Hand outstretched somewhere on the side of the road in southern Kyrgyzstan, I was on my way to Osh. Osh was a city that was known for being a major trading post along the silkroad, but it was also the site of a bloody massacre of Uzbeks just a few months prior. It was said by locals that there were over 2000 people killed over the span of a couple of weeks there, and over 100,000 people displaced. Official estimates only say there were around 420 deaths, but those were just in hospitals. This event was mostly overshadowed by other news, partially due to the US and Russian air bases that sit in Bishkek, so not many of my loved ones were aware of the fact that I was on my way to a city full of potential genocidaires. They most certainly had no idea that my plan was to re-enter Afghanistan through Tajikistan and travel to Kandahar, just as one of my personal heroes Rory Stewart had chronicled in his book “The Places in Between” on his journey from Herat to Kabul. I had an English- Dari dictionary that I picked up in Bishkek, and a list of phrases. Against the advice of a former Russian soldier I had met in Karaganda, who fought in the Russian- Afghan war, I was still going to brave it. I was under the naïve impression that all my fears I had of people were unfounded, and to reaffirm my beliefs that most people were essentially good. My journey thus far was living proof of this. After months of testing this by riding with complete strangers across countries I had been told were dangerous and that I would surely be knifed down, I was treated mostly with respect except for a few corrupt policemen trying to get money out of me. But I didn’t carry it to give. While I cannot speak for the general nature of humankind, I can speak for my experience.
My experience was… that I had been to Kandahar before, in the United States Air Force. I was with a squadron whose main purpose was to set up a site that would designate all communication between aircraft in Afghanistan to their respective parties around the globe to be directed and controlled. We had a hand to play in everything from medivac to the Beast of Kandahar, a formerly classified surveillance aircraft that made international headlines when it was grounded over Iran. Initially, I proudly worked on what I knew to be something that was going to save lives by making communications more reliable for people in danger. It was the first time in US history that a system had been set up of this sort to allow for warfare to be directed over a network in the way we did it. We had worked tirelessly to get this system up and running, and with each rocket attack, it re-confirmed to me the value of this mission, a part of me was worried that it would never work… Then one day it did… and I will never forget when my boss proudly announced the fact that we were now killing bad guys.
Truthfully, I was not prepared for those words… I wanted to believe that we were so far removed from what was happening there, that it was not my fault for what happened on the other end. But I couldn’t help imagining airstrikes as they went down in my head. Transfixed, I must have stared at those radios for over an hour, just staring. What was connected to those green blinking lights, I knew were the electrical extension of whatever happened on the ground.
Moreover, I had no idea what the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN) did, or who they worked with. They had connected with us, and we were not allowed to touch their equipment. As far as we were told, they flew an unmarked private jet with equipment that served as a signal amplifier and universal translator for radio and data frequencies over remote areas. It relayed its messages through us so that we could transmit it long haul to places such as, but not limited to the Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid Air Base. What I found troubling was the priority these people had. I would only later learn why.
After everything was set up, we had very little to do except for maintenance checks, our programs, and building up the work tents. Each time a soldier would die in Southern Afghanistan, we would go to the flight line and salute their caskets as they were carried away to the C-130. Soldiers, airmen, and marines from around the world would drop what they were doing if it wasn’t critical and we would show our respect. The first one was… emotional. I stood in the front row, and I watched grown men carrying caskets trying their best to hold back their bitter tears. I’d see men standing across from me with tears in their eyes while we all saluted and the bagpipes played. When the Chaplain read the eulogy, a more detached part of me felt like I was experiencing history. It was an honor I thought to die for your country. As days and weeks went by, I realized that there is no honor to be had. Honor was just a way to help people cope. What I was watching was broken families… I was seeing the preview to the worst phone call a mother could receive… It was a father regretting his decision to support his son becoming a soldier. It was a son or daughter who wouldn’t have a parent anymore. I was watching soldiers who would one day put rifles in their mouths, and blow their brains out. There were over fifty coffins taken away that I stood and saluted. Whatever my system did, I was not seeing less people getting taken to those airplanes. It was a time of a 30,000 man troop build-up, so people were pushing further out… Then I thought about the unseen… I was not seeing the families ruined by the machine I helped build. I was not seeing the child crying over the bodies of her family. I was not seeing the father and husband who lost his wife and child, embittered by what we called a miscalculation or a mistake due to faulty information.
