The form darkens against the yellow sand behind. A black shade in the endless desert planed from dry mountains down to Iran. The convoy has stopped, engines grumbling in the mid-winter sunshine. We are headed out to some small Afghan village, Qal-u Qalay, and enter the jabberwocky shimmering into being atop a small dune.
Gunners swivel towards the shape, marking distance and time, sighting. All of us are amped up on Rip-Its and sweat, but only the gunner up top and the Marines in front have eyes on this intruder. The proverbial moment before reverberates through the vehicle, chatter running through the radio.
“Do not fire. Relay that.”
“Hold fire, Marines.” Hands relax, somewhat unwillingly out here in the Afghan countryside.
“It’s a damn bird.”
“An eagle? Yeah, an eagle. Sir, come up and look at this.” The gunner scoots marginally, and I squeeze up, our body armor compacting the space. I’m the designated ornithologist for our team, simply because I can name over five birds. I look through the sight out towards the dune and the man-sized shape topping the sand.
What should have been the shadow of a Taliban scout, tracking the dust of the convoy, now coalesces into a cruel beak and hulking shoulders. The bird has turned somewhat and the sight reveals the brown and white speckled plumage. The hard beak is tipped in black and the eyes are dark specks observing us, the desert, the sun, the whole of Afghanistan.
A year before, in eastern Montana, I had witnessed two mated bald eagles hunting rabbits and prairie dogs from sand dunes. They would stare absolutely motionless, watching the sage or the cattails whispering along the irrigation canal, until one would silently unfold her blackish wings and glide. Only a foot or two above the sage, quiet, to crash down into the rabbitbrush and yellow flowers. A twisting and wrenching of talons, then rising with a broken rabbit, back to her mate to sit sentinel once more. I watched for an hour or more as death came for the smaller mammals, till sated, the eagles lofted up into the big sky and wheeled away.
And here, so far from Montana, so far from anywhere, this golden eagle watches. Her head tilts and twinges, focusing in on small movements and rustles near salt cedars and dry fields. I see other Marines sliding up into the gunner’s seat on the vehicles in front and back. We all want to see this bird, this vision of death and majesty willed into reality under the Afghan sun. Us, with our rifles and 50/50s and grenades and body armor and radios talking to unseen drones and streaking fighters overhead, yet here was the distillation of every predatory instinct made flesh and feather.
It’s impossible to see an eagle and disassociate the symbolism. We don’t think of the carrion scavenging and the whistling call, but the apex hunter and the now-associated cry of the red-tail hawk. The Marines tri-part symbol of Eagle, Globe, and Anchor starts with the bird. Afghanistan’s earlier flag blazed the golden eagle. Maybe that’s all this war was, a simple turf battle between the bald and the golden. Maybe our talons were helplessly interlocked as we both plummeted from the sky, thrashing and bleeding as the earth screamed up towards us.
We watch the eagle survey the desert in a splice of time. Next to nature, the reality of our jobs and duty fades. Qal-e Qalay waits some distance off, and our patrol will happen there when it happens, and we will observe the same tired men leaning on hand tools breaking ground for this year’s poppy crop. We will visit the same elders who will pull their beards, offer us tea, and tell us stories we will never quite understand. The sun will drop down behind the distant mountains and the light will slant across the sand, and we will smoke cigars in the golden angles. We will fight in Afghanistan for the next five years, ten years, forever, and always be about to turn the corner. We will go home with dreams and nightmares, and lack the words for our spouses and children and parents. We will read about friends both Afghan and American dying and we will drink or pray or cry. We will be walking some day and the turn of light or smell of candied pistachios will wrench us back and we will struggle to remember or misremember or unremember.
But we will know that on a sunny day in winter, we saw a golden eagle uncaring, unflinching, unencumbered by the weight of Afghanistan, finally shift her fluid wings and take flight, riding thermals into an empty sky.
Travis Burke has worked in conflict and development in Afghanistan, Somalia, Ukraine and Thailand. For two years, he was part of the civilian surge into Afghanistan, and worked alongside the US Marines and British forces in Helmand Province for USAID. He mentored the Afghan government, met with tribal leaders, and advised on development and governance. Currently, Burke works in international development consulting focused on youth skills, but he is always writing. Originally from Reno, Nevada, he writes poems, stories, and essays on the outdoors and politics at https://thebigwild.net. In 2017, his work has appeared in Pedestal Magazine, Euromaidan Press,Collateral Journal, and The Military Experience and the Arts. He is based in Portland, Oregon, and enjoys the mountains, funky folks, and good beer.