Held, so he thought, on the charge of telling tales insulting the honor of women, the young soldier was thrust into a dark cave under the guard of an old man. He wasn’t even held in a proper cage like they get in Gitmo, no, they handcuffed him to the understrut of an old metal desk pulled out of branch command in the office refurbishing. The old man was the usual drunk ex-military, retired but not tired enough not to want to chew leather, swap war stories with the boys, and pocket some cheap pay for being a hired guard. The young soldier, only a few years out of West Point, hadn’t yet had military respect starved out of him. He addressed the old man with “Sir.”
Sir, I request to be informed of the details of the charges against me. Please, please, I need JAG representation, a lawyer, a law lover who will get things right and proper. My father was a general, and nothing made him prouder than when I entered West Point. His heart would break if he knew.
After a brutal battle with the Taliban, my best buddy had his legs blown off, and we struggled back to barracks and fell into bed. In the dark of night, I sweated with flashbacks of a mortar attack and the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but our flag was still there, when all of a sudden the lights in the barracks snapped on. The intruders flashed Internal Affairs badges and yanked me out of my bed and marched me away. I don’t know why I’m here, sir, I just don’t know.
The young soldier began to sob and bang his head against the top drawer of the metal desk. That caused the other drawers to rattle and metallic sounds to echo off the walls of the cave. I knew how brave those soldiers are, and deep inside my animal hide, I felt sorry for him. The old man told him to man up, chin up, and get a grip on himself. Then the old man unsteadily stood up, and with his backside to the soldier and peering with half-opened eyes at no one, saluted. He then turned to the soldier.
You’re now in the toughest battle, the battle within. Back in Desert Storm, I was deep in the desert on patrol with Jack, Jim, and Johnny, the hardest-hitting Marines that ever came out of a bottle. A hellish sandstorm blew up, the sky vanished, and we were lost within the sandy earth. I lay down to die with my gun in my hands, and I was entombed in sand. But soon, suddenly, came a monsoon. I rose, born again in that rain. You too can rise again. The victor in battle is the loser. If you’re being tried for treason, you’re a loyal soldier. Let me tell you a lovely, true story I heard from my friends. And so he began.
Back in the days before women in combat meant pencil-pushing pussy jobs, there was a feared and ferocious Taliban fighter known as Aphrodite. She was beautiful and deadly. Central command sent special ops after her, man after man. But no matter how big the gun, and no matter how tightly he bound himself to it, she would shake him until he was numb, and then behead him.
Mercury grew up working in the family grocery store in rural Tennessee. To earn more money he also carried the job of the local postman. One fateful day there came in the mail a sensational issue of National Geographic. He knew in his loins right away that he would lose it. On the cover was a stunningly beautiful Afghan girl with big green eyes that drew you in like a whirlpool. Just on the cusp of manhood, he spent many hours at night in the woods spending himself with the Afghan cover girl. He never delivered the issue. He desperately wanted to find her, or at least a wild, exotic girl like her.
He marched himself to the Marine Corps recruiting office and signed away his life. Neither big nor strong, he got through boot camp by wits and twists and turns. Within the Marine Corps, he joined the Signal Service and rose through the ranks as the sort of soldier who would deliver a message to Garcia. Because of his skills as a translator and unimpressive musculature, some of the Marines nicknamed him Hermaphroditus. But Mercury was better known as Psycho for his undercover communication missions which in command review were analyzed as psychotic.
Direct Ops, jealous that Signal Service was getting more missions and more resources because of Psycho, arranged to have him sent on a mission that, by straight-book tactical plans, he had no chance of return. His mission order was concise and direct: PSYCHO SEIZE APHRODITE STOP. Aphrodite, the ferocious Taliban fighter who beheaded Adonis and whom Ares had never succeeded in reaching! Psycho, throw down your guns and leap from a cliff with the hope that the wind will bear up your head! Then you would have a better chance to live!
A National Geographic mission wound its way slowly into mountainous Taliban territory. Its goal, under the funding document that the publisher approved, was to find again the Afghan cover girl and write a sensational story. No one suspected that the head of the National Geographic mission, a man full of fake journalistic credits, was actually Psycho.
The National Geographic delegation went from village to village, showing everyone the National Geographic Afghan cover girl issue. Most of the villagers looked sullenly mystified and turned a cold shoulder. One, however, an older man with a gleam in his eye, said that he knew that girl. Psycho, with the yearning of his youth swelling up with the force of memory and imagination, asked to be taken to her. An arduous, three -hour climb through rugged, desolate terrain brought them to her isolated village.
Three heavily armed Taliban men menacingly approached. Psycho showed them the National Geographic Afghan cover girl issue, touching and emotive, acclaimed and celebrated across America. One Taliban pointed his Kalashnikov at Psycho’s head, another grabbed Psycho’s arms and pinned them behind his back, while a third pushed Psycho’s local guide away and told him to leave immediately. Then a Taliban took off his shoe and began striking Psycho in the face with the sole, back and forth, the dung of Afghan rural life digging into his cheeks. Then they emptied his pockets, stripped him to his red-blossom boxer shorts, and brought him inside a hut.