These realizations were more than a source of anxiety for me. I’d watch my radios and imagine all the suffering they caused. The single significant act of my life was this system. It was something to help pilots and operators drop bombs on people. Each time a mortar dropped, I thought about the fear it must create when we blew up their houses. In bathrooms around base back in Germany, we had posters with statistics on the capabilities of aircraft. Some like the Global Hawk were able to fly so high, a person would not even be able to see them. While I have long abandoned the thought of a Christian God as we knew him in the church I used to frequent back home, in my dreams, it was like he was showing me the killer that I was.
When we returned home, we all received an Enlisted Performance Report dictating the impact of our work in Afghanistan. Everyone received a line saying that we supported 200+ enemy kills in our time there. Most of the time, EPR reports are usually fluffed up, but this was true. I was meant to be proud of this… What it didn’t say was that we also supported over 400 civilian deaths since it was installed according to the United Nations. It didn’t say anything about the specifications for what classifies as an enemy in this statistic. Neither did it say anything about the fact that BACN was being used to fly over Pakistan, and that it was using our systems to route UAV traffic. I remember sitting in our office in Germany and watching everyone jump when we heard a car backfire outside. We laughed… But I never talked about my dreams of bombed villages or the people who would never let me sleep. It’s usually seen as a career ender to seek psychological help, so I didn’t. I just put my thoughts into escaping, of travelling the world.
When I quit the military, I burned my uniform in my bosses grill at my going away party. It was as if to say that I am no longer part of this. But it was always a part of me, I could never shake it.
All people I’ve met who travel a long time go either to escape something or to find something. I needed answers. I needed to know why I had blood on my hands, and why I can never forgive myself. In the time I travelled, I only learned of our common humanity through a myriad of different cultural representations. I talked about my life to everyone who would listen, even the unsavory parts. I always expected a conflict, but I think they understood me better than I did myself. When I went to Osh, I had the full expectations of going back to Afghanistan. But as I entered the city, I saw burned out buildings with melted televisions and rain damaged teddy bears inside. I saw the same thousand yards stares I had seen before while I was deployed, and the agitation. I met an owner of a guesthouse who was keeping some Peace Corps volunteers that stopped some men with axes from killing the Uzbeks he was hiding in his house. They came to the door and said if there were any Uzbeks in there, to tell them, or they would go in and kill everyone inside. He told them they weren’t from there and they had no right to come in. They went away. In this action, I saw true honor.
By then my decision to go back to Afghanistan was overshadowed by the Russian veteran I had met a month earlier, who I had shared a beer with in a BBQ stall in the middle of an open market. He spoke for hours about his experiences of gunning down a family because he was ordered to. After I told him what I did and what I planned to do, he took off his sunglasses and looked at me in the eyes. His words probably saved my life, he said: “I know the Americans gave weapons to fight us. I saw many friends die, and we killed a lot of people. There are things I will unfortunately never forget. But we were just soldiers, just as you were. I don’t hate you, because I am you. That’s what happens when you’ve had time to reflect… I see you in myself, and I’m telling you, you will never be able to come to terms with the knowledge of what you did, it will always be with you. You will just go there and get yourself killed, and then what good are you? You’ll be just one more death, a statistic. In America, people listen to the little man. Go back, get an education, and try to change things, just don’t be evil” It shook me to hear a Russian veteran say this to me. Because I knew that for the longest time they were as afraid of us, as we were of them.
The situation in Osh was said to be a product of instability bleeding over from Afghanistan. Some suggested the Mayor was seeking a reason to create an autonomous zone so that they could traffic weapons and drugs in and out of Afghanistan from Tajikistan. In the man I met there, I saw someone who under threat of being killed by axes, stood up for what was right in that moment. A trip into Afghanistan no longer felt like the only course of action. Instead I went into Xinjiang China. The first thing I saw in Kashgar was a group of Chinese soldiers late at night, taking positions and breaking down a door down in an alleyway, out of the window of the car I was in. This was something I was unprepared for, but under the same auspices of eradicating terrorism from their borders, the first event I experienced in China was their troops exerting their power to take control of a region that technically belonged to them, but they never controlled until they decided to develop it for mineral extraction. I was told by a local tour guide who picked me up on the side of the road that right after 9-11, nine hundred political prisoners disappeared from Urumchi. And on my journey throughout China, nobody was aware of this, nor did they think that the Uygher people were anything more than bloodthirsty killers. Their attitude was all too familiar.
