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

Greetings from Ass-Crack-istan: For the horny and heavily armed young GIs at the front line, life is nothing but heat, no beer, dust and fear. On the ground with a new generation of American warriors

Pvt. Jason Swinehart is the platoon's new guy.

Photograph by Nathaniel Welch

To the soldiers of The Fifth Platoon Delta Company living at Kandahar Airfield, deep in the former Taliban stronghold of southeastern Afghanistan, dawn breaks each morning with a horrible stench. Their tent is located at the southernmost end of the airfield, not far from the “shit lagoon” — the canal where all the excrement from the camp’s 5,000-plus inhabitants is dumped every day. Temperatures in Kandahar soar to more than 125 degrees, and the first hot winds of the morning bear an overwhelming smell of raw sewage, spiced with the odor of disinfectant from the latrines outside the tent, not to mention occasional gusts of diesel fuel blowing off the line of helicopters on the nearby runway. Sitting on the edge of his cot, twenty-year-old Pvt. Joshua Farrar, a former surfer from South Florida, shakes a Newport out of a dust-covered pack, surveys his fellow soldiers getting up to face another day in Afghanistan and concludes, “This all sucks.”

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The Fifth Platoon Delta are air-assault infantry attached to the 3-187th Battalion, America’s main combat force in southeastern Afghanistan. Their job is to fly into battle on helicopters, rappel down from ropes, and blow the crap out of tanks, fortifications and the enemy. But in Afghanistan the soldiers have been thrust into an ill-defined role. They mount round-the-clock combat recon patrols through former Taliban villages in the Kandahar desert. But the shooting has stopped for the most part, and now the soldiers are called on to enforce a shaky peace while serving as America’s ambassadors of good will in what remains a lethal land.

This article appeared in the July 25, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

As they prepare for their patrol, Farrar and a couple of the other gunners stand on top of two Humvees to mount machine guns in the turrets. Lt. Donato D’Angelo Jr., a twenty-six-year-old from Ramsey, New Jersey, leans on some sandbags outside, studying a plastic-encased patrol map.

The first thing you notice about D’Angelo, the platoon leader of Five Delta, is his physical power. He is about five feet eleven and weighs 195 pounds, with much of that weight carried in his shoulders and massive biceps. A week ago, he set a regimental record in Kandahar for his weight class by bench-pressing 325 pounds. D’Angelo played soccer at West Point, boxed for three years and completed Army Ranger school, during which he survived a lightning strike that killed the man next to him.

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“Today,” he says, “we will drive through some minefields and drink tea with village elders.” He looks up with a sort of grin or snarl. It’s tough to tell. D’Angelo is the son of first-generation Italian immigrants. “I’m like the black sheep of the family for being in the Army,” he says. “My brother’s twenty-three. He’s a bond trader in Manhattan, making $120,000 a year, and I’m making $35,000 living in a tent in Afghanistan with fourteen other guys.”

“Step aside, sir!” a soldier shouts. “Dust devil coming.” From across the parking lot, a brown cyclone whips up from behind a row of portajohns; D’Angelo steps back five paces while the funnel slips by. “You get used to the dust here after a while,” he says. Most afternoons, forty-mile-an-hour winds kick up dust storms that blow into the airfield like a thick fog, reducing visibility to a few yards.

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“Do people at home still care about the job we’re doing over here?” D’Angelo asks. He speaks softly, but emphasizes every syllable, as if laboring to make himself absolutely clear, just in case you happen to be a dumb fuck. “Are they still patriotic and all that, or have they forgotten about us?”

D’Angelo spits a thick stream of brown juice and adds, “You know, I took it kind of personally when the Towers fell. That was my back yard. To say I wanted to put my life on the line for America is too abstract. I came to Afghanistan to protect my mother, my sister and my little brother.”

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There are about 4,000 soldiers based at Kandahar Airfield, as well as an additional 1,000 coalition soldiers, most of them Canadian. The three-square-mile encampment at the base, seized from Taliban control last year, is the one piece of land in southeastern Afghanistan the United States controls absolutely. The barbed-wire perimeter is heavily fortified with machine-gun nests, bunkers and guard towers. Of all the personnel stationed here, less than 1,000 are actual infantry soldiers. The rest serve various support roles — truck drivers, computer technicians, inventory accountants — and this is the only Afghan soil they will ever set foot on.

In the six months since the Americans took over, Kandahar Airfield has gone from a mine-strewn ruin to a makeshift thriving city. Life inside the wire has its own peculiar rhythms. Americans at the camp inhabit their own time zone — the Pentagon’s worldwide standard, known as Zulu Time, which is four and one-half hours behind local time, meaning dawn breaks at about 12:30 A.M.

