This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com. Today’s TomDispatch coincides with the publication of Ann Jones’s new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story, a TomDispatch original book, published in conjunction with Haymarket Books.
The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody. They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.
It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage. They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski. They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.
They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity.
I remember the very first American soldiers I saw in Afghanistan. It must have been in 2002. In those days, very few American troops were on the ground in that country—most were being readied for Iraq to fulfill the vainglorious dreams of George W. Bush and Co.—and they were not stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but in the countryside, still supposedly searching for Osama bin Laden.
I was in the north, at the historic Dasht-i Shadian stadium near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, watching an afternoon of buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport in which mounted men, mostly farmers, vie for possession of a dead calf. The stadium was famous not only for the most fiercely contested buzkashi games in the country, but also for a day during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when local people invited 50 Soviet soldiers to enjoy the spectacle at Dasht-i Shadian and slaughtered them on the spot.
I was seated with Afghan friends in the bleachers when a squad of Americans in full battle gear barged into the dignitaries’ box and interrupted play. Some of them insisted on riding the horses. At a sign from the local warlord presiding over the games, Afghan riders helped the Americans mount. They may also have cued their horses to bolt, race away and dump them in the dirt.
A little stiffly, the soldiers hiked back to the grandstand, took up their rifles and made a great show of laughing off the incident—of being loud and boisterous “good sports.” But a large audience of poker-faced Afghan men had taken their measure. A friend said something to me that I never forgot in years after as I watched the “progress” of the war unfold: “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”