“Why do you fight?”
I will never forget the look in Akhtar’s eyes. He stared me straight on, even put aside the remainder of his meal to concentrate on what I had to say.
“You know why I’m here,” I said, not sure how to respond.
“No,” he said. “I know why your country is here. But I don’t know why you are here.”
“Because it’s my job. I signed up for this.”
“Yeah, but that was over a decade ago. You can switch careers.”
“Do you want me to say it’s some sense of duty?”
“I want you to tell me the truth.”
The truth? The truth is that I can’t walk away and leave family behind.
I can’t tell Akhstar that. He’ll see right through it. He knows I have a wife and two boys back home. Miraculously she hasn’t divorced me by now. I was a solder when we said our vows, and I’ve hardly been home since. I know she has extended family that supports her while I’m away, and I know she has friends to comfort her in my absence. I’ve never felt jealous. Someone needs to hold her at night. She shouldn’t be deprived love just because she made the mistake of marrying me.
If I truly couldn’t leave family behind, then I wouldn’t be here. I’d be back in the States with her and my sons.
But this isn’t about blood. In the past dozen years, I’ve seen some of these men more often than anyone in my life. We have woken up together, bathed together, eaten together, laughed together, and cried together.
Yes, we’ve fought together too. And there’s something about that that’s different from anything else. Putting your life on the line for someone and watching them do the same; no family member back home has ever done such a thing for me. Not my parents. Not my siblings. My wife never had a chance to, but really, that’s not her role. It’s mine. And while I would fly back right now if her life were in danger, I know she’s doing fine.
These guys, on the other hand, I don’t know if I’d ever see them again. We’ve gone through so much. If I can’t keep them alive, the least I can do is be here when they die, then do my part to kill the bastard who gunned them down or find the coward who blew them up. I know they’d do as much for me.
“Why do you?” I turned the question back around.
“We’ve talked about me more than enough,” Akhtar responded, maintaining eye contact. “You’ve seen what has happened to my home. Some may blame you for it, and I will admit, I did for a time.”
“Then you got to know us?”
“Then I got to know some Americans, yes, but in spite of that, I saw that they were okay. Then I met you, of course.”
I laughed. “Undid it all, I’m sure.”
“All of it,” Akhtar joked, but without his usual smile. “But I can’t fault your country for acting in its own interest, nor can I fault most of your people for not knowing much about our side of the world. Even with access to some of your movies and music, once I met you, I saw that we didn’t know much about you either.
“But more importantly,” he continued. “I’ve seen the kind of things my own people do when they get their hands on a little bit of power. You are the world’s strongest country. I imagine if the roles were swapped, the world would probably look much worse.”
I had heard Akhtar criticize his own people before. But that last admission was a bit much. He’s lost family members to American bullets. He’s felt firsthand the harm that we can do.
“My own people have killed more of my family members than any American, and no matter how long this war has dragged on, the killing goes back much further than. I could blame you, or the Russians, or the British, but I just want a better life for my daughters, and none of you are getting in the way of that right now. We are.”
I’ve never seen Akhtar’s daughters. He doesn’t carry pictures of them the way I do my sons, because he’s doesn’t want anything to happen to them if he’s captured. This is his war, Akhtar always says, not theirs.
“I’m starving here,” Akhtar joked again, still not smiling. “Tell me why you fight so that I may eat.”
I waited to finish my last few bites before speaking again. There was no reason for us both to be silly. “I fight for you, because you fight for me.”
“So if I stop fighting, you’re gone?”
“You’re not the only family member I’ve made here. I’ll stop fighting once all of you are done fighting.”
A look of sadness came over Akhtar as he picked up his plate.
“What?” I asked.
“If that’s your reason, then you’re going to spend your entire life here.”
“Only if you keep me alive,” I said.
Then, Akhtar smiled.