Tag Archives: War Stories

Alan Alda, what hath thou wrought?

Back when I was in my tween/early teen years I was obsessed with all things military.  Part of that included being a huge fan of the TV series MASH.  Towards the later years of the show’s run it was both in syndication and producing new episodes allowing me to catch multiple viewings ever day.  My close proximity to both the New York and Philadelphia (and let’s not forget WWOR) television markets gave me access to three, four or even on some occasions FIVE episodes to watch every day (remember, this was pre-cable TV when we ‘only’ had 10 or so channels).  It didn’t matter that I had seen every episode dozens of times and new them so well that I became discriminating about which network I’d watch the show on since some would cut slightly more of some shows in order to cram in an extra commercial, I never got bored with the show.

Fortunately, that phase passed but I wasn’t aware of how much that show influenced me until much later.  It was then, years after I had first joined that I realized that I had unwittingly internalized some of the Hawkeye Pierce character.  The Quixotic stands, the pranks, thumbing my nose at authority all kind of fit.  Now, I don’t want to make this more than it is.  I always had an anti-authoritarian streak (which, oddly enough, goes away once I have the authority) and have been what my mother would describe (generously) as a ‘mischievous’ side but when the realization hit me (I think as I was in Bagram, listening to helicopters whirl around while lounging in my Hawaiian shirt).

Allow me to provide an example of what I’m talking about.

Back in 1989, I was a newly promoted E-5 (Sergeant) and I hated the army.  That was OK, however, because my enlistment was coming to an end.  I had been accepted to attend the finest university in the country so everything was good.

Then I got word that I had been selected to attend the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC).  It was required for all new non-commissioned officers and was 30 days of all-army stuff, all the time.  Quite frankly, I wasn’t too anxious to attend because it just seemed like a pain in the ass.  Besides, I wasn’t going to do this army thing very long so what was the point of sending me?  Slots to get into this school were fairly hard to get so it seemed to make sense to send someone who could actually get something out of going.

Finally, there was a regulation saying that you couldn’t attend a military school if, upon graduation, you had less than 180 days in your enlistment.  A quick calculation revealed that if I went to this ridiculous school I would have exactly 182 days until the end of my enlistment.  Surely, my chain of command would see all of this and realize that it was senseless to waste a spot in this class on me, right?

Well, no.  They said I had to go.

I said I didn’t want to and found out that there was actually a procedure (there’s one for everything) to decline a school.  Ah, brilliant!  So I walked into the orderly room and told them that I wanted to decline going to PLDC.

‘But, why?’ The sergeant behind the desk asked.

‘Because,’ I replied ‘I’m getting out of the Army and it’s a waste for me to go.’

‘Well, ok.’  He said.  ‘But, you know you’ll have to sign a Bar to Reenlistment.’  (Which means I wouldn’t be able to reenlist in the army).

‘So, if I say I don’t want to go to this school because I’m getting out of the army, you’re saying my punishment is not being able to stay in the army?’  I was beginning to feel like I was in an Abbott and Costello routine.

‘Well, I guess you could put it like that.’

‘Where do I sign?’

Now, I should have known it wouldn’t end there.  I went about my happy way and a few days later was told the First Sergeant wanted to see me.  Uh oh.

So, I had to explain my situation again while she tried to feed me the company line.  We were getting nowhere fast, going round and round.  I explaining that I was getting out of the army and her telling me that I was on the list to go to this school (We mustn’t change the list!).  Finally, in a fit of exasperation she said:

‘You can’t say with 100% certainty that you’re getting out of the army.’

To which I replied ‘First Sergeant, I’ll sell pencils on the street before I reenlist in the army.’

And with that, she knew she was defeated.  She let me go with a ‘You’re the worst NCO I’ve ever met in my career.’  I’m sure that wasn’t true.  I had only been in the army for 3 years by that point and I had met lots of NCOs worse than me.  But still, that seemed a bit harsh.  I wasn’t incompetent, after all, just a slacker.

Shortly thereafter, fate smiled upon me.  It was time for the NCO of the Quarter boards and I was submitted to compete by the agency I worked for (I was in a unit in Washington D.C. which had strange lines of command between who you worked for and who had responsibility for you otherwise).  And after some studying, I had the pleasure of receiving an award and certificate announcing that I was, in fact, the best NCO of my unit.  Mysteriously, my First Sergeant was away the day I was given the award, which was a shame but I was comforted in the fact that my name joined the honor roll of previous winners on the wall right outside her office.

heh…

Of course, five years later I did, in fact, rejoin the army (bars to reenlistment not being worth the paper they were printed on) and so it’s a lot less clear who has ultimate bragging rights in this conflict.  But, I’ll take it as a win.

