Afghanistan only has one color: Brown. More shades of brown than you can find in a color wheel or the wall of swatches at a paint store, but still brown.

The dirt, the trees, the animals, and the people. Clothes, vehicles, equipment, buildings, it's all brown. And if it doesn't start brown, it ends up that way - the moon dust embeds itself in everything whether hard anodized or painted or fabric. Even the sky is brown, some days. Even the clouds.

Your eyes become hypersensitive to color, but you don't realize it until the first time you get punched in the face with the maddening GREEN of a tiny, concealed valley or the impossible colors of a window box of wildflowers. Even the powder blue burqas the women wear in the really conservative areas jump out at you, to say nothing of the stuff the nomads wear.

The day to day wear of the locals is the same tan and brown as the dirt and the animals, but on holidays and during special occasions, almost everyone has a set or two of horribly gaudy dress clothes - the kind of things that are common across the whole region. Black or red fabric completely subsumed by enormously intricate silver or gold embroidery, colored beads, even tiny mirrors, tassels, and extra large talwiz. Without context, looking at these clothes online or in a picture book or even in a gift shop or novelty importer, one could be forgiven for thinking "How gaudy and primitive! Just like the natives everywhere, enamored by simple colors and shiny things!"

But in context, and with a bit less Western condescension, you realize that just like on the dreary steppes of Tibet, the clothing is a quite deliberate contrast with the environment. It is a vibrant visual reminder that one is alive and human in the midst of so much arid struggle.

Even yanqui oppressors give in to the urge, after a while. It was not uncommon, living in a room too small to turn around in without bumping a wall or a bunk, to sacrifice precious shelf space for a vase and an artificial bouquet, or plaster the walls with cheap posters of rainbow unicorns, or better yet, the messiest and crudest of the "support the troops" letters from the gradeschools of the American heartland.

A bunch of us used to line our helmets with the beautiful Cashmere scarves favored by rich locals. You could soak them down with water to stay cool, or tuck chemical hand warmers in them to stay warm. A plain brown scarf would have done just as well, but the extra few bucks were worth it for something that wasn't brown.

Sure, there's an element of humor about it, some kind of ironic contrast in seeing silk tulips and color-your-own felt posters as a backdrop for an M240, but most are willing to admit that it's just nice to see something that isn't brown, even privately, in your little plywood hidey-hole.

Last time I left, I took down the kids' letters, but left the Beanie Babies right where they were left for me, zip tied to the inside of the bunk.

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