It can be rather disturbing, the things one grows to miss over time. Like buses. God, I miss buses. Waiting in the rain, wind and freezing cold at the crossroads by my house. Waiting twenty, thirty, sometimes forty minutes for one. Then one comes hurtling along, goes hurtling past. Full. Nothing to do but go on waiting. Those were the days. Sofas, I remember, were another whose absence found itself unexpectedly lamented. My closest friend during basic training - a suave Swede with perfect French and an enthusiastically reciprocated penchant for quoting The Fast Show - once mused lightly on how long it had been since our arses had enjoyed a warm, soft, comfy sofa. Ouf, Suits You Sir! The bar at the time had lowered itself to a gravel-free slice of concrete with a lump of moss for a pillow, if you were lucky.
Once a certain amount of time has passed here in Afghanistan, the desensitisation eventually becomes apparent having previously contented itself with chipping away at our various thresholds ever so stealthily, gradually yet relentlessly. Much like the Legion in general, passing a certain point here in ‘Ghan renders things previously considered exceptional as appearing increasingly ordinary. Things like especially remarkable levels of pain, fatigue, hunger. General discomfort, really (owing in part to the chronic lack of sofas, no doubt). One’s tolerance of idiots also reaches new heights (or new depths, if you like) during one’s service with the Legion, enforced ever more poignantly on an operational tour such as this one. All in all, the continued and progressive fusing of environment with subject renders anyone in such a situation defenceless against the annihilation of established dichotomy. Basically, what you once thought outrageous and even taboo becomes the norm in relation to both external and internal forces.
What am I trying to say here, exactly? Well, I’ve mulled over the writing of this particular blog entry for a while now, almost afraid to open my laptop. Hesitation stemmed not from fear of being unable to begin, but rather from fear of where it might take me once I did. You see, the list of things I’ve grown to miss since arriving in Afghanistan took a rather violently unexpected turn while out on patrol recently. It was a scorching mid-afternoon, a flawless, majestic blue sky over head, and we were forty brave men and women out doing the rounds. Foot patrols have increased recently due to increased vegetation severely diminishing visibility from the roadside out across the valley. Furthermore, the good weather allows the coalition forces to greet the village elders and scores of kids that line the laneways and crossroads along our route. Typically spanning no more than two or three kilometres (which nevertheless in 30°C heat with full body armour and weapons equals serious punishment), the patrols are relatively straightforward affairs. Up until now, we’d encountered practically no problems whatsoever.
So this patrol then.
There we were in standard single file formation snaking our way along alleys, over bridges, cutting through gardens and circumnavigating freshly-sown fields when suddenly there came this sound. This long-lost, familiar sound. A loud, dry, crisp crack as if someone brought a parched twig to your ear before mercilessly snapping it in two. In such an event, instinct followed by calculated reflex immediately kicks in as first you drop down low, perched on one knee, before seeking more substantial cover in almost the very same motion. The source of the sound wasn’t too far, maybe two hundred metres or so. The first shot is always inevitably theirs. The response from our side never dallies and typically assumes all further responsibility in the gun fire stakes until such time as it’s time to either plod on or head back. Spread out on either side of a narrow dirt lane, keeping our heads down and at the ready for any non-uniform wearing figure to show themselves, short, sharp glances were exchanged. Initially undertaken as an unconscious form of verifying that everyone was still breathing, prolonged eye contact slowly dragged a curious smile across each of the guys’ faces, adrenaline-fuelled hydraulics steadily pumping the corners of our mouths up high into our dusty, sunburned cheeks. That’s when it hit me. I missed the sound of live gunfire. I missed the thrill of being surprised by a rogue trigger-pull, the whiz, fizz and zip of bullets flying a few feet over head. Lengthy periods of relative inactivity had until that moment pushed it further from my thoughts, back to the tail-end of my preoccupations. No effort was required in sounding genuine in my assurances to loved ones that all was well over here, that I was safe and sound and that nothing much was going on. The truth never fails to be effortless when pleasing on the ear. Hence my uncertainty and subsequent hesitation in approaching this particular blog entry.
I know this would generally fall under the category of taboo. It may not be a confession of Oedipal proportions and yet I understand that even other soldiers themselves might consider it irresponsible and downright inappropriate. It wasn’t a deliberate decision to set my heart racing and senses tingling once that first shot rang out across the valley. It never is, never can be. And yet, so it was and so was I rendered. I guess the hydraulic smile and jittery excitement would fade fast should one of those zipping, whizzing, fizzing bullets ever find it’s intended target, but then you never think of that. You simply mustn’t think like that, and almost nobody over here does. If you do, I imagine you’d find yourself incapable of continuing in your duties and slumped on the next plane bound for France. I suppose it’s just one of those things all soldiers know, but don’t necessarily say. Necessity won’t serve as too stoic an excuse for me, but then it wouldn’t be much of a blog if I kept most of what I write unwritten.
This refusal to reflect lengthily on the danger-filled hypotheses greeting us at every sunrise goes further, however. Incidents like the recent suicide bombing, the various IEDs detonated in proximity to coalition vehicles, fire fights and other noteworthy occurrences have - for the most part - resulted in little more than cuts, bruises and pairs of ringing ears. You could nearly put it on a par with a weekend at Glastonbury. Joking aside though, our guys have been extremely lucky to have walked away from such events relatively unscathed. Those of us completely withdrawn and distanced even further from exploding roadside bombs and such should be considered even more fortunate, practically avoiding any contact whatsoever with such harrowing experiences. Or so you might think. The reality for the unaffected is far more complicated than what an outsider may conclude. When a friend or comrade is caught up in an explosion or enemy contact, there are three primary thoughts that flash through your mind.
The third thought to pass through and materialise is always
"Thank God they’re alright!"
The second thought, an undoubtedly logical, rational and human thought is "Thank God it wasn’t me!"
The first thought, however, is probably simultaneously the most honest and yet shameful. Many would dispute it publicly, even if few could deny it in their heart of hearts. If the second thought, arriving a mili-second later, happens to be "Thank God it wasn’t me!", then the very first thought to enter your head is inexplicably, undeniably......
"I kind of wish it was."