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

Page 6 of 6

One morning just past dawn, the fifth platoon is ordered back to the airfield. The men are told they will be taking part in a helicopter assault on two villages near the Pakistani border. For the next thirty-six hours, the men practice field drills while battalion commanders speak confidently of taking on "a significant concentration of Al Qaeda forces." But Apache Snow II quickly runs into difficulties, and the Fifth Platoon is cut from the assault. (When Apache Snow II is finally launched ten days later, the 200 U.S. troops who land in an armada of choppers find villages filled only with women and children, a few boxes of rifle ammunition and three rocket-propelled grenades given to them by a village elder. A suspicious facility in one village, which military-intelligence analysts speculated might be a terrorist weapons plant, turns out to be a lumber mill.)

After being cut from the mission, the soldiers in the Fifth feel let down. "We just want the chance to do what we train for," says Ramos. Alone in the tent, D'Angelo seems the most disappointed. "I joined the Army to do extreme things," he says. "In this kind of war, the Air Force comes in, blows the shit out of everything. The Special Forces does their thing. The infantry comes in and we just guard what's already been taken." D'Angelo spits a stream of brown tobacco into an empty Gatorade bottle. "I think about leaving the Army and going into the real world. But sometimes I think the corporate world is cold. You won't measure up, they fire you. In the Army, if you fail at something, they try to rebuild people. Once you're in, they'll always find something for you. The Army is almost addictive. Everything is taken care of for you. My brother was telling me I should become a cop in the New Jersey Highway Patrol. I wouldn't know how to do that. If I saw someone was speeding, I'd just shoot him."

When the platoon goes back onto patrol, military intelligence passes down a report to D'Angelo that the route they had used to deliver medicine to Mowmand was mined after they left. According to the intelligence report, a man was spotted planting a mine on the road and told a local villager, "This mine is for the Americans."

Quast volunteers to take a patrol to a village near Mowmand to inquire with the locals if they have heard anything about mines being planted.

Within minutes of reaching Morgan Kechah — the village where they hope to obtain intelligence about the alleged mining incident — Quast and his ATF translator find a villager named Abdul Raheem. "He wants us to come to his house for tea," Quast tells Ludweg, the other TC on the patrol. "We can't turn down an Afghan's hospitality. It's an insult."

Quast insists that all the men come, including Ludweg. They squeeze through the low, four-foot-high entrance to Raheem's adobe home and are joined by two bearded, turbaned elders. Ludweg flashes a curt smile and hunches lower on his M-203.

Quast peels his armor off as he sits on the floor. Raheem reaches up to a high shelf molded into the adobe wall and takes down a plastic bottle of Khoshgo-var, an Iranian brand of cola. A young man, out of breath from a sprint to a neighboring village, brings in ice in a bucket made from an old antifreeze jug. Raheem picks up several glasses. He ceremoniously inspects one glass and observes a spot. He cleans it by delicately clearing his throat and hocking some spit into it. He wipes it on his dirty robe.

Ludweg's eyes bug out. But when the beverage is served, he and the other Americans soldiers raise their glasses and drink. After exchanging awkward pleasantries, Quast brings up the topic of land mines. He asks Raheem if he knows about anyone planting mines to kill Americans. Raheem appears shocked by the story. He and the two elders debate for a long time in Pashto. "The story is not true," he says in halting English. "Impossible." Then, through the translator, Raheem says, "We want Americans to stay. We want to protect Americans. If you leave, we will have more war. We want you to keep coming to our village."

When the Americans say goodbye and walk back to their Humvees, Raheem follows. He becomes agitated, eager to say something, but uncertain of how to express himself. He grabs one of the Americans' arms and asks, "How do I show my love?" The Americans look at him, puzzled.

"In my country," Raheem starts, "I show love to my friend by hold his hand or put my hand on his shoulder. How do I show love to Americans?"

Quast takes his hand and shakes it goodbye.

By the time Quast's Patrol Arrives back at the Wolf Pack compound, the second squad of the Fifth Platoon is preparing for its own patrol. Farrar grabs his helmet and groans. "The first thing I do when I get out of the Army is, I'm going to get some piece-of-shit job, go in to work the first day with my uniform fucked up, French fries hanging out of my mouth, all blazed, and they'll say, 'You're fired!' And I'll say, 'Fuck you, too,' and walk out of there laughing. You can do that in the civilian world."

One of the men asks Quast about that run to the Kandahar McDonald's they've been talking about for days now. Quast steps up: "I've got some news about the McDonald's in Kandahar." He stares ahead, his deep-set eyes expressionless. "The translator who told us about that. . . turns out, he lied. There is no McDonald's."

The soldiers stare at the sergeant while the news sinks in: There are no Happy Meals in Afghanistan. One naive belief has been shattered, but the others, deeply held among the men in the Fifth Platoon, remain intact — their faith that brotherly love will protect them against the worst evils of war, and that by behaving with characteristically blind but generous American decency, they will triumph in Afghanistan where all others have failed. No one believes in the latter more than D'Angelo, the platoon realist. Though he often complains bitterly about his failure to engage the enemy in combat, he occasionally brings up his father's experience in Italy during World War II. "My father's family hid in a cave when the Americans invaded and fought the Germans. My father was seven, and his face was bleeding from a cut. They could hear the Americans outside, and my grandmother wanted to take him out to get medical attention. My grandfather said no, but they took him anyway. The Americans fixed his face up and gave them food." D'Angelo stretches out his sleeve, showing off the flag and his patches for Ranger and Air Assault school. "Those were American soldiers."

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