Monday, May 3, 2010

Introducing: Visions from the Front

Almost since its inception, the country George Washington proudly referred to as the “infant empire” has been deploying military forces to the farthest reaches of the globe. From the Barbary Coast, to the Philippines, to Nicaragua, to Haiti, to Vietnam, to ongoing operations in Iraq, a thorough study of American foreign policy yields a long and unbroken record of foreign military interventions and occupations around the world. The latest pet project of the American empire is in the Middle East, where President Obama has promised to stabilize the Karzai government in order to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan.
Americans can and should speculate on the reasons for war, but such musing and debate does little to change the reality of daily life for the people involved in these conflicts. Direct accounts of life from within, that haven’t passed through the sanitizing filters of the media, provide a valuable learning opportunity for the rest of us. In that spirit, I would like to introduce a new series to American Commentary: Visions from the Front. As one of the many thousands of American troops scattered around the world, our guest columnist’s writing will allow us to see the war through the eyes of one soldier on deployment. So that his writing can provide us with a greater deal of insight, this Air Force support troop will remain anonymous, and will be referred to simply as “Kurt”.
On the way to Afghanistan Kurt was routed through Kyrgyzstan, where his writing will begin…

Kyrgyzstan, Manas Air Base
March 2010

It's an interesting sight, where I'm sitting right now. The makeshift bedding area is housed in an enormous domed tent, its vaulted ceiling reaching maybe forty feet in the air, metal spars like the ribs of the mythological Jonah’s Cetacean igloo spreading tan, intercostal canvas over a cement pad roughly the size of a soccer field. The lights are out now, and the cavernous reaches of the leviathan are just barely visible, bathed in the pulsing, shifting blue glow of the incandescence from the last of the insomniacs and their mobile electronic pacifiers. Reclining on my cot and staring upward, it brings back happier memories of scuba diving, sitting on the sandy ocean floor and watching wet globs of sunlight bubble down though the turbulent surface. It's almost enough to set the mind into a relaxing state of blissfully welcome sleep, especially after twelve fitful hours of impersonating a sardine on the flight over. Almost, if not for the frigid, prickling piranha teeth of the night’s air incessantly gnawing on whatever it can find.
The air is chill, in the low fifties and dropping rapidly, the portable heaters which pump in warm air having failed their duty early on in the evening. Instead, the ice-laced fog is being greedily inhaled from outside, amassing in a dense presence a few feet off the floor, its thermocline, unfortunately, hovering just above the height of the cot. Dozens of identical temporary beds are arranged in rough approximations of rows from front to back. Having been provided with only a sheet and thin, ashen woolen blanket, people are shrouding themselves from head to toe, hiding any exposed skin in a linen cocoon. Given the silence, light, temperature and orderly arrangement of covered bodies, it has all the appearance of a morgue. The only thing keeping the sleep-deprived mind from believing the illusion is the occasional, intermittent puff of breath that escapes from the top of these blanket burritos.
As time drips on, it pools enough to eventually drown the digital fireflies, exhausting their residual charges for the day or overwhelming their owners’ fading mental reserves. The only illumination remaining is that of the twin emergency exits. The crimson portals cast a fiery tint on the sporadic exhalations around the room, and I crack a smile, now imagining we're inside a giant ashtray, each of our smoking, rolled bodies a smoldering cigar. I turn to the cot next to me, looking to share this insight, but his pristine stogie hasn't been lit yet; his roll is superiorly airtight. I make a mental note to solicit his advice come morning, pull the last unsealed edge over my own head and surrender to the advancing numbness.


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