From the time we are born we follow a path and that path is unique and our own. Through the course of life many people cross our path. Most have little or no effect on our lives; others have tremendous impact. Ideally, we make choices - we are in control but sometimes other people make choices for us.
To what extent are we authors of our own lives? As our paths meander through countries and cities and bedrooms and through pleasure and pain, do we ask ourselves who is in control or do we just follow along the path of least resistance?
This is a story of choices. It is a story of two men whose paths intersect with devastating consequences.
Harry joined the reserves because he needed the money. He enjoyed watching war movies and he even fantasized being a hero. He never believed that he would be in the real thing, a real war with real death and real gore.
Events far beyond his control had young American men and women packing up their troubles in their old kit bag; yet again. Few of them were smiling. Harry was one of them. He was one of many reservists being sent to Afghanistan. To hide persistent feelings of fear he told folks that he's up for it; that signing up was about America. He would not mention that it had more to do with being unable to find a steady job. When Harry's 'gung-ho America' went too far his young brother could reign him in by reminding him of the real reason he joined the reserves. Money.
Harry preened the image of a soldier for the benefit of all who knew him and for his own psychological benefit. This true blue identity had a sense of honour and dignity to it; he was a warrior, not a part time soldier. Afghanistan was full time and then some. This war made Harry a man.
Harry told people that the mission was about helping Afghanis. There was 9/11 and the threat of terrorism and by the time he was talking about freedom and democracy he was rambling. He didn't really get the story line down pat and it seemed to him that nobody had the story line down pat; not even the President.
Still, there was a sense of adventure in the mission. The possibility of seeing exotic things and people. The possibility of being cast into a heroic role. The mixture of anticipation and apprehension had Harold sharp and focused. He spent time on his uniform - it was pristine.
The whole thing was not so neat and tidy the more real it got. It seemed not real; surreal even. Sometimes it unravelled into a jumbled mess. Privately, he thought to himself; "What's all this about - freedom for Afghanis? What about my own freedom - I don't seem to have any." Privately and secretly, he wished for a way out. Privately and secretly he was in a mess and it had the potential to send his life on a trajectory he didn’t want any part of, or worse. There was now a sense of loss of control as his CO barked orders at him.
In public moments, and now his life was all public moments, he was a soldier. He was a soldier first. He came to see himself a soldier more than he was husband and father. He left his old clothes behind. He left his careless and soft attitude behind. He stood proud.
Afghanistan arrived. It seemed to happen too fast. Suddenly Harry was in a strange desert. The sound carried different here. The sun didn't really shine the same way. The air was different. Most of all, the people were different. This was far stranger than he imagined. He quickly found that he was really in danger; a target of people who wanted to kill him. And it didn't feel the way he expected it to feel. This was far worse.
He said good-bye to Molly a lifetime ago. He kept in touch with her as much as he could. The distance haunted him. Even thinking about her and their three month old baby put him in a place he didn't want to be. A place where it is soft. A place where he could indulge in hope.
He felt confusion and guilt over these growing feelings of detachment but really, how could they understand him anymore? He had seen the side of a friend's head blown open by a rocket propelled grenade, a weapon that featured big and center in many of his now familiar Afghanistan nightmares. There was no way for him to describe to her or his folks or to his little brother what it is really like to be here. This is what made the distance an abyss. He told them about the horror he had seen but their reactions were peculiar - off somehow. Only his buddies could really understand.
Harry felt a strange detachment. He recognized that he used to be fluffy and concerned the way his family remained. Now he was the dirt and he was flat. They could hear it on the phone and felt it in the e-mails. Not once did any of them ever speak it out loud. There was something about Harry that was not there anymore.
Today is the day Harry would meet Asa. He and his crew are ordered to move into Marjah, deep into Taliban territory. It is not an area where they can freely exhale. Tension is constant.
In Marjah a firefight erupts and before he knows what's happening he's running down an alley with two of his comrades. They had to escape. Inside their blocked humvees they are sitting ducks. They need get out now - to take the fight to the terrorists. His two best friends are suddenly shot in a burst of horror and flaming AK-47s. Jim's mouth spews blood as his body convulses in the twilight dust.
He didn't even see the assailants. It was an ambush.
In pure unmitigated panic he runs down a side alley and now his body is trembling involuntarily. He thinks about Molly and his little girl. He cries. He thinks about his mother and father. Would he ever see his mischievous brother again? An icon of his friend’s ghastly last moment washes away thoughts of home. It is stubbornly salient but now he can't afford to think or feel. He must have his wits about him.
