Dead and Dumb

By J.G.P. MacAdam

Whose soul is calling whom as he swings gently and silently in his hammock over the rows of dead soldiers? 

—Bảo Ninh

A dream anymore, a slurry of half-remembered faces, a young soldier's hopes, voices out of the dark—all that’s left of what happened, of who we were, of who died, and where, and for what. 

Trevas and I beat feet across the rock carpet. Sergeant Sands ran the other way. “Get your shit,” he said. “We’re heading out!” 

More shots echoed out of the western mountains, brown crags, barren but for the sounds of gunfire echoing off their faces. 

“Who’s shootin’ who?” said Trevas. Sergeant Sands didn’t stop to reply. It hardly mattered. 

Everyone heard the shots. The shots weren’t aimed at our base. They weren’t even arcing overhead. But their proximity, not to mention the direction they were coming from, was unusual, to say the least. 

Trevas and I stomped into our barracks, then reemerged, a sweaty half-minute later, snapping chinstraps, clipping rifles to our shoulders, tying our boots as another burst of gunfire resounded across the sun-blanched reaches of the valley. 

Everyone in Second Platoon was hustling, scrambling around the trucks, mounting guns, cranking engines into life. 

“Trevas!” called Sergeant Payne, tossing his gear onto the hood of his truck. “I need a gunner, get in!” 

Trevas hopped off the porch without so much as a second thought in my direction. I couldn’t blame him, only envied him. Nothing stokes the soul of a soldier more than shots fired

Our platoon daddy, Sergeant First Class Merter, paced between the trucks penning a hasty patrol manifest. 

“You need another gunner, sarge?” I asked him. 

“No!” he said and stalked off, pointing with his pen, counting under his breath. 

It’d been too long since the sounds of someone shooting had touched my ears—it wasn’t over already, was it? Please, fortunes and fates, don’t let it be over, not yet. And, as if in reply, the sweet clatter of another barrage called to us. 

“I’m up,” called Sergeant Payne, from the first truck. 

A thumbs-up from Sergeant Hill in the next truck. “Two-two’s up!”

I bounded off the porch. “You need a gunn—?” I said to Lieutenant Andrews but cut myself short. Schneider popped his head into the turret, smacking a belt of shimmering brass across the feed tray of his gun. 

I sprinted down to the last truck. “Sergeant Bee! Sergeant Bee! You need a gunner?” 

“No,” he said, slinging the straps of his ammo-vest over his shoulders. “I need a driver, get in. Two-two-alpha’s up!” he called to Sergeant Merter. 

Our platoon daddy marked his manifest and closed his book. Other privates like me jumped off the porch. “NO!” pointed Sergeant Merter. “I got my count! No more!” Weapons hung flaccid in hands. Faces tilted to the ground. They’d missed their chance and I thanked my lucky stars. 

“Line up!” said Lieutenant Andrews, signaling for Sergeant Payne, two-one, to take the lead. 

Hundred-pound doors slammed shut. My hand cranked the ignition—the throb of the engine through the dash, the steering wheel, into my hands, my bones. We were one, this rolling coffin and I—antennas, ammo, steel plates riven with bullet holes from previous fights, the three of us, fire-baptized occupants, test-fired weapons, and all. The squawk box exploded with chatter. “Apaches inbound, over.” “Order of movement: two-one, two-six, two—” “Turnaround! Turnaround!” The snaps of rifle fire in the background, another half-breath before they reverberated across the mountaintops to our ears. “Thirty to fifty Taliban, armed with AK-forty-sevens and RP—” The jerk of our truck, lining up behind Lieutenant Andrews. “Head out the gate, two-one. Go, go!” The saccharine stink of diesel. Zhan, the gunner up top, clanging a box of ammo into place. The world transformed into a whirlwind of tires crunching rock, turrets cranking left, right, left, right, each mounted gun pointing opposite the one before it, vehicles twisting through a dirt-serpentine. The front gate swung open. The walls vomited our convoy out onto the winding dirt road, a blue upon blue sky unfurling over our heads, and boots pressing pedals to the floor. “Sync dukes on my mark, three, two—” Sergeant Bee, mike to his ear, flicked the switch: green means go. “Lock and load!” he called up to Zhan. In reply, came the familial chug of a belt of grenades chambering into a launcher’s receiver. 

Our tires kicked up the fine dust, orange plumes churning in on themselves. I could barely make out the taillights in front of me as we vroomed through the local bazaar, heaps of timber and shanty shops blurring by. Hand-painted jingle trucks with pink poof balls dangling from their mirrors punched their brakes. Men wearing shawls and turbans and sandals darted out of our imperious way, mere inches of effervescence all that averted accidents, manslaughters. 

