The shitheads had been storing their HME in a cave. Well, it wasn't so much of a cave in the sense that it housed Christian Bale or some other lackwit who jumps out of the shadows and informs you bluntly that they are the goddamn Batman. This cave-not-a-cave was sort of a semi-circular depression in the side of a hill some 300 meters from their compound, which we had affectionately named The Shithead House. Partly because no one has come along and invented a really good slur for Afghans yet (this war has no Jap, no Gook, no Skinny, we just call them shitheads,) and mostly because anyone that puts fucking plastic landmines in the road to blow up kids really is a fucking shithead. No doubt about that.
HME, which is the military shortening for 'Home Made Explosive,' is principally what they use in IED's out here. There are tell-tale markers that we look for, certain obvious behaviors that anyone with a brain can figure out. Once you start learning about the exact process that goes into making explosives, especially home made explosives, your whole perspective on baking and the content of cleaning chemical cabinets goes right out the window.
Trust me. You can make bombs out of all kinds of crazy nonsense.
And no, it doesn't look at all like that high-speed low-drag 155mm artillery shell shit either. You want to know what war is like? Join the fucking Army and stop paying attention to James Cameron's ex-wife.
The Shitheads were storing their HME in a cave (which apparently had been mixed with a TATP kicker,) when they succeeded in blowing themselves to pieces.
Many tiny pieces.
This represents something of a problem. I liked watching The Shitheads. They were interesting people, they had just bought two motorcycles (that they rode around on at night checking their IED batteries with,) and their crops were starting to come in pretty well. The shed where they cooked up their explosives was coming right along. Not like some of those other idiots who do it in their house, these guys were paying a good bit of attention to detail. They were motivated. Now they're dead.
The real problem is that they're dead, their wives and children are out husbands slash fathers, and I have to go find a new target to leer at on a regular basis. There was a time when I pitied the women and the kids, now it just pisses me off that I have to do more work because Shithead Number One probably thought it was a good idea to fire up a Seven Stars (they're pretty big on Japanese cigarettes, the Taliban,) after rearranging the storage area. You know, a little post-work smokey treat.
Learn this lesson, kids: triacetone triperoxide peroxyacetone doesn't react well to being stored in hot climates or the presence of lit cigarettes.
So now I'm back to watching those other clowns, (we call them The Running Men,) on the other side of the river. The ones that pull up stumps like it's cool and hide every time an aircraft goes overhead. Those guys are pretty good, but not nearly as interesting as The Shitheads. They're hilarious in their own right - we send helicopters up there to buzz them just to make The Running Men scatter.
We'll have the birds wait off station until they drag their asses back to the valley (after humping a thousand feed up to their hide and back) and then have the two gunships come zipping overhead a second time. The Running Men take off again, hauling ass, hiding in bushes, finally scrambling up the rocky wash to their man fort. They're good for two or three of these trips a day before they figure out we're fucking with them (like we do two or three days a week) and stop coming out.
The problem will be when they finally start pulling the RPG-7 tubes out of the hide next to their compound and the gunships grease The Running Men straight to cat food. Then things will become problematic.
I don't like it when They die.
The enemy, I suppose you could call them.
When they are The Shitheads or The Running Men, I know where to find them. We strike a balance where they don't do anything outright stupid and I don't call a Lancer, Kiowa, or Hornet and righteously smash them to pieces. Stockpiling HME is one thing, but giving it to your neighbor who is a known facilitator? Dude, that is going too far. You want to keep that PKM and those RPG tubes next to your house? Fine. You put one bullet in the feed tray and your shit is done, son.
I won't lose sleep over it, either.
Outside, after the mission to survey the damage to The Shithead House, I am standing on the Hesco barriers around our little patch of America in Afghanistan. There are wild dogs poking around in the trash pit about a hundred meters from the side of our base. This isn't our trash pit, but the one used by the Afghan National Army. They tend to throw a good bit of food away, (which is somewhat odd) and this in turn attracts a large number of wild dogs (which is somewhat annoying.) One of the pack sees me standing there and interprets this as a sign that I'm there to give him some food.
I do not, on any occasion, feed the dogs.
They're irritating, dirty, rabid, mangy, flea and tick ridden animals that occasionally get onto our base because the Afghan guards won't go anywhere near them. The dogs therefore effectively have free run of everything from time to time. I pick up a rock and lob it toward the garbage pile. The dog, for it's part, duitifully scrambles over and sniffs it, only to raise his head in something that can only be described as the throbbing anger of the truly stupid.