Now, had I not watched so much MASH, I probably would have just gone to the stupid school and made everyone’s like just a bit easier.  So Mr. Alda, I hope your satisfied with yourself.  I am.

Afghanistan

I haven’t written much about Afghanistan lately because I didn’t think I had much to add to the conversation.  My experiences there are becoming less and less relevant but I occasionally see something that sparks a memory or thought.

This article (from late June) talks about a rocket attack at Bagram Airbase that killed two soldiers.  When I was there we came under rocket attack a few times and I was always under the impression that either the rockets that were fired against us were virtually useless as a weapon when jury-rigged to fire as they were (we never had one come close to any living/working areas in spite of the base housing around 10,000 soldiers and all sorts of equipment) or that the people firing them were more interested in sending a message than in actually hitting anything.  When I first got in country I believed the former but by the end of my tour began to strongly suspect the latter.  An occasional rocket over the perimeter could be an effective tool in convincing the military leadership that we still needed local warlords to maintain control and order in the countryside and guarantee the flow of money and materiel.

In fact, I was so non-plussed by the threat of rockets that I refused to get out of bed during one attack until I heard the second one whistle over my tent and then didn’t think much of casually sauntering to the latrine before making my way to my assigned station (a shoddily constructed plywood building that would have collapsed into a pile of matchsticks had it been hit).  I’d like to think I was just incredibly brave (and believe me that’s how I’ll play it up if anyone is buying the drinks) but really it just didn’t seem like a real threat.

I think back to my time outside the wire in the area around Bagram in 2003-2004 and I have to say it’s surprising to hear that things have deteriorated so much since then.  It’s a long way from riding in unarmored SUVs with poor communication equipment, 4 or 5 other soldiers armed only with individual weapons and not being particularly concerned and the way the country is described today.

As a related aside, I highly recommend reading the dispatches of Graeme Wood.  He’s currently in Helmand with the Marines and has some great observations.

Gangs and insurgencies – the final chapter

I figured I had said all there was to about this subject and then David Kilcullen had to go and appear on The Colbert Report.  Check it out (sorry, I can’t seem to embed it).

Here’s the relevant exchange (forgive any errors in the transcription but this is really close if not exact):

Colbert:  …[You say] people in poor communities turn to gangs for protection, for services when the government can’t do it for them…

Kilcullen:  Exactly right…There’s actually a huge amount of similarity between basic police work and the sort of stuff that happens with gangs and so on and what happens in this [insurgency] environment.

So, first, it’s nice to know that David obviously reads this blog but he really should credit me for these ideas [I'm just kidding Mr. Kilcullen.  Call me! ]

More seriously, I’d make a slight tweak to his observation.  There is a huge similarity to the challenges in police work and insurgencies but I’d argue that most American police departments have been trying to approach those problems from a mindset that more closely hews to traditional military thinking that counterinsurgency doctrine.

Current anti-crime measures are almost exclusively reactive and suppression based.  You wait for a crime to occur, you find the suspect and you arrest him/her.  There’s no identification or addressing of underlying factors.

This video really struck a cord with me since I had virtually the same conversation with my command which I was in Afghanistan in 2003.  My command could not get their heads around the idea of insurgency and could only conceive of conventional military threats.  Hence, I was tasked to do an Intelligence Preperation of the Battlefield so that they could plan what to do if the Taliban attempted to overrun Bagram airfield.  Now, Bagram had over 10,000 soldiers at the time, in addition to a sizable number of attack helicopters and aircraft and yet, the only threat scenario these guys could come up with was a Taliban motorized rifle division coming over the Koh-i-Safi mountains.  IEDs?  Rocket attacks?  Nah…”This isn’t Iraq” I was told or “C’mon…who does that?”

As a side note, my repeated attempts to convince them that such a scenario was highly unlikely and that other threats should have a higher priority went unheeded, setting off an unfortunate string of increasingly dysfunctional exchanges which ended with me telling the S-3 that he was full of bulls*it at a very full shift change brief.  (Not a particularly wise move for a mid-level NCO although, miraculously, I avoided any repercussions).

