See attached. I guess that’s where it starts and ends, really.
This is a picture of me holding a little ceramic snowman. He lacks a definitive moniker other than the highly original “Fat Snowman” tag that I saddled him with as a child. I think he started life as one of my Grandma’s Christmas tree ornaments. For years I would find him in the bottom of my sock drawer, in assorted toolboxes, or the kitchen junk drawer. (Except at Christmas when I could never find him to put him on the tree.) In the early 1990’s, not long after the last contestants for empire here in Afghanistan were returning to the political tire fire that the Soviet Union had become, I found him in the bottom of my rucksack. That was one of my first trips overseas. He has accompanied me on every trip since. The kids nowadays have Flat Stanley, but I have always had Fat Snowman. I can offer no substantive explanation beyond that, other than to say that his presence has always made me feel normal. Whole. Like I came from somewhere before this and would eventually find my way back there.
It was nearly nine years ago now when Fat Snowman and I spent our first year in Kabul. Until last week, we had not returned since 2006. Frankly, I never thought that I would have cause to return, and I was okay with that. I suppose that’s what everybody says when they actually return to “that place” and are forced to look into the practical mirror that is the mission landscape revisited. We remember victories both great and small, but also see the consequences of circumstance and poor decisions. The first few days of this trip were filled with more of the latter than the former for me, actually. As a result, I have cast aside my previously-held assertion that the empire frontier resides best in memory-both my memory and our collective American memory of it. To confront our demons, individually and collectively, we can’t close our eyes and romanticize them. We would be best served by doing quite the opposite, actually. Our demons are ugly, real, and again-ours. We need to stop running from them and start talking to them if we ever want to make peace with this experience.
It’s hard to get too down about things here though. The Duty Officer who so cheerfully exclaimed “DOOD! I was in the FIFTH grade the first time you were here!” maintains enough optimism for the entire detachment. “Ya bro. Welcome back in. I’m your Duty Dude. Whatever you need. I got you covered” , he tells me. On Wednesday, I was in the middle of sharing a story with him about flying a kite over the wall and giving Tootsie Rolls to kids “his age” during my first visit to this site. I told him that it was a scary time, but an optimistic one. He listened intently, but then flipped his internal toggle switch to “somber”, saying simply: “Yeah. It’s not like that now. We can’t help them. They don’t even want to be helped.”
I found his claim to be pretty dubious and was turning an animated dialogue over in my head wherein I managed not to bitch about “his generation” while simultaneously avoiding inflating the already overrated virtues of my own. None of those thoughts ambled through my windpipe though. I got distracted for no really good reason. Like a wayward rainbow announcing itself from the sky in the middle of a snowstorm, the memory of my friend, mentor, and field partner during my first assignment here planted itself squarely in the middle of my consciousness. I recalled her practice of singing to herself while she brushed the dust out of her terminally-windswept auburn locks each evening when we came in from operations outside the wire. The thing is—instead of being the calming, centering, and welcome memory that it used to be, it made me surprisingly angry. I was struck sad with the realization that although I could remember her singing EVERY SINGLE DAY, I could no longer hear her voice in my memory. For that matter, I couldn’t immediately see her face in my mind’s eye either. I closed my eyes…inexplicably hoping that they would offer some clue to my other senses, but that was fruitless. I opened them and she was still gone. She will have been gone for five years this coming August. It seems too soon to forget. Maybe I’m suppressing those neurons somehow. I work by myself in one of the old office spaces here at the site that we used to share. My first day when they showed me to it, I just smiled and rearranged the furniture as I remembered it. I don’t know why I did it, but I unconsciously set up a chair for her on “her” side of the desk. I’ve only done it once so far, but I looked up and found it odd that she wasn’t there. I removed the chair as it really served no purpose now, but I did put Fat Snowman on that side of the desk. Again, I don’t know why other than to say it makes the space feel more whole.
As the mission winds to its inevitable conclusion here over the course of the next few months, the older folks seem to have a strong feeling of resignation about it all, really. I feel differently, too. It struck me yesterday that all of this talk I used to hear about “lost ground and wasted opportunities” doesn’t do anything to enhance our current trajectory. The reality that we chose to ignore for so long is that there was no ground to lose nor opportunities to waste.
The frontier is now as momentary and illusory as it was then. It never belonged to us to begin with. That said, it doesn’t really matter. “Enduring freedom” is an idea. Not a piece of ground. The only physical place it resides is within us and those we were able to help while we were here.
Although I didn’t think that this would be the “thing” I finished, I believe my work here is nearly done. As someone far wiser than I once said, ”...the having and the leaving go on together.”
It seems that things worth really doing typically get done on their time. Time invested in truly learning to know ourselves is time well spent though. The strongest life lesson I have gained as a result of this has been that the only way out is through. You helped me to that realization by being the anonymous reader on the other end of the world. Thank you.
HistoryDude and Fat Snowman 6 months ago