Spontaneous combustion

Spontaneous combustion is a myth. But something like it does happen sometimes. With the push of a button. For a variety of reasons. People who are there one moment are gone in the next.

Here’s how I imagine it, as only a person who has been close to high explosive doing its awful work can; the truck pulls up to the outer gate. The madman pushes a button. The shockwave ripples outward too quickly for slow human minds to comprehend. The madman, who is probably only a boy really, disintegrates into wet, charred bits of flesh.

Last thoughts irrationally carrying him into the black where his false belief in a paradise that does not exist will simply end. Perhaps that is in and of itself a sort of paradise. When the only world you know is so harsh, maybe stopping the world you know is a form of heaven.

The walls of the compound blow apart a millisecond after the madman’s body flings itself into an orgiastic outward spiral of exploding truck parts. Guards on the perimeter are blown apart as the hole in things expands. This is the work of men whose dreams taste only of death. This is the language of the bomb and of impotence.

Trailers rip apart. It is 4:30 AM in Kabul, a 3,500-year-old city whose residents know the smell of death and shit intimately. The winds here are always full of decay, burning, desperation. In the blackness, fanatic followers run through the new hole and begin firing their machine guns. More of the language of death.

The residents inside this poorly named place are waking up. Some are injured, the walls they felt safe inside proving too weak to keep out conflict. A few died in the initial moments of the blast. The camp, which is a place run by a company named after a character from the movie Star Wars, is what the mavens of war call a secure compound. There is no such thing. Camp North Gate also called Camp Pinnacle, no longer has a gate and does not sit on the pinnacle of anything.

I lived in this place in 2011 and 2012 but was moved away by my superiors and then injured in a moment of banality that had nothing to do with bombs. So I am not at Camp Pinnacle when the suicide bomber pushes his button and blows a deep crater into the ground, shatters the walls, creates an opportunity for mayhem. I am not close to the bomb or the men who run in after with their fury and their guns. People I know and have come to care about are though.

I can only imagine what happened. Piece it together from news reports. Live through it in my dreams. Because I spent many months expecting any given night to be my night of blood and terror I have a deeper understanding of how those moments played out after the bomb went off than you are likely to.

I know war. I have watched mortars explode close to me. Seen rockets fly a few feet over my head and then arc downwards to explode nearby. I have woken up to find bullets that have fallen down around me while I slept.

Kabul has probably not always been a city permeated with misery. I imagine it has known times of peace and plenty. I have not been there during any of those. For me, Kabul will always be a memory of armor, insecurity, fear. For me Kabul will always be complete chaos in the form of a wedding party madly videotaping their joy while a truck full of freshly slaughtered goats careens past on its way to some open air market. Life and death superimposed side by side with the backdrop being a city of tents next to a graveyard full of war martyrs.

The world inside the walls of the place I once lived that got blown up was surreal. In the little store I remember Afghan brothers selling overpriced counterfeit Beats headphones to overpaid, underproductive armed contractors like me. Every winter jacket I bought from them fell apart because the zippers were made of brittle metal. I bought two and then switched to ordering from Amazon.com. In the capital city the winters are cold.

At Camp Pinnacle, most of the imported female workers ended up pregnant and disappeared back to Kyrgyzstan. The contractors call them war wives. No alimony payments are likely to be collected by the state on behalf of those children anytime soon. Surreal. Full body massages with happy endings for the ones willing to pay. You can fuck the Russian speaking hairdresser for $100 in U.S. currency.

Inside the compound is surreal. Outside the compound is even more surreal. At least we have running water and electricity 95% of the time. The rest of Kabul, which is also called Kabol, is not so lucky. Rich people have generators in their dusty mansions. Poor people have dung fires. In this city, the higher up the mountainside you live the poorer you are.

