Eyewitness in Afghanistan

by Col Matthew F. Bogdanos, USMCR

Thoughts on the loneliness of combat from an Operation ENDURING FREEDOM/Operation IRAQI FREEDOM veteran, written to fellow Marines in March 2002 and posted from Bagram, Afghanistan.

Things here are xoub hastam (fine). Here, for now, is Bagram. Apparently, I can now tell you that because the media is reporting that combat operations in Afghanistan are being run out of Bagram (just in case al-Qaeda wanted to know where to find any good targets—thank you very much). I cannot go into details about what we do or how we do it (except to say how talented and dedicated the people here are), but I can offer some reflections in no particular order and with no particular method.

British General Sir William Slim said that the dominant feeling on the battlefield is loneliness. He knew his business. Though people surround you, the overwhelming feeling is loneliness or, better, isolation. The other emotions are fear and exhaustion. Simply put, you are always afraid, and you are always tired. The fatigue must have something to do with the constant flow of adrenaline. Each of us is convinced, quite regardless of probabilities, that the next mortar round or bullet or rocket propelled grenade is coming directly at him personally. It does not matter that you can tell by the sound that the mortars are well beyond range. Somehow, through some freak atmospheric occurrence, it is going to hit you (and only you).

What keeps you going despite the fear and exhaustion are not abstractions like freedom and honor and discipline (though those are vitally important). No, what really keeps you going is the guy next to you—the one counting on you to do your job, just as you are counting on him to do his. You have his “6” (his six o’clock, his back), and he has yours. It is a refusal to let your buddies down.

In writing of his experiences as a Marine on Okinawa, William Manchester observed that any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him or for whom he is willing to die is not a man at all. He is truly damned. And that guy’s skin color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation is not even close to being relevant. Public opinion polls and politicians notwithstanding, we (that is, those with the rifles in our hands) do not care. On the other hand, I hope that the guy (or girl) watching my back earned his stripes and did not get in on some type of quota or to satisfy someone’s social agenda or class guilt. The simple reality is that all of those other notions may have meaning in chic cafes, on college campuses, or among well-fed pundits posturing over a glass of wine, but they mean absolutely nothing in the hills of Afghanistan.

Then what is relevant? Can he do his job, can he carry his own pack, and can he hit what he shoots at? How does he react under pressure? Can he save you when you need saving? Can you trust him to do the right thing? Nor does it matter that you met a week ago, or that you will never see each other again back in the world. (In a classic case of life imitating art, the “world” is what we call you guys back home. We also imagine that you eat eggs benedict and pommes frites for breakfast every morning, poached salmon with a light dill sauce for lunch, and a thick prime rib—end cut, of course—with a good bottle of Montepulciano every night for dinner. You do, right?)

So, what is it like? On a good day, you get a hot meal—of course, calling it a “meal” is somewhat misleading. In a good week, you get a hot shower—hot water is decidedly not overrated. And a good month? When you still have all your body parts. I have lost count of how many good kids have not had a good month. Every one of them is a hero. Me? Just another guy doing the best I can and praying that no one ever dies because I failed to do my job.

Those details that I can give you are mundane. You wake up in the morning with a sore throat and one of a dozen, albeit minor, eye or ear infections. You get dressed quickly before the warmth of the sleeping bag wears off, pack everything up, and then dump out your **** bottle. I know that is more information than you might want, but it gives you an idea of the conditions here. You do not go around in the dark looking for a place to relieve yourself. Not if you want to have a good month. (See above re: body parts.) So, you carry a bottle and empty it in the daylight.

I will give you another example. About a week ago, we got a box of pears for breakfast. I have no idea where they came from. When we opened the box, the pears were all brown and black and covered with small holes where some member of the insect or (and?) animal kingdom had nibbled. Definitely not the kind of pear you would pick at the corner bodega. If it were the last one left, you would go to the peaches. If you saw it in your refrigerator, you would throw it away. I ate it. It was the best pear I have ever had.

