Afghanistan or bust!: An analysis of what is socially acceptable for a lipstick-lovin’, high-heel wearin’, Norwegian all-girl band entering the most dangerous war zone on earth, at this precise moment
“If you get bitten by a snake, make sure you bring the snake to the medic so they know what kind it is.”
-Second Lt. Svein Arne Henriksen
This article was originally published for NöMusicMedia in 2009. Unfortunately we’re not able to replicate the huge discussion that went down in the comments sections once this article was published. Suffice to say, the Cables’ decision to go to Afghanistan was not an easy one- it was fraught with political debate, heavy research amongst news reporters, and a question of overall integrity. But looking back, this was probably one of the greatest experiences of my traveled life and I’m glad we went.
We’re on a bus transferring us from Oslo Gardemoen to the nearby military airport, seated in the back with about 40 Norwegian & Latvian military dudes. What a shock for those strapping young lads who’d loitered outside Gardemoen whistling at us, four virile young girls, and see them suddenly pile into the same transfer coach as them, check-in at the same military base, and board the same military plane to that same destination. Meanwhile, I’m chucking down painkillers and cough syrup to overcome various unsettlements— Everything about this trip is unlike any tour I’ve been on before. When we arrive at the airport, only one sign reads “Check-in / Kabul – red / MeS – blue / Meymaneh – green”, so I ask the Cables where we’re to go, nobody has a bloody clue. We don’t know the name of our destination, we don’t got no friggin’ tour manager, we don’t know the name of our transfer airport in Turkey, we don’t go through a single security check, we don’t recognize the name of the airline when the stewardess mentions it overhead— and after a nauseating airplane dinner and probably the overdose of painkillers, I endure what would be the beginning of 24 hrs of intensive, knee-shakin’ sprutræv. God help me.
Landing in Mazar-e Sharif 29/10
14 hours of sleep and I’m still ill— chills, coughing, my lungs are about to give in–but at least after a stopover heat-sensor check in Turkey I know it’s not svine flu. My head’s dizzy in wonderment– we land and shuffled along with other soldiers, receive bulletproof vests and helmets, meet our contact Lundevold, still clutching my stomach as we endure security briefings about the nearest bomb shelter should anything happen(!), the various kinds of warning signals, and an extremely informative Q&A from a man-in-charge, about the general overview of the Norwegians’ presence in Afghanistan. Looking back on this now, it became the beginning of much myth-dispelling about what, and why Norwegian soldiers were in Afghanistan*—
(*a friend of mine later would point out the ironies of all the feminist intellectuals (esp. Swedish) sitting comfortably in their newest anti-war, pro-feminazi stances when these soldiers spend days building roads, schools and focussing on increasing rights and education opportunities for the women in local towns)—
Heading for our first concert in Kabul now. I overhear with my shaky Norwegian that there were deadly bombings last night in the city, again…
In MeS’s pre-flight waiting locker, walls adorned with flags around the world, photos, warning signs, a cafe– first sense of that fear as an announcement in German blares in speakers, in a flash, all the German soldiers jump up and stampede out the room, sounds of packing guns, rifles, those heavy vests loaded in armory… I get a strange rush, the kind you’re supposed to hate being liberal, left-leaning intellectuals when watching some movie glorifying the military— but I can’t help it, these masses of soldiers packing up right in front of me, scooting out to war and its like a proud, adrenaline propelling unified run against “bad”— I don’t think we truly understand it, passive civilians absorbing it the way Hollywood sends it to us— nerves a bit jittery, and still unsure about the total itinerary in the next few days, I do feel strangely calm and safe surrounded by our Norwegian peers.
When it’s our turn to leave, occurs to me its a whole lot of effort just to hear a small band from Norway play– everywhere we go there are at least 3-5 men loading for us the entire PA, backline, mixer, cables and cables. Shit, bombs are flying over Kabul and we’re flying straight into the heart of it TO PLAY A CABLES CONCERT.
Two Dutchmen in civilian wear introduce themselves as the pilots for the next few days, the(ir) stewardess wears a green Tshirt that reads on the back, “DON’T PANIC — WE’VE DONE THIS BEFORE!”** As we get settled, the co-pilot asks us if anyone wants to ride up front in the cockpit. The girls look at each other, not quite understanding his English; Marte declines, so he turns to me and I can’t contain myself, “HELL YES!!” I have been flying my whole life, and like a giddy child for the first time get to sit shotgun in a military plane!! From an exciting takeoff to reaching an altitude around 7100, incredible view passing over gorges of deserts, small towns, mountains and snow-capped ridges to– circling around Kabul city, and a smooth landing. — fuck yea!
(**Days after we’re home a soldier sends us news that the second engine on that exact plane actually dies mid-air, and for the first time the stewardess with the “Don’t Panic” shirt actually, freaks out…)
KAIA is the name of the airport and base, all deadset in city centre. It’s an old Russian base we learn, and everything looks haphazard, the containers waving varying flags, trash bags lining streets, construction work, barbed wire. However naive Marte’s first exclamation about Kabul sounds, “Wow, there is dust everywhere…”, she is absolutely right— its the first thing that strikes you, the dry smell and clouds and clouds of lung stifling– dust.
