By Drew Pham
This part is important. Start with good intentions—and a couple of givens: that you’re an idealist, the son of war refugees. You see another conflict fomenting on TV, you see those civilians suffering, and you can’t help but think of your parents. You want to help. On paper you’re middle class—your parents both have degrees, you go to a fancy liberal arts school—but truth is, you’ve been hungry. Dad’s left, Mom’s bankrupt, and when you come home there’s always a stack of past-due notices on the kitchen table. And that fancy school? You can’t afford it. So you join the Army—they pay for college, and when you’re done, you owe them four years.
At school, you argue with your classmates about joining, about the war. They’re also idealists, but what do they know about hunger—about drinking pickle juice and eating instant ramen every night? A hunk of Spam if you’re lucky. And those peers, with their toilet bowl-white skin, have never been handcuffed to a chain link fence because they were too dark—you have. Never watched people like themselves mowed down by the hundreds in an Oliver Stone flick. You think that what you’ve lived will save you when you go to war. You think you can use your compassion as a weapon. In your senior year of college before you start active duty, you meet your wife, and you fall in love because she can see straight through your bullshit. You share books and your minds and your bodies. But you don’t let that distract you.
You get married young. At the wedding, your little brother confesses to your new brother-in-law that he’s joined the Army too. You ignore this for now and bask, instead, in your young marriage. Your honeymoon is one night in an expensive hotel and ends with you driving two days to your assigned unit. The Army takes all your time, and you never see her. Get used to it, your commanders and sergeants say.
Something else brews in your chest. This is what they do with young men like you. It’s in the air when you go on runs—the men sing odes to murder. They beat it into your muscles until you can shoot a man without thinking. They call people across the sea names like raghead and hajji and camel jockey. There are worse names, but you’re an idealist and you refuse to repeat them. Soon enough, though, you yearn for a good fight, to be the first kid on your block to get a confirmed kill. That’s your trade, and the colonel might dress it up with talk of hearts and minds, and you want to believe him, but that’s not what soldiers do. You want to be that idealist who makes your wife proud, you want to be that warrior your men look up to, but you worry you can’t be both.
So you go to Afghanistan. Try to win those hearts and minds, but doubt yourself every time you visit a village covered in graffiti telling you to go home. Kids pelt your gun trucks with rocks, and the villagers give you hard stares that make the mission seem impossible.
You look for things to sink all that compassion and good intention into. When you befriend an Afghan lieutenant, you worry for him. You think of your grandfather, that handsome colonel of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam. He died in a reeducation camp after the war, and you cross your fingers your friend won’t share that fate. But hoping isn’t enough. The lieutenant wishes his countrymen were educated, so you go to the girls’ school. You put in new windows because the old ones were shattered by AK bullets and roadside bombs. The children are beautiful, and you want to give them school supplies and coloring books and toys and all the things little kids should have but that they do not. You meet a young mullah who you know is Taliban, but cannot arrest for lack of evidence. His fervor reminds you of your mother’s when she told you stories of resisting the most powerful nation on earth. Your interpreter guides you through it all, and you tell him that one day, when the war is over, you’ll return to visit him. Your wife writes to say she’s proud of you.
When the fighting season starts, the veterans say that you must stifle the soft thing that is your heart. You won’t listen. But when you discover the drug of combat, you know that they were right. Being that close to death is better than liquor or speed or sex—and 10 times more addictive. There will be days that getting into a fight is all you can think about. Your good intentions get swallowed whole when you start to use the word hajji the same way GIs used to use the word gook. Your friend, the Afghan lieutenant, turns away from you when he hears you use those toxic words to refer to his countrymen.
Then one night the man who’d incited your country’s wrath is killed; the next day and the day after that, the war goes on. Your doubts grow. You vaporize three men with a mortar strike—one of them is a newlywed, and you think of your wife and wonder if she’ll still be proud of you.
When the Taliban occupy the girls’ school that you poured so much love into, you rake those windows you installed with machine gun fire, undoing all of your work.