Now up, you do what you must to get through the day. Every bend in the road is a potential ambush site. Every shadow hides an Arab or Chechen fighter. Every person you meet is suspect until proven otherwise. Competing against this necessary paranoia (remember, just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you) is the overwhelming affection you feel for the Afghan people. They are all (Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek) warm and (when not trying to kill you) very friendly people. We live with the Afghans, and I am invited at least once a day for the traditional tea, almonds, and raisins. To refuse this invitation in such a guest culture is an unforgivable insult. Nor does it matter if the tea is being served in the only room with a roof, where the remainder of the mud-brick house is bombed-out rubble. Most of the houses I have seen outside of Kabul are mud-brick, but every one has a guestroom with their best carpet and, sometimes, pillows.

I have an interpreter, and the conversations over tea are priceless. Many Afghans have blue eyes, which they attribute to Sikander. We call him Alexander the Great, but Afghans like Persians could not pronounce his name, so they call him Sikander. He is still revered. We argue about the routes Sikander traveled and his use of cavalry. They always ask why President Bill Clinton abandoned them when the Taliban took over and if we are going to do the same. I tell them that I hope not, but that I am low on the food chain. Actually, what I told Matobwadeen (a 23-year-old Tajik with a heart of gold and an artificial right leg) is “I’m not the Madam, just one of the *****s.” It translates well and now he repeats it in English half-a-dozen times a day—always followed by a laugh.

It is during tea that you hear about the real horrors, things done by the Taliban and al-Qaeda that you find impossible to believe—until you walk outside and see how many people are missing body parts. Matobwadeen is not alone. You also see the despair, the hunger, and the poverty, and you know they are telling you the truth without embellishment or exaggeration. You feel uncontrollable rage, softened by the children laughing and playing—even if they are playing across the road from a minefield. That is my favorite part—the children, not the minefield. They love chocolate. So I always make sure to carry around enough in my pockets. I show them the chocolate first and then make them eat the delicious meals, ready to eat before I give them the chocolate.

As I said, you do what you must to get through the day. I think the psychologists call it “accommodation.” You hope these accommodations are temporary and that you will become “normal” again when you are back home. You hope all of these things will fade from your memory. Of course, you are never sure. We go to extraordinary lengths—always to our tactical disadvantage—to avoid civilian casualties, but there is a lot of death everywhere, and that takes something out of you no matter how justified or “righteous” the target was.

Yes, I have heard all of the drivel from sincere but mind-numbingly ignorant people who look for reasons that al-Qaeda and the Taliban hate us, thinking we must have done something to cause the murders of 11 September 2001. Of course, they ignore that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have committed unimaginable atrocities against their own people that make 11 September look like a minor traffic accident. I wonder what they did to “deserve” it. Those same people, upon pain of self-hypocrisy, I guess, also wonder what the Jews did to cause Hitler’s hatred or what the rape victim did to cause the rapist to attack her. They must have done something. I have come to accept that there is nothing anyone can do to teach such fools. I take solace in John Stuart Mill’s observation that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

I told you already about a good day. There have also been some bad ones. One of them was Michael’s first day of preschool in January. I was supposed to be the one to pack his Clifford lunch box. It was supposed to be my hand he squeezed extra hard when we walked into class. That was a bad day. Another was the day Jason was born in November. I wish I had been there. I’ll miss Diana’s second birthday next week too. I know she wants Cinderella pajamas—I hope someone gets them for her. But whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I think of all of those children whose mothers and fathers did not come home on 11 September. It reminds me of that scene from Our Town where Emily Gibbs has just died and learns she can relive any day of her life. The other ghosts warn her to pick the worst day of her life because even it will be more painful than she can stand. So, she picks the worst day and, sure enough, it is as painful as advertised. Sometimes it is better to forget.

Time is up. This is where I belong for now, but I cannot wait to be done and come home. It has been 5 months, and every second is one second too long. And you never get them back. I do not know our schedule, but we will return to U.S. Central Command headquarters before redeploying to the next country. I do not know where that will be, but I can guess as well as anyone. I am guessing hot with a lot of sand. I hope to get some leave and come home while stateside before the next deployment—insha’ Allah (God willing).

>Col Bogdanos redeployed to Central Command in Iraq and was instrumental in recovering the stolen treasures of Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. His book, Thieves of Baghdad (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005),