Michael's Dispatches

Edvard Munch in the Marijuana Patch

2011-08-18-161959-Web-1000My heavily armed tent mates hours before the mission.

24 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

We live in tents.  Nice tents with air conditioning.  But not now; the electricity and air conditioning are out again and I’m sweating in a boiling tent to write this quickly before the laptop battery dies.  Please excuse this dispatch if it’s rough.  Batteries only last so long.  The local mess hall is a tent.  There are washers and dryers in a tent.  There is the medical tent and comms tent, and supply.  Is their electricity out?  Headquarters has a wooden building.  There are tent showers with water so hot that the shower tents are like a sauna.  The water nearly burns you.   All of this sure beats what I often get in the Himalaya.  On base, the outhouses may seem rough to passersby, but they are like five-star accommodation compared to conditions during some of the missions, when troops are forced to use a collective corner in some compound that is already used by an Afghan family.  In one compound, the family used a scythe for toilet paper for their feet.  When the kids pooped in the corner, they came out with poop on their bare feet. They used the scythe to scrape off the people-puddy, and then the kids were ready to play the high-five game we taught them, slapping high-five with little hands whose only washing occurs accidentally while they collect water from the deep wells.

On the night of the latest mission, the Soldiers had checked their gear over and over, and they were prepared to head into combat.


The Soldiers gathered their combat gear and walked in the darkness to the helicopters waiting nearby.  Roll call was taken several times, and then the engines started and the helicopters were ready and we loaded up and flew away.


The helicopters flew in black out through the night.  Inside the cabin was dark.  The only light was an infrared firefly on someone’s helmet, and it was flashing invisibly, but apparently it was enough light for my full-spectrum camera.


The helicopters landed in a marijuana patch.  The light was very dim.  The dust from the rotors and movement of Soldiers along with the splash from the moon permitted moments for using the lens as a paintbrush.  The aperture and shutter and sensitivity are the brushstrokes, while the sensor is the canvas.  The uncommon moment changes everything with the camera.  In such opportunities, the camera should not be viewed as an objective recording device, but as a paintbrush to express what can never be objectively captured.  An enemy rocket into a helicopter would dramatically change the moment and that would be real.  A bullet in the chest.  A bomb underfoot.  Other than those realities, there were some moments for art.


We moved away from our helicopter which roared away, and then another helicopter roared away, its rotors sparkling with the Kopp-Etchells Effect, while its hot engines were captured on the tiny canvas inside the camera.


The Soldier points; there is a pistol on his side.  The helicopters disappear, and now only the sounds of breathing and the crunching of parched soil under boot can be heard.  There is also the pungent smell of growing marijuana, outlawed in America but as normal here as okra.  Alcohol is forbidden here, while marijuana and opium-poppy grow by the thousands of tons.  A sentence for alcohol here could be as severe as a sentence for heroin in the United States.  Bar tabs in America are paid with money that says “In God We Trust,” while Afghans are notorious drinkers and are normally barred from Kabul bars.  And here we were, in a marijuana patch, in Kandahar Province, hypocritically calling each other hypocrites.


Maybe that’s why so many people prefer the life of a Soldier.  Moments like this are simple.


For some people, war is a duty.  For others, a gateway.  For a few, war is a gateway drug.

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