June 10th, 2017, Zubiri.

The destination was a chest at Santiago de Compostela that contained the bones of Saint James, an early apostle of Christ. I was hiking that day alongside X., my Spanish professor and chaperone on this community college trip to Spain. We were bored. On the thirteen-mile stretch between Zubiri and Pamplona, as on many other stretches of the Camino de Santiago, the countryside was flat, wooded, and unvaried. There were signposts every half-mile or so marked with a shell, the symbol of the Camino. Most of these signposts stood beside a cairn. It’s tradition to carry a stone in your pack to leave atop one of these cairns—a literal unburdening to reflect a spiritual unburdening. But it takes more than a peregrination to lay a real burden down, and so I carried no stone myself.

Somewhere around mile six, X. asked me to tell him stories about my combat deployment to Afghanistan. Afghanistan, I think, is the inverse of the Camino; the American soldier goes there not to lay a burden down but to bring one home. The average American soldier—or Marine, in my case—is too young to know that you don’t have to go around the world to pick up a burden. Life will just lay one on your back.

By this time, I had already exhausted all my juicy stories—all except the death of O., which I kept to myself. But X. still had questions.

“How did you guys get water over there?” he asked.

“In bottles,” I said. “They airdropped us crates of bottled water from Dubai.”

“You’re kidding me,” he said. “It must be—it must be cheaper to drop in a big tank of water every month or so. Bottled water? And how did you shower?”

“With the bottles.”

“Oh, my God,” X. said.

I was surprised that X. was surprised. Drinking bottled water in Afghanistan, and the cages full of thousands of bottles on our outpost, were just things I took as a matter of course while I was deployed. But I wasn’t surprised by X.’s interest in logistical questions: he wasn’t only a professor; he also ran a business installing solar panels in peoples’ roofs. He had the mechanical mind and the environmental consciousness that I lacked. When he talked about his business, he would say, “You can make good while doing good.”

“And what did you do with all the empty bottles?” he asked.

“We recycled them,” I said, and X sighed with relief, shoulders sinking a bit under the weight of the Deuter rucksack he carried. Then I laughed and told him the truth: we burned the bottles, along with all the rest of our trash, in a big pit at the bottom of the hill. X. fumed, expressing disbelief that the American military could find no better solution to the problem of troop hydration than to burn bottled water from Dubai. I had no answer, and we kept walking. I told X. the story of how, near the end of the deployment, Sergeant S. ordered us to move all the bottles of water at Panda Ridge from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill.

The hill took up most of the outpost. There were a few bunkers at the top, from which we stood watch over the north and south of the Helmand River Valley. There was a plywood shack, where I lived with a few other Marines. A necklace of concertina wire crossed the top of the ridge and dropped down the hill to either side, and at the bottom, there was a flat place where armored vehicles could park. The burn pit was there at the bottom, and a well, down which we pooped, and a series of six-foot tall cages, which contained our entire supply of water. This was a nineteen-man outpost, the northernmost in my company’s area of operations, and we entertained few visitors. Any time a convoy from Headquarters drove to us, at least one vehicle hit an IED.

There were two squads of nine men each living at Panda, plus a Navy Corpsman and an Afghan interpreter who had adopted the name Shawn. We alternated days on patrol, and if we followed the ridge to the north, we would get shot at within about a quarter mile. We got shot at once while picking up the trash just outside our wire. After that, we just let the trash collect. Most of it wasn’t ours, after all—ours we burned.

While the fighting lasted, the company would send us on patrols to the north to draw gunfire from Taliban in the valley below. We would detect the enemy, call air support—sometimes air support accompanied us—and then some pilot or other would drop a bomb on some mud-brick stronghold. I wasn’t as skeptical of the water bottles as X. was because I’ve seen the military’s more sophisticated solutions fail. I’ve seen laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles miss their targets. It seemed to me that if the military was giving us drinking water at all, they were achieving fantastic success.

After a few months of fighting the Taliban, the weather got cold, the rainy season drizzled in, and the war seemed to vanish with the heat. It rained for six weeks, often freezing overnight. Neither the Taliban nor the Americans wanted to fight in those conditions. My unit was scheduled to leave Afghanistan sometime in March. I prayed that I would be gone before the lull in the combat ended. I had had enough, more than enough, especially as all our combat operations thus far had yielded nothing but the ugly death of one Private First Class O., an unfortunate boy from Mississippi who was three weeks older than me—nineteen.

I considered it lucky that O. was Panda Ridge’s only dead man.

