One Millimeter

I had been in Afghanistan for three months. It was an icy Christmas night, and I was working a vehicle checkpoint. Back in the US, children were awakening to newly assembled bicycles, and Dads were pretending to like ties and cufflinks. Thinking about home conjured up images of Norman Rockwell. However, in the pitch dark of Afghanistan, all I felt was isolation. My teammates slept while it was my turn to be on watch. At the checkpoint where I was working, only intermittent Georgian radio chatter interrupted deafening silence. We had expected some rocket attacks that night, after all, it was Christmas. We knew full well that the enemy expected a level of complacency on our part. And then it happened, “BOOOOM!!!”

The silence had been broken. The rocket had landed so close, and struck with so much force, that the concussion felt like a Bruce Lee kick to the chest. My ears rang as I dove toward a dusty ditch for cover. My teammates, awakened by the explosion, rushed to setup a 360-degree security perimeter. My rifle aimed into the pitch-black landscape waiting for an invisible enemy to shoot first.

As I lay in the canal, I noticed some movement in the periphery of my left-eye. It was a woman in a full burka. She wasn’t supposed to be walking by herself. It was well into Christmas night, and a rocket had just exploded. Yet here she was walking alone, in a Muslim country. These were sure warning signs of trouble to come. She walked nonchalantly and carried an upscale paper shopping bag. It looked as if it were from the Gap, or a similar type of western store. “How was this shopping bag even possibly in this country?”, I thought to myself. I had processed a lifetime of information in the span of a few seconds. “This is where I blow up. This is the one”, I thought. I was no more than 10 feet away from her. My rifle barrel never left her chest. Suddenly, she stopped walking. She bent over at the waist, and gingerly placed the shopping bag by her feet. The woman stared off into the black void as she stood up. Time froze. “This is the one.” Being as quiet as possible, I dropped a round into the chamber of my M-4 rifle, and moved the safety lever to “fire” position. I curled my index finger softly but steadily around the trigger. Squeezing just one more millimeter would mean the end of her life, but it could also save mine.

I felt as if time had stopped. I was gripping my rifle so tight, I could see the barrel bobbing up and down with my heartbeat. She was clearly a suicide bomber. It could have happened at any moment…..BOOM! And what if she wasn’t carrying a bomb? What if it was fruit in her bag? The expression “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” ran through my mind. Despite the training, discipline, camaraderie, combat training, and weapons training, life hung by a millimeter. It was the cliché from every war movie; it was her, or me. It was just another zero-sum game. I did not want to shoot her, but I did not want to die over something as stupid as a suicide bomb. Yelling commands or instructions at her could cause her to detonate the explosives. My team and I were spread too far apart to quietly communicate, and my radio was….somewhere….it was cliché.

The woman bent over yet again, but this time, she picked up the bag. She stood up and paused. “This is the one”, I thought. After a moment that seemed like an eternity, she curled her fingers around the handles of the bag and slowly walked away. My rifle never left her chest as she disappeared into the pitch-black distance. She had no idea how close she came to dying that night. To this day I don’t what her intent was. Maybe her bomb malfunctioned. Perhaps she buried it further down the road. Maybe it was fruit after all. I will never know. I am glad I made the right decision. I would later hear Barack Obama say, “Sometimes you have to choose between a disaster and a catastrophe”. And on that day in Afghanistan, I wasn’t judged by twelve nor carried by six.

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Letter 2: The lies

September is again here. Another year of lies and heavy propaganda is ahead of us. Now we are teenagers and now we know. And it hurts. The school year does not start with academic activities. Ceausescu is using us as cheap labor in the field. We go to school only to be picked up by old, dusty, and dirty busses. After an hour or so, we arrive to this farm and we are instructed how to harvest potatoes by digging with our bare hands in the dirt. Surprisingly, it’s kind of fun not because the work is easy (it’s exhausting and we don’t get breaks except for one at lunch), but because we are not in uniforms, we do not see the dictator’s face mounted on classrooms’ walls and on the front page of all textbooks. We do not recite stupid poems; instead, we speak among ourselves. Mind you, not freely. We know we have to be very careful. We have to select our words so we are not targeted as “enemy of the regime.” We have heard of cases before. We are cautious.

There is this very poor guy who once tried to smuggle two potatoes, stuffed them in his bag, got caught, slapped, and was humiliated. He wanted to bring two potatoes to his family! I feel sorry for him. But no one says a word. We keep our heads down and the ride back home is painfully silent, as if we did something horrible. The next day, mother gives the school officials a letter claiming I have allergies to dust. My work in the field stops.

To this day, I have no idea what was written on that letter/note because I know for a fact that, for the convenience of the regime, certain things did “not” exist. For example, allergies. That was something outrageous, a western invention, the sign of a weak mind. We, communist in training youth, were strong and brave, and we could not ever succumb to the easy and depraved life of the west. Allergies? Even if they were, we could battle them with our communist strength. (Do you feel the nonsense? That was our daily lives.)

Another word that did “not” exist was disability. In my class there were at least 5 students who were not able to read and write and talk fluently, but the system had to pass them because we were all the brilliant, vibrant, and patriotic offspring of communism. Plus, intellectuals were not welcomed in communism. Proletarians were, the workforce, the ones who did not have to have opinions and did not care to open a book because exhaustion & routine warped their lives.

Growing up with so many lies, can you imagine? There was no reality anymore. It was so light, it was so crushed, it was wiped up, it was bleached, it was violated constantly that we knew otherwise, yet anything that was reported in media had to be presented bombastically differently.

From 1965 until 1989, we were lied systematically, brainwashed. Some tried to rebel. They were tortured and they paid with their lives. Some tried to escape as political refugees. If they succeeded, they did not look back. If they didn’t, they were killed. Most of us, kept silent, but the rage was growing exponentially each year. This silence was a heavy load, a bitter taste.

How can one resist in a system like this without telling lies? Does integrity still exist in such milieu? Are all political regimes doomed to be corrupted and full of lies?

Well, I am not sure anymore.

Be well, my friend.

C

 

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