About the Days
On certain nights, jackals were shotgunned to death on the mountain by men who waited for them. The morning guards got spoiled with beautiful sunrises. At some point they’d pass around scrambled eggs in Styrofoam containers, cracking each of the lids, searching for a container with no bacon and extra fruit, then handing that one to the interpreter. No one could discern the schedule of the locals’ prayers. The border crossing was closed until ten a.m. but our convoys often arrived at seven or eight, then waited, because the army doesn’t sleep in, no matter what. The Afghan soldiers played volleyball in a sandy pit near our huts each afternoon. The captain slept each night with a radio on. Printed instructions in the command room listed what type of emergencies warranted waking him. Poker that started at seven lasted until midnight. Poker that started at midnight lasted until the end of the guard shift when the guys took their money and went to breakfast.
1st PLT B-CO IAW 5th Kandak & SWT conducts MTD recon patrol to Kama Daka & ABP/Shilman Pass OP vic. grid 42SXC95739024 NLT 0800 15 MAR IOT perform village assessment and confirm/deny insurgent traffic @ Shilman Pass.
The briefings always included a mission statement and the mission statement always had required parts, just like a story: who, what, where, when, and why. The officers could churn out mission statements automatically. They spoke it as a language, but the younger guys scribbled furiously in notebooks in case they got called on to repeat it back. The lieutenant would say, “Taylor, tell me: what’s the mission.” And the specialist would look down at his notebook and stumble through what he’d captured. The words conduct patrol had stuck in his mind, because those were the parts that mattered to him. The ‘who’ didn’t matter; it was always the same: our platoon and some Afghans we didn’t know. For the specialist, the ‘when’ didn’t matter either: his team leader would wake him when it was time to leave. The ‘why’ was always fuzzy, the goal never as clear as in movies: Rescue the survivors. Find the secret plans. Take the hill at all costs, or the field, or the town. If the specialist didn’t write it down, he wouldn’t remember, because it wasn’t intuitive. It was a language he didn’t yet understand. He’d trail off. The lieutenant would ask, “Can someone help him out?” and a guy with faster handwriting would read his notes. “Village assessment. Confirm insurgent traffic.”
And the briefing continued: Grid coordinates for emergency landing zones. The challenge and password, number combination, and running password. Vehicle manifests and load plan. Route outline and grid coordinates of the checkpoints. Rules of engagement, escalation of force. Commander’s primary and secondary intel requirements. And on and on. At the end, the lieutenant called on whomever he deemed most likely not to have paid attention, just as a teacher would. And like students, we recited the language in fragments, and later, sentences. Trying to reach that point where the new language isn’t just a referent to the old, but has meaning itself. The point called fluency.
One of the more upsetting dreams was this one: A gruff cowboy approaches a boy lying in the grass of an open field. The cowboy says, “I’ve never shot a boy just to put him out of his misery, but I’ll do it today,” and he shoots the boy, who was asleep. The boy wakes and finds a hole in his stomach. The blood, however, spills from his mouth, which is speechless, and he takes himself to a hospital and lies on a bed but no one comes to him.
One afternoon while working at the entrance to the base, I asked our interpreter Aamir why so many of the locals’ names ended in the same suffix -wali.
He said it means “flower.”
I asked him why.
He said he didn’t understand.
Why is that word in everyone’s name.
He said he didn’t know; it’s just the way it is. He said there is a Pashtu expression people use when they don’t know the answer to a question and they suspect nobody else knows either. The expression translates to “Because the sky is high.”
I asked him if the expression rhymes in Pashtu like it does in English.
Aamir said, What do you mean?
I asked if the words sound the same when you say them in Pashtu. Do the words sound alike?
He asked, do the words sound like what?
Do they sound like each other?
He asked what I meant.
I said, Does it fucking rhyme?
