THE SIGNPOST |
July 27, 2007
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 7/27/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
It had been quiet for a couple weeks, with nothing more exciting to write home about than a couple rocket attacks (which, on the most heavily-rocketed FOB in Afghanistan, hadn’t raised any eyebrows). When things are quiet for too long, soldiers tend to get a bit stir-crazy, probably from the accumulated aggression that, under normal circumstances, has a morally-acceptable outlet: enemy soldiers. Stir-craziness is the only way to account for the bizarre, ridiculous thing that happened recently.
It all started innocently enough, with a dispute over wood. Simply put, there wasn’t enough wood to build all the things everyone wanted, and, as human nature and the way of things would have it, everyone wanted to build something different, and in such a way that made compromise (of course) impossible. The FOB was generally divided into two camps: those who wanted their personal space improved, and those who wanted better equipment. Things quickly came to a head when one party -- the party with easiest access to the construction materials -- decided to end the argument by building what they wanted, regardless of the other side’s opinion. In fairness, the other side would have done the same, had the roles been reversed -- I’m not trying to favor one side over the other.
In my defense, I was ignorant of the dispute until the two sides were set on a collision course. The first I heard about it was during lunch, the day before everything went down, when it was brought to my attention by the chief proponent of the Build-Better-Equipment side, our Company’s 1SG.
"Did you see what fucking A Co built?” he asked, with a glimmer in his eyes I’ve seen only in soldiers and members of fanatical religious sects. “A fucking signpost!”
I replied that I hadn’t, while trying not to give the impression that I didn’t care. Not that I didn’t, just that I could immediately see where this was all headed, and wanted to be as far away from the whole thing as possible. As an officer, it is my responsibility to stop tomfoolery with rules and overbearing speeches, the likes of which father used to give when I’d come back after midnight stinking drunk. NCOs know this, and thus have built up a substantial collection of “unwritten” rules that frustrate officers in their job. Which is to say that, had I expressly forbidden any interaction with the signpost, it would have been taken as a gesture of bad faith, and earned me the contempt of both sides.
“You know what I should do,” he continued, “I should cut that bitch down, and make target stands out of it.”
Trying to diffuse the situation, I took a different tack, which was to suggest that he not cut it down, that instead, he talk to the leader of the Improve-Living-Conditions-and-Morale camp, the other Company’s Executive Officer. This suggestion was discarded out of hand.
"Fuck that,” he said, “those motherfuckers can go fuck themselves. This is the last straw. That thing’s getting cut down.”
Maybe that was the point at which I should have stepped in and said, “Absolutely not, to cut it down would be a crude gesture, far beneath us; this is a sordid, dastardly, unthinkable scheme." But to suggest that our 1SG, or anyone in our Company, would actually stoop to such an act would have been to display a lack of faith and trust in them, and to be quite honest, I didn’t think they’d actually do it.
Instead, I offered the tame-by-comparison,“That sounds like a terrible idea,” which of course was overlooked by everyone present.
Curious as to what had provoked our Chain of Command to such vitriolic, insulting outbursts, I went outside and cast about for the thing that had been described as “huge, towering over the TOC.” After a couple minutes lucklessly searching rooftops for the signpost, I finally located it -- a rather skinny and subdued, if tall, post, with three signs, one pointing toward a town in Wisconsin, one to Las Vegas, and one to Cincinnati. (1) The Company Artillery officer, leaving the chow hall behind me, observed that it looked flimsy. We laughed, and went about our day.
It’s a tribute to the routine that all I remember of the afternoon and evening are that a meeting happened, and that I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out why my internet mail wasn’t working, and an even greater deal of time making up for lack of internet connectivity by talking with people on different bases over the phone. Here in Afghanistan it’s a bit of an ordeal; there’s a three-second pause between when you say something and when your counterpart hears it. Good-byes are invariably awkward, and society suffers from the confusion. Then I watched Rambo 3 with the Commander and First Sergeant, read a bit of George MacDonald Fraser, and packed it in somewhere around midnight. Signposts were the last thing on my mind.