We had a number of soldiers with civilian law enforcement experience and I recommended dragooning them, on a part time basis, to assist in intelligence gathering and developing a decent view of our new operating environment.  Command couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t get all the information we needed from the internet.  Needless to say, that didn’t happen and 2003-2004 in Afghanistan (at least in the Bagram area) can best be thought of as a year of lethargy.

Still, it is encouraging to hear that the military was inspired in part by the academic/research work done in law enforcement and people who understood the issue made it to the top.   Hopefully the military can return the favor to the law enforcement community.

Afghanistan Flashback!

I had really thought I had gotten all of my war stories out of my system when, after reading this post from [My] State Failure Blog a memory came to mind.

The portion of the post which sparked my recollection was:

- Complaints about the fact the US military continued to hire and employ local militiamen to guard some of its bases even at the time when the DDR process was on.

Que the way back machine to 2003/2004…

I certainly wasn’t particularly high on the food chain in Afghanistan but you didn’t need to be on the NSC to know that the goal of our efforts was the creation of a central government that could exercise control of the nation. One of the ways of doing that would be giving the government a monopoly (or at least a preponderance) on the use of force by disarming the numerous ‘warlords’ and militias and creating, in their place a proper army.

I was therefore surprised to hear from my command staff a plan to hire several local commanders to provide ‘security’ to Bagram Airfield. I put security in quotes because we had security well in hand and the program was actually a jobs program. Quite frankly, several of us were quite baffled by the decision for several reasons:

    If we wanted to encourage militia members to find another line of work, why pay them to remain militia men?
    Some of the commanders were were supposed to work with were not the most trustworthy types. There was concern about having their armed men in a position to conduct surveillance or worse.
    Fear that the militias would use this job as yet another way to extort money from local inhabitants. We had several instances where commanders pointed to their relationship with us to intimidate and exploit local populations. Strengthening that impression seemed a bad idea.

The whole thing was all the more confusing because just a day or two after hearing about this grand scheme, I sat in on a briefing by a British officer about the DDR program and its ambitious plans. Afterwards I asked him about his impressions of the militia jobs program we were implementing and he seemed dumbfounded.

Apparently, he didn’t know.

That very much seemed a theme of my tour there. There was very little coordination of activity (at least around Bagram) and units frequently did their own thing. Sometimes that worked out well. You could take the initiative and get things done that otherwise would require an inordinate amount of time getting permission or checking boxes. Other times, and on the whole, it was a net negative since various units or elements within units would work at cross purposes and not know what each other was doing.

Part of that seemed to be the result of an attitude among some, of just trying to muddle through until their tour was over. The assumption was that higher headquarters was keeping control of the ‘master plan’ and worrying about the effects of individual soldiers or units on overall strategy was ‘beyond our pay grade’. This allowed some commanders to make decisions that were directly contradictory with our strategic interests.

Hmmm…it seems my experience wasn’t an isolated one.

Afghanistan…it don't look good

Nir Rosen writes a brilliant, if disturbing, article in Rolling Stone after embedding with the Taliban.  It goes a long way towards showing how you can be ahead by 4 touchdowns at halftime but if you don’t show up for the second half of the game, you’ll still lose (ok, that’s my limit on sports metaphors for the rest of the year).

By May 2003, only 18 months after the beginning of the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all but declared victory in Afghanistan. “We are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction,” Rumsfeld announced during a visit to Kabul. The security situation in Afghanistan, in his view, was better than it had been for 25 years.

I was in Afghanistan at this time.  I remember there was a lot of talk about transitioning to away from combat operations to reconstruction.  The big rumor among the rank and file in the mess hall was that ‘soon’ we wouldn’t have to carry our weapons and that the Department of Defense would soon withdraw hazardous duty pay from troops serving in Afghanistan since there was no threat there anymore (!).  I wasn’t quite that optimistic but I certainly could see the possibility of transitioning to an environment more similar to Kosovo or Bosnia than Iraq.

Ten months later, as I was getting ready to leave Afghanistan I was much more pessimistic.  I saw a complete lack of progress and interest in addressing Afghanistan’s problems and saw my time there essentially as a ‘time out’ allowing the Taliban and other anti-coalition elements to get their shit together.

The Pentagon, already focused on invading Iraq, assumed that the Afghan militias it had bought with American money would be enough to secure the country. Instead, the militias proved far more interested in extorting bribes and seizing land than pursuing the hardened Taliban veterans who had taken refuge across the border in Pakistan. The parliamentary elections in 2005 returned power to the warlords who had terrorized the countryside before the Taliban imposed order. “The American intervention issued a blank check to these guys,” says a senior aid official in Kabul. “They threw money, weapons, vehicles at them. But the warlords never abandoned their bad habits — they’re abusing people and filling their pockets.

