The Other Side of Paradise

Eastern Afghanistan -- From the outer walls of this fire base in eastern Afghanistan, you can see the mountains that mark the border with Pakistan. The Taliban rocket this base regularly, and move throughout the area with relative ease. The US soldiers here live with this threat, but are so restricted by the rules of engagement established by NATO and the Karzai government, that taking military action is difficult. This is a war that is now driven by politics and cultural sensitivity, rather than tactics and strategies that seek some form of victory.

Soldiers are notoriously silent about their political views. By law they are committed to supporting the Commander and Chief. Yet this election has brought about deep feelings of distrust and uncertainty within their ranks. The perception of Obama for these soldiers is grounded in some simple realities that for them draws into question the President-elect's intentions and core beliefs in the United States .

Sitting on a couch in front of the television in the early hours of the morning, an Army Captain watched as the election results were being reported. He shook his head in disgust. "This is proof that the media can elect a President." The room walls were grey concrete, the floor covered in a red Afghan rug, the sofa and love seat torn and worn down from constant use. The dusty television was set in a plywood box; a field made "entertainment" cabinet. The Captain continued, "I take [Obama's] not wearing the flag on his lapel and his reasoning very personally. Fuck him. That flag is more than just about a country and its ideas; it is about the man on your left and right that you fight with and die for." The Master Sergeant sitting in the room commented,"He has no use for soldiers. He never took the time on his tours to spend time with soldiers, only senior commanders and foreign politicians."

As the morning progressed and the polls began to close, more soldiers filled into the room. It was now standing room only as Obama's electoral count pushed passed 200. Another Captain spoke up, "If McCain can win California and Texas he still has a chance." A Lieutenant grabbed the television remote and began flipping through the channels. "Look as these newscasters. These fuckers are making this a racial issue. This was never about race." As he continued through the channels, every major network was interviewing an African-American, discussing some form of a "coming of age" of America. Another soldier spoke up, "This is not about race. It's about religion. That is the war the we are facing. I want to see what book Obama swears in on."

As the morning progressed, the electoral totals confirmed Obama's win. The mood fell quiet, a feeling as if one of their own had been killed in battle. I looked across the room to a Major sitting near the back corner. " The issues of race that are spouted by mouthpieces like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others can no longer be argued. There is now a black President. I don't trust him, but then again, this is what this country is about... allowing an African American unknown to rise to President. As they say, be careful what you wish for. The American public will get what it asked for, whatever that turns out to be."

Another soldier continued, "You know what really sucks is that none of our votes count. Sure, we voted, but they are absentee ballots. They only are counted in the event of a tie. What type of statement is that towards democracy. You fight, you die, but your vote while deployed doesn't count."

The group discussion continued, " As a military officer I will serve whoever is Commander and Chief. But this is the wrong guy for the job, and the wrong time for our country. He's weak." The soldier continued, " The greatest fear for a military officer is dedicating your life to a fight that ends up meaning nothing. This generation of Americans behind Obama is the "me" generation. They haven't served their country, they serve themselves. They haven't buried their friends for a cause they believed in and fought and died for. Now those friends that I buried will have died for nothing. All Obama wants to do is get us out."

By mid-afternoon, an article appeared on stating that Afghanistan's President Karzai had made a plea to President-elect Obama over civilian deaths in a recent US-lead bombing. As I sat with the soldiers for lunch, the article was discussed. "Karzai is a politician just like Obama. He's playing his hand to make himself look better in the eyes of the Afghans and to help ensure his re-election after the first of the year." As the Sergeant finished, a Major continued,"This is a war. Karzai wants it both ways. He wants to point the finger at us whenever he thinks he can gain favor with the Afghan people. But he wants our money and our soldiers to fight for him. I expect Obama to support him, cut our budgets and hang us out to dry for the sake of his vision of change. He is all about negotiating and compromise."

I looked over at a Captain sitting on a chair, slumped down, arms on the table. I asked him if he was alright. "I have no energy today. I feel like I have been betrayed. This is the rise of the "me" generation into the places of power." The soldier next to him looked across the table at me, "I'm done. It has gotten harder and harder to do our job. This election is the final blow. I just need to finish up my time and get out." As he dropped his head, another Captain slid his chair to the table,"Obama is now our President. We're not happy about it. It sucks. But now that he is our President, we will support him. That's part of being an American soldier. That's what makes our country strong."