Before the Blast


First Person

How expats fashion online identities while living in a war zone.

All photos by Deni Ellis Béchard.

A shop owner jokingly points a toy gun at the author in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. All photos by Deni Ellis Béchard.

All wars have their aesthetic: the grainy newness of the World Wars, the photographer up close, in mud or water, his speed and fear palpable in the washed-out, often blurred images of men; the Cold War a stark espionage mystery, less action than mood, its clues hidden in the diplomatic formality of competing decadent powers; Vietnam a single black-and-white photo so horrifyingly violent it punctured the jingoism of American imperialism and showed its nihilistic core; and Afghanistan, its online presence as garish as the Las Vegas skyline—street shots and selfies transmuted by the virtual gears of social-media editing, their contrast, sharpness, and saturation jacked up until followers feel as if their neurons are feasting on the very opiates that keep the Taliban in business. 

And each war has its signature story. Afghanistan’s coincides with the rise of social media. In the online world where banal weekend jaunts resemble the Odyssey and afflict followers with post-feed depression—the feeling after seeing glistening legs on a beach or a sunset clipped by an airplane’s wing (not, notably, the cramped economy seat or credit-card bill)—establishing a social-media presence in a war zone is more than self-fashioning; it’s reincarnation, maybe even creation ex-nihilo. Expats’ Facebook and Instagram avatars often emerge as if by divine birth, leaving followers unable to fathom how that bookish college friend wound up motorcycling around Kabul or hiking the Hindu Kush with a few smiling local dudes in pajamas who, to the untrained eye, are obviously Taliban. 

These unofficial correspondents work in a number of fields, from aid and development to journalism, to the many IT, security, and office jobs created courtesy of “nation building.” A photo a day, or every few days, is enough for friends back home to construct a thriller or an epic. There’s our hero, in the street, snapping a selfie as a convoy of monstrous armored vehicles pass! Far off, a foreign sun strikes mountains. The crispness of lux-induced shadows warns the viewer of impending disaster and calls to mind certain landscape frames from Breaking Bad that are powerfully dramatic while being nearly as motionless as stills: the distant, radiating light, the small silhouettes almost erased by the desert. The viewer stares in anticipation for the gunshot that doesn’t come until a later episode, when the violence is swift and unrelenting. Our country’s long cinematic tradition has trained us to see these stylized images and expect drama and action. So when a Facebook feed showcases a heavily filtered, high-contrast photo of an old man in a turban pushing a trash cart, trailed by a dirty-faced boy, we search for meaning, perceiving America’s failures in their hunched figures. In Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, Virginia Heffernan writes of the power of depth cues—“marked contrasts of light and shadow”—to evoke moral heft, profoundness, and consequence. So many of the photos posted from Afghanistan appear to be taken the moment before the blast. 


An officer stands guard at Kabul police headquarters.

On and off between 2009 and 2014, I spent time there, writing articles and selling photos while hammering away on Into the Sun, a novel about the expat culture in Kabul during the collapse of the foreign-aid bubble after the so-called civilian surge. During that time, I came to know other expats both in the flesh and from their feeds. NGO bureaucrats lived quietly in real time while their avatars came to life through street shots that heightened the otherness of Afghanistan with the editing effects my generation grew up associating with war: grain and vignetting that evoke nostalgia for bygone eras, war’s romantic futility, the exotic alienation of the white savior.

Meeting new arrivals in Afghanistan, I was often reminded of Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, when “he looked quickly up into the hard noon glare. ‘Was that a grenade?’ he asked with excitement and hope.” When expats’ online selves merged with the destruction reported in the larger media, they achieved, in record time, the contact with war that Pyle longed for. Pictures of locations they had visited overlapped with violence in a hypertemporal way: Each car bomb or mortar strike in a place where they’d previously recorded themselves became an attack against the constructed idea of themselves. If someone they had briefly spoken to died, they posted about the affiliation in a way that remembered the death far less than it glorified their own courage. I was wary of this public act of remembering, which seemed to defy the physical world so fully that it called to mind the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s view of consciousness, in which each moment is imprinted by all previous, and the ineffability of time is graspable only through intuition and imagination.

On several occasions, I visited places the war struck not long after I’d been there. One time was at the National Defense University, a training center for the Afghan military, where one of my “guardian angels”—as the Army calls the soldiers who accompany embedded journalists—told me we were in a safe zone and took off his body armor. Later that summer, an Afghan soldier opened fire there, wounding more than a dozen coalition forces and killing the highest-ranking American general to die in the war. Another time, I was working on a photo-essay of the surveillance center at the Kabul police headquarters, where the large, semicircular chamber was mounted with dozens of flat screens showing feeds from cameras so powerful the police could pan over the city or zoom in on license plates. A few months later, a suicide bomber dressed like an officer made it inside the waiting room. Several of the Afghans I’d met there were wounded and one died.

