Serving in the US Army, Rajiv Srinivasan captures a Taliban and learns compassion for his enemy.
A walk in the park: Most US soldiers are deployed for a year in Afghanistan.
Explosions are a daily occurrence in the Zhari District. Most blasts are IEDs, some are RPGs or recoilless rifles. Generally, all are followed by machine gun fire or a secondary boom, if not both. The detonations reverberate throughout our combat outpost as we continue our daily grind. Whether I’m out on patrol or within the security of the wire, my eyes roll in exasperation, my pulse hastens, and I thrust my radio hand-mic to my ears, anticipating the call to respond to the emergency.
But every now and then, a ray of good fortune shines upon us, and the explosion we hear is not a planned enemy attack but a failed attempt at one. IED emplacement is a dangerous business. Thankfully for us, sometimes the enemy blows himself up, taking both another Talib and another IED off the streets.
Last week, three Pakistani men were planting an IED when such an explosion occurred, incidentally on a road I travel frequently. One died instantly, but the ANA rushed the remaining two to our front gates. I looked over the medics’ shoulders as they worked. Gaping holes in the enemies’ gum lines marked where the explosion knocked out teeth. Their skin was hacked into a chunky cocktail of shrapnel and blood. A putrid stench emanated from their loins, signaling involuntary defecation. I could not elicit any fulfillment from observing these Taliban so humiliated and mangled. I’ve seen a lot here in Zhari, but I manage to keep my humanity about me. Then again, if these Taliban had their way, I’d be the one on that stretcher, and I’m sure they’d feel pretty happy with themselves.
“Hey Sir,” my First Sergeant called, “One of these guys needs to get to the FOB for his treatment. I need your platoon to spin up and take him there.”
“We’re on it.” I assigned one of my team leaders authority over the injured detainee. I gave him my interpreter and my medic to help him. I made my way to the Company CP to sign as custodian of the detainee, and account for both his personal effects and all incriminating evidence. Wires, blasting caps, instruction manuals: these guys were the real deal.
I returned to the aid station just as my soldiers were preparing to pull the detainee away to our Stryker. At this point, both of the injured Pakistanis were yelling at each other in Pashtu. I asked my interpreter what they were saying. He replied, “They are each cursing their dead partner for getting them into this mess.”
I mounted my Stryker, donned my headset, and fell into my Platoon Leader “zone”: monitoring radios, grids, maps, directions, and maneuvering my vehicles through a packed Afghan Bazaar. As we picked up speed, the stagnant air in the vehicle churned and the detainee’s awful stench finally rose to my nostrils. I looked down into the vehicle hull. The Talib was lying on a stretcher, his head next to my boots.
I squatted down from my commander’s hatch pretending to check our digital map and grid. Really, I just wanted a closer look at my new passenger. I reached for the detainee’s bio sheet. He was 5’10, about 190lbs; he was 24 years old. My eyes met his. We were the same age. Our skin was the same color; our heritage from the same branch of Aryan descent. Our births were so close together in the vast expanse of the human race. I couldn’t help but wonder how our paths diverged so far apart? How did he become him, and I become me? Tears streamed down the Talib’s cheeks as I looked him in the eye. They weren’t tears of pain. They were from emptiness of the soul, from regret, from hopelessness. They were the same tears I would have cried had I been caught with the wrong crowd, knowing there’d be no loving family to come save me.
As much as I hate my enemy, when I saw that Talib cry, my heart sank.
As much as I hate my enemy and I hate what he’s done to my friends, when I saw that Talib cry, my heart sank. I realised my being an honorable American Platoon Leader, and him being a poor Talib, had so little to do with who we each were inside. We were both children of the same part of the world from the same generation. But we grew up as products of different environments. I stretched my hand to read the Talib’s name…Mohammed. I scoffed, “How original.”
Mohammed didn’t come to where he is completely of his own fault. He probably grew up in a big family, getting lost in a sea of brothers and sisters dividing his parents’ affection. He undoubtedly struggled with his identity, having no one but an extremist mullah to help him understand his faith. Mohammed may have had a father, but he clearly lacked a role model. Who was there to set the example for how an honest and honorable man contributes to his family and community?
