I believe in the power of teddy bears. I know it sounds funny, and I’d be laughing myself if I hadn’t seen their power first hand. This past year I deployed with the Air Force to Bagram Airfield, in Northern Afghanistan. The area around Bagram is filled with extremes. It is both ruggedly beautiful, and desperately poor. It is peaceful and serene, and then punctuated with unbelievable violence and the scars of decades of conflict. It is an area where millions of landmines peacefully coexist with little children playing in war torn fields, most of the time. It is like nothing else I have ever seen or experienced.
North of Bagram is a valley, more beautiful that the words I could use to describe it. The name of the place is Panjshir, and it is a narrow corridor in the earth, carved by the river that flows into the Shomali plains. It is the valley that broke the Soviet Union, turning back seven armored divisions. It is the valley that the Taliban never captured, creating a flood of refugees who moved against the flow of the river to find safety. Like Bagram, it is also filled with extremes. The people living in the valley are blessed with the wealth of unbelievable scenic beauty, but that beauty is interrupted by the rusting hulks of destroyed armored personnel carriers and other vestiges of war.
I believe in the power of Teddy bears because I have seen Hell. Hell exists on Earth, but it’s not a place. Hell is what happens when you lose all hope, or even worse, when you lose all hope of ever finding hope. It is despair, and I saw it on the faces of people as we passed. Not everyone, but just those who were paying attention. As we drove by, they could tell the difference that separated them by nothing more than a car door. It was the difference between wealth and abject poverty, the difference in winning or losing the lottery at birth. The funny part was, I never saw it in the children. There’s a magic about childhood that transcends hope. Kids play and live life without worrying about the responsibilities, and sometimes the despair of adulthood.
On our way out of the valley we passed an old man and what I can only guess to be his grandson. He heard the vehicles coming, and pulled the child in close. There was something in his expression that wasn’t inviting, but maybe it was just the cold and the snow. As we slowed down to pass, I held a bright blue teddy bear out the window. I remember feeling bad that the bear was so bright, more of a girl’s Teddy Bear than a boy’s. The little boy didn’t care. He grabbed it before the offer went away, and hugged with both arms. The old man looked right at me, “Tashakkur”, Thank you. I watched until they disappeared around a bend behind us, and my last image of them is of the child still hugging his bear. I don’t know how you would describe the look on the old man’s face. I still see it today. Maybe it was just a smile, but maybe it was hope that his grandson wouldn’t live in the same world he did. I guess we all wish that, or hope for it.
I hear lots of talk in our nation about the Global War on Terror, and my opinions change and evolve with that debate. However, we seem to miss the root cause in that discussion. Hell is what causes terrorism. It’s about pure desperation, and feeling like there’s no way of recovering the hope of childhood. I’m not saying that we’ll be able to win this conflict with teddy bears alone, but when I deploy next I’m packing a bag full of the little furry creatures just in case.
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