FYI; sent to several folks via BCC last month, and hopefully now they'll understand my erratic behaviour and odd disapparences from time to time.
This is not polished at all and in fact written in two frantic days while I was in Amsterdam last month. I have a strange sense of urgency to get all this down.
Combine a reclusive Mutant, a Five Star hotel, room service booze an Apple G4 PowerBook, a loaded iPod and look what a mess you end up with. Maybe seven thousand words but no apologies and never any regrets.
Disclaimer : This is about a business trip to Afghanistan and some shit that happened during that visit. It wasn’t the best of experiences – in fact looking back at it months later although I was only trying to do the right thing I realise that my life has been negatively impacted by the events of only two days. Absolutely amazing. But some folks have been through worse so in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that bad.
I’ve cast these events into the written form solely to expunge the experiences from my brain – a form of catharsis that’s no doubt cheaper and safer than therapy.
And be forewarned : if asked directly I will deny these events ever took place. The United States and British Governments will deny that I was ever in Afghanistan. In short none of what you are about to read ever actually happened.
United States Embassy, Grovenor Square, London, Friday, August 15th 2003
Months after an American led invasion that toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan’s nascent democracy is tottering due to the lack of a robust financial sector. Although truly magnificent strides had been made in establishing democratic rule, the coalitions effort are faltering from the economic side. The political will is there, but the requisite financial muscle is missing.
So looking deeply into this problem and drawing parallels from successes in post World War II Europe and Asia, US Military Planners determine that the lack of an effective and credible Afghan Central Bank is holding things back.
In Western democracies, Central Banks are the lenders of last resort, providing a type of financial bedrock to everyday transactions. You might worry – and looking back at the 1980’s with good reason – about a CitiBank going under but the US Federal Reserve, backed by the full faith and assets of the United States of America simply won’t fail. It’s that simple.
Central Banks like the US Federal Reserve monitor and insure the healthy operation and growth of private sector banks. It’s these banks that accept deposits and make loans, effectively insuring that the everyday life we take for granted can occur unimpeded.
Although rich in ex-pats returning after the fall of The Taliban, few Afghans have the broad experience necessary to establish a Central Bank, at least from the operational perspective.
So we’ve been asked to help out; to set-up the processes and procedures necessary to start-up, capitalise and then actually run a Central Bank on a day to day basis. It’s a daunting task. And not something that can be done by the internet, no, The Firm needs someone on the ground there and my boss has tasked me to go.
The interesting thing is at present there are no civilian flights into or out of Afghanistan. Although getting better each day, the situation there is still pretty dicey; Westerners are being attacked and murdered on a daily basis and even heavily armed American soldiers are targeted. It’s a pretty shitty place by all accounts, but I’d just returned from Lagos which was one royally fucked up assignment and I even had a severe accident while there. So how bad can it be I ask myself?
Pretty quickly I get a hint of precisely how bad bad can get when discussing South Central Asia: at that time only the US Military was flying into Afghanistan; the countries airspace was closed to civilian flights. So I’ll be leaving from a US Air Force base in Germany Sunday afternoon.
Since I’ve flown about 400,000 miles over the past decade I try to avoid planes whenever I can and my travel plans are made accordingly. At 5:30AM the next morning I take the EuroStar from London Waterloo over to Brussels, connecting to one of those fantastic German ICE – InterCity Express – trains for the ride to Frankfurt. It takes me about three hours to reach the main train station in Frankfurt, "die Hauptbahnhof", where The Firm has arranged that I’ll be met.
United States Air Force Base Rhein-Main, Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, August 16th 2003
This is a pretty famous airport in terms of global history. Established just after World War II it reached its heyday during the height of the cold war when it operated twenty four hours a day, seven days a week during what later was known as The Berlin Airlift. During the Korean War Elvis passed through this airport on his was to his assignment in Frankfurt, winning the hearts of millions of Americans and Germans when he humbly proclaimed that he was "here to do his duty".
The United States Air Force base shares this airport with civilian carriers flying into Frankfurt. The airport is divided along its enormous runways, the civilian part on one side and the military on the other. The only intermingling you see these days might be the odd US Military jet taxing behind a passenger aircraft.
In a previous life I spent a great deal of time in Frankfurt. Although between 1998 and 1999 I spent a couple of days here every other week, I’d never been on the military side of the airport, usually grabbing a fast taxi (and "auf die Autobahn" does mean fast, about 150 mph) into the cities financial district.
