Just a half step inside the door and the smell hit me. As thick and sticky as tar, it hung in the stillness, filling my nose and mouth, tickling the back of my throat, tempting any lingering food in my belly to seek liberation. I fought to keep it down, trying to swallow, but the stench of two-day-old wounds badly cleaned and loosely bandaged clung to my palate and throat. The stink of sweat underpinned it all. But it wasn’t just the heat that caused the sweat, though it is devilishly hot in Darfur in June. This was the sweat smell of men fighting pain and fear, stewing in hatred, burning up in anger, fighting for life in a place where there are no pain killers or antibiotics—a place on the ragged edge of what we at home might think of as the civilized world.
As a soldier and a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, I spent most of my professional life on that ragged edge. Sometimes it was in Darfur, other times Afghanistan or Iraq; sometimes it was Zaire, Rwanda, Chad or any of a half dozen other places on the far left of the continuum between hellhole and home. And while they’re all very different from one another, they’re all similar for being beyond the world most of us here in North America know and understand. To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, they are far away places of which we know little.
Outside the door that day in what, on a map, is a nondescript western section of Sudan, I could see our helicopter, its blades sagging. I could see the engineer, rag in hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips, checking something on the fuselage. A few kids were hanging around staring at the machine. Something new and different had arrived, and kids see that. Most of their contact with the world outside the mountains in which they lived came via a daily BBC broadcast in Arabic someone might pick up on a palm-sized transistor radio run on a couple of AA batteries, even though the majority of Darfurians—Fur, Zaghawa, Tunjur—do not speak Arabic as a first language. When a helicopter filled with men from Europe, the United States and a few African countries descends on their village, it’s like a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears suddenly switches to a seventy-inch flatscreen with nine hundred high-def channels. Things like that happen on the ragged edge.
But back to Chamberlain for a moment. He was speaking of Czechoslovakia in 1938, but even today there are large swathes of the world that most of us know little of. I knew nothing of Darfur before I went there. I first heard the word over a Thuraya phone, a hand-held satellite device of 21st-century vintage, while I was standing outside my tent in Iraq. It was April 2004, and I had that morning received an email from a friend in Washington explaining that I was about to be mobilized—recalled to active duty from the reserves—and sent to Iraq. The irony of receiving this news from the U.S. Army while already serving in Iraq with my civilian employer, the Department of State, was delicious. So I charged up the Thuraya and telephoned my friend, who worked in the office at the Defense Intelligence Agency that was my Army Reserve home. I explained that I really wasn’t interested in going to Iraq given what I knew of the place firsthand from three months working on a tiny U.S. camp.
That camp was pretty out of the way, even by Iraqi standards. It was close enough to Iran that we could see the mountains along the border in the mornings before the dust kicked up. It was small enough that the big government contractors wouldn’t even supply cooks or cleaning staff. We ate Army rations prepared by soldiers. We lived in tents and showered in tents and did our daily work in tents—hot in summer, cold in winter, dusty always. We were there to discuss life, the universe and everything else with a few thousand members of a designated foreign terrorist group. They were primarily Iranians and were uniformly obsessed with returning to Iran to overthrow the government of the evil mullahs there, for the ultimate purpose of installing their own version of more or less the same thing. Saddam Hussein had given them land and weapons. In return, they did dirty work for him, killing members of tribes Saddam disliked or wanted to manipulate. The ragged edge is a place where words like intolerance, blood-feud and vengeance are not just simple nouns; they are ways of life.
We asked each of them a few questions about their past, and then a few more questions about their intentions toward the United States and their future plans. We asked them where they wanted to go if they couldn’t go to Iran. They all said they wanted to go to the United States. I couldn’t imagine some of them settling in my hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, so I started asking them where in Europe they wanted to go instead. Sweden, they said, or the United Kingdom.
Ihad been in Afghanistan the year before, spending most of my time in Kabul or on the airbase in Bagram. I did get out and around the country a bit, however, since part of my job involved swapping cash for information—information of the sort that led to the capture of caches of weapons. In the spring of 2003 I took a team out to the northwest of the country, out along the Pakistani border, on a tip that we would find a large cache of heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft missiles. The road’s crater-sized potholes were punishing, so our pace barely beat walking. Some kids were playing soccer in a field by what I guessed was a school; they stopped and stared as we drove by. I wondered how little the road had changed since the Russians were driven out in 1989, or even since 1842, when Dr. William Brydon had staggered home, the lone survivor of Elphinstone’s army.
Eventually we found our guy and he led us to the weapons. Often these sorts of things were handled by an infantry company or two—a classmate of mine was commanding the 82nd Airborne infantry battalion in the area. But this time just a very few of us came to make the deal and pick up the most dangerous weapons: a handful of RPO-A flame weapons the Soviets had brought to Afghanistan. The U.S. Special Forces guys in the area would pick up the rest—machine guns, RPGs and such—and put them to good use.
