I arrived in Kuwait on a Tuesday, but I did not know at the time what day it was. Somewhere between Texas and the Middle East, with the help of NyQuil, I had lost consciousness as well as awareness of how much time had passed. I had only woken up as the plane pitched forward and slowed down.
“Thank you for flying with us, and we hope to bring you back home soon,” the civilian stewardess announced over the intercom as we descended, suggesting we had some choice in airline. We were soldiers in a contracted civilian airplane, landing at a way station between the safety of home and the uncertainty of war. Some of us would go from here to Iraq, some to Afghanistan. But whatever our destination, we passed through the same place, and the next leg of the trip would be aboard a gray military transport plane.
With the plane’s wheels on the ground, I fished under my seat for my M9 pistol and hooked it to my belt in its flap holster.
On the dusty tarmac, soldiers lined up to unload green duffel bags from the plane’s cargo hold and into a semi-truck for transport to Camp Arifjan, a U.S. Army base outside Kuwait City that has served as a stop for thousands of service members on the road to the many fronts of the Global War on Terror. Sweat stained their T-shirts under the arms and where rifle straps had crossed their bodies. With the work done, we loaded onto buses and proceeded into brown haze toward the camp. No one spoke until we were dropped off at a muster point under a strangely brown sun.
Kuwait’s proximity to America’s war zones makes it a convenient staging ground for soldiers on the way to the battlefield, as well as a stopping point for veterans on the way back. But in either direction, it’s a place to sit and wait—a place where, given the vagaries of military transportation and logistics, it can be hard to ascertain an exact departure date. Over the years, contractors have built up the base with fast-food restaurants and recreation facilities, but Arifjan isn’t home. Nor is it war. For those of us trying to get somewhere else, it’s just an inconvenience.
At the muster point, a man set about sorting us, as if he were Saint Peter of Kuwait and we were his flock. “If you are going to Iraq, stand in this line,” he said, pointing to his left. “If you are going to Afghanistan—correction, if you are going to Bagram, Afghanistan, stand here. If you are going to Kandahar, that’s over here.” He paused for a moment as the crowd parted. He had no list of names to check that we were in the right lines. We carried our own destinies on crumpled NATO orders stuffed into the velcroed pockets of our uniforms.
* * *
The line for Kandahar, Afghanistan—the Taliban heartland that remains one of the most violent provinces in the country—was short. There probably wouldn’t be one at all within a year or so. The war was over, at least officially. The American combat mission in the country, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, formally concluded at the end of 2014, replaced by a mission mainly, though not exclusively, aimed at supporting Afghan security forces against the Taliban. Most of us bound for Afghanistan would join the residual force at Bagram, a base north of Kabul, and await the complete U.S. withdrawal from the country.
I imagined the scenes that must have taken place at this muster point in past years, involving larger crowds of soldiers standing in other lines to go to smaller outposts, all abandoned now. Kuwait, the backstage of the great spectacle of the Global War on Terrorism, seemed now to be fading in time and covered in dust, and I felt, standing in the back of the Bagram line, like the last human being who would play a part. I was starting middle school in 2001 when heroes and villains and forgettable men were starting their journeys right where I stood now. Some didn’t come back. Would I?
From there we were instructed on how to get our bunk assignments in the short-term accommodations known as transient barracks.
I was traveling with two other people—an officer in his late 40s with a Texas accent, whom I called Chief, and a younger officer who could not have been more than 35 and didn’t say much. The older officer was now on his fifth deployment, and visibly uneasy at the thought of spending one more second in Kuwait than he had to. As the ranking man in our group, Chief was in charge of getting us from Arifjan to Ali Al Salem, the Air Force base where we would catch a military plane bound for Afghanistan. But it wasn’t as if we could simply reserve seats like on a civilian airline—our fates depended on logistical forces we couldn’t see.
“All right, guys,” I remember Chief saying to us. “This is where we lose all control. … I was here a week last time. We do not want that. ... I’ll try to sweet-talk us out.” (The quotes that follow reflect my best recollection of the conversations I had.)
“All right, sir. You want us to get bunks?” I asked.
“Let’s not settle down. I am still hopeful we can move.” He walked off to try to make arrangements.
There was a pile of duffel bags in the darkness near us, the faded names stenciled onto them barely legible. With the exception of a few bus drivers smoking nearby, the younger warrant officer and I were alone at the muster point. The other soldiers we had arrived with were making themselves comfortable on Army linen in the purgatory of the transient barracks.
Chief returned without good news. “Maybe tomorrow, guys,” he said as he approached. “There is a bus that goes to the air field at 10.”
We’d have to stay the night in the transient barracks, one of many identical concrete buildings that stretched into the darkness of the camp. When we arrived to drop off our gear, bags crowded the narrow paths between rows of bunks. There were over a hundred men, soldiers and marines, in various states of undress. They sat on their unmade bunks or on stuffed bags. Music of all different genres came from dark corners. Rifles hung off the edges of bunks and body armor leaned, stiffly, against walls. Laptops played movies, pornography, and Skype conversations through speakers for everyone to hear. I couldn’t tell if any given person was heading to war or heading home.
The three of us kicked up dust as we made our way across Arifjan to the chow hall, a white pre-fab building at the edge of the base where locals and migrant workers portioned out vegetables and fried chicken onto disposable trays. There was an array of pies and ice cream for dessert. To me the spread seemed designed to lull us into accepting our fate. We were like Odysseus’s men feasting at the table of the goddess Circe before being turned into swine and locked in a pen.
“Man, deployment food ain’t bad,” the younger warrant officer said. “Not hungry?”
