One day, one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.
-James Jones, from Thin Red Line, 1962
This story is true, to paraphrase Tim O’Brien, but I’m not telling a war story.
For more than a few months, he’s been in my life. I pass him crouching under the almond trees, squatting with legs of iron gained from years spent pretending to be humble. Lower to the ground than I could go, he smiles an unbelievably bright, big-toothed smile for someone with such a small head. His name is Yazim. I anglicize it here through my own ignorance, not out of disrespect. His family name could be Gul or Sabari, or Wardak—any number of proud Pashto names here in Afghanistan’s east—but I don’t know it and never will. I simply know him as the water guy. We know each other by face. We greet each other through nods. I’m only half kidding about his humility.
Wrapped in the traditional clothes of a devout Muslim, Yazim executes his daily task with precision. He gives us life. His task? Deliver water, and lots of it. Pallets upon pallets of shrink-wrapped bottled water arrive daily to the Forward Operating Base near Khost by air and ground, and Yazim is there to greet them like relatives he expects but isn’t thrilled to see. Yazims throughout Afghanistan perform the water unloading ritual daily, as regularly as their prayers. Whether it’s Kinsley or Cristal, controlling interests of each company ultimately owned by European or American companies, he unloads the pallets from the truck by hand, stacking the 12-bottle cases in their covered shanties without prejudice. The Khost area is mostly desert, so clean drinking water is precious, though you’d never know by the abundance of plastic bottles available at water stations located everywhere inside the perimeter wire. A hallmark of the U.S. military is its ability to turn a square of desert into a fully-functioning base in a matter of months, and create a mini American-style city that offers a secure, sustainable environment from which to wage peace. But we need water. We need Yazim.
Not to oversell his physical importance, he’s one in a long line of day laborers under contact from companies like Fluor or KBR to do the tasks we won’t. He is replaceable, but our combat power is precious. Too precious to squander on some of the routine tasks associated with sustainment. At larger bases, we want entry control point guards and tower guards. We want quick reaction forces. We need staff for our operations centers. We can’t spare anyone. We don’t think about water. Yet almost unnaturally, I think about Yazim and those like him every day. In my career so far, I can count on one hand the times military logistics have failed me in a way that meant failure of my mission. I don’t even have to put up all my fingers or my thumb. The U.S. Army has an incredible ability to safely conduct missions anytime, anywhere, and with sufficient logistics in tow. Give us long enough and we’ll make our temporary houses (permanent) homes.
Part of making ourselves at home is a willingness to accept that we don’t know everything. Afghans like Yazim understand our challenges with operating as guests in their culture, and understand, too, we must be sincere and humble to succeed. Humility is a well-regarded trait, so when we screw up we must ask properly for forgiveness. Under tenets of the Pashtunwahli code, the wronged party must give it and there can be no revenge. Sincere requests for forgiveness are essential for earning trust in Afghan culture. As soldiers, we can’t just talk the talk. Lip service is easily dismissed by an intent stare from a weathered face. We must act, because asking forgiveness in the Pashtun way takes courage.
I have seen an Army lieutenant colonel struggle to load a grown sheep into a waiting Blackhawk helicopter. He was on his way to conduct a condolence shura (meeting with local elders) and offer the community livestock as part of the appropriate forgiveness ritual for an accidental death caused by military action. I have also seen a hardened infantry platoon sergeant break down in tears. He had gone to make hero payments to the families of our Afghan National Security Force partners killed by insurgents while in the line of duty. I have also seen a gracious general officer wear native garb, eat local cuisine, and drink chai until the pot was empty. He had gone to seek an immediate solution to a long-term problem. But these acts are essential. They’re all part of the necessary humility that grounds the five-thousand-year-old culture of Afghanistan’s eastern tribes. Humility is all around, more noticeable than I remember in the places I consider part of my America. Perhaps too, Yazim and his countrymen’s humility is progress of a parallel kind.