The thinking in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 was definitely short term.  While there were programs nominally designed to disarm the militias and take power away from warlords, those programs were undermined by commanders who viewed those militia leaders as important for keeping the peace.  While I can’t speak for the entire theater, I did have the opportunity to view decision making close up at one command (brigade command equivalent)  and thinking and planning never extended beyond the end of the tour we were on.  Questions about long term effects, fulfilling the superior commanders intent, or trying to apply any sort of counterinsurgency principles were dismissed out of hand.   Rather, the priority was keeping the natives calm on our watch.  That generally involved paying off militia leaders and local warlords through work contracts on post, granting them exclusive access to sell goods to military personnel through a bazaar (a very lucrative trade), and turning a blind eye to widespread extortion of local workers as they left the base.  All of these things eroded support among the local population and created the impression that we viewed these warlords as allies.  The local warlords used that impression to keep local villagers obedient by threatening to call down American air strikes on anyone who opposed them.  The warlords had no such pull with us but it didn’t help to see Americans visiting these warlords, kowtowing to them and distributing U.S. taxpayer largess through them.

God willing, he adds, it will take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners.

Read that again.  It’s not just propaganda.  No one has ever adequately explained what war means today.  Yes, it was called ‘The Long War’ for awhile but before all this began, no senior person (like the president) ever sat down and told the American people ‘Look, we’re going to be at this for a generation or two.  That means we might have tens of thousands of soldiers fighting and dying for twenty, forty or more years.  That’s what we’re in for.’  Instead we got a whole bunch of ‘hoo-ah’ nonsense that set expectations way too high.

Unfortunately for us, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, et. al. don’t think in terms of election cycles or fiscal quarters.  They can (and do) think in terms of years, decades, and generations.  If we aren’t prepared to stick it out, we should just cut our losses now and be done with it.

“…Parwan province, which borders Kabul to the north, has also become dangerous. “All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints,” the intelligence officer says. “It’s the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul to the rest of the country.”

This is the most personally distressing part of the article for me.  It may be silly but I spent my entire tour in Parwan province and spent a lot of time in the villages, on the roads, and meeting the people there and have a fond regard for the place.  The people of Parwan were so exhausted by warfare and so positive about our presence there that I find it difficult to think about there being a prevalent threat there.  In the dozens of times I left the wire, I can think of only a handful where I felt the threat was sufficient for me to wear my kevlar helmet.

In 2003/2004, everyone still wanted to get into a shooting war and (at least it seemed like) no one wanted to try to win the war we were in.  So, I had a string of motivated NCOs from various units come into my office asking ‘Where can we get into a fight?  Where can we kill some Taliban?’  I remember one XO of a marine battalion tell me ‘You guys in the Army can deal with that hearts and mind bullshit.  We’re here to kill people.’

Now, I’m not saying that was wrong.  Our military needs people who want to go out and risk their lives to blow stuff up and ‘kick some ass’.  I think it’s been pretty well established, however, that relying exclusively on such a mindset or strategy isn’t going to do us a whole lot of good.  Some of us knew that we needed to look towards a further horizon in 2003/2004 and lay some groundwork to prevent the Taliban and others from finding fertile ground for a comeback.  Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of people interested.

This is the price for six years of neglect.

“You Westerners have your watches,” the leader observed. “But we Taliban have time.”

A failure to communicate…

A recent posting from the [My] State Failure Blog turned me on to the work of John McHugh, a photojournalist who’s been spending a lot of time in Afghanistan.  I haven’t gone through his Guardian work yet but this video really brought me back to my time there.

One of the most fundimental challanges in being a solider in a foreign land (not to mention trying to run a successful counterinsurgency campaign) is communicating with the local population.  Even though there were way too few troops in country when I was there, there was a constant shortage of translators.  The majority of translators are locals who happened to know some english (just how much varied greatly) and were not suppossed to be privy to sensitive information.  There were also U.S. citizens, frequently immigrants from Afghanistan, who returned either to help out their new country, their old country, cash in on the $15,000 per month paycheck they were earning or some combination of all three.  Many of these people were given security clearances and therefore were able to be present during sensitive discussions, planning or negotiations.

The demand for translators with clearances (all the ones I knew of hired via private contracting companies) was huge.  So huge, in fact, that many of us had suspicions that corners were cut in the hiring and vetting of many of these interpreters (not to mention the fact that many of them had questionable language skills).