But I distinctly remember flying into Frankfurt during the Kosovo war, and seeing an incredible amount of military hardware and activity taking place on the distant, non civilian side. Back then huge convoys of US military planes waited for takeoff clearance, sharing the busy runways with commercial aircraft full of bankers. Looking out my aircraft’s window at the time, I considered it a pretty enlightening way to get a different perspective on the evening news than that pushed by the all too pervasive American media machine.
By contrast now the entire place seemed quiet as I rode in the back of a jeep driven by two MP’s (Military Police) who had met my train in Frankfurt. There were several largish transport planes and a smaller number of fighters, mostly F16 Fighting Falcons but I also saw at least two F15 E Strike Eagles. Maintenance crews wearing bright yellow jackets were diligently working under a few of the aircraft.
About two hours later we boarded a United States Air Force C-17 transport for our initial flight into Central Asia.
Tashkent Airport, Uzbekistan, Saturday, August 16th 2003
Uzbekistan is a Central Asian, former Soviet client state. Strategically – and from the American perspective, most conveniently – it shares a common border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is a country about the size of the American State of California, with a population of roughly twenty million folks. The people of Uzbekistan are eager to redress some of the wrongs the Russians did to them, in particular the pronounced lack of economic development. The Russians never spent much money in this country, seemly to operating under the theory that folks who were financially deprived couldn’t cause much trouble.
The United States Government has spent a lot of time and money making friends with many of the former Soviet Client States, and Uzbekistan is top of their list in this region. The Americans have an enormous base at the airport which for all intents and purposes operates as a large, land based aircraft carrier for the forward positioning of men, supplies and planes into not only Central Asia but also The Middle East. It been used – most recently during the on-going Iraq war - as an effective launch pad for offensive operations into an amazingly wide area of the region, and not just those countries you might hear about on the CBS evening news. Lots of shit happens in this part of the world that never becomes public knowledge for one reason or another.
The Russians don’t like the fact that The Americans have a base here. The Americans don’t really care what The Russians like or don’t like.
Our C17 lands for refuelling and less than one hour later we’re on our way again.
United States Marines Forward Operating Base RHINO, Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sunday, August 17th 2003
Between my hasty departure from London and such radical changes in time zones as I move eastward across the planet, my sleep’s all fucked so I’ve got to rest. I realise that some folks have problems sleeping on aircraft, but I’m not one of them. During my ten years with Deutsche Bank I travelled about three hundred thousand miles on business and I’ve done maybe two hundred thousand more miles on holiday. I’m used to this crap and I can sleep whenever I have to. I put a flight jacket over my face, recline the seat as much as possible and nod off.
I’m not sure how long I’m asleep but I’m awakened by a whistling sound then a huge THUD followed by sirens. I hastily sit up as the aircraft jerks and twists for maybe one minute, there’s are several hurried exchanges of milspeak over the planes PA and the sound of some folks rushing past by my seat but then the sirens stop and everything’s back to normal. I’m so zonked I fall back out, lulled by a gentle back and forth rocking of the aircraft and it slowly glides into Kandahar.
Awakened after landing by one of the flight crew I wipe my face off with some bottled water – no hot towels on these flights! - and after a few cracking stretches wander out onto the runway. Its night time here in Afghanistan and there are a bunch of technicians inspecting the aircraft with a rack of lights raised by a crane. I’m surprised to see a several fire trucks and an ambulance nearby, blue lights flashing.
I walk out to the back of the aircraft and see what everyone is all excited about - a smoking hole maybe one foot in diameter in the left wing.
"Holy shit!" I exclaim, not noticing several armed American soldiers standing next to me outside the aircraft. In full combat gear and fatigues, they started laughing. "Shit happens SIR!" one shouts over good naturedly.
"What the hell happened to…" I trailed off, impressed by the size of the fucking hole that’s in the fucking wing of the fucking airplane I just got off of.
"Ah, nuthing to worry about SIR!" a young guy of about twenty five stepped forward. "SAM strike from the ground, but nuthing more than a mosquito scratch SIR!" His arm motioned towards the hole. "Big plane, little missile" he concluded.
Snickers all around. Yeah, I understood. "And what about you SIR! Why are you here?"