Stop Harry; calm down, breathe. Looking up: "God - please get me out of this. Please end this terror."
Thoughts and emotions persist. He feels like this whole soldier thing was the worst mistake of his life. The whole environment around him seemed sinister before the attack but now every crack in the concrete, every rock on the ground, every sound was menacing.
Without warning an Afghani opens a door. He is standing ten feet in front of Harry pointing a gun into his face. He is looking directly into the eyes of a ragged Afghani. His enemies eyes are wet, melting. Tears run down the stranger's cheek. Harry looks for signs of mercy.
The surreal now has become very real.
"I am sorry, I have to kill you", the man said in English. "I give you minute to pray, but I kill you".
A dog barks somewhere. Somewhere that is not here.
Asa also enjoyed war movies and videos and he also fantasized about being a war hero. Before war came however he had a different view of war. For Asa the possibility was always real. He could remember the war hysteria that enveloped his country when he was a child. The Russians were there. War was real to Asa and all Afghanis.
His fears were realized and it was more violent than Asa had expected. He watched in trembling fear as they bombed his neighbourhood and set up checkpoints that were volatile killing zones. Afghanis knew to avoid those American checkpoints and that they were guarded by nervous and heavily armed madmen. He heard of bombs slaughtering women and children. Everybody lived in constant terror now.
It used to be hard for Asa to believe the stories he heard about American atrocities. He wanted to believe that in many cases the stories were lies. He liked to think about the good life he had seen on films; life in the USA. Why would Americans hate the Afghani people with such passion? But he personally witnessed bombings and a checkpoint shooting where civilians were killed. Asa knew that those horrific stories were true. The Americans would have to go. Too much had happened and they simply had to go.
Asa was married a month before the invasion. His wife, Fahim, implored him to avoid fighting but she knew that under the circumstances it was an unavoidable predicament for her husband. Even if he wasn’t cursed with pride, and he was, he would have to join his relatives and friends to fight the vicious animals that were destroying their country. What man would allow the same foreigners that terrorized the whole nation to dominate them? Such men were crawling out of their cowering holes but Asa was not one of them.
Asa wanted Fahim to stay with family in Sangin until the Americans were driven out. She didn't want to go and Asa backed away from his demand that she leave. Asa was terrified as he watched her clean their clothes. He was afraid of Fahim's fear; of how she felt. He knew she was terrified as war planes roared in the distance. He could not bear the thought of her death. She was so happy with little things. She was such a loving person. Her smile made him a god. Her tears brought him to tears. His love for her was the most important thing in the world. Again he asked her to leave and again she refused.
The American are coming now. As far as Asa believed that human life could descend into hell, it now descended further - much further. It wouldn't be so bad if only Fahim would leave.
Now everybody is in a state of intense fear. They are making plans to kill Americans and their quisling collaborators. As far as Asa was concerned, the Afghani collaborators are a far more treacherous animal than the Americans. He knew that most of these Americans are here because they have little or no choice in the matter.
Asa and a small band of armed locals now set an ambush. They manage to block a stray humvee. He and his comrades are watching three terrified Americans run through alley-ways. Their tactic was working. Asa and his band of fighters know the buildings and secret passages. These American invaders will die. He ducks into a hiding place and the Americans run by only several feet from the hiding, camouflaged, Asa. He knows they will meet certain death a half a block away and he watches from his vantage point. Suddenly, two of the three are gunned down by his comrades but the other American escapes.
Asa watches him run through another alley and has to run through a warehouse to cut the American off. Asa quietly opens a door and steps out into the alley-way, AK 47 first, and is ready to pull the trigger and blow the American’s head off his shoulders. He looks at the quivering young man as he drop his rifle in the dirt. He sees the panic in the young man's sweaty face. It brings an overwhelming feeling of sadness to Asa. This is a boy - a boy who is shitting in his pants right in front of Asa and at this moment, the American is helpless. He doesn't look like an American now. He looks like a human being. A young one. And he is at Asa's mercy. Asa has the power at this moment to let him live or to kill him. He looks at the uniform and feels rage bleaching out his empathy for the young American. He wishes it wasn’t like this. He had never killed a human being and although he believed that Allah would bless such a deed under the circumstances, something inside him resisted pulling the trigger. He wants to ask the American what he is doing here, to hear his story. He wants to let him escape but he knows that he must kill him.
Asa hears a dog bark in the distance.
A cold shiver inexplicably runs through a young mother in New Jersey.
Harold's prayer was answered. But it was not God and it was not Allah that answered it. It was Asa.
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