Translators present two significant problems:  errors in translation and abuse of position.

Errors in translation are similar to what you see in the video.  I can’t tell you how many times I asked a local a question, heard him give a lengthy response and then have the interpreter tell me “He says ‘Hi’.”  You then have to decide if you want to get into it with your interpreter and make him tell you everything that was said.  Even then, you can’t be sure if you’re getting the correct translation.

Abuse of position can occur with any interpreter but the most serious repercussions occur with the contracted U.S. citizens.  There were so few around, and the pay was so good that interpreters frequently spent much more time in country than soldiers.  When I got there in 2003, there were several interpreters that had been there almost continuously since the war began, and all their work was in one geographical area.  This positioned the interpreters to be a sort of court Vizier.  Many commanders relied on their interpreters to tell them who they should meet, who was friendly and who to trust.  Rumors were rife that some interpreters sold access (‘Oh, you want to have a meeting with the commander?  Then you must pay me.’) and influence.

Now, that is way, WAY outside the bounds of what interpreters are suppossed to do.  They, like their name implies, are suppossed to translate.  That’s it.  Just relay what was just said in one language into another language.  Without commentary, opinion, additions or subtractions.  I have to admit, that it took me a while to learn that lesson myself but many (including many much senior to myself) never learned it.  There was a policy in place to rotate interpreters every so often just so that they couldn’t build up a network of clients and abuse their power.  I never saw such a policy enforced although I did see an attempt.  Some young officer (a captain, I believe) responsible for tracking the interpreters sent out a memo saying that all of our interpreters with security clearances would be rotated on a certain day.  Very shortly thereafter, that order was recinded because of an outcry by senior personnel about how much damage would be caused if they lost ‘their’ interpreter.  Now, if all they’re suppossed to do is translate, why do you need a specific person?  You don’t.  But if you’re using that interpreter as a crutch to tell you how to do your job you fight like hell to keep him.

My theory is that the requirements of a counterinsurgency campaign didn’t really sink in during 2003/2004 and many just didn’t know what they were supposed to do.  Who was taught how to deal with local populations?  Who even knew what our broad strategy was?  So it became easy for some to rely on a person who had been there longer and spoke the language.

I only trusted one translator when I was there and he was a local without any sort of clearance.  By the end of our tour we’d try (usually unsuccessfully) to get two interpreters to go out with us so we could have a bit of check and balance.  Competition was intense among interpreters (frequently he who was attached to the highest ranking soldier rose to prominence in their own internal pecking order) and so you could usually rely on them to stab each other in the back and tell you about screw ups.  That was usually all the incentive interpreters needed to do their job properly.

Flashback!

I was recently talking to someone about my tour in Afghanistan and how the death of my friend there affected me. As I was talking about it I got quite angry and upset. After thinking about it for a few days I figured out why…

I wanted to have a proper memorial for him and there was some discussion about dedicating part of the armory in his name as well as a few other schemes but, much to my dismay, interest waned quickly among the leadership in the unit. I lobbied as hard as I could but the best I could wrangle out of the command was a vague promise to ‘look into things’ when we got home. It seemed a bit ridiculous to me since I knew that when we got home the last thing on anyone’s mind was going to be how to memorialize him. People would be moving on, leaving the unit, new members would be coming in and everyone would be focused on getting back to civilian life. As soon as they said it I knew they were giving me the blow off. What they ended up doing was naming a conference room for him in a building in Afghanistan that has probably been torn down already and drove by the cemetery on our way home. As far as I know, that was the extent of the memorial for the first soldier of that unit to die in the line of duty since the Second World War.

I did however, make a contribution in his name at the Gettysburg Battlefield and town of Gettysburg. He was a huge Civil War buff and would always rave about the Gettysburg reenactments he took part in. I solicited everyone in the company three or four times to see in anyone wanted to contribute. To the best of my memory, four of us eventually did. I have to admit I was surprised by the lack of interest and participation from everyone. It was like they were in a whole different army then we were.

Oh, wait…it gets worse.

I was also reminded how only one person bothered to ask how I was doing after he passed away and that was a guy who had only been in our unit for a few months by that time and wasn’t much more than an acquaintance to me. No chaplain, no commander, nobody else (for whatever reason) spoke to me about him for the remaining seven months we were there.

