by Chris Fitzmaurice
The following is part of a collection of short stories titled Insha’Allah: Short Stories of the Long War in Afghanistan”–entitled “Invisible.” Chris Fitzmaurice began writing this collection while deployed to Afghanistan in 2018. He wanted to share the lesser-known side of the war with friends, family, and, one day, readers.
His message is that war is hell, but not what the cinema or novels make it seem. It is often silent and scary and fought within each of us internally, while also fought as a group externally. These stories are from Chris and his colleagues.
His traps and shoulders burned as they walked down the corridor of desolate kalat walls. Grainy sand and scree crunched underfoot. Each village had an uncomfortable silence at night under the soft green glow of night vision. In the dark of the night, the stillness and lack of noise had an eerie feel. Everything looked abandoned in a place like this. Everything looked like there had been nuclear fallout, and these were the last remnants of civilization. Cars and bicycles sat discarded on the side of the dirt paths, lifeless and dust-blown. Shattered windows were mended with cardboard or fabrics or both. On one hand, it was odd. On the other, it seemed completely normal for a country ravaged by three decades of war. Between radio chatter, the only noise to be heard was heavy footsteps, dogs barking near and far, sporadic explosions that breached locked doors, and the night wind.
The walk in wasn’t short, but it wasn’t long either. Two kilometers had passed since the helicopters ascended back into the night sky, into darkness. They left nothing behind but a set of impressions from the landing gear, like a footprint, and a cloud of dust. He and his team disappeared into the maze of a village just as the dust cloud disappeared. They moved silently. Methodically navigating from target to target like a train that could not be stopped.
They thoroughly searched compounds of interest, inadvertently waking civilians in the process. He had a recurring thought of the tables being turned and how it would be if this war took place in the United States. He imagined being shaken awake to the sound of his front door exploding or being kicked off the hinges, dark-faced men ushering him outside, ready for a fight if there were a fight to be had, but not making advances. He imagined his lover and her fear. For a moment, the thought of future children crossed his mind, scared and crying standing in their room, not crossing the threshold.
It was a necessary evil and treated as such. No harm would befall these civilians, no foul play. The men would be questioned about their knowledge of the enemy, their involvement or support if any, and they would eventually be returned to their homes. On more than one occasion, named targets would hide among the women of their families. Sometimes, they would even dress as women. They knew they would be found and resisted it in every possible way. He knew his work was a necessary evil to disrupt the enemy, the bad guys, the terrorists. He continued working, doing what he knew had to be done. Soon the clearance had ended, peacefully, with little to show that they had been there at all.
They settled into their daytime positions as the sun began to crown over the jagged mountains surrounding the village. Each group of men hunkered down. The daytime was an entirely different animal in the overarching food chain. They would no longer be dark shadows with green-lit faces floating through the streets undetected; invisible. They were highlighted now. Exposed, vulnerable, and stationary.
He carefully climbed the rickety ladder, or what looked to be a ladder, to the roof. Afghan ladders were less ladder and more a bad representation of one. Cracking and shifting from each rung to the next and full of uncertainty the entire climb up or down. A gamble against gravity, to be honest.
He crested the small wall to the roof and his feet sunk into the fine powdered sand on top. The roof flexed and bowed under his weight, but this was to be expected. The sun began to shine off the leaves surrounding the river, and the river itself, uncovering features not noticeable at night. The village looked dirtier and in a poorer state than with the lights turned off. He knelt behind the waist-high wall: a lucky feature to find on most rooftops. He could see the entire valley from here and he felt small in its presence. Not accounting for the other men positioned with him, he felt like it was him against every alley, window, and rooftop. He could see a countless number of unknowns, the only thing he knew for certain is that he was there himself. His thoughts turned to the fight ahead if there was to be one and what hid behind every tree, or knoll, or car. He watched motorcycles moving in the distance, wondering which one would come for them. When would it be? He felt as if he were standing in a coliseum. The aircraft overhead was spectating, cheering.
Although the sun had started to rise, the air felt colder than it had all night. The sweat collected on his chest and back, under his kit, had turned frigid once he stopped moving. Hours would pass before the sweat would dry and before he would thaw. The cold wind pierced through his gloves as if they weren’t there. His knuckles stung and creaked as he flexed fists to drive blood throughout the digits. His rifle was an ice sculpture, freezing his palms as his thumb brushed over the safety while staring off into the distance.