Hopping down from the Hescos, I hear the tell tale sounds produced by dog feet on gravel moving through the camp. This one is black, gray, brown, and more hyena than actual dog. One of the alpha males from the pack has somehow wriggled through the concertina wire and is now tearing ass around the compound. There is a brown blur that jukes suddenly in front of it and the pair come hurtling toward me. Mel, the camp cat, is being chased by a wild dog.
And she is too slow.
You learn a great deal about yourself when you point a firearm at someone for the first time. That instant between front sight post, the eyes of the target, and back to front sight post is an absolute eternity. You're not sure what the hell is going on for a moment and a certain sickening triumvirate forms in your mind. There is a third of you that wants to shoot, that really wants to just give that trigger a slight squeeze to let it all ride on nine millimeter. There is another component that is screaming to stop, that this is insanity, you can't kill someone even if they are armed, ten feet from you, and fumbling with their own rifle. The last wedge of this circle is laughing hysterically at the other two, and eventually you to silence them. A calm stillness forms. Instinctively shoulders roll forward, the sight picture snaps into alignment, and you know that two point five pounds of force will let that hammer fall. We aren't talking about the Taliban or The Enemy, however, we're talking about a dog.
The holstered pistol is in front of me and we're functioning on pure muscle memory. Index finger tightens, leading the mutt just enough. Only I can't shoot as on the other side of this procession are two contract mechanics and two locals, staring at me and contemplating a jump into the concrete trench in the garage.
Eyes back on target in time to hear the source of the most plaintive shriek I have ever come out of man or beast as the dog's jaws close around Mel. Her paws flail for a brief second and then go limp as the dog coasts to a brisk walk, winded from the effort of chasing what it considered prey.
Trotting slowly, it arcs around me in an attempt to seek a way out of the compound where it can eat this latest score. Turning 90-degrees to track, the front sight stays locked on profile. There is some strange burning at the corner of my right eye, I blink hard to clear blurring vision and pick up the picture again.
The dog has stopped. Head down, it unceremoniously drops Mel onto the gravel. The impact elicits a hollow mewl and a limp wave of a mottled paw. Behind the dog is our empty pistol range. Dead tires stacked in front of dirt and more Hescos capable of stopping even .50 caliber rounds from some of our more powerful toys.
The weapon bucks in my hands, recoil surprising me just like it should, then again, again, and again. Each round is punctuated by a step forward until I am at a dead sprint toward the dog. Lying on one side, his breathing has become labored and foamy blood issues in time with the rise and fall of his chest. He growls, and I drive a boot into his neck for the effort.
“You.” The pistol is moving again, this time toward his head. His eyes look up at me, dull fury and pain swirling there, hatred perhaps the closest human analog. “You do not kill without my permission.”
A final gunshot.
Mel is screwed up. I take off my uniform shirt and carefully scoop her ruined body into it, careful not to put any pressure on her abdomen. A single rivulet of blood comes from her mouth and nose as she struggles for air.
“Doc.” The sound of my own voice is choked, but loud and filled with something that I don't understand. “Doc, somebody get the goddamn doc.”
My first friend in Afghanistan, Mel the cat, is dying and about this I can do nothing. We wrap her in a felt sheet and a trauma blanket over my now ruined camouflage uniform. By now there is a small knot of men kneeling around a tiny ball of fur in the Afghan desert. Ryan is wiping at something I will later realize were tears. Holding one of her paws, Jake tells her that it will be okay. Doc pokes the syringe into a vial, afternoon sunlight glinting through the clear liquid inside.
Pulling the plunger back, he draws enough for a human infant, clears the air from the needle, and gently slides it into the space between her shoulders.
A strange silence, the faintest stirring of dust and wind.
The dog carcass we throw onto the Afghan trash pile and watch with some satisfaction as the rest of them dine on what was once their leader.
Mel, we bury her next to the patio. A small hand-carved crescent along with white, green, and red flags on a length of salvaged PVC pipe to mark her passing. Facing Mecca, paws crossed and wrapped in a white sheet as is the tradition here.
War is not giving two shits about dropping five hundred pound bombs on people but weeping quietly in your room at two in the morning about the death of a cat.
War is hunting and killing without remorse, interrupting the natural order, and the reduction of everyone to base savagery.
War is also the quiet revelation that your moral compass is now without anything resembling a cardinal direction.