(wherein embedded journalist Jed Berman pays a visit to the father of a youth Berman helped his unit kill)
Now I felt even worse. Having already helped kill this kid, I might have a hand in the death of even more of these people.
“Will it just be reconnaissance or do you go in and shoot up the place?”
“Whatever it takes. If we can turn them so they don’t side with the Taliban anymore, we might build them a school or something. But if they get ugly with us, we’ll make sure they can’t keep supplying soldiers for the other side.”
We did pay a visit to the village two days later. And as bad as I felt about my part in making that happen, it gave me a chance to follow through on what I was thinking when I searched the kid’s pockets. The village was wedged into a relatively level spot in the foothills of the eastern mountains. As we rode in I remembered those comments about the Soviets and now the Americans bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. This place looked like it had never left the Stone Age. Most of the buildings were one or two stories, square with flat roofs, made of mud or block or tacked together from old lumber.
While Randy and the others looked around and met with the village leaders, I stopped at an open-air market and asked people if they knew the kid and his family. Hardly anyone could speak English, so it was slow going. But I finally found a young woman selling baskets who said she was his cousin. She offered to take me to his parents’ house, but she warned me they were really torn up about losing their oldest son, and they didn’t like Americans very much. I told her I understood all of that, but I really needed to talk with them.
It didn’t take long to get to their house; it was at one end of the fairly short, dirt main street. People, all of them in black, were going in and out of the front door and I could hear wailing coming from inside. The young woman told me to wait while she went in and found her uncle. We had agreed she would tell him I was an American journalist doing a story on the war. A few minutes later a young man, the dead boy’s father, came charging out the front door, spotted me, and started shaking his fist and yelling at me in a language I did not speak. His face was streaked with tears. The young woman came out behind him and said something to him that I could not hear. He calmed down enough for her to introduce me to him. As we got started, a crowd of people gathered around us. They were murmuring, but I didn’t know what they were saying.
The young woman asked me what I wanted to say to her uncle. Did I want to ask him reporter questions? I shook my head and told her I first wanted to express my deep sympathies over the loss of their son. When she translated that for her uncle, he flared up again and seemed about to lunge at me. His voice sounded very angry. The young woman said her uncle didn’t want my pity or my sympathy. He didn’t want anything from an American at all, except for all of us to go away and stop ruining their lives. This was going to be much harder than I thought. Whether it was sensible or not, I had come there to apologize for my part in the death of his son. This man didn’t know—yet—that I was directly connected to the killing. If he was this mad already, what was he going to do when found out?
My anxiety level accelerated rapidly to all-out fear. If these people were angry enough to set a U.S. social scientist on fire, what would they do to an American who confessed to helping American soldiers kill their son? I asked the father how long his son had been a soldier. Six months, he said, and the skirmish that took his life was his first time in battle. They were obviously a very poor family, as were most of the people in the village. I asked him why his oldest son decided to join up with the Taliban, rather than stay home and help support the family. He pulled back his shoulders and told me, proudly, that his son answered the call of Allah to help drive the infidels from their land. He said he and every father in the town would continue to send their sons into battle until all of the Western soldiers were gone and they could live their lives again as they chose. The fate of their land would be decided by Afghanis, he said, not by corrupt Americans.
When the crowd around him heard that several people starting chanting doon oith amirika. I looked at the young woman who told me, in a very somber tone of voice, it meant Down with America. The chant got louder and the crowd began closing in on us. It did not feel like a good place to be. And I hadn’t even revealed what I feared would be the most inflammatory statement I could make in that village.
The young woman yelled something in Arabic and the father repeated it, and the crowd stopped chanting, but an undercurrent of murmuring still rumbled through the villagers surrounding us.
The father asked me if I had other questions. Crazy as it seemed, I still wanted to tell him the truth. I asked if we could talk away from the crowd where it would be easier to hear each other. He motioned toward the house and led us inside and up to the roof where we sat down on three stools. When we were settled in, he looked at me expectantly. I was amazed he could pay that much attention to a journalist at such an awful time.
I sat there for a long moment looking at him, asking myself if it was humanly possible for the father of a young soldier to sit there and hear what I had come to say, from a man who had a hand in killing his son. Wouldn’t it be reasonable for him to simply go berserk and avenge his son’s death, then and there on the rooftop? Still the need to tell him the whole story overruled what may have been my better judgment. I took a deep breath and started in.
