Remember our soldiers in a foreign land

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A book had been sitting on my desk, unread, for well over a year. It's a loaner from a parishioner -- a 2003 best-seller by a first-time novelist titled "The Kite Runner" by Afghanistan native Khaled Hosseini, a U.S. citizen. What prompted me finally to read it was President Obama's recent decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

"The Kite Runner" is set in that desolate Central Asian nation -- dominated by the Soviets during the 1980s and then, after their withdrawal by the Taliban.

The novel is one of the best -- and saddest -- works of fact-based fiction I've read in some time. The author has since written a sequel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," also set in Afghanistan. The Cape Girardeau Public Library has a copy, and it is now on my nightstand.

I know dreadfully little about this nation, but as an American, concerned with the welfare of U.S. troops probably for an indefinite period, it behooves me to learn. Our building superintendent at Centenary Church, retired Army Lt. Col. Paul Bond, served in Afghanistan for more than five months. Paul talks about stepping off the plane in the capital city of Kabul and being overwhelmed with the beauty of the purple mountains -- reminiscent of the Colorado Rockies. The highways there, he said, are equivalent to our county roads. It is, by American standards of technological progress, a backward nation laced with rampant corruption. It is the locale in which Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps developed. When I think of this land, I think of bin Laden hiding there in a cave -- although that cave is now likely to be in neighboring Pakistan.

In terms of religion, the official name of the country tells all: the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. As is the case in Christianity, there are denominations within Islam. Afghans are overwhelmingly Sunni with a small percentage of Shiites. Other religions make up just one percent of the population, mainly Hindus and Sikhs. The Hosseini novel says the Quran is conspicuous at events such as weddings. The Muslim holy book is held over the heads of the bride and groom as they process into the hall.

Americans and Afghans are divided by many things, including religion, geography, topography and form of government. The most important difference, however, may be in outlook. Americans tend to be an optimistic lot. We're known for looking on the bright side and being proactive about life. Novelist Hosseini advises there is a deep fatalistic streak in his homeland. As he puts it: "Life goes on, Afghans like to say, [and life] is unmindful of beginning or end, crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow dusty caravan." This is not, I'm persuaded, how the typical American thinks about the business of living.

When there is a basic difference in outlook or worldview, it is a challenge to find common ground. Our soldiers will have no reminders of the Christmas season in Afghan culture. They will only be present in various U.S. encampments and bases of operation. My prayer -- and I hope yours -- is for our soldiers in that barren and landlocked land, far from home, in a place that knows or cares little for the one known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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