Walking back from the base mess hall one evening, a fellow staff officer and I were discussing how to measure our progress. Both of us had been beaten down by the endless questions from higher headquarters imploring us to show demonstrable progress on key issues by using a combination of PowerPoint slides, buzzwords, and pretty pictures. Our route back to the office took us past a construction zone. The same group of local workers we passed twice a day was resting on top of the scaffolding, chatting excitedly in Pashto as their supervisors stood on the ground with hard hats and clipboards gesturing skyward. As we entered the security gate to our compound, my friend pointed to the half-erected building, the future brigade conference center.
“See that, man. That’s it. That’s how we do it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Just like that. No real power tools, just hard work, all by hand. That’s progress, man. At the end of the day it’s something you can touch.”
Not wanting to get too abstract, I agreed with him. I have always enjoyed working on large projects like decks, patios, additions, and even building small boats, and this was a feeling I recognized. Manual labor requires humility, but the trade-off is satisfaction in a job well done. To be a craftsman is an honorable designation and the local workers were nothing if not proud, sitting on top of the newly-completed brick wall and sipping their bottled water. They smiled like Yazim, bright white teeth standing in contrast to the darkness of their beards, skin, and hair. They waved. We waved back.
“There is something to be said about manual labor. It’s hard, but it’s fulfilling,” I said.
“You know, I’d like to do that. Maybe I can just walk out of the ops center for a few hours and help them build. At least they wouldn’t yell at me when I point to that building and say ‘there’s your progress—right there.’”
One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, creatively narrates how progress is a rallying cry for a growing nation. A socialist until his dying days, Sandburg often wrote of the grief, struggle, and triumph of the people who built America. His first poetic backdrop, Chicago, was also my first experience with progress and modernity I hadn’t yet discovered in my small Midwestern town. Growing up about 50 miles east of downtown lent itself to frequent family trips to its museums, zoos, and ballparks. Every time we drove the Chicago Skyway in my dad’s brown Buick Park Avenue, I invented stories about the skyscrapers before me. How did they get there? When? Did they use cranes? Helicopters? How many people did it take to build something that could touch the clouds? My sisters and I competed to be first to discover the giant structures emerging from the haze and smoke of Gary, East Chicago, and Whiting by climbing over each other for a better view through the windshield. This was, of course, in the time before mandatory seatbelt laws.
Building (an) Afghanistan is hardly the same, but the dedication of the workers building our conference center by hand reflects Sandburg’s words, penned almost a hundred years earlier in a growing city on the shores of Lake Michigan. My mother introduced me to Sandburg’s poetry accidentally by leaving a volume of his first collection Chicago Poems in the lift-top of the old school desk we used as a phone table. Appearing in this collection, his poem “Chicago” speaks of the city’s population as a living force and engine of change:
Under the smoke, dust all over his
mouth, laughing with
white teeth, Under the terrible burden
of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse,
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
But Chicago is far from Khost spiritually, culturally, and physically. I don’t pretend to ascribe motives of a dead Midwestern poet to the Afghan contract workers, but I can’t help but think their hard work similarly ties them to their land. The Pashtuns will endure. They will celebrate and they will laugh. Maybe a talib among them will return years after we’re gone and point out to his sons the work he created. Together they’ll laugh about the American’s brief stint in their land. They’ll smile at the ridiculous monument left to mark our time, now part of their land once again. They’ll know their humility and patience delivered this building, inshallah. Today as I pass, however, I am ignorant.
After only a moment of stares, we move by the workers and continue to the headquarters building. I hadn’t really paid too much attention to the men and their attitudes before. They looked satisfied. They were proud. Now, as the setting sun silhouetted them against the day’s progress, I thought of what it took them to construct the building. There were no motorized lifts—bricks were thrown upward to the masons who quickly set them into place. Concrete was mixed by hand with jugs of water, filled from the well tap several hundred meters away, and raised by rope to waiting forms. No electricity. No power tools—simply sweat and muscle. I would never know if there were complaints; I would only know them by their progress. A new conference building was sure to be standing ready for occupancy later in the fall. My admiring stare partly validated their accomplishment. They were not too proud to work hard at the repetitive task of laying bricks. I’m sure they were often thought backward by many who passed, smirking about their lack of machinery. But in the end, they won. They had something tangible and I was a bit envious. I combed by thoughts, attempting to reconcile my envy by telling myself I, too, have achieved, am achieving, and will be capable of achieving progress like this. But for me, it never came naturally.
