Best Defense

A Best Defense fiction special for Halloween: ‘An Occurrence at Khan Hill’

His eyes bulged out, as the tip of the pistol slammed into the back wall of his throat.

U.S. soldiers gather near a destroyed vehicle as their wounded comrades are airlifted by a medevac helicopter on Aug. 23, 2011. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers gather near a destroyed vehicle as their wounded comrades are airlifted by a medevac helicopter on Aug. 23, 2011. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Frederick R. Waage
Best Defense guest for Halloween

His eyes bulged out, as the tip of the pistol slammed into the back wall of his throat. The perspiration glistened on the crow’s feet that laced the outer points of his eyes. The warm lulling fog was everywhere again. Perhaps brought in by a Caribbean breeze, it had engulfed the cruise liner. Though a thousand miles away from the last time he had experienced it, he knew this fog well. It had been chasing him across the globe as if beaconed to the man from a shared combat action three decades earlier.

It was early in 2009, and he, part of the 30,000-troop Afghanistan Surge, was sitting on top of remote hill freezing his ass off in a sleeping bag covered in a 33 degree mixture of shit, mud, and human dust from ancestors of the villagers surrounding him.

Intense body shivers felt as though they were cracking his spine. His upper body blew up out of his “ranger grave” and he looked around his patrol base to ensure that the silhouettes of men were sitting perched in the turrets of my light infantry platoon’s gun trucks. He then quickly reached for his radio and conducted a communications check with all the gunners, to ensure those silhouettes were indeed awake. The man, the infantry platoon’s leader, then conducted another communications check with his higher headquarters command post, followed by an anxious stare directed at the eastern mountain range, as he prayed like an ancient for the sun to rise and warm his tired platoon’s bones. Below, as morning twilight spread, harder men than he were beginning to rouse in their homes and move to their fields. This view is what the Pashtu lords of old must have observed thousands upon thousands of times from this ancient hill commanding the valley floor, a hill which he was told had once held the seat of local nobility — on hour maps it was called Khan or “King” Hill. Now, on top of the hill was a cell phone tower surrounded by five American gun trucks, in turn surround by ancestral graves covered by human feces.

It was early April in Logar Province, Afghanistan. His company commander had ordered his platoon to establish an observation post both to overwatch a key road intersection, and more importantly, to protect the cell phone tower, that had repeatedly been attacked by Taliban assailants. For the service provider to keep the tower operating, which was viewed as in the best interested of both the Afghan civilians and U.S., for far different reason, the service provider required American protection. Cratering the banks surrounding the tower were the graves of the ancestors of the villages below, which the locals also used as latrines. One particular position on the hill contained a 10-meter by 10-meter rectangular concrete foundation of a building that had never been completed. The foundation had a concrete wall about four feet high and two feet thick. As the platoon was unable to dig in defenses, given the cemetery that they were squatting on, the platoon leader had turned this foundation into the heart of the patrol base, even though it was littered with human shit.

Still shivering, he crawled out of his frost-covered sleeping bag and out of his ranger grave, still looking east for hints of a rising sun and the glorious warmth that would accompany it. Right then, a crack rang out. It wasn’t the sound of a round whizzing by his head; rather, it was his boot penetrating through the top of a grave, exposing the lily-white skull beneath. With one foot firmly stuck in the grave, the rest of his body collapsed into the just above freezing muddy cocktail composed of mud, shit, and the bone dust.

This was Afghanistan, and just as his country wasn’t winning the war, he wasn’t winning that morning.

Finally warmed by the sun, he and a portion of his platoon descended the hill, with orders to remove anti-American graffiti spray painted onto local buildings lining the village bazaar. The weight of their body armor, coupled with the fatigue of constant vigilance, slowed their pace as they moved toward the bazaar. As he walked, the platoon leader could feel the mud, shit, and dust cocktail slathered on his clothes, now dried by his body heat, begin to flake off.

The first shop they passed with stains of graffiti was a butcher. Strips of red blood-drained meat, some with hair still attached, hung from the roof. An assortment of various body parts from various farm creatures littered the unrefrigerated front tables. A large, ancient tree stump covered in grizzled red globules and flies sat in the middle of the shop. Rubber-necking the shop, the platoon leader thought that the chunks of meat he’d share for dinner that night with the local police chief, in an attempt to build political rapport, were likely cut on that bloody stump. After washing off the graffiti, he and his platoon continued on, identifying and washing away other graffiti. As their patrol moved forward, dark specters began appearing within the crowded bazaar, as if blown in by moist desert winds. Casually orbiting the patrol, these apparition men, garbed in flowing black gowns and turbans, peripherally assessed the condition of the platoon as it meandered back up the hill to its patrol base. The sun was beginning to retreat behind a western mountain range. As the light receded, young men’s thirst for violence mounted.

