Disraeli Gears

by Chris Lyke

by Christopher Lyke

There were signs of the British wars in that part of the country. One hundred and twenty year old markers. Maybe the Afghans on television had changed, the rich ones that schooled at Oxford and Cambridge. But there, in the mountains in the east, not much had changed. There were the sabers and the donkeys and rocks and wicker baskets. There were the goats and the shit and the painted boys. And then we arrived and added annoyance, and sometimes horror and death. But we would leave and whatever we had brought and built would bury over with sand and bones a year after we were gone.

I have memories of a moment when I became separated from the main. It was only for a few minutes, and there are memories of worse things that keep buried most of the time. But this one comes whenever it wants. Just for a second, electric jolts while I’m driving, or in a moment to myself, and then I shiver and exhale and forget the feeling for a couple more days.

It was in the pitch hours between midnight and sun up. We’d walked for a few hours, through the Mayl River, over the plateau, up and through the craggy foothills of the mountain. We’d started around midnight, and a few hours later we finally crested the last and highest hill on our route. Once over it the valley opened beneath us and we could see a light here or there, a twinkling hearth, marking the villages that dotted the ridgeline. They were stepping stones that led to the Dowlat Shah and beyond, to the truly lawless place. We weren’t going there yet though, that morning it was for the first village after the crest. It was for Bumby.

We’d split into two groups, looking for the passage down the mountain to reach positions over the town by dawn. My group swung like a gate down and across a section of the hillside, through the sparse trees, and over the rocks that rolled with booted feet. I was trying to be quiet and then: separation. I turned back and there wasn’t anyone there. It was too dark on this side of the mountain for my night vision to work that well. Every shadow became the enemy, and they knew I was there, smelled me, could see in the dark like cats that padded from tree to tree waiting to grab me and drag me down to be lost forever, pin cushioned like the British stragglers racing for Jalalabad more than a century before.

A few months before this, before the night patrol to Bumby, we heard a bad man named Fazil Rabi was near our outpost in a place called Kanday. We surrounded the village while our comrades in arms, the Afghan National Army, along with our lieutenants, searched the buildings. We’d missed Mr. Rabi -“the Lion,” the people called him- he’d slipped out as we got into position, but the search of the village paid off. There are pictures of the smiling lieutenants with stacks of rocket launchers and light machine guns, hundreds of rounds in boxes strewn about, a Russian automatic grenade launcher most of us had never seen before and there, in the center of it all, a Martini-Henry rifle. The imperial rifle. The British pilum. Rusted and wood-scuffed, the century-plus-old-action still worked, ready to fire the ugly, blunt-nosed rifle rounds they were used to firing back in the days of Victoria and Disraeli.

How is it possible, I thought later, that it had all led to me, alone on the way to Bumby, separated and in the trees, trying not to breathe and shrinking around my rifle?  All of the time and calamity that traversed these mountains: the Persians, the Macedonians, and the Sassonids; the Hephlalites, the Khwarazmians, the Mongols, the Mughals, and the Brits and their damned Martini-Henrys. Then the Russians and the slaughter; there was a tiny graveyard on our outpost, next to the LZ, the product of a Soviet purge. All of it, all of time in those mountains grinded out, stopping and starting again throughout the ages had unraveled to me, and I was at its breakwater, I was the prow, alone. Kneeling as all of this reverberated, I put my rifle to my cheek and began turning from side to side, listening, scanning with the safety off. Searching.

It’s all time travel anyway, and it seemed like I was there on the shale leaning against that thin tree for an hour-maybe a millennia-but it hadn’t been. It was only after a few moments that I saw an Infra Red signal. There was a flash in the dark, then two flashes, I sent back three, and that was it. The other section had found the passage in the direction they’d been sent. I walked back up the hill and linked up with the squad, the squad that I was then supposed to lead through the night to the town of Bumby to surprise some man or another.

I know He was there though. Maybe He was scared of me as well. Maybe I was so close I could have dashed His brains out with my rifle. As it was I’m glad I didn’t piss myself. We were all brave when next to one another; even with only one other, we could be brave. As long as someone would be able to bolster you with love, or shame, or brotherhood, or whatever, then you could be brave. But alone is a different story. There were nights at the outpost that I could swear He was crawling up on us. I knew it, crawling up and cutting the wires while we huddled, freezing in guard shacks, all together, periodically staring at the mountains. Crawling up the stairs to the outpost while we dozed at the guns, fighting off sleep till morning. The tide would always come in.

