Graphic images of violent death are not good for the soul. Whether in person, video or pictures, we do not need to see the images of a corpse torn asunder. Suffice to say that he is dead. The President says that we don’t need to “spike the football.” He’s right about that, but it’s more than that. You may be curious, but some things are best left a matter of unsatisfied curiosity. It’s not good for you. Our baser instincts are not always good to satisfy. Most of us have already seen enough; civilians included. Cries to the contrary are that baser instinct begging for satisfaction.
It’s best to acknowledge the thought and just… let it go.
It’s not about his dignity, it’s about ours. Yours. Mine. I’ve seen my share of death. Any share is more than enough. It’s not like the quiet violence of seeing a family member die of disease, nor of seeing them in made-up repose in a casket. As a young man, I held my father’s hand and looked into his eyes at the moment of death as the light of life left him. It was a remarkably spiritual experience, but balanced with a certain horror. The horror was in one of the earliest fears of a child coming true; I had lost a parent. But, there was no dehumanization. Our rituals surrounding death serve a purpose in letting go of a loved one while preserving their humanity. Seeing human beings reduced to remarkable similarity with road kill is just not good for the soul. Yes, we saw pictures of Zarkawi. We saw pictures of Uday and Qusay. We didn’t need to and, I strongly submit, we could all have lived the rest of our lives without having done so and been the better for it. It’s not about the sacredness of bin Laden’s life, it’s about the sanctity of human life and what seeing the results of extreme violence does to that sanctity in our own souls.
In early September of 2007, I lost four Afghan National Police to an IED. It was tremendously violent. As the Special Forces medic understated it, they had sustained, “injuries incompatible with life.” I don’t have bad dreams about it, but I can see those moments in my mind’s eye, and I can smell the mixture of blood, bowel and… fresh death… as clearly as if those men were still in front of me. There is no dignity in that moment, other than in the dignity of men who died for what they believed in; and that is such an abstract concept at that moment that it does not overwhelm the purely visceral horror of human beings torn asunder by massive violence wrought by other men.
I had to go through their pockets, having that OJ Simpson moment of trying to work rubber-gloved hands into close fabric. I had to, because the amount of facial deformation and the transformation of death made it difficult to positively identify the bodies. I had to find the ID cards. Their body fluids on the blue gloves caused their own sensations of horror. In looking into the faces, trying to remember, trying to identify the dead, the lifeless eyes stared out. Horror. No light of life, the spirit gone and the eyes not just unseeing but violently decoupled. I lost a part of myself that day. It was not an exercise of mental muscles but the slow, painful and violent amputation of a bit of my soul.
The horrible expression of death will never leave me. I did what I had to do, and soon enough it was over… but is never over. My soul is not stronger for having had that experience, it is the poorer for it. Painted by a brush that leaves an indelible mark. Now, much of that is lost in a photograph; but you can and hopefully will live the rest of your life without having that baser need satisfied and that brush paint your soul more than it has been painted to this point.
And you will be the better for it.
I say this as only those who have given the last semblance of God-given innocence blithely away and lived to regret it can. Jealously guard what innocence you still hold, for it is wealth in your soul; not weakness, but strength. As the voices of the baser instincts of our national character cry out for satisfaction, I encourage you to simply acknowledge that in yourself and in the human character and… let it go.
Okay, so perhaps it’s a little weird for me to advertise for anyone’s Facebook page when I’m not using it myself. I’m considering it, but since I can’t seem to keep up a simple blog, it’s almost ridiculous for me to start yet another project that I won’t be able to keep up with. That being said…
Some of the interpreters here at the schoolhouse have started a Facebook page. The interpreters are very important to our mission, adding the ability to communicate with and teach Afghans of all types. The Afghan National Security Forces are obviously key partners, and they need to be able to apply the principles of COIN in their own country. It is, after all, their fight as well. They are the ones who are going to have to live here in the future. There are other key stakeholders in this fight, too; we teach and partner with various non-military Afghan government entities as well as non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). Without our interpreters, those interactions would wind up being pantomime sessions of extremely limited value. Several of our interpreters can teach any of the classes in our Program of Instruction (POI) by themselves. They are invaluable.
Our interpreters are patriots. Almost all of our interpreters have several years or more of experience as interpreters, and they are some of the best interpreters in the country. By experience, I mean operational, combat experience. They have put their lives on the line for Afghanistan and their American counterparts. One was even an ANA Commando until a wound ended his military career… but he’s still contributing to the success of the fledgling Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Being an interpreter can be a dangerous business. They must be careful whom they disclose their employment to. Some do not burden their families with the knowledge. One of our interpreters suffered a home invasion a few months ago. The reason? Because he is an interpreter. Like I said, these men are patriots.