We made the deal and loaded up the truck. I asked our guy if he had any other weapons he wanted to discuss. “I have only a few”, he said, adding that he needed to keep to pay some pending bills. There are no banks or credit cards on the ragged edge. If a man needs money to finance his daughter’s wedding, he just sells a DShK heavy machine gun and a couple of RPGs.
On another mission, this one to the edge of the Hindu Kush north of Bagram, we headed for a hidden valley where, we were informed, large caches of very heavy weapons—including tanks and long-range missiles like SCUDs—were to be found. We stopped in a small village along the way just to limber up a bit and check out our trucks. One of our counter-intelligence agents struck up a conversation with an old man—he might have been fifty, but he looked about eighty. It took me a few moments to realize that they were speaking Russian, after a fashion. Later, Pat told me the guy had thought we were Russians, Soviets actually, who had returned. He didn’t know the Americans were in the country. He did not know that the Soviet Union no longer existed.
The ragged edge is a place most easily accessible by aircraft, but excessive use of aircraft alienates outsiders from the social and physical lay of the land. To fly over is almost necessarily to pass over what one needs to know to be successful. For others the ragged edge is a long hard ride in a Toyota Hilux, or more often by camel or donkey. The news is sometimes slow in coming, if it ever arrives at all.
In many places along the ragged edge, it isn’t nearly as unusual as it ought to be to find bodies buried in one’s yard. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the gardener and the guard of my place in Rwanda came to me one afternoon with hats in hands, but I was surprised nonetheless. That marked me as an outsider; they could just look at me and tell. In ways far more obvious than the melanin level in my skin, I wasn’t like the locals.
There were two bodies, both women I learned later. The gardener had uncovered their shallow grave while creating a patch for some corn. Both corpses showed repeated chops to the head with a machete. The guard had covered the women’s bodies with a blue tarp he found in the generator house. When I went outside, he pulled back the tarp and I looked down with a kind of detachment. It was not the detachment of an anthropologist or a forensic scientist. It was the detachment of someone weary of looking at dead bodies. Besides, on the ragged edge you do not often need to be a forensics expert to get the gist.
Two years earlier, under a similar blue tarp—this one provided by the United Nations—the bodies of seven women killed by Serbian mortar rounds or automatic weapons fire lay in a jumble in a trailer on a dirt road in Kosovo. My colleagues and I made notes about the scene for a report back to Washington. Just a week before, a man had pulled back a tarp of another trailer to show me the bodies of his wife and children, murdered and mutilated by Serbian paramilitaries. Later that winter, yet another man would pull back a blue tarp to show me the headless body in his driveway; dozens more dead were up the road in a gully, shot in the back by Serbian police. Many more had already taken to the local mosque to be counted and examined by investigators. I still have a list of their names somewhere. All of the ones I could name, I did name, inscribing their names and ages with ballpoint on a note pad.
The two women buried in my garden remained unnamed, unknown to me. I don’t have their names jotted down in a notebook with “Rwanda 2001” written on the binding. We notified the security officer at the U.S. embassy, who called the local police, who called a team whose job it was to come by and remove the bodies. Even seven years after the genocide, this sort of thing was still happening.
Something else proved as perduring: I mentally captured the image of those murdered women and stored it away somewhere in my mind. I carry it with me still today and I will continue to carry it until I, too, am in the ground somewhere. It is just one of many kindred images that can invade my mind’s eye at inappropriate moments, one of the hundreds of memories of the dead, the mutilated, the burned, the humiliated and the dishonored that stalk my dreams.
There is nothing I could have done, nothing to prevent those women’s deaths. But I wish I could have done more to memorialize them. There is no monument to their lives, no statue, no obelisk in the town square engraved with their names. Most of the people who might have wanted to do something like that are dead, too.
The ragged edge is a place where the dead often go un-memorialized, but sometimes they make a comeback. I remember lying awake in the frigid pre-dawn of Afghanistan. There in my tent, listening to the sound of generators running and aircraft returning from night raids, it was quiet; none of the other soldiers I shared it with were even snoring. I’d already been awake for an hour or so fighting the urge to run away. The Taliban had launched a few rockets toward us, but that’s not what worried me. I was awake because the dead from Kosovo and Zaire had come to talk with me.
That night it was the dead from a small farm near Podujevo. Burned Bible-black and twisted in hideous shapes, they lay under a cold rain that fell through the burned-away roof and pooled on the floor. “Do you remember us?” they asked me. “Most assuredly I do”, I answered.
