Recently I flew from Afghanistan to the Netherlands along with some Dutch troops going on R&R for two weeks. A day later, I traveled to Paris to promote a book. The difference could not have been bigger.
Seated in the apartment of my French publisher on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, I had a conversation with a young journalist in a mixture of French and English. It was about a novel I had written more than four years ago.
I still very much wanted to speak about my experiences of the last two weeks. But there was no Afghanistan in the novel. Twice I tried to use the war there as a metaphor. I could see the bewilderment in her eyes.
Apparently she had not been able to finish the book; at a certain moment she asked, íExcuse me, but does your book end in Afghanistan?”
íNo,ë I said. íNot this book.ë
Shortly after this, she left the apartment, and I went to my room to check my e-mail. The newspaper for which I had written articles from Afghanistan had sent me a message. Going to a war zone was an intense experience, they said, and if I wanted to speak about it to someone it could be arranged discreetly.
It was the first time in my life that the newspaper, for which I have worked since 1994, has offered me such help. Even though the offer was camouflaged, there was no doubt about it—help was offered.
íNo,ë I wrote them back. I almost used all caps. íI’m fine.ë
Book promotion comes with lots of social obligations—not always unpleasant—so there was not much time to reflect on the e-mail and the weeks I’d spent in the Afghan province of Oruzgan.
But my last night in Paris, I was having dinner alone. While eating some sushi I thought about Niels, a captain who I met in Oruzgan.
One day we went on a foot patrol. Niels had said, íIt’s monkey see, monkey do. If I kick you to the ground, it’s not because I despise you.ë
After thirty minutes of walking, we sat down against a wall in the sun. Niels said a few words about his time in Afghanistan.
War is hell, no doubt, but war is also the big solver of existential problems.
There is something unbearable about not being threatened. You can point to PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for an explanation of this feeling, but I’m not sure if it suffices.