At this hour, the bombs usually start going off as part of the work done by the ordnance removal teams, and you begin to see early morning fitness nuts jogging, toting grenade launchers and pistols everyone is required to carry their weapons at all times. By 4 A.M. Zulu, the local Afghan workers show up, including a team of former mercenaries supplied by the local warlord, who tend the old rose garden outside the terminal while armed guards keep a watchful eye, lest one decide to hide a bomb in bushes. All day long, huge C-130 and C-17 transport planes disgorge steel shipping containers and mountains of supplies. (It takes two daily C-130 flights alone to keep the PX stocked with items like chips and salsa, Eminem CDs and thousands of cans of warm soda.) At two in the afternoon, when the sun starts to set in Zulu Time, officers hack golf balls at a primitive driving range built on the threshold of an old minefield. At about three in the afternoon Zulu, soldiers begin to crowd the “morale, welfare, recreation” (MWR) tents to phone home and watch the shows The West Wing and Fear Factor on big-screen TVs. Then, at about 6 P.M. Zulu, they hit their tents, where they are rocked to sleep by the thunder of mortar barrages from night maneuvers on the near practice range.

Despite efforts to offer the comforts of home, life at the camp is mighty unpleasant. The food is awful — a combination of premanufactured T-rations and MREs (meals ready to eat). Temperatures inside the tents hit 130 degrees in the day, the portajohns are foul and beastly hot, dust sifts into clothes and sleeping bags, and showers are available for only limited use. Add to that constant bouts of dysentery and the ever-present threat of rocket attacks — none successful so far — and you can understand why the soldiers have bitterly dubbed the post “Ass-Crack-istan.”

Among the stringencies the soldiers complain about most is General Order Number One, which bans possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. “There’s a way around everything,” says one enlisted soldier. “Some of the guys like to huff,” he says, referring to the tried-and-true brain-frying high of sniffing inhalants. “I was against it at first, but we got a good high from Glade.”

Sexual relations are banned on the base, but stories of forbidden conduct abound. In April, an Apache attack-helicopter crew, monitoring the camp through night-vision equipment, picked up a couple having sex in a vehicle. And several women have been flown home after it was discovered they were pregnant. Assignations are not unknown at a place dubbed “Terrorist Terrace” — a blown-up bunker at the south end of the airfield. “I hooked up with an enlisted girl at the MWR tent,” says a young officer. “We borrowed a Humvee and drove out to Terrorist Terrace. We’d never met before. We talked for a few minutes, and I said, ‘Listen, do you want to fuck?’ And she said, ‘Um, OK.’ When I came back and laid down in my tent with her gunk all over my dick, I knew I had done a bad thing. Then I thought, ‘I can’t believe it. I just got laid in Afghanistan.'”

The Fifth Platoon go by a roguish call sign. Over the radio they are the Hell Hounds of the Tank Killer Company Wolf Pack, or Wolf Pack Five for short. But, gathering in their tent in the final hour before their patrol, they look more like a small town baseball team than combat soldiers. The youngest is nineteen, and most of the rest are in their early twenties. The oldest, Platoon Sgt. Patrick Keough, is a thirty-six-year-old father of two. Despite the mad tattoos many display on their backs and arms, the bunch still give the impression of hometown innocence — one that is reinforced by frequent proclamations of how much they all care about one another. “All of us are brothers,” says Pfc. Andrew Wiser, a twenty-year-old from Conneaut, Ohio. “I’d die for any of these guys.” Their intense feeling for one another results in an almost naive faith. “Nothing bad is going to happen to any of us in Afghanistan,” Wiser says. “We’ll do anything it takes to look out for each other.”

Wolf Pack Five showed up in Kandahar last March, ready for battle. “I expected to start shooting as soon as we stepped off the plane,” says platoon section leader Sgt. Paul Quast, a beefy thirty-four-year-old with a shaved head and hard, deep-set blue eyes. Some of the soldiers, like Pfc. William Ballard, have been disappointed by the lack of action. A slender, soft-spoken, squinty nine-teen-year-old, Ballard says, “I thought there’d be more war in Afghanistan, more like Vietnam.” When he came to Afghanistan, Ballard brought along a custom sniper scope for his M-203 weapon — a combination grenade launcher and assault rifle — telling Keough he needed it to “shoot Afghans.” Keough made him send it home to his father in Reno, Nevada.

The Fifth Platoon’s only glimpse into the horrors of war occurred early on the morning of April 18th, when they pulled guard on the gunnery range — “Osama House” — after four Canadian soldiers, serving as part of the U.S.-led coalition, were killed in a friendly-fire accident. It happened at about midnight when an overzealous American F-16 pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Canadians, mistaking their gunnery practice as hostile fire. “I saw a torso,” says Farrar, who spent a whole day with the platoon guarding the accident site. “That was enough.”

Farrar, fair-haired and a lanky six feet one, moves with a slowness that’s both lazy and deliberate, and says he joined the Army to get money for college. “I never thought there was going to be a war,” he says. “There were guys at Fort Campbell who squirmed out before we deployed — like a kid who developed ‘dizzy spells.’ I thought of doing that, but fuck it.” Farrar holds an unusual position in the platoon. His superiors consider him one of the platoon’s best soldiers, but he is also the lowest-ranked. About a week after he arrived, he was busted down two ranks to buck private when an infraction he’d committed back at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, caught up with him. Farrar is sketchy about the details but allows it had something to do with a urine test. (Bad luck seems to dog Farrar. On a recent mail call, while his buddies opened letters and boxes of cookies from home, Farrar received a parking ticket. “This girl didn’t write me for three weeks,” he says. “I told her to pack her shit and get the fuck out of my house. Now she’s got my car.”)

