jeremy Ludweg, 24, from Louisville, Kentucky, will go on, along with the ATF translator and a soft-spoken twenty-four-year-old art-school dropout from Detroit, Spc. Sean "Doc" Murphy, the platoon medic.

Murphy normally doesn't tell villagers he is a medic. "I don't have enough supplies for villagers," he says. But during a previous patrol, a man who lives outside the village invited Murphy into his house, telling him his children were sick. At first, Murphy kept quiet, but then the man's daughters came into the room. Their hair had fallen out, and their scalps were bleeding. "They just needed some iodine," Murphy says. "So I decided to bring some."

Even though more than a thousand people live in Mowmand, a spooky silence radiates from the village walls, broken only by the braying of donkeys. Ludweg has never been inside Mowmand before and doesn't trust locals as much as some of the other men do. A wiry redhead who wears small gold-frame glasses and speaks with a mild Kentucky drawl, Ludweg is famous in the platoon for nearly calling in a strike on two rabbits running through the perimeter of the Kandahar Airfield, which he mistook in his night-vision scope for Al Qaeda infiltrators. Ludweg is due to ship home in fewer than twenty days, leave the Army, marry his fiancée, finish college and find "a job where I never wear a uniform again." For obvious reasons, he wants to play it safe. "Doc, we're not going in, are we?" Ludweg asks, scanning the village uneasily, holding his M-203 high in front of his chest.

Murphy explains to the translator, Mohammed Abdullah, that they don't want to go into the village. "Of course, sir," Abdullah says, gazing at the village with a serene smile. He is a pudgy man, about twenty-five, with a fidgety gap-toothed smile. He's unfailingly polite and always appears eager to please the Americans. But like other ATF translators, he often seems not to listen to what the Americans are saying. "I will take you into the village, sir."

Murphy and Ludweg reluctantly follow. Weighted down with about sixty pounds of body armor, ammo and weaponry apiece, their boots whoof up knee-high clouds of dust with each step. Beneath the Americans' helmets, sweat pours down their faces. In the extreme heat, fair-haired Americans develop a strange complexion. Their skin burns red in blotches, but underneath it develops a sickly white pallor, especially on Ludweg. He hangs back, fuming. All the color has drained from his face, except for his nose, which is bright red, almost blinking like a clown's.

By now, children are streaming out of spider holes in the buildings and walls. About twenty boys and a couple of girls, with fly-covered smiles, approach the Americans with their hands out, chanting "Kalam!" which means pen, and begging for candy, even cigarettes. Basic items such as pens are novelties in many poverty-stricken Afghan villages.

After a few minutes, two men emerge from the village, followed by a young girl missing most of her hair. She has an oozing, red sore across the bald portion of her scalp. Murphy gives the men about ten dollars' worth of iodine solution and gauze, and explains how to use it. The two villagers shake his hand, then touch their hands to their hearts, a traditional Afghan show of affection.

Up by the Humvees, a small riot has broken out among children surrounding it. Swinehart and Farrar stand in their turret, hands on their machine guns, faces bright red and sweating. Theirs may not look like the most interesting job in the world, but in moments like this, you realize that holding a finger on the trigger of a machine gun in an alien village half a world away is a fairly profound responsibility. The weightiest challenge faced by the average college student their age is usually on the order of figuring out whether he'll get laid more or less if he goes vegan.

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