How I’ll End the War: Making Collage Art With Afghan Students

An officer in Afghanistan volunteers to help teach English to Afghan students and ends up making art with them.

In a clean, well-lit classroom within a modern building on NATO’s largest base in Afghanistan, young Afghans learn trades and hone their English skills.

“For next time, bring pictures you can put together to say something about your hopes for the future,” said an American English teacher to 20 Afghan students. “We’re making collages.”

Silence, blank stares, a few smiles.

“Photos, newspaper or magazine clippings, whatever you want,” she said to the all-male class. A U.S. soldier volunteering at the school drew a mess of orange blobs on a dry-erase board. “This is my collage about a farm,” he said pointing out a rake, plant, and chicken. The soldier looked to be about the same age as the students, late teens or early 20s, many just out of high school. Some of the students smiled. The boys in the class came from provinces across Afghanistan to study welding, electrician skills, auto mechanics, construction, and computer networking. Only about one-third of the applicants who apply are accepted into the program run by the Korean government.

An Afghan instructor explained the concept of collage in Dari. Nods, more smiles, and a rising chatter throughout the classroom.

Through my own military unit, I’d volunteered to help teach English. This was my first time at the school. As I walked away, I felt like I’d actually done something tangible—however minor—to help some Afghans. A first for my deployment. These days, the vast majority of coalition forces work within the walls, guard towers, and barbed wire of their bases. Many could go an entire deployment and not even speak with someone from this country.

Before the next class, I scoured the common areas where troops hang out on my base, looking for magazines to bring: National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and some military journals. Other volunteers brought Southern Living, Outdoor Photographer, People, Golf Digest, and even a New Yorker.

If you could forget about the war outside, the classroom could have been an art class in Colorado with the mountain views from the windows.

The students searched the mags, cut images, and wrote on their canvases with fat red and blue markers. Scraps of paper fell to the floor. They wrote their names in large letters. One boy drew a TV. I recognized the word “Tolo,” the Afghan television network. I asked him what the Dari script underneath said, his friend translated, “Four killed by suicide bomber.” He said, “For the future, I hope bad news stops.”

Another boy collected images of Roman statues, D.C. monuments, ancient relics, a museum. He told me, “I want to be an archeologist.” His desk mate said “I hope to work in management, organization, and staffing.” I helped him find pictures of a bookshelf and suited business people at a conference table. Another asked for help finding pictures of computers. “This is about computer networking.” I found an image of a soldier working on a bank of servers. One young man told me he was interested in architecture and gardening as he cut an image of a skyscraper.

One boy gathered a collection of snow, skiers, snowboarders and spoke of the mountains in a distant province he hopes to visit someday. Another cut photos of golfers and green fairways. I asked if he liked golf and where he could play around here. He said, “In Kabul, but maybe it’s not so good.” One student’s collage contained a Rolex and a bottle of Vodka covered by a large red “X.”

Several of the boys glued photos of houses, cars, and families to their canvases. I offered a page-sized red Corvette to a student. He whistled. One had San Francisco row houses. “I want to build houses like this here,” he said. One pointed to the family he created from separate clippings, “This is the grandfather, this is the father and mother, these are the grandchildren.” The words, “Love is Family,” hung large on the page. One drew hearts and another glued paper flowers that he’d folded.

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“This is a poem about happiness,” by Bīdel, a student said of the page he had filled with Dari script. The young man explained that he is a lover of poetry and writer. I mentioned I was familiar with Sa’di, and we discussed poetry for 10 minutes. He told me I should read Hafez and Balkhi. I offered Whitman.

As I flipped through pages with another boy, I pointed to a photo of President Obama. He smiled and said, “President Obama leads two countries right now.” Nobody in the classroom had any idea that President Obama was set to visit Afghanistan just a few days later. None of the students pasted anything about the upcoming runoff election. There were no pictures of Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, or Ashraf Ghani. A local teacher told me that Afghans were hopeful for the first presidential vote on April 5, but not so much now as they wait for the June 14 runoff.

More than a few boys selected images of warplanes, tanks, and destruction. They all crossed them out and wrote “peace” or “no war.” Under his name, one student glued a jet fighter with a red arrow pointing to the scene of a bombing. Below this, he wrote, “I don’t like war, but I like peace because war is a bad state.” The words were blue except for “war.” That was red.

Nick Willard is the pseudonym of a military officer serving in Afghanistan. He’s previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States government.