“Not really,” I said. “I’m awfully tired and have no idea what’s going on.”
“It beats MREs,” said Chief, referring to the Meals Ready-to-Eat that sustain infantry on patrol. “And I have no idea what’s going on either.”
But I knew he had an idea. The man had seen too much to not have an idea. He had flown Apaches in Iraq and Afghanistan and had been shot at through most of it, according to the stories he’d told us en route from Texas. Surely he could deliver us from Kuwait.
* * *
Back in the transient barracks, I wrapped myself in my blanket. The man in the bunk next to me was watching The Simpsons on his laptop.
“Are you coming or going?” I asked him.
“I am going home. It’s been a week. It may be another week before I leave.”
He looked defeated. His bed was made with sheets he had apparently purchased from one of the stores on the base, rather than the Army’s linen, and seemed to indicate that he was here for the long haul.
I thought about my wife. After friends stay at our house, she doesn’t remove the linens from the guest bed until she knows our visitors have made it safely back home. She considers it bad luck. Maybe if I didn’t bother to make my bed at all, I wouldn’t really be a guest at the camp.
“They lost my stuff,” my neighbor explained. “I should have been gone by now, but one of my bags never made it back from Iraq and it’s full of stuff I have to turn in here.”
“They won’t let you go home because they lost your bag?”
“I don’t know what happened. It was with the bags they were going to load when I left Iraq, but didn’t make it over here. My unit was instructed to turn in all the [military]-issued stuff in Kuwait.” His bag probably contained body armor or bulletproof plates—expensive items the military clearly wanted back. The result was that he was finished with the war, but couldn’t go home.
“Will they find it?” I asked.
“God, I hope so. I want to go home and there is nothing to do except sit here and go look for my bag every so often. It plays out like that every single day. It should get here soon, then I can turn my gear in and get out.”
“Who will you give it to?”
“Whoever will take it, but I’m not sure anyone is in charge.” He looked away.
* * *
I couldn’t sleep past four in the morning, when individual alarm clocks started going off one by one in the dark. Each seemed to have a sound unique to its owner; all were loud. I got up to shave, tracking dust into one of the little shower buildings and darkening the water on the floor. When I returned to the barracks, I ran into a cheerful kid in a marine uniform who greeted me. “Hey there, man.”
“Going home tomorrow. When are you out of here?”
“Maybe today,” I responded, almost as if asking a question.
“Going home or the other place?” he said.
“Just came from there. Ain’t nobody there anymore,” he said, and walked past me and out the door.
The man in the bunk next to mine was still watching The Simpsons. I wasn’t sure he had slept at all. He wasn’t leaving, but in theory I had a 10 a.m. bus to catch. I stuffed my blanket into my pack, hoping I wouldn’t be returning to my bunk, and found Chief packing his sleeping bag. It was only 7 a.m., but we couldn’t sleep anymore, and it would be better to wait in the terminal than in the crowded barracks. In the rising heat, Chief, the younger officer, and I dragged our bags back to the same building we had arrived at the night before, when Chief still thought he could get us out. More waiting. At 10 a.m., a soldier manning a desk inside the terminal said our bus was delayed. The younger officer went outside to walk around.
“You excited about Afghanistan?” Chief asked me. He had been tearing through a paperback historical thriller.
“Well, it’s happening,” I said. “First time to a war zone. I don’t know if I am excited. I can’t say I am depressed about going, but to say I’m excited wouldn’t be correct.”
“Well, apprehension is to be expected.”
“Right now I just want out of Kuwait. You don’t expect a place like this. I guess I thought I would be at war already.”
The author William Gibson had written that your body travels faster than your soul. His book Pattern Recognition was open on my Kindle. If Gibson was correct, my soul might make it to Kuwait in a few days. Right then it was sleeping next to my wife in Texas. But when I did make it out of Kuwait, what was I going to? A place where the Afghan people, at least the Taliban, would just be waiting for me to leave.
“I just think it’s all pointless,” I said. “Afghanistan will turn out like Iraq the minute we leave. ... Feels like a waste.”
“You have to find your own reason,” Chief said. “You can’t expect to win and you won’t.” He coughed from some of the dust that had found a permanent home in his lungs. “In Iraq I flew missions during the surge and it was really bad. I knew it was bad back then and I knew the whole war may have been for oil, but it didn’t matter. Out there on the streets in Fallujah was a 19-year-old kid and if I didn’t do my job and provide cover, he would die. And he didn’t deserve that. And he didn’t have a say in the strategy or the outcome of the war, and I didn’t either. I just had to look out for him. That was my role,” Chief said.
“I graduated college at a bad time,” I said. “I enlisted because I needed a job, and it hasn’t been a good experience.”
“But it has been an experience,” Chief said. “One day people will read about Afghanistan in a history book and it may be all bad, but while they worked by the hour in a cubicle, at least you got to see it all and live a strange time in U.S. history. … Someone might want to hear a story about it one day.”
“Look around you. There is no one here,” Chief added. He was right. It was a strange time. We would be the only three soldiers on the bus to the airfield, but I imagine it wasn’t long ago when the buses were never empty. Now nearly everyone had gone home, or they were holed up in a bunk in Kuwait, watching The Simpsons and waiting.
Our bus—driven by a middle-aged Kuwaiti in a dirty button-down shirt, a box of counterfeit Marlboros in his pocket—arrived two hours late. I thought of the driver as the mythical ferryman Charon arriving to take us across the Styx, the river the Greeks said separated the living from the dead. We dragged our bags to his bus and were delivered into the haze. Arifjan was behind us, and then gone.