“It’s the engineers!” shouted Zhan, up top. 

Their convoy zipped by us, hightailing it back to base: Humvee, then dozer, then duce-and-a-half, then another Humvee. 

“Loogat those scared motherfuckers!” said Bee and, though I did not particularly like Sergeant Bee—a ballbuster in the best of moods, a no-chance-outside lifer whom the Army, in its infinite wisdom, sought to retain—still, in that moment, he and I shared the same infantry grin. 

“Head down into the wadi,” said Lieutenant Andrews on the squawk box. “ANA”—Afghan National Army—“are on their way out, over.” 

Our truck dropped, heavy on the butt, several feet into the pebbly course of a never-seen river. 

“Head up the road to Orgun-e, two-one—no, right, right, take a right!” 

“You hear anything, Zee?” called Bee. 

“Nuthin, sarnt!” 

“I hope it’s not over,” and I wasn’t sure then, nor am I now, whether I spoke those words aloud. 

Be a child, press a curious ear to a hole in the ground, the cool breath of the inside of the earth on your brow. Can you hear them? The voices out of the dark? 

An abandoned dozer marked the spot, desert-painted doors, engine dead, the spiderwebbed impact of a bullet in its glass. 

Where were they? 

I dropped my own ballistic window an inch. Only the idling of our engines, the thump of rotary wings somewhere—black, swift, and inbound to the scene. 

“Put it up,” said Bee. 

I re-clipped my window closed. 

“You hear anything, Zee?” 

“Nuthin, sarnt.” 

“Whattabout them Apaches?” 

“I hear ‘em, sarnt.” 

“You see ‘em!?” 


I looked over my shoulder, up between Zhan’s legs, past his eye-pro-clasped face: rims of charred, musty rock sliced across the sky like siege walls. The sounds of attack helicopters thumped through the hills, up, then down, turning, twisting back around. 

“The bad guys’re heading northeast,” said the squawk box. “Northwest—no, they’re splitting up.” 

“Why the fuck they shootin’ at us from over here?” said Bee. “Why ain’t they over on the border?” 

I shrugged—Hell if I know, sergeant. 

“It’s the engineers, I bet,” said Bee. “They know a soft target when they see one.” 

The engineers, so I heard, were tasked out to our area of operation to press a gravel road westward to Orgun-e, linking the backwaters of the border to the Ring Road. Everything east of our valley was mountains, speckled with timber and bomb craters, beyond which lay only more mountains and the autonomous tribal territories of Pakistan. 

“Still, they gotta know there ain’t nowhere to run to over here,” said Bee. “No trees, no hidey holes, no border, no nuthin. They gotta know, right?” 

“Shots fired!” cried Zhan. 

“Friendlies!?” said Bee. “Eh, that sound like friendlies?” 

“Think so,” said Zhan. “Sounds like Apaches.” 

A shriek followed by a deep boom resounded across the hills—definitely Apaches. 

“Hellfire!?” said Bee. “Eh, was that a Hellfire?” 

There followed the clipped bursts of machine guns—giving, then receiving. “All elements, be advised: Third Platoon’s in contact, over.” “Roger that.” “Two-seven, roger.” “Where are the ANA, over?” “Who the fuck knows.” “They’re moving northwest.” Then: “We’re moving. Turnaround, two-one. Take us back down into the wadi, take us north.” 

Our trucks protested under their own weight, but we each executed our five-point turns and waddled our way back down to the wadi-road. 

“Head over to Dunda, two-one. You should see a draw up here on our left. A little further, a little further. Keep going. Yep, that’s it—that’s it!” 

Sergeant Payne’s truck broke off to the left and became a wheeled-beetle attempting to scale a sluice of spilled beans, except they were boulders. 

“That ain’t no fucking road,” said Bee. “Where the fuck’s the LT takin’ us?” 

We each took our turn crawling up the slide, holding our breaths until our top-heavy trucks finally crested and we leveled out and continued into a pass—only shadow, tight walls and the crack of talus popping out from under our wheels.  “They got eyes on,” said the squawk box. “Whose got eyes on?” No answer. Up ahead, Sergeant Payne’s truck clomped out into the sunlight. “ANA are dismounting, over.” “TC’s tell your gunners to watch for friendlies.” “Two-two, good copy.” “Target identification, over.” I torqued my steering wheel back and forth, trying to straighten out, to miss a hole, a boulder, often failing, until the pass finally spat our truck out, too. 