Chinese Rocket Santa

by Chris Lyke

by Christopher Lyke

They were never unpredictably cool. What I mean is, one could predict with astounding accuracy that the Taliban were going to be dicks. And when they wanted to visit violence upon a people other than themselves they could and were free to choose the time and place. That was the difficult position in which our government placed us during the Afghan war in 08-09. But whatever, this little piece isn’t about that; it’s about something else.  It’s about how remarkably funny the Taliban could be.

During the winter the fighting eases up and everyone is bored and cold in the mountains. There are lots of patrols to nowhere, shuras with the village elders that actually like you (the bad guys don’t bother pretending to come out when it’s that cold), and infrequent and erratic bombardments. The Taliban would hit us on their holidays for sure- oh, the Eids!-but the cold of winter subdued the fighters who were sitting on the fence when it came to being pulverized by American mortars and machine guns and helicopters in the name of the cause.

The Talibs have American calendars too, and sure as shit they mark the days they believe we consider important. Despite February’s freezing weather, we had a calamitous gunfight on Valentines Day; it was our day of love they must’ve thought. We’d get hit on Sept 11, too. And after Christmas dinner Chinese Rocket Santa would scream in to visit us in our bunks on the mountainside. What makes this violence amusing-besides us being so damned bored that we were happy for any change in the weather-is that the Taliban had a sense of humor.

There was a moment, it was probably in the cold, early spring of ’09, when we got an intel report that made us laugh. These reports usually told of “two hundred fighters crossing from Pakistan with guns and money heading straight for us,” or of the “one armed suicide bomber that may or may not be driving a white Toyota Camry.” (Toyota sold the shit out of some Camrys in that part of the world.) No, this time it was funny intel, and devious intel, and as I’m still talking about it five years later, intel about an attack that has stayed with me. It was in the coffee, you see. The coffee! “Osama coffee” they called it. The enemy forces had ambushed and captured a supply convoy and found an untold amount of coffee creamer. And that’s when they had us. They would poison the coffee creamer, get it back to us, the infidels, and then sit back and listen for the choking and dying of all the Starbucks-addicted soldiers happy to finally put some color into their black, thin, granular cup of Joe. As if poison could’ve altered the filthy, spit-stained coffee pot or the cold liquid we guzzled from it, trying to stay awake all night at the outpost.

Like most of the other intel reports, I never heard of a single instance of Osama coffee related casualties. I kind of wish there was some though. It was like a senior prank. Like stealing the other team’s goat or whatever. There were plenty of casualties though, casualties caused by the mundane and the banal: the jug bombs buried under culverts and on avenues of approach, under bridges and in the roads, blowing a man in half, and straight into the air. There were ambushes, the first enemy shot hitting Kenny M just above the vest, at the base of the throat, his body being dragged behind a boulder while all the rifles in the platoon blasted away at ghosts who’d fired and then ran over the ridgeline to freedom and a herd of goats. There were the slips and trips of burdened, heavily laden soldiers sliding from rock to shale to terrace in the pitch-black night cracking anklebones completely in half with feet dangling like socks. All of this and more, shit, even baby cobras in the aid station. There was even food poisoning by Big Army, bringing us contaminated turkey on Thanksgiving. Can you believe it? Forty or so of the fifty Americans falling on the ground, shitting their pants, vomiting as they slept waiting for the outhouses there on the slope of the mountain. Come on!! That was funny, poisoned by Big Army was funny, but as good as that prank was, the Osama coffee was genius. That was hilarious. It was childlike, and at the risk of sounding like Elphinstone who laughed at the same Ghilzais-until they slaughtered him, his sixteen thousand, and his batman almost one hundred and eighty years before we were there- I couldn’t believe we hadn’t completely wiped these people off of the map. How is it we could smash an army to bits in a week or two, but couldn’t seem to quell what amounts to partisan violence in ten plus years? Ugh.