Afghanistan was my third war, the third of five. But it was in Afghanistan where my brain went bad. I lost control of my mind. At night initially and later even during the day, I had wide-awake nightmares of the dead, the dishonored, the mutilated. My hands shook, my gut wrenched; I was terrified. I was able to get my work done most of the time, but when I started hiding in bunkers during the day, shaking and crying because I couldn’t make the images stop, when I screamed involuntarily at the jets flying low over the base, I knew I needed help.
I was in an airborne unit, filled with rangers and paratroopers. I knew that to admit that I was struggling would be seen as weakness, as failure. But I also knew that to continue to hide my symptoms would be to put the soldiers I was sent to Afghanistan to lead in danger. So I went to see the psychiatrist at what the Army euphemistically called the Combat Stress unit of the hospital.
When I sat down in the waiting room of the tent, the big television was showing CNN. Larry King was interviewing some faded movie star, telling everyone just how important she was. I looked at the cabinet under the TV and saw, folded neatly and stacked, straight jackets. My gut wrenched and I began rocking forward and back with my arms crossed in front of me. That’s when the shrink came out to call me back. I’m sure I made his day.
I told the doctor what was going on with my head. I told him about my time in Zaire and Rwanda, about my two years in Kosovo and what I had been doing. I told him that in the first two months of my tour in Afghanistan two Afghan civilians under the control of soldiers in my unit had died, and the coroner called their deaths homicide. I told him about the dead coming to visit me at night and lately even during the day. I said I was afraid I was going crazy. I cried.
The doctor promised to help me. We talked about medication options and therapy. He said “the system” was much more forgiving these days about mental health issues, but then he looked up from his notes to ask what level security clearance I had. It hadn’t occurred to me that the doctor had dual loyalties: his medical duty to treat me and protect me, and his duty to the service to protect it from me in my parlous condition.
If I admitted to my leadership that I was in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, I could lose my security clearance and my job. If I didn’t take the treatment I might put the lives of others at risk. I decided to take the medication but not to notify my boss. The doc apparently wasn’t required to notify anyone so long as I was in treatment and getting better. He told me to keep track of how I felt each day, so I invented an evaluation spectrum that ranged from “all right” to “vaguely not all right” to “seriously not all right.” I kept daily notes, took Prozac and went to talk with the doctor every week. In the middle of my career, in my first truly big war, I found myself along a new ragged edge—that of my own tenuous sanity.
A few months after I entered treatment I changed jobs and took on an operational assignment. I was no longer directing a hundred-plus other collectors and analysts, but out on the street as an operator myself. Things went well, except one night when I was stopped at a military checkpoint, dragged out of my vehicle and roughed up a bit by some Afghan National Army troops. I was in civilian clothes, and my vehicle had no identifying markings or diplomatic tags. After they figured out that I was a senior Army officer and U.S. Embassy official, they dusted me off and sent me on my way. I had a few bruises and a scratch on my face, but that was about it—a very benign circumstance as things go on the ragged edge.
In the fall of 2003 I came home and returned to my civilian job at the State Department. I landed in a desk job in the Bureau of European Affairs, pushing paper through the bureaucracy. I suck at bureaucracy. I lasted only three months before I volunteered to go to Iraq to debrief terrorists.
That, of course, led to Darfur—first for the Army and then immediately afterward for the State Department. I didn’t bother taking time to decompress or to get the medical care I needed, instead landing in the midst of an ongoing genocide in which 200,000 people were already dead. By the end of my first tour there that figure passed 300,000. That tour ended a few months early when my wife called to say that my mom had gone into the hospital and the doctors bade me come home. I spent the next few months sitting with her. She died on a Tuesday. I drove home to Washington on Wednesday to get a suit for her funeral. I had a lunch meeting at the White House on Thursday with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, and then drove back to Virginia Beach for her Friday funeral. I was back in the office on Monday morning.
It was all a bit too much. Within weeks I had relapsed into a serious PTSD episode. I told no one. My boss sent me on a mission with the United Nations to develop a training package for the African Union Mission in Sudan (the military mission in Darfur that I had just left weeks before). I traveled with the UN team to Kenya, Ethiopia and to Darfur. I was falling apart, drinking myself into a stupor every night and working on scenarios for the training package during the day. I had an affair, too.
I came home and admitted the affair to my wife, which was the last straw between us. We filed for divorce and I returned to Darfur, back to the ragged edge. This time I tottered between the harsh realities of the ongoing war, with my responsibilities as a reporting officer to spend time in the field with the rebels, and fighting the images from past wars appearing on the drive-in movie screen planted in my mind’s eye.
The sickening images of the dead played over and over like so much snuff porn in Technicolor and Panavision, unending re-runs of my failures to stop the fighting, of my weakness in facing the degradation of others. All the dead came back to visit, their images mingling in the waiting room of my mind with the new images and smells and tastes of the dead and wounded of Darfur.
