Afghanistan Post-Mortem: Adhan during a mortar attack

Oh puh-leaz.

Early one morning, sleep was interrupted by a mortar attack.

Generally speaking, the scariest part of an indirect fire attack is the adrenaline spike that occurs as a result of alarm – something I experienced during the Scud attacks of early 2003 as well. The speed in which someone needs to launch a mortar attack while also avoiding being killed in a counter-attack – usually – prevents any reliable accuracy.

So the alarm goes off and you kind of wait for the boom, and imagine for a half-second what it would be like for a fist sized piece of shrapnel to come flying at your neck.

I was already awake, getting ready to go to the gym. The mortar exploded with a dull thud far from our area, and the platoon went back to sleep. I started walking to the guard towers to check on the guys. As I was walking, I heard the the low melodic sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, drifting through the still night from a nearby mosque.

I remember physically laughing at how cliché that was.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: The DFAC at the Edge of the World

There was a small post that we visited from time to time, to move in or out personnel and equipment. It was hours away by vehicle and we really didn’t like going there. It was far from the big American bases and the terrain was mountainous and nasty.

We called it Mordor.

The first time we went to Mordor, we arrived in the middle of the night. For security reasons, no lights were kept on at night, so the base was completely dark. Just outside of the main gate, we were met by a small group of Americans in the darkness, wearing helmets and night vision goggles. We were dropping off a few people and would only be on the ground for less than an hour. Our helmeted American hosts said they had a small dining facility on the compound and we were welcome to grab some snacks and drinks before the long drive back to our base. He pointed somewhere deeper into the darkness before dissapearing.

With the bulk of the platoon waiting at the trucks, a few of us made our way into the darkness. We walked through a small gate and along a small road. Eerily quiet trucks zoomed past us, literally brushing up against us as we tried to make out the dark figures in the back, lounging as the faint sound of their trucks faded into the darkness.

We kept walking, up a hill now, eventually seeing a single source of dull red light over a indistinct door. We were told that the red light would mark the entrace to the dining facility.

We opened the door and entered, finding ouselves suddenly bathed in bright, fluorescent white light. I squinted and rubbed my eyes as my pupils adjusted. Sinks lined the wall, with small soap dispensers above them and clean mirrors to look at yourself. A corkboard across from the sinks listed MWR events taking place on the small post, as well as information on the Army’s SHARP and EO programs. The small group I was with must have looked a bit perplexed, as the attendant – a junior soldier sitting at a small register – interrupted our bewilderment by informing us that the dining facility was about to close, and he needed to scan our ID cards.

We scanned our ID cards at the register and then walked into the dining facility, loading up our cargo pockets with Rip-Its and cookies before dissapearing back into the darkness, looking for our trucks.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Fallen Soldier Ceremony

One late evening, my phone rang in the middle of the night. I answered it, expecting some emergency or another. It was the Operations Sergeant Major. A soldier in the command had been killed and he was being flown from our airfield to another, en route home. I needed to get the platoon together, he said, for a fallen soldier ceremony.

My commander had just flown in a few hours earlier, and when the platoon sergeant started rounding everyone up for a very strange midnight formation, they all figured it was the CO, pissed about something he had observed.

Once everyone was together, we briefed them on what we knew (very little) and moved to the flight line.

In other years, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem to rally the hundred or so soldiers it takes to form an unbroken chain of troops to create a corridor between the aircraft and the hospital. But in 2014, it took a lot of phone calls and maybe even some personal favors.

We all stood there in the dark on the asphalt, not really knowing what was going on. Nearby crew chiefs conducted final preparations for the flight. It was dark, quiet, humid, and groggy.

Eventually, we all started forming the corridor in an orderly, military fashion, without ever having anyone tell us what to do. It all kind of just happened.

Time passed, and the door of the non-descript building that served as the mortuary affairs office opened up. Large men carried the flag-draped casket inbetween the two ranks of soldiers forming the hundred meter or so corridor to the waiting Blackhawk.

Someone called us to present arms, and we did.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Readjustment takes time

Stress over time: Fantasy
Stress over time: Fantasy

About three-quarters through the deployment, I could physically feel that my patience, or rather, my ability to be patient, had severely diminished. I found myself getting easily frustrated with things that I would have been able to manage much better earlier in the deployment. My patience had been eroded, but I was cognizant of it, and because I was aware of it, I was able to manage my own impatience (eh, some of the time).

Speaking with other leaders about this, they reported a similar phenomenon. The challenges of leadership coupled with the stress of deployment had chipped away at their mental stores.

And the deployment went on, and then we went home.

Despite the constant drum-beat during re-integration training that war has a significant effect on the psyche, the thought that “everything will be better when we get home” still lingers. While it’s true that the immediate danger is gone, the phsyiological changes that occured and led to our being easily frustrated probably takes time to reset. It’s hard to imagine that the cumulative effect of nine months of deployed life (coupled with the tough training that preceded it) is wiped away simply by crossing enough time-zones and setting feet down on American soil.

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Stress over time: Reality
Stress over time: Reality

Afghanistan Post-Mortem: The End of War

Well, that’s it.

