Monday, February 25, 2008

The long, long slog in Afghanistan

"Battle Company is Out There" is Elizabeth Rubin's Feb. 24 New York Times Magazine dispatch from the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, now in its seventh year. Rubin spent several weeks last October with the soldiers of Battle Company of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the country's rugged Kornegal Valley.

Some memorable moments in the story. Rubin and Capt. Dan Kearney sit down for a chat:

One full-moon night I was sitting outside a sandbag-reinforced hut with Kearney when a young sergeant stepped out hauling the garbage. He looked around at the illuminated mountains, the dust, the rocks, the garbage bin. The monkeys were screeching. “I hate this country!” he shouted. Then he smiled and walked back into the hut. “He’s on medication,” Kearney said quietly to me.

Then another soldier walked by and shouted, “Hey, I’m with you, sir!” and Kearney said to me, "Prozac. Serious P.T.S.D. from last tour.” Another one popped out of the HQ cursing and muttering. “Medicated,” Kearney said. “Last tour, if you didn’t give him information, he’d burn down your house. He killed so many people. He’s checked out.”

At first, I thought this was an example of the GIs goofing on the reporter, trying to freak her out. But mental instability is the recurring theme through the piece. When Kearney's unit came into the valley to replace the Tenth Mountain Division, they found some strange goings-on.

So what exactly was his job out here? To subdue the valley. It’s a task the Marines had tried, and then the soldiers of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division — a task so bloody it seemed to drive the 10th Mountain’s soldiers to a kind of madness. Kearney’s soldiers told me they’d been spooked by the weird behavior of their predecessors last May: near the end of their tour, many would sit alone on the fire base talking to themselves. Privates disobeyed their sergeants, and squad leaders refused to step outside the wire to show the new boys the terrain. No one wanted to be shot in the last days of his tour.

A few months into the unit's tour, the Army called in a shrink because Kearney complained that his troops were going crazy at its lonely outpost.

I had to wonder how I'd behave if I spent month after month in the Kornegal Valley. Every day the soldiers are the targets of snipers and mortar fire. They live in tents and subsist on MREs. When they go into villages, the elders nod and smile and pledge cooperation. At night, the village elders are playing host to insurgents and giving them tips on how to kill the Americans. When the Americans call in an air strike to take out a house or building where they know insurgents are hiding, civilian casualties are inevitable. When the troops go in to investigate, bodies of women and children are displayed by the villagers but bodies of insurgents are mysteriously missing. WTF? Where did they go? Very confusing. Maddening, in fact.

Rubin is on hand for one very bruising battle in which one of the unit's sergeants, on his sixth tour, is killed, and a number of others wounded.

After reading the story, I wondered what would happen to all these young soldiers. Not just in Afghanistan, but when they return to the States. How will these experiences manifest themselves in their relationships and in society at large in 10 or 20 years? I'm not worried so much about myself and my generation. We're moving off center stage. But I am concerned for the world my kids and their kids will live in. Some of these warriors will come carpenters and teachers and politicians. Others won't find a place so easily. Their frustrations could be fed by P.T.S.D. They could freak out with guns. There's a grand tradition of this sort of behavior in the U.S.

One other thing: As I looked at the article's photos, I realized that the Kornegal Valley looks like the landscape in Wyoming's Laramie Range. The trees, the brush, the dust, the rocks. It's eerie.


mpage225 said...

Mike, you commie, you, posting a link to a story that shows how it really is in Afghanistan. Next thing you know you will be posting a link to the Rolling Stone story by Nir Rosen showing why the surge is not working and may be about to blow up. So here, I will save you the trouble

Interesting thing here is that Rosen speaks Arabic and is able to hear what the locals are really thinking and not what they put on for the Americans. Must reading, but warning, very deperessing. So have at it you Commie...

Michael Shay said...

Bob, thanks for the link to the Rolling Stone piece. Now that you mention it, a post about it on the blog is a great idea.

Hey, who you callin' a commie?