There are many feelings you discover upon spending a year in Afghanistan. There’s the depression that can only be felt when you’re forcibly separated from your loved ones. There’s the sadness in seeing a country ripped apart by more years of war than you’ve been alive. And there’s the anger that sets in when you realize that you feel like you have had all you can take and you still have 11 months to go. But then there’s a different kind feeling….pure manic desperation.
For me, this desperation manifested itself in strange movie and music habits. There is ready access to enough illegal downloads in Afghanistan to give Lars Ulrich a kidney stone. There are hard drives sitting around, which mostly contain half-rate pornography, but which also contain endless amounts of movies and music. Throughout many excavations of these hard drives, I found myself becoming a cliché of deployment.
There are three phases of Afghan infused desperation. First, you go through the Bad Movie Phase, second is the Bad 90s Band Phase and finally the Gross Out Phase. Come with me on a journey into the mind of a man who hasn’t breathed clean air in months and has been kept at altitude far far too long.
The Bad Movie Phase – One of the major misconceptions about being deployed to Afghanistan is that you have a lot to do. Sure, there are days where you work 18 hours and are out on the roads, seeing the beautiful countryside. By and large, however, for POGs like me, are days where you sit at your desk, stare at the wall and count down the hours. That being said, you run out of good movies to watch in about four weeks.
Now, most people raised in the ironic Family Guy era, where having an in depth knowledge of obscure cheesy 80s movies is only a YouTube click away, know and love any number of “bad” movies. Actors such as Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme have clung to relevance due to their awesomely bad movies. But in the Bad Movie Phase, you aren’t watching awesomely bad movies; you’re just watching bad movies. And since military guys seem to have a never ending hard on for flicks which involve their profession, you find yourself inundated, even obsessed with really bad flicks about superhero soldiers.
I have watched Shooter three times! Three fucking times. I appreciate Mark Wahlberg as much as the next man, but good lord is this an awful movie. Why have I watched it three times you ask? I honestly can’t remember…but I can assure you that each time was by choice and of my own free will. But it gets worse! I have also watched Jarhead, I can quote Blackhawk Down, and I even willingly sat down for a second offering the dreadfully self-indulgent The Hurt Locker. I mean seriously, “oh war is so hard and buying cereal was so hard, I had to go back to war….boo fucking hoo.”
I could easily watch The Godfather for the 500th time, or at least enjoy some cheesy horror franchises. But no, deployment desperation has you in its icy grasps. The only thing more horrifying is the fact that it gets worse. After you have worn out every possible bad movie in the library, you go to a much darker place…
The Bad 90s Band Phase – In a recent Facebook discussion with a party who will remain unnamed for his own safety, I made a startling admission. “I have something to tell you,” I nervously typed. “I’m really digging this Crash Test Dummies album.” My friend, another veteran simply said, “that happened to me too man. I went through a big Spin Doctors phase.”
With all of this free time and music on my hands, I could easily be getting more familiar with the catalogues of obscure Norwegian metal bands. I could explore the works of Miles Davis or Merle Haggard. But instead, I find myself listening to Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn… and the Third Eye Blind debut. Even more terrifying is the fact that you not only listen to these albums, but thoroughly enjoy them. It happens to every soldier, I assure you. Right now, in Herat, there is an Air Force Colonel rocking out to Sister Hazel, in Kabul there is a contractor struggling to take All Saints off his iPod and in Kandahar, there is a young sergeant arguing about the merits of the deep cuts on the debut album by The Proclaimers.
There is no salvation for your actions. Much like any atrocity of war, the general public simply looks the other way when it comes to an Army major singing “I Saw the Sign,” the incredibly hooky number by the vastly underrated Ace of Base. But if the public only knew that this phase passed and much more sinister one took its place….
The Gross Out Phase – What happens when you take tens of thousands of lonely soldiers, all of which have seen every bad movie and are hopped up on the Goo Goo Dolls and then throw in open access to youtube? A contest of sorts evolves. Gone are the times when you surf the web for news stories, sports scores and email. Instead, you and your counterparts enter into a contest to see who can find the most disturbing, horrifying videos imaginable.
I have seen men trying to insert numerous objects into places they do not belong, women try eating various concoctions and not throw up (they always fail) and more broken bones that I ever thought possible. If freedom of speech and expression are among the rights we are supposed to be defending over here, nowhere is that more liberally taken than on the internet. If you can dream it up, there is a video of it to be found on the web. Want to see a human get eaten by an alligator? No problem! Want to see footage of various human atrocities? You betcha! No scene is too heinous and no act is too vile for this extreme phase of your Afghan experience. And what makes it worse is that you always have to one up the next guy. Word of mouth spreads fast and this vicious cycle never ends until someone throws up in their mouth or on their friend. And if there is a camera handy, then you are only someone else’s fodder.
There is no defense of this malicious undertaking. We could all be doing productive things, making the world better, but that’s simply not the reality. When your loved one gets home, ask them. I can guarantee you that at least 40 hours of their time overseas were spent in someone’s attempt to gross them out. And if 40 hours doesn’t sound like a long time, try doing anything for that long. And if you aren’t Sting and you aren’t having sex, then you’ll realize just how long that is.
Conclusion – A year spent in Afghanistan is one of the most memorable and intense experiences one can have in this life. You go through thrilling highs and crushing lows. Yet, it is in these three phases that your experience is truly solidified. The day to day explosions/boredom/work pales in comparison to the scars that bad movies, bad 90s bands and gross out videos will have on me forever. I have four months left. Lets just hope there are no more of these scary phases left to go.