Having arrived safely in America a few days ago, my deployment to Afghanistan is officially over.

I didn’t really spend much time or energy writing about Afghanistan or the experience of leading a platoon through the end of war for a bunch of reasons I’ll get to in a minute. Still, coming home from war is significant and it feels appropriate to try to try to wrap it up here with some kind of reflection.

For all the fun I had throwing around the ‘end of war’ adage in the lead up to the deployment, the war has not ended and goes on (and on). I suppose I had a slight expectation of learning something unique or new in the same way that I did through participating in the actual physical invasion of Iraq in 2003. That is, learning something about War or the nature of war.

Well, so far, I’ve got nothing.

Without question I learned plenty – being at work for nine months straight has its advantages. I learned about leadership, discipline, morale, personnel management, training, and mission command. I’ve also exponentially increased my technical skills at things like battle tracking, reporting, and building PowerPoint slides – not joking, I’ve gotten pretty good.

I was also fortunate to see how the way we fight has changed, especially when compared to how we did it just ten years ago. For a time, I led a fleet of MRAPs, the final evolutionary form of the doorless humvees we used to zoom around Baghdad in 2003. Getting out the gate in 2014/2015 requires a whole lot more than just sending a head count to the CP before SP.

Seeing things from an officer’s perspective gave me a deeper appreciation for the planning process, and the pressures that come from higher. What would have made me grumble and grunt as a young sergeant was now more fully understood as a lieutenant. I was able to see myself in both sets of shoes, as the leader with the information and the soldier without. I tried my best to close the distance between the two, with mixed results.

I was able to observe the absolute infestation of technology in the way we do work. Afghanistan is often derided as being backwards or “in the stone age,” but one of the first things new leaders do in country is get a cell phone. If so inclined, you can pop a local SIM card into your smartphone and sign up for a data plan, with pretty reliable 3G coverage. Not a day needs to go by without checking Facebook from your mobile device.

And the absurdity of war, in all of its colors, was still there.

This was quite possibly my longest stretch of time in the military where I’ve gone without eating a single MRE out of necessity. As best as I can remember, I ate only one MRE during the entire deployment, and it was for the novelty of it (it was a cold-weather MRE).

Yes, I learned a lot. And I came out of the experience better for it.

But to say that I’ve learned something deeper, some universal truth, would be a lie. It was war, as it was before.

This was my first deployment to Afghanistan, and having only deployed to Iraq before, this felt something akin to adopting a teenager just before he graduates high school. I cared, and wanted to help, but my individual contribution to the overall effort felt mostly insignificant – the hard work was done by others before me.

Some of the NCOs in my unit who had been to Afghanistan before commented on how much quieter the FOBs seemed. Where they were once bustling micro-cities, today they seemed more like ghost towns, Walmart parking lots on an early Sunday morning.

Frustratingly, success at the platoon level was extremely hard to measure. I’m remiss to say that it was a success because everyone came back safely, as many do, because while that’s a good thing, if going to war only to protect yourself is the goal, then maybe we need a better reason to go in the first place.

So far, the best I’ve come up with in describing success is through the metaphor of a relay race: we ran for nine months without ever really knowing if we should be sprinting or pacing ourselves, and then handed off the baton to the next guy before jogging off the track, panting. We have no idea how long the race is or if we’re winning, but we hope that it will eventually end, and at a minimum, we hope that our single lap around the track will not be looked back on as the lap that cost us the race.

As to why I didn’t write more about the deployment – I’ve never really used this blog as a journal or a kind of record of what I’m doing, with the exception of the occasional significant update. Honestly, it would probably have been a lot more interesting if I did keep a day-by-day blog. I know I would have enjoyed reading about what the end of the Afghanistan war looked like from the point of view of a small unit leader on the ground.

That kind of writng contains too many pitfalls, though. As other young lieutenant’s have learned, beyond OPSEC concerns, there are challenges to writing about the current goings-on in your unit, and those challenges are heightened when deployed, as a friend of mine learned when he was chided by his command for writing a gentle piece for the New York Times’ At War blog while still deployed.

I posted a couple of cryptic pieces through the deployment to try to cast a shade as to what was going on, but they went mostly unnoticed. I did keep a log of things that I thought would be interesting to write about eventually, and now that I’m home, I’ll get to them.

Having done this before, and being very aware of the way that war doesn’t end neatly or conveniently at the very point that the soldier returns home, I’m mindful that in time, some greater meaning or idea may come to me. I’m still very much in the honeymoon phase of redeployment, teetering between the joy of reliable hot water and plentiful alcohol and the bitter understanding that the strangers around me don’t know or care about what I have just done.

Walking into a coffee shop I frequent over the weekend, the owner greeted me by name and took my order, indifferent to the fact that he had not seen me for nine months and this was the first time I had stepped into his shop since last summer. He acted normal, and in kind, I acted normal. I bought my coffee and left like I had dozens of times before. Nothing changed. No excited “welcome home” or probing questions.

Honestly, it was refreshing, in a way. I just wanted my coffee, and I didn’t really want to stand around and try to wrap up “what it was like” in a sentence or two.