Some of the moments appeared to be related. For example, the moment when our convoy couldn’t find its turn in the still-dark morning was related to a moment the night before, when everyone in the first truck didn’t get off their mountain shift until midnight, and those moments were related because they were
consecutive, or basically consecutive. But just as often, the consecutiveness or separation of two moments had nothing to do with their likelihood of being related. Some of the moments that happened consecutively seemed to be months apart. And some moments that were months apart seemed consecutive, seemed to cause each other directly. Though causation is a wild thing to go looking for.
Six village elders were ambushed on their way to a meeting. All six were shot in the head. Three died immediately. The others were rushed to our base for treatment.
Some of the guys’ last names were so appropriate for them that if it were fiction, the reader would scream.
Another dream: I worked at some kind of military checkpoint. It was nighttime. A man drove up and I approached his vehicle. He opened the van’s back doors and showed me the explosives inside. Then he detonated them. I called my fiancée Jessica on a cellular phone. I explained to her that I was dying. My blood was unrecoverable. After hanging up, I summoned a medic who saved me. I couldn’t believe it. And my entire life from then on was whatever you’d call the opposite of a miracle.
You give these secrets away all night. You keep them so close to the surface you can see them the moment you close your eyes. Sometimes the dream is what
happened that day slowed down. Sometimes it is a grisly act involving someone you love and you are watching from the kitchen table, still eating.
1st PLT B-CO IAW 5th Kandak ANA/ANCOP & SWT conducts MTD patrol to JSC at Bad Pech District Center NLT 0600 29 MAY IOT recon route and escort ANA.
A dead scorpion was found while making the bed. The metal container that stored our chow was left unlocked; a staff sergeant helped himself to a box of steaks and grilled for the whole platoon. Elliot’s girlfriend cheated on him. Sinclair’s wife cheated on him. Ladies all over America were cheating, and less remarkably, other ladies were not. The enormous spider that was caught so it could be made to fight was released because an opponent could not be found. We took pictures of sunsets, mountains, and faint moons. The sergeant in third platoon who had the vivid dreams finally rolled out of his lofted bed, broke some bones, and was sent to recover in a hospital in Missouri. The guy on my team who talked in his sleep, Roth, woke our squad leader, who slept nearby and yelled to me, “Moore, fix your boy.” So I told Roth to shut the fuck up and he did. Roth’s bed was also lofted and he fell out of it six times, but Roth was young and resilient and never broke anything. He crawled back up and slept. One night while I was on leave, Roth got hold of some booze, got drunk, fell asleep, and pissed himself. The laptop beside him was ruined. To my knowledge, and quite miraculously, no one was ever caught in the act of masturbating, though certain guys’ rooms smelled especially of it, and no one denied doing it. Digital pornography was traded merrily using tiny storage drives. A cheap plaque bearing the Optimist Creed hung on the wall of our hut, left there by the unit before us, or the unit before them. The most optimistic guy in our squad, Sergeant Brice, was the one who’d had all the most awful shit happen to him: His wife cheated on him during a previous tour of eighteen months in Iraq. She stole all his money and left him in terrible debt. But he had a new wife now, and his new wife was faithful and they bought a house in the country with a barn and a small pasture for their horses. He was the one who found the scorpion.
The Afghans who worked with us overnight in the guard shack got stoned on hash, bloodshot and giggly. They played the song “Barbie Girl” from a dated cellular phone and grooved in meditation to the music.
The platoon medic—wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals—ran from his tent to help treat the wounded elders.
The first-sergeant stopped him midway and said, “Not ‘til you get in a proper uniform you’re not.”
The medic ran back to change clothes.
The vocabulary of the army was exhausting and paranoid. Friend was unofficially forbidden. You knew what words were forbidden by the terms that trickled down to replace them, the language of commanders and first-sergeants. The people around you were battle buddies. And routine must have implied a soldier’s softened attention because it was also replaced. The correct term was battle rhythm.
We found our battle rhythm, but you can’t find one rhythm without affecting another. The one you affect is the rhythm of your body: the circadian. A rhythm we only notice when it breaks. A word we only use to describe when it’s lost. When we are trying to find it again.