My proximity to those events was slight, but I’d become accustomed to expats posting about the war’s encroachment on any space they occupied. I refrained, since I couldn’t think of a way to mention them that wouldn’t merely augment the drama of my own life. But the proximities—both real and virtual—continued, and in most cases the many blasts and deaths that followed seemed to absorb the blasts and deaths that went before, making it difficult to find a specific attack on Google, so many of the words being the same. I considered that there might be no harm in letting my online profile cannibalize the dead’s brief flicker on the news feeds. I couldn’t decide if doing so would be a way of remembering them or if their public identities would simply be metabolized into my own, and forgotten.

This shaping of one’s persona with the raw material of the war seemed to be the point of much of the self-fashioning on social media. Many expats built their reputations and careers simply by living in Afghanistan, and a number of those I knew had arrived jobless, with no experience in war zones or with the types of work available there. They attached themselves to random projects, biding time until their presence gave them the credentials they needed to be hired. Infused with the authority of their avatars, they carried themselves with the disheveled, world-weary gravity of celebrity explorers.

The Internet allowed for so many ways to connect, converse, co-opt, absorb, and experience war. The U.S. might claim no diplomatic relationship with terrorists, but I watched their representatives provoke each other on Twitter, like soldiers jeering at each other across a battlefield. Here is @ISAFmedia boasting about stabilizing Afghanistan: “The outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorists put innocent Afghans in harm’s way?” And a Taliban spokesman tweeting back: “I dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n ‘harm’s way’ da pst 10 yrs. Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to talk bout ‘harm’s way.’”

Just as expats like me could follow the masterfully disseminated ideology of the Taliban and Islamic State—watching videos of beheadings and the fallout from improvised-explosive devices, or even trying their rudimentary Jihadist video games—our acquaintances back home could follow us closely. We could exchange texts and photos from taxis in downtown Kabul, connecting so casually it was hard to remember my first trips abroad, when I had to befriend people who would let me use their phones to call home collect. On Skype or WhatsApp, I spoke to friends as Blackhawks passed above my rooftop, the beating of their rotors resonating in the walls and rattling the windows. “Are those helicopters?” they asked in hushed voices, startled to hear the sound they most associated with American war movies.

But while living in Afghanistan, I myself suffered post-feed depression. Seeing profiles of fellow expats, I envied their courage, and though I knew that we all experienced fear, our avatars were divested of it. We watched each other testing boundaries—searching for adventure, knowledge, prestige—and we wanted to test our own. The thing with the war is that you couldn’t touch it as much as you wanted to until suddenly you were touching it so much you wished you could be anywhere but there. Sometimes, speaking to other expats, I saw the frost tingeing their faces and knew they’d gone too far, had seen the energy of that radical online ideology bleed violently into life. 

A young man sits on an armored personnel carrier, with Kabul in the background.

In 2014, during the elections, the expats I shared a house with in Kabul had a dinner party. One of the guests had been staying with a friend at the Serena, a well-fortified hotel popular with foreigners. She’d invited him to join, but he’d decided to stay, and she messaged him when she arrived, asking if he was sure. A little later, during dinner, someone noticed on Twitter that gunshots had been heard inside the Serena. We followed as the tweets came in more and more quickly—of hotel guests locked in a safe room, others shot—and by the end of the night, we learned that the attackers had sneaked small pistols past the metal detectors by hiding them in their shoes. Her friend had been killed. Almost everyone at the table knew people among the dead.

I visited their Facebook pages, and in this way I understood how I was preparing my own ghost. Everyone I met—pasty, stressed out, struggling to control their weight from living so long in compounds—I’d already seen with the lux cranked up, looking as if they were readying for the third act of a blockbuster. I realized that if the human race ever went to war with the machines, the humans would be the ones to invent the matrix—a place where we could live fully. Between our virtual constructs and the unfathomable reality, Afghanistan hung like a mirage: the cliché of a forgotten land jammed into the Technicolor of postmodernity, where each of our Facebook and Instagram friends were both Dorothy and the Wizard. Being Internet and war-zone savvy, we saw the curtain pulled back, and yet—wanting our stories to be true—we managed to believe.

One night in Kabul, as I was IM’ing with a friend in Boston, he told me about Tinder. Having lived so long overseas, I had yet to hear of its rise. He was an app developer, impressed with the interface, the ease of use, the way it could connect people. I took my iPhone and downloaded the app, followed the instructions to connect it to Facebook, and there, one after another, I saw, with a shudder, snapshots of expats I knew: all those glittering people alone in guarded compounds across Kabul, their private selves, these almost forgotten bodies, eager to connect.

Deni Ellis Béchard is the author of five books. He has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and Nautilus Book Award for investigative journalism. Into the Sun, his most recent novel, is about the civilian surge in Afghanistan.