I said I had one more question for him, but I needed to tell him a story before I asked it. I told him I was in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist, reporting on the activities of U.S. troops. I pointed out that I was ordered to come to Afghanistan on assignment and that I personally did not support the U.S. invasion of his country. I said I was with the patrol that engaged his son’s unit in the mountains. I explained where I was when I saw his son firing at us. I told him about Tommy going down, maybe shot by his son. I told him how incredibly frightened I was by what was happening. I paused for a moment to see his reaction. He had a hint of a frown on his face, but he didn’t say anything. He just nodded, the way you do when you want someone to keep talking.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I looked straight at him, fighting off the urge to look down at the ground. It was at that moment, I told him, that I saw a soldier firing from the rocks in front of us. I told him I pointed that out to the other soldier I was with. And I told him that soldier took aim at his son and shot him. I waited as the young woman translated all of that. I could only begin to imagine what it was like for that father to hear that. I don’t suppose many families ever come face-to-face with the soldier who kills their child. Again, he nodded to indicate he was willing to hear me out.
I reached toward him as I finished up. He shrank back a little.
“I cannot express to you how terribly, terribly sorry I am for the death of your son. I sought you out to offer you my sincere apology and to beg you to forgive me for doing a thing that I believe I had no right to do. I believe no human being has the right to take another person’s life. And yet I helped to do just that.”
Through the translator, he asked,”Do you have sons, sir?”
“Sadly, I do not.”
“If you had sons, you might know the deep sadness I am feeling right now. Many of my brothers, if they had heard what I just heard, would have pulled out a knife or a gun and avenged their son’s death at the hands of an American, but I cannot.”
Tears began streaming down his face.
“I do not share your belief that we have no right to kill. I believe our cause in the name of Allah against your country and others who would take our land and our freedom is just, and I believe my son died an honorable death fighting for the things we hold dear, fighting for our way of life and our way of faith. I will grieve this loss for many years, no doubt, but I will accept it as the will of Allah, and I know that my son has ascended to his reward already. As for your guilt in participating in my son’s death, if my forgiveness will bring you peace, you may have it. I take your word that this war against us was not your idea and that you do not endorse it. From what you say, you had little choice about being in this place at this time. You may have helped the soldiers find my son, but you did not kill him. And I accept your word that you only did it to preserve your own life. That is not a particularly noble reason for participating in someone else’s death, but it is understandable under the circumstances. Thank you for coming here, sir. If what you have done brings you peace, then I am happy to help make it so. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a son to bury, and you, I’m sure, have stories to report.”
He stood and led us downstairs and through the house to the front door and turned to face me. “You have shown me a compassion and a dignity I did not expect from an American. In that respect, you may have accomplished more here today than all of your diplomats and soldiers over these many months. I wish you safe travel, and I wish your family good health.” He turned and disappeared into the darkened house.
On our way back to the market, we ran into my unit. I thanked the young woman for her help and gave her about two hundred dollars in Afghan currency. She smiled and left. Randy found me and we walked back to the Bradleys.
“Where you been, man? You’re not supposed to go wandering off like that.”
I told him I was just checking out some of the local color and characters.
“How’d you guys make out?”
“Pretty good, I think. The locals said they’ve about had it with the Taliban. They said they’d be open to some American assistance. We’ll probably send over the HTT to talk to them and see what we can do.”
Unless the man I’d just talked to and that murmuring crowd outside his house were completely out of step with the rest of the village, it sounded to me like the elders weren’t being entirely honest about things. Penny Coleman had said, to get them ready to kill, we convince our soldiers to think the enemy—in this case the Afghanis who sympathized with the Taliban and Al Qaeda—are not very smart. It struck me that the leaders of this village might just be playing dumb with the Americans for their own benefit, and the Americans were falling for it. I didn’t share those thoughts with Randy or anyone else in the unit.
They had a special ceremony for me and gave me a fake medal for helping take out the kid in the mountains. I didn’t tell anybody what I thought about that, either. I just smiled and said thanks. I shipped out for home a couple days later.