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Category Archives: Afghanistan

Shock and Awe (2004)


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Dear Stasha,
“I hope you’re not hiding anything about Artyom – infants can’t be as easy as Dimitri says he is!! I’m looking forward to getting home and hugging him really, and looking into his real eyes, not the Skyped eyes!  My ‘residency’  here in Mazar is ending is just about up, but I am ***SO***  frustrated that some of the best soldiers I’ve trained here are set to be transferred, along with lots of men and some women who have been vital to our establishing good relations with the Afghans, to Iraq. They asked my chief civilian resident to go and set up field MASH units in Iraq, because, as your brother would say, Bozhe fucking Moi are they STUPID!!! My mail doesn’t get censored as strictly as the grunts – and it’s a good thing, because I’m pretty pissed off right now. We have influence over about half this country at most. There’s a friendly pol named Hamid Karzai in Kabul right now; you probably knew that. From what I can tell, he’s there because he’s the only Pashtun we can find that any Turkmen or Hazara will talk to, let alone vote for. I’m not sure that they trust him. I know that his brother is some kind of thug – I actually had to face the man down, through an interpreter, in order to get a shipment of artificial organ walls and the clean surgical equipment I needed to do anything but amputate limbs and euthanize thoracic patients!
“This guy paraded around in a white shroud like the humblest peasant, hat the vest part of a three piece suit over it, wore a head covering that looked like it came from Leningrad and not the desert,  and brought thirty armed Pashtuns with him everywhere he went. This is how he displayed that he was a Big Man in Kandahar, and that he could deliver the men who still prefer the assholes that attacked us on 9/11 and got me to go here. He can’t do that. There are fifty Big Men just waiting to knock him off. You just won’t believe what I had to do to get this guy to open up the road from Kabul.
“Remember the story I told Dimitri about Jonah and the Whale? The haftarahthat we sit through when we’re starving at the end of Yom Kippur? Well, I thought of a different scripture. Look it up, Chapter 4 of Megillat Esther. We read it on Purim. Bigthan and Theresh were two thugs who wanted to take out a king from near here. Mordechai the Jew called them out, and they were hanged. Nobody did a thing about it, but the King woke up one night thinking about it, and re-read the events. He discovered that the hero, Mordechai, had received nothing for saving the Kingly ass.
“So, innocently, he asked his viceroy Haman what he should do to honor and show favor to him. Haman, it says, thought that the King could only mean him – Haman – so, sparing no detail, he comes up with a parade with horses decked out in purple velvet, musicians, the whole shee-bang. So the king orders Haman to put such an event together for Mordechai. Well, I decided that this is what I was going to do. We got fifty humvees from all over the North, draped them in the flag of the Karzai family, and trekked in all the supplies we could fly in at one time in from Bagram in a convoy with Karzai’s brother picking the music. You can imagine that he had the road cleared of these mines they can set off with garage door openers, and nobody who wasn’t part of the parade could hang out within half a mile of the road.
“The GI’s had to help out with logistics way befuckingyond, as Dim might say, the call of duty. Hell. They were giving up their own supplies to make sure Waliball’s retinue was happy. I heard someone wanted HANDKERCHIEFS en route, and that the jerk was high enough up that he’s better get his handkerchief, or he would send orders to “his Jurga.” Who knows what he meant, but he got his damn handkerchief. So we got to Bagram, and we got back to Mazar, just in time, too, because a helicopter was waiting for us with a dying kid inside. I couldn’t tell, boy, girl. There was too much blood. Exsanguinaaaaaaation is makin’ me quake, is keepin’ me blee-ee-ee-ee-ee-idin’. Carole King, I think. You were a little girl. You would have loved Carole King. Sometimes I turn her on Sirius over here and cry, when I’m alone.
“Well, I bubbled the bronchiole, tied up the thorax, stitched up the skin, and passed it off to the hospital. Yes, our men and women made that.  As of this email, the girl (it was a girl) lived, and I am trying to keep the family from giving me all their goats.
“Prekrasnichka, I love you very much. I miss you. Give yourself a big hug for me, and don’t bother too much if Dimitri brings those women over. I just don’t want you to be alone, OK?”

