All Things Soldier: No Fun Allowed In The Land Of The Taliban

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

When I was in Iraq, I was paid about $17 an hour as a Morale, Welfare and Recreation worker to bring a touch of home to our soldiers, members of the Coalition, and Iraqis that were training on base. That involved passing out ping-pong paddles and often playing the game, showing movies, playing all manner of board games, making coffee and popcorn, checking out PlayStation and X Box equipment to soldiers, teaching guitar, singing, learning how to be a swing dance partner, and hosting events that ranged from 5 and 10 K races to picnics, BBQs, and desserts with chocolate cheesecake while watching old Dick Van Dyke shows. Mostly it involved just talking and listening, along with lots and lots of laughing. I was paid to be a mom, auntie, sister or friend, and I loved my job.

By contrast, the Taliban foot soldiers of the recently abandoned Afghanistan are in hot water for “having too much fun.” An audio recording was recently circulated to the soldiers by Defense Minister Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, and he dressed them down for doing things while off duty like going to the zoo, going out on the lake in swan-shaped pedal boats, (heaven forbid!) and going to amusement parks. And it looks like Yaqoob, at the end, of the day was worried about their image. Here’s some of what was said in the audio: “Stick to the tasks you have been assigned,” as well as, “You are damaging our status, which has been created with the blood of our martyrs.” I am not wanting to give this man an atta-boy, but one thing he did say to them was in fact spot on, and that was putting the kibosh to the soldiers taking selfies, especially with Taliban officers. In Iraq that stuff was not allowed unless it was heavily vetted because one could inadvertently give away locations, communications capabilities, or identify available weapon systems if selfies ended up on what was then the brand-new phenomena of social media.

Yaqoob also got on them for their appearance, which he felt too closely identified them with the collapsed, corrupt previous regime. But one of the things that rankled him the most was the way Taliban soldiers were zipping around in our left-behind vehicles. And that one made me downright nostalgic. You see, I was on a base for 16 months that had been Uday Hussein’s stomping ground, and one of the things Uday left behind before we got him was a collection of about 1200 Renaults and Mercedes-Benz automobiles of all types. (Apparently one can’t have too many.) And, for those of you who are history buffs, now you know why France and Germany howled so loudly about the war in Iraq. This was one of many proofs that they did not honor the sanctions which our allies agreed to after Desert Storm. Busted!

Out of the 1200, there was a dark blue, five-speed Mercedes-Benz coupe that I got to drive once. Now, there was a stretch of road between our camp and the next nearest one that was straight as an arrow, and there were times we treated it like Le Mans if we were in danger and needed to get to stronger shelter speedily. However, on this one afternoon, I chose to act like the Taliban for the first and last time in my life. I was barely tall enough to see out the front window and took that bad boy down the straightaway as fast as it could go. Of course, by the time I got to the next camp, I was driving demurely and safely, as was my obligation. But I’ll tell you, while I have no idea if Uday ever actually drove this particular Benz or not, it was pretty weird wondering if our hands had gripped the steering wheel and flown down that stretch of road.

I think it’s safe to say that my MWR job in Iraq will probably never be replicated in Afghanistan under the Taliban. After all, Yaqoob admonished, “If we continue to act like this, God forbid, we will lose our Islamic system.” A girl can hope, can’t she?

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner