My Book Excerpts

The Graveyard Of Empires


(Yusuf –“apple pie”Joe from Queens, NY — is terror training in the Tribal Lands when he and his group unexpectantly come upon a firefight, which they observe from a distance. At the same time, thousands of miles away, an American official explains the following to a security-cleared congressman:)

“Well we’re coming up on our target just about now. We got a coupla squads of our Special Forces taking serious fire from militants on higher ground. See there—muzzle flashes to the right from the bad guys. While ours—you can see—are exposed and trying to dig the fuck in while returning fire. A shit situation. Anyway the lieutenant in charge called in for some Hellfire strikes to obliterate the fuckers, and that’s what we’re about to do. Focus on the broken cross in the center. When the captain, here, clicks to fire, it’ll take one-point-two seconds for the signal to activate the missiles over Pakistan. And boffo!”

(What the official doesn’t know is that the “militants” firing on the American soldiers from higher ground are actually Pakistani military, supposed friends, who happen to be fundamentalists that have decided they do not like Americans).

The scene:
In Pakistan, deep in the remote mountains of the Khyber Agency, a dozen young men carrying Kalashnikovs jog quietly in single file along a rough pebble-strewn riverbed. The desert hues of the exhausted hills before them seem to burn in contrast to the brilliant shock of blue sky that is so flatly blank, one could imagine a flock of birds smashing against it. The sun is high and unforgivingly hot…..