Absolutely some of the worst senior leaders (Sergeant-Major and Field Grade officers anyway) that I’ve ever had the misfortune to serve with.  I should say that we did have some good leaders but my unit was so top heavy that any promising leader was quickly squashed.

Hmmm…I think I’m beginning to see the origins of my disillusionment with the Army now.

Fortunately, his reenactor companions did the right thing and created a great way to memorialize him.

 

Why Afghanistan hates Pakistan

Every so often I check out the search engine terms that bring people to the Travels with Shiloh information extravaganza that you see here.  The title here was one that popped up yesterday and I figured I’d write about it because:

  • I don’t think I’ve spoken about it before
  • I might actually have something to say about the subject (which is why I won’t be writing a post about Melanie Griffith even that that’s been bringing a lot of people to this site for some reason)

I asked a number of the people I met in Afghanistan why there was such animosity on their part towards Pakistan.  My understanding was that many Afghans fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation and that Pakistan provided all sorts of logistical support to the mujahideen.  So, to my superficial understanding, it seemed to me that they should be fast friends.

Not so fast…

The Afghans I spoke to had numerous grievances, including:

  • The felt that the Pakistanis had a long history of interfering in Afghan affairs and had a policy of keeping the country unstable and in a state of constant conflict so that they could wield their influence there
  • Afghans that fled to Pakistan were treated poorly.  Prejudice meant that it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to get jobs or housing.  They were prey to various forms of exploitation and the government didn’t do a whole lot to protect them.  I heard this many times.  I also met people who fled to Iran and they didn’t have the same sort of complaints about the Iranians.

I remember I was at some sort of meeting with local commanders/warlords and one of them got up to speak and started talking about how Afghanistan and the U.S. needed to partner against the real enemy we face:  Pakistan.    The American commander quickly brushed past that uncomfortable moment but it was clear who the Afghans wanted to spank.

So, the short answer to the question “Why don’t the Afghans like the Pakistanis?” is that the Afghans feel that Pakistan is intentionally stirring up trouble in Afghanistan and preventing it from stabilizing and becoming a real country and that Pakistan is arrogant, stuck up and generally treat Afghans like dirt.

And now you know.

Afghanistan Go Boom!!!

From August of 2003…

Yesterday we had a thunderstorm which was unusual for two reasons.  First, in the two and a half months we’ve been here it’s rained all of one time.  The prospect of water coming from the sky therefore is a big deal.  Secondly, this thunderstorm ended up not having rain.  Just thunder.  Afghanistan.  Where even the storms are dry.

One other interesting point of note about the storm will give you a glimmer of what life’s like here.  At the first few rumbles of the storm I couldn’t tell if it was, in fact, thunder or land mines detonating.  We hear mines exploding here every day.  Usually it’s part of a planned de-mining operation designed to make another small patch of land clear to farm, build or walk on.  Less frequently (but still common) the detonation is unplanned when an animal or unluckily Afghan sets one off.

After awhile you can even distinguish between different types of mine.  Anti-personnel mines (usually designed to take off a leg) make a small firecracker like pop in the distance.  Anti-tank mines, in contrast, make a really big boom.  Sometimes you can even fell the concussion of the explosion when it goes off.  The first one I heard/felt made me think we were under rocket or artillery attack but everyone I saw around (those who had been here awhile) was acting like nothing had happened so I figured everything was ok.  It’s all pretty strange but the soon all but the closest and loudest of the explosions fade into regular background noise.

One day we were out driving, following up on a report of some weapons piled up on the side of a road.  On the way we passed a small mound of freshly dug up earth which looked a lot like (what I imagine anyway)a grave.  We were in the middle of nowhere however, with no signs of nearby civilization so I knew it couldn’t be that.  In a minute we were passed it and I didn’t give the mound a second thought.

Shortly thereafter we came across a small group of nomads (called the ‘Koochi’) and began talking to them to see if they had any information about the area.  At some point we asked about the presence of land mines in the areas off the road (the roads are generally pretty safe here, especially if they’re paved).  After a brief exchange, our interpreter (known by some as ‘terps’ but for some reason the term seems to have a negative connotation flirting with it so I avoid using it) said:  “He said mines are all over here.  His uncle stepped on one today and died.  They just buried him this morning over there.”  The interpreter pointed back down the road we had just driven and I realized my first guess about the mound of earth was correct after all.