They are also very open about sharing their language and their culture with their allies. They actively encourage American and NATO personnel to ask honest questions and truly enjoy it when someone expresses a genuine interest in Afghanistan, its language and its culture. Having the opportunity to engage Afghan patriots is a rare privilege for the average American. I encourage you to visit their page and engage them in discussion. Get the Afghan point of view on the issues that face Afghanistan and the Coalition. These men are speaking only for themselves, but what an opportunity to get rare insight from patriotic young Afghans.
Something ugly is going on in Afghanistan. I don’t know who the perpetrator is, but that’s up to your Congressman to find out. Here’s what I can tell you; at FOB Gardez and Camp Phoenix (and I’m checking to see if this has happened elsewhere as well) there used to be MWR internet facilities, complete with computers for the Soldiers to use. “Permanent” residents of the FOB could buy monthly internet access for a fee from a private provider, usually a bunch of Indians with a satellite dish. The fee varied, and while it was high, it just got higher.
It just got insane.
Now our Soldiers and Marines can buy internet by the hour, costing as much as $200 per month for pathetic speed. That is patently ridiculous! As I wrote when I was in country, my priorities for being a happy camper included internet in the top three. Most Soldiers don’t send snail mail because you haven’t seen a snail in your life as slow as mail to and from Afghanistan. We are the digital generation and we stay connected via electrons.
Will I pay $200/month to stay connected? Yes, I will. Will the private who makes a lot less pay it? Yes, he probably will.
This is a particular problem at Camp Phoenix, which each and every ETT/PMT has to process through on their way in and out of the country. Phoenix used to have an entire building full of phones and one that had internet computers and laptop drops in it. Now that building is full of phones. These “transients” who are trying to stay in touch with their families while they are coming into a new country, or whose families are trying to track their progress towards home, are now officially screwed.
What the hell, people?
First, the guy who made that decision was undoubtedly a Lieutenant Colonel or higher. Why he made that call is beyond me, but I can guarantee that he had no realistic idea, nor apparently did he care, how that type of expense impacted a young man with a family back home which he tried to stay in touch with via email and video chat. LTC’s have jobs that provide internet-enabled computers, anyway, so what does he care? Doesn’t affect him.
I cannot explain to you how much higher morale is when you can log on and get your email. I cannot explain to you how much more sustainable life is when you can log on the internet and see your child on the screen. Everyone wants to talk about the stress of deployment, but here is a morale killer and someone needs to look into it.
Someone is making a shitload of money from our deployed Soldiers, and those whose responsibility it is to safeguard those Soldiers and Marines are not only leaving them to the predations of crappy, overpriced service, but they actually had to change the existing system to do it! Now that the MWR rooms are gone, if those young men and women don’t have a laptop, their access to this morale-saving technology is gone; or they can spend money that they weren’t otherwise obligated to spend in order to buy a laptop and pay out the boowah for horrid service.
You want to take care of Soldiers? Provide free internet.
No, this the way that we take care of our deployed troops. We rape them for every dime we can so that they don’t lose their freaking minds in a foreign country. Someone is making a lot of money on this, and it’s on Joe’s back.
Please get your Congressman interested in this. It’s things like this that don’t get solved when people are living by the “what happens in Afghanistan, stays in Afghanistan” moral code unless a Congressman starts asking what the hell they are thinking of.
There are really no pictures to show of the past week or so, because there is nothing all that interesting to take pictures of at this point. The situation is constantly changing for myself and a couple of other soldiers from my team. We found out a couple of weeks ago that there was a requirement from our higher headquarters to detach a number of people from each team for a different mission. I’m not going to go into the precise details about it at this time, but suffice it to say that it is hard to see my team go downrange with our ANA counterparts while we are cast into another role that is very hard to picture.
As human beings, we like routine. We like predictability. It’s more comfortable than the unknown. We like to be able to picture what our life is going to look like tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Part of this whole journey has always been the unknown, but it is as uncomfortable as you would imagine it being in your own life. Before our arrival in Afghanistan, we had all seen pictures and video of what it looks like, but nothing on a small screen can compare with the reality of being on the ground, seeing the enormity of it all. Nothing can prepare you completely for the spectacle of Kabul, the distant beauty of the snow-covered mountains looming in the background as the dust rises over Kabul like steam from a boiling pot. Nothing can prepare you for the chaos of driving in the bizarre traffic, for the ever-present poverty, for the heartbreak of seeing the children with such terrible conditions and such questionable futures.