We arrived in a yellow bowl of ground scooped out of the mountainside. The rim of the bowl cupped the sky, a deepened blue like it is at high altitude. Somewhere on the other side of those veils of stone, Apache attack helicopters continued to swoop and dive for the kill. A slew of shots here; a burst there. The lead truck chugged higher and higher up a winnowing path, all five of our tin cans popping out of the pass as though on an assembly line, progressing as far as we could until—the lead truck stopped. 

“Hey, two-six, two-one.” 

“What’s up, two-one? Why’d you stop?” 

“Uh, there’s a body in the road, over.” 

Worlds are born in dreams, in sparks of light cast into voids, in races molded out of clay, in womb waters and subterranean abysses, in new generations of gods dethroning their forebears. Worlds end in nightmares, in judgment days and apocalypses, in floods. 

And when the powers-that-be finally tire of our cantankerous era—of the ceaseless noise of our lives, our fiefdoms of consumption and waste—and the waters of oblivion begin to rise, too swift to flee, who will find themselves sealed safe within a reed ark? 

Who will be spared? 

We fishboned the trucks, left, right, left, right; Sergeant Payne’s truck the head with Trevas in the turret leveling the long barrel of his gun down at the body in the road. 

“Looks like he’s still alive,” said the squawk box. “I can see his chest moving.” “Get out and search him, two-one.” “Two-one, roger.” 

Sergeant P. dismounted. 

Sergeant Bee dismounted, too. 

The two of them approached the body—one, two, three, four, their steps in the parched silt. I opened my door and stepped out into the blaze, my carbine in my hands, my eyes watching over the threshold of my door, counting, their steps. 

Payne kicked at the Kalashnikov slung about the body’s shoulders, but it was slung fast. He had to bend and yank the gun off, casting it sideways. An arm flopped over the body’s face and beard. Whoever he was he wore no ammunition pouches, only a backpack and cargo pants and white high-top sneakers, now brown with dust and wear. 

Bee knelt, grabbed and rolled the body; Payne—“Clear!” 

No booby traps. 

“This guy’s still breathing,” said Sergeant P. into his shoulder-mike, hearing it in the squawk box. “Send Doc up to my position, over.” 

“Hey,” said Zhan, behind his turret-shield, “that the ANA?” He pointed up the slope to our left. 

Tiny, black silhouettes crept down from the hilltop, vaguely in patrol formation. 

“We got friendlies approaching from the south, over,” said the squawk box. 

“Must be,” I said. 

Doc Perdida came humping up from the tail of our fishbone. He flopped his heavy medic’s pack beside the body and checked for a pulse, then felt with his hands behind the man’s head, behind his shoulders, under the arch of his back, behind his knees, then up his shins, his hips, his chest, his jaws, mouth hanging ajar. No blood on his palms. Doc cut the backpack off and felt around the man’s spine. “Found the exit wound—where’s the entry?” He flung up the man’s shirt and even from several dozens of meters away I heard his—“Ugh!” A marble-sized hole was in the man’s guts, right below the belly button, the stink of something between food and feces wafting out. Everyone else kept their eyes on the ridgetops or watched as Doc rummaged through his medic’s pack for bandages, a saline bag, IV-tubing, as though the mountainsides were the seating and the silt the stage of a spontaneous amphitheater. 

“You gonna save this guy?” said Bee, but Doc was too bent upon his task to acknowledge or grant a reply. 

“Yeah, looks like ANA,” said Zhan. 

I twisted my gaze left again. 

The Afghan army schlepped in all their glory down to our position, their knees buckling from the steep grade. Most wore no helmets. Some carried their guns in their hands like briefcases, others slung them over their shoulders. A few braved the mountainsides with laces dangling from their hand-me-down boots. 

“Definitely ANA,” I said. 

One Afghan soldier came right up to me, the bandana on his head soaked in sweat. “Hey,” he said and smiled a set of perfect white teeth, one of his cheeks cupping into a dimple. “Hey,” I replied, wondering if we weren’t the same age, twenty-two, maybe twenty-three, judging by the sparseness of his mustache, the roundness of his deltoids, over which he braced a submachine gun. We regarded one another, a heartbeat of a moment. He wore no Kevlar or chest plates. He hunched behind no armored door. He stood freely, almost casually, in a warzone in his ill-fitting boots, as though strolling through a rose garden in Kabul. Did he not realize there was a body in the road—death, or the act of dying, happening right in front of us? Of course, he did. He tipped his chin in the direction of the scene. 