The Taliban waged a war mostly of inactivity in 09. Sometimes though, they were very active, and that’s when things became violent and engaging and no longer like a dream. Places were overrun. People left their bodies for the next plane on both sides. Bombs were dropped. Officers fired. Boys and girls became killers. But then they’d lay down their sticks and stones and go back to farming and smirking at us as we beat the bushes looking for boogeymen. We dreamt of coffee and liquor and girls; we dreamt of summertime festivals and things like walking around in public; the younger guys talked of cars and the older guys of their kids. I remember looking east into the mountains and thinking that no matter how long we stayed there, no matter how many of these farmer-spy-soldiers we killed, that eventually we’d leave and they’d continue to conduct their lives in whatever manner they felt worked for them. Unfortunately they reside in another time than we do, in another headspace and timing, but as long as they reach out, through the ages to our gleaming cities, or if their allies reach out to hurt us, we’ll be there in droves, beating the bushes with smiles and jokes and death.




Tuesday’s Gone by Christopher Lyke

by Chris Lyke

by Christopher Lyke

When I was a kid the Challenger blew up on television. We were all sitting in the school library, watching man’s latest grasp for the heavens when something went wrong, an O-ring here or there, and I thought that was it, I thought that would be the moment that I’d never forget. I remember how it looked on the television, and how, when it began to burst and tumble and disintegrate before our adolescent eyes, none of us were sure what was happening. It was so foreign to our post WWII, “perfectam vitae” that, as it turns out, none of us could accept that something was wrong. We watched it all unfold, publicly, and suspended our disbelief until our teachers started freaking out. Then the collective, Midwestern, empathetic sobbing started and, like I said, it had to be the moment I’d remember forever, like how my folks talked about the President getting killed in ’63.

For those of you born in the last twenty five or so years, it’s hard to understand just what a shock 9-11 was to the America of 2001. The rest of us had grown up with the cold war, and the Soviets, and the rebirth of US patriotism. We learned to trust a love of capitalism, and thanks to the nineties, there was a job for every grad, blameless (possibly baseless) binge-drinking, terrifying casual sex, and lives so easy and blissfully limited that punk rock actually seemed subversive. We even spent months stressed and wrestling with the “horror” of a president’s libido.

Last week a woman at my work flew into a tizzy when her name was misspelled on the school roster. She halted the meeting in progress, lashed out at the principal, and demanded that the “Mr.” in front of her name be struck from the record. She’s a “missus” and, by God, she will be identified as such on the roster. This event projected, for me, a micro, diorama-like version of what pre-9-11 America really was; a life so wonderfully lived that we’d howl at the tiniest of slights. Angsty teenage boys and girls would find voice and yell at their parents in front of festival crowds, the media decided that everyone I knew was a “slacker” disillusioned with “the man,” (thanks a lot, Christian Slater!!), and the only people we saw die before their time had done so in car accidents or through the “fuck you” of leukemia, and other cancers.

What those of you born in the last twenty five years maybe don’t realize is that you’ve been infected. It’s been infused with your mother’s milk. The governor’s been removed, the restrictor plate incinerated in the countless hours of newscast gun battles, Apache gunship footage; countless televised-TELEVISED!- beheadings, and the loss of thousands of young lives: white, black, brown, or otherwise. When I talk to younger people they don’t even realize the change. Many of them don’t personally know someone in uniform. The deaths are numbers; the people, humans all!, are fabricated creatures to many Americans. They’re fabricated and fashioned by the Frankenstein media; faces and wounds and ideas about who these military people are have bled into the subconscious of America. The explosions and trauma and burning skin, the bullets and the loneliness and camaraderie have bled and been sewn and birthed into a pasteurized, neutral version of the military, stomping around the village trying not to get pitchforked. It was all fear and exploitation, and then it was the numbing. The Collective is numb, and tired of it all.

It isn’t over though. This inundation, this tidal wave of violence has not reached its high water mark; it continues to encroach, higher each year than it was the year before. Most of you aren’t aware of the lessening of our world through this osmotic violence, you have not seen the world without it, even if you’ve never left suburban Des Moines, or Cleveland, or the farmland in Wisconsin.

