Behind the Wheel
Lucas Robinson

Traveling west from Kandahar City into the Zharey district in July 2008, on desert bypass “routes,” knees smashing against the metal seat of the gunner’s nest across from me, I couldn’t help but train my eyes on the kid outside who seemed to be staring back: eyes, darkened with charcoal, transfixed on our vehicles as we sped past. I’m sure he was just a kid, a farmer’s son, just another boy out of school, maybe trying to make enough for a meal or two. Hard to say.

No reason to think otherwise; certainly this kid was no different than the twenty I’d passed earlier, or the hundreds I passed the week before. Thinking about it now, it’s clear that I was just overly sensitive because he didn’t appear to have any good reason to be out there, just standing in the middle of the desert.

I’m not sure I did either.

I held my breath as we passed. That seems like an odd thing to do, now that I’m home. Even us civilians – or civies as the military guys like to call us – know that holding your breath doesn’t prevent landmines from going off. I did it anyway.

We were making our way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony where international and Afghan journalists would pretend to be interested, even though everyone knew the event would be scripted from start to finish. Everyone also understood it was somehow important. It’s good to celebrate even the smallest successes during an insurgency. The opening of a regional outpost where security and development would be coordinated between the many actors in Kandahar would do.

It still didn’t seem reason enough to drive over a bomb but I’d been the one who’d insisted on going, despite the threat warnings and intelligence reports that advised against the idea.

The intelligence guys are always wrong anyway. Even though summer days in Kandahar are invariably hot and sunny, they rarely get the weather reports right. So, I figured, odds are if they tell you not to go, that’s the best day to go. We made it to the ribbon-cutting ceremony without incident. Actually, most of the human cargo fell asleep on the way. The seatbelts of the South African RG-31s that dig into your collar bone are strangely soothing after a while. They force your body to maintain a good posture and give you the (false) sense that nothing can push you around.

We arrived to the pounding sound of the M777s (M-triple-sevens) being fired off from the base, aimed at insurgent locations just ten kilometres away. The noise of these guns firing has a certain way of making you feel both secure and incredibly vulnerable at the same time. You feel safe because you know that big guys with big guns are fighting on the same side you’re on, which is comforting. Then you remember that the whole reason they’re shooting the damn things in the first place is because there are thousands of these “fucking guys with a hard-on for killing infidels” just outside the gates.

This is what we do when we don’t really understand what’s going on, whether we’re in L.A. or Kandahar: curse, shoot, and drive aggressively. At least then you’ll get to where you’re going more quickly. Or maybe you won’t get there at all, but you’ll be keeping busy, and that’s the easiest way to stay in control in a war-zone. Keep busy.

Using the bathroom at a military base is not generally a pleasant experience. The guys that are responsible for the cleaning do so with care and diligence, but that doesn’t change the facts: a few hundred men live on this base and, at any given time, probably a quarter of them have the runs. Needless to say, no one goes out of their way to spend quality time with a magazine on the toilet, the way your old uncle might do to escape his nagging wife.

On one of the hotter Fridays of the summer, I took 434 pictures of a strongman competition at Camp Nathan Smith. I sat down to edit that night, and rose from my chair two hours later, having learned a hard lesson about the dangers of a decent digital SLR camera with a rapid-fire function. I wandered into the bathroom to brush my teeth. It had cooled down outside, but the odour remained potent within. One of the younger privates I’d seen at the competition came into the bathroom and set his bath bag down at the sink beside mine. His eyes were bloodshot, his shoulders were slouched, and his right hand was in a cast.

“What happened?” I asked. “I just saw you today in that strongman competition – I was taking pictures of you carrying tractor tires around the helicopter pad.”

“I punched a hole in the wall beside the phones when my wife told me that she’d cheated on me with a guy back home.” I stared at him. What got me was not that he’d punched a hole in the wall, but that he was old enough to be married.

“That’s ok,” he continued. “I look at it as a good thing, 'cause now the guy’s friends will say that he was killed by a cripple.”

I hope that the guy who hooked up with his wife was smart enough to get out of whatever small town they lived in to avoid being badly beat up by the kid that nearly won the strongman competition. But I don’t know what came of it all back home. I know he was sent back to Canada eventually. I hope the military let him off the hook by saying that he accidentally broke his hand, rather than saying that he lost his mind because his wife cheated on him, and subsequently broke his hand.

The military is full of this problem, and evidently not dealing with it very well. Cases of assault spike in areas around military bases whenever men and women return from war, in spite of the fact that they usually spend a few days in Europe blowing off steam on their way home. It’s an issue that the civilians on the base empathise with: few have healthy love lives. Mostly because no one spends enough time in one place to develop a love life. Possibly also because we’re “emotionally removed from reality” (at least that’s what one woman I dated recently told me).

Kandahar nights can be lonely in this regard. It’s the one place that you don’t want to be when your wife tells you that the separation papers are in the mail. It leaves too much time to think about everything that you’ve ever done wrong. No matter how busy you are, at some point in the day, you’ve got to return to your bed and stare up at the bunk above you.

It’s inconvenient to be afraid of flying when you take more than seventy flights a year. I’ve tried a number of techniques to overcome it. Low-grade anti-anxiety drugs help, although they tend to leave one feeling a touch too carefree when landing at airports in the developing world and negotiating with taxi drivers who inevitably try to charge ten times the reasonable rate.