Kabul – Gig numero uno, or, nummer eine!
We played three sets in the span of one night at a military club Air Force One. Not 1. Not 2. THREE SETS. By the third set, drunk non-Norwegian soldiers were mouthing along to all the choruses, and at our Joan Jett cover, “I love rock’n’roll”, pretty much drunken sailor/soldier stage-diving mayhem ensues. Cameras waved at us for hours– the Finns want a group photo, the Belgium, the Italians, god the crazy Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Turkish medical team who offer me drugs. I smile so much my jaw hurts and it’s a total photographic blitzkrieg, roll the red carpet and we’re like celebrities. The Cables might never make it big in Norway but it’s reassuring that our fan base will remain strong in, bleedin’ Afghanistan.
en route to Meymanneh from Kabul
Last night in Kabul whilst laying in bed totally alone, listening to machetes and machine guns firing from a range to too distant from our block, like bam-bam-bam… pow-pow-pow-pow…and the rest of the girls out with soldiers, I thought to myself if some bullets begin penetrating the wood of this here cabin, and somehow I make it alive, I will:
1) amass the entirety of Neil Young’s back catalogue
2) invest in more Circle albums
3) quit the Cables
4) …and buy life insurance
5) tell my next of kin, Ben Sand, that I’m still alive when I get internet in Mazar-e Sharif
Much time spent these first few nights in bed, a combination of sick recovery, reading articles in the Financial Times, and wondering how the hell I ended up here, the “face” of Norway. We’re told every country brings a band over about once a month, Belgium night, Italian night, etc. We’re the first girl band to ever play Afghanistan. Thinking a lot on my own situation, projecting to the future and what’ll happen come April— I can’t even get bloody visa past June 2010, and everything the last few years for me has been revolving around this struggle to stay in Norway— here I am, we have actual Norwegian P O L I T I driving from in the city to Air Force One (our venue) to support us, I am playing a concert on “NORWAY NIGHT” in Kabul, promoting Norway to international soldiers— after a powerpoint presentation of all things Norwegian– vikings, snowboarding and Edvard Grieg plays, and I, Ann Sung-an Lee, turn up as the motherfucking face of Norway. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, a real poseur!
See UDI? See this photo of me & yr troops in Afghanistan? See me on the tank waving the Norwegian flag? See me play for the proud, life-sacrificing people in your country? See me represent Norway in an international showcase? Doesn’t this mean shit or are you still gunna throw me outta the country?
Always the outside observer, I’m the American who is full force avoiding American soldiers. Hell, it’s the first time I’ve felt proud of any country. Norway. I think I could legally have my citizenship taken away for that statement (Irony nr. 323, my parents, Taiwanese immigrants who struggled full-fledged for a green card, and to have their firstborn daughter in US of A grows up, renounces her country of birth and joins some obscure country’s army, ha!) American soldiers have strange body shapes, like lopsided versions of our European counterparts. You can spot them a mile away. They have really overbloated, pear shaped bodies. Really tiny heads and fat stomaches, and oft that small-town accent to accompany— strange.
We truly are given the VIP treatment, accompanied throughout the entire trip by one big, and one small, lean mean fighting machines: Lundevold (aka Ludde), and Henriksen (aka Teddiksen). They are our dear escourts, buddies, tour manager, soundman, lightman, crew, bodyguards and more, making the level of threat at least on the Norwegian camps feel relatively low. They have a warm place in our hearts.
The agenda of the Norwegian soldiers I’ve come to understand is quite different from the States and British. For example, Henriksen explaining to me that Norwegian soldiers who enter towns with a non-aggressive appearance of guns on hanging on their sides, whereas Americans would enter a town with their guns pointed out, loaded or ready to fire. I mean when inquiring about why Oslo Politi were in Kabul city, I learned they were there to TRAIN Afghan police– I mean cops in Oslo don’t ever carry guns!, I asked– and received a response, that perhaps that’s why they called on the Norwegian police, the instill methods of resolving conflict without the use of weapons. I mean shit, isn’t that like the stuff peace is made outta, Gandhi, prize-winnding material— or is it totally naive, when we’re fully aware of the corruption going about?? One question I don’t even dare raise is the influence of opium, which is a third of this country’s industry.
Meymaneh: just another vacation under the sun…
Few residual shell marks from Silje’s gun after being out at the shooting range today– we shot at cans with HK-47s and hand pistols on one of the main Norwegian camps, which is a very Norwegian camp. Clean toilets, hot doctors, excellent food (the cafeteria buffet boast imported crayfish, smoked salmon, tyttebaer, fruit salad, etc) and a tanning roof to boot. 26+ degree weather, and we break out the bikinis and spend a relaxing two days here. See, war is fun, right? Whatever non-violent, non-militaristic dogmas we might have had have gone right out the window and we’re tank-ridin’ military babes, salutin’ to the flag, God bless Norway, heia Norge! and one more things for definite— we LOVE the Norwegian military.