When I rose the next morning -- early, so I had some kind of chance at an open washing machine (clothes get dirty here something awful) -- the threats of the day before were completely forgotten. So I was surprised when the other Company’s XO met me at the entrance to the shower / washing machine area with a wild look in his eye.
“I just want you to know," he said, "that this is war. Your Company and my Company. It’s on. You started something you can’t finish. I’m taking this all the way to the top. You guys are going down. You want a war, you’ve got it.” (2)
He must’ve seen that I had no idea what he was talking about, something I tried to reinforce and emphasize by giving voice to my feelings with a suitably impassioned and slurred, “Dude, I just woke up,” because he moved from readying his fist to appraising my condition. Apparently satisfied by what he saw, he backed down.
“You know what your 1SG did last night?” he asked.
I could guess, and said so, inwardly doubting that the 1SG had, in fact, physically cut down the signpost himself -- for one thing, 1SG likes his sleep, and for another, why cut something down yourself when you can have someone do it for you, or simply encourage them to do your dirty work? I was pretty sure that 1SG’s public announcement over lunch the day before had been the factor responsible for the lopped sign-post; he’d been quite clear as to his wishes. But in a dramatic twist that nobody could have seen coming, the signpost’s demise had not resulted in target stands.
“Your 1SG cut down the signpost, carried it out to the shit-burn barrels, and lit it on fire.”
Well, my XO colleague had a point. Chopping down a piece of his property then covering it with shit and burning it did seem like an unforgivably aggressive action -- a declaration of war. The realization that this whole incident was now out of the realm of ordinarily mischievousness and had become some kind of weird, primitive statement took me aback, to the point where I thought it might be best if everyone understood where I stood on the issue.
“I know this goes without saying,” I said, feeling for some reason miserable about myself, and a bit like a weasel, “but I had nothing to do with this.”
“I know you would never do something like this,” he said, making me feel worse. “But it’s beyond you, now. I’m just telling you: you guys are getting nothing from us. Nothing.”
I was quiet for a moment, feeling a bit terrible. “I’m sorry about this. And I’m sorry I can’t do anything about it.”
“I know it wasn’t you, man,” he said, and passed me on the way out of the bathroom.
I set my laundry in, shaved, and headed for the courtyard. I was curious. I wanted to see what it was I hadn’t done, and what the 1SG had instigated. The burned piece was leaning on the wall beside the base of the post; some brave soul had rescued it from the shit-burn barrels. My colleague had taken the time to put a sign on the base of the signpost which said: “Only a coward plays these games,” which I guess was his return-salvo in this game of wills. Even though I wasn’t involved, I couldn’t help but grin at the absurd enormity of it all. After all, we’re in a war zone. I had half a mind to hop into the middle of it by lighting the “cowards” sign on fire, something that would surely have enflamed emotions yet more.
My mature side getting the better of me, and thinking there might be an easy, graceful end in sight, I proposed to my Commander and 1SG that we literally mend the situation. “Why don’t we put the upper half back up,” I offered, “show them that we’ve buried the hatchet, that there’s no hard feelings.”
“Not by me,” he was careful to say. “By whoever did this.”
Looking at the broken halves of the signpost today, I took a moment to reflect on it all, trying to make some kind of sense of the childishness, put it into perspective. Eventually, I decided that on the whole it was an amusing diversion, and that it would probably play itself out until the emotions that led to the situation’s creation had dissipated; also, that it wasn’t the sort of thing one could affect for the better. The events of the day confirmed my suspicion, as accusations flew back and forth, threats were made of involving battalion, and ultimately, nothing happened. Such is the way of things. The broken half of the signpost is still lying in the courtyard, a monument to the egos of everyone involved.
(1): These things are never as big as they’re made out to be, or as one imagines them; my mind’s eye had created a billboard, a hulking monstrosity, when in fact it was little more than a 12’ 4x4 with a couple of street-name signs on the top.
(2): One of the stranger effects of being at war is that, due to the amount of warlike images and phrases in our language, people turn into factories of unintentional self-parody. I read once of a man in WWII who saw his friend, who’d been shot, shake his fist at the enemy and yell: “They got me! Those dirty rats!”