Tracer rounds whizzed overhead, mortar shells burst nearby and heavy machine guns clattered. Then as suddenly as it began, it was over. Sergeant Zapata brushed away the powdery dust that coated him like flour, walked downstairs and started to sing.
"Sometimes when we touch," he warbled, his mind stuck on a tune recorded before he was born 30 years ago. "Hey, how does that song go?"
"The honesty's too much," a soldier helped.
"And I have to close my eyes and cry," yet another continued, in a comically quavering falsetto. (The actual lyric: "And I have to close my eyes and hide.")
For G.I.'s, life on the front lines has two sides. There are, of course, the adrenaline-fueled moments of fighting, when soldiers try to forget their fear, remember their training and watch one another's backs.
And then there is everything else, the dirty, sweaty, unglamorous and frequently tedious work of being infantrymen. Filling sandbags. Stirring caldrons of burning waste. Lying in the dirt while on guard duty. Cleaning weapons. And more than anything else, waiting -- for orders, for patrols, for the chance to sleep or eat. They even wait for the fighting they know will come.
It is a life of wild pendulum swings. One moment, their sergeants are barking at them to stay ready, eyes focused, rifles loaded, protective gear at hand. In the next, the soldiers are searching for amusement, killing time with the skill of people who have had plenty of practice.
They tell stories about girlfriends, wives, drinking and sex. They wrestle and play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. They share music on iPods and check football scores on BlackBerrys. They debate evolution and chase chickens. They argue over comic-book heroes and then tell more stories about sex.
During a six-day mission in October with Delta Company, First Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, both sides of frontline life were on display. Firefights, truck-flipping mine explosions and earth-shaking mortar exchanges. And the pauses in between, when life in their encampment felt like a guys-only slumber party.
Pfc. William Moody taught Afghan police officers how to curse in English. Specialist Joshua Chamberlain sang a dirty song about his soon-to-be ex-wife. And Staff Sgt. Jonathon Clark and Sergeant Zapata, on their fifth deployment together, argued over an issue that had divided the men of the battalion's Second Platoon for a week: could Batman beat Superman in a fight?
(Sergeant Clark: "If you took Clark Kent as a man, Bruce Wayne would whip his ass. He knows karate." Sergeant Zapata: "Batman's got skills, but those aren't superpowers. You could just kill him with a gun.")
Inevitably, as the vacant minutes multiplied, many soldiers -- though not all -- found themselves craving combat.
They had come here to train the Afghan police. But fighting is the reason many of them signed on to be infantrymen. In a war with no easily defined endpoint, combat provides some sense of progress, at least when the enemy is bloodied. And if nothing else, it makes time pass faster.
"When our platoon actually goes out there and we do get into firefights, the guys love it," said Sergeant Clark, a squad leader in Second Platoon. "They get tired of just sitting."
A Show of Strength
The roughly two dozen men of Second Platoon arrived in the village of Nahr-i-Sufi before daybreak, after tripping through rutted cotton fields and splashing through irrigation canals under the cover of darkness.
The village bordered hostile territory to the north, where a mix of local Pashtun fighters and Islamist separatists from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan held sway. When they camped here for three days in July, insurgents attacked them every day, twice a day.
American commanders could draw a line on a map that, when crossed, would almost certainly lead to a fight. Nahr-i-Sufi was right on that line, only a mile from the fortified police headquarters for the district, known as Chahar Darreh.
Being on the border meant that the elders of Nahr-i-Sufi seemed prepared to support whichever side they thought was winning the war at that moment. Delta Company, accompanied by a small troop of Afghan police officers, was there to show that they were stronger.
Second Platoon set up camp in a residential compound on the village's northwestern corner, the most likely to come under fire first. The owner sent his wife and children to a neighbor's home, but he stayed, bantering with the police and the soldiers, who showed him how to tuck tobacco under his lower lip and spit into a bottle. (They politely refused his green Afghan "dip," worrying that it contained opium.)
But later that morning, the owner received a phone call that made the soldiers suspicious, and they confiscated his cellphone. He departed, taking his two cows. Later, village elders would say that they were not pleased to be forced from their homes, particularly because it was harvest season.
"I apologized to him," Sgt. First Class Craig Pritchard said later of the owner. "This is war."
