Battleland

On a Cold Kabul Runway: Frères d’Armes

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JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

French soldiers carry the coffins of comrades during a ceremony on the runway of Kabul Airport on January 22 after four French troops were shot dead by a man wearing an Afghan uniform

Kabul, Afghanistan – Roughly two weeks ago…I am home now, my peers are not. With some exceptions.

It is cold here today, and it is snowing. The tarmac is covered with a light layer of slick snow. We walk out towards the aircraft, several hundred yards out. There are almost 200 of us at the start, but the numbers grow. Two lines self-arrange. This is something we know. Falling into formal ranks is in our nature, sadly, perhaps. From the plane to the end of our rows it is at least a hundred yards. There are three or four hundred of us by the time the trucks arrive.

There are two of them. Thankfully, we need no more today. Ancient flat-bed Renaults with no sides, painted a plain green, these trucks are no longer suited to field work. But for their cargo today they do the job. Sadly, I suspect that this mission is why they were brought to this place. Two caskets per truck, each covered neatly with a flag, with the Tricolor of France.

Closest to the plane is the French Honor Guard, then the French contingent from this base. The rest of us, the greater mass, wear no particular uniform.

Ten yards to my right, and on the opposite side, I see some Mongolians. Directly across from me are Belgians and Germans, a few Americans, and a Brit. To my left there is a contingent from Spain. Portuguese are behind me to my right. At least fifteen nations have uniforms in these lines. My ears are cold. We have been out here half an hour. The snow falls. The wind blows. We will be here an hour more.

There are four French soldiers walking slowly in front of the trucks as they move from the hanger. Each carries a red pillow. I cannot see, but I know what is there. These are the awards and decorations, Napoleon’s “bits of ribbon,” which his countrymen still find useful, and which these men had earned in life. Behind them comes the first truck, and the pall-bearers, at the slow march. Then the second, and then more men to carry their comrades, moving in a slow procession which we all know too well. The fine details for each nation differ, a few weeks ago it was Poles who carried their dead on this spot, but the outline remains the same. They come to a halt at the end of our rows, at the end of the cordon of honor we have formed, at the end of their time here in Afghanistan.

The French Minister of Defense arrives, with the Chief of Defense and the U.S. Marine who commands us here in Afghanistan behind him. We are called to attention. It is not a sharp movement. We have not rehearsed this, and we speak dozens of different languages. But in this, we understand each other. What crispness is lacking in our salutes is more than compensated by the nature of the compliance to the order. We are here, all of us, of our own free will. To render unto these fallen men of France the respect they deserve. They were soldiers. They would have understood.

And then they come, they pass, and they depart. Hand salutes are rendered, dropped, rendered, dropped. Once for each man’s body as it leaves this place and is taken into the belly of the plane, to be returned to the motherland, La France.

And then we are done. We return to our work. Picking up our labor where we left off.

Nothing further to report

Robert Bateman is Regular Army, and has been since the presumed bad guys said, “Nyet, Comrade” in cheesy films depicting his high-school peers fighting as insurgents from the mountains in Colorado. He is an Army strategist. He writes too much.

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