Sometime in the summer of 1987 I failed as a farmhand. My parents took me to meet distant relatives in Ohio. I have always been impressed with my mom’s ability to recall the history of kin long gone, hardly seen, dead, or improbably related in a way that would frustrate even a professional genealogist. The Mayers were just such relatives. True, these relatives weren’t so distant. They were my mom’s aunt and uncle, unassuming farmers in southern Ohio. Devoid of pretenses, they were who they appeared. Farmers. Lutherans. Buckeye fans.
We traveled by car to the growing regions bounded by the Scioto, Muskingum and Ohio rivers, smug in their blessings of black dirt, plentiful water, and predictable growing seasons. As a teenager and a city kid my experience with rural agricultural was limited. Nonexistent, in fact. Farms were just farms. Food came from the grocery store. Vegetables were chores to eat, not to raise. Cows were for tipping. I scoffed at going out to the country under the guise of a family reunion. I had friends who quite possibly would die if I was gone for a week and didn’t see them. Lengthy car trip aside, the excursion to the farm wasn’t high on my list of pleasurable activities. True, I came from a farming state, one which many used as the butt of jokes, but at least I was better than them. I didn’t live anywhere where I could smell manure.
It wasn’t more than fifteen minutes after we arrived that my mother announced we weren’t just staying for the weekend, rather we were going to be guests of the Mayer family for a whole week. My father, the lucky man, had to return to work on Monday, but he would be back the following Friday to collect us. Joy. What to do on a farm? I thought porch swings. Starry nights, and crickets. I thought rides. Hayrides, horse rides, tractor rides. I thought big meals and boredom. What I got was quite different. I got sore muscles and a bruised ego.
What my mother failed to tell me was that in their old age, Wally and Ruth, her uncle and aunt, had taken it easy. They were only farming for feed to support their dairy herd, on a scant 1,300 acres. The Mayers had leased out the rest of their land to other members of German-Lutheran community, mostly children of second-generation immigrants, many of whom were reluctant farmers themselves. But they were farmers nonetheless, and farmers need people. Farms need “hands.” Hands is a bit of an understatement, because it takes much more than a few hands to haul, and pick, and till, and irrigate, and fertilize. I was to be one of the hands detailed to help another family work their lease.
Though I wasn’t present in the adults-only kitchen discussion that occurred shortly after our arrival, I imagine it went something like this:
“The whole week, why Kathleen, bless the Lord, how fortunate. We’ll let the Meirs and the Meyers and the Meijers know. I’m sure the congregation will want to do something too,” the aunt might have said.
“Oh yes, if you’ll have us. The timing’s just right. Steve’s in court all week, and with the kids out of school, you know,” my mother would have said.
“How old is that boy of yours now?”
“Old enough—he’s a teenager. He needs the exercise. Football tryouts are coming up again in a few weeks,” my mother would have said.
“You know Wally played too, for Concordia, of course, but that was before the war. Your cousins too. So it’s settled.”
“Oh yes, he’ll have so much fun,” my mother would have rationalized. “ Just think of it, working with those college kids.”
And that’s how I got calluses and prickly heat.
There’s early, then there’s farm early. Farm early, akin to military early, means that you are ready to work before the sun comes up, not merely awake. When a relative came to wake me at four a.m., I remember almost falling down the narrow, poorly-lit stairs from my cot, tucked high up in a converted corner of the farmhouse attic. I brushed, shaved, showered and came into the kitchen. There, looking back at me, was the day’s crew of hands, all intently staring at the pale city kid over their half-empty coffee cups. Was I late? It wasn’t even half past four. After a brief introduction around a room filled with Marks and Johns, and Matthews, all good biblical names well matched to their protestant work ethic, we set off in the pickup, followed by the tractor, bailing machine, and a large white crew-cab pulling the hay wagon. It was still dark.
