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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Ghosts That Remain

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. Marines and the British in Helmand Province officially turned over their bases - Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion - to the Afghans this Sunday, 28 October. Although I knew that this was coming, the news still caught me off guard. I'm out of the Marine Corps now and, though I pay more attention than most, Afghanistan no longer monopolizes my attention. It did, though, for over a decade.

I first landed in Afghanistan in early 2002, deploying once again and flying into the country in late 2002 and early 2003. Then, in 2004 while the rest of the world was focused on the growing catastrophe of Iraq, I spent half a year in Uruzgan Province. I returned again in 2010 for a little over half a year flying out of Kandahar into Helmand during the height of the Marine surge there. We were pushing as quickly as we could to expand our footprint, expanding bases, airfields, and territory at a mind-boggling pace. Success came at a high price. It was a period when we flew bodies out of Helmand on a daily basis and amputees were being produced by the hour. I remember during one meeting, the MEF Surgeon saying that his doctors were "up to their elbows in blood 12 hours a day." The pace was frenetic, though, and for all the bad news, the place was alive with activity.

When I flew home in December, our first stop was at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq's Anbar Province. The contrast was striking. The sprawling base was all but deserted. The bus that took us to the transient tent where we could try to sleep for a few hours still ran a lengthy route, but there was no one at any of the stops. It seemed that all was left were the buildings and the memorials and mementos that units painted on blast walls and concrete barriers in years past. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. With the feeling of high-paced operations still echoing in my mind, I could very vividly feel the presence of the legions at Al Asad. It felt haunted. 

I returned to Afghanistan again in 2012 and 2013 on short visits. By that point, the surge had run its course and the drawdown had already begun. Camp Dwyer, which was still expanding when I left two years earlier, was almost as deserted as Al Asad had been. It was equally disconcerting. 

Despite multiple deployments, each time I came back into country, I had something like the feeling I get upon entering a hospital - that sense that this is a place where bad things happen. As you get into the routine, life establishes a routine and a business that banishes those thoughts, but when the pace slows, you feel it even more acutely.

I tried to capture some of that in a few passages in the novel, which I have combined below. After writing this, I came across the beginning of 12 O'Clock High, which does an incredible job or bringing that feeling to life (as well as offering some amazing, pre-CGI stunt flying). I don't think I'll be making any nostalgic journeys back to Kandahar or Helmand, but the memories will always be there.


James sat staring at the Dubai sticker on the Plexiglas partition behind the driver and wondered what the bus had done to deserve this purgatory, lurching and struggling over these gravel roads in the obscene heat. The dust was everywhere: in front of the bus, behind the bus, suspended within the bus – its distinct scent was in James’ nose, its grit was in his teeth, its weight on his eyelashes, and the talc dusted his skin and uniform. The sunset cast long shadows over the moonscape of grays and browns and lit the suspended particles in gold.

James shifted in his seat after a particularly hard jolt drove his knees into the barely padded frame of the seat in front of him and stared vacantly out the window at the legions of tents standing in empty rows in the Afghan desert. Spray-on insulation made the tents sag like the relics of a forgotten circus, their vibrant colors muted by a blanket of dirty snow. Wooden doors sat wide open with no Marines around to retie the rock-filled water bottle counterweights back on when they fell off. Some hung crazily by one hinge.

The tents stood in defiant rows like tombstones, occupied only by ghosts. The battalions that once filled them were gone, but James could see them. He could see their smiles, their laughter, their jokes about the danger and the IEDS. He could see them trudging through the dust and gravel – that awkward, slightly bent walk like someone pushing through deep snow. He saw them as they would always be in his mind—irreverent, loyal, joyfully hostile, innocent in the most profane way, unstoppable, and eternally young. He saw them as they were before the things happened.

Eventually the rows of tents gave way to holding yards for the detritus of war – destroyed Humvees, MRAPs, and mine plows – and then nothing but dust. It hit James in the pit of his stomach. The loneliest, most hollow feeling he could imagine.
 
He thought of how they trudged through the “Green Zone” of the upper Helmand River Valley on patrol. The river flowed down from the dam at Kajaki, where a reservoir was nestled in the craggy hills that climbed into the mountain stronghold of central Afghanistan. The northern toehold was a small chalet of an outpost that backed up against the hills and looked across the river to the half-deserted town. From Kajaki south to Sangin and beyond to Nahr-e-Seraj, the fertile lands of the Upper Helmand Valley were a constant battleground, owned mostly by the Taliban. A few years of brutal fighting made Route 611, a dusty track that roughly paralleled the river, somewhat passable. This pushed the battle for control further west, away from the population centers along the river and toward the various routes that connected, in their Afghan way, Sangin with Musa Qaleh and Now Zad.