Not the Americans.
Not the Spanish.
Not the Germans. Well mostly not the Germans.
Not the Latvians. Definitely not the Latvians. (Though inclined to empathize however irritating they’ve been on this trip for being hired to protect the Norwegians, ala that annoying nextdoor Polack construction-worker model: rich, northern westernized countries hiring more poor eastern europeans to do dirty work)
Not the Italians. Who the Norwegians men tell us are all gay.
Maybe the Portuguese. (due to well-fashioned uniforms & some stunning looking soldiers…)
Which leads me to my next point:
“THE STRAIGHTEST OF THE STRAIGHT” (and why we love them)
We, as Oslo women, are oft complaining about either your average laxidasical Oslo rocker boy in their nudie jeans and some obscure band tshirt with the work ethic of a donkey’s ass, or are one cordoned off to the bar/rock industry, hence, usually conscious during the hours of 10pm-6am and only intelligible drunk, AND prone to leave you naked and cold those early hours in the morning because they suddenly got some tortured artistic angst about the burden of the world on their shoulders— or regret that they’re 30+ and have done FUCK ALL with their lives– that they work shit jobs and can’t please you so therefore, will never try—
we rant about these west side types, some photographer or journalist who only drinks on the weekends – likes to watch NRK documentaries, long walks in the park, talk philosophical— you find yourself with mildly increased knowledge but, still are utterly bored and unsatisfied. Whilst thinking you’re severely in need of a screw, all you can do is watch the latter’s lips move to some pontification on current politics or the state and or, of blah.
WELL LADIES. The answer has finally arrived. Let me introduce you to:
(Norwegian or fill in country of preference) MILITARY MEN.
They are guaranteed, as horny as you are, devoted, disciplined, moral, buff, sensitive, travelled, carry a strong sense of social justice, compassionate, team workers…Their level of irony, creativity or wit may be completely shot (ha) but they are that reeel old school stuff we call “good men”. Which of course begs the question – do we chicks just want a “good” guy? And whatever good might mean– even if its just protecting women and their babies– isn’t that reason enough to call the good, and the ones who aren’t for that, bad? At least their level of commitment, the discipline, is something I admire, and makes all these rocker boys we know who basically live with one arm hanging off the bar, look a bit, like misfits. (Another friend joked— if Kabul is the epitome of representing the strongest and fittest men from each nation, I guess at Oslo Sportsbar you’ll find the opposite.)
Back to what I was sayin’– the straightest of the straight. Everytime I’ve tried to crack a joke related to drugs or alcohol I just get a dead silencing look from a Norwegian soldier, or when I tell Ludde this is the longest I’ve been sober in about three years, he just shakes his head in half belief-disgust. Hehe. Try six months to a year, or even a lifetime they tell me. I get the point. Of course, the fact that the Norwegians are the only camp with a strict no-alcohol matter is something to be admired, from all the accidents of drunk boys with big egos and guns – historically not the best combination. Ain’t no laughing matter, really– so we gratefully chug down some .02% Becks, Erdinger. (But you could pretty much get a sweaty German to fart in a can and there you’d have a non-alcoholic Holstein.)
Two concerts later, we regretfully leave Meymaneh and head back to MeS with only one thought in my mind: the dreaded next show, a 40 minute drive on the road, just outside MeS.
“Jag är inte sjuk, jag är bare svensk”: The Camp of Northern Lights
Before I leave for this trip, I write in my journal, “Ann’s last will. At my funeral, I would please like the following song played: NEIL YOUNG – “WINTERLONG” And I’d like my friends and family to take a moment of silence picturing me dancing atop a counter in a bar in heaven or somewheres.”
For the record, at no point before hearing about this journey or the days leading up to it did I EVER agree to doing this. I have no clue how I got persuaded to vest up and sit in that jeep– was it worth it? Even if they reassured us, we’d travel in a convoy, that jammers would set off any bomb 100m before us, OR that they had night vision goggles. Was it worth it? Playing to a host of seated, boring Swedish dudes? Probably not. They were generous of course, after the fact, but I have hardly experience the level of fear as I did in that car. One moment on our way back from this camp I realized that should anything happen on the road, I would probably go out in the most shameful way imaginable— with incredibly bad laks breath and a non, I mean a NON alcoholic beer in my hand. I don’t believe in God, but happy at least Silje did some praying.***
(***Few days after we arrive home, we receive news that a bomb did go off on the original route we were to take– Five Swedish soldier critically injured, their translator is killed.)
A well-deserved exit: 600 beating hearts in MeS
Sometimes pictures speak louder then words. The crowd goes so far back on all sides we can’t even see faces, a huge glowing full moon hovers above, the same glittering stars we find comfort knowing Oslo is under, the cool night air blowing in our hair, our Norwegian comrades up front with “C – A – B – L – E – S ” painted on their bodies. One day left, and I’m just wondering how it’s going to be explaining it to our friends back home. Well, I’m alive right? Neil Young, here Iz come.
A short documentary was made by the band of their trip: