The three of us are picking through the desert hardscrabble, collecting the packs another platoon stashed here earlier, when we hear a sound. We turn and look up the ravine toward the dirt road where we parked our truck a few minutes ago. A crowd of maybe 50 Afghan guys is standing up there, seven or eight yards away, looking down at us. A crowd of Afghan guys with guns. A crowd of Afghan guys with guns, who don’t look happy.
It’s early 2002, just a few months after 9/11, and we are in northeastern Afghanistan on a search-and-seizure operation, looking for bad guys. We wonder if maybe we just found some.
We wonder if maybe some just found us.
Now they’re moving closer.
Now they’ve surrounded us. A few have hung back by our truck, and there’s nothing in the sweet wide world stopping them from climbing in and driving it away, leaving us stranded with their armed and very pissed-off friends.
I feel something shifting inside. Certain blood vessels constrict, others dilate. My palms suddenly feel cool yet moist with sweat. Tiny hairs on the backs of my arms and neck stand at attention. My mouth is dry, my hearing suddenly more acute. I can practically feel the release and surge of epinephrine as my adrenals ﬁre off their liquid torpedoes. My face doesn’t show it, but in my mind, I smile. I know what this is.
This is fear. And I’m about to use it.
There’s no time to assess or strategize. This is going down, right now. The handful by the truck have the high ground — always a tactical advantage in any armed conﬂict — and the rest have us immobilized here in the ravine. There are three of us, four or ﬁve dozen of them. They outnumber and outgun us in every possible way. Physically, logistically speaking, there is no way for us to prevail here. We’ll have to do it through sheer balls and bravado.
We shout at them, yell aggressive words we know they don’t understand. They scream back words we don’t know, either.
They push closer. Now they’re physically shoving us.
Our nerve ends are blazing electrochemical ﬁreworks, adrenals and pituitaries lighting up our brain stems and spinal nerves with the buzz of a million years of struggle and survival. The air around us crackles. We shout louder.
They don’t ﬂinch.
We get right up in their faces, as if we were the ones with the upper hand here. We brandish our weapons. If this were a cowboy movie, we would ﬁre shots into the ground at their feet, only this isn’t a movie and we aren’t John Wayne and we are not fucking around here and they know it. If we shoot, it won’t be into the ground.
They stop coming closer. They start backing off.
We hightail our balls and bravado up the ravine and into the truck and back to our camp, our heartbeats gradually returning to normal as we bump along the dirt road. Were we afraid? You bet your ass we were.
That’s what saved us.