All I really needed to know about Burning Man, I learned at Kandahar

This week, more than 60,000 souls will flock to the annual participatory-art festival of Burning Man. For first-time Burners, the weeklong “celebration of radical self-expression,” which erects a weird, transient city in the Nevada desert, raises a host of issues. What to wear? What heat-resistant foodstuffs to pack? How do I find the giant three-dimensional Tetris blocks where my friends are camped? If the man registering me goes by Awesome Sauce and dresses as a bumblebee, do I really want to hang?

Tough questions, I know: Two years ago, I made my first-time Burning Man pilgrimage. To my relief then, I realized I already had most of the answers. I was a civilian working at Kandahar Airfield, NATO’s largest base in southern Afghanistan. The parallels hit me sometime after procuring ice from a friendly guy in a penguin suit, and before hopping onto a Psychic Taxi (“Random Service”) to explore. The surreal scene was eerily reminiscent of my surreal job, and not just because of the dust and heat.

If you, too, are headed to Burning Man with a little Kandahar under your belt, take heart, and take note of these transferable rules:


PHOTOS: Burning Man 2011

Accept over-familiarity with neighbors’ personal lives. Donald Rumsfeld — the man who helped to bring us Baghdad and Kandahar — once observed that you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. The unspoken corollary is that once at war, many will go to bed with the bedmate they have, not the bedmate they wish they had. Pressure and proximity do strange things, at Kandahar as at Burning Man. And in both cases, soundproofing is scarce. Get used to it.

Forget capitalism. Despite my good free-market upbringing, I quickly came to appreciate that Kandahar’s policies verge toward “to each according to his need.” With meals, office supplies and gym access all provided free, I stayed weeks on the airfield without spending a dollar. I hit up the free videos. When malaria season arrived, I rejoiced in the free clinic and its socialist medicine. Meanwhile, among Burning Man’s 10 guiding principles is “decommodification,” which translated as a passer-by in a Catholic priest costume handing me a Bloody Mary in exchange for “confessing a sin.” Who needs currency when you have “radical gifting”?

Respect the porta-latrines. At Burning Man, they’re the site of brilliant potty poetry. At Kandahar, they’re a semi-poetic reminder that you’d rather briefly be there than permanently bunking next to the “poo pond.”

Always wear sunscreen. And something that glows in the dark. Sunscreen needs no explanation. But those are some dark desert nights. At Kandahar, wear your over-the-shoulder reflective strips after dark or face military discipline. At Burning Man, wear whatever form of glow stick you can best weave into your pirate costume. It’ll save you from being run over by, respectively, a Humvee or an ornate 60-foot yacht on wheels blasting electronica.

Celebrate the “entertainment.” At Burning Man, the participants are the performance; they don’t disappoint. At Kandahar, it’s C-list celebrities interested in Supporting Our Troops and, well, sometimes they do. Nonetheless — even if it’s Christmas Eve 2009, your entertainment is Anna Kournikova, and you’re unclear how her tennis career translates into a stand-up routine — go, enjoy and maintain your morale.

And remember: There’s a war on. At Kandahar, we struggle against the Taliban. At Burning Man, we struggle against the mainstream corporate culture.

Admittedly, some Kandahar experiences just don’t translate. Midnight jaunts to the bunker? Radically different from those to the Midnight Cheese Fries camp at Burning Man. Kandahar has signature helicopter ramps; Burning Man had a massive installation spelling “OINK” in three-dimensional metal. And there’s simply no equivalency between the military’s virgin margaritas and Burning Man’s wider refreshment selection.

To be sure, sometimes I looked up at, say, a Trojan Horse installation cruising by and wondered if, in the Venn diagram of life, I was Burning Man and Kandahar’s only point of intersection. Were there others like me somewhere in the throbbing desert?

If there were, they also would have noticed the thing the two places have most in common: The question “Why?”

Why was I or anyone in either of these places? What is it about Americans and building transient cities in the sand, an immense logistical headache, and then simply making them disappear when we decide the party’s over? What compels us, year after year in Afghanistan, Burn after Burn in Nevada?

Deep questions, dude, and ones that have never quite gotten answered. Just stick to the rules: At Kandahar, remember your reflective shoulder patch; at Burning Man, don’t forget your glow stick.

Frances Z. Brown is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.