Helmand Dreams

By Graeme Wood

KARMAH - Lt. Peter Brooks, the infantry officer at the base I wrote about a few days ago, flattered me with an invitation to speak to his Marines. Brooks teaches an SAT class, and he wanted me tell them about good writing. I was nervous. I have never taught anyone anything. I did, however, remember the description Kurt Vonnegut, a veteran teacher of writing, gave of his job: he said each student had a spool of paper lodged at the base of his tongue. All Vonnegut had to do was gently open the student's mouth, pull the end of the paper out little by little, and sit with the student see what was written on it.

These Marines' spools turned out to be a long ones. We sat on cots in a wooden hut, and I told them to write simply, with words they knew and about things that mattered to them. Afterward, I asked them what their time as Marines had been like -- they were taking this class because they all intended to leave -- and whether they wished they were in Afghanistan. This last question they answered with a collective emphatic yes. They said:

We're here to occupy, we're doing our jobs, and we're proud of that. But a lot of us got in in 2006, when things were different. We were all reading about it and seeing it on TV, so we were all thinking that's what we were going to do. And now we're over here, and it's a whole different ball game.

Now we're all hearing about Afghanistan, and this is our next opportunity. Of course we want to be a part of that. If we don't try to jump on ship now, we are going to miss it.

As a Marine you get a close connection to a lot of people, in a short amount of time.... And when you see other Marines [go to Afghanistan], it's just a feeling you get: I want to be with you. It's sort of a guilt thing. If something were to happen to them, you'd start to look at yourself and say, If I had been there with them, I would have done something.....

It looks a little more like a fair fight, running around the hills in Afghanistan. Here we almost never see the bad guys. We've only lost one guy, thank god, and even that was hard enough. Imagine if we were losing thirty, forty guys. Would we trade those guys for Afghanistan? Of course not. But then the dumb grunt in me says, 'We were trained to hunt and kill bad guys. And when you are trained for years to do a certain thing, you want to know if you can do it. You know there are bad people out there who want to harm good people.

It's like one of those elementary school fights where you see a little kid getting picked on by a big, sweaty bully, and you want to tell the bully to pick on someone his own size. You see innocent people out there, just trying to live their lives, and there are others who for whatever reason won't let that happen. Well fuck them. Screw them.

Yes, our mothers would be upset with us, saying we want to go over there and fuck them up, and kill the muj. But it's what the world requires, and what the nation requires.

A buddy of ours was out there, and he told us all sorts of crazy stories. We'd have a couple drinks, and he'd just vent about his experiences in Afghanistan. He watched his squad leader get blown up. And you'd think: why would we want to put ourselves in that situation? Well, it's one of those things, an experience that no one can ever take back. It's a personal thing that I want to have. Once it's there, it's there.

But when we were still wondering whether we were going to Afghanistan or Iraq, that other guy who had been in Afghanistan was hoping we would come here, because he didn't wish Afghanistan on any of us. But if we don't experience it, how do we know?

I find myself surprised to sympathize most with the sentiment about wanting to know if you can do what you are trained to do. For a Marine to train for years, then spend his working life in a quiet, static defensive position like Karmah's, might be like a doctor's studying for years and never being allowed to see a patient. The doctor might be willing to do anything to find that first patient, even if that patient is a highly contagious Ebola victim.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2009/06/helmand-dreams/20198/