Knowing more about planes and how they work seems to help too. It’s reassuring to know when they will bank left and right, and when the wheels will come down. Some find it helpful to memorize routes, so they know when the turbulence will hit (the East Coast of Newfoundland when coming from Europe, for example). It’s also smart, I’ve learned, to look at the flight attendants’ faces for signs of panic. They never flinch. No doubt that’s part of the criteria for being hired. It always makes me feel much better.

If I’m really honest, I’d confess that it also helps to know a large number of Afghans who have no interest in being involved with suicide attacks on Western high-rise buildings. Now it’s only the Timothy McVeigh types that make me nervous. Trouble is, when you’re flying with the military, as I’ve become accustomed to, you’re generally in a tin can with very few windows. You have no sense of where you are or what lies ahead. There are no flight attendants. You can’t even pretend to be in control. As we come up to cruising altitude, and the engine slows to a speed that brings the plane out of the climb, I often wonder if we’re about to fall from the sky.

And then there’s the fact that military pilots evidently don’t get worked hard enough. The old joke, told by army types, goes something like, “Did you hear that the military was thinking of going to a four-day work week? Yeah, but the Air Force put up a fuss 'cause it would mean that they’d have to work an extra day.” This apparent restlessness seems to lead to unpredictability. More than once I’ve found myself asking the ground staff, “Why, in the middle of a desert, is a tactical landing required?”

“It wasn’t. They were just fuckin’ with you,” is the typical response.

I once flew from Kandahar to Canada’s “secret” base in the Middle East—Camp Mirage. The flight was unscheduled and, therefore, empty. It was the crew, myself, and a guy heading home on compassionate leave. No one asked what was wrong, but he seemed pretty sad until we were offered a seat up front. We smiled with boyish delight as we listened to the chatter on the radio and watched as drug runners cruised effortlessly through the Afghan desert.

As we began our descent somewhere above the Arabian Gulf, the pilot came over the main intercom, addressing those in charge below: “Tower, this is Charlie Foxtrot flight one-seven-three, requesting permission to adjust our current approach. Over.” I looked out the cockpit window, at the expansive sand ahead of us, at the runway that beckoned, at the simplicity of the landing that could have been.

“One-seven-three, this is Tower, you are cleared for tactical landing. Over,” came the response, as we banked right, then hard left, and dove to what felt like 300 feet above the desert. The plane continued to tilt left as we buzzed the tower and eventually completed the two-hundred and seventy degree turn just seconds before softly touching down.

I wasn’t at the helm of the bulky C-130 Hercules four-engine turboprop that day, but I smiled. I smiled like Maverick and Goose. Not because I was safely on the ground but because I’d just had so much fun. It’s impossible to be scared when you’re that happy.

On Friday the 13th of June 2008, Kandahar City apparently secured a place for itself in the Guinness Book of World Records. At about 8:30 pm that day, armed militants drove a tanker truck full of explosives into the front gate of Sarpoza Prison. It didn’t blow up immediately. Neighbours, who were apparently warned of the imminent danger, suggest that the triggerman was actually about 50 metres away, with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.

Forty-five minutes later, over 800 prisoners had escaped into the surrounding communities. The front gate was a hundred metres from its original position.

A friend and colleague was there that night with the Canadian Quick Reaction Force that finally arrived on the scene two hours after the initial blast. He would later describe the area to me in graphic detail, complete with stories of body parts lining the crater that the tanker truck left behind.

For a few days we all had to wear our bullet-proof jackets at night, in case the base was attacked. I don’t think many of us really thought that the insurgents would be so stupid as to attack a Western military base directly, given that they would almost certainly be slaughtered a couple hundred metres before they arrived at the gates. But they were riding high on the success of The Great Sarpoza Escape, and spectacular approaches to nation building seemed to be catching on amongst the Taliban. So we all went to the bathroom and brushed our teeth wearing flak jackets. Special moments.

In the weeks and months that followed the attack, we moved throughout the city with an eye for further attacks. We watched kids walk along the road and merchants re-open their shops. It didn’t take long actually; Afghans are in some ways too resilient for their own good. They appear to recover from nearly anything. So much so that the international community sometimes behaves as if these people can handle anything.

I listened as patrol commanders discussed threat reports saying a second tanker truck may have been stolen in the city. “Everyone should be on the lookout for suspicious looking individuals driving these vehicles in the city,” they’d tell us. Trouble is, when you’re riding in a military vehicle frequently confused for a tank, everyone looks suspicious because they’re looking at you suspiciously – they’re worried you’re going to shoot them.

We never came across the second tanker truck. That is to say, we came across hundreds but none of them with recognizable terrorists inside. Or signs plastered on the outside that read “future bomb.”

Months later, in Australia, a tanker truck passed the café I was sitting in. Without thinking I dove behind an umbrella for cover. Sprawled out on the sidewalk, I stared as the driver looked at me confused from behind the wheel.

Lucas Robinson recently completed a one-year assignment in Afghanistan where he was responsible for civilian communications at the Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Kandahar City. He is now on leave and working as a freelance writer and photographer, and as the Global Program Director for Hila Organisation for Partnerships in Education, Inc. For more information, visit his website: