Answering the Village Elder in Kandahar Province

a pantoum

We’ll get it done, although I don’t know how.
I know we promised stuff to eat and wear.
Remind him that we’re working on it now —
What broken roof did we say we’d repair?

I know we promised stuff to eat and wear,
But half our unit’s fighting in the hills —
What water pumps did we say we’d repair?
He has to wait until the fighting stills,

‘Cause half our unit’s busy in the hills.
One truck can’t bring both mortar rounds and seeds.
He has to wait until the fighting stills.
I understand his problems and his needs —

One truck can’t bring both mortar rounds and seeds!
Tell him again: our trucks can’t risk that road,
I understand his problems and his needs —
Christ, how did they manage before we showed?

Tell him again! Our trucks can’t risk that road
He repeats himself, it’s all in my notes.
Christ, how did they manage before we showed?
Apologize again for those dead goats.

— He repeats himself, it’s all in my notes!
Remind him that we’re working on it now,
Apologize again for those dead goats!
We’ll get it done. Although I don’t know how.

 

(to hear this poem read by the poet, click here)

This poem, published in Military Review in 2009, is a pantoum, a form that requires the repetition of particular lines in a particular order. Repetition seemed apt for a circumstance in which the speaker can only repeat assurances when pressed with repeated requests.

I wrote this poem after watching the opening of a documentary about a Canadian army unit in Afghanistan. The poem is spoken by a NATO soldier to a translator as she tries to reassure a village elder that she will deliver on her promises. In the video, the soldier tasked with “making friends” in a Taliban area (in the mere four months or so before the next spring offensive) is Sgt. Nicola Bascon. Hers was a worthwhile but hopeless task, as we know now, and as she seems to have understood then.

Sgt. Bascomb appears in the video to be far more poised than the speaker of my poem, whose impatience is meant to reflect the cultural conflicts and practical problems involved in winning hearts and minds, western impatience, and the difficulties inherent in conducting military operations and civic action projects simultaneously.

The video is Afghanistan: The Other War, a Frontline World documentary. It shows the futility of short-term counterinsurgency.

Could a screenwriter invent a more telling series of events than the film reports? Here is what happened.

Under pressure to repair 12 water pumps taken from the locals, and unable to get spark plugs through the usual channels, the Canadian unit at Ft. Martello tries to buy them at a market. This was not a simple trip to Home Depot.

The unit dispatched 20 soldiers in four armored vehicles on a 100 mile trip to the outskirts of Kandahar, down a road known to have experienced IEDs and suicide bombers in civilian vehicles.

They reach the truck stop market without incident, but cannot find spark plugs. After considering driving into Kandahar, they are recalled to Ft. Martello. As their doctrine requires, they fire warning shots into the road when an oncoming vehicle might be a suicide bomber. This does not win friends on the trip.

It gets worse: one warning shot causes an overloaded pickup truck to move to the shoulder as usual, but the truck overturns, and an Afghan is badly injured. He is treated by the Canadians and helicoptered to Kandahar.

The Canadians try to expand their civic action by visiting a second village, 30 miles away. But heavy rains cause their armored vehicles to get trapped in mud, and they cancel their mission in order to retrieve the vehicles and get back at Ft. Martello before nightfall.

Unable to deliver on her promise of repaired water pumps, Sgt. Bascon offers a consolation: a day of free medical care at Ft. Martello — but the villagers who arrive risk retaliation by the Taliban, and have to get frisked when they arrive. Few hearts and minds are won when the medical personnel run out of meds before all of the villagers can be examined.

The consolation prize for this disappointment is free food. One Canadian soldier is shown telling the Afghans, in English, “Share! Share! Or I’ll take it all away!” — a parenting technique of little use in these circumstances.

But wait, there’s more, and worse.

One day after the medical clinic, attending which might invite Taliban punishment for cooperating with westerners, the Canadian unit is abruptly told to close down Ft. Martello, as the soldiers are needed in combat elsewhere. The villagers are left to the tender mercies of the Taliban.

As the old story goes, for want of a nail, a horse was lost, etc. In this video, the want of a mere ten spark plugs ruined a psyops campaign, doubtless alienated locals, probably cost several Afghans their lives, made future cooperation and trust less likely, and showed once again the futility of western efforts in Afghanistan.