Stark Realities in Afghanistan

This Atlantic article, The Last Patrol, is one of the best (read: stark) I’ve seen. It provides a window into the experience of an 82nd Airborne platoon in Arghandab that suffered almost 50% attrition from Sep 09 – July 10.  My company suffered about 35% attrition in seven months on our second deployment, and it was a brutal experience relative to the other deployments.  I can’t say that the Relief In Place of this airborne infantry platoon by a hastily retrained artillery unit bodes well for “clear, hold, build” in Kandahar.

The Last Patrol is very real in two ways:

-Its stark elaboration of sustained combat and of the mindset needed to survive such combat:

Bits of hardened mud sprayed his eyes as he heard the shot, a sharp crack from the orchard, 100 meters away. The bullet tore a hole in the roof. Had it been two inches higher, it would have gone into Farnsworth’s mouth and through his skull. Private First Class James Luke, next to him on the roof, gaped. “Goddamn, Sergeant, you almost got shot in the face,” he said, his words stretched by a deep Tennessee twang. He’d come to Afghanistan two weeks earlier as an 82nd Airborne replacement, with his close friend, the soldier who had been blown up on July 4. “Luke,” Farnsworth snapped, “shut the fuck up and fire your weapon.”

-In the friction between structures of authority (mission orders, ROEs, NCOs in the departing unit vs officers in the arriving unit) and base human emotions after 11 months of sustained casualties in infantry combat. Concrete concerns like self-interest (getting oneself home alive) and comaraderie (getting one’s soldiers home alive) come to trump abstract values like honor and professionalism. It’s not that the latter are disavowed, it’s just that they are not a central part of the discussion:

Earlier in the deployment, this scene would have been unthinkable…But with so much loss, and with the end of their time at Combat Outpost Tynes so near, the worth of a single patrol had been thrown into question. If the men of 2 Charlie walked south, some of them would likely not come back. But if they didn’t go, then their replacements would likely suffer for it.

“I don’t want my guys going,” Sgt. Andrew Bragg said. “I’ll go for them.” He passed the bottle to Knollinger, one of 2 Charlie’s most aggressive soldiers. “I want revenge,” he said, in a plain, deep-throated speaking style that reminded me of Rocky Balboa. “It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.” Knollinger passed the bottle to Lachance, who seemed to thrive on the battlefield, exposing himself to enemy fire to call in airstrikes with a surprising calm. “I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks,” Lachance said. “I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.”

Last, make sure to watch the video interview with the author (a two-tour Iraq veteran) on the challenge of giving fair coverage to military operations. I agree with him that many stark quotes need to be placed in the stressful context in which they were given.  The stressful context is actually an important part of the story.  Where my views may diverge with his is where I think that the foremost obstacle to a needed discussion about why these quotes (and associated behavior) occur, and our responsibility for the aftermath, is getting people to accept that they will happen in such a context.

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