"Ah, I’m just a civilian on a business trip I’m going"
"We’ve heard that before - yeah so are we! We’re just civilians too!" He looked back at his buddies who started chiming in. "We’re civilians too! I’m a civilian! If he’s one I’m one! Me too! YES SIR! NOBODY BUT US CIVILIANS HERE IN AFGHANISTAN". More good natured laughing, they were being real wise asses but I didn’t take it personal.
Anyhow, about one hour later after gawking at that fucking hole in the wing – I was truly impressed but grateful that the aircraft could fly damaged like that –we boarded a Chinook helicopter for our next hop, to Herat in north western Afghanistan.
Classified United States Air Force base, some where near Isalam-Qaleh, Herat Province, Afghanistan, Monday August 18th 2003
North Western Afghanistan in general and Herat in particular is strikingly beautiful, a land of contrasts. So many times while travelling from the military base there I was struck by a sense of deja-vu and I found it difficult to understand the cause.
The dilapidated old buildings were worn but oddly familiar, like something we might have built in The States a long, long time ago before progressing on to other styles of architecture.
The people looked and waved at our passing convoy of Humvees with tired half smiles. I was in the second of six vehicles, and we could only move at little more than a walking pace due to the pothole ridden roads.
It was bright early morning here, and the streets were packed with folks starting their day. As our Humvees slowly advanced with up-and-down rocking motions over the potholes we came across an open field where a crowd had gathered. They were watching a ruckus involving men and boys and horses who were racing each other back and forth.
It was a glorious sunny day, and I leaned forward towards the young soldier that’s been assigned to steward me during my stay in Herat "Yo Sergeant! What’s up over there?" Holding on the rocking Humvee with my bad arm, I motioned with the other.
He moved his rifle out of the way to take a look. This was still considered by the US Military to be an active combat zone, so nobody left the base unarmed. "A game with horses and a dead goat – they cut the head off the goat and kick it around before they eat it - you believe that?" He turns and grins, pearly white teeth contrasting against dark sunglasses and a heavily tanned face. All of twenty, obviously American, he spoke slowly and carefully, with a thick southern accent. I found his face familiar, which was strange since I’d only known him for perhaps three hours. Deja-vu again.
"It’s called buzkashi or some shit. Race each other around to grab a dead goat, try to score goals, what not. Not really sure about the rules…"
He trails off as we watch them gallop back and forth frantically, then one rider – a young boy - leaned down and snapped something up off the ground.
The Sergeant again. "See that? That’s their ball - the goat"
As the boy – he was probably no older than twelve – raised the goat up onto his horse, an approving roar went through the white robed crowd. The other riders tried to snatch the goat from him while he urged his horse towards the end of the field. This was an intensely physical sport, no doubt about it but the equestrian element added a dimension of skill and strategy that neutralised brute strength. That little boy was beating men twice his age.
Now growing up in the country I rode horses a fair amount as a kid but I would never have been able to lean down and snatch something up off the ground, let alone ride and prevent someone else from taking it from you. Watching this sport it was hard not to respect the skills of all the riders.
While they played I found myself wondering how this whole invasion thing was working for them. The Taliban definitely were a bunch of nuts, but maybe these folks had more in common with them than us? I’d only been in the country for maybe three hours but it was apparent to me that these folks had their own culture, their own way of life, as different and alien to us as ours no doubt was to them.
For example, why wasn’t this kid and all the others in school? At University? And why weren’t these men working, doing something, anything to improve their circumstances or support their families? To give nice things to the people they liked? Playing senseless games, this apparent idleness didn’t make much sense to me, a goal driven and success oriented workaholic.
And how were these people finding this heavy dose of American culture and was it affecting their own? Did the kids not want to play buzkashi anymore? Were they now interested in basketball, gangster rap and Britney Spears? I hoped not. The ability to see and experience different cultures is the best thing about living outside the United States. Living in America you never develop the cultural sensitivity or awareness that’s acquired by residing outside the country for prolonged periods of time. This wonderful world of ours surely would suck large if it were homogenous, all cast in the American mould.
It was a wonderful day to be an American in Afghanistan, and I just hoped that things wouldn’t change that much in this exotically different country.
The young driver of our Humvee – he couldn’t have been more than twenty – had a boom box in the front with him and was playing "Tears for Fears" Mad World. Although I’d heard the song many times before, the tune and words would resound in my mind for the rest of my trip :
"All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere"
About one hour later we’d managed to push our way outside of the crowded village, into a far more sparsely populated area. It was almost rural, with lots of sand in the road and only a few scattered worn down buildings nearby. The roads were just as bad if not worse and the country side was bleak but at the same time, it awesomely beautiful.
For the first time I was really beginning to enjoy my stay here. You see, I don’t like to be around large numbers of people; I’ve always been a loner, comfortable with my own thoughts, happy for the silence that lets me create. I don’t need the affirmation of crowds, of people like me; as a few of my gal-pals have testily told me, I’m pretty self-confident. But I liked riding with these guys, after all, I like to experience new things and situations and they were all way tight with each other. And now I was one of them, they were quite welcoming even though I was a civilian and they were soldiers.
We’re moving at about six miles an hour and the young Sergeant is telling me half jokingly that the roads are even worse up ahead when a flash of light grabs my eye.
I look forward, at the first Humvee, see it flip over in a cloud of black smoke and then hear an awesome roar! At that moment all hell breaks loose as each and every one of those fine young men opens fire.
Without as much as a word my steward grabs me by the back of the neck and slams me chest first into the metal bed of the Humvee. My breath was taken away for an instant and I try to rise but I’m aware of his boot on my back, holding me down while he fired his weapon. Kind of impersonal, yes, but he meant well.
I hear a single high pitched ping, the sound of metal on metal, then another and finally something like what a monsoon on a metal roof must sound like, a storm of bullets impacting the sides of our Humvee. At that moment as the adrenaline started pumping my anxiety level went through the roof.
Now Psychiatrists have studied and can talk at length about the effect of stress on the human body, especially stress in life threatening situations. This is a subject that I find fascinating because while they agree that it changes our breathing (faster), our heart rate (faster), our muscle tension (tighter), the dilation of our pupils (larger), our skin (moister), our mouths (drier) and even the hairs on the back of our neck (raised), they never talk about how it changes our perception of time.
But due to far too many stressful situations as a child, I’ve long suspected that it does. These days I wear a Gold Rolex GMT Master II, a model 16713. If you know anything about Swiss Watches you’ll realise that it’s an absolutely beautiful high end Rolex, a superbly crafted machine that I paid about seven thousand five hundred US Dollars for. Rugged as hell, I wear it on my trips to "exotic destinations" but it’s also dressy enough to for any social situation.
I set the watch assiduously, at least once a month and always just before I leave on a trip. Rolex individually tests each movement, and guarantees every watch to track time to within two seconds a month; awesome precision for mechanical movements.
So the fucking watch just isn’t ever wrong and a machine like this is necessary since we’re charged with filing complete and accurate reports after trips to these "exotic destinations".
As I laid there in the bottom of the Humvee I could hear screams and curses from the Marines while rounds impacted the heavy armoured sides of our vehicle, at times whizzing inches past me where there were gaps in the metal. I’d never been in a situation where I was being shot at and to be absolutely honest with you I was quietly freaking out. As you might understand, I found the staccato impact of rounds hitting the side of our Humvee inches away from my head immensely disturbing, and my paranoid mind had already concluded that if we didn’t get it then somehow I’d get it. I fixed my eyes on my Rolex as a kind of anchor back to my life back in London, The Real World. "This isn’t happening. This isn't why I'm here" kept whizzing through my head.
Staring at my Rolex I concentrated on my breathing and heartbeat to remain calm, and I see it’s sweep second hand slow down. Markedly. Then stop. Then I swear it moves smoothly backward ten seconds at least, which is a very un-Rolex like thing to do. Finally, it once again moves forward but not in normal seconds, rather seconds that seemed to last minutes. Raising my head slightly I see things on the battlefield happening in slow motion, Marines running from cover to cover – slowly – white plumes of tracer fire moving – slowly – insurgents advancing on us while they fired in slow-slow-slow-slow motion. It was strange.
So as I sit here and write this today in the relative safety of a five star hotel in Amsterdam I can tell you with absolute certainty that stress can and does impact your sense of time, and in my case things slow down.
I’m trying to remain calm but also trying to be alert. I see two US Marines move from the front of our Humvee towards some buildings off the side of the road, where a lot of firing is coming from. Wearing helmets, and body armour, shooting their guns while advancing under heavy enemy fire they were being as aggressive as hell but this is precisely what they were trained to do, that is why they were here.