Even though we were on a well traveled road and therefore, pretty safe, everyone’s eyes dropped to the ground, looking for any sign that there might be mines under foot.  The nomads aren’t as lucky as us.  The flocks of sheep they tend have to roam and the nomads have to follow so they don’t have the luxury of being able to travel along well-worn and cleared routes.  They walk the mine-strewn fields under the protection of the Afghan trinity:  their flocks moving ahead of them to clear the way; the experience of past trips and those who’ve gone before to show what areas are ‘safe’ and what areas aren’t (and a lot of that experience is learned the hard way); and finally the will of god.

People here in Afghanistan work and walk in minefields all the time.  They have to in order to live and in order to cope with the constant thought that their next step might be their last (or at least their last with that leg) they’ve given in to fatalism.  If they hit a mine, god willed it.  If they don’t, god willed that as well.  If that’s the case, a quick look around here would make you think that god’s got stock in a prosthetic limb company.  Scan just about any group of locals here and you’ll see at least one or two missing an arm, leg, hand or foot.

It’s going to be really strange to go home, look out at a field or a patch of grass and know I can walk anywhere out there without worrying or having to scan the ground trying to find footsteps to walk in.  Now when I look out at a piece of ground that isn’t definitely cleared I just think:  “There is no way I’m walking over there.”

I was talking to a friend of mine about writing this piece about land mines and we had this conversation:

Me:  ‘So anyway, I just wrote a bunch of stuff about mines.”

Friend:  ‘Really?  When I went out yesterday (‘out’ is usually short for ‘outside the wire’ which is anything outside the perimeter of our base.  Some people love going outside the wire and try to every chance they get.  Others do everything they can to stay within the confines of our base.  It really comes down to a personal preference.  Getting outside the wire allows you to see and do something different than the dull routine of life here but, of course, it can involve some risk.  It just depends on how stir crazy you get staring at the same small patch of land that’s our base and how much your wanderlust acts up.  Anyway…..back to the conversation…) we went to the range and right on the other side of this hill were tons of little mines in piles.”

Me:  ‘Cool, (I’m not sure that’s the appropriate thing to say in this sort of conversation but I’m not particularly profound in spur of the moment conversations) were they anti-personnel mines?”

Friend:  “Yep, lots of little silver mines.”

Me:  “Silver?  Oh, were they egg shaped?”

Friend: “Yeah”

Me:  “OH, those are the ones that split in two and detonate when rotated a certain amount of times….(blah, blah, blah)

I put this in here not to bore you to death but because right afterwards it struck me as really odd that I could have a conversation about seeing this type of land mine versus that type in the same way I’d normally talk about seeing a movie.

It’s really a strange place here.

 Hey….there’s one in every crowd…

My last update got some of my most positive reaction I’ve ever received.  I had a number of people say some really nice things.  As usual, our First Sergeant put the article in our monthly newsletter (after some heavy editing of course – there was nothing about college students going home early).  It was really memorable though because I (indirectly at least) received my first bit of hate mail.

That’s right.  Hate mail.

This guy…let’s give him a pseudonym since I don’t like to use real names here.  Something that won’t easily identify him.  How about Captain Boozehound?  Anyway, I’m not sure what Cpt. Boozehound’s problem was but he fired off an email to our First Sergeant.  I’ll quote it in its entirety here.  Ready?  Here it goes….

     I know your’re busy, but can you take me and my family off the mailing list for this fine publication.  After reading yet another of SSG ‘s last whiny piss ant articles, I almost ripped my lap top out of the wall and threw it out the window.  I also don’t want my family getting doses of this negative bullshit.  It surely does not help, both here and over there.  Thanks for you help in this matter.  I don’t think I’m alone on this thought process…

Believe me…I couldn’t make this stuff up.  The first thing that jumps out at me as I read this is that the Army must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel to fill it’s officer corps.  What exactly is the definition of ‘your’re’?  And how can I have ‘another ….last article’?  Be definition, your last article means that no more will follow it.  It’s not like I’m the Rolling Stones on one more ‘last world tour’.

I have to admit I’m not sure what ‘negative bullshit’ he was referring to but I know the positive, upbeat attitude of his email makes me want to jump up and do a jig.  Wow…who COULDN’T love a guy like this.

I just keep reminding myself that alcoholics denied their fix can get really grumpy.

Or maybe it’s the fact that this circus freak escapee knows he a fraud of a soldier that couldn’t lead his way out of a paper bag.

So, the long and short of it is because of this pinhead decided to buy ‘Hooked on Phonics’ and read my article as his graduation project my articles won’t be added to our unit newsletter.  BUT….I will not be silenced!  I will smash these chains of oppression and bring my views to the masses!  Readers of the world unite!!!

