by Captain Charles Scott
April 2, 2018
Seriously, fuck this place.
As I’m writing this, my friend Lance is a half-mile away from me, lying in a hospital bed on a military base in Afghanistan, intubated and recovering from surgery, being prepared for a flight to a hospital in Germany. This morning, he was shot in Nangarhar Province, one bullet bouncing through his chest, the other through his hamstring. His interpreter was wounded, and a local Afghan commander killed before an F-16 destroyed the individuals responsible for the attack. As I type these words, the United States public is not yet aware of what transpired, and a majority of Americans will never know. Just ten days ago, one of his teammates, Misha, was killed in the same valley in an attack by ISIS-K that wounded four additional American soldiers. Both of these men were on their second tour to Afghanistan with our Special Forces Battalion. Last year, Staff Sergeant Adam Thomas, one of Lance’s men, was killed within four kilometers of Misha. Although the United States has recently concluded its sixteenth year of continuous combat in Afghanistan, the same men are fighting the same enemy, on the same terrain.
For those of us on the ground, faced with the complexities, nuances, and challenges, not to mention the length, of the war, it’s difficult to resist the urge to become bitter and nihilistic. For a problem that is so difficult, there is no easy solution. In a modern world, where nearly everything is instantaneously available, the protracted lingering of an armed conflict in such a glaringly unmodern arena is as unsettling as it is frustrating. To survive, a rational mind must create irrational absurdities in order to justify itself. For me, my cognitive dissonances and subsequent justifications are as protracted a quagmire as the war itself.
I did not expect to die.
The first operation on which we accompanied our Afghan Commandos was, in retrospect, a comedy of errors. It was also the first combat mission of my life. As the helicopters transported us to our objective, an RPG raced between the Chinooks and the door gunner unleashed a burp of bullets in response. When the birds lowered and began to land, I was hyper-focused, and my mortality simply wasn’t in question. I recognized the inherent risk, but I didn’t expect any harm to befall my team or myself. In that moment, I felt invincible. I checked the azimuth toward the objective on my wrist GPS, took a deep breath, stepped off the ramp of the CH-47 into the darkness, and promptly fell flat on my face in the warm, sticky mud of an Afghan rice paddy. Furiously wiping the filth from my night-vision goggles, and swearing to myself, I continued on. Earlier in the day, we’d identified strange-looking fortifications on the roofs of multiple buildings with our drones, and we judged them to pose a serious threat to our forces. As we glopped through the muck toward the village, we kept a sharp eye on these rooftops, and the enemy we were certain would appear. However, after clearing through our first compound, taking up positions on the roof, and leaning against the “fortifications” to set up my satellite antenna, I realized that I was sitting against a large pile of dried cow shit. “War is hell,” I ruminated, as I keyed the hand-mike. The only shot fired on the ground that night was another enemy RPG, which put a BB-sized piece of shrapnel in the knee of my Communications Sergeant. For the rest of the deployment we called him “War Hero,” painted a massive purple heart on his door, and called the room to attention any time he’d enter. We’d complete multiple missions over the next few months, none as silly as the first, but each as lackluster. On each subsequent mission, the enemy’s resistance was minimal, and we hardly fired our weapons. My concern for my safety and the safety of my detachment was never in question. We were good.
I expected to die.
As night fell, the swarm of flies, which buzzed tirelessly during the day, rested in black masses against the tile walls of the Provincial Governor’s residence, seeking warmth as the temperature dropped. It was early October in Northern Afghanistan, and we’d established our command center in the courtyard of the compound. In the near distance, machine gun fire sporadically broke the silence of the darkened city. The Afghan Army positions casually exchanged these greetings with the Taliban, and the occasional tracer rounds raced through the night. No one was particularly shooting at anyone, but no one was particularly not shooting at anyone either. My detachment, along with our sister detachment, had just survived the longest day of our deployment. Only the day before, over 300 Taliban had rushed into Kunduz City, overrunning police checkpoints, taking over citizens’ homes, and claiming victory as they raised their signature white banner in the traffic circle in the center of town. Often, it seemed as though the war in Afghanistan had devolved into some absurd game of capture the flag. Earlier that day, while members of the detachment were raining machine gun fire and mortars on Taliban positions from the rooftop of an apartment building, a local policeman began to raise the Afghan national flag above our position. The burst of PKM fire that barked over our position quickly forced us to cancel his budding sense of nationalism. By this point in the deployment, we’d conducted multiple raids on Taliban targets via helicopter, under the cover of darkness, guiding our partner forces to clear compounds and areas associated with enemy activity. But this day was wildly different. We fought from rooftops and our vehicles, from behind walls and in the streets. We’d called in airstrikes and laid in mortars. We were under a constant barrage of PKM, RPG, and recoilless rifle rounds. On the third day of the battle, with a thunderous crack, a mortar landed on a rooftop within ten meters of my position. Talking to higher on the radio at the time, I shouted “JESUS FUCK” into the handset as I dove for cover. Our vehicles’ windshields were cracked from PKM rounds. The buildings from which we fought were scarred by incoming bullets. To this day, I don’t know how no one got hit. From the moment we’d rolled into the city until the fighting ceased nine days later, I was sure that one of us would be seriously wounded or die. The previous feelings of invincibility were gone.
We made a difference.