With my hyper stress induced slow motion vision I see them move forward maybe twenty feet away from our Humvee before they are cut down. Over maybe ten of my prolonged seconds, first one then the other falls screaming and spinning and for a short time jerking on the ground before assuming a grotesque articulated position. Death throes are punctuated by a fine red mist of spurting blood that doesn’t stop for what seemed to be the longest time, an image that months later is burned into me. I will never be able to forget what I saw there that day.
After they went still each of the poor kids lying there looked like some kind of marionette cut loose from its strings, a toy that my old gal-pals kid might have carelessly discarded in some forgotten corner of her room. The other Marines were screaming to each other, co-ordinating offensive activities to our front and rear. Behind my Humvee one of the Marines is sobbing about his dead buddies while resolutely firing his weapon.
I realise that I really should be doing something – anything – but my curse as a writer is to observe and to think and to feel and never to interact. I have no fucking idea what I could do or should have done. So in that piece of shit country in the back of that fucking Humvee with death all around and coming closer I’m thinking about my life back in London and my previous life in New York and my secret life that started so long ago and the secrets I had to withhold from the people I’ve loved and the girls that I’ve liked and never pursued and all these regrets and missed opportunities and things I’ve fucked up and I quietly begin to lose it about those two young Marines as I hear the staccato thudding sounds from the bullets impacting our trucks armour get faster and faster and more frenzied with each passing second I feel no hope:
"And their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tommorow, no tommorow"
The boot on my back lifts abruptly as the young Sergeant who’d been holding me down falls, blood spurting all over me and in every direction. He’s jerking and twitching and yelling about something I have to do but I can’t understand what because he’s gurgling and choking and spewing bright red foam as he jerks and twitches against me. Now there are only two of us functional in the Humvee, me and the driver who is frantically working his radio.
Of course I’ve got a sidearm but I’ve also been very clearly told not to draw it unless it’s a "last man standing" situation and even then to use my own judgement; I just haven’t trained for work in an active combat zone.
There’s a guy in robes about twenty feet away from the Humvee, moving towards us and shooting in our direction. He’s busy putting rounds – lots of ‘em! - into the drivers compartment and not looking in my direction but I’ve got no illusions – once he’s finished with the man in the front he’ll deal with me.
The guy in robes keeps moving forward, alternating bursts of automatic weapons fire with heavy dragging steps in the thick sand. He’s maybe six feet away from me in the Humvee, still putting rounds into the drivers compartment when I see him look in my direction, then look back and motion with his right arm. Right then and there I was sure that I was fucked big time. Crouching back into the relative security of the armoured vehicle, I flick the safety off on my sidearm and pull it out. I figure that I’ve got one chance to give this asshole the surprise of his life when he sticks his head over the Humvee’s railing to shoot me but then something weird happens.
He immediately starts moving back towards the building he came out of, first slowly walking then he turns his back and runs flat out. It’s then I hear a roar and can feel an intense breeze from above.
I look up and can’t believe our luck – I see an Apache helicopter, maybe sixty feet over my head. I know it’s a Apache since I can see the distinctive bubble shaped weapons / camera pod on the bottom of the aircraft, twitching nervously from side to side as the pilot scanned the battle ground, assessing the tactical situation. A set of coloured lights near the aircraft’s tail immediately started flashing; combat signals for folks on the ground who were lacking a radio. I began to decode the message, but my progress was quite slow due to all the nearby activity.
The Apache moves ever so slowly over my head, from the right rear to the front left of the small rectangle of sky I can see from the bottom of the Humvee. My time sense is still fucked as I see it start to fire rockets in the direction of the building our assailants came from.
First one then two and finally six at a time, an entire fusillade of missiles are launched into the structure. The Apache hovered protectively over our Humvees, firing both rockets and guns now but the folks in the building aren’t giving up and seem to be using everything in their arsenal in some kind of desperate last stand.
The noise is deafening and now we’re engulfed in a thick white smoke from the weapons on either side. Just then everything goes quiet and dark and still for a long long second. I was later diagnosed with a concussion, which means I probably lost consciousness for a short time. I dimly see the light rectangle of sky above me visible as I lay in the bottom of the Humvee twist left then right then left again. I bounced around three or four times in the bottom of the Humvee, my head and body flopping helplessly against the metal floor.
