Face to face with war and poverty​

In the summer of 2003 I was standing on a rock berm overlooking a valley with a mountain on the other side. Rock hills, dust clouds, and dirt roads were in every direction for as far as I could see until the horizons disappeared. I don’t remember what day or month it was but that hadn’t mattered in a while. Myself and 20 other men had found this desolate plot of land and created a makeshift gun firing range out of it. We then spent nearly an entire day firing off a myriad of weapons from 50 caliber sniper rifles, to AK-47’s, grenade launchers, and claymore mines into the dirt nothingness that surrounded us.

 

We are slightly outside of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The specific location is also unknown to me and nearly irrelevant because most of what I saw of that country during my time there looked exactly the same as I described here: barren. I had been in the country a few months when this story occurred, I’m a 20 year old kid dripping with attitude, arrogance, and fear. I had never been out of the country before and certainly never to an active war zone.

 

Despite a bleak location this day was long and fun, our ears rang and our noses were filled with the smell of gunpowder. The vast empty wasteland provided us a clear vision of any threats so we felt safe and we were able to enjoy ourselves. We were blowing stuff up and talking shit, the height of the military bonding experience.

 

Throughout the day we started to attract some locals. I know I said we were in the middle of nowhere but in Afghanistan there are people who do live in the middle of nowhere. I assume they heard the commotion and explosions and decided to walk towards the noise and see what was up. The group was 5 or 6 older men and it prompted myself and another low ranking troop to hold guard and keep everyone at a safe distance. I had regular interactions with locals so this wasn’t anything alarming and the US had been in the country long enough now that both cultures had experience working with each other on all sorts of things, we vetted locals who then worked as labor for various jobs on the base, we occasionally shopped downtown at their stores, and we attended their weekly bazaar to buy souvenirs and bootleg DVD’s. My attitude towards locals was mostly neutral, I certainly didn’t hate them, I didn’t feel that they were some moral or religious enemy, this wasn’t a mobilized country filled with active soldiers, and these weren’t resistance citizens we were trying to quell. I also wasn’t very sympathetic to them though this was most likely a byproduct of American exceptionalism – some inherent idea that I was superior because I’m from a superior country irrelevant that I didn’t build or really understand what made my country superior. I also suffered from war fever which had been beaten into me from my military training, the U.S. news; since September 11th the entire U.S. media apparatus had lusted over this war on terror against those “evil Muslim terrorists”, and probably more than the first two the biggest reason I wasn’t overly sympathetic to the Afghanis was because I was a 20 year old idiot with a bad attitude. I just wasn’t mature enough to look at these impoverished people and this destitute place and think “I can learn a lot here”. Despite any personal biases coming into the country after spending a little time here my it didn’t take long to understand that most of these people are civilians caught in the friction between the heinous acts of a few Saudi Arabian terrorists and American macro foreign policy interests. Unlike in movies where good and bad actors have clearly defined roles; reality is far muddier. The majority of locals I came across were truly innocent people who had good morals and lived in abject poverty, a threat to no one, but one must be acutely aware that there are enemies in mingling within these crowds. This enemy doesn’t wear a uniform, he acts as a one-off among actual friendlies, he hides AK-47’s and grenades in his robe, and you don’t see him until you have your back to him.

 

This is a mindset I maintain to this day, for better or for worse. I look at everyone as being innocent and honest while never ever letting my guard down in case they suddenly become an active shooter.

Today, as this group of robed strangers slowly accumulated we worked to keep everyone at a safe distance and keep an incredibly close eye on them to protect our cache of weapons and ammunition in case someone turned out to be not so harmless. They seemed to nudge their way forward bit by bit over the hours and I wasn’t sure if it was because they were curious to get a closer look at what they were doing, or perhaps they weren’t that enthusiastic to abide by a foreigner standing in their home land arbitrarily telling them where they can and can’t go, or maybe they just wanted to see if they could push the limits of a fairly timid young kid, I honestly wouldn’t blame them for any. It was a bit of a tense situation.

 

I couldn’t communicate with anyone in country because of the language barrier, and unlike trying to order food in a foreign country where both parties are stretching their vocabulary to reach a mutual understanding and solve a common problem, I had zero interest in learning Farsi. We made due by using the most basic of body language to get through normal tasks. Negotiating and buying goods, directing them where to go, or even trying to find out where things are can be accomplished almost fully with just body language. In this particular instance my body language was clear as day – I’m holding an M4 across my chest and showing my hand in the universal sign for STOP.

