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3: Hell’s Box Office

You step off that big bird for your first day in-country, and you quickly discover that you’re Alice in Wonderland, but you’re wearing a Kevlar skirt.

This isn’t a mirror image of your own burgers-and-beer culture. The hammering rock music you and your buddies head-bang to is a sacrilege here. Those buxom pinup girls your granddaddies tacked up during World War II are no-go pornography here, so you guys have been warned to keep them on the down-low. If you’re a female, wearing pants and hefting an M4 rifle makes you an instant freak in a land where girls are only beginning to be allowed to go to grammar school.

Your combat training has imbued you with the belief that a seventeen-year-old Afghan male is of fighting age and potentially a threat, but he’s wearing flowers in his hair and eye makeup and strolling through the marketplace holding his best friend’s hand, which doesn’t mean anything at all. Meanwhile, that nine-year-old kid who looks so much like your little brother, and has an innocent grin to match, has a Russian grenade in his back pocket.

Then there’s the landscape. It’s like something out of a science fiction novel, the colder side of Mars. You’ve been given the impression that the whole of Afghanistan is composed of caves, endless places for the enemy to hide in and then pop out from and kill you.

But what you see is dry, gray—enormous piles of boulders and stones and mountains and endless miles of dirt, clay huts, dust, and more dust.

Then you’re suddenly on the bounce aboard a helicopter, and you land in an environment so lush, so full of rich green trees and rainbow flora, rushing, clear rivers and lakes and pine-covered peaks, that the only brown thing around is your own boots, and you wouldn’t be surprised if Frodo Baggins popped out of a hut and said, “Welcome!”

You’ve just bought a ticket to the weirdest, deadliest show on Earth.


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