Dispatch October 2008

E-mail From Afghanistan

"It was hard preparing to risk your life for something you don’t believe. It eats away your soul." An ex-Army officer contemplates contemplates the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, and his recently completed third combat tour.
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I.

I arrived in Bagram Air Force Base (BAF), Afghanistan on Sept. 27th, 2008, and over the course of two days, turned in my ammunition and sat through briefings about vehicle safety, family discord, suicide awareness, and mental health.  Collectively, soldiers call them the “don’t-beat-your-wife classes.”

BAF is a sprawling military base full of shipping containers, new construction, gravel fields, military vehicles, hangars, fast food restaurants, Port-A-Johns and strangers in Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, French, Polish, and Egyptian uniforms, or with Lockheed Martin t-shirts, or Slavic accents and Kellog Brown & Root (a subsidiary of Haliburton) ID tags hanging from their necks.  People would salute me and wear reflective belts at night, which, having newly arrived from the highly kinetic Kunar Province, felt ridiculous.

The author during his deployment

I knew almost nobody, and lived from three bags in an open-bay tent with literally hundreds of cots, and people constantly arriving, snoring, and departing without so much as introducing themselves to the man in the adjacent cot.  All this, of course, was nothing to complain about.  I was going home, my third (and last!) tour of duty was ended, and if they wanted me to stand on my head for my few remaining days, I would have happily obliged.

It’s difficult to write about armed conflict, as emotions are high, and the details one chooses can bias a story in almost any direction.  The problem with war narratives isn’t lying.  The problem is there’s too much truth.  Everything you’ve ever heard about war is likely true: the leisure, the camaraderie, the sudden, violent, unpredictable extinguishing of human life, the extravagant consumption of resources, fear, cynicism, stupidity, opportunism, earnestness, courage, sacrifice.  In this regard, it’s very human.  The enterprise is so vast that almost everything is true, and writers can choose whichever truths support a particular thesis.  Nevertheless, I’d like to try.

II.

In many ways, this was an easy deployment.  The food was much better than it had been on my previous tours, the showers hotter, and the toilets porcelain, which is only a big deal to those of us who’ve ever been deprived of that. 

Unlike my previous deployments, I never had to stay awake for 36+ hours, and never had to walk into the darkness looking for a fight.  Even though I grew up an infantry officer, since my recall from the inactive reserve, the Army retrained me in Civil Affairs.  My job this time around, as I describe to friends, was to meet government officials, tribal elders and locals, and help spend an obscene amount of American wealth on “reconstruction”—which is a funny word to describe putting roads, bridges, clinics and schools in places where they’ve never before existed.  It’s the job I did in Iraq as an additional duty.  As our wars drag along, Civil Affairs has become increasingly formalized.

Photo
The author meeting with elders

Given my infantry background, and the fact that I was the only officer on my Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) who’d even been deployed before, I enjoyed a degree of clout and credibility.  Although there was a lot of fighting in Kunar—an average of three to four “TICs” (Troops in Contact incidents) a day—much more than I faced on previous deployments, fighting was no longer my job.  Much of it was relegated to tiny military outposts in the mountains, and for the most part, I avoided it.

What made things difficult was my state of mind.  The letter I’d received read, “Dear mobilizing soldier,” and in all capital letters: “REPORT NO LATER THAN 20MAY2007 AND NO EARLIER THAN 20MAY2007,” and “NO LONGER THAN 545 DAYS UNLESS EXTENDED,” and “IN SUPPORT OF OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM.”  (I later received an amendment shifting me to Afghanistan.)

I had a full beard, a pot-smoking girlfriend, and a profound, visceral distrust of my government.  Since leaving the military after my 2003-2004 Iraq deployment, I’d engaged in all sorts of anti-government activity like reading, seeking second opinions, and thinking critically about what Television told me.

The unpatriotic questions I struggled with suddenly swelled with significance.  Is our military (and its presence in 130 of the world’s 190 countries) making America more safe or less safe?  Where does the money come from?  Terrorism is a tactic.  How can you have a war against a tactic?  Who is threatening my liberties?  If the threat of terrorism is so great that I’m supposed to risk my life in Afghanistan, why isn’t it so great that we do something about our completely porous borders?  Why do they hate us?  I had questions about our foreign policy and about the fire-induced collapse of three steel-framed structures.

III.

Four years ago, I wrote about my time in Iraq for Stanford Magazine (“E-mail from Iraq,” Stanford Magazine Mar/Apr 04).  I was full of goodwill and enthusiasm at the breadth of challenges my responsibilities encompassed. 

When I read it now, I barely recognize myself as the author.  I’d need to have a serious talking-to with the young man who wrote that article.  I’d tell him that just because an endeavor is sprinkled with the blood of good people, that doesn’t make it just, or noble, or even worthwhile.  He should not have so quickly abrogated the responsibility of answering the question: “What are we fighting for?”

To me, now, “Email from Iraq” reads like war propaganda—an illustration of the energy and character and goodwill of its participants, while beckoning the reader to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. 

I think I recognize the lens through which he saw the conflict:  “Look, Ma. I’m at war!”  After all the hype and fear associated with armed conflict, it’s difficult to get over the reality of participating in it. 

The theses of the contemporary military biographies I’ve read seem invariably to be: “Look what a bad-ass I am.”  This is understandable, as war presents problems which are both interesting and important—fatally important.  They create geniuses in solving those problems.  It is easy to so thoroughly absorb yourself in their solutions that you never think about, say, the Constitution—which, on a completely unrelated note, military officers have sworn to support and defend against all enemies foreign and domestic.

I guess I believed a little, too.  Upon redeploying from Iraq, an influential friend of a friend of a friend got me an interview, which might have resulted in me returning to Iraq as a civilian.  I was absorbed in the problems I’d worked on there, and unwilling abandon them.  I bought a suit.  When the White House Liaison to the State Department told me these types of jobs generally go to people who’ve “proven their loyalty to the president by working on his campaign,” I could have pointed out that I’d been off fighting his war for the duration of the re-election campaign.  I could have said one of many things, but instead produced a noise indicative of a peach pit stuck in one’s throat.

In Iraq, I was making a first impression with the locals.  I believed I would bring them a good future, and so did they.  The United States has been in Afghanistan seven years, a Provincial Reconstruction Team has been in Kunar for three.  The locals have seen us come and go, and it’s difficult to tell what they believe.  One local made my interpreter laugh during a visit to the governor’s compound.  “He asked if you guys are the new PRT,” my interpreter explained, “then he asked if this cow has a lot of milk.”

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