The Afghan cover girl, now a middle-aged woman, was there. After again striking him in the face with a shoe’s sole, the men demanded, “Tell us why you are here.” Psycho, who had been silent while being crushed, declared solemnly, “So be it, I will, God willing.” Then he told his whole story, without deceit: his youth working the grocery store and delivering mail, his infatuation with the Afghan cover girl from that issue of National Geographic, his military service, and his mission. They told him, “Make peace with God and prepare to die.” He was about to be shot in the head and returned to the dust when the woman intervened. “Tie him on top of that bed,” she said, “arms and legs strapped to the corners, and then cover him with a blanket and leave him alone.”
Now it is the depths of the night, and a mild and merciful sound reaches his ears. Then, so alone and so unguarded, but tied down so exposed, Psycho is afraid for his masculinity. In fear and trembling, he lies quaking, and more than for any evil, he is in mortal terror of the unknown. And then the unknown woman is there: she had climbed into the bed, she had make Psycho her husband, and before the sun had risen she had hastily gone away. Psycho found that one of his hands had gotten free and was resting on his thigh. By the side of the bed had appeared tea, cooked lamb, a hookah, and flat bread, freshly made, it seemed. He ate a sumptuous meal for a starving man, and the hookah filled his mind with smoke. And over time, all this long time, these actions are repeated, in just this way. To be sure, this is how nature engineers such things: what was new and unanticipated had bestowed joy upon him through accustomed habit and repetition; and the sound of that indeterminate voice was a consolation in his isolation.
With the smoke from the hookah filling his mind, it drifted. If I were back in America, and there were a university in rural Tennessee, and if it had a class in classical Latin literature, and any students took it, the professor would teach that I’ve been raped, repeatedly, and through that trauma had traumatically bonded to my captors, and come to accept and like being raped. It would be like that news story of how a brutish man kept a girl, everywoman, as a sex slave for decades until she was finally rescued and educated. I chuckled and thought of National Geographic.
My one hand was free — was it free just so that I could drink tea and bring food and the hookah tube to my mouth? I sensed that the muscles of my hand and arm were moving during the night. Could it be possible, what if, what if I held her tight and wouldn’t let go, how could she fade from firm flesh to nothingness? If I held tight and didn’t let go, would that be the death of me?
He resolved to die to know if the Afghan cover girl was pressing against him in the night. In the depths of the night, the cover lifts slightly, and she slips in between his legs. He hooks his arm around her back and holds her tight. Before she had been bouncing upright, now she was tight against him and his hand was only moving slightly when it slid lower on her back. He buried his face in her black hair and in pleasure waited for the morning light.
“I am Aphrodite,” she moaned to him. The earth stopped moving for him, all the blood drained from his extremities, and it was as if he were sucked down in a whirlpool to a watery death. His pale skin turning cold blue, he pushed her face up to his. “You are the Afghan cover girl,” he whispered in a trembling voice. “I am Aphrodite,” she said again with a faint smile. She was the Afghan cover girl, she was Aphrodite — a double mission impossible, an explosion of fear and passion! Take me now, he said, slit my throat and cut off my head, I have seized life far beyond my dreams.
God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and nothing happens but what God wills. God willed that Psycho remember his mission orders: PSYCHO SEIZE APHRODITE STOP. God willed that a week earlier Aphrodite’s husband had been killed by an IED misplaced in the sheep’s meadow. No one could better guide the Taliban to avoid American forces than a former Signal Service leader. Psycho converted to Islam, pledged his allegiance to the Taliban, and married Aphrodite. They had a beautiful boy whom they named Hermaphroditus. Psycho, by expertly guiding the Taliban away from American forces, saved many lives. Soldiers here argue about whether he’s a hero, a traitor, or just a soldier who strictly followed his orders. But no one has any doubt that Psycho has a good life, especially since we heard that Aphrodite arranged for him to have three other beautiful, loving wives.
And that was the story that the old man told, in his drunkenness and delirium, to the captive and captivated soldier. And I — standing off to one side, not too far away — I was in anguish, believe you me, because I had neither steno books nor stylus to record such a beguiling fiction.
The Prosecutor-Advocate arrived with two assistants, all in crisply pressed uniforms with badges neatly ordered in colorful rows flaring on their breasts. The young soldier tilted back his head so that his handcuffed right hand could reach it in salute, but by pulling on the understrut he caused the center drawer of the desk above him to cha-chink open like a cash register. The officers ignored the metallic rattling and addressed him.
Soldier, you are charged with three counts of failing to offer to carry the pack of a woman soldier on full retreat from fearful and ferocious Taliban fire. According to the enacted Rules of Engagement for all active-fire acts in this theater, you are to ask the woman soldier if she wants you to carry her pack, asking politely, respectfully, and without any hint of inferiority. If she says no, you are to ask her again. If she says no, then you are to ask her a third time. If she says no again, then you are free to run as fast as you can with only your pack on your back. Did you receive the Bible-thick book of Rules of Engagement in the pre-mission briefing meeting? The young soldier nodded his head vigorously, but carefully, so as not to bang his head on the metal desk drawer above. Then he sputtered, “But sir, my buddy had his legs blown off in a brutal Taliban blast.” The officer glared at him, and said only, “Do you understand your rights?” The soldier started sobbing. The officer and his assistants remained stiff and solemn.
