I sigh as the lights flicker and the room goes completely black. Silence. My computer struggles to stay alive, blinking twice, then with a sharp high pitched electrical blip, darkness. I blink twice. Nothing. Pitch blackness. I feel blindly around the room with my right hand for the locker that holds my backpack, then fish blindly in the top pocket for my headlamp. A small click, and a circle of light silently illuminates the room.
I work my way to the door. It is 9pm, and dark outside. There is relative silence save the occasional soul-reverberating vibration of a jet tearing off the runway towards the sky...and then its partner. They always depart in pairs. The greyish yellow moon is eerily covered diagonally by a dark presence -- obviously a cloud, yet with just an edge of creepiness that makes you wonder what sinister being planned this ambiance tonight. I wander to the generator that sits silently by the thick cement bunker that abuts my clinic. I turn the key, and am greeted by a dry metalic grinding. Nothing. Enough already, cries the generator, that battled the 135 degree heat all day. I’m done for the night. I look at my watch and sigh again. I rub my eyes. Yeah. I’m done, too.
I return to my clinic room, guided by the circle of light, and grab my pack.
My mind jumps back to the moment before the lights went out, to the man on the computer screen reviewing the subject of “Blast Injuries” -- tonight’s Continuing Medical Education topic in preparation for my upcoming medical boards. My mind revisits and digests the slide entitled “total body disruption” -- and the photo of a mangled human body, arms and legs torn violently askew, head splayed open like the hollow shell of an old Halloween pumpkin thrown insolently onto your driveway on an early November night. That was somebody’s son, my mind whispers solemnly to the silent darkness. Somebody’s brother.
Total body disruption.
The next slide was a graph, showing expected injuries to “unprotected victims at relative distances from a high explosive detonation”. At closest range, of course, falls this “total body disruption”, followed by burns, inhalation injuries, toxic inhalations, pneumatic blast injuries of the lungs, bowel and ears, and traumatic amputations. All those, just from the dramatic shock wave of hot, mobile air that strikes a body after an explosion like a sudden tsunami.
Traumatic amputations. Not from being struck by a fast moving object. But from the force of the air passing by.
“First,” states the speaker, “the violent blast of air snaps the bone. Then,” he continues, “ it continues past, ripping the soft tissues completely apart and away.”
And finally, secondary blast injury, from the actual fragments of the explosive penetrating soft, intricate, complicated organic flesh. Turning a fragile miracle of cells and sodium/potassium pumps and calcium channels and hormonal receptors and thermoregulators...into an unrecognizable pile of hamburger meat.
I climb into my truck. The steering wheel is on the “wrong side”, but I am getting used to that. There is a fine dust everywhere, as if I have landed on the moon. As if someone has come into my car with two blackboard erasers, and clapped them vigorously inside for 5 minutes, then ran away snickering. I turn on my headlights, and two brownish yellow beams are visible, cutting through the dusty darkness. I pull onto the road towards “town”. Dark sillouettes of slowly moving trucks are backlit by a golden misty dusty glow of following headlamps. Shadows of thick paneled, heavy armoured vehicles lumber toward me in the darkness.
The road is surrounded on both sides by thick cement barriers, and topped with shiny silver razorwire. And behind that wire... Afghanistan.
During the day, I see birds alight on this wire. Haven’t they learned? Don’t they know? Razorwire. Are there a multitude of little bird fingers laying at the base of all of these tangled, lethal metallic barriers? Maybe. But, apparently not. These birds seem content as they sit there, oblivious to the the politics that has strung this sharp, treacherous perch. They do not wince, though perhaps a wincing bird is a hard thing to identify. Beaks, you see, are rather expressionless. I’m glad something can find a peaceful quiet perch in this tightly coiled and defensive situation.
A dove on a coil of razorwire. Separating US from THEM.
I round a corner in the darkness where the border of US and THEM becomes nebulous. Here there is a gap in the wall on each side of the road. On the right, representing US, is a tan, thickly armored American Humvee protecting a 300 foot gap in the wall. On the left, a small green SU, emblazoned with swirling Persian characters, represents THEM.
Of course, at this most nebulous turn in the road, where US meets THEM, as I tentatively drive the football field of tarmac that stretches between, the air raid sirens begin to wail.
A calm Austrailian sounding woman, not unlike your imagined childhood nanny, known as the Giant Voice, in a stern yet somehow calming tone, announces sweetly, almost seductively,
“Rocket...Attack. Rocket...Attack” Then, more sinuous wails from the siren.
“Shit,” I mutter to myself.
I am supposed to pull over and stop my truck. I am supposed to climb out and drop to the ground, preferably in a ditch by the side of the road, and lay on my face, protecting my hands beneath my body, directing my feet in the direction of the attack (with the idea that it is better for the blast -- and I suppose shrapnel -- to first impact my feet, and then my head). I am supposed to lie there, face down for 2 minutes, and then cautiously proceed to a bunker.
I look at the side of the road. Curling razorwire lies in the drainage ditch where I am supposed to fling my body.