For a time, the Taliban was so thick that maps were marked with a “forward line of enemy troops,” a comfortable concept from wars past. The line was more of a conceptual reality than anything. Beyond it was where coalition control ran out completely, but there were no massed Taliban formations to be destroyed. The ever-present, constantly gnawing threat was of IEDs. Big ones that mangled MRAPs and tanks and turned thoughts into snot and little ones that “only” blew off legs and arms and other important bits. And so, FOB Nolay down by Sangin came to be known as “No Legs,” and Marines taunted dismemberment with a song of the same name.

If the northern end of the Marines’ AOR rose toward the mountain redoubt of the Taliban, the southern end trailed off into a vast featureless abyss. The only geographically important feature – the border with Pakistan – was invisible, though it was as impenetrable to American forces as it was permeable to the Taliban, so everyone knew exactly where it was. The fact that an invisible, imaginary line cast such a profound reality over the conflict hints at the nonsense in which the whole affair was rooted. This boundary was too remote for a constant American presence, but every once in a while, someone would begin to raise the cry and hue that insurgents and criminals could move drugs, money, weapons, explosives, and fighters in and out of Pakistan and across the wasteland of the Registan Desert, past the crumbling castle that Alexander’s army quickly built and inevitably left at Khan Neshin, and into the fishhook of the lower Helmand Valley. Here, they could cross the river and shoot north through the empty expanse of Nad Ali and Washir or follow the river as it curved past Marjeh and Trek Nawa to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Lash sat at the confluence of the Arghandab and the Helmand Rivers, giving the rats on the ratline some choices. They could flow across another imaginary line, following the Arghandab into Army territory and on toward Kandahar City. They could continue along the Helmand, running north through British territory in Nahr-e-Saraj and on to Sangin. Or, they could run due north across the desert, again, up through Washir to hook back across Now Zad and Musa Qala toward Kajaki and the mountains north.

The clamor would build into briefings and the briefings into plans and the plans into orders. One image always played prominently in this progression. The Taliban garrison of the pathetic little border bazaar at Bahram Chah knew that the Americans loved images, so they arranged white rocks on the hills just north of the border into huge letters spelling “Taliban” and “Allahu akbar.” The letters were so big, that they carried these primitive taunts into the heavens, where they were exploded into millions of radio waves and showered down to the plywood-sided offices a few hundred miles to the north.

The colonels would plan a massive operation to march through the desert and seal off the passes and clear the bazaar once and for all. The generals would review the Power Point presentations given by grim faced staffers. At the end, the generals would look at the images of the rocky taunts, displayed on a high definition flat screen TV built in China and paid for by American workers who, if they had time for TV, were probably watching it on a smaller, less expensive model and if they were watching TV at that given time, were probably watching Sports Center or Survivor having long since tired of the news from Afghanistan and Iraq… so the generals looked at the images of the rocky taunts, sighed, and nodded their assent to another fruitless operation that would last only a day or two. With that tired nod, the hollow room would erupt with the sound of metal folding chairs scraping over the plywood floors as the assembled imperial staff came to the position of attention. The general would walk out with a vacant, thousand-meeting stare and the room would fill with the hum of staff work.

In the process of the staff work, someone would tell the Afghan army, someone would tell the Afghan National Police, and someone would tell the governor at Lashkar Gah. In turn, someone would tell the Taliban, and the Taliban would vanish like ghosts into the Pakistani night. A few hapless souls who didn’t get the word or were told to remain behind or were just plain crazy would be killed by the mailed American fist that struck swiftly and silently in the empty night. Those few bodies, like a handful of rats found in an old barn, would be multiplied in the ether of emails that went to the headquarters at COP Payne, then to Camp Leatherneck, then ultimately to Kabul and three became thirteen became fifty-four. Heads would nod once again in briefings and success was declared as the troops rolled back north to a sustainable location and the Taliban oozed back over the border and the bazaar was in business a mere twenty-four hours later.

And thus were the efforts distilled and piped uphill to Kabul every summer. Then the winters would come and the fighting seasons would end and the snow would fall in the Hindu Kush and around the capital folded into the mountains. Spring would come again and the kites would grow from the ridges like so many trees, each reaching for the sun with a single leaf. The snow would melt, first in the valleys, then higher and higher on the peaks and the water would rush down again into Oruzgan and Helmand, providing sustenance to the pink-capped fields of poppies. It flowed on to the west, where it once fed flourishing centers of civilization at Zaranj and Shahr-e Sukhteh, where Afghanistan and Iran now meet. Those hubs are now ruins buried under the sand and the Helmand dies, most years, somewhere in the Dasht-e Margo, having run its course in vain.

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