Akhmad and his men watch a mortar shell lobbed from the higher ground and explode in the midst of the Americans. One breath later they witness with openmouthed fascination as two American armor-piercing Hellfire missiles—fired elsewhere with the click of a button and delivered one-point-two seconds later from five miles up—streak into view and shatter the ridge with a volcanic hell of flame, rock, metal and dirt, a boffo on the un-armored flesh of the Pak Army soldiers.
“God willing, they felt nothing,” says Akhmad. And when screams of the survivors tell a different story, Yusuf mutters on auto to himself, “Jesus.” And Akhmad, nodding his agreement, says, “That’s it. We have seen enough death for today.”
Which is true; they are not yet combatants. As they have before today, toughening themselves, they had trekked for miles away from their camp, acclimating themselves to the barren terrain, getting used to the heft of their rifles and firing them at pretend Infidels, into empty hillsides.
As the line of shocked young men retreat along the riverbed, an exhausted, sweat-soaked Yusuf, coated with the dust of the Khyber, tries to not visualize bodies burned and dismembered by reminding himself, as he frequently does, he is also Joe from Queens. But this outlier memory is the bitter keepsake of a life that had stood in for reality for most of his existence, but which now too often seems a mere delusion. The ensuing sadness frightens him, in spite of his anger, when he falls prey to thoughts which had caused tears to flow as they did, just once, when alone one night on another forsaken ridge, guarding his camp below.
In this world of the dead and dying, today’s carnage at a distance is only the second time these unseasoned young men have been so exposed; the first, involving a mere three people, was this morning’s front row seat to the violent life-altering shedding of human blood. For while crossing a road they witnessed two black-turbaned Taliban standing before a kneeling tribesman who was pleading in Punjabi; apparently for his life, but to no avail. Both Taliban had lifted their Kalashnikovs and raked his body with several bursts, casually, as if merely testing weapons; then with hardly a glance at Akhmad’s troop, shouldered their rifles and walked away. Yusuf’s own body had moved with imperceptible starts in tune with the jolts to the bullet shattered man, as he saw the remarkable red ejecting and flung about like so much waste. Thoroughly shaken by the bloody ruin that seconds earlier had been a complete human, Yusuf had asked, “Why?”
Not answering, Akhmad hurried his troop across the road and along a path until Yusuf insisted: “By why?”
Akhamd stopped and looked at Yusuf. His face running sweat, he removed his stained pakol, revealing his wet hair, and patiently replied, “A good guess, they thought he was a spy. Either for the Americans or the Pak Army, or maybe the Pak intelligence service. Who can know?”
“But do you think he was a spy?” Yusuf persisted, giving voice to the others’ questions.
Akhmad wiped his brow with his sleeve, smearing the grime, observed his men as if they were stupid cows, shook his head, replaced his cap and resumed walking.
Not satisfied: “But this is Muslim killing Muslim,” a youthful Afghan insisted, hurrying to keep up, talking to Akhmad’s broad back. “Not Muslim killing Infidel. And it would be unfair if this Muslim were innocent.”
“God protect me from the ignorant,” Akhmad complained to the sky as he halted and ordered: “Ten minutes. Sit.” Everyone complied, some sitting, some squatting, one peering over his shoulder as if expecting an attack. Yusuf stretched out, leaned on one elbow, gazed at the hard ground and thought that in America he would pluck a blade of grass to chew. To him, Akhmad said, “Lift that weapon, Masood! The muzzle is in the sand. I want that rifle doubly clean when we return to camp. You are the oldest. Be a role model. Understand?”
“Do not say you are sorry,” Akhmad had yelled more than once. “Yes, Akhmad,” replied a soldierly Yusuf, not really chastened, having decided this reprimand was payback for pressing for reasonable answers.
Now less patient than just moments ago, Akhmad said with contempt, “Fairness,” shaking his head. “Looking for fairness is like looking for perfection, and searching for perfection in a world that can seem to be insane, will surely take you in that direction. Every day brothers are killed unfairly.” He asked them, “Do any of you no-nothings want to challenge those Taliban?” No answer from the ranks. “Very well, maybe his death is a tragic mistake. Mistakes are universal. Maybe this world is God’s mistake. We call a mistake a mistake. Infidels call it collateral damage. They have euphemisms for everything they do. They hide behind their euphemisms, which slither like snakes around truths and escape into the holes of clever rationales. Still it is all the same. The word of the Prophet is truth. God is truth. Yet each man too often has his own truth, which seems insane; so many truths.” He shrugs. “It is all a mystery to one who is so imperfect as me.”
Yusuf, while having been, perhaps overly, sheltered in the safety of America, in his way was the most worldly, and didn’t for second trust Akhmad’s modesty. He saw in fact, with some degree of admiration, how successful an American politician the man would be; that these boys and young men would be ringing doorbells and handing out leaflets, instead of training to bring terror to others while risking life and limb in the name of the Prophet. He saw the innocence of youth in Omar’s eyes, a boy who had not yet suffered the depravation of loss that some of the others had, as he himself had; yet the day before, when Omar had said, “America is Islam’s enemy, and it is our religious duty to fight them,” he saw Omar well on the road to violence in the name of religious ideology.
“Tell me, what does Muslim mean?” Akhmad asked.
Several replied: “One who submits to God.”
“Yes, to a perfect God. But the rest is chaos. Never mind opposites. Jews kill Jews. Christians kill Christians. Muslims kill Muslims. Men are only men. God is God, and nothing is simple. Nothing is all one. So tell me, what does ‘infidel’ mean?”
“Kaffir, an unbeliever,” The teenage Omar replied. Another said, “Unfaithful. One who is not a Muslim.”
“Kaffir is not quite accurate, but good as far as it goes. But ‘infidel,’ you see, is from the French—’infidele.’ Or Latin—’infidelis, the opposite of ‘fidelis, or ‘faithful.’ And early Christians used the word ‘infidels’ to describe the nasty heathens, or non-believers. For instance, the infidel Muslims. See, we Muslims didn’t invent the world, or all the words that we use. Therefore, nothing is so simple as you would like it to be. Many things confuse; and it might be tempting to say in despair that God has abandoned us to the insanity of what men do. But all of us here are made by God to make justice where there is none. And having created us for His purpose, we know he exists. Do you doubt this? That we are His purpose?”
The negative shaking of heads, except for Yusuf who did not respond, who said to those who gazed at him: “My family was secular. I cannot be what I am not. I am pious out of respect.”
“See?” Akhmad said. “Confusing? A non-believer? An infidel in our midst who seeks justice in an unjust world? Hah? The enemy of my enemy, remember, is my friend. In this group we are American and European and Afghan and Pak and anyone else who wants to join us. From madrassas or secular schools. And me, Akhmad, a foreigner. A Chechen with a Russian birth name, a Muslim convert, squatting with a bunch of no-nothings on the border of the graveyard of empires, where a few of you might go to fight and die. In a place that Alexander the Great, the Brits, the Russians, all failed to conquer. And now the Great Satan America that thinks it can do better. In this place where supposed allies shoot and bomb each other? Is this not insane? See? If you do not completely focus on the task, if you scatter your energy on doubts and what can never be simplified for easy consumption, you will fail.” He studied them, from one to the other, and told them, “But most of you will not cross this border to fight. Most of you will leave and bring the fight to the cities of the empires.”
“Praise be to God,” said Omar. “God willing,” said another, while fear struck deep into Yusuf’s heart; soon to be quelled, though, by the rage that was always in reserve.
That was this morning. Now they are returning to camp to study the making of bombs. Along the way they resume firing their weapons at the empty hills.

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Martin J. Ryan

Categories: My Book Excerpts

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