Outraged, I ambled over and nuzzled one assistant’s fingers, held curved inwards at the bottom of his straight arm. I licked his fingers and acted as if I were just an ass hoping for a carrot. The assistant, born and bred on a farm in Arkansas, unconsciously started stroking my ears. Playing the empty-headed ass, I positioned my rear next to the officer’s legs and let loose with a strong stream of piss, drenching his pants from the knees down and dulling the spit-shine of his black shoes. He turned to his assistant and said, “Lieutenant, get that ass out of here.” I was cruelly yanked by the halter to a far corner of the cave, all the while tingling with pleasure for my good deed. The officer announced, in a voice struggling to maintain command, that they would return in an hour. Then they retreated.
The old man, the retired ex-military hired guard, took a long drink from his bottle. Then he pulled out his pistol, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
* * * * *
The story above is fictional and a parody. It’s meant as literary, social, and media commentary. War, suicides of soldiers, and the privacy of the Afghan woman famous for being on the cover of the National Geographic are serious matters. In my view, they haven’t been taken seriously enough in the past.
Fragmentary data on veterans’ suicides indicates that, as a best estimate, on average 22 veterans commit suicide per day in the U.S. Among those veterans committing suicide, more than 97% are men. See U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Suicide Data Report, 2012, pp. 18, 22. Men’s deaths from suicides, like men’s deaths from interpersonal violence, attract relatively little public concern.
The story above is adapted from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, 4.23-6.30. That section centers on what has come to be known at the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. The story above incorporates close adaptations of sections of Metamorphoses 5.4 and 6.25, from the outstanding English translation of Relihan (2007), also available in Relihan (2009). The later providers useful literary and philosophical context for Cupid and Psyche. Relihan’s A Reader’s Commentary on Cupid and Psyche is freely available online. My adaptation has benefited from Relihan and others’ commentary on Metamorphoses 5.4.
The Afghan girl appeared on the cover of the June, 1985, issue of National Geographic. The title of the article was “A Life Revealed: Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier.” The National Geographic Society searched out and found the Afghan girl in 2002. That generated in the April, 2002, issue of National Geographic an article entitled “A Life Revealed,” with subtitle text, “Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on our cover in 1985. Now we can tell her story.” Wikipedia states:
a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photo, a handful of young men erroneously identified Gula as their wife.
“Afghan Girl Revealed” National Geographic interactive video and the “Afghan Girl Revealed” National Geographic slide show provide information consistent with Wikipedia’s statement and more details about the development of the story.
In 2002, the National Geographic Society established the Afghan Girls Fund (see NG1). According to the National Geographic Society:
The Afghan Girls Fund (AGF) has worked to realize the wish of Sharbat Gula—whose arresting childhood photograph graced the cover of National Geographic magazine and captured the hearts of its readers—to improve the prospects of Afghan girls and women through education. (see NG2)
By September, 2002, the Afghan Girls Fund has raised about half a million dollars. See NG3. By December 5, 2003, the fund had raised about $832,000. See NG3. In 2008, the National Geographic expanded its effort to boys:
Beginning May 20, 2008, the National Geographic Society will undertake an important change: a new fund to expand the Society’s grant-making efforts to serve all children in Afghanistan—both girls and boys. The new Afghan Children’s Fund (ACF) replaces the current Afghan Girls Fund, a successful and purposeful grant-making program that raised more than $1,000,000 since its inception in 2002. (see NG4)
Despite considerable deterioration in conditions in Afghanistan from September, 2002, to 2008, the rate of fundraising dropped sharply after September, 2002. That’s a common pattern for the media blockbuster effect. The amount of money raised for Afghan girls and boys after 2008 was probably relatively small. Development agencies have prioritized girls and women relative to boys and men. That’s consistent with the value of attractive, vulnerable-looking women for fundraising.
The images in the article above are used under the fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Wikipedia documents fair-use justifications for its use of the National Geographic Afghan girl cover and the Afghan girl photograph. Those justifications are applicable here, with the purpose of an encyclopedic entry replaced by parody of the sensational value of the National Geographic story.
Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Relihan, Joel C. 2009. Apuleius. The tale of Cupid and Psyche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
NG1: National Geographic Society. “The Afghan Girls Fund Educates Young Women and Girls of Afghanistan Stewardship Update – August 2004.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.
NG2: National Geographic Society. George Stuteville for National Geographic News, September 9, 2002. “Afghan Girls to Benefit From NG-Sponsored Education Fund.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.
NG3: National Geographic Society. Jennifer Vernon for National Geographic News, December 5, 2003. “Afghan Girls Fund Update: Over $831,000 Raised.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.
NG4: National Geographic Society. “Afghan Children’s Fund to Help Educate All Young Children of Afghanistan.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.