I torqued my gaze right again, right as the commander of the ANA strutted into our fishbone with the gumption of a bronze-age hero, a fierce point to his beard, a black beret taut over his black hair, a Kalashnikov held against his hip, and with which he proceeded to spray a burst of five or six rounds across the body in the road. 

“Whoa!” Sergeant P. fell back on his ass, sand pelting him in the face. 

“Ceasefire!” Sergeant Bee raised his rifle. “Ceasefire!” 

Doc had also flung himself backward, averting his face. 

“You hit!?” said Sergeant P. “Doc, you hit!?” 

Doc did not answer. He recovered, apparently not hit, and pressed his fingertips into the man’s neck. The body had made no movement, not so much as a twitch, even with two or three fresh holes blown through him. 

“Holy shit-monkeys,” breathed Zhan. 

Neither Zhan, nor I, for that matter, had ever seen a man go from alive, if barely living, to dead within the flash of a second. I wasn’t sure how to process it, nonetheless how Zhan would process it. Zhan, who collected Pokémon cards, drank juice boxes, and watched an obscene amount of illegally downloaded pornography, even by Army standards. Is this what we’d hoped for when we signed up and chose, of all options, combat arms? 

“Fuck!” Doc ripped the needle out of the body’s arm, the IV-tube whipping through the air and snagging on his helmet. He re-cinched his pack, flung it onto his shoulder, and marched back to his seat in the tail of our fishbone. “I don’t why I fucking bother!”—IV-tube trailing in the dirt. 

“Damn,” said Zhan. “You think that guy’s really dead?” 

“Hey!” The dimple-cheeked ANA soldier tapped me on my back plate, stirring me out of my trance. 

“Hey,” I said back at him. 

He smirked, dancing his eyebrows up and down, chinning towards his commander. 

What?—I gestured. What do you want from me—a Hell yeah! or a Git some! or how about a Greetings and salu-fucking-tations

Lieutenant Andrews double-timed it up to the scene, passing Doc and towing Rashid behind him. “Hey! Hey! What the fuck is going on!? You hit, Sergeant P.? Anyone hit?” No one, except the body, was hit. “Ask him—” Lieutenant Andrews spoke to Rashid but pointed at the ANA commander. “Ask him just what the fuck he thinks he’s doing.” 

Translations commenced, a heated back and forth between Rashid and the ANA commander. The latter rebutted loudly, beating his chest and hellbent, apparently, as time wore on, upon delivering an oration worthy of dactylic hexameter. 

In the meantime, Sergeant Bee strolled over to the castoff Kalashnikov, cleared it, inspected its characteristics. Sergeant P. took a knee and wiped the sand out of his eyes. Close call. From friendly fire, no less. But it wasn’t Sergeant P.’s first, nor would it be, I figured, his last. He was a lifer, like Bee, but unlike Bee, Sergeant P. rose quickly through the ranks, each new deployment bringing him ever-increasing roles of responsibility, and paychecks. Trevas sat back in his turret, depressed, bored, probably both. When it came time to redeploy, Trevas would try to hide the tail of an exploded RPG-round he’d collected after a firefight in his duffel bag, only to have it uncovered by customs and tossed into the amnesty box. No harm, no foul. Seems the booty of 21st-century American warfare materializes only in one reliable form: money, and perhaps a little reverence from thy fellow countrymen via a kickass story you tell in a bar or from behind a pundit’s podium, but mostly money.  

Money via (1) promotion, (2) hazardous duty pay, which doubled even a private’s income, (3) veteran’s disability payments, or, perhaps, later on, if lucky and literate, (4) a book deal for your adrenalin-charged, firsthand-account military memoir. 

“Hold on, hold on!” Lieutenant Andrews interrupted the ANA commander’s speech. “What’s he going on about?” 

“He, uh, he say—” Rashid was cut off again by the ANA commander. “He say, uh, he say I kill him, I kill him, I am glad to kill him, uh, I kill him and everyone, uh, everyone knows who kill him.” Rashid and the ANA commander parsed words again, questioning and responding with far more syllables than Lieutenant Andrews had asked for. “Uh, he say, he say I kill him because he kill my comrades, he is a bad man—sorry, he is a bad Muslim, he is not a Muslim, only another Muslim should kill a Muslim. Your helicopters shot him but I kill him, he deserved to die, but you Americans only kill from far away, nobody knows who kills anybody, nobody knows who to blame, you have no honor. If, uh—he say, if this man’s family wants, uh—how you say?—blood vengeance, yes? If this man’s brothers want vengeance, then they know who to come look for.” 