We didn’t have to report graft or bribes by local officials until the percentage was higher than one quarter of the total budget. So, if we gave a police colonel $1 million in computers and he distributed three quarters to his underlings and sold one quarter in the local markets to line his pockets that was OK. The compound we lived in supposedly cost

The little store inside our secured compound sold third rate Chinese electronics, Afghan carpets and for some reason I never understand was well stocked with remote controlled toy helicopters. I’m sure those blew up when that bomb went off. I saw some photos of the aftermath. The building where I lived would have been shaken but my room probably didn’t sustain any major damage. Had I been there on that morning I would have been shaken awake by the bomb blast and put on my body armor while my fight or flight response went into overdrive. My years of experience in that kind of environment would have kicked in. I would have sought those I knew in order to go into what is called a protective posture while the camp guards battled the follow on attackers.

For every misled fool who wants to rush to gain entrance into an imagined heaven that does not smell like dust, shit and misery, there are always companions. These four came in shooting. Reports vary regarding how many were killed on that morning.

What’s certain is that all four of the mad truck bomber’s companions died in a hail of return gunfire from the compound guards. It’s my speculation that the Nepali guards were the most effective at returning fire. The Afghan guards tended to be mostly useless. Collecting a paycheck and praying were their two most reliable features during my sojourn inside those walls now shattered. I was reliable at the first but not the second.

One of the strange things about war is how the statisticians love to collect their data. At the end of your life, if you have been a war mercenary as I have, you might be summarized on a tally sheet as one of any number of KIA (killed in action) or, if you are not completely ended, you could become a WIA (wounded in action). There were more than 100 WIAs from the bomb and its aftermath. There were an uncertain number of KIAs of various nationalities. One of them a Romanian. It made me wonder if he was the Romanian I used to play the video game Call of Duty with. I haven’t seen him on Xbox Live for a long time now.

The people who do the important counting necessary to manage a war often guard the numbers as if they are a holy secret. Reporting in such an environment is almost never completely factual. The statisticians are often also liars with an agenda. I’ll probably never know exactly who lived, died and bled that morning. I know that one of my friends survived uninjured that day only to be blown up inside his armored vehicle another. He suffered traumatic brain injury.

War is surreal. There you are with a rifle and a pistol and body armor. Spending days driving an armored truck through the beggars, drug addicts and religious zealots of Kabul to get from one compound full of corrupt, opportunistic people to the next and then back again. Breathing in the dusty shit air.

Spending nights playing a warrior made of pixels on a projection screen while eating pizza cooked for you by an Afghan who has never known anything but the smell of dusty shit air. Who is trying to survive like you are. Who has an agenda that stays hidden behind fatalistic eyes. And you make six figures while he struggles to make enough to feed his mother, father, sisters and an untold other number of Afghans who are not lucky enough to be a pizza boy in a secure compound.

Was it one of the pizza boys who gave the attackers details on the compound so they would know the best time to do the most damage? If I had been born an Afghan pizza boy I wonder what I would have done. One of our translators, who could easily have been an Afghan pizza boy instead, was stabbed to death in the streets of Kabul with screwdrivers because of his profession. Because he needed to make a living and didn’t want to beg on the streets like so many Afghans do. In Afghanistan warlords siphon off foreign money while the denizens of neighborhoods they control starve and freeze in the harsh winters.

I sometimes wonder what it is all for. The billions of dollars poured into a place on the other side of the world which is also the world’s largest producer of opium. One of the oldest settled places. One of the most contested places. Many empires have ground their sharp teeth into dust in this place where the sound of violence is a normal part of the fabric. But for a missed moment in time I could have become part of that dust. Little bits of me scattered into the wind of a city ringed by hard mountains that always smells of shit. Shit that also provides the sustenance from which I have seen roses growing.

It occurs to me that maybe the manboy with his finger on the button of the bomb was hoping to clear a space where roses could grow out of the shit. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

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The author

Pen has been writing in a professional capacity for two decades. He started his career as a combat correspondent in the U.S. Marines.

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