The village of Dasht is an oasis of peace in the heavily mined deserts of the Zhari District. My platoon dismounted and walked no more than fifteen meters before our formation succumbed to the swarm of hundreds of children running through our ranks. I suppose, on one hand, it’s good that the children feel so safe around American soldiers; in a strategic sense, it would be far worse if they were running away in fear. But in my tactical role as the platoon leader, I grew nervous. We weren’t necessarily in danger, but you must understand that these are a different breed of Afghan kids.
The children of Dasht village are bold and unmerciful. They reach into the pockets of soldiers and will rob them blind. Where other kids are thrilled to receive the pens, paper, and candy we hand them, the children from this particular village give us the token South Asian “head wobble and cringe” which I saw so frequently growing up. It’s the trademark signature of whining. The kids wave away our humble gifts and demand flashlights, cameras, and an array of other expensive electronics.
While some of my older soldiers, particularly the ones with children of their own, are very good at asserting themselves in the face of a child’s iron will, my younger privates don’t always know how to react. After all, they’re just kids. You can’t hurt them, you can’t touch them. How do you get them to behave?
I tried to bring order the scene unsuccessfully. Where the hell are their mothers!? I thuoght to myself. Of course, in this country’s Islamic tradition, women must be kept away from public view at all times; thus making anything outside the household a discipline-free zone. The Fathers stood off to the side, apathetically watching their kids’ rude behavior. I could see from the faces on the older men that they were conniving illustrious stories of American negligence for which they’d demand an unruly compensation. As a group, the fathers looked relaxed, free from the burdens of their children for just a few moments. I guess to them, we’re more of a baby-sitting service than a security force.
As the kids continued to disrupt my patrol, I couldn’t help but smile with an ironic realization. I saw the situation, not as an unplanned chaos, but a deliberate retaliation of divine nature. In each one of those naughty brats, I saw my younger self. I saw the kid I used to be. This was simply God’s humor at work. As frustrating as these kids are, I know it’s just a taste of my own medicine.
To say my terrible twos and threes were my personal growing pains would be like calling the smell of burnt hair an acquired taste. I was a monstrous kid; a walking tornado of demolition. My mouth was usually my weapon of choice. If I wasn’t biting holes through our furniture at home, I was biting holes through the cloth lining on the rear doors of our 1988 Honda Civic. When I got bored with inanimate objects, I went to work on houseguests. I’d sneak up on them, mid-conversation with my parents, crawl under their chairs, and I’d dig a deep one into their calves. The shrieks were hysterical.
When my jaw muscles eventually grew tired, I’d wander through my parents’ bathroom to find some kind of hazardous chemical to wash down a solid day’s work. Sometimes, I’d drink a bottle of my mom’s perfume. On other occasions, I’d just brush my teeth with a tube of Ben Gay. Needless to say, poison control was a speed dial number on our home phone.
But in the end, at age 24, I didn’t turn out so bad; or I don’t think so at least. As I recall moments of decision growing up, moments when instincts say one thing but conscience another, I’d remember the vivid sensation of fear when my mom reared back her hand to beat me for being such an idiot. A little corporal punishment was all I needed to shape up and get on track. I learned to use my mouth as a tool for dialogue, not destruction. A few solid beatings did the trick for me. And you know what, I am sure it could work for Kandahar.
It occurs to me just how weak of a maternal presence there is in Zhari Disrict; in fact, all throughout Afghanistan. In the United States, most people have stories of their mothers catching them misbehaving, scolding or even beating them to drive home the lesson. But at the end, mothers are always there to pick us up, dust us off, give a warm hug, and make us feel loved again. But mothers can’t do that when their domain of authority is limited to the household. My mom beat me in public plenty of times. I got whipped in Kmart linen aisles and library checkout counters. But mom’s involvement in my daily life is what made her so influential. I probably would never have understood the immediate lessons to be learned of my misconducts had she not been there with me.
The future of Afghanistan lies in these children. And if fathers are always in the field working, and mothers are locked away inside, these kids grow up with little to no mentorship, guidance, or discipline. At first, the children grow up simply rude and obnoxious. But through adolescence, a lack of parental influence in their community life weakens their sense of where they come from, their personal family affiliations, and identities. This clearly would make any young generation more vulnerable to insurgent propaganda. And it’s a vicious cycle that’s been going on for decades.
I’m not trying to say that Muslim values yield bad parenting. What I am saying is that the best parents in any culture are the ones who get involved. They’re the ones who intrude into the spaces of a child’s life even when their words say “no” because their hearts are usually begging for help. The best parents are the ones who are able to balance a religious and ethnic identity with the responsibility of contributing a responsible and prudent child to the citizenry.
If your mother did for you what mine did for me, when Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, take the significance of her devotion a step further. Don’t just thank your mom for the soccer game runs, the cooking, the cleaning, and the emotional support. Let’s thank our mothers on behalf of our country; for raising good Americans who emulate the behavioral traits of a mature and peaceful democratic citizenry. No matter how many problems we think we have in our nation, it could always be ten times worse. And better yet, we at least have the human capital as Americans to get ourselves out of any mess we find ourselves in. Anything. That sort of wealth isn’t earned; it’s raised.
Mother’s Day for my mom this year will be anticlimactic. No matter what gifts she receives or how many times I call, I know the only thing she wants is something I have no control over, and that’s the safe return of her son from Afghanistan. But in the mean time, hopefully a showing of humble and sincere appreciation for the love she gave me from my terrible twos and threes through my terrible twenties will suffice for now.
Mom, when you read this, know that I love you and the man I am today is entirely your doing. And sorry for being such a rotten kid Love you always.