Essential things farmers don’t tell city kids bailing hay: wear long sleeves, preferably flannel; carry two bandanas—one to cover your mouth and nose, and one to wipe away sweat; use waterproof sunscreen; use leather gloves. Obviously, I’d forgotten to do these and before the sun was over the trees I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable day. Through the grace by which they’d been indoctrinated, the farm crew managed to get me a long sleeve shirt and an extra bandana. I was on my own for the rest, and ill-equipped to make it through the ocean of hay to the paved road, our goal for the day.
Somewhere between the lessons on what to do if the wagon tips over and how to position your body to avoid losing necessary appendages, I grasped the seriousness of the task before me. I was now fully-awake. I never knew hay was such a serious and dangerous business. The position I drew in the crew was one of the pickers. I would slowly walk behind the bailing machine and use a set of steel hooks (which looked more like medieval torture devices than farm tools) to pick the bound bale and walk it to the wagon. Simple enough tasks. Bend. Hook. Jerk. Carry. Lift. Drop. Repeat about 3,000 times in 13 hours. I didn’t know a bale of mostly dry feed hay weighs more than 60 pounds.
When we had filled the wagon, one of the Matthews said it was time to go in. Awesome, I thought. We’ve only worked eight hours so far. Not too bad. I could get back early enough to try the farm things I read about like swimming in the pond and whittling on the porch swing. My mom would be happy that I got to do “real” farm work. I would have a good story to tell my friends on Friday about how cool it was to pretend to farm for a few hours. I forgot about the unloading.
When ancient Scottish farmers dug small covered pits into the earth to store their winter feed, they were on to something. The grains were gathered in whole stalks and bound tightly. Vegetables were picked and wrapped in sacks. The farmers knew gravity was on their side, as they lowered the harvest into the ground for safe keeping. Somehow, over the centuries, this practical knowledge had been lost by the agrarian community. Today, American barns are tall, imposing structures that serve as both work spaces and storage areas. While this is a good technological development in terms of usability, it is a bad idea in terms of labor efficiency. As romantic as the fantasy of a good old roll in the hay may be to many of us, I guarantee spending the better part of an afternoon and evening loading bale after bale into a hay loft, against gravity, will disabuse you of that notion quickly. The real purpose of an American-style two story barn with a hay loft is not storage capacity, but torture.
We arrived back at the hay barn and began to unload the wagon, now setting heavily on its springs and leaning precariously to the left. Out of nowhere, an older, stout farmer whom I hadn’t yet met appeared in front of the wagon with an automatic hay elevator. This contraption resembled a conveyor belt mounted on the back of a tractor, tall enough to reach the second story of the barn. Somehow, like a life-sized Tetris puzzle, we were to take every bale and load them into the half-full loft. “Stack ‘em to the rafters, boys” was the older man’s call. Easy for him to say. He was sitting on a stool running the machine. Of course, I was in the hay loft, sweating under the oppressive heat caused by summer, humidity, lack of ventilation, and thousands of drying bales.
For almost six more hours I hooked and jerked bales off the conveyor under close supervision of the oldest member of the team, stacking as I had been instructed. Like the bailer, the conveyor was rumored to eat hands and fingers of the unaware or uncoordinated who came too close. I kept my distance, preferring to take the bales as they fell from the end instead of following the others who deftly pick the moving rectangles from the belt, all the while talking about girls. By the time we finished, I itched all over. My bandana, long since filled with hay particles and sweat, rode low on my neck. All I wanted to do was take a shower and collapse in my bed. The corn would still be there in the morning. So would the porch swing. The pond could wait. Friday couldn’t come soon enough. Perhaps neither my memory nor my math is accurate, but I think I lifted, pushed, struggled with, and dropped about 40 tons of hay that day. The next morning I couldn’t move my arms or shoulders enough to get out of bed. That was my one and only day as a farmhand.
