Red Beards, Restrepo, Benito Cereno

The most popular blog post I’ve ever written was not for Time Now, but for my old blog 15-Month Adventure, about my year in Afghanistan from 2008-2009. One post, titled “Red Beard,” still gets lots of hits, especially after the movie Restrepo shows somewhere on TV. A scene featuring an Afghan elder with a henna-dyed beard sends curious viewers to the Internet to find out more about the practice. By some Google trickery my post pops up near the top for searches for “Red Beard Afghanistan.” Looking at the post the other day for the first time in a while, I remembered that in it I riffed on Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Benito Cereno? Restrepo? That’s close enough to “Art, Film, and Literature” for me to reprise the original post on Time Now for readers who didn’t know me back then. I can’t carry over the “Comments” from the old post, however, so be sure to check them out here–they’re where I discuss the practices of male hair-and-beard dyeing and wearing eyeliner and fingernail polish with “h,” one of my Afghanistan interpreters.


Red Beard

This video appeared in several places on the web this week [in 2010].  It shows 101stAirborne Division soldiers engaged in a battle in Shimbowat wadi, near Camp Clark in Khowst province, Afghanistan. Toward the end, American soldiers are seen speaking with an Afghan elder whose hair and beard are died a hideous shade of red.

I recognized the terrain because I walked and drove up Shimbowat wadi many times when I was in Khowst in 2008 and 2009. I’m about 90% sure I recognize the elder, whom I’ll call “Red Beard.”  I was thinking of writing about him even before I saw the video.

One night we positively identified that a rocket had been launched in our direction from the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat. We countered with artillery fire of our own and at first light we rode out to inspect the damage.

The smell of explosives hung in the air and fresh shrapnel marks splattered the kalat‘s exterior walls.

Red Beard and six other “MAMs” (Military Age Males) stood around a table. Cleavers in hand, they were butchering a cow that had been killed by the artillery rounds. The carcass was a bloody mess and the men’s hands and the sleeves and fronts of their shirts were also smeared with blood.  Red Beard greeted us jovially.

“No we haven’t seen any Taliban.”

“They come down from the hills, shoot their rockets and mortars and then leave.”

“All these men are my family and they are here for a wedding.”

“Don’t worry about the cow.  We were going to kill it anyway.”

We learned that one of Red Beard’s sons was currently in detention at Bagram Air Force Base and another had been killed fighting the government. Still, he professed his desire for peace in Afghanistan and his respect for the military. We didn’t have any evidence to detain him; in fact, before we left we gave him script he could redeem for the value of the cow.  A few days later, though, we went back and arrested him on the basis of a tip from an Afghan informant.  But after three days we had to let him go, again for lack of evidence.

A report filtered in that our artillery had wounded three children. Another arrived stating that it had been three insurgents. We never determined if either was true.

The men with cleavers in hand, all chopping away at the cow carcass, reminded me of Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” In that story, a naïve American ship captain boards a slave ship on which a mutiny has taken place but which the mutineers attempt to hide from the American. The captain, Amasa Delano, sees a lot of strange things, including a row of slaves furiously polishing hatchets. The hatchet-polishers look like a work party, but in actuality stand guard over the white crew members who are now their prisoners. I’m not saying that Afghanistan is like Melville’s San Dominick, the ship the slaves have taken control of.  But operating there one can feel a lot like Amasa Delano.

We took pictures and retina scans of all the military-age males in the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat.

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