Lieutenant Andrews shook his head back and forth. “That’s not how we do things,” as though speaking to a towering toddler. “That’s not how America does things.” 

Strings of Dari recommenced firing back and forth, until Rashid finally answered, “Sir, he say, this is not America,” and with that the ANA commander considered the conversation over. Not waiting for a reply, he marched over to Sergeant Bee and snatched the Kalashnikov out of his hands before Bee even knew what was happening. He shot a single phrase out of his mouth, something to the effect of—“This belongs to me” before waltzing away. 

I dream, and in my dream, corpses clog a river. They heap upon the banks and make a marsh of flesh. Still, the river rises, until it overflows its banks, and a soup of limbs and bloated carcasses slathers the fields; inundating the papyrus stands and the hips of palms; drowning the land but nourishing it, too; in time, transforming desert sand into black loam, rich with goodness. 

Always in the underworld, in the realm of dreams, the hollow space inside of the earth we go to only when we sleep or when we die, there flow rivers of dead. 

In the Egyptian Duat, we find a river of drowned souls—a particularly unfortunate end for a people who traditionally embalmed their dead. Re, a god who is the sun, crosses this river of drowned souls on his nightly journey through the underworld. 

Every dusk, Re dies, sinking beneath the ground. And every dawn, he is reborn, rising out of darkness. To return from west to east, Re must traverse underground lakes and cross through the twelve gates of the Duat, the twelve hours of night. In the eleventh hour, the hour of renewal, Re faces off against, and defeats, Mehen, an ouroboric serpent-demon encircling the whole of the cosmos. Mehen then, opportunely, lends Re a ride upon his scaly spine to the twelfth gate, to Re’s final hour of rebirth. 

In this, the Amduat myth, in its repetitions and retellings, chiseled and painted across the walls of multiple pharaoh’s tombs, we find the inevitability of darkness swallowing light, and the surety of light blossoming anew. Somewhere, on the other side of death, we find life. 

“You hear ‘em anymore?” said Zhan. 

“Hear what?” I said. 

“The Apaches?” 

I tilted one ear towards the summits for a moment. 


“Me neither.”  

It was over. The enemy neutralized, as they say. The Apaches had flown back to their coop in Gardez, or Bagram, or wherever, whatever distant airbase they called home, while we, on the ground, as close as close gets, were stuck mopping up the mess. There were piles of bodies, apparently, on the other side of the mountain. Two additional platoons were called upon to deal with the mass conundrum, whereas our platoon, on our side of the mountain, was stuck with only one: What to do with our dead body? 

The answer came down to us: “Tie it up and haul it back to base, over.” 

I don’t recall where a white sheet was found. The ANA’s gaggle of Hilux trucks had already crawled up the same pass we had come through, retrieved their dismounts—to include their commander, with his latest battle prize—then promptly made dust out of the road back to base. Only our platoon remained. Though no one wanted a corpse, nonetheless such a stinky one, shoved inside their truck. So, we broke out a stretcher and a confounding white sheet from somewhere—unwilling to waste a body bag on a bad guy, I suppose—and we bungie-corded the sheet over the body, the body to the stretcher, the stretcher to the hood of Sergeant Merter’s truck. 

We made our way back to base, all eighteen occupants plus one. 

Driving through the bazaar, every shopkeeper, timber trader, and ragamuffin child gawked at our gruesome little parade. A cordon of faces out of the ochre dust. They knew full well what billowed under our white sheet. The locals had heard the shots as well as anyone. What did they think of us, their resident foreign military presence? 

We dumped the body—stretcher and all—in the dirt on the ANA-side of base, before retiring to our side of base to repark our trucks and peel off our body armor before grabbing dinner chow. More bodies followed. 

Amenhotep II would’ve been eligible to enlist in the United States military, with a waiver. He was only seventeen, or thereabouts, barely fit to drive a car, when, as king of Egypt, he led his first punitive military campaign. The campaign took him to the northern rim of his empire—to old Canaan, Phoenicia, Palestine, Syria, or Tekshi, the name that the Egyptians gave to the cultivated valleys and cedar forests leading inwards from the coast. 

Fourteen centuries before Jesus preached, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Amenhotep II came to this very same region, bearing a fleet of ships, an army of charioteers, platoons of infantry, and his mace. Seven Tekshi tribes had risen up in rebellion. Perhaps they were tired of shipping tribute to a faraway king, the so-called Son of Re. Perhaps they were justified in their defiance of a despot. 