Here is not the part where I insist I had an epiphany about the values of honest work and manual labor. That wouldn’t come until decades later when I was digging my rollover pit in a firebase, preparing for the eventuality of incoming mortar fire. This is not the part where I claim that the work was hard but I overcame adversity and completed the task. That wouldn’t come until years later when I almost didn’t graduate West Point because a knee surgery hindered my ability to pass a physical fitness test. This is not the part where I claim the work got me in touch with my spirituality. That wouldn’t come until hours later, when I was lying on my cot in the attic, staring at the cobwebs until I fell asleep. But after my farm experience, I was proud. Exhausted. Happy. I had succeeded at the work at which I scoffed. Baled hay was in the loft. A field was mown clean, standing ready for the late summer planting. I accomplished something tangible.
I learned not to overlook the simplest task of picking up hay. It was a monotonous and repetitive task. It needed to be done correctly each time, and I did it. Surprisingly, the plainness of the harvest process gave me joy. I was satisfied. When I meet Yazim’s smile again as I write this, he seems to have figured this out, too. For every nod we share, I understand a bit more about him. Though his task is simple and repetitive, he’s not. He hides the complexity of his life behind green eyes. He hides circumstances and places that I won’t ever discover because I’m not meant to. He smiles and squats, perhaps feeling sympathy for me and the complexities both of my life and my government that have brought me here to pass him each morning. His smile isn’t one of guilt but of a contentment I wish I could patent.
A few weeks after the workers completed the roof of the conference center, I noticed Yazim wasn’t unloading water as he should be. For the next few days, I looked for him all along the gravel path running between the mosque and the basketball court, never going out of my way mind you, but looking out of curiosity. Part of my routine was missing. I missed the smile and nod. I was proud that I had made a “friend” in this country. I had someone who recognized me and I him, even if mutual gesturing was the extent of our friendship.
There was now a taller, less timid man doing Yazim’s job. Another water guy. His eyes weren’t as kind as Yazim’s and he looked a bit sad. He performed the unwrapping and stacking as efficiently and productively as Yazim had done. Nothing seemed to be out of place. After more than a month had passed, I finally approached the water crew supervisor, a short, hairy Pakistani with dark glasses and a large belly. I asked after Yazim. He feigned ignorance, muttering something, and put his hands up as if to say “I don’t know. I don’t care. Why are you bothering me?” all in one oddly mechanical motion.
His shrug confirmed what I have suspected. There’s always another Yazim. Did he quit? Take a higher-paying job in Dubai or United Arab Emirates? Is he working elsewhere on the base? Is he dead? People disappear here all the time. Yazim and a hundred thousand other fathers, brothers, sons, and grandfathers run an incredible risk working as contractors for American and NATO forces. In the reality of a country in a continual state of conflict all of my questions seem possible. Ultimately, the best I can hope for is he and his smile simply went away.
I won’t ever see Yazim again, but he’s given me faith enough to know we will always have enough to drink, especially if we do what we should.
S. Justin Platt has nurtured his love of reading and writing while serving as an Army officer in various worldwide assignments. As an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy, West Point, he has taught Composition and Literature. Now assigned to the Pentagon, he continues to edit his collection of personal essays written during his recent deployment to Afghanistan. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It took two years. I composed and revised the first draft in a month of Sundays, writing when I wasn’t on duty. I continued to revise almost monthly from then on, up until a few days before I submitted it. I have several versions now, each offering a unique voice.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m truly a Bird by Bird writer. Anne Lamont’s advice about “down” and “up” drafts has been helpful for me, because I’m reminded I have to just get something down for the creative process to begin. There’s always time to fix up the piece—it’s important to me that my writing and memories last a lifetime, so I’m committed to the process.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Carl Sandburg’s poetry, namely Chicago Poems and The People, Yes have inspired me; these are America’s true tales, imagined well. Atlas Shrugged remains one of my favorite novels, though I’m partial to Jonathan Franzen’s sardonic grasp of the everyday. Katrina Kennison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day moves me to tears.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I wrote this essay in a plywood and canvass C-hut overlooking an orange grove, with distant views of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush range. At home, my writing space is my desk and laptop. I’m not a café composer.