Unable to deal with any new stress my brain just deactivated that point. I was absorbing but not processing data. Lying there in the bottom of that Humvee, covered in blood and with this fucking intense ringing in my ears, fingering the pistol I’d been issued and even though I had no fucking idea what was going on anymore I just knew that we were going to die in that fucked up place.
"And I find it kind of funny
And I find it kind of sad
That the dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had"
But more good luck! A second Apache joins the first, both helicopters co-ordinating their fire upon the structure.
And then it happened – like a scene out of The Matrix my sense of time shifts back dramatically as my anxiety eased and not only I can hear again but with an intense roar I watched missiles streak from the helicopters into the building. They must have put ten rockets each into that small building before the Apaches separated and advanced on the insurgents from opposite directions, firing the entire time.
Our Humvee is still getting hit by small arms fire, but much less than before and apparently now only single shots. From the front I hear the insistent whine of a starter motor then the engine coughs to life.
The Humvee slowly moves forward in cautious start-and-stop-jerking movements, pushing past the burning remains of the vehicle that was blown up. You could still see an American flag on the metal, defiantly visible though blackened by smoke and fire. There were US weapons on the ground and as we round the corner I could see human remains, charred, burning but clearly wearing uniforms.
Front the front of the Humvee I hear several hurried exchanges of milspeak on the radio but we’re ordered to move out immediately since the Apaches are reporting heavy movements of insurgents in our direction. I see two emaciated dogs moving around in the distance and for one sick moment I just knew that they’d shortly be sniffing at those remains.
We slowly crawl out of that area and make it back to the nearby US Air Force Base. The adrenaline is still pumping and I can’t think straight or do anything for myself. To this day I thank those young soldiers for getting me out of that Humvee and taking me to medical attention. They led me to a hospital for treatment, my face blackened by smoke, blood leaking out of my ears. I’ve got a trophy picture and I looked like a walking pile of shit.
We had a debriefing later, where they figure out precisely what happened by asking you and everyone else incredibly detailed questions. I learned that it was common practice for insurgents to blow up the first Humvee in a convoy, then the last and kill everyone who was trapped in the middle, and that’s why the soldiers were so aggressive. So that’s ok then.
Also the blast I’d experienced was an RPG that missed our Humvee by about six feet, bouncing the three ton vehicle six feet into the air.
So the official story was American air power saved the day, that the tenacity of our soldiers, their better training and armament and all around moral superiority insured our survival. Well, I guess that reads well in the New York Times for folks back home, but I was there in Herat that day.
And I say it was just dumb luck that we got out of that place alive.
"I find it hard to tell you
'Cos I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It's a very, very
Since that first trip I’ve returned to Afghanistan twice. Because of the increased threat from surface to air missiles planes landing there now make an almost vertical night-time descent from 8,000 ft, resulting in what best can be called a controlled crash landing onto the runway. While minimising ground exposure during what on civilian flights would be a long, gentle glide it’s a pretty stressful experience, especially when as a passenger you know why the pilots are flying like they are and what could happen any second. But I’ve been through it so many times now, in Afghanistan and other "exotic destinations" in Central Asia, The Middle East and Africa that I don’t even care anymore; the stress just doesn’t register.
As bad as the landings are I think takeoffs are worse; we board the C17 and wait in a hot and cramped military aircraft while helicopters swarm overheard and ground based Special Operations forces scour the area surrounding the runway for guerrilla operatives. Only when they were absolutely confident there was no risk - sometimes hours later - were we allowed to take off.
They tell us that things are getting better over there. But I’m not really sure that they are.
Post Epilogue :
So having read this far you’re no doubt inclined to ask why I’m going to these places. Well, while that’s a natural question I’m afraid that I don’t have a rational answer, one that you’d easily understand from your perspective, a response that involves career or money or personal advancement.
So I’ll just cut to the chaste : I had six friends in Tower Two of the World Trade Centre, and on that fateful day of September 11th 2001 I was supposed to be with them on the 107th floor at a Risk Management conference. I had an invitation to attend, representing my employer of the time, Deutsche Bank. Flight, hotel and limos were all booked and I was psyched to go, since I’d been quite busy finishing a Masters degree at Business School and hadn’t been able to attend a conference for quite a while.