Any head-of-state, even despots, must demonstrate their fitness for office—their ability to uphold ma’at, or the order of the universe. And Amenhotep, as newly-crowned emperor, was eager to prove himself. He met the Tekshi rebels head-on and swiftly defeated them, sacking their villages, forcibly removing their inhabitants, deporting many thousands as living booty back to Egypt. However, for the seven Tekshi chieftains, the leaders of the rebellion, Amenhotep II had other plans. 

In many a hieroglyph, or stela, we find repeated across the centuries, from the Old Kingdom to the New, a single legitimizing image: the figure of the pharaoh raising a mace over the head of a captive enemy. 

It was tradition. 

Amenhotep brained all seven chieftains, most likely committing the ritual execution himself. He was a strong lad, given to footraces and horse training, one strike with the royal mace was probably all it took. The enemy’s blood lay splattered over the sands, the meaty pulp of their heads a testament to his rightfulness to rule. Amenhotep then tied each of the seven bodies to the prow of his ship and sailed them back to Egypt, up the Nile to Thebes, where he hung six of the bodies from the city walls. He severed their left hands and hung them on the walls, too. 

“Now, these people from Tekshi,” Amenhotep II wrote in a message to one of his generals, “are worthless—what are they good for?” 

The seventh chieftain’s body, Amenhotep sent further south. Down, down, down, up the Nile to the southernmost reaches of the Egyptian empire. To the kingdom of Kush, in Nubia, the perennial punching bag of the Egyptian military machine, whose people the Egyptians often referred to as “evil ones” or “evil-of-character.” There, Amenhotep II displayed the seventh cadaver for all to see. 

Americans: 0

Afghan allies: 1 twisted knee

Enemy: 21 deader than dead

Or the scoreboard could read: 

Americans: 20 dead bad guys

Afghan allies: 1

Enemy: 0

Whatever your means of measure, it was a massacre. There were zero casualties on the American-Afghan side and on the other, not a single bad guy escaped with their life. They had nowhere to escape to. No Pakistani airspace, no border to stop the Apaches from circling, and recircling, until each blob of warmth on the screen lay motionless. 

“They shoulda known better,” said Sergeant Bee, over dinner chow. “You play dumb out here, you end up dead. Ain’t that right, Mac?” 

“Dumb and dead, sarnt.” 

“Ain’t that right, Zhan?” he called through his chili mac to the next table. 

“Hooah, sarnt! Dead and dumb!” 

Though it’s not fair to focus on someone else’s mistakes without also drawing a bead onto your own. How many years did America attempt to democratize Afghanistan? War surprises all of us, every time. Even master planners—generals, politicians, think tanks—even they cannot predict the thing. 

In memory, in the black circling mortality of Apache attack helicopters, in their bristling fatality, I hear the lynchpin of the military might of an empire. Death from above. From nuclear blasts stripping the skin off children to shock and awe over Baghdad—sky power, time and again, neuters America’s enemies. You wonder what their names were, the pilots of those Apache attack helicopters. Or why the technological monstrosities were named after a previously vanquished foe of the United States, so many sacrificed and so much more than land stolen in the name of manifest destiny. Then again, I check myself. I don’t want to know the pilot’s names, even if the fight could’ve gone very differently for those of us on the ground without their support. I don’t want to speak their names, or my own, without also knowing, and speaking, theirs, too. 

Some days later, about to embark on another routine mission to set up a vehicle checkpoint, or meet-and-greet with elders, or hand out humanitarian aid, we stopped, all of Second Platoon, on the ANA-side of base. The bodies were still there. Twenty-one corpses in three rows. Something of an open-air morgue, reminiscent of a Zoroastrian sky burial, or dakhma, a medieval tower of silence after a plague had swept through. We perused the corpses like parishioners at an art gallery, commenting on their uncanny resemblance to wax figures, pointing out one’s utter facelessness, another’s exposed insides, tangled and meshed with dirt. I found myself studying the crooked, rigor mortis fingers on one, the half-lidded, upturned eyeballs of another, the complete lack on yet another—where did his eyeballs go? The grains of sand choking each of their beards, their mats of hair, flecking their eyelashes. But—what corpses were these? No less than our own. Many wore cargo pants, jackets, some form of ammo-carrying equipment, their weapons long since confiscated. I counted the teeth in their propped-open mouths, those who still had mouths, or jaws, or anything left of a throat. I imagined their smiles. The familiar gap in one individual’s front teeth. The proud luxuriousness of another’s beard. The happiness of another in the Western-style hiking boots he was able to afford, before embarking upon his fateful mission to kill infidels. (Though fate’s not supposed to exist in this day and age, is it?) I imagined the crew of them hiking those sunburnt crags to the west, joking with one another, sharing cold, skimpy meals, spooning in their sleeping bags on frosty nights, not unlike ourselves, lending a helping hand on a particularly steep path, kneeling to pray together. Did they know they walked through death's grey lands? And in their moment of death, as the Apaches circled, and circled, and circled again, did they peek through the veil of this world into the next? Or did they just die, and turn to jerky meat in a dirt box? 

