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Calibrated to Infinity

Ari McGuirk

Night vision goggles strip away depth perception, rendering reality in two dimensions.

We’d soar for hours under cover of darkness, the C-130’s propellers humming. Night vision goggles illuminated every twist in the canyon, every turn in the river, through grainy, green light. Tucked in a makeshift seat against the aircraft’s right paratroop door, I peered down at the scars cratering the landscape. Afghanistan’s jagged mountains passed beneath me. The war passed beneath me.

NVGs do not generate light. Twin cones, like binoculars, filter ambient light from external sources. Cloudless, starlit nights make for ideal conditions. Too little peripheral light, the operator stumbles in the dark. Too much, they’re blind. Balance creates vision.

Winter ops were quiet. Come spring, the fighting began. I’d scan the landscape, vigilant. When threatened, I’d punch flares that rumbled from the aircraft. The missiles were heat-seeking: the flares, a diversion. A flurry of fireworks streaked through black skies, momentary white flashes clouding my goggles. Other times, we’d glide past helicopters pummeling the earth with hail storms of gunfire.

In the south, near Kandahar and flying west, the earth grew flat, dark, unchanging. Time stretched—the goggles heavy, straining the eyes. When I arrived in Afghanistan, its peaks still capped with snow, I envisioned Taliban fighters launching surface-to-air missiles or rocket propelled grenades at me from mountaintops. Months later, complacency had become our most formidable adversary. Most nights, I stared at nothing.

Then, lightning.

A ground skirmish: the NVGs showed me two groups of warriors trading volleys of tracer fire, luminous beams violating obsidian landscape. What the NVGs didn’t show me: smoke sifting from hot rifle barrels, pools of blood pouring from bodies and wetting the dirt, bullets ripping through armor, bone, flesh. Wailing mothers, decimated villages, funeral processions. Nothing but bright tracers flitting across the darkness. Afghanistan absorbed the dead, and the fight was over.

We made a left turn.

Night vision goggles strip away depth perception, rendering reality in two dimensions. An oil field aflame, or newly arrived light from the Andromeda galaxy—NVGs paint ground and cosmos with the same brush. Calibrated to infinity, the goggles unveiled a sky replete with stars, the gaps between them invisible.

NVGs are only usable at night, which would inevitably end. A ribbon of lighter sky would stretch from the horizon until sunrise spilled into the valley. With fresh eyes, I’d examine the light-filled world—the lines and creases framing my crewmates’ faces, my own—and hardly recognize it, already contemplating the next time I’d plunge into darkness.

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Born in Mexico and raised across the US, Ari McGuirk is a writer and teacher currently living in Dallas, Texas. He served as a C-130H2 Loadmaster from 2008—2012 and completed two deployments to Afghanistan and Kuwait. He holds an MFA from the University of New Mexico and is currently at work on a full-length memoir. His work has been published in Superstition Review, Streetlight Magazine, and others.

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