The Power of a Dead Man’s Weiner
This post isn’t just to tell a story. It’s to ask a question. I’m going to describe an odd experience I had in Afghanistan, and ask if anyone can help explain it.
No joke, there I was, sitting around doing nothing on my firebase. We were enjoying a nice slow day inside the wire, surrounded by the natural beauty of Northeastern Afghanistan. Some days we wanted to go out and get into a fight, some days we just wanted to relax and enjoy the scenery. This day was intended for us to do nothing but enjoy being alive. Then someone’s phone rang and screwed it up.
A local Afghan businessman called an Afghan Army officer in panic. The businessman’s road construction crew was under attack. Two of his truck drivers had been taken hostage and their trucks set on fire. Less than five kilometers from our firebase, a firefight was raging between Taliban and the construction crew’s security team.
The Afghan government and US-led coalition have been trying for years to improve the road network in Afghanistan. The thinking is, if the roads are better Afghan merchants will have an easier time moving their goods to markets, which leads to more prosperity among the population, which means fewer Afghans have a reason to fight. Prosperous people generally aren’t compelled to pick up a rifle and attack those who are helping them become prosperous. So the plan made perfect sense. On paper.
In reality, there are many problems with the plan. The Taliban don’t want the population to have any reason to support the coalition, so they constantly attack road crews. For a variety of reasons, legitimate and illegitimate, Afghan businessmen who build the roads constantly ask for more money than what they were promised in the contracts. Then enterprising thugs and wanna-be warlords tell the businessmen, “You better pay me xxx dollars per month, or I’ll have my fighters kill your workers.” Security teams armed with AKs and belt-fed machine guns have to protect the road workers at all times.
This attack was by a local Taliban cell. American helicopters headed toward the firefight, followed by Afghan soldiers and their American mentors. Our helicopters scared off the Taliban, and when the ground troops arrived they found two smoldering trucks, thousands of spent shells, and a group of terrified construction workers. Plus, they found one minor item the Taliban had left behind.
A dead Taliban fighter had been abandoned by the cell. This was unusual, as the Talibs almost always recover their dead. This guy had been killed on an exposed spot, so his buddies couldn’t get to him. Afghan soldiers tossed his dead carcass in the bed of an Army pickup and brought him back to our firebase.
I was waiting with a camera when they arrived. Seeing an actual Taliban fighter was kind of a big deal. I had been in several firefights, had been shot at by multiple enemy, but had never actually seen one. When Afghan soldiers parked the truck in the middle of their compound, we crowded around in eager anticipation. There were maybe ten Americans there, twenty or so Afghans. We stared intently into the truck bed.
The dead Taliban lay on his back, eyes dull and half open like the eyes of every dead man I’ve ever seen. He was a little guy, maybe in his early twenties, with dark hair, eyes and beard. He wouldn’t have looked out of place on the west side of San Antonio.
He wore an Afghan Army uniform over a traditional Afghan salwar kameez, which we called a “man dress”. The top is like a long sleep shirt, the pants are MC Hammer style with a drawstring. Typically, Afghan men don’t wear underwear under their man dresses. This would become important a few minutes later.
The uniform came from a local bazaar. Taliban fighters wear Army uniforms to trick their enemies, then discard them and mix in with the population. This guy wore cheap plastic sandals instead of boots, so even with the uniform he wasn’t fooling anyone.
I started taking pictures for our intelligence section, and noticed that the guy’s uniform had a bullet hole in the chest and another through a sleeve. He had bled very little. Some security guard had hit him just right with an AK and shut him off instantly. No thrashing around or bleeding out for this guy.
Two American medics were in our group. For some reason that I never bothered to ask about, they decided to do a little field autopsy on the dead man. They weren’t going to cut the guy open or anything, but to see the wounds they had to disrobe him.
The two medics unbuttoned the corpse’s uniform top and tugged it off, then pulled the pajama top over his head. It wasn’t easy to undress him. Dead people are extremely uncooperative. The Afghans stood in silence, watching the show. None said a word. I wondered if they were going to be angry about Americans handling a dead Afghan, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The medics unbuttoned the fly on the dead man’s uniform pants. No reaction from the Afghan soldiers. They untied the string on his MC Hammer pants. The Afghans didn’t flinch. The medics pulled the waistband open. Didn’t bother the Afghans a bit. The medics each grabbed one side of the waistband. One asked the other, “Ready?”
The Afghans stood like stones, solid and impassive. They had to have known what was about to happen. There was no sign they had a problem with it. Then the medics violently yanked the dead man’s pants to his knees, exposing his junk.