Then, at dusk, sparks, fire, and shrapnel erupted, peppering the walled foundation that the platoon leader and a gun team were crouched behind on top of the hill. Teams of the apparitions wisped through the buildings, trees, and irrigation ditches encircling the isolated hill. Light from muzzles and impacting explosions bounced off of the grave stones hugging tightly to the incline of the hill. Slowly and monotonously, the pocket of Americans isolated on the hilltop began whittling away at the multitude of apparitions. Eventually, the gunfire dwindled down to a handful of muzzle flashes 50 meters away from a wall paralleling the hill. The platoon leader led his men, lined up perpendicular to the wall, on the high ground above the wall, and, as they fired at the apparitions, members of the platoon poured down the hill clearing past the wall. On the ground from where they received fire, a body lay. The night sky was lit by warm blue stars and the dead man’s face was lit by the warm blue glow of a ringing cell phone. A small and oddly clean bullet hole had entered below his eye socket. The bearded dead man’s face displayed a Mona Lisa smile. Upon flipping the body over, where they expected to find an AK-47 rifle, they found a plump ribbed turnip. Beyond the body and a few dispersed blood trails, no other evidence could be found of the firefight. The apparition men had appropriately vanished. The platoon laid the body on top of the hood of one of their Humvees and drove it up to the defensive foundation to rest until the warmth and morning light would allow them to better sort out the evening’s events.

In contrast to the firefight that had consumed the beginning of the night, the deep night was clear and tranquil. However, as a majority of his platoon slumbered, the platoon leader sat upright, fighting Morpheus’s clutch, knowing that Hades was already clutching the dead bystander or shape-shifting apparition lying five meters away. As anxiety for the morning light crept through his conscience, so did the fog around on the valley floor and around the hill. A squelch over the radio informed the platoon of an intelligence report stating that a party of forty apparition men were mobilizing in the next valley to vengefully kill the American occupants of the hill. As these apparitions mobilized, the fog ascended as if to shape the conditions for their gruesome success.

The fog was all-consuming. A man could not see five feet in front of him. Its chill seeped to the bone. Briefly slipping off to sleep, the platoon leader dreamt that the fog was pouring from the breast of the dead man lying next to him. Then he snapped awake, crouched in the cold fog, amongst twenty-five armed comrades, yet isolated by the tomb-like cocoon of cold grey awaiting the apparitions’ onslaught. Cloaked by the fog, these apparitions could move into the platoon’s position, resulting in close, hand-to-hand combat wherein the Americans would likely eventually become overwhelmed and slaughtered like the pieces of farm animals hanging from the butcher’s shed several hundred meters away in the bazaar.

As the seconds to sunlight ticked, it was not warmth that the platoon leader longed for, but insight and soul. Then out from the village, the platoon could hear the growing sound of hundreds of angry men, immersed in the fog. Shaken interpreters translated to the platoon leader that “Death to America” was the cry of the crowd. Shortly, when judging by the roar, hundreds of men were at the base of the hill, a small party of elders and one young man appeared at the walled foundation, as if they had grown out of the graves surrounding the hill. Gnawing in passionate anger, the young man, brother to the dead one, lamented and screamed at the platoon leader, claiming the dead man was simply the local butcher and no enemy. Simultaneously, the old men pressed strongly for soothing words to feed the hot-blooded mob of youths waiting in the fog at the base of the hill. At this critical juncture, where the next words might lead to the survival or close quarters death of his charges, the platoon leader spoke. In the roar of the crowd, the words were muffled, but the old men appeared satisfied, and carrying the body of the butcher, they party descended into the fog much as they had ascended.

As if synchronized with the departure of the dead man’s corpse, the fog lifted, exposing the backs of hundreds of men returning to their village. The war party of 40 vindictive apparitions had never materialized. The platoon had survived the night and the fog.

After the war, the platoon leader got out of the Army and began his civilian life. Yet, as he progressed in his career, the fog would often visit him, especially during significant life events. During the night of the birth of his first child, the fog seemingly encompassed the hospital. It wasn’t random, it was the fog from the hill. He knew its smell, its taste, its viscosity, and its sound. It followed to the closing of his family’s first home. It followed him to the Tokyo trip the night he made partner. It descended onto the college graduation party of his twin boys. Now, it was with him on the lonely top balcony of a cruise liner in the middle of his thirtieth wedding anniversary party.

The fog caressed the man’s body as he kneeled. Slowly his eyes followed down the barrel of the pistol to the trigger. It was his finger in the well, gently lying against the trigger. Not under his own power, his finger depressed the trigger, then a flash.

He was a young platoon leader again back on the foggy hill that night in Afghanistan, kneeling with the same pistol in his mouth. However, the finger on the trigger was now not his own, rather it was the finger of the butcher who had died in the firefight three decades earlier. Around him a slaughter ensued. Black-clad men chopped away at his troops in hand-to-hand combat through the fog. His platoon’s position was being overrun by apparitions. Gazing up, pistol in mouth, the platoon leader looked at the butcher. He noticed the bullet hole below his eye was gone. The butcher gave him that same Mona Lisa smile that had haunted him like the fog, then click. Nothing remained on top of the hill but mud, shit, bone dust, cold, numbing fog, and darkness.

Frederick Waage is an Army officer who has served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan. He suggests that combat veterans sometimes try using one’s pen like a Ouija board to face up to the haunts that follow us home — and perhaps tell a good story.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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