At about 0600, the platoon strap on about sixty pounds of protective gear and equipment apiece and climb into three Humvees. They drive out the front gate of the American camp and go less than a mile, to a former Taliban command post surrounded by fourteen-foot-high mud-brick walls, that belongs to America’s ally in Kandahar, an army called the Anti-Taliban Forces.

The Fifth Platoon stay here for days at a time while running patrols, sleeping in beat-up Marine Corps pup tents set up in a dusty field opposite the ATF command post. Pulling into the fort, the men scramble out of the Humvees and make for the tents, each racing to find one that has the fewest rips and, ideally, zippers that work. You would think staying in the fort would be a hardship duty, but spirits are high. Spc. Arman-do Ramos, a twenty-year-old from Bakersfield, California, who has a three-year-old daughter back home, says, “Dude, this is the only place where we have the privacy to jack off.” Farrar groans, “I am so sick of beating off.” Ramos adds, “I see a stick figure of a naked chick someone drew in the latrines, and I’m ready to go.”

Before the first patrol, D’Angelo assembles the men for a briefing held beneath a parachute strung up in a corner of the walled fortress for shade. Once they sit down, D’Angelo turns to the new guy, Pvt. Jason Swinehart, a nineteen-year-old former high school football player from Ohio who arrived in Afghanistan only five days ago, his bag packed with George Strait and Kenny Chesney CDs.

“Private Swinehart, where are we?”

Swinehart looks around, grins, turns red. “I don’t know, sir.”

“We are outside the wire,” D’Angelo says in his most patient, speaking-to-a-dumb-fuck voice. The Kandahar desert is basically one vast, unmarked minefield. Three ATF soldiers were killed several weeks earlier when their Toyota pickup hit a mine less than a mile from the ATF fort. Two more died in a mine blast just beyond the perimeter of the air base. The American and coalition soldiers have been luckier. In April, a Canadian patrol hit a mine, but they were in an armored vehicle and no one was hurt. D’Angelo turns to Swinehart again. “What do the occupants of the lead vehicle do if they hit a mine?”

Swinehart sweats it a moment, squeezing his eyes shut in deep thought, then answers: “Everyone exits through the hatch, sir?”

“Very good, Swinehart,” D’Angelo says. Swinehart’s ability to quickly adapt to conditions in Afghanistan proves one of D’Angelo’s pet theories about young soldiers: It’s easier to train the ones who don’t have a lot of education. “See,” D’Angelo explains as the men start getting into the trucks, “if you took a nineteen-year-old philosophy major in college and gave him Swinehart’s job, that guy wouldn’t know what to do. We put Swinehart on top of the truck with a machine gun in his hands and drive him into a village where people have their own personal weapons — shotguns, AKs — and they start waving them around.” D’Angelo spits a long stream of black Copenhagen juice into the dust. “What do you do if you’re Swinehart? We have very simple rules: You don’t shoot unless he aims a weapon at you. I trust a guy like Swinehart to follow the rules. If you put that machine gun in the hands of a nineteen-year-old philosophy major, he might think too much. We don’t want that. In the Army, everything is decided for you. Just follow the rules.”

SGT. Quast, The Thirty-Four-year-old platoon staff sergeant, leads the initial patrol of the day from the first Humvee. A second Humvee follows about seventy-five yards behind. The basic crew of each consists of the driver, the turret gunner and the TC (truck commander), who also operates the radio. The patrols also include an ATF translator and a medic. For several days the soldiers have been excited about the prospect of driving new “up-armored” Humvees recently shipped in from the States. Up to now, patrols were conducted in conventional thin-skin vehicles providing little protection against land mines. The new Humvees are fitted with 3,500 pounds of armor protection. But it’s not the safety features that have the men talking; it’s the fact that these new vehicles are rumored to have air conditioning. All morning, Ramos has been repeating, “Dude, we’re gonna be cruising in the up-armors with the AC on full, windows all up and shit.”

The AC unit blasts with the noise and ferocity of a leaf blower, but hot air and dust pour in as usual through the open roof hatch where the gunner stands. The added armor interferes with the global-positioning-navigation unit, called a Plugger. The TCs now have to hold the Plugger about two feet out the window for it to operate.

There are other problems. The secure radios mounted in the Humvees cease to work once they get a few miles into the desert. So in order to communicate with one another, the soldiers ask friends and relatives to send seventy-dollar Motorola walkie-talkies you can buy at any Wal-Mart in the States. “The Army issues us its own walkabouts,” says Quast. “But they don’t work worth shit.”

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.

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.

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.”

In This Article: Afghanistan


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