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

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Quast orders Swinehart to throw a plastic water bottle to the side of the vehicle to draw the kids away. As soon as he throws it, two boys, each about nine, race over, and both grab it, then start beating the shit out of each other. A man in a black turban, once the Taliban uniform, approaches out of nowhere. He has a scythe slung over his shoulder, with an enormous blade sticking out. Murphy, Abdullah and Ludweg walk up just as the man in the turban comes their way. Ludweg, nose beating red, drops his M-203 on the guy and stands back. The man in black cuts to the side of the Humvee where the boys are fighting and whacks both of them in the side of the head with his open fists.

It is late in the afternoon when the patrol returns to the Wolf Pack compound inside the ATF fort. D'Angelo calls them together for debriefing. Water bottles chill on a giant block of ice in a plastic chest. The ATF guys control an ice machine in Kandahar and trade the U.S. soldiers blocks in exchange for copies of skin magazines.

"Swinehart, what did you learn on your first patrol?" D'Angelo asks.

"I never seen a camel before, sir."

"What else did you learn?"

"Them kids fighting over a bottle of water. I never seen anything like that. I'll never forget that." He shakes his head, grinning. "I saw another kid; he put his fingers over his mouth like he wanted a cigarette. Kid couldn't have been more than six years old. And already smoking cigarettes?"

Farrar cuts in, saying to Swinehart,

"Over here, six years is already like a third of a person's life span. It makes sense to start smoking at that age."

The men in the platoon, like most other American soldiers, are in the almost unreal position of belonging to a seemingly victorious army that for the most part hasn't fired a shot. Battle-hardened ATF soldiers regale the young Americans with hair-raising tales of shooting down Soviet helicopters, slaughtering Al Qaeda fanatics with grenades, carving Russians up with bayonets. During meals at the Wolf Pack compound, the Americans pass around these secondhand tales as reverently as if they were their own.

But something about their ATF brothers-in-arms confuses the Americans. They are not only the most macho fighting force they have known, they are seemingly the gayest. Open affection between men — and even what might be defined as pederasty back home — is fairly common in Pashtun culture. Traditional Kandahar love songs frequently revolve around themes of love and flirtation between a boy and a man. Even when there's no sexual connotation, Afghan men tend to hold hands and touch each other a great deal.

Sometimes the ATF soldiers will try to explain to the Americans that a life with women only is an unfulfilling one. "When I told my counterparts in the ATF that I'm married," Keough says, "some of them have asked me, 'Is it a marriage of love?' They say, 'Women are for having children. Men are for love.' "

The first time Ludweg came to the compound, he thought he had established a rapport with one ATF soldier, talking to him about the relative merits of the AK-47 vs. the U.S.-issue M-4, when Ludweg happened to comment on the nice flowers growing in the lawn. The soldier leaned into Ludweg's face and said, "You have pretty eyes."

Some of the American soldiers refer to their ATF counterparts as "the butt-pirate army," but again, as in the relationships with villagers, their feelings about them are more complicated and open-minded than you might expect. In their free time, some of the soldiers in the Fifth Platoon stop by remote ATF checkpoints farther out in the desert, throw down their weapons and sit around for hours in the primitive guard huts playing cards and watching pirated Jean-Claude Van Damme DVDs. "Their culture is different," says Keough, "but they're soldiers, which makes them our brothers."

Still, the contrast between the Americans and the Afghans couldn't be sharper at night in the ATF fort. When the sun goes down, the ATF soldiers gather on a small, meticulously kept lawn in front of their command post and sit under lamps made from old Soviet bomb casings, stuck upright in the lawn and wired with colorful lights.

ATF soldiers, who run their own patrols by putting as many as three men at a time on tiny Honda 125 motorcycles, zoom in and out all night. Others loiter on their small lawn, wrestling for hours, then holding hands, arms draped limply over shoulders and AK-47s, swaying as they listen to songs blasted from a boombox. Occasionally they hire boy singers, usually about thirteen or fourteen, who sing and dance on the lawn. The older soldiers, bearded men with black, craggy smiles, stand around gazing like fans at a Britney Spears concert.

On the American side of the fort, those not on patrol sit around on upturned crates bullshitting. One of the most striking aspects of infantrymen's life is the intimate relationships they are forced to maintain with shit. The topic is never far from conversation. At the airfield, the smell of sewage is a constant factor, and everyone has to take his turn on the "shit truck" detail, emptying the base-camp portajohns. But it's on this patrol where the subject of excrement becomes a near-obsession. Every other day or so, shit here is disposed, a truly disgusting procedure that involves mixing excrement with diesel fuel and setting it on fire. The disposal process requires constant stirring and relighting, which all takes about an hour. "The trick to it," says Keough, "is stay out of the wind so you don't get that shit smoke in your clothes."

They debate the best ways to dig slit trenches (the basic communal toilet first used at Kandahar Airfield) and whether the best source of "field-expedient toilet paper" is to cut off one's T-shirt sleeves or use the upper portion of a sock. They laugh about the time that turbulence from a low-flying C-17 blew over the shitter on the perimeter with an unlucky grunt in it. Or the time Keough laughed so hard about Ballard's bad case of the krud — as the local dysentery is known — he shit his own pants. It's a good time at the ATF fort. The Americans talk about shit, then jack off in their pup tents. The ATF soldiers party with boys on the front lawn.

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