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Jeff's Afghan Diary: Deep Thoughts on a Cold November Night
November 14, 2007

      We have a remote ABP center which we travel to occasionally to train.  It’s far enough away that when we go there to train the ABP, we stay overnight.  We bring stuff with us to accommodate ourselves, such as cots, sleeping bags, a propane tank (for heating tea and coffee), MREs and bottled water, and extra ammunition.  The ABP have a room for us where we stay while there.  We’ve been there a couple times before, and the ABP who are stationed there really like having us stay with them.

      We usually bring some extra food with us, so we can all eat together as a group, ABP and US ETT.  In the past, we’ve brought canned eggs with beef, turkey sausages, and cupcakes.  This time, we brought canned hamburgers, a couple cakes, and two large cans of fruit cocktail, along with some boxes of shelf-stable milk.

      The hamburgers were admittedly the worst hamburgers I have ever eaten, reminding me of the taste of cardboard.  However, the ABP seemed to like the hamburgers.  They tore into the package like scavengers on a hunt, ignoring my pleas to wait for a bun with ketchup and mustard to improve the taste.  The ABP commander, though, waited patiently, and was rewarded with a bun full of ketchup and relish, which he much enjoyed.  “Major Tom” and I had to be content with flatbread and yellow beans, as we did not have enough hamburgers for all of us and the ABP.  For my part, I did not mind this, as I would much rather wait to eat a better hamburger than subject myself to a canned one.  The beans were good, too, so I was still happy.

      We ate by flashlight – the ABP like to eat after dark, but unfortunately they have no electricity, so we had to use what we had to see to eat.  Also, the building has no heat, except a small wood-burning stove in one of the rooms.  We ate in this room, which housed the ABP commander (rank has its privileges, even within the ABP), so we stayed warm until we returned to our own room to bundle up in our sleeping bags for the night.

      You may have heard the desert gets cold at night.  I can tell you from experience this is very true in November.  It’s been surprisingly warm over here during the daytime, with temperatures well into the 70’s, but at night, it’s been cold enough to freeze our bottled water outdoors.  This would not have been much of a problem for us, as our sleeping bags are pretty warm and the building remains warmer than outside, despite not having heat, but we could not remain indoors in the comfort of our sleeping bags all night.  We had security concerns to take care of, so each of us took turns on night watch outside.

      Night watch.  Famous paintings have been rendered of this important part of Army security.  Everyone is familiar with the job of keeping security at night.  In the Army, your life may depend on someone else doing this job well, and everyone takes it seriously over here.  After all, this is a combat zone, and one never knows if or when the enemy may try to do something.

      So I, too, took my turn during the night, roaming around our small compound to ensure all was calm and quiet.  It was quiet, all right; in fact, it was noiseless.  The only sound to be heard was the sound of my teeth chattering occasionally, or the sound of my boots crunching over the sand and dirt.  We each had a set of NVGs (night vision goggles) which lit up the countryside in an eerie green light.

      I saw some falling stars, one which lasted over five seconds.  I could make out what looked to be Mars, with its reddish tint.  A satellite lit up the sky, moving slowly and brightly overhead.  The world was cold and beautiful.

      Suddenly, while I was enjoying my solitary view, I felt something bump my leg, startling me.  I looked down to see one of the local dogs sniffing my gloved hand, wagging its tail.  I reached down, peering through my NVGs to pet the friendly dog.  After a few moments, the dog loped away, realizing I didn’t have any food for it.

      Dogs are treated differently here in Afghanistan than they are treated in America.  While Americans treat pets almost like family, Afghans treat dogs like… well, like dogs.  They shoo them off, ignore them, and generally see them as a nuisance, even if the dog belongs to them.  Perhaps this is because a dog is a competitor for scarce food.  Children do not share their food with animals here, most likely because they can’t afford to.

      Most dogs in Afghanistan are not very friendly.  They are tolerated by Afghans, but not embraced as being lovable, more seen as utilitarian: they can help with goats, and keep predators away and warn of coming enemies.  On guard duty, it isn’t uncommon to see roving packs of dogs hunting in the dark of night.  Long bouts of barking and howling are usually heard at night around villages, interrupting the silence periodically.

      This dog was different.  She seemed to like people, and apparently someone had liked her back, because she liked being petted.  She brought me a brief respite of thinking of the cold before she left, and I had to smile inside.

      Not long after the dog left, as I was again alone with my thoughts as I paced, peering into the surrounding darkness, I suddenly thought of my late grandmother (on my father’s side).  Her name was Lillian, and my youngest daughter’s middle name was named after her.  I was quite fond of my grandmother, and while I was in college I visited her frequently.  While I sometimes think of her, there was nothing in the cold dark night that should have made me think of her while on guard duty – it was unusual.

      While I was thinking of her, I felt as if she was there with me, actually present.  I have sometimes felt there is a point of psychic contact between our physical world and another world, a spiritual dimension tangential to ours.  Of course, this is unprovable, and some may be uncomfortable even thinking of this, but it’s not too far-fetched to me.  Eric Fromm, student of Sigmund Freud, theorized about a collective unconsciousness that we all share.  Perhaps this consciousness crosses between the boundaries of this world and the next.  Of course, there will always be a part of my dear grandmother within my own consciousness as well, and perhaps something stirred this feeling that night.  But for whatever reason, I felt she was with me, watching over me.  Hopefully what I am doing is something that would have made her proud.

      After a few days, we returned to Do China, where we didn’t have to take turns standing watch at night to protect ourselves.  The experience made the FOB at Do China seem almost civilized.  At least we have a heated hooch and electric lights there.

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Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.