He dug through his bag and found a shemagh. He coiled the scarf around his neck to keep the cold out. His eyes tingled and he remembered that he had last used the cloth to shield his mouth and nose through a cloud of CS gas on a previous operation. After the grenade had been deployed, the winds, unfortunately, shifted in their direction, wafting the irritable fumes straight through their ranks. The gas burned his eyes and nose and his throat was on fire. He could not blink the tears away fast enough to see clearly in the fog. He and the others coughed and hacked, moving away, up the street to let the fumes pass along and dissipate. They all laughed in the end, but it was hell at the time.
The ladder behind him shook and shifted against the edge of the roof. A sun-dried face peeked over with a dirty smile. The interpreter offered a hot cup of chai tea and it was accepted with a lethargic and half-frozen nod. The “terp” was portly and cheerful and after handing off the cup of chai, he was also gone. The glass cup burned his hands but it was a good burn. He imagined the ice crystals inside the tissues of his hand melting against the container and it made him smile. He watched the steam overflow from the mouth of the glass, fragments of loose leaves floating and sinking in the green liquid. He continued to scan the village again, near to far, left to right, up and down.
Hours had passed along with the desert night’s cold air only to be replaced with abrasive sunlight and heat. His face was now burned and dry with dust. A pile of discarded ration wrappers and empty water bottles had accumulated between him and the man he shared his bit of a roof with, all covered in dust as well. The village was alive again. Moving, talking, buzzing. Motorcycles flashed through the trees and dirt walls. They talked quietly about the night before, the day ahead, the war itself. They told stories of themselves and others, some embellished, some not. They talked about cars and payments, investing, and future plans upon the return home. Mostly they talked of a distant “then” but they knew they were stuck in the perpetual now for a few more months.
Radio chatter from the courtyard had been intermittent with warnings of an attack throughout the day. First from this side, then from that side, no actual telling of where or when it would come. He listened throughout the day as well, hoping it would come, hoping he would see it. Reports swirled of two men on the roof accompanied by a perfect match in description to their hair color. They weren’t invisible anymore.
They had constructed a small shade to shield them from the sun, sticks and cord, and a dark-colored blanket from the floor of the courtyard. They organized their personal items the way you would organize a bedroom. Grenades here, ammo there, water, food, spotting scopes all in a well put together smorgasbord against the small wall. One of the allied nation commandos soldiers had brought up a handkerchief of freshly made bread and apples from a tree in the courtyard. Only he ate the fruit, making a trade of his gastrointestinal security for a gesture of appreciation. Local children played a game of cricket in a clearing a few hundred meters away, under the 6x magnification scope of his rifle. It was just another Wednesday afternoon.
When the kids left, the attack came. A roar across the air above them, above their makeshift shade structure, shattered the near silence of the day. Out of instinct, he ducked but the rocket was feet above their heads, not close enough to affect them physically but still too close for comfort. He did not see where the rocket landed; he only heard the impact. What he did see was the smoke from the projectile that left a trail of crumbs right back to a cluster of trees and brush a few hundred meters away. The compound erupted in conversation. Yells sprung from roof to roof, and next came deafening gunfire.
The tree cluster shook as bursts of machine-gun fire erupted from the rooftops. Loud thumps from the grenade launchers squeezed their way into the lulls. Explosions appeared and were heard seconds later, destroying whoever was hiding underneath. Whizzing, inaccurate gunfire was reciprocated, directed at the compound. The radio chatter increased with each burst of fire and digressed between them. The organizers of the attack had their heads down and that was probably the smartest thing they could do for themselves.
Nobody from his side was injured, as was gathered throughout the fight. They fired at each movement in the small grouping of trees until nothing moved except leaves in the calm wind. The aircraft overhead reported signatures of fighters within the brush. A few moments later, radio transmissions and the passing of the Team Leader’s initials brought about a deadly fireball. He and the rest of his team were told to keep their heads down by the aircraft controller on the ground. The fight had fallen silent again, even quieter than before. The anticipation rang in everyone’s ears, their fingers, their triggers. They waited until they heard the aircraft rush overhead.
He felt it in his soul. The shockwave of the blast tore apart every window in the compound they occupied without prejudice. The roof shook, and so did he. Looking over the wall, there was no more tree line, just a cloud of thick black and gray smoke. Nothing moved, nothing at all. The world was paused minus the radio traffic in his headset. They watched the former tree line until the sun left and the cold came again. It nipped at his nose and his fingertips. His rifle was no longer hot from shooting but icy to the touch. He thought of the hot cup of chai from earlier and the dirty face and hand reaching over the wall from the ladder and he smiled. It felt like such an old memory. Not from just hours before, but a different time in life altogether.
Staring out over the village, everything was washed in various shades of green under night vision. Everything was quiet and everything was still and he was invisible again.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on August 31, 2021.