Ishmael Gradsdovic Reports from Afghanistan

Ten years ago, Americans got hit good and hard with the sort of death and destruction they so enjoy being on the other end of, and the United States became as noisy and menacing as a country-sized dropped beehive.

Some of the seeds of my future war tax resistance were planted then, in my disgust with the bloodthirsty, know-nothing jingoism and my intuitions about what it would lead to. A week or two after the attacks, my imaginary friend Ishmael Gradsdovic wrote a story, about what was going through my mind at the time as a guilty spectator to the coming bloodbath, in the form of an email to me:

Wrote this over on the other side — yes, I got there. Briefly. Got kicked out quick and escorted way out of my way at gunpoint. And now I’m even further off and in the allegedly civilized world. Here’s something I wrote for you while I was there. Write back at my regular address (not this one) and let me know what you think.

I developed horrible dysentery shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. Absolutely none of the well water here meets the minimum World Health Organization standards for either organic or inorganic contaminants. I didn’t stand a chance.

I held out hope that this would dislodge my tenacious and belligerent tapeworm, but no dice. It’s more in-your-face than ever. Like being stuck on a Greyhound bus next to a born-again.

I’m at this roadside nothing between nowhere and nowhere else, taking photos. I got in from Iran early yesterday and just kept walking — figure I’m at least fifteen miles in, but it’s been a lot of up-and-down so maybe less as the crow flies.

Right now I’m leaned up against a rock by a wide dirt road. Every once in a while, a small group of refugees comes by, headed for the border, which is already closed and heavily-guarded.

I don’t know the language or I’d tell them to turn back — not that it’d matter; I’m sure they’ve heard the news and are trying anyway.

On the other side of the rock from me and a little down the road is a woman sitting down with the body of a dead young boy lying across her lap.

Nobody else is with her, though I doubt she and the boy were on the road alone. The boy must have died right there, and recently, and the woman’s companions begged her to leave to body or bring the body but to continue on with them, and she refused and exasperated they continued on without her. But I’m speculating. If they get turned back at the border, maybe they’ll be back tomorrow or the next day.

She sits on the ground with her legs out in front of her, recklessly exposing one ankle, holding herself up by locking her arms around the weight of the dead boy still limp in her lap.

I think it would make a good picture. Callous, I know, but there aren’t a lot of us over here on the ground with cameras so I have to think like that. I can’t see her face, and I’m not so callous that I’m going to circle her for good angles. I haven’t taken any shots of her yet, actually, but the light will be good for a while still.

I can sure hear her voice, though. Wailing, crying out words and gasping at the same time so that even if I did know the language I probably wouldn’t know what she was saying, or what words she was saying it with anyway. Pulling in snot with lungs that break three or four times with each pull as the sobs override everything else.

And then, after a while, the anguish builds to an opiate strength and she’ll be quiet — the sorrow pervasive but smooth and diffuse. Then a few moments will pass and a sharp image — maybe a face looking up or a laughing voice or the memory of a hope for a young boy’s future — will come out of this awful, blessed, narcotic fog and it starts all over again.

If I knew her language, or if I thought I could hold her or hold her hand without being killed by a misunderstanding refugee, I’d try to comfort her. And fail. She is vividly, universally, utterly inconsolable.

So instead I make stories. Speculate, like I did about her companions. Make a murder mystery out of it. Who killed Mohammad Doe?

Maybe it was another refugee, and the boy died during a fight over food or water or some squabble born of frustration and too many sleepless nights in flight. Or maybe he died as the family ran from bandits who prey on refugees near the border.

Could have been Taliban officials trying to turn back the refugees, or to punish them. Could have been the Iranian border guards.

Could have been U.S. jets or troops — I’ve heard rumors of English-speaking paratroopers. But there have been a lot of rumors.

Could have been a landmine. Lots of those around, even down here.

Or maybe the child died of more-or-less natural causes. Malnutrition, infection, fever. Maybe even the woman went mad and killed the boy herself.

Which is to say I don’t know and I’m just trying to occupy my mind and fill out captions to the photos I haven’t taken yet because every time she starts wailing my eyes water up and I feel a pressure in my sinuses and I have to choke it down.

Another thing I think of is how much taxes I paid last year, and, now that I’ve done some research, I can translate that into a certain number of landmines, or a certain percentage of a cruise missile, or the bulk of the salary of someone on an aircraft carrier doing a very important job who’ll never see anything like what I saw today.

But a bad fall or a bad well or a bad case of scarlet fever will kill a young woman’s pride and joy just as dead as my taxes, so I don’t really know who to lodge a complaint with.

I’m getting tedious now. I don’t want to pay for this war, and I’m sorry for what I’ve paid already. I think I’m going to sell these photos to some wire service photographer under-the-table and let him pay the taxes and get the pulitzer. And then I’m coming back home and maybe growing dope again or something else that I can do with clean hands.

Of course, that’s assuming I get out of here, which is what I do a lot of assuming despite the evidence. An indulgence I allow myself because I think it keeps me sane. Despite the evidence.

So I’ll sign this off by saying I’ll see you when I get back to California. Take care of yourself.

 — Ishmael

I also tried to imagine how a saner, wiser, more courageous world might have responded:


Pope John Paul announced Sunday that he will be traveling from Kazakstan to Afghanistan, “on foot if necessary,” in order to work for religious tolerance and brotherhood and to protect the lives of innocent people there.

“I beg God to keep the world in peace,” he declared. “I wish to make an earnest call to everyone, Christians and the followers of other religions, that we work together to build a world without violence, a world that loves life and grows in justice and solidarity. We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions,” he said. “Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict.”


Congress today passed a resolution apologizing for the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Ⅱ.

“It is the understanding of this Congress,” the resolution read, “that there is no justification for the wholesale murder of civilians — not to discourage an imperialist enemy, no matter how aggressive or irrational — not to prevent the loss of life of soldiers on the battlefield — not even to win a war that might be otherwise lost.

“To slaughter thousands of innocents in order to horrify a nation into surrender can never be a victory for Good. We recognize this now as we have not recognized this before.

“As we prepare for battle against the evil of terrorism, we must as part of this preparation purify our hearts, atone for our injustices, and be able to go forward with confidence that we are in the right. As our chaplain said, ‘we ask not that God be with us, but that we be always with God.’

“We do solemnly and gravely apologize for the great evil this country committed when we murdered and maimed hundreds of thousands of people in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We condemn the bombing of civilian areas to terrorize a populace or a nation.”

Looking through my -era archives, I notice that I was also indulging a whim for anagrams. Here are some of my favorites:

Operation Infinite Justice
A counterfeit penis! I join it!
Join a frenetic pose, I intuit
Osama bin Laden
End: I am on a slab
is a banal demon
Office of Homeland Security
or: Cheney off to Islamic feud
I concede, a muffle of history