The living stalked me, too. In Kosovo I had investigated a Serbian military attack on a small village called Senik. The facts in the case were simple: Serbian government troops used mortars to shell a small village. Many people moved out of the village and headed up into a small valley. The Serbs then shelled the civilians in the valley and swept through with infantry, killing eight women and an infant with either the mortars or small arms fire; 11 others were wounded. As I was leaving the scene a woman pressed through the crowd that surrounded my vehicle. She held her child out toward me at arms length and begged me to take the baby with me, to take the child to safety.
I refused because to do so would have put my status as a diplomatic observer at risk. It would probably have led a dozen other mothers to spontaneously seek the same desperate favor, and how could I choose one but not another? A man has only two arms. But the people in that crowd and the wounded resting in a house a few yards away turned their eyes away in sour anger at my failure to do the most humane thing on the planet—to help a child to live. They turned away from my weakness, from my cowardice on the ragged edge.
These memories of the dead, of my failures to stop the fighting, to save lives, to be a man, filled my mind day and night, ate at me, until one spring day in Darfur when I stopped by the team house for a small Special Forces element to borrow a pistol from the team sergeant. He loaned it to me because we had served together for months and he considered me to be a career professional with significant combat and operational experience. He had no way to guess what use I intended for that pistol. I grabbed a couple beers and drove out of town into the desert.
I pulled the vehicle onto a small rise outside a village and opened a beer. My mind was pinging wildly between lucidity and folly. I thought of who might be hurt by my suicide. I worried that someone would have to clean my remains out of the truck. I cried over the dead. I picked up the pistol; it felt good in my hand. Then my phone rang. I jumped a bit, startled, and nearly pulled the trigger. Had I done so, I would have shot myself in the right foot.
I looked down at the phone lying on the seat. I answered the call (it was from my wife) and scampered back from the brink. An hour later I returned the weapon to the team sergeant. A few weeks later I asked to be sent home; I was medically evacuated for mental health issues.
Back in Washington, DC, I struggled to heal. Nothing came of my evacuation immediately. I landed in an office full of introverts—the joke at the State Department is that you can tell the extroverts because they stare at your shoes while talking to you. I travelled some and tried to stay on my meds. I regularly had panic attacks on the train and in the office. I didn’t sleep much. I drank too much. I hid from visitors and left calls unanswered.
I hadn’t spent much time in Washington offices. I was accustomed to working out in the field and using field-expedient methods of getting things done. In Chad, I sent reports, eventually classified Secret, that were written on my personal MacBook Pro and sent though my Yahoo! email account over a United Nations internet connection shared by dozens of NGO workers. I did that because it was the only way to get things done in that particular province of the ragged edge.
Back in Washington I used the same thumb drive I had used on that mission to transfer a few of the documents I created in the field from one computer system to another in my office. A few weeks later Diplomatic Security agents began to investigate my suitability and suspended my security clearance. In 25 years of work in the military, in the intelligence community and as a diplomat, I had never had so much as a single minor security infraction—something like leaving a safe unlocked in your office overnight for the Marines to find. But a simple transfer of documents from one system to another in an un-approved method cost me my clearance.
Without a security clearance, I couldn’t work. I sat at home waiting for the investigation to take its course, waiting for the knock on the door and the flash of a badge. Diplomatic Security officials wield power in the State Department that is to a great degree unchecked and probably unreasonable. Senior diplomats who face down tyrants and dictators might wilt in the face of DS scrutiny. I dug into some research and learned that some of these cases play out over periods of six or seven years. That meant full employment for somebody, but not for me.
There are places on the ragged edge that are ruled by men whose stock in trade are camels, qat and Kalashnikovs. I’m good there. But there is, I learned, a ragged edge in Washington, too, often ruled by the court of public opinion, fear of failure and petty martinets. I’m not so good there. I decided to walk away rather than play the DS waiting game, so at the end of 2008 I retired from government service.
I got good medical care, some of it through the Department of Veterans Affairs after I was designated “disabled” due to PTSD. I used my GI Bill benefits to go back to graduate school. I re-married. I got a dog. Now I’m a writer and a teacher. I also run a small non-profit I founded called the Veterans Writing Project. We provide no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans and their adult family members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and at colleges and community arts centers around the country. We also publish a literary journal called 0-Dark-Thirty.
The ragged edge is still out there, and it is still populated from our side by soldiers, FSOs, NGO aid workers, reporters and a gaggle of well-meaning but sometimes clueless others. They live alongside the people whose entire lives are spent on that edge as they try to survive on razor thin profit margins from the sale of AA batteries and tea in the market outside a refugee camp; as they listen to the BBC in Pashto on a tiny, tinny radio; as they scratch out a plot of beans in a place fit only for camels, and where the rains are five years late. Godspeed to them all, to that shard of humanity we so want to help, but often can do no more for than to bear witness to their dead and despairing. I’ve done my part. I’m heading home.