My first real firefight had everything you see in the movies. It was great. I mean sure, I’d been shot at before, and a few IEDs just missed me. But nothing like this. This fight had mortars exploding in the air, men rushing and diving as RPG’s pounded the earth, giant heroes calmly barking orders while bullets cracked past their heads, a lone medic rushing to save the wounded, all with sound(ish) tactics, outmaneuvering the enemy and returning fire. Really, by the end of it I was grinning, it was one of the happiest days of my life. That fight had it all. Except a villain . . .
Oh sure, we had an enemy. But I didn’t know much about them. This despite the fact that I and the rest of my team did our level best to hunt them down and kill them. I went to Afghanistan because my nation told me to. I did my best to find the enemy and kill them for one reason: that was my job.
My first shots at the enemy had their desired effect. When I saw the round hit the man I was aiming at, honestly all I felt was the satisfaction of a good shot. I didn’t fear him and I didn’t hate him. I was sent there to kill him and that’s what I did.
I think I could have gone on hunting people and possibly even killing people because my nation told me to. Maybe it would have eventually gotten to me. Maybe not. I’ll never know. I’ll never know what that lack of moral justification feels like, because the local thugs calling themselves the Taliban taught me to hate.
Most mornings, after the first call to prayer, I stepped outside our tiny Forward Operating Base (30 meters X 70 meters total) with some of the local Afghan National Army soldiers, Afghan Security Guards and an interpreter. Every morning when we weren’t on some mission I held sick call for all of the local Afghans. It lasted about an hour.
Eventually, we became the de facto clinic for the Shajoy area. People came for all sorts of ailments. I fixed them the best I could. Sometimes they brought their freshly dead for me to cure. That was hard. About a quarter of my patients were traumatic injuries to children. Those were very hard. Five kids stick in my head more than most.
Four girls and a boy had been injured in a local school. Their grandfather and another man brought them to me in two wheel barrows. That’s how small they were: five of them could fit well in two wheel barrows pushed by old men.
The Taliban’s local “Vice and Virtue Brigade” had punished them for their crimes. The crime of going to school, a madrasa even, to learn to read the Quaran. It was not a school operated by the West. But the school taught girls. Girls learning to read was unacceptable to those sick thugs.
To teach their own lesson, the Taliban “fighters” mutilated the teacher. Then they soaked rags in heating oil, wrapped them around the legs and genitals of these children and set them on fire.
Little kids. They set little kids on fire.
It took me a while to take that in. I remember thinking, “what sick fuck even comes up with this”? I treated them the best I could, and sent them on.
Over the next month, I worked with the father of the boy (I wasn’t allowed contact with the girls) to debried his wounds. I taught him how to do it every day. I provided antibiotic cream and bandages to pass out to the other victims.
Think about that: having to debried 2nd and 3rd degree burns on your children without any anesthesia of any kind for months. Think of holding them down, listening to them scream, every day, all for their own good. Because of what those men did to these babies.
I didn’t sleep well for many nights after that. Not because of how sad I was for those children, and I was, and I still am. I didn’t sleep because I hated the men who did that so much I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t rest while they lived.
Fortunately for us, the Shajoy locals weren’t prepared to put up with this kind of torture and abuse. Not very long afterwards, we received good intel on the crime. The Afghan National Police(ANP) and a small intelligence unit embedded in our team found out who the thugs were. They told us where they would be and the local ANP led the raid.
This fight held none of the excitement of the first. Some evil thugs on dirt bikes picking up gear and explosives wound up facing hard, angry men with M2s and M19s. It didn’t last long. No one barked orders. Bullets did not crack over our heads. The first fight required a medic. This one didn’t.
One day, after hearing my story, someone said those thugs may have been evil men, but they had families, or at least wives. They probably starved or suffered some other hardship because of me and my team. How can I sleep at night knowing that we had taken their lives? When I think of the widows of these men crying out, cursing my name at night, I smile inside. I sleep real easy.