Continuous wailing sirens. Someone is dropping bombs on us. Somebody thinks of US as THEM. I’m a THEM. An anonymous THEM. And so, have become part of the nebulous political situation.
This is not a new experience, this rocket attack. I am strangely unafraid, nearly unaffected. This calm sensation, I suppose, is denial.
If I do not see the blast here; perhaps it hit back there? Did it hit near my clinic that I only left 5 minutes before? Will there be one more? Or two or three or six? I think of the nice fat concrete bunker I just abandoned to hop in my truck and come this way. I think of my coworkers. My patients. Are they okay? I think of the people scattered about the airfield. Are they okay? I hear the screaming of an ambulance siren. Four blue light flashing police cars scream past me going in the other direction.
Is everybody okay?
My mind flashes back to tonight’s lecture. Total body disruption.
I look left...toward the gap in the wall known to me as THEM. I look right, towards the gap that is US. There is no place to pull over, no ditch in which to cower. I see no evidence of an explosion here. I gun the engine of my truck, deciding the best strategy -- the illegal strategy -- is to drive quickly away from this place. My eyes strain in the darkness. The siren wails.
Where do I go? Where do I go? My eyes search the roadside in the darkness.
Where is the nearest bunker? Where do I go?
At least I have the potential of a bunker.
My mind flashes to the film “Restrepo”, by Sebastian Junger -- a shockingly bold documentary which follows a troop of American army soldiers as they attempt to overtake a Taliban stronghold in a valley in southeastern Afghanistan. In the documentary, the Americans call in an air attack on a target. Later that day, they march into the newly bombed village. An Afghani man, with a long dark beard and long white robes, walks towards the foot soliders. He has the form of a lifeless child -- perhaps four years old -- draped in his arms. He is screaming angrily at the soldiers.
“What have you done?!” screams the man, gesturing at them with the flopping body of the dead, bloodstained child. “Does this look like Taliban to you?” he accuses angrily, gesturing with the floppy body of the child. He repeats, screaming accusingly, hoarsely, “What have you done? What have you done?? Does this look like Taliban to you?!”
The camera turns eventually to the troop’s commander. A young man, perhaps 10 years my junior. Way too young for this massive burden dragging on his shoulders. He looks flatly into the camera. He acknowledges that this was a mistaken target. His eyes are blank. Hard. Emotionless. Tightly locked down. Resisting compassion. His jaw is clenched. A rock. Because, when confronted with the pale bloodless face and hollow black eyes of a ragdoll child flopping lifelessly in her grandfather’s arms...how can he be anything else. He has become a rock.
How can a rock ever stop being a rock?
How does a grandfather...or a soldier...ever move beyond this moment?
Likely they cannot. And never will.
My mind returns to the present moment, where warning sirens continue to wail. I pull my truck, finally, into a patch of sand off the side of the road. It is pitch black outside. Still I do not see a bunker.
I cautiously get out of the truck. Before me, on the roadside, looms a large towering tree, one of very few trees that are found here. And suddenly, my breath catches. And I am struck.
The shadowy form of the giant tree is swarming with a cloud of birds. Hundreds...possibly thousands. They squack and chirp and sing and call to each other in a tangle of voices, audible now that the wailing siren has momentarily stopped its wavering shrill. Like black mangos, filling an overripe tree, these seemingly thousands of chirping creatures are shocking in their numbers. They seem agitated and restless, chattering excitedly. Is this where they flee in a rocket attack? In this land of dust and grime and giant rumbling metal machines and rock-like men with blank staring eyes and loud thunderous planes and rockets dropping from the sky and total body disruption and US and THEM and burning garbage and open sewers wafting noxious putrid stench...when I am supposed to be lying on my face in the ditch at the base of this tree...awaiting the gigantic boooooom and the hot tsunami wind and shrapnel and the next command from the Giant Voice....I instead stand, fixed to this place, upright, head raised curiously, arms hanging uselessly at my side, staring entranced at this strange, living, singing dark grey profile contrasted against the night sky.
A singing tree.
It sings to me.
“What’s going on?” their warbling and confused mix of voices seem to ask me.
“I wish I could explain,” I respond silently. “I wish I understood.”
I stare up at them. Two thousand eyes stare back at me. In the darkness. Under the light of the sinister orange dusty half moon. In the midst of a rocket attack. For a moment... struck motionless by this sweet wonder. Somehow comforted by their innocent eyes and musical voices.
Another truck pulls in beside mine. A young female soldier jumps out with her rifle.
“Do you know where to go?” she asks, anxiously, nervously. “Have you seen a bunker?”
My eyes are pulled from the tree. I look around, and finally spot a potential shelter across the street.
“Let’s go over there,” I say, pointing.
She is too young to be here, in this place. This sweet voiced, angel-faced feminine near-child dressed in digitalized cammo, hefting a complicated black metal rifle on her thin boned shoulder.
Aren’t we all.
“Let’s go,” I say. I glance back one more time at the tree… then turn to run across the road.
A thousand small, sweet tangled voices and two thousand dark eyes follow us into the blackness.