FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (June, 2008)
I went out walking the FOB again last night. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been carving a rut in the gravel road that circles the perimeter of our base. I tread the path after dark, sharing the moonlight with the jackals and toads. They howl, they hop, and I wander among them, lost in my thoughts. I imagine the bearded warriors lurking in distant hills, and then I wait for their hell to fall from the sky. Last night, a different kind of hell fell— hell in the form of ice— hell in the form of hail.
I come from the mountains: the Rockies— so I’ve seen many a blizzard and witnessed snow banks so high they turn streets into hallways. But until last night, I’d never seen hailstones the size of golf balls.
Some say the hailstones were meteorological mortars sent by Allah to shatter the pride and windshields of the infidels. If that’s the case, then Allah certainly has better aim than the Taliban. He took out a whole base (communications, power, and internet) with a single 10-minute cloudburst. The beard-growers are lucky if they cause a couple craters in a nearby dirt field. That’s the beauty of omnipotence, I guess. When you’re almighty, you have complete control over hail.
Anyway, back to my walk. I’m walking. Suddenly a blast of thunder shatters the clouds and ice cubes start pouring from the sky. I run for cover. I get pelted. It hurts. I jump into the nearest bunker. Inside sits a lonely soldier, flashlight in hand. I recognize him immediately— it’s Gabriel, a student of mine. I say hi and comment on the weather, and then tell him he’s found the perfect spot to hide out.
“Thanks,” he says.
Gabe is always quick to thank people. He has impeccable southern manners and can’t wait to get back to his plump new wife in Kentucky. After exchanging hellos, we sat there silent for a while and listened to the clamor outside. I reached out of the bunker and grabbed one of the ping-pong-ball hailstones, holding it up between us. “Look at the size of that!” I said, shouting over the storm.
“That’s big,” Gabe shouted back.
We got to talking and Gabe told me he’d rather receive hailstones from the sky than enemy rockets. I agreed, but then added that the hailstones were probably more effective at disrupting base operations.
“Probably,” Gabe said. “But it don’t matter anyway, right? We can’t control it.” He half-winked at me. He was obviously referring to Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher we’d just read in our philosophy class. “We might as well just accept it, right?”
Excellent, I thought. Gabe was thinking like a Stoic.
“That Epictetus guy had so much discipline,” Gabe said, “I was impressed. In my opinion that’s the most important characteristic of a person.”
“Discipline?” I asked.
“Yeah, self-discipline,” he said. “It’s what gets people to work on time. It’s what makes them stay there. It’s the reason we’re not all alcoholics.”
A couple hailstones bounced into the bunker and I kicked them back out into the storm. Then I asked Gabe if he thought Epictetus’s philosophy could help soldiers like himself.
“Personally, I like how he says not to blame people,” Gabe said, “and how it’s not their fault. It’s just how you feel. Like I was on guard duty yesterday and I gave this Afghan kid a buck to go buy me some cigarettes. Once he got it, he ran off and gave me the bird. Some guys in my unit gave me shit and told me I should have shot the kid. But I didn’t blame him. I said I figured it was just a dollar and I could get another one.”
“Yeah, and you woulda got court marshaled and thrown into prison,” I added.
“That too,” he said.
The storm raged on and the hail slowly turned to rain. The puddles inside the bunker grew deeper and it wasn’t long before Gabe and I found ourselves boot-deep in frigid water. A layer of ice cubes floated on the surface, mixing with the debris and dreck.
“I like how Epictetus says no one can force you to do something if you’re not worried about it… if you can see the bigger picture, I mean.”
He paused for a moment to reflect, and then said, “It’s like in the army. If you think about it, my NCO really has no control over me as long as I just do what I’m told.”
I’d never thought of it that way.
“See,” he added “a soldier’s life, it ain’t really up to the soldier at all. It’s like a card in a deck. It’s nothing special. Alls we can do is either obey orders or not obey. If we obey, we’re pretty much free, and then we can do what we want.”
Just then, Gabe’s insight was interrupted by a flashlight shining into the bunker. A man in civilian clothes rushed in, drenched from head to toe. He cursed the weather and wiped his face without acknowledging us.
“Well lookie here!” Gabe bellowed, “look what the cat dragged in!”
The man let out a flurry of expletives and didn’t look at either of us. Gabe’s eyes turned back to me and we grinned.
“If this goddamn base had some goddamn lights,” said the man, shivering and upset, “then these (expletive) bunkers would be a lot easier to find!”
“Yeah well, we can’t turn on the lights at night on account of the rockets coming in,” explained Gabe.
“I KNOW!” snapped the man, wiping his glasses on his soaked shirt. “And it’s ridiculous. Those (expletive) rockets never come close to this base”
“Yes sir. That’s on account of the lights being off,” Gabe replied innocently. “You see, they can’t see us when the lights are off.”
“Ahhhh,” grumbled the man, cursing under his breath. He dismissed us with a wave of his hand and was gone again, back into the storm.
“Must have been in a hurry, that one,” Gabe said.
He stood up from his haunches and watched as the man’s flashlight faded into the darkness.
“He needs to read him some Epictetus.”