And there will be a firefight. Pay close attention to the man playing dead—he reaches for a grenade. And you do what had been beat into your muscles without thinking. Remember the summer sun, the heat of the day as you stand over his body—this will be important later. You tell your wife; she says that she’ll always be there for you. She says this, and you worry if she’ll recognize you when you get home.
Remember the young mullah you knew was Taliban? He gave you a gift—an amulet of Quranic script. For health, he said. To repay him you follow a company of Rangers into the valley to kill him. They order an airstrike, crushing him beneath the ruins of a safehouse.
Then you return home. That first week will be heaven—good sex and hot chow and shitting on an honest-to-God porcelain toilet that flushes. It doesn’t feel like you’ve failed your country or yourself or the Afghans you sought to help, not yet. Not when your platoon disperses and you’re alone, not when you pass out by the curb with an empty box of wine in your lap, not when your wife tells you that being around you is like walking on glass.
When summer comes, your body remembers the fighting season, and you learn to hate summer forever. Because you’ve seen combat, because you’ve killed a man, they send you away to train West Point cadets. You wonder if a single one of them is ready, if you could bear the idea that they might one day lead your little brother into battle; he’s in Afghanistan now, continuing what you started. Here, you try to whip the cadets into shape. On exercise, you feel the simulacrum of war, the burnt gunpowder and artillery blasts and the breathless rotor wash of a Chinook. You can’t bear it, and on a weekend pass you fuck a woman who reminds you of your wife but isn’t. When you return to your unit, you steal from the supply room and get caught and dump all your antidepressants into the toilet and your wife learns what you’ve done.
You wonder if you planned all this, pushing everyone away, sabotaging your career, giving yourself a reason to finally do it. This is when you try to kill yourself. You wait until you’re alone, but your wife walks in on you, and you push her away, but she persists, grabbing the needle in your hand, and you pin her to the wall trying to get it back, but she’s crying and you’re crying and next thing you know, the police come, guns drawn, to take you away to a psych ward where you stay drugged for a week. There are days you wake wishing you’d died over there.
But you go on living. The base general gives you a slap on the wrist for stealing government property. You get off easy because you’ve seen combat, because you’ve killed a man. It doesn’t feel right. You’re surprised when your papers read Honorable under the Character of Service block. They send you home with a salute, and your mother, who faced American bombs, frames your Bronze Star Medal, and your friends and coworkers won’t say anything for fear of triggering you—you, the crazy veteran; you, the almost-statistic of 20 suicides a day. And your wife remains beside you.
You get your first real civilian job at the local refugee agency. There, you see droves of Iraqis and Afghans who’ve fled just like your parents. This is what failure feels like. You sing to a bald little girl whose cancer your military brought to her country, and this will be the first time you cry all year. This is what defeat feels like. And then you get sick. Cancer, just like that girl. In the hospital room where they wage a scorched-earth campaign on your insides, your interpreter calls you, frantic, begging you to get him out of Afghanistan, and you tell him you can do nothing. In the hospital room, you watch CNN as Iraq burns and Afghanistan experiences what your doctors might call an aggressive recurrence—metastasizing, terminal. And to cure you, the doctors steal your one last chance of redemption, your one last resort to make up for the lives you ruined and took. You can’t have children anymore, but the doctors are optimistic because your five-year survival rate has risen to 85 percent.
Let’s say you make it through all this. Let’s say you learn and grow and learn to love the war less than your wife. Let’s say there’s hope. One three-day weekend down the road, at the end of May, your little brother posts photographs of his dead friends on social media. When you call him, you talk about the month’s casualties—today, a dead paratrooper who was five when the war started—but you can’t bring yourself to tell him you’re afraid for him. You hang up without saying I love you, and in your regret, you wonder if your Afghan friends are still alive. You wonder if the man you killed had children—a little girl like you’d wanted. You wonder when the first soldier who wasn’t alive when the war began will become its latest casualty. You wonder if it would’ve been better to die over there than to live with all these questions—as if wondering could save those children and resurrect the dead and remake you into the man you were before the war.
Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.