Derrick Brown was seventeen and tall and skinny and kind of caramel colored; he was loud and funny and he sold a ton of weed. I liked Derrick a lot except for when I was trying to teach. On that morning, a Tuesday, the students were working. I was hung-over, and we were all settling in for the great game of pretending to learn, pretending to teach, and waiting for the final buzzer so we could all go back home. I heard Derrick yelling from down the hall. We couldn’t tell what he was saying but could tell it was him, could tell it was urgent, and important, and at the very least I started to get up from the crossword puzzle and coffee when Derrick burst in the room. “Mister Lyke! Mister Lyke! They’re bombing the buildings, they’re bombing the city!” He was frantic, and wild-eyed and hopping around the doorway.  I started to yell but he was so serious that I asked, “Who’s bombing who?” and then, “Chicago?” He explained it was New York, and that the buildings were falling down. I pushed past Derrick, who had the students quiet for a change. All of the teachers were in the hallway. We looked from one to another, questioning, hoping it was just Derrick. Obviously, it wasn’t.

I drove home that Tuesday, from the far south side to my apartment in Humbolt Park. I was the only one on the road. There were no cars, there were no planes, there weren’t any people, there was nothing but a frightened city indoors, glued to the TV. We drank and called friends and siblings in New York City. We called our parents. We commiserated and we got angry. Many of us stopped being students, teachers, accountants, garbage men, and lawyers right then. We were to be soldiers and They, part of some exotic group most of us had never heard of, were definitely going to pay. A couple years later when I was in Afghanistan, and we’d chased a man into a stone village, the locals came out begging us to leave without hurting any of their families. I’ve told this story before, but they were convinced we were the Russians and that we’d never left. They couldn’t believe what wasn’t in front of them, because clearly we were there, with guns, and violence, around their children and in their village. Despite what we told them, and the flags on our uniforms, and the insistence of our interpreters, and the smiles on our faces, we were the Soviets. It was after moments like this that 9-11 really started to make sense. Look what it had done. We were angry and powerful and had been wounded and we were lashing around at people from the past who had no idea who we were, or why we were lashing at all.

Line of Advance is the digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans.  Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.


Do They Know It’s Christmas Time At All?

by Chris Lyke

by Chris Lyke

Along the dirt paths that connect and ring the villages of Gode and Kebri Dahar there are American built generators half buried in sand. These carcasses dot the region and stand as advertisements for a more altruistic time when Boomtown Rats raised money for starving Africans and not a damn soul was going to play Sun City. In the spring, during the Ogaden’s two weeks of rain, the generators sink into the mud and grass begins to grow around them. After the two weeks of rain, the Ogaden again becomes an East African lunar-scape and the grass dies and red sand again assaults the green monoliths sent there to provide diesel driven power to the Tigres, Amaras, and Somalis that all converge in that part of the world.

The Ogaden is a region that overlays the border between Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The border, even on modern maps, is a dashed line instead of a solid one. Even Sheba and her boys didn’t want to live there, and took another route to the sea, and Solomon, and the Ark. In the thirties the Italians slaughtered several thousand Ethiopians there near Jijiga. Decades later the Soviets armed the region and in the seventies there was an awful little war there between the sides. I heard tales of anti-aircraft gunners depressing their auto cannons to fire into on-coming infantry. This is a terrible tale told by the war-addled, elder men of Gode. Once our mission there was shut down, and we were confined to the outpost, the Ethiopians used the Ogaden like a cloak to mask their armored column that sped into Somalia, moved on Bedelweyne, and then Mogadishu.

As I said, our mission had been shut down. Most of what we tried in Africa was shut down; at least most of the operations I was on. Six months later, in Uganda, we were supposed to train the UPDF for operations in Somalia. Our proxy army didn’t yet want to fight who we pointed them at, maybe they were thinking more about chasing their own Bogey-man in the north, and so training operations ended and I spent a few glorious months getting paid to do pull ups and drink Club and Nile on the shore of Lake Victoria. We’d occasionally conduct rifle ranges or head to O’Learys in Kampala. It was certainly better than Gode, but the point is, I don’t think we were helping.