Hysteria (2002)

Dimitri sat in Arnie’s living room, dumbstruck, when Arnie showed him his enlistment in the U. S. Air Force. Dimitri’s sister Anastasia, who was Arnie’s trophy wife and whom Arnie called “Asha,” sat by her husband on the sofa.
“Kak-what the fuck?! You’re going to go bomb Osama back? What about your career, your tenure track,…”
“Ok, ok, Dimitri, cut it out, stop worrying. I’m all squared away. My assistant professorship is on hold, and the department chair thinks I’ll get tenure credit while I’m in theater. I started investigating this last year, right after Yom Kippur. It was what you said, something about being reconstituted from the ashes at Auschwitz when we came up at Canal Street to get ferried across to Bayonne. I’m sitting in synagogue all Yom Kippur and thinking, “Asha’s pregnant. What do I tell our baby when he asks me what I did when my country was attacked?” Asha and I talked about it, and I started exploring volunteering to serve in Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany. They sorta told me, “Thanks, but no thanks!”
“Huh?!”
“My reaction precisely. They told me that so much body armor is getting shipped to Uzbekistan that our troops are going to covered from the groin up. “
“So they told you, ‘Don’t come?’”
“No, they said, “Come, but be ready to treat the locals. And learn a little Tajik or Uzbek.”
“Right, so I got someone in World Languages to give me some Uzbek training tapes. Then I went off to Ft. Bragg for Basic Training. That sucked. I’m thirty-two, I used to play competitive tennis, and I used to spend nap time on rotation on our treadmill. But I never hiked in steel-toed boots with a sixty-pound ruck (that’s military-speak for “backpack”) on my back. And I never, ever imagined myself chanting that puerile crap they say to get through the march.”
Dimitri restrained a look of puzzlement. Ivy Leaguers sprinkled their speech with vocabulary like, “puerile,” that Dimitri last saw while preparing for his verbal SAT.
“So what were the calls between you guys like?” Dimitri looked from his wing chair first to Anastasia, then to Arnie.
“I just told him every night to leave off the girl recruits.”
“I told her back that since I was too tired to move anyway, it didn’t much matter, and if they sent me to Afghanistan as they promised, all the women were in burqas anyway.”
“I told him about Mama’s story about Soviet fashion – “
“Oxymoron,” Dimitri interrupted his sister.
“Exactly, Glupui, kak buik – moronic like an ox.” Dimitri and Anastasia laughed.
Arnie reveled in the image of stupid oxen parading Soviet fashion and Central Asian burqas. He returned to the current topic of discussion.
“Well, the reason we asked you up here is to talk about what’s happening next. I ship out to Afghanistan next Monday.”
Silence.
More silence.
“Like I said, everything is settled here, except that Asha is pregnant. I’d like you to consider transferring to Princeton and finishing your education degree here. Asha might have an easy pregnancy, or maybe not. But you’re her brother. You’ll save on rent, you’ll get a great degree, You might even be the first family member to see your new cousin born into the world. I’m only planning a two-year tour of duty. I want to set up a decent trauma unit there, train some staff, save some lives and go home. Maybe I’ll even learn something about trauma surgery. I should get leave for the baby’s birth, and eight months later, another short leave. Then I’m done.”
Arnie paused. Dimitri continued.
“Arnie, Stasia, you know that Stasia and I hardly talked from when I left home to when you got married.”
Anastasia continued, significantly, in Russian. Arnie did not understand. “Я сожалею об этом, димя. Я интересовался той же самой вещью, которой ты был; не похожение на наших родителей. Таким образом мы стали, как говорит, карикатуры нас непосредственно, чтобы не походить на них. Я хочу знакомиться с тoбoй снова. Пожалуйста скажите да. (I’m sorry about that, Dimya. I was interested in exactly the same thing as you were, not to be like our parents, To that end, we became, how do you say it, caricatures of ourselves in order to avoid being like them. I want to get to know you anew. Please say yes.)”
Arnie did not interfere with the obvious impoliteness of his wife’s switch from English. He sat, quietly, in his white country club tennis shorts, socks slightly dusted from the clay surface, and his white polo shirt with the Princeton insignia on the front left panel. He leaned into the exchange between the Kats siblings, his fingers pressed together in a subconsciously learned gesture of control.
Perhaps the “steepling” gesture worked. Perhaps it was Anastasia’s appeal to regain the lost opportunity of fraternal kinship. Perhaps it was the opportunity to bring dates, maybe even Samantha and her Ukrainian girlfriend, to the palatial digs of a Princeton professor. In any case, Dimitri’s savings were dwindling and the degree was still at least a year off, so despite the insult to his pride gnawing away at the periphery of his machismo, Dimitri agreed.