Split open in Latin, circa means about, as in, movement about a center. Curiously, we don’t use the word like that very often. We say around instead. We move around the center. We use about to indicate knowledge. As in, to know about a subject. “The boy knows about what happened” is presumably different than “The boy knows what happened.” And it is. The difference is an amount of distance. To know is very intimate. To know about suggests understanding but also a degree of remove. There is proximity but also coldness. To know about is to have studied. And to study is the same as to move about a center—the orbiting of what’s true.
It is no surprise that circa comes from circus, as in Circus Maximus, the ancient games of Rome. Men racing chariots on the oval track, moving about a center. The games were a study in our violence. What happened at the center: the men fought and killed each other. The public was about them.
The other half of circadian, dian, comes from dies, meaning day. The rhythm is not a linear forward progression: we move about the days.
The wounded elders were in good spirits, which confused the soldiers who treated
them. Supposedly, the one whose jaw had been blown off couldn’t stop laughing. Sometimes I try to imagine this.
A call was made to the battalion command at Mehtar Lam requesting a helicopter to take the men to a proper hospital.
A response came: Roger. Wait one, Bruiser TOC. Not sure on the legality of evac’ing civilians. Over.
The captain replied. His voice seemed impervious to the distortion of radios. It came over the waves clean and calm and brilliant: Better make it fast. Or these guys are gonna be dead.
1st PLT B-CO IAW 5th Kandak ANA/ANCOP conducts MTD patrol to Androl NLT 0700 1 JUN IOT recon route feasibility and perform village assessment.
There were two platoons in the Valley. One platoon manned the guard towers while the other platoon ran little missions in the villages and the mountains, and every four days we switched. Every four days the work schedule changed. The sleep schedule changed. Also, the winds changed. Weather in the Valley was somehow synchronized to us: Four days of strong winds, and four days of calm. It changed as we did. The wind pounded our platoon in the towers, and during our patrols it was tranquil. On patrol days, as we hiked along the hillsides or drove through the mountains, it was sunny and hot and still, and vice versa for the other platoon. All of this was commonly accepted. A rumor had evolved that the winds were part of some particular kind of weather system—one of those
occurrences with proper names, like El Nino, except we didn’t know the name—and the winds that passed through the Valley every four days were the same winds. It was the same air, the same molecules, the same energy—whatever constitutes wind—passing through again and again. It was a legitimate cycle, like night and day. Just as the sun had predictable absences, so did the wind. For a certain while it was elsewhere, and you could imagine it elsewhere, in another valley, rocking another company up north or the French troops to our west. And then it came back around like a beast, the same beast as before. You had to be low to the ground and behind cover just to talk on the radio. Guys trying to open the flimsy doors on their tents looked ridiculous, pressing their whole bodies against the door, against the crushing wind. Then it lifted. It passed through, to the other side of the loop. It was somewhere up by Charlie Company, probably. But it would come back.
The helicopter came and the elders were loaded aboard. A convoy was dispatched to find out about the attackers. The locals had been chasing them across a mountainside. The convoy approached in their trucks. The convoy leader, a lieutenant, called back over the company net. The transmission was thin and cracked over the distance.
—TOC, this is Two-six. The local are in pursuit. Do we have permission to proceed?
In the TOC there was some hesitancy. The initial instructions had been vague.
The first-sergeant got on the radio.
—Two-six, this is Seven. Have you collected all the intel you can?
—Negative, Seven. Negative. We haven’t collected any intel. Do we have permission to keep moving outward?
—Two-six, do you have as much intel as you can gather at this point?
—I say again, Seven, we don’t have anything. The locals are saying we need to go farther. They’ve got them on the run, but we have to go farther north. Do we have permission to pursue?
—Two-six, go ahead and bring the convoy back in. We’ll debrief your intel at that time. Seven, out.
Later, a rumor circulated about whether any of the men survived. It was spoken in a new language.
Born and raised in southeast Iowa and served seven years in the Iowa National Guard. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review online, the Georgia Review, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and BOAAT, among other publications.