(By the way…Cpt. Boozehound, just in case you’re reading this, feel free to ask if you don’t understand anything here.  I know I write at the 5th grade level and there’s probably a lot of words here you can’t understand.  If you’d like I’ll draw pictures next time.)

Anyway….

One other interesting thing about being here is that we’re starting to see our doppelgangers around.  Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a doppelganger is sort of like an evil twin.  We’ve seen two of these so far leading me to believe that there’s a whole ‘bizarro’ unit out there made up of our opposites.  So far, no one has met their twin face to face and quite frankly I’m not sure what would happen if they did.

Would they explode in a huge explosion like when matter and anti-matter collide?  Would they have to fight to the death?  Would they merge into some strange, new life form?

So I’ve been on the lookout for my doppelganger and started to think.  What if I’M the evil twin?  What if I’M the bizarro one?  Hmmm……how would I even tell (Please…I don’t need a flood of emails confirming that, yes, indeed I am bizarre.   The question is:  Is there an even MORE bizarre one of me out there?)

Afghanistan Flashback

This post in yesterday’s news reminded me of a similar (although non-fatal) incident that I was involved with while I was in Afghanistan. I looked through my notes in the hopes of getting all the details correct but for some reason it looks like I didn’t record this particular incident in my journal. Never the less, I think it’s made a sufficiently strong impression that I can get most of the particulars right. I think it took place in September of 2003….

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We had an MP company assigned to Bagram Air Field base operations while I was there and among their many other duties they were assigned to perform periodic patrols of the area surrounding the base. We called them ‘presence patrols‘ and they were intended to collect information, let the locals we were in the area and establish/strengthen our relations with local authorities. The MPs were a great group of people (I don’t know if it’s appropriate to give out their unit designation so I won’t here) and really gung-ho.

One morning, one of the platoon sergeants came into my office. He was one BIG dude and a police officer in the civilian world. He didn’t much care for the ‘hearts and minds’ stuff and was always looking for an opportunity to kick some ass. So when he said:

“Hey, some of my guys were out on patrol last night and they came under fire. We’re going back out there today to kick some ass and thought you might want to tag along since this is your area.”

I have to admit I was a bit dubious and thought he might just be getting a bit stir crazy. In Afghanistan at this time (at least in the Bagram area) things were very quite and there were, in fact, some rumors going around that we’d officially be going into ‘Phase 4 operations’ which essentially are post conflict, nation building sorts of things as opposed to combat operations.

Apparently, a small patrol of MPs was driving along a dirt road and out of nowhere someone opened up with heavy machine gun fire and (if I remember right) at least one explosion (grenade?) about 50-100 meters in front of the patrol. As the saying goes, discretion was the better part of valor then and, not knowing who or what they were up against, they turned around and went back to base without any damage or casualties.

I thought it might be best if I did go along just to make sure cooler heads would be around if they were needed. Besides, I was getting a bit stir crazy and needed to get outside the wire too.

So after a minimum of coordination (one of the nice things, at least from my point of view, about Afghanistan at that time was that the crushing bureaucracy hadn’t yet set in and so if you were motivated and had half a brain you could do things pretty quickly and efficiently) I hopped into an up armored HMMWV with ten or fifteen MPs loaded for bear and we were off.

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As we got close to the site of the incident we say an outpost on a hill top manned by Afghan ‘police’. We dismounted from our vehicle and climbed up to meet them (careful to avoid the areas they said had land mines). The guys were very nice and told us that it was, in fact, they who opened fire the night before. Apparently this outpost had come under attack several times in the past few months so they were all a bit jumpy and that’s why they had the heavy weapons there. Once they realized it was Americans driving down the road they wanted to tell their local commander who lived in the nearby village. Since we are talking about Afghanistan, the local police didn’t have any sophisticated communications equipment like a radio, walkie-talkie, or tin cans with a string so the only way they could get the attention of their commander was to….did you guess it?…fire whatever weapons they had in the hopes that their commander would hear it and come to find out what was going on. After a stern warning to not shoot anywhere near Americans again, lest something very bad happen, we hung out for a bit.

After checking out their living conditions we felt pretty bad for these guys. They were really in the middle of nowhere, had virtually no food or water, and hadn’t been paid in months. We dropped off some food and water that we had in the vehicles and eventually moved on. After that the MPs told me that they’d stop and check in on those guys from time to time and give them what they had and we didn’t have any more incidents.

Now that was a good day…

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