But the alternative to fighting was labor, and through the winter, we worked between the quiet patrols. We dug an ammo pit the size of a basement and fortified it with sandbags. We built new watchtowers and laid new wire. The adage is, fortification is continuous. It is also drudgery. By the time the rain stopped, and the weather grew warm again, I just wanted to go home. I felt entitled to a break and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting one yet. I read Louis L’Amour on my midday watches; I slept through my night watches. I was lucky never to get caught, either by an infiltrator, or by Sergeant S.

Most of the fortifications were Sergeant S.’s idea. The water bottle party, where we moved the 10,000 bottles to the top of the hill, was definitely S.’s idea. And it was the water bottle party that broke me, I think because I recognized that it was busy work—that the next unit to come along would have all the time in the world to move those bottles wherever the hell they wanted.

I should tell you, we did not move these bottles by hand. The company had airdropped a Bobcat skid-steer at Panda Ridge over the winter. The Bobcat was a small piece of equipment with a scooplike bucket for dirt on its front end, tracked tires, and a cab just big enough for the driver. Its panes were bulletproof glass, its sides reinforced steel, so that a Marine could use it while under fire. Our job that day was to load the water bottles into the Bobcat’s bucket, then wait while the Bobcat labored up the hill to the Marines at the top, who unloaded the bottles into a new series of cages. The hill was so steep and long that the Marines at the top, including Sergeant S., could not see us at the bottom.

It wasn’t even a difficult job. It’s hard to explain why I resented it the way I did, except that I resented everything. I resented the war that could cost me my life for no reason. I resented my decision to participate in that war. I resented the Marines I served with, and I resented the Marines who would relieve us. I resented everyone at home in the States, and I resented, perhaps more than anything, how beaten down I felt after five months on a combat deployment. I thought at that time I should have been strong enough to weather it.

There were about five of us at the bottom of the hill loading bottles, and when the driver returned the third time, he stepped out of the Bobcat to have a cigarette with us. While the empty vehicle sat there, its diesel engine still running, I took one of the water bottles from the tall cage, wound up like a pitcher, and hurled the bottle at the Bobcat as hard as I could. They were cheap, flimsy bottles, and this one exploded like a water balloon as it struck the Bobcat’s armor. None of the Marines asked why I had done it. They just grabbed bottles themselves and pelted the Bobcat along with me.

The way they broke against the machine was thrilling. It was some of the sweetest drumming I’ve ever heard. We broke hundreds of bottles against the Bobcat’s hide. We broke bottles until the ground for yards and yards around turned to mud. The Bobcat’s headlights shattered under the assault, and we even put a crack in the windshield. I suspected the Bobcat’s armor was a sham, just like the laser-guided bombs I had seen miss their targets. I tried to throw even harder. I wanted to break it completely, even if that meant we had to carry up the rest of the water on our backs.

Sergeant S., after a few minutes, came down the hill to put a stop to the rampage. By then, our shoulders ached, and we had achieved a sweet and pointless exhaustion. He only screamed at us for a moment; S., too, had grown tired of the role he played. Mid-harangue, he seemed to see the mess for the first time. A look of confusion covered his face.

“You know,” he said, “you imbeciles are just making more work for yourselves. You know that, right?”

We knew. When the rest of our work was done, we picked up the plastic husks, bagged them, walked them over to the burn pit, doused them with gas, and filled the night with the reek of melting plastic.


X. couldn’t get over it—a soldier drinking from a water bottle disturbed him more than any dead civilian could. And, as I hiked, it disturbed me, too, to imagine—six years after my part in the war had ended—all the plastic in all the pits across Iraq and Afghanistan, still smoking like the long rich bones of oxen on a million Grecian altars. I didn’t so much regret that I had been part of the pollution—I had and have bigger regrets than that—but I couldn’t believe that I’d watched the trash burn and seen nothing wrong with it.

I felt, at the end of the Camino, that I had left behind no burden. Just as, at the end of my deployment to Afghanistan, I felt that I had picked no burden up. Veterans like to say that war is not like a movie. But maybe it is. If it were a movie, the nineteen-year-old me would learn, at the end of his time in Afghanistan, that the burden he sought was inside him all along. I just didn’t know at that time that a burden was what I was looking for, and I didn’t know that it was already a part of me, a weight indivisible from existence. And if it were a movie, in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, I would discover that to be burdened is to be blessed. But it doesn’t feel like a blessing—that’s why enlightenment is never permanent, because reality has such crushing weight.

X. and I did, on the Camino’s final day, see the chest that held Saint James’ remains. Then we attended mass in that cathedral. Like the rest of the pellegrinos there, we still wore our hiking clothes and kept our rucksacks close at hand. I stood in the back of the crowd, and the biggest pipe organ I’ve ever seen trumpeted and reverberated through the stone nave. A priest chanted to us in a dead language, and while he spoke, a great censer swung back and forth from the ceiling, and the smoke floated over us until it disappeared.