The birds showed up early the next morning. Dust kicked up into our faces until the heavy, twin-rotored Chinooks had finally settled onto the dirt and rock. We loaded up and they took us away, back to Bagram.

The view during the ride out of the valley was spectacular. I sat near the rear, where the ramp was down, and watched the Afghan mountains rise behind us as we sped away. To our west we could see the decimated capital of Kabul, and farther to our west, we saw an even more amazing sight—a commercial jet landing at Kabul’s new airport. Afghanistan, despite the chaos in the southeast from which I was returning, was beginning to creep back to normalcy after 20 years of anarchy.

After we got back to the base, we settled down outside our tents and cleaned our gear. The media were hanging around the tents, asking questions of my men, and I let them. While many in the post-Vietnam military eyed the media with a wary attitude, I had come to see the reporters who told the story of what was really happening on the front lines as a positive thing. Although the modern reporter may not be as knowledgeable when it comes to the military as Vietnam-era reporters were, most are generally good people who liked talking to the soldiers. And the soldiers liked seeing their names in the newspapers, as did their families and girlfriends. Captain Rogers tried to send a few my way, but that day I wasn’t in the mood to talk. Instead, I took off my jacket and began to clean my weapon while sitting on a metal air force cargo pallet.

Before long, the battalion chaplain came along and asked me if I knew where he might find Lieutenant Exum. Since the jacket with my name and rank was off, I suppose he had no way of knowing who I was, but this chaplain was a little out of touch with the men anyway. Most battalion chaplains try to know every soldier in the battalion by face, especially the officers. I was patient, though, and introduced myself.

Once my men were a few meters away, he asked if he could have a word or two with me alone. I said sure and walked over to another tent. He followed and then nervously asked if I was the lieutenant who had killed a man the day before. I told him I was. He then launched into some nonsensical stuff about how the Ten Commandments don’t actually mean “Thou Shalt Not Kill” but rather “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” He then took things a step further and assured me that God had wanted me to kill that man.

By this point I had stopped listening. The chaplain, for all his good intentions, was seriously undermining my faith in God, which I had previously thought to be unflappable. Hearing that man say that Jesus wanted me to be in Afghanistan ending the lives of fellow humans was too much for my faith to handle at the time. I preferred to think that what I was doing was outside of God’s will, and rather one of life’s ugly realities.

I thanked the chaplain, assured him that no, I wasn’t having any doubts or emotional issues, and after shaking his hand walked back to my tent alone.

Over the next two days, I would dodge other chaplains sent down from Division to offer their comfort. It’s odd that at a time when so many of my soldiers found the Bible and Christianity to be a balm, I found them repulsive. I have always been religious, but as I explained to a pastor back home after my return from Afghanistan, when I’m in combat, I try to shut out my faith. It’s almost as if I can’t do my job the way I know it needs to be done and be a Christian at the same time. My job in that valley was a dark task, if not an evil one. I guess I don’t want to stain my faith by allowing the two worlds
to meet.

That night after we returned from the mission, I stayed up and read by flashlight. One of the books I brought with me to Kuwait and then Afghanistan was a volume by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. In it, he writes, “Whosoever would undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”

I resolved to view my own acts as inevitable. That man, I reasoned, was dead long before I stepped foot into the valley, and I was a killer long before I pumped four rounds into his torso.

I wrote a letter to the English professor at Penn who’d introduced me to Borges two years before, then turned off my flashlight.

I slept easily that night.

Reprinted with permission from This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism, by Andrew Exum C’00, published by Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2004 by Andrew Exum.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

FEATURE: A Dark Task
By Andrew Exum
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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Interview with the author:
Report from the Front
By John Prendergast