It made me think of our own media, of fear caused by ignorance and transmitted to the people of America. I saw a state run media that prohibited social networking sites outside of the state sanctioned Chinese ones. They couldn’t know, unless they were awake to what else was out there. Their minds were programmed that way. But I never judged them, because in many similar ways, we have been becoming them. At current, we have four companies that control 90% media in the United States. Most Americans currently get their information from these four. While espousing different views on cultural and social issues, on matters of foreign policy, they bandwagon behind views that are the most hard lined whenever there is a moment of shock. When there are only a handful of companies competing for the attention of the majority of people, they tend to adopt whatever is the most attention grabbing topic is and run with it. This is what happened during 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq. The net effect was the same. It still produced a xenophobic reaction toward Islamic people, which in turn was used as recruiting material for extremists. It was fuel to be exploited by those who sought to profit on the pain of others.
When we see other countries on the television, we often wonder why people don’t just do what we would do. Why are they so prone to violence, why do they support evil people in power, and how could they be so ignorant of the goodness our way of life has to offer? We see our own soldiers fighting just wars in movies and assume we are the good guys. As access to the internet proliferates we are beginning to see other, more confusing realities that contain a long list of truths we are often too proud to acknowledge and digest. These other truths are revealing. The nationalism and our insular sense of reality, that protected us from the wickedness of life on earth, flew in our face and exposed our ignorance and our pettiness.. This inward- out perspective on politics insulates us from the truth that there is in fact only you and me sitting here. There is no “other”. Bear with me, and try to imagine that instead of killing Afghans, we were killing Americans. Once you can do that you know how I feel. I’ve travelled to over forty countries and there is nothing that makes an American more superior than anyone else. We are all just people trying to make it on this earth. In war, there are only people killing people for reasons neither side fully understands, and those who profit from it. There are defensive wars, but Afghanistan was not one of them, and neither was Iraq. It was a reaction, but it was not the right one. By the time we are set to leave Afghanistan, we will have occupied it longer than some empires owned colonies. It will be the most expensive war in our history, and it will not make our world any safer. Empires controlled territories in the middle-east much longer and still people fought. As most colonial powers have in the past, we are making the same mistake of believing we are liberators from backwards and brutal cultures. But as they have compelled us to become what we most feared – a country resembling an Orwellian state through superior technology – they have formed their own, and a religion of peace grew gnarled fangs. But in the end, we are merely people belonging to a civilization who wish to defend what is most dear to us. Our losses will burn in our memories and our transgressions will be mere statistics, a means to an end.
Statistics however are representative, they are symbols for people, events, and actions so vast and incomprehensible that we would not have the time in our lives to think about in any sufficient detail. Evil hides behind statistics. But I will not, my hands touched the lives of thousands of people. Many say that if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else. That is just a way to cope, it’s a lie we tell ourselves. The fact is that there is only one reality and there is no what ifs. There is only us and what we choose to do in our short time we have here. We could be the man in the guesthouse, or we can be the man who killed a whole family out of fear for what authority might do to him if he didn’t. This was the decision I had to make in my life, I am not alone, but I chose fear and white lies to protect myself from the awful truth of my life’s work. White lies like I saved lives with what I did when I know good and well that these were lives that wouldn’t need saving, if we never reacted like a giant who had his eye poked out… But it was also my choice to sit at this computer, to take this position, and hope someone out there understands.
In my life, I have always been a traveler. For a time, I joined a military that relies on this sense that there are other people out there that would do us harm. But this is true and this is not true. The truth is that there is someone out there that is being told the same thing about us, and up till now, we have done more harm than good. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
From someone who’s lived there for awhile, this is my warning, my plea, and this is the only advice I can give to you as a person. Travel. Learn how to think critically. Experience life as if it was the first day you stepped foot on this Earth and have patience for what is different. When the day comes when I belong to a nation that chooses to understand rather than hate that which harms us, I will come home for good. Until that day, I will make no ties, and I will only stay for a while.
Written by Cian Westmoreland , The Nomad