Before coming to Afghanistan I thought of my life as being just ok. I grew up in a stable middle class home and a slightly-hostile-but-not-unbearable relationship with my parents, I didn’t like or do well in school, and I was at the bottom of my social hierarchy. My situation was the same as most enlisted soldiers: people with not much going on who live in a place with not much going who see the military as a means to provide both an escape and a greater purpose to believe in. I was making no money as an 18 year old and had no skills, no experience, no credentials, and a bad attitude, and it’s no secret that the military doesn’t pay great the money was at least quite a bit more reliable. That said I was perpetually living week-to-week and stressed about money, which I hated. It’s a very frustrating and stressful existence to be always worried about money, always worried how you’re going to pay the car and rent payments, carefully studying the last dollars in a bank account to figure out how much food you can buy to make it through the week, the painful social shame of feeling like a lower class of person. This is a common American existence and one that is universally hated – no one likes being broke. I always thought that if I could make enough money to afford a car and a house, go out to eat once or twice a week, take a lady on a date, and have a few creature comforts then I would be happy. I just needed a more money and then all my problems would be solved and since I never had that I never really thought of myself as lucky or succesful and certainly not grateful.

 

Then I get to Afghanistan

 

The first thing I sacrificed when coming here was running water, we had none and I wouldn’t get that luxury back for 8 months. It’s incredible how fast I realized I was accustomed to using running water at any whim with zero recognition of it being a scarce resource. This hit me in two phases, the first was when I arrived after 3 days of traveling in the same clothes and realized I couldn’t take a shower, I couldn’t wash my hands, I couldn’t wash my clothes, and I couldn’t brush my teeth. For the first time in my American exceptionalist existence I had to just sit in my filth, indefinitely. The second realization was a week into the deployment when I was around the locals for the first time and realized that many of them had never had access to running water. Do you know what a person who has never taken a shower in their entire lives smells like? Science says that smell is the sense that is most closely related to memory, and the smell of the Afghani locals is one that is forever burned into my brain.

 

There was some access to tapped water there is a big difference between well water and potable drinking water and the U.S military will not allow large scales of troops to drink potentially contaminated water so to remedy this the Army would ship in these endless pallets of bottled water until our base was littered with them. You couldn’t walk 50 feet without having access to fresh imported water which was kinda awesome despite seeming obscenely inefficient. Water bottles, even in excess, are not an equal substitute for running water but you sure can brush your teeth out of a water bottle, you can sorta wash your hands out of a water bottle, when you get desperate you can kinda take a shower with water bottles, and I had a large waterproof bag with me so I could kinda wash my clothes too. Although after washing clothes I would hang them in the desert where they would inevitably coated with a few hours of dirt storm wind. This and other similar sacrifices we made in quality of life had become my normal existence for the last few months and even this life was a far cry greater than what the locals had to endure as no one was shipping pallets of fresh water bottles in for them.

 

My frustrations about not having enough money to go out to eat or to have money leftover after making my car payment vanished.

 

Our range day was wrapping up and it had been a great day of gunfire and explosions, it’s now probably 2 or 3 in the afternoon the Afghan sun was taking its toll on us. The crowd of locals around us had grown to 20 people many of whom had been lingering for hours, slowly creeping closer and closer to the center of the action throughout the day. They didn’t seem like a direct threat but as the day wound down the situation was got more uncomfortable and I wasn’t really sure what their motive was but as we finally began to pack up our weapons in the back of trucks the locals got noticeably more excited. They stopped listening to our commands to stay back and started moving closer towards us, we were now walking backwards towards our squad and my eyes are glued to their robes looking for the glimpse of a weapon. It wasn’t the scariest thing I had been part of in my time in Kabul but it was close. If you’re holding an M4, a U.S. Army issued semi automatic rifle and someone approaches you in very close quarters with almost complete disregard of your weapon it is unnerving to say the least.

 

The next minute was intense. The last of the weapons was loaded onto the back of a humvee and someone yelled “ALL CLEAR” for everyone to hear. At that moment we were bum rushed by the locals and my adrenalin shot through the roof. I remember thinking “what kind of crazy person would rush into a group of well armed American special forces soldiers?” What could they possibly want?”. I also very distinctly remember saying to myself over and over again “don’t be the first one to shoot”. How close does an enemy have to get to you before you open fire? We were in physical contact at this point and all my instinct, training, and adrenalin where telling me to kill this enemy immediately. It’s one of those moments where you can easily judge a person’s decisions after the fact while sitting safety and taking no risk but in the moment the rational mind often cuts and runs and the body is now driven by some baser creature that we rarely get to see or meet in our daily lives and everyone should pray that if that creature ever has to be in charge that it makes good decisions because don’t always get the luxury of control.

 

I’m thankful the U.S. military for creating soldiers that are strategic, decisive, deadly, but also disciplined. Despite every hair on my body standing up in fear as tall as it can go, the unquestionable choice that I would kill anything I had to in order to protect myself, and a gross sort of animalistic thrill for high stakes action, I held my trigger until I was sure it was the right thing to do. I was the youngest aged and lowest ranking soldier on the range and I did not want to be the one to take someone else’s life without being sure it was necessary. My head was on a swivel, my finger was on the trigger, and my eyes were locked on this moving enemy, but my ears were waiting for the command to fire or the sound of anyone else’s gun shots before I opened fire.

 

No shots went off

 

It quickly became apparent that they weren’t rushing to attack. To my complete surprise they ran past us and created a scuffle on the ground, a spectacle of chaos and dust that left me utterly perplexed. I went in the opposite direction and jumped into the bed of our humvee with the rest of the squad, no one had any injuries, no shots were fired. The whole event couldn’t have been more than 2 minutes

 

“What the fuck just happened?!?!?!” I yelled

 

I was in Kabul with a green beret unit. I was new to this sort of thing but most of the rest of my squad were well worn battle veterans. While tensions on range were high I can only assume that I was the most frazzled by the events

 

Calmly one of the operators replied “They are fighting to collect the brass, so they can sell it”

My life changed at that moment and I think about it very often. Until this instance I thought I had been unfairly given a below average economic standing in America, I experienced financial frustration and difficulty attaining what I thought was a reasonable quality of life. Yet here I am watching with my own two eyes a group of people so unfathomably poor that they willingly risk being shot just for a chance to fight in the dirt against their peers so they might grab some expelled gun casings and sell them for profit.

 

This was poverty on a level I can still barely comprehend

 

I knew other countries were poor but it was a very different impact to experience it in real time. These were regular Afghan locals who exist in complete parallel to our modern world but are so tragically impoverished that I might have seemed like a king of unlimited wealth in comparison.

 

I think the lesson here is obvious.

 

In America we have a higher cost of living but the cost of living gap pales in relation to the entitlement of what we want versus what we have gap. Our money deficiencies rarely mean going without access to running water or food it only means you can’t buy the new thing you want but don’t actually need. Having to live without hot running water is a rare but temporary annoyance and having to live indefinitely without any running water would be downright unthinkable. Have you ever passed by a quarter on the street and not bothered to pick it up? How mortified would you be if someone you were walking with suddenly leapt into a street fight on the ground for a chance to get this quarter?

 

I was born into an economy and infrastructure that I didn’t build, but I do enjoy. Every day new technology is increasing my quality of life in ways beyond what previous generations could have imagined in their wildest dreams and I didn’t have to make capital investments into their development or put in any effort in creating them. My biggest problem of food and water is not their scarcity but so much excess that I act frivolously with their consumption. Meanwhile, across the planet in some out of sight, out of mind desert in a country we no longer have a media or foreign policy interest in are the same human beings living in that same unremarkable dirt due to absolutely no fault of their own other than they didn’t win the same birth lottery that I did.

Any time the pangs of anxiety try to tell me I deserve a better financial situation this story allows me to realize that a better financial situation has never existed. 

 

Alex Felice

Alex Felice

My name is Alex, I’m a real estate entrepreneur who became camera obsessed This website shares my journey, from creating financial freedom through real estate, to exploring the wisdom of philosophy, and finding my love of art through cameras. Everything I learn about life goes here so I can hopefully make yours easier

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