The smell is overpowering. Sickly-sweet, unclean, tinged with the metallic undertone of blood. Flies are everywhere, and blood is pooling at the bottom of the body bags underneath what was our enemy. “Steciak, come here, I think this one is yours.” It’s Webb, our forward observer, standing over one of the bags farther down the line. I walk over. “We found this guy where you were shooting. I don’t think anyone else was firing over there.” I say nothing, as there is nothing for me to say.
He’s close to my age—twenty-one, perhaps a few years older or younger—with wavy brown hair and a thin beard. His eyes are half-open, and flies are flitting in and out of his nostrils. Tattered pieces of a camouflage jacket and white t-shirt are wrapped around his loosely crossed arms. His chest is covered in drying, dark red blood. Most of his left hip is gone—torn away by one of my .50-caliber rounds, I assume. He looks calm, dry eyes and dilated pupils staring at nothing.
I feel a sense of satisfaction, which I know would be unfathomable and perverse to people who have never been there. He was one of “them”: an insurgent, a target, not a person. We don’t kill people; not real people, anyway. Not normal people like you and me. We kill “hajj”—“bad guys,” “the enemy.” This man, twisted and bleeding, is our nameless and faceless opponent. I hate him. I hate him for fifteen months of frustration, sleepless nights, firefights and rocket attacks. He’s the reason I am in this miserable place. He is the reason that good men I know are dead or crippled. I am glad to see him lying here, broken and lifeless.
The moment passes, my anger slowly fading to the background of my thoughts. He is the nameless, faceless enemy again. Light brown Afghan National Army trucks are rumbling through the main gate, their tires crunching softly on the gravel of the helicopter landing zone. One of them stops near me. Shrugging, I reach in to my pocket to grab a cigarette. I light it and slip on a pair of surgical gloves.
The bag zips easily once the limbs are shoved into it. One of my squad mates grabs the leg end, and I take the front. My left hand feels something soft and wet through the plastic, so I reposition it, and we heft our load in to the bed of the pickup. There are now three bags in this truck—white with splashes of dull red. Someone retches, and I am thankful for the smell of cheap tobacco in my nostrils.
The bodies will be washed, shrouded, and buried before the sun pales in the evening. We can rip and mangle flesh with steel and lead, but we cannot disrespect the bodies of our enemies. We may kill a man, but we must be mindful of cultural sensitivities afterwards. I peel off the gloves and throw them next to the bags. The trucks drive off to wherever it is that we bury the enemy. I adjust my rifle on my back and begin walking towards the main compound. It’s close to dinner, and tonight the cooks are serving spaghetti. I like the spaghetti.
The bloodstained gravel is now four years and thousands of miles behind me. Reflection comes slowly, reluctantly, as mental walls built of conditioning and discipline slowly erode. When I was there, it was easiest to leave such barriers alone—thoughts and impressions safely compartmentalized and segregated. Now my cautious introspection leaves me with few answers and many new questions.
The soldier standing underneath the Afghan sun is still with me. The uniform is packed away and the dead are long buried, but part of me is standing there on that LZ, surrounded by mountains and the smell of blood.
Some of the hatred has cooled, replaced by a degree of understanding. I can’t blame the enemy for his actions, nor do I question the conviction behind whatever beliefs drove him to grab a weapon and fight us. In his situation, I may well have taken a similar path. At the same time, anger still simmers inside of me. I know too many soldiers who left for Afghanistan as young men and returned in flag-draped boxes.
I do not have remorse for my actions. This is not a choice—it just is. I also do not regret the circumstances that brought me to Afghanistan, where I was charged with the task of killing. War is violence; to participate in war is to become an instrument of violence. Perhaps, though, I have found a degree of sympathy. After all these years, my enemy has grown a face.
This conflict is affecting our soldiers in ways we--the Australian public and its government--don’t want to confront and can't yet understand. There is little chance to hear about these sorts of experiences; there is limited and restricted coverage in the media. Moreover, whatever is reported eschews discussion of the wounded and their experiences post-deployment. Highly detailed coverage of soldiers is focussed on those who were killed. In any case, I appreciate the candour in this piece and what it imparts, and wish there were more like it.
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