Perhaps his real father died in war; perhaps he didn’t care. With the void of an honorable male figure in a child’s life, it becomes clear why so many young Afghan and Pakistani men find comfort – find family – in the ranks of the Taliban. It’s not just about the money, and it’s not just about Islam: it’s about the male camaraderie they never had.
They are all just lost boys. Mohammed never learned how to be a man. He is still nothing more than a child, trapped in a man’s body, fighting some stranger’s battles.
They are all just lost boys… still nothing more than a child, trapped in a man’s body, fighting some stranger’s battles.
But from my side of the Hindu Kush, I never knew a day when my father wasn’t immediately accessible to me when I needed him, or wanted him. Dad and I aren’t all that much alike. He’s a math and science genius; I pained through academia. Dad is a modest and quiet man who leads from the middle; I am a gregarious people-person who leads from the front. Dad grew up knowing nothing but devotion to his family; I grew up in a life of privilege, free from the burdens of supporting my parents or siblings. But for all that distinguishes me from Dad, the most important traits which define me as a man I learned from watching him over the past 24 years.
My Dad’s sense of Duty is nothing short of heroic. His duty as a husband committed him to supporting my mother through numerous advanced degrees and ambitious career moves. His duty as a father brought him to the furthest reaches of Virginia’s backwoods at midnight after my car accident in high school. It brought him to tears when I left for Afghanistan and when I came home on leave. Quite frankly, the only thing my Dad hasn’t offered me are whatever genes that maintain his full head of hair in his middle age, while I’ve started balding at 24.
Dad fulfills his duty to God donating precious amounts of time and wealth to our temple. He fulfills his duty to his community forgiving debts for friendship paid in kind. He even fulfills a duty to music using his programming skills to spread the joy of Indian Carnatic concerts across the world. And though I beg him relentlessly to generate revenue from his music ventures, he refuses to profit from the art form he respects and worships so deeply.
Looking forward to my post-Army career, I’m continually drawn to industries that enslave their associates to corporate greed in return for fat paychecks. But Dad reminds me that one’s life must be about far more than money. It’s about fulfilment and happiness. He advises, “You need to be able to rest your head at night and sleep peacefully, knowing you have not profited by hurting another man.”
Fatherhood is something I think most men take for granted. Society tells us to be headstrong, unemotional leaders. But the best fathers, like my own, have security in their paternal instincts and indulge in the emotional pull of their children. Dad may not always say it, but he shows it: he loves me more than anything in the world, and it really does keep me in line. It makes me want to be a better man: for him, for our family, for our community. There was no way for any such juvenile gang to lure me into a world of violence and dishonour. I could never be a Talib.
In Arabic, the word “Taliban” literally translates as “students”. But it is further derived from the Arabic root “Ta-La-Ba” meaning “to search”. This interpretation is far more descriptive of what these adolescent warriors are. They truly are Lost Boys in search of a purpose for their static lives. They are lost on their life paths, and not necessarily of their own fault. Even as the recipient of the lethal fire induced by such disillusion, I can accept that had I not a strong father to show me the way… I could have been a lot like Mohammed. Any of us could.
We are all products of our environment, and on this Father’s Day, I ask you to thank your Dad, not only for being strong and caring, but for the contribution he makes to our country by giving direction to those of us who would otherwise be “Lost Boys”. Dad, thank you for making me a man. It’s a gift only you could have given me, and I’ll carry it forever. My soldiers who depend on me today, and the family I’ll raise tomorrow, both owe you so much. I love you, Dad!.
Born in Chennai but raised in Roanoke, Virginia, the author is a Lieutenant in the United States Army. Despite his military service, Rajiv remains a devout Hindu, vegetarian, a Hindi speaker, and a huge fan of Indian food.
This post was originally published on Thoughts from Afghanistan in June 2010.