Back in Ethiopia, the Shebelle River turns to a stream in the middle of the summer as the heat and the red earth slowly win the battle of the elements. Still, the crocodiles remain and begin to interact with the people that live along the river. Despite having a pump station built that pulled water from the river and out of a spigot that ran along the wadi, the local villagers continued to send their children to the Shebelle shores to get water. We began to hear of children being gobbled up by crocodiles and despite reaffirming everyone that the pumping station would be a fix for that horrendous problem, the children were still sent to the river’s edge for water. The people asked us for more help. “You have rifles and grenades,” they said to our human intelligence guy, “can you come and kill the crocodiles?” The answer from Camp Lemonier, hours away, was no. We were accountable for every bullet in the Horn of Africa, this wasn’t Afghanistan after all, this wasn’t a shooting war, this was an effort of good will and we were there to bolster belief in the western powers amidst a very large area infested with Al-Qaeda affiliates like the AIAI. Blasting the wildlife to Kingdom Come was not on the agenda. In fact, when a couple of wayward, non-infantry types went out in land rovers and shot a local fowl they were snatched up and thrown in the slammer; a dirt-floored, East African, clay-oven of a slammer.

Our ally in this mission was the Ethiopian military. They enjoyed the liquor we’d buy at the whorehouse, and they certainly enjoyed our ability to ignore their campaign to root out members of the ONLF. The ONLF was a rebel group with whom they would engage from time to time. The ONLF wasn’t tied to the AIAI but with all of these acronyms rolling around I think they’d take help from anyone in their quest to retake the Ogaden. Apparently the townsfolk were invested to some degree with the rebels and it was the two AM gunshots we’d hear on guard duty that marked the Ethiopians attempts to arrest them. People would be missing for days. We heard about the beatings and worse. I’m not shocked by this at all. Cynically, I don’t even really care, but if we’re there to help, there to convince the masses of our righteous cause, then I’m not sure what the fuck was really being accomplished. Other soldiers from our company were training other Ethiopians at a camp in Addis to invade Somalia and destroy Al-Shabab. The twenty-five or so of us, living in a sandbagged, malarial compound, two hours from rescue weren’t about to kick the apple cart.

It’s the nature of the help that seems to be the issue. The people that we interact with: the villagers, the poor, the rebels, the soldiers, the prostitutes, and the gangsters are not those in real power. But if our big-picture attempts to help are off the mark then those people are exactly who will be conducting the surveillance, pot shots, ambushes, and filling the ranks of whomever it is we’re trying to counter in that part of the world. The question that keeps bothering me is “does any of this really serve our interests?” Later, in Afghanistan it got even muddier, but one was in danger and aggressively patrolling and the act of preserving yourself and your comrades could push the big picture questions out of the picture in all but the most boring moments. But in the Horn, where it was only the hint of violence that reigned, one had plenty of time to mull these things over. This is even more poignant when your mission gets shut down and you’re watching the clock.

There was a point, in May and June of ‘06 that we were essentially stranded there in the Ogaden. The shooting war had kicked off in Somalia, and the reprisals against the ONLF increased there in Gode. We were told by Camp Lemonier (in Djibouti) to stop operations with the Civil Affairs team, stay within the borders of the fort, and reinforce the place with as many sandbags, Hescos, and firing positions as we could. So build we did. Everyone was bored so it wasn’t too terrible a proposition to obsess over the penetrating power of a 7.62×39 round, the thickness of the cheap brick used on the compound’s original wall, the depth of sandbags behind it, fields of fire for the machine guns and so and so on. It was all a mute point anyway as we’d only been allowed to bring the bare minimum of ammunition. This meant that they only gave us enough to last for twenty minutes or a half hour, while reinforcements were hours away. We didn’t even have a 60 mortar. Big Army, correctly, did not want a bunch of combat veterans traipsing around the Somali border with enough ammo to mix it up with people who looked at them sideways. While all of this was true, and in most of our opinions galling, we tried instead to focus on the “solvable” problem of building an Alamo in the Ogaden wasteland; solvable problems easily being the most preferable.