But due to some "Donnie Darko" style intervention – no doubt myself operating from some strangely disjoint and distant future - I didn’t attend the conference and that’s the only reason why I’m able to write this now. While I’m acutely aware of these forces I’m still mulling over in my mind precisely what to tell folks about them. But with every passing day their motives and goals are clearer to me.
Sometimes very late at night if I’m sleeping alone I wake up. If it’s ever so dark and quiet and still in London and nobody else in this old old city is moving I get out of bed and look at my invitation. Years later I consider that piece of paper not to be a morbid curiosity but rather evidence, proof of the actions of these dark forces. But no matter how many people I’ve explained this to this the matter remains unresolved so I just don’t mention it any longer.
I travel for The Firm and I do favours for them. I participate in what passes for meetings with these folks, sometimes little better than energetic shouting matches. I listen carefully and give my opinion. We debate. My boss has these cold eyes that look right through you, eyes that tell you at a glance he’s seen things, terrible things. He gives me books to read. We discuss. He makes his point. Forcefully. He’s one cold, callous son of a bitch to be sure. All too often I concede the point and it’s not because I’m dumb – no, far from it.
You see my British boss has been doing this for over twenty seven years, he’s got an incredibly rich global perspective, one that transcends any single US Political Administration. He and others like him in The Firm have a long term viewpoint. A perspective that as well read as I am I still can’t yet fully understand, even though I haven’t lived in the United States or been manipulated by the American media machine for the better part of a decade.
And its those very characteristics that are of interest to The Firm, as are global mobility - I hold multiple passports, which let me travel unimpeded across wide regions of the planet. I speak two European languages and I'm starting an Asian language next. I’m financially liquid (as in seriously liquid if you know what that implies), meaning I can afford to travel wherever I want whenever I want on a global scale. An inveterate loner with a rather fucked family life, I have a pronounced lack of personal ties and obligations. And finally, The Firm has influence over my current employer – like my old - which facilitates the need for business travel to "exotic destinations". So while I’ve learned a lot from my boss I know there’s lots more that he can teach me.
But given what he does for a living I don’t feel that I can ever fully trust him or anyone else that I work with. After all, for The Firm I’m just a resource. A person he no doubt refers to – as he often speaks of others when they aren’t present – "as someone we can use and abuse". He and the other guys I work with make harsh jokes about the people they’ve fucked up on trips, about the people that they’ve seen getting fucked up on trips or those who will no doubt get fucked up on their next trip. They laugh. On one hand, I’m sure that this is their way of dealing, it’s their defence mechanism, but on the other hand - it’s all good fun for them. These macho assholes really don’t care. Its little more than a game to them and they love keeping score.
My God after doing this for so long I have absolutely no idea who I can or should trust anymore. Oh shit. I meet people – friendly and no doubt well intentioned folks - in London or in distant cities or in the remote French countryside where I sometimes take a solo holiday so I can write and I’m instantly suspicious. Mentally I inventory available objects and make plans to deal with them should it become necessary. I’ve always been a loner, but as of late this is progressing to a totally different extreme. I know it’s a personality fault now bordering on neurosis, but I can’t help it.
Recently I’ve found myself reaching out to people that I’ve known but perhaps haven’t interacted with for years; these relative strangers are the only people I feel that I can completely trust and talk to these days. They don't understand but sometimes I believe this to be my only anchor. It’s a nasty business that I suddenly find myself in and I just don’t know how I ended up here. I didn’t do anything wrong. I only wanted to help.
I look into my bosses’ cold eyes and manage to smile when he talks about "our newest challenge". He makes a joke about it. I tell him to fuck off. Laughter all around our table.
He makes another joke about incidents in Dublin, in Lagos, in Praque, and how they turned out. Well I got fucked up in Lagos, seriously fucked up in a third world country, so I counter with a self effacing anecdote involving dumb luck. They love it when you put yourself down. We laugh. Nervous polite laughs. Its what passes for a good time with these folks.
Oh my God the things I’ve seen. I should quit this job before my luck runs out or I become cold like them.
I know I should quit but I just can’t.
"Hello teacher tell me what's my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me"
Mutant, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, November 27th 2003
I wish I could tell someone what I'm feeling right now......
TEARS FOR FEARS
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
And their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tommorow, no tommorow
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you
'Cos I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It's a very, very
Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me what's my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me