I drove home, confused. Did he not realize I had been gone? He knew I was deploying – I even had my wife send me coffee beans from that very shop. Maybe, I thought as I pulled into my driveway, he was doing me a favor, helping me along to get “back to normal.”

The episode reminded of the ending of American Psycho (the movie), where Patrick Bateman, having just admitted his crimes to his lawyer who dismisses them as a joke, sits in front of a sign that reads “This Is Not An Exit” and stares blankly, understanding that his confession has meant nothing, he has achieved no catharsis from his crimes.

It has been a long and short nine months. In a strange way, the whole thing kind of feels like I just stepped through a portal at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones and came out at the other end just in time for season 5.

I’m looking forward to leave.

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Losing the war, over and over again

Samir, the Afghan cook stood in front of the grill, smiling widely, upbeat music playing loudly from a battery operated radio behind him. He nodded eagerly to each person who passed by. On the white board behind the grill that normally displayed information about the day’s meals, a message was scrawled in Dari script. It was an Eid message, as Ramadan had just ended.

The disheveled, fat American cook who ran the mess hall walked in the front door and made his way towards the grill. As his eye caught the message, his gait slowed as he took it all in.

“What is all this?”

“Ramadan message,” the cook responded, still with a smile.

“No,” the American said, raising a towel to the message and erasing it. “I don’t know what this says.”

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Living the Dream: Fever-sleeping through the End of War

A series of ill-fated events (eating the raw vegetables) resulted in the complete shut down of my normal bodily functions over the holidays. While I was sleeping, the war ended. So there’s that to celebrate.

Richard Burton

In the tossing around that occupied my leisure during that sweet spot of time that exists nestled tightly between Christmas and New Years, it occurred to me that I was living the experience of the Middle East adventurers who went before me. Just about every self-boasting orientalist memoir includes a long, drawn out escapade of a time they were laid out in grave illness, usually malaria or something equally exotic. It’s usually in this fever-dream induced state where they accomplish something great. In the case of Sir Richard Burton, finding Lake Victoria in Africa while being carried on a litter by slaves, and in the case of T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up the concept of the Arab Revolt.

Unfortunately, I was visited by zero knowledge imparting apparitions over the week, but did make numerous pilgrimages to the nearest porta-potty, which, like most military porta-potties, contains a treasure trove of knowledge scrawled on the walls inside.

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Remnants of an Army

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I walk down the steps and outside, limping from the pins and needles in my legs from sitting too long. The cold air wraps around me and I look up, squinting, catching the dark, looming mountains of the Pashtun border behind a strand of concertina wire along the wall of the cantonment . Turning a corner to head back to my room, the white blimp sits in the air where it always does; black from its own shadow. A low-tech drone buzzes nearby like a lawn mower.

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Going to the “Dark Place”: The Role of Hate in War

Commando Noir

I almost missed this post at Kings of War from last week on the role of “hate” in war. It starts off with a simple assertion from an officer:

When I was replacing the outgoing Infantry battalion in eastern Afghanistan in 2010, an outgoing staff officer and I were casually discussing life, combat, and the year ahead. He said something that stuck with me throughout my second deployment, “You know, if you want to be successful here (in Afghanistan), you have to keep hate in your heart.”

Shortly before this deployment to the same place, I remember sitting in on a briefing describing the conditions and the operational tempo of the unit we would be replacing. There were no frills; the unit we were replacing was getting into contact almost daily. I scribbled down notes and watched slide after slide go by with all kinds of ominous photos and statistics. As the lights came on and everyone stood to get up, I turned to an NCO and said “Well, looks like it’s time to go back to the dark place.” He grimaced, then took a deep breath and gave me a nod, and then we went to lunch.

As the deployment loomed, I remember tearing my garage apart, pulling out old gear from previous deployments that I never thought I’d have to use again. Knives and pouches. My workouts became more aggressive.

I haven’t really given the concept of the “dark place” much thought other than the fact that it felt like the right thing to say at the time after that briefing. As the Kings of War piece points out, it’s very difficult to be appropriately aggressive in a mechanical way without turning on the hate. In the piece, the author points out the French Foreign Legion as an example of an aggressive but disciplined force.

This reminds me of another concept that might be easier to swallow. There are a number of physical fitness events in the Army that you can do well in (or barely pass) not through being in great shape, but through “digging deep” and “letting it all out” on the day of the event. The twelve mile foot march can be muscled through – with great pain – if the marcher is out of shape or hungover. You can also squeeze out a sub-thirteen minute two mile run even if you haven’t been training for awhile. You’ll pay for it at the finish line by throwing up, but if you have the intestinal fortitude, it can be done. Of course, you can just train regularly (which requires discipline) and be in great shape and manage these same feats with much less pain and suffering. In the same vein, one can be an effective soldier without harboring “hate” for the enemy if he takes pride in soldiering. Turning to hate as a mechanism for mission accomplishment is like turning to the bottle to deal with your problems – it will eventually backfire.

This whole discussion is related to the “why we fight” question I find so interesting. There’s not really a good answer right now, so any time there’s a piece of the puzzle floating around, I like to grab it and throw it in the pile for the future.

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