The day we were ambushed by the Taliban, I was wearing a 45-pound flak jacket but no helmet. It weighed me down as I ran through empty villages, choking on fear, far from the DynCorp mercenaries we came with. Major Khalil was screaming into his radio as we raced deeper into the battle with a captured Taliban prisoner in tow. As I ran, the poppies coated my pants with raw opium stains. Later, lying in a ditch with my writer Jon Lee Anderson and our translators, I prayed for an air strike. In that moment I stopped caring about collateral damage, I just wanted them to raze that village to the ground. And again, when I was crawling through a muddy field while Afghan Eradication Forces (AEF) and Taliban fighters exchanged gunfire across the tops of the bleeding plants, I remember distinctly not giving a shit about my cameras, The New Yorker, or my career.
I do remember holding Jon Lee’s hand over the seat of our Ford F250 as bullets rained down in that orchard. I told him I was scared. He said he knew. I’d said it many times that day. I told him this time it was it was different.
“I’m really scared,” I said.
He reached over the seat and held my hand.
The shooting had started three hours ago, and we had no clear exit. In the back seat of our unarmored Ford F250 there was a translator and a Dyncorp medic. I pressed down between them as close to the floor as I could so that they would absorb the bullets. At some point a helicopter arrived and raked both sides of the road with thousands of 50-caliber rounds before being hit and retreating to base. It was a sweet sound at the time, like plastic wrappers crackling in your hand as you wad them into a ball. I have to admit I wanted more. I wanted all of it to be blown to fucking hell. So I could walk away.
Jon Lee reminded me to keep shooting pictures. I really didn’t care about the pictures anymore. I wasn’t worried about getting blurry shots of trees enough to offer myself up for target practice. At the river a truck was stuck and we were trapped on the bank, surrounded on all sides but for one narrow escape route. Five mercenaries stood along the bank and in the water, full-on Rambo. They fought from behind ATVs and our unarmored trucks. They were calm. They were at work.
I was on a riverbank, huddled up under the wheel well. Jon Lee was squatting in a more vulnerable position taking notes. Jon Lee is a pretty casual guy. He knew we were in deep shit, but he also knew that panicking wouldn’t help us. So he tried to tell me a joke.
“A husband tells his wife... I bet you can’t tell me something that makes me happy and sad at the same time.’ The wife says ‘Your brother has a small dick.’” He’d already told me this one, but it was a little funnier in the middle of an ambush. I cracked a weak smile. The Taliban were closing in and starting to surround us. We were four hours into this thing, and every time I thought it was going to end, every time the shooting stopped, it began again, doubled in intensity, and grew exponentially more horrifying and inescapable.
I want to tell you what it was really like to think death is imminent, but I can’t. It’s a taste in your mouth. And an emptiness. I imagined myself on YouTube with a knife to my throat. Allah O Akbar.
I was thinking about not being me anymore. About not having a body. About the things I did wrong. But mostly I was thinking about a girl.
I’d been stringing her along for five years. What an asshole. Why am I waiting for her to change? Why am I such a fucking coward? Selfish fuck.
We almost got married three times.
I am going to die here.
I didn’t think about my family or my friends. I didn’t think about home or my dog. I thought about Kristin. All she wanted, all that she would ever want, was for me to see her as she is, to love her cleanly and all the way through. I’d been so busy loving myself. When it ended two men were dead, and I was not one of them.
Back in Kabul:
The Jalalabad road east of the city leads past an Afghan military base. Behind that base there is a field of metal carcasses. It is a graveyard for tanks, APCs, and jeeps. It is quiet there; few places in Kabul are.
I told Kristin we were going there to take photos. On the trail that leads through the grassy field through the tanks, she was afraid we would step on a land mine. I chose a tank to sit on and showed her a small red box with two gold rings inside. Kristin shrugged and smiled.
“Sure,” she said. “Right now?”
Jon Lee was ordained on the Internet the night before, and read a page of vows I wrote. Our driver and translator had never seen a man and woman kiss before. They blushed and turn away. The rings were cheap, and we sold them back to a jeweler the next day.
Kristin Moore is my wife.
Thank you, Taliban.
(Photos from the ambush HERE