night vision

Our Afghan brothers cannot see past the ramp
into the black wide open that is
only feet away beneath the turn of our rotors.

Our goggle eyes paint the dark
green with spinny lights and ghosts,
a Van Gogh on black velvet: “Starry Night, with guns.”

We stand Shohna ba Shohna, shuffling off into the churning air.
We will walk down this mountain together at dawn,
stopping in each village. The Afghans will do all the talking.

We may own the night, after all,
but we are renting their country by the day.


Author’s note: “Shohna ba Shohna” is Dari for “Shoulder to Shoulder,” and is the motto for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A). This poem first appeared in the anthology No, Achilles: War Poetry (Water Wood Press, Huntsville, Texas, 2015).

Author: Randy Brown

Randy Brown was embedded as a civilian journalist in 2011 with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, the Iowa National Guard unit with which he served before retiring in 2010. He is a free lance writer and editor, and he operates a blog about military writing and about his former unit at His book of poetry is Welcome to FOB Haiku.

1 thought on “night vision”

  1. “Night Vision” seems to me likely to endure and likely to be often anthologized.

    I know of no other poem from the war in Afghanistan as likely to be canonized in future high school curricula: the poem is accessible, apolitical, spoken from the point of view of an American soldier — and it illuminates what might be the central fact of the long American military operation in Afghanistan.

    This poem quietly shows the unreconcilable clash of cultures, languages, and levels of technology that have frustrated American military efforts in Afghanistan for 15 years.

    Sophisticated technology (night vision goggles) gives Americans enough illumination to see the land immediately beneath the helicopter ramp, something the Afghans without that gear cannot see. But any American confidence that they can see the future of the war, or see and understand Afghan circumstances on the ground, is illusory.

    The night/day contrast underscores the problem, as night and day did in Viet Nam, but in reverse: American units knew that they could go nearly anywhere during the day, but “Charlie owned the night.”

    Randy Brown’s poems often juxtapose such opposites to good effect. He sees similarities and correspondences more keenly than most, and such awareness is at the heart of poetry

    The eighth line sounds like a 1914 music hall song or a church ballad, or perhaps the slogan of a contemporary military campaign. A friend of mine who served in Afghanistan told me that “Operation Enduring Freedom” was often referred to as “Operation Enduring Paycheck.”

    But any suggestion that line eight expresses idyllic partnership, two peoples fighting Shohna ba Shohna, is quickly deflated by the acknowledgement of Americans’ inability to even converse with Afghans, and by the last two lines.

    Those two lines are more didactic than I usually like, but fortunately they are conversational rather than pontifical. Randy Brown prefers the bemused ironic language of ordinary soldiers to the lofty rhetoric of lesser poets and higher officers.

    The word “renting:” that ironic quip succinctly reminds the reader of the war’s high costs and its futility, and of our impermanence in other people’s lands.

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