Twenty wails, the Dari equivalents of “Oh my god!”, tore the air. Afghan soldiers scattered like a rocket had just landed in their midst. Boots kicked up dust trails as they sprinted away at Olympic speeds. I’ve seen Afghan soldiers under fire move slower than that.
The medics froze. We Americans looked at each other in confusion and asked “What the f**k just happened?” The wailing changed to what sounded like angry curses in the distance. We couldn’t ask our interpreters what the Afghans soldiers were saying, because the interpreters had run away too.
A minute later one soldier came back, holding a white plastic sheet before him like a shield. He kept his head turned as far to the side as he could, and navigated by briefly opening one eye every few seconds. We watched him snake his way to the truck, desperately trying not to see the dead weiner. He reached the tailgate and aimed the plastic sheet as carefully as he could without looking at his target. Then he draped the plastic over the man’s midsection, turned and speed-walked away.
To say the least, I was puzzled by the Afghans’ reactions. We’re grown men. All males in the US military have seen other men naked in communal showers. I had never thought about it before, but I assumed Afghan Army soldiers shower in groups like we do. Did they freak out because they saw another man naked? Or was it because he was a Taliban?
Eventually the medics finished their examination and pulled the man’s pants back up. The Afghan company commander, the same guy who had thrown a land mine at me a few months earlier, angrily approached me. He asked me in English, “Did you take pictures of that man when he was naked?” I hadn’t, and told him so. He didn’t believe me. I had to explain that the pictures were for intelligence, and then show them to him. He was still angry when he walked away.
That confused me even more. I mean, this dead guy was Taliban. He would have killed every one of the Afghan soldiers if he had a chance. Talibs had killed several Afghan, French and American soldiers during the previous year. I didn’t get why Afghan soldiers would be so upset about the medics stripping this guy. It’s not like they somehow desecrated the body.
Less than an hour later, a Taliban fighter called the Afghan battalion commander and said, “Give us back the body of our commander Mohammed Jan [not his real name] and we’ll give you back the two kidnapped truck drivers.”
This was surprising. Not that Taliban would call an Afghan Army officer, because their senior officers could be a lot like politicians, trying to forge treaties and make peace with their enemies. What surprised us was that this guy was a commander. I had never heard of him, and I pretty much knew who the key Taliban players in the province were. This guy must have been a new commander who was killed leading his first attack.
Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters made the exchange later that day. I expected the meeting to turn into a firefight, but the trade went off without incident. That evening, I finally had an opportunity to ask a local Afghan interpreter what the hell had happened when the medics pulled the dead man’s pants down.
The interpreter answered, “It is forbidden to see another man’s penis. If an Afghan man sees another man’s penis, he must take a shower.”
I waited for more explanation, but there wasn’t any. I walked away from the interpreter still confused, and to this day still don’t see what the big deal was. Having to take a shower can’t be so bad Afghan men flee in terror at the mere possibility of one. And the visceral, anguished reaction they showed had to have been about something more serious than showering.
On top of that – and I have to tread carefully here – you could say many Afghan men aren’t exactly unfamiliar with other men’s penises. A lot of myth and urban legend is floating around about rampant homosexuality in Afghanistan, but so is a lot of documentation. The chai boy isn’t a myth; young, effeminate Afghan teenage boys were assigned as servants to senior Afghan officers on my firebase. Despite their title, chai boys don’t just serve tea.
There was an awkward moment one afternoon when one of our sergeants went to an Afghan colonel’s office and interrupted a little intimate time between the colonel and his chai boy. There was the local Afghan interpreter who talked incessantly about all the women he had been with, but later propositioned a baby-faced male Navy Corpsman. There was another interpreter who seemed totally straight, but then got a look of rapture when he met a young French Marine. There was the time I walked into an Afghan Army building and had a chai boy freeze in his tracks, look at me with lust in his eyes and try to start a conversation in Dari. I was 38 with a full beard, so I can only hope he wanted me to be his master, not his servant. I don’t even know what a chai boy squared is.
What I’m getting at is, the Afghans seemed pretty comfortable with their type of homosexuality. I’m not criticizing it. It just is. Whatever they do with each other sure as hell didn’t make them less brave or capable as soldiers. I just don’t get how they can be so into man on man action, but then go insane with anger when they see a harmless weiner. I guess I could have asked for a better explanation when I was there, but maybe I thought it was better left alone.
Can anyone enlighten me on this?
Filed under: Afghanistan | 15 Comments
Tags: Afghan culture, Afghanistan, taliban