“This one’s Chechen,” said a man. I had not seen the man before. He was CIA, someone told me later. He wore a beard, a black t-shirt, and a pair of Oakley’s. I never saw his eyes. He’d come up from Shkin, the Special Forces base, to inspect the bodies. He kicked the tip of his boot-toe at the corpse our platoon had hauled in. “This one’s got papers in Russian on him, a passport, and the cut of his beard, with the upper lip shaved like that, reminds me of a Chechen. While this one,” the Spook kicked at the next corpse, the lower half of both legs stripped clean of flesh, “is Egyptian, I think.” 

“No shit,” said Lieutenant Andrews. “How you know that?” 

“He had plane tickets in his knapsack, flew from Cairo into Islamabad.” The Spook flicked a Ziploc baggie of paraphernalia he’d collected. “Those ones over there are Saudis, this one Kashmiri, that other one Indonesian, or maybe Malaysian. The only Afghans in this bunch might be those two over there. But they might be Pakistanis, too. One of ‘em had a Pak-mil I.D. card on him, though I can’t confirm it was actually him, seeing as he’s, well, not looking his best at the moment.” The Spook snorted and wiped away the spit foaming in the corners of his lips, not realizing he was still wearing the purple latex gloves he’d fished through the corpses’ pockets with. 

I spotted Trevas, to my left, treading gently through this secret garden of corpses, and Zhan, and Doc, and a half-dozen others from Second Platoon. No one spoke a word. Sergeant Merter, when asked why he hadn’t stepped out of his truck to see the bodies, would later say, “I don’t need the memories.” 

“They’re probably handlers, I figure,” the Spook continued, “like coyotes, y’know? They needed locals to smuggle ‘em over the border.” 

“So, were these guys Taliban?” asked Lieutenant Andrews. 

The spook frowned and shook his head, tucking his thumbs under his vest. “No—no Talibs here. Most of these guys aren’t from Afghanistan or some madrassa on the border. They’re from the modern world, from places like you and me. Hell, they’ve probably eaten at a McDonald’s once or twice in their lives. Listened to Beyoncé. Most of ‘em could read and write—I got some of their Qurans right here. I saw stuff from Abu Dhabi on one, Doha on another. No, they’re not Talibs. Most Talibs can’t read, nonetheless write, and most Talibs would’ve fucking known better.” 

“Huh—then, who were they?” 

“Crazies,” said the Spook, at long last peeling the purple latex gloves off of his hands, tossing them on the nearest corpse. “Brainwashed jihadists ambushing what they thought was a soft target, only they didn’t realize we’ve got air support within thirty mikes anywhere in this valley.” 

“Well,” said Lieutenant Andrews, “if martyrdom’s what they wanted, they got it.” 

Listen carefully now, cup your hands over your ear—don’t mind the smell, it’s only the eternal reek of the damned. Listen. Can you hear them, the voices out of the dark? Their soft treading through Twilight Lands, wailing in silence, if only anyone could hear them. 

When Aeneas descends into the underworld, in Virgil’s Aeneid, among the very first things he hears are the moans and laments of those denied their last rites. Those whose bodies lie unburied, tombless, submerged in some unhappy accident or washed upon some forgotten shore. No sprinkled holy water, no pennies on the eyes, no weeping brethren or chiseled urn for remembrance. Charon, the boatman—who, thirteen centuries later, in Dante’s Inferno, is recast as a demon with eyes of burning coals—shoos away the unlucky souls with his oar. If their corpse is shown no respect, no ablutions, then, in death, their soul is denied passage across the black waters of Acheron, forced to wander the shifting gray sands of the near bank, lamenting their poor fate. 

“This is a land for the shades,” says Charon to the yet-living Aeneas, a hero from Troy recast to become the founder of Rome, “and for sleep, and for night that brings numbness.” 

