My job here in Afghanistan is done. I’m in the cockpit of an Air Force C-17, leaving Kandahar and riding off into the sunset. It’s like an old Western movie, except in this case the heroes are not the ones making the cinematic exit, they are staying behind. The comedians – Vargus Mason, Robert Zapata, Tamer Kattan and I – are heading out of Dodge with a greater respect and understanding for the sacrifices made by those heroes.
We became familiar with the various ways the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen deal with the vast distances that separate them from their loved ones back home: video games, movies and the gym. But there was another, far more visible, more enduring pastime: art.
At its most crude and pervasive, there are scrawled images of naked women in the porta-johns, like cave paintings by early man. Amid the chaos of battle, you might also lose sight of the more ambitious, grandiose works of art.
Here then, is the Art of War.
1. Bad ass cartoon of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The Chinook is a beast of a machine lifting super heavy loads. You’ve seen videos of this thing on the news lifting tanks. So the crews that fly and maintain it are rightfully proud, as this painting on the wall of the Chinook headquarters indicates. It looks like a joint the helicopter is smoking, but I’m sure it’s just a cigarette with muscles.
2. Herat is home to a largely Italian- and Spanish-run base. You know, it’s not just the USA doing everything, we have our NATO friends all up in this, too. The Italians and Spaniards somehow found the time to create this awesome steel scorpion sculpture. I say “somehow” because they take breaks and siestas, and in their off-hours are allowed to drink. The running joke there is that nothing gets done because NATO stands for “Not After Three O’clock.”
3. Very nice spray paint stencil art on a concrete barrier at Kandahar. It’s almost Shepard Fairey meets Art Mobb. Go troops! Hey, waitaminute… weren’t they the bad guys in Star Wars? Man this would be so subversive if the Taliban broke into the base to graffiti this on the wall.
4. Humor is a good way to diffuse the tension of dealing with a ton of shit. And in Kandahar, soldiers deal with a literal ton of shit: the infamous Pooh Pond. The base’s sprawling, malodorous sewage treatment facility is a series of bubbling green-brown lakes of excrement. Our guide brought us to see the base’s most talked about tourist spot, and I asked, “Pardon me, but would you have any Grey Pooh Pond?” But the troops take the stench in stride posting funny signs and sculptures around the Pooh Pond. Here is Zapata with one such sign.
5. Not all of the art is created in the war zone. Here is a finger painting of the American flag done by US school children and sent to soldiers in Afghanistan. So, kids, keep sending your art, as it is much appreciated and is displayed fondly.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out Kilroy Was Here, another post about soldier art.