This July, at a forward operating base in Afghanistan's Paktika province, I dropped my Kindle. Soldiers say that no plan survives its first contact with the enemy, and now I know that a Kindle-based travel library is unlikely to survive its first contact with concrete.
In the wake of this fiasco, I have become reacquainted with the libraries of leisure reading with which the military equips it deployed soldiers. Most military bases, even very small ones in remote valleys that are attacked daily by the Taliban, have what is known as an MWR: a morale, welfare, and recreation center.
Sometimes the MWR contains a pool table or a popcorn machine; almost always it contains a bank of computers and a shelf or two of books. Who selects these books I do not know, but I will go out on a limb and guess that it is not the soldiers who wind up reading them.
After painstaking browsing at a place called Camp Blessing, in Kunar province, I discovered three books that looked readable: a Tom Clancy novel, Tobias Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life, and a battered copy of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities that I put back together with the green military version of duct tape.
These books were far outnumbered by titles that look like they came off the rack of bodice-rippers at the supermarket. I'd bet a lot of money that no soldier requested that Deborah MacGillivray's A Restless Knight, which sports a shirtless male model type on the cover, be flown here, and that no soldier will ever read it. I would guess that the obscure L. Ron Hubbard titles haven't gotten a lot of use either. So where do these books come from?
The answer, I suspect, is care packages. The yellow ribbon magnet on the SUV bumper is probably the most public way that Americans show their Support for Our Troops. Another, usually more useful one is care packages addressed to "Any soldier." (Web sites like AnySoldier.com and AdoptaPlatoon.org help people with the mechanics.) These packages are hit or miss.
Sometimes, a care package is perfect. Once -- I won't say where -- I watched a tentmate open up a box that contained a bottle of Skyy vodka, and the look on his face rivaled the boy's in A Christmas Story when he is finally united with his Red Ryder Carbine-Action Range Model Air Rifle. Of course, that came from a friend, not an anonymous patriot, but other, more licit luxuries can be just as welcome.
Why, though, would anyone send a big stack of AARP magazines to teenage and twenty-something soldiers in a war zone? Or a box full of Sensodyne prescription-strength toothpaste tubes? Or a powder blue "Hello Kitty" t-shirt? (All of these are things I've seen troops puzzle over in Iraq or Afghanistan. The lucky recipients of the AARP magazines were members of the 2-106 Cavalry Squadron last year in Helmand province.) Maybe not the same people who send those supermarket romances, but someone with a similarly well-calibrated sense of what deployed soldiers most miss.
Not that anyone is complaining. Take cookies. Truthfully, most soldiers have enough cookies. These days, between peanut butter ones, white chocolate and macadamia ones, regular chocolate chip ones, and the little bags of "Famous Amos Bite-Size Cookies," they make their way in bulk to even the most remote and embattled bases.
The outpost at the mouth of the Korengal valley, which is attacked with a wide assortment of weapons almost daily and rarely receives mail, nonetheless has more packages of peanut butter cookies than the soldiers of the 1-327 Infantry Battalion can make a dent in. But it's a rare soldier who, upon opening a package and finding a bag of squashed-up homemade cookies, wouldn't grin. That wouldn't be human.
It's not what's needed most, though. That place probably goes to dipping tobacco.
Skoal, Kodiak, Copenhagen -- there is plenty of it in the post exchanges on big airfields, and they even make round pouches designed specifically so you fasten your can of dip to your body armor. At the tip of the spear, though -- in the little patrol bases out in Taliban country -- a can of Skoal Wintergreen can be a precious commodity.
It didn't help that shipping tobacco to deployed addresses was briefly made illegal earlier this year, courtesy of an anti-trafficking law called the PACT Act, which took effect in June. (After an uproar last month, an exemption was written into the act.) This summer in Afghanistan, I heard a lot of complaints about the infamous "tactical directive" that restricts what targets troops can fire on -- but nowhere near as many as I heard about that law.
In a meeting for soldiers to get their frustrations off their chests at one outpost in July, infantrymen quizzed their commander for a while about the tactical directive and related life-and-death issues. Then they moved on to the scarcity of dip. "Can we get it shipped here through supply?" one sergeant asked. "It would be like Christmas every day."
"If they really want to support their troops," a soldier from the 1-502 Infantry Battalion told me last month in Kandahar's unpleasant Zhari district, "folks should quit it with all the other stuff and just send more dip."
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