As dramatic as the pictures may be, nothing is the same as driving through the chasms of the mountain passes down to Jalalabad with the Kabul River’s cataracts shouldering up next to the road as if competing for the space. None of this could be experienced as we sought information, trying to picture the life we were throwing ourselves into. We had a clue, and more importantly, we had a clear idea… as clear as we could, anyway… of what our mission was. We had an idea of how we would apply our previous experiences and existing knowledge to make an impact, to achieve a mission. We had a mission description that, while by no means complete, was enough for us to form a mental scheme for how to approach it.
The new mission is so much sketchier, so much more ephemeral. It is an unknown in so many ways. It is new ground, and the most we can gather about it is a very scant description of where to find it on the map. As for the people we will be working with on the Afghan side, we know nothing at all except what organization they belong to, and the particular division of even that organization was only made clearer yesterday. The mission is still being defined by those whose job it is to define such things, and so we wait for the thinkers and planners to allocate the resources that we are and define what they can.
There is no doctrine that covers this assignment. There is scant experiential knowledge of this type of mentoring. Some have been doing it for a few months, and I’ve had a chance to speak with them about it. They are winging it. There is no doubt that they are doing good things, but nothing they have ever done has been specifically targeted to this type of mission. Yet, everything they have ever done is being plumbed for the skills required to accomplish it.
So, I and my two fellow NCO’s who have been extricated from the team that we have trained with for months face the unknown together. We know that this mission will be one of two things; it will either be fraught with a total lack of excitement or an overabundance of it. We may do nothing more than assist with the administrative functions being performed in an attempt to increase efficiency and accountability. If we are attacked with any degree of ferocity, we may find ourselves beyond any Coalition help that could arrive in time to make a difference. We will be off by ourselves in a position of great vulnerability, yet we may be performing desk work and never be bothered by anything more consequential than Afghan insects and the corruption known to be systemic in the organization we are going to assist and mentor.
In the meantime, they had to find something for us to do. One of our number, The Green Mountain Maniac, has a mechanical bent. He is assisting in the motor pool with the maintenance and repair of the vehicles. The other has been detailed to assist the S-1, or Personnel Officer, with whatever it is that Personnel Officers do, and I have been relegated to the TOC, or Tactical Operations Center, on the night shift, monitoring radios and situations and being a “TOCroach.” I am on the “Reverse Cycle,” awake all night, unable to adequately sleep during the day, and being largely invisible.
Life on our FOB has thinned out considerably in the past few days as teams of mentors “RIP out” to the east with their ANA units. “RIP” is short for “Relief In Place.” It means that these ANA units, with their Army, Marine, or French mentors, will relieve the units currently operating within the Area of Operations (AO) and those units will head back into their respective garrisons for rest, training, and a break from life on the smaller FOB’s which are in some cases more like combat outposts and patrol bases.
With fewer people, the FOB is not quite a ghost town, but it is a lot less crowded. Still, the ubiquitous workers from KBR are still here, fixing things, fixing chow, bustling about at a steady pace. The KBR people are here on contracts; civilians who come for whatever reasons… usually money and the tax advantages… and they are responsible for keeping the facilities working and the chow flowing. They do a great job. Our chow is top notch, and the facilities are clean and functional. A lot of the KBR people are American, but some come from Russia, the Ukraine, and I talked to one yesterday from Kosovo. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t see a lot of wasted contract money being spent right here.
For right now, I await a nebulous mission while I contribute in the TOC at night, dreading another change like the jet lag I experienced just about a month ago. I am a yawning denizen of the night, listening to the events that unfold in the dark all over our little portion of Afghanistan. The French are hard to understand on the radio, sounding like the transmissions between the divers and Calypso in the old Jacques Cousteau shows. There have been events, but usually they are short-lived harassment fires that carry the same earmarks as juvenile pranks, with the notable difference that if they do accidentally hit something, someone could die.
We are moving in less than a week. At this point, we are not sure which FOB we will move to. We have no idea if the internet will be accessible from there. I hope so. The internet helps me stay connected, helps me stay sane, in touch with my friends and children. One thing I never expected was to “meet” new people, Americans, while in Afghanistan, but that has happened, too. I’ve “met” people simply because they have commented on this blog! Never expected that. The support is wonderful. Will this new mission sever the “silver cord” that has kept me plugged into life in the States, too? I have no idea.