Despite all of the missions conducted, all of the Taliban detained, all of the weapons caches and vehicles destroyed, all of it still felt like we were stabbing in the dark. Pin-pricking. Playing whack-a-mole. Trying, and failing, to have a decisive victory over the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan. Except for that week in Kunduz City, the deployment could be viewed objectively as anti-climactic. By all quantitative measures, that battle was a resounding success and denied the Taliban a military and political victory at the end of the fighting season. But there was also a human aspect to our victory. I saw our success in the eyes of the people of Kunduz as they swept the debris from the streets in front of their stores and homes. We witnessed the market reopen. The children of the city flooded the Governor’s Palace to play soccer. And, after we took our celebratory photographs with the Provincial Governor, Omar Kheyl, and accepted the bullet-holed flags from his compound as his “thank you,” we drove out of the city to waves, and thumbs-up, and smiles. The Taliban had taken over the Kunduz City in October 2015, only to be driven out. They never claimed it in October 2016. And this year, 2017, they never even tried…
We didn’t make a difference.
Less than a month after that battle, one of our sister detachments infiltrated into a village directly northeast of Kunduz City in order to kill or capture Taliban leadership that were allegedly in the area. A typically routine mission was seriously derailed when they were ambushed, and the Communications Sergeant, Ryan, was mortally wounded. The Detachment Commander, Andy, was shot in the stomach while kicking in a door to get his detachment out of the kill zone. Four other members of the team were injured, three Afghan soldiers lost their lives, and seven others were wounded. The firefight raged for six hours as the surrounded detachment fought for their lives, calling in air support in danger-close strikes. It was, by far, the longest, darkest night of the deployment. At noon the next day, a dust storm completely blocked out the sun. The middle of the day appeared black as night. Needless to say, the elation we felt while driving out of Kunduz City a month earlier was gone. In that fight, we hadn’t dealt a devastating blow to the Taliban, we hadn’t severely disrupted their efforts, we hadn’t killed enough of them to make a dent. For all we’d done, we hadn’t done nearly enough. The deaths of our friends were testament to this sad truth.
I hate Afghanistan.
After the twin towers fell, Afghanistan fell into the forefront of my mind. People, concepts, groups, and ideologies that had never concerned me suddenly flooded the news, the thoughts, the conversation, our national psyche. I entered West Point the day after my 18th birthday, and my instructors for the next four years were veterans, tested in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As cadets, we never expected to not serve in those places. Combat in the Middle East was a foregone conclusion, an accepted penance, something that we prepared for, but for which we were never actually prepared.
When I arrived to my first unit in May of 2010, they were conducting company-sized deployments to Afghanistan, operating out of platoon-sized outposts in Eastern Afghanistan. I was immediately assigned as the officer responsible for receiving, inventorying, and releasing the effects of a deceased soldier, Specialist Lee, to his family. This was my first experience with the war in Afghanistan, a mundane drudgery poisoned with sadness, not altogether made better by the fact that I didn’t know Specialist Lee from Adam. But, in July, the unit’s mission was concluded, as our last Company wrapped up a 6-month rotation. I was at a friend’s wedding when I got the call that Justin, a Platoon Leader in my Battalion, a young lieutenant with whom I’d gone through the Infantry Officer Basic Course in Georgia, had rolled over an Improvised Explosive Device and was in serious condition. He would endure 16 surgeries over the next two years. Regardless of their sacrifice (and they were not alone in that Battalion in that regard), we cased our colors. The unit’s time in Afghanistan had finished, and we returned to training.
But, it was impossible to forget that there was a war going on. All of my friends deployed. Most, multiple times over the next few years. Alternate emotions of jealousy and relief battled within me. On one hand, I felt underutilized, almost betrayed. I was a young Infantryman, denied the opportunity to do what I thought I deserved to do. On the other hand, I was secretly content with not having to risk my life in a country about which I thought I knew so much (when the opposite was true).
Then, Daren was killed in February of 2011. We’d been friends since high school, after he’d moved from Wisconsin in 10th grade and spoiled us with his joie de vivre and his smile. We’d attended West Point together, IBOLC, and Ranger School. Though we lived about an hour apart when we were stationed in Germany, he dragged my hungover ass to Octoberfest on a Sunday morning because “I’m deploying on Thursday and you can’t bitch out.” I’d have not blacked out on liters of Paulaner had I known this would be my last day with him. Only five months later, he was killed in an IED blast. I spent the next week in a drunken stupor on the floor of my apartment, the next month in disbelief, and the next few years hating everything, especially Afghanistan.
I love Afghanistan.
I remember when I was a little boy, my dad would point out random countries on a Fisher Price light-up globe and quiz me on their names. For some reason, perhaps the recent departure of the Soviets, Afghanistan was commonly under his finger, and its location became burned into my memory. It probably didn’t hurt that it was foreign and simply fun to say.
I’ve only served two tours in Afghanistan, and only lost a handful of friends. There are countless individuals who have served longer, and lost more. I escaped without physical harm, while there are many men and women who cannot say the same. Lance has watched his teammates die and is currently personally suffering the effects of this war. I know my own experience is small, my contributions inadequate, my commentary insufficient. But for as much as I rejected Afghanistan, it did not reject me. It swallowed me whole. It forced itself upon me, and my entire adult life has been defined by it. For as much as we sweat and bled and cried in that country, some small strides were made. I am nothing if not hopeful. In some way, it has become a part of myself that I cannot untangle. I cannot hate Afghanistan, for how can I hate myself?