Eventually we ran out of wood. This was a bad thing as almost everything we used to stand or sit on, to hold up tripods, or bracket the main gate, was made by us, out of wood, there on the camp. We needed lumber and there was only one lumber store in Gode. The owners of the store were, and of course this was the case, of course, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The workers were the young toughs that populate the AIAI, AQs chief offshoot in the Ogaden. We weren’t to leave the compound with rifles and armor so we went to the lumber store with Boony caps and Berettas shoved in our belts like thugs, or gunfighters. The whole interaction was probably 30 minutes long. It felt like we were there all day. After entering the shop, really a hut, the AIAI boys, two or three of them in the front and Allah knows how many in the surrounding huts, stared at us with confusion on their mugs, not anger, and not fear. They stared at me and G and E and the navy petty officer who had the money as though we appeared out of the mist, out of the shimmering heat that came off of the ground in the African summer. Once they realized we weren’t there for them they sneered at us, sneered through the hazy, drugged eyes and mouths ringed with green spittle, flecked from the day’s Chat binge. The drug plane that comes to the little airstrip at the edge of town every day had arrived two hours prior to our foraging expedition. By this time most of the men in the village (and some boys and some women) were stoned to bejeesus on the Chat plant, and walked, like zombies, through their miserable afternoons, each carrying a bouquet of the leafy, green plant wrapped in a plastic bag.

So, the young, high, AIAI toughs sneered at the Americans: the ones there to help the Ogaden people with wells, and schools, inoculations, and water purification. We were there to help them get generators up and running to supply power to the village itself. Light the impossibly dark sky! They sneered and puffed out their skinny, hungry chests, and began to haggle for the plywood and two-by-fours we needed to load up in the little Hilux pickup. As the haggling neared its end another worker walked in from the back, another young man who stood, agog at the presence of Adan Shaitan standing in his store. He was wearing a black concert T-shirt. A lot of folks in Gode had them, bootleg concert Tees with Tupac, or Marley, or Hailie Selassie plastered on the front. But this character, struck dumb, staring at four Americans in his shop had a concert T-shirt with a giant picture of Osama bin Laden on his chest.

It was probably at that point when I realized the entire mission was likely a futile exercise. I agree that one has to try to improve the things around oneself. That goes for people as well as nation states: to stay fit, and to work, to keep learning, to “pitch in.” For us to function and continue to grow we need to protect our interests wherever they may be. In this case, however, we were not “creating a desert and calling it peace,” we were already in the desert, amongst the crocodiles and vipers, the orphaned little boys who we’d play with until they disappeared (We miss you, Thomas!), the malarial shower tent, the beautiful, damaged prostitutes in floral pattern dresses, the acronym-laden factions, and the army that alternately hunted and tolerated them.

The computer chip-laden generators sent during the time of Reagan and Geldoff and We are the World were now Western Obelisks joining the stone Ethiopian ones. Those folks could do anything with a combustion engine. I saw it. They were resourceful and as hard as Woodpecker lips. What they couldn’t do was run diagnostic checks with a computer. Were we, the West I mean, making only a gesture, one to make us feel better about ourselves?

American big business, western big business I should say, is what it is. A shark is a rose is a shark.  But aside from that, we are a reluctant empire, and we, the people, the G.I. Joes and the Jarheads, are the ones that must protect and fight for its survival. Plans for real success, calculated, planned-for success, an end-state, that leave our national goals and human life protected, should be in place.

I don’t have a solution for all of this talk of impotent American policy and good intentions gone bad. The hearts and minds campaign didn’t work so well in either the Philippines, a hundred and ten years ago, or in the sixties in Vietnam. It perhaps met with more success in Central America a hundred years ago, and Iraq and Afghanistan recently, but the end results haven’t been extremely promising. Al Qaeda has occupied Fallujah once again and the valley me and mine fought for in Eastern Afghanistan had as much to do with Kabul as it did with Chicago.  In fact, after chasing one particularly creepy man into a village not a kilometer from our Afghan outpost, the village elders came out and asked if we were the Russians and would we be so kind as to get out. How do we address that in a meaningful way? Can Americans here at home understand the implications that lurk within that total disconnect? Do they understand the competing and dissonant frequencies of our truth and of theirs? We returned to the same village with Human Assistance: radios, beans and the like, a few days later. I hope it helped them understand why the Taliban, who had a pretty spotless record of leaving collaborators cut to shreds on hilltops near their homes, should be spurned in favor of the foreigners in sunglasses, armored vehicles, and good teeth.

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