The first sound of combat arrived at midmorning with an explosion on the main road. An American truck had hit a mine that pitched it onto its roof and sent two of its tires sailing into adjacent fields. But the four people inside survived and were evacuated by helicopter to be treated for concussions and cuts.
Inside their newly appropriated compound -- with its 10-foot walls, stable, courtyard filled with chickens and main house -- the soldiers hurried their preparations for battle.
The roof of the mud-brick house became their main fighting position, from which soldiers could fire unhindered at insurgents hiding in a tree line 500 yards away. All morning they lugged 30-pound sandbags from a nearby command post and hefted them one by one up a ladder onto the thatched roof, which bowed under their weight.
Every soldier in the platoon except the medic was required to do guard duty on the roof, two hours on, two off. It could be cold, uncomfortable, mind-numbing work, lying prone behind sandbags that barely covered their helmets. But Pfc. Cade Guidry, a 22-year-old from Louisiana known as Bayou, volunteered repeatedly for the duty because he wanted to fire his weapon.
"I'm an adrenaline junkie, I admit it," he said. "I love to fight."
Some officers warned the younger soldiers that once they had seen casualties or experienced a close call or two, they might be less eager to see combat. (Six American soldiers have died in the region since March: two from the battalion, which is part of the 10th Mountain Division; three from mine-clearing teams working with the battalion; and one from a Special Forces unit.)
Specialist David Gedert, for one, had lost some of his enthusiasm for the fight. He was a thoughtful 21-year-old from Detroit with an interest in poetry and Japanese films as well as guns. As an infant, he was given up for adoption, and he grew up wondering who his biological parents were. A little more than a year ago, he found a tattered photo of his biological mother in a shoebox and had her likeness tattooed on his left arm, thinking he would never meet her. (He did, just weeks before deploying.)
On Facebook, Specialist Gedert once proclaimed himself a fan of "anything that goes boom." But earlier in the deployment, he was almost hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Now, explosions made him jumpy -- and just about every firefight began with an explosion.
"That first R.P.G. kind of spoiled it for me," he said early in the Nahr-i-Sufi mission. "I'm not eager to be in a fight."
Life as an Open Book
If upstairs was for fighting, downstairs was for everything else.
Here, an open-air hallway connected two bedrooms lined with dusty pillows and cushions. The only furniture was two rusted bed frames with no mattresses. On a wall hung the lone adornment: a photo ripped from a magazine depicting a rustic village, perhaps European. Water came from a well, light from a single bulb.
Here the soldiers ate, slept, shaved, played and bantered, like brothers who knew one another's every quirk. Specialist Chamberlain, 26, personified their open-book way of life.
The platoon medic, Specialist Chamberlain, raised on a ranch in Arizona, was also its troubadour and jester. On some missions, he took along his 6-string and 12-string guitars, passing them around for anyone to pick. He sang his own country-style songs and told stories, often about himself -- like the time he raced to a bar near Fort Drum in upstate New York to help a friend in a fight, only to be arrested before throwing a punch.
As everyone knew, he had married the same woman twice. The first time they were teenagers who lived on food stamps. By his telling, she cheated on him and they split up. But after joining the Army, he fell for her again and they remarried -- until, on leave during this deployment, he says, he discovered she was cheating on him. Again. He has filed for divorce. Again.
"I loved her," he said. "And I thought she loved me."
When they were not eating, sleeping or pulling guard duty, the soldiers often engaged in a jazz-like form of debate, riffing on topics like whether chickens had evolved from dinosaurs or big cats could be properly domesticated. But no subject captured their imaginations more vividly than il Duce.
Il Duce was a mound of human waste spotted in a latrine at their home base that was so spectacular someone had given it a name. Discussing it had become the unofficial platoon pastime. Squeeze peanut butter on bread, il Duce was mentioned. Discuss a film, starring roles were pondered: Predator versus il Duce. Mention Facebook, plans for an il Duce fan page were hatched.
But as often as not, conversations led back to home. "When we go home, everything will be great," Pvt. Brandon Thompson mused between firefights one morning. "Air-conditioning will be great. Cold water will be great. Sleep will be great."
"Yeah," Specialist Christian Dupree interjected, "for about a month."