Virgil, in spirit and character, is in turn resurrected by Dante to guide the latter through a synthesis underworld of Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian characters—or Hell, as so many, to this day, still imagine it. In Dante’s vision of the penal half of the afterlife, the river Acheron reappears as a “marsh of ruined souls” and Styx as a stew of bodies condemned to wallow and gnaw on one another, sinful of wrath in their former lives. Phlegethon is a stream of boiling blood. Lethe, as Aeneas previously found, is a river of forgetfulness “flowing on past dwellings of calmness. Peoples and nations, too many to count, seethe all around, swarming” upon the banks of Lethe like honeybees to flowers. Aeneas is told that they must drink of the white waters of Oblivion, “So, with their memories wholly erased, they can walk beneath heaven’s dome yet again and begin to desire to go back into bodies.” Contrastingly, in Dante, Lethe carries a tributary and explicitly Christian purpose. The waters of Oblivion wash memory and sin from the damned souls crowding the topmost ring of Hell, then it carries the washed-away sin down, down, down into the Pit. Lethe delivers sin into Hell, where, in Dante, all rivers flow in one direction—to the abyss, into the bottom-most Cocytus, “whose ice holds Judas and Lucifer in its grip.” 

Dreary nothings, eh? Classical bullshit. Hearing Dante, in translation, describe a babbling red rill running its zig-zag course through the Wood of the Suicides, dropping steadily down, flume to flume, steaming like a hot spring, you can’t help but be struck by the dreadful gorgeousness of this dead man’s depiction of the worst place in the universe. Might plan a visit myself, sometime, when the weather’s nice. Take a spin by the Ninth Ditch and see what’s happening with the Prophet Muhammad these days—still split open for being a heresiarch, I see. Nothing changes. 

None of it’s real, is it? It’s all fantasy. A phantasmagoric dreamscape. Pure wish-fulfillment. The wicked are punished; divine justice exists; everyone, no matter how rich, or powerful, or smart, answers for their sins; those who live by the sword not only die by the sword they’re fiendishly mutilated by demons, again and again, forever. 

On their tours through the underworld, whether Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante or Keanu Reeves in Constantine, the dead entreaty them—“See to it, that once your back topside, my body’s given a proper pyre.” The dead greet them—“My son! My son! Have you really come to see me?” The dead bear wisdom—“I’d rather live one more minute as a poor slave back on Earth, than rule as a king in Hell.” The dead speak, and always their voices warn the yet-living      or ask for offerings, or for remembrance, or demand the living seek vengeance for a wrongful demise. 

If you or I had the opportunity to question our loved ones beyond the grave, what do you imagine they’d say? And—our enemies? 

“Sleep opens twin double doors,” says Virgil, when his hero, Aeneas finally comes to the end of his subterranean journey. One door “grants an easy exit for real ghosts.” The other door brings dreams which deceive, which cannot be made real. In other words, a dream, or a ghost, might be real, might be acceptable at face-value, fulfilling, and material. Then again, it might not. Dreams are finicky things, particularly when the dead pay you visit in them, or summons. 

“What will they do with the bodies?” I asked Lieutenant Andrews on our way back to the trucks. 

“Burn ‘em,” he replied, “like we’ve done before.” 

We killed many, many bad guys in our time in Afghanistan. Of those whose bodies we managed to collect before the enemy could, we either dumped them at the local mosque or torched. Or rather, the Afghan soldiers ultimately in America’s pay and employ torched. No ritual washing of the deceased’s body, no wrapping in white sheets, no ablution, no last rites recited in holy Arabic. Onto the bonfire, each. I remember watching the smoke from the U.S.-side of base. We made the ANA burn them, like a Hindu on the Ganges, or Achaeans on their pyre, or Westerners choosing an urn over a coffin. No Antigone here. “No aces in the deck,” the Spook had concluded. No high-priority transport to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf for these cadavers, no publicized takedown, no step-by-step graphics of the raid, or ambush, or subsequent turkey shoot. Their names vanished into a plastic baggie, and were probably burned, like their bearers, once the Western intelligence community had no use of them anymore. 

I think of him, sometimes—the Chechen. I try to imagine him as a baby, cradled in his mother’s arms, suckling on a bottle. I try to imagine his name called from a kitchen window, a sister scampering through the streets searching for her brother. I imagine mother and sister waiting, going about their days, always a look over their shoulder, hoping he might reappear, some year, striding up the sidewalk to their door. How often they must dream of his smile, the fine grey strands of his beard, the weariness of the world in his eyes, the press of their body to his and all the distance of years vanished in a single embrace. 

About the author

J.G.P. MacAdam is the first in his family to earn a college degree. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in or is forthcoming from The Colorado Review, The Atticus Review, Consequence, JMWW, and Pithead Chapel. You can find him at

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The Lost Summer