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.”

IV.

It turned out only 25% of inactive reserve call-ups report for duty.  I’m still trying to decide whether I’m a sucker.  Probably not.  I’ve emerged unscathed with nearly a year’s worth of tax-free income in the bank and a few stories to tell.  I also anticipate enjoying the free respect and credibility given to all veterans regardless of whether or not they were complete shit-bags.  Of course, my answer would be different if I’d been, say, on the wrong convoy up the Deywagal Valley.

Photo
Driving up a capillary valley

It was hard preparing to risk your life for something you don’t believe. It eats away your soul. Or maybe it was just fear.

I resolved that I was trading a risk (albeit small) of catastrophic personal injury for a good salary, responsibility, adventure, and most importantly, the chance to bear witness.  Many people choose to roll those dice.  My priority would be self-preservation.  I felt like Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars, or the old Italian man in Catch-22 who happily cheered whichever army happened to occupy Italy, or Pablo in For Whom The Bell Tolls, who never lost sight of his personal interests.

I lobbied for a staff job, saying (with great difficulty) that I wouldn’t want me a leader.  “There are people who still believe,” I told the commander of my PRT.  “They should be the ones leading soldiers.”  I failed, and ended up a civil affairs team leader in Afghanistan’s most violent province.  My few soldiers turned out to be great cynics as well.  We got along great.  In terms of a soldier’s motivation, livelihood and adventure usually trump politics and virtue.  For surprisingly many soldiers, politics is unimportant and uninteresting.

Thucydides observed this in his description of the Athenian mobilization for the decisively disastrous invasion of Sicily.  We kid ourselves into thinking it was all glory, God, and country until Vietnam.  It’s not and it never has been.  It’s livelihood, adventure, reputation, and the fact that young men like to fight.

V.

During this deployment, I felt at my best when planning missions to inspect our many projects, or meet influential Afghans, or assess future projects.  Here, my priority of self preservation proved useful.  I’d try to find reasons for the local infantry units to join me so we’d present a harder target, and coordinate for attack helicopters to cover our passage through dangerous areas.  I gave thorough, detailed orders for every mission, covering everything from historic enemy activity to the fastest means of casualty evacuation during each leg of our convoy.

I felt at my worst when the provincial reconstruction team’s civil affairs soldiers, together with the inter-agency representatives (Dept. of State, USAID, Dept. of Agriculture) assembled for strategy sessions.  Every aspect of an Afghan’s life was our business.  Absent was any belief that some things are better off done without government, or even that it’s possible for things to happen without government.

I should clarify: we are the government of Afghanistan.  The biggest task of the people whom we call the Afghan government is to lobby us over the distribution of American wealth, which nearly doubled from 55 million to almost 90 million during my PRT’s tenure, mostly during a mad dash as the fiscal year drew to a close.  Such is the nature of government.

“We are setting up a tyranny,” I said during one of my rants.  “It’s a benevolent tyranny, by virtue of all the American tax money flowing through it, but it’s still a tyranny.  What’s going to happen when donor money dries up, and they try to pull money in, instead of push it out?”

I was like an atheist sitting in church.  I’d object to the statement that our provincial governor came to power on an anti-corruption platform, because governors are appointed, not elected.  I’d point out that our highly touted vocational school—to which we take visiting generals, diplomats, U.N. dignitaries, USAID and Dept. of State big shots, and at which students earn a modest salary while learning masonry, plumbing, electric wiring, carpentry, rebar work, or painting—costs America fifty thousand dollars a month. It has already put at least one privately-run for-profit carpentry school out of business, and has a moderate dropout rate because we recruit students for political reasons in contrast with the now-out-of-business for-profit school where students sacrificed a small fee in exchange for learning a trade.

It was like pointing out unrealities in a science fiction movie.  Everybody becomes mildly irritated, then returns to watching the movie.  In government bureaucracies—and military members are among the 22 million Americans (1/7th of the labor force) employed directly by the Federal Government—creating the perception of progress serves an individual’s interest better than actual progress, and the vocational school lent itself to creating that impression.

I’m being harsh.  My peers were good people, not entirely unreceptive to my objections.  We engaged in several vigorous discussions.  I think there was just nothing else to do besides spend money and kill people who try to kill us.  That’s not to say the officers and civil servants I worked with lacked intelligence, or dedication, or good will.  There are simply too many contradictions inherent in military occupation.  Fortunately for our careers, we only need to create the impression of progress for nine to twelve months before everything becomes someone else’s problem.

It’s not that people lie, but like I said, there is truth almost everywhere, especially when you’re looking for it.  Our Information Operations Officer, who was tasked with producing a daily good news story and hated his job, swears he thought I said “The overall security situation is becoming more stable,” which is now credited to me on more than ten different websites and in Soldier of Fortune Magazine.  For the record, I never said it and don’t believe it.

I’d encourage anyone to temper my criticism with other reading.  “Road-Building in Afghanistan” by Dave Kilcullen (April 2008) is available online at smallwarsjournal.com, and offers a thoughtful study of PRT Kunar's counterinsurgency strategy.  To that, however, I would say that although the PRT might be our best answer to the question, “How do we militarily occupy Afghanistan?,” America should instead be asking “How do we protect our liberties?”

My cynicism did not prevent me from accomplishing the assigned mission.  For my efforts, I was awarded a Bronze Star, the usual award given to non-staff officers who get through a deployment without doing anything catastrophically stupid.

VI.
Photo
The Kunar River Valley

My Prediction: I’m fairly certain that so long as the illusionists in the Federal Reserve are able to forestall an implosion of the U.S. economy, American firepower and American wealth will prevail.  The Deywagal Valley road will crest the ridge line and connect to the Korengal Valley road, to the great credit of whoever happens to be the PRT commander at the time.  The sacrifice of the many good people who died will be invoked.  The contractor will receive his last payment.  The governor, escorted by the U.S. military, will give a speech.  He will condemn the insurgents as agents of Pakistan.  An approved Mullah will mention how even Mohammed worked with non-believers.  Hopefully, the lives of Afghans along the roads will improve.  A general will be in attendance.  Then, the governor will return to his heavily guarded compound.  He will meet with the PRT commander and ask for more projects. He will ask to be filled in on the PRT’s plan for the upcoming months.  The handful of contractors with whom the PRT does business will wait patiently in the wings.  Of course, there will still be violence, but our enterprise in Kunar Province is vast enough, and the people in the PRT smart enough, that statistics indicating progress will be produced and broadly advertised.  The insurgents will still be referred to as “the bad guys,” Television will still resolutely confine itself to superficials, and young men will still like to fight.

My deal with the devil is finished.  I've honored my commitment.  I am back in my own country where the two main party candidates, despite all the cultural differences they represent, and despite the fervor with which red-team competes with blue-team, agree on Afghanistan, the bailout and everything else that matters to me.

When asked about my plans, I’ve replied “I’m going to buy a bunch of guns and quit paying taxes.”  This, of course, is a joke, but if had I less to lose, I’d consider it.

Roman Skaskiw is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in Stanford Magazine, Front Porch Journal, and on GoNomad.com. He's a former infantry officer who completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.
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