War Journal 36: The Land of Bags

Musa Qala Provincial District. Image provided courtesy of NATO.

I had to fight the urge to call this post Bag End. While the stylistic charm and nod to Tolkien would’ve been clever, I didn’t want the association with The Shire to prevail with its imagery. You will find no gentle, rolling green hills, no hairy-toed hobbits smoking long pipes and shooting the breeze in The Land of Bags. No beautiful meadows, no Samwise, no Sackville-Bagginses. Here you will only find dry, cracked ground strewn with rocks, tents that swelter in the heat of the day, Marines that smoke ‘em if they got ‘em and bum ‘em if they don’t.

This is Musa Qala, Afghanistan. There are bags here, different types for different things. This is where I was on assignment for the first part of the week. These are some of the bags you can find here.


These are Meals Ready to Eat, a complete meal in a bag. Lunch service consists strictly of these. Inside the big MRE bag you’ll find a half dozen smaller bags, pouches really, of fare such as applesauce and chicken and pesto and chocolate pudding. There’s a pouch lined with packs of gray, ash-like powder in mesh; you add water and that powder chemically reacts, spits out smoke, and turns too hot to touch. You put your pouch of spaghetti and meatballs or sloppy joe or chicken breast in with this chemical reaction and let it cook.

This is lunch. Breakfast and dinner are provided by the Marines, in a tent that ostensibly serves as a dining facility. However, the food for breakfast and dinner also come from bags, really little more than institutional sized MREs, but they are welcome, if nothing else for the comfort of having a meal you didn’t have to prepare yourself by putting bags into other bags and adding water and waiting.


This stands for Waste Alleviation and Gelling Bag. If you’ve never taken a dump in a bag, let me assure you, the novelty quickly disintegrates… much faster than the biodegradable bags will. For me the novelty evaporated before the bowel movement, as I unwrapped the bag and dressed it over what was essentially a potty for adults. It brought me back to a childhood I had blissfully forgotten, memories hammered home with the help of the raised platform they put the potty on. I assume that it’s easier to manage the bag after the fact, but before the fact I’m hopping up on this raised platform like it’s a booster seat. Rugged outdoorsman or not, they won’t be making any Old Spice commercials about this anytime soon.

Cleaning up is an exercise in frugality. To aid in this exercise, they provide just the essentials… one wet nap and a pack of four napkins. I say napkins because this pack is actually the same pack of wipes they provide in the MRE bag. These two systems of bags feed into each other in more ways than one.

Under Eyes

There were many of those. My flight to Musa Qala was at 3 in the morning. The return flight was two days later at 4:30 A.M. Not just under my eyes, the Marines sport them too. The day I arrived many of them were returning from several days in the field, sweeping the region for improvised explosive devices. Their find of weapon caches was minimal, but so were injuries, which to me meant mission accomplished.

The roof of a three story white building provides an excellent view of the surrounding landscape. A wadi feeds a narrow strip of trees that stretch green from one end of the valley to another. A giant mountain dominates the Northern horizon, a mountain that would impress any hairy-toed hobbit looking for Smaug. If anyone lives in that mountain, it would be a different type of dragon, planning similar destruction to the denizens living under the mountain’s shadow.

The compound sits in the middle of a provincial district, which means the wadi directly outside the base is host to throngs of people during the day, Afghans who come in on bikes and trucks and horses and on foot, bringing goats and sheep and loads of general goods and household wares and shiny trinkets to sell to each other. One man gathers a crowd around him, but he’s selling nothing other than the words he speaks. I only hope they’re positive words, free of anti-American sentiment. I know being in the heart of a provincial district with only a few HESCO barriers to protect us doesn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. This fact only adds to the bags under my eyes until I fly out of there.

I had a bad feeling in Musa. It wasn’t the conditions; expect field conditions when you’re in the field. I think it had to do with us being in the epicenter of so much traffic. I don’t put it on premonition, as I generally don’t have a clue of what’s going on in plain sight, much less what will occur on some fuzzy date in the future. But there were a few bags that I didn’t see in Musa Qala. Remember, I flew out in the wee hours of the morning, bags under my eyes. Later that same day more bags came to Musa. Specifically, shit bags with the sole purpose of creating body bags.

Sometimes my war in the trenches goes outside of story rejections and acceptances, with bigger backdrops than my inbox. While I was in Musa, before the suicide bombs changed the landscape, one of the advanced readers of my novel wrote to me and said this:

“Stay safe out there, man; we need to keep you around long enough to get through that final draft.”

I told him it was one of the best compliments on my work I’ve ever received. I’ll do my best on my end, but getting a final draft isn’t necessarily something that’s already in the bag.



Filed under War Journals

6 responses to “War Journal 36: The Land of Bags

  1. Very informative. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Stacey

    “Very informative” ? Really? Um, this is more than informative, this is gut wrenching. That comment makes me angry. I’m sitting here with tears welling in my eyes for a soldier, an American, a writer, a husband, a father, a man that I’ve only met through written words, who sits in a warzone thousands of miles away from home, afraid of dying at the hands of terrorist savages. I can feel fear and worry seeping through the gristle about food and shit. Fear and worry that grows in my heart like a cancer. And this clown says, “very informative,” like it’s a manual on how to plant asparagus.
    I sit here in my home, comfortable and safe and I say, FUCK! That sucks! How can I complain that I don’t have time to write because my kids are yelling at each other and the house is messy? How can I bitch that I’m tired and my stocked fridge yields me nothing that I’m in the mood to eat? I can’t. And whenever I do get the urge to act like a spoiled American, I think of guys like you, James, who do what you do so that I can feel comfortable and safe. Suddenly everything looks a little sweeter and I don’t feel like bitching any longer. My back gets straighter and my resolve gets stronger.
    Thank you James, for what you’re doing. Thank you to your family for sacrificing. Tell all the men and women over there that I thank them too. I’m praying for all of you to come home safe. And I’m not just saying that.

    • Until you wrote this I thought it was just me failing as a writer. Sometimes I miss the mark on what I’m trying to convey… I got the rejection letters to prove it. Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    My son is in Musa Qala NOW! Only 6 weeks into his 7 month deployment. Naturally these are not the things we talk about during our very brief Facebook chats. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to look thru the window at a glimpse of what he is experiencing.

  4. Ann

    My nephew is there now for his second deployment and I worry about him everyday. We try to send “comforts from home” to share with others–the happiness of receiving mail from home. We all care.

  5. Kathy

    James, call me crazy, but this Marine mom likes your writing style and your blog today…Land of Bags. I get more from the “writers in the trenches” than from anyone else. Keep it up.. oh, and….Retreat Hell!

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