Each night, as the chatter died down and the temperatures dropped below 50, the men downstairs crowded into a bedroom, wrapped themselves in ponchos and struggled to stay warm, lying side by side on the dirt floor, as close as canned fish.
A Sudden Attack
Each day brought gunfire, sometimes intense, sometimes sporadic. Under rules of engagement intended to prevent civilian casualties, the Americans rarely shot first, even when they suspected insurgents of gathering nearby. But when the enemy attacked, the soldiers returned fire with overwhelming force: .50-caliber machine guns, sniper rifles, mortars and grenade launchers.
One afternoon, two squads from Second Platoon fanned out into the fields bordering the main road, looking for trigger wires to buried explosives. They did not find a wire, but a team of snipers stumbled upon a handful of insurgents dressed in black who were dashing out of a house a few hundred yards off the road. One of the insurgents launched a grenade that exploded just a few feet behind the Americans, knocking several to the ground. None were badly hurt.
Across the street, another squad from Second Platoon heard the explosion and ducked into an empty house. Within minutes, machine guns and mortar rounds were going off in several directions: small bands of insurgents were attacking American positions on the other side of town. The squad dashed back toward its compound, which was taking fire.
One of the soldiers in that squad was Private Moody, who had played bass in a popular heavy metal band in his hometown, Asheville, N.C. At 26, he was older than many of his platoon mates and had proved himself steady in combat. When the platoon was ambushed in a village called Qaryatim in July, he reacted quickly and shot an insurgent fighter trying to flank the unit.
With his caustic sense of humor, he loved to rage against the "garrison rules" requiring soldiers to maintain dress and hygiene standards even on combat missions, including daily shaves.
Now his squad was getting lost in the narrow alleys of Nahr-i-Sufi, jumping over walls and banging on locked doors. When the soldiers finally reached their own compound, panting and sweating, Private Moody wondered why they had not stood and fought.
"Did you hear about our new reaction on contact?" he quipped. "We run!"
Sergeant Pritchard exploded in anger. The squad had to regroup to avoid being surrounded, he argued. "What are you, a strategic genius now after one year in the Army?" he yelled.
Making Friends and Enemies
On Day 5, the company began its withdrawal from Nahr-i-Sufi. Leaving was no simple matter. The Afghan police had received reports of improvised explosive devices along the route, either strung from the trees or buried in the road. A mine-clearing team led the way, looking for both.
Trucks known as Huskies that carried metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar went first. Behind them, the 20-ton "Buffalo" used mechanical arms to probe the dirt for wires and explosives.
Somehow, they missed one. Twenty yards behind the Buffalo, a thundering explosion from a deeply buried mine tossed an armored truck into the air and left a 10-foot-deep crater.
"Welcome to H. M. E." said Pfc. Robert Gooch, a gunner inside the Buffalo, referring to the homemade explosives containing fertilizer that their equipment had trouble detecting.
Though the mine was powerful, it had not penetrated the heavily armored truck, and injuries were not life-threatening. But for the next 20 hours the convoy remained stalled, as first a tow truck and then a crane failed to pull the truck upright. Finally, before dawn the next day, a German tank succeeded.
For the G.I.'s, the wait was excruciating. Some were stuck inside trucks. Others camped in compounds without their packs, freezing. To some, it seemed a fittingly futile end to the mission.
Clearly, they had alienated some residents of Nahr-i-Sufi. But the fighting might have also had a positive impact: shortly after it ended, an insurgent commander from a nearby village announced that he was switching sides. American commanders were convinced that their show of force was the reason. (Those commanders believe they inflicted more than a dozen casualties on the insurgents.)
For Specialist Gedert, the mission was memorable in a different way.
On a patrol, his squad had found itself in a firefight in the middle of a field. Specialist Gedert looked up and saw a man in a black robe with a Kalashnikov rifle hiding behind trees 30 yards away. He fired his automatic weapon from the hip and cut the man down.
He recalled the moment later with evident pride. "It was awesome," he said. But then he paused and reconsidered. "And scary. It was dumb luck. It could have been me."
Wearily, he joined his platoon mates as they unloaded their trucks back at their home base in Kunduz. A warm shower, a hot breakfast, Facebook, cigarettes and sleep were their priorities, pretty much in that order. But there was one other pressing matter.
"Got to shave," Private Moody said as he shouldered his pack and began the trudge back to his tent.