REVENGE OF THE PLAN
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 11/29/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: The Satirist at War
Every Operation, every war, has its defining moment. The point at which most motivating factors intersect; the epitome of what is at stake is expressed in one clash, or battle. In the Civil War that battle might have been Gettysburg, and Lincoln’s emotion-charged Gettysburg Address, still memorized by eighth graders everywhere. The American experience in Normandy during Operation Overlord seems best remembered in the Airborne efforts behind enemy lines, and the first thirty minutes on the beach when the outcome was still — sort of — in doubt. In the Vietnam War, we remember images from the Tet Offensive; our embassy overrun and occupied despite a numerical and technological superiority.
And so it was with what I’ll call “Operation Outrageous Success". Our movement back to our home base of B from [OPSEC] came to epitomize the anger and frustration of a two-week mission, over the course of which we pulled guard, handed out truckloads of HA*, strengthened our ties with locals, and, ostensibly, conducted training with our Afghan Army counterparts, teaching them everything we know. In my case, I didn’t need to teach my resourcing counterparts anything, and in fact had quite a bit to learn from them about ways to “acquire” materials for a unit.
I also equaled whatever record for boredom had previously been established, probably during one of Professor R's interminable lectures on Paradise Lost my first year at Yale.
A brief aside on Professor R (here on out referred to as “Rawdawg”), a brilliant man who has written great, incisive books about Swift and Satire, many of which I’ve read (and which have contributed to my development as a human being). The world would be worse without him. I remember him, unfortunately, for three interactions, two through classes and one outside of class.
Interaction Number One: The second semester of English 125, which he treated as a lecture, was easily the most boring class I have ever taken in my life. He managed to take all the joy out of Paradise Lost and Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” with rambling, exhaustive discourses delivered in his trademark monotone and punctuated for no apparent reason with lengthy pauses that may have been intended for dramatic effect, but the actual effect of which was to fill his audience (me, in this case) with an ardent desire to do him bodily harm. This class had such an effect on me that I wrote, and considered posting, as a warning, around campus, a dictionary of terms with which to become familiar before taking any class with Rawdawg. That dictionary is, regrettably, lost to the ravages of time, but included terms like “pre-lapsarian,” “post-lapsarian,” “comatose,” “Lindsey-Chit,” and “narcolepsy.”
Interaction Number Two: I guess time heals all wounds, because even armed with firsthand knowledge of Professor Rawdawg’s abysmal classroom presence I still enrolled to take his course on Satire. I got a lot out of the class, through reading and a steady diet of coffee (I’d learned my lesson), but once again things didn’t quite work out with me and old Rawdawg. My grade in his class did not do justice to the amount I’d learned — mostly, again, in late-night library sessions with me, the authors, and his commentary — but no matter. One thing I learned at Yale was that grades at no point accurately reflected my academic progress through the institution.
Interaction Number Three: I proposed a thesis bringing Eminem into the satirical tradition by comparing “The Marshall Mathers LP” with Swift’s poetry and drawing parallels. This idea was rejected in favor of a more conservative project involving The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (an ancestor of Rawdawg’s), in which I had very little interest. Well, so much for that.
On day three, at 0500 or 0600, “guarding” [OPSEC] we learn that due to operational necessities, we have to RTB*. We’re sent to clear a couple towns “one valley away” in the wrong direction on our way back to B, and are supposed to be back within the next 36 hours. I and our FSO*, CPT J, express some concern that the expectation that we are to be back in B in 36 hours seems unreasonable given the constraints of mountain travel, and the fact that we’re headed in precisely the wrong direction. Not long after, our concerns will prove to have been prescient.
The conversation ran something like this:
"So we’re heading east to the village of S to clear Objectives 90-95, then heading out first thing in the morning once X Company relieves us [the first idea, that we’d leave in the morning, was actually subordinate to the second idea, that X Company needed to relieve us, and in the event, that’s how it
played out]. The MPs say they know of a Mountain Pass that can get us to a paved road that leads to S, and from there it will be 4 ½ hours to B. We’ll be back home tomorrow night.”
“Isn’t S, like, 30km in the wrong direction from B?”
“The paved roads will cut the driving time down to almost nothing. Would you rather drive back through that mountain pass that took us here?”
Of course not. Firstly, that mountain pass, like all mountain passes, was not designed to be driven by up-armored HMMWVs. Secondly, now’s the perfect opportunity to remark on that White Whale of Afghanistan: “The Paved Road.”
You hear about Paved Roads now and again, like the Spanish heard about El Dorado. They’d seen the Inca cities, so had reason to believe that there might be more such cities, dripping with precious metals, ripe for the taking. We’ve seen paved roads — they’re building one near The Mother Ship, and they do exist (I saw them from a Blackhawk once) up near Kabul. Besides which, we know from experience that they’re eminently feasible from an engineering and construction standpoint, having many of them in America.
This belief in the possibility of the paved road, when coupled with the unrealistic desire for speedy travel, which is constantly thwarted by mountain passes and horrible, degraded trails that look like superhighways on maps, conspires to create in soldiers the — unsupported by fact or plausibility — hope which is quickly confirmed as certainty that over the next hill awaits a speedy journey by paved road. In this case, the unrealistic expectation was created by the Military Police, who are great at their job, but their job is not land navigation. In this they failed us. And we were going off their word that this paved road would take us from the bottom of the O Pass to S in a matter of 120 short minutes. At night...
We depart [OPSEC] for this new valley, taking a shortcut to the North which promises better going than the notorious “Southern Route", sometime around noon. By 1pm, we’ve reached the end of the Northern route, which ends, abruptly, in a forest. Back to [OPSEC]. Refuel. It’s now 2:30pm, and we have until 5pm before sundown. The Southern Route is said to take 2 hours to navigate, and — miracle of miracles — it actually takes a shade over 2 hours, leaving us a half hour to find a spot to make camp.
When we stop, I go to the man responsible for making the call on the ground as to where we are headed the next morning — S (30km in the wrong direction), or The Mother Ship. I plead for a change in plans. Sadly, he remains committed to the idea of paved roads bringing us to S in what has now become “one and a half hours", a number which continues to shrink, just as the anticipated quality of the promised road improves.
The next day everyone wakes up in decent spirits — we are further away from home, but different scenery is always good for morale, and besides, we have good reason to believe that, if our relief shows up as promised in the morning, we could be in The Mother Ship by nightfall, and from there, head home to B the next morning.
This is another wartime bogey. When you’re out on mission, you want nothing more than to be back on your FOB or COP or whatever. The unpleasantness of sleeping outside, in the mountains, in the cold, when you could be in your heated room enjoying hot chow (instead of MREs) -- home base becomes the goal, the thing you look forward to, yearn after, like a five year old longing for Christmas Morning.
Actually, the FOB is a terrible place; or B is at any rate. When you’re on B you have just enough of the outside world around to remind you of all the great stuff you’re missing, most of all booze and female companionship, and you come to hate and resent your deployed life — rightfully so. Then, back in “The Rear", you’re flooded with mundane civilian-like concerns, like paying bills, your f***ing car breaking again, and getting off work on time to make the expensive dinner reservations you scored in order to impress that hot chick you managed to sucker into going out on a date. So deployment forces you to constantly hope for a better situation than the one you’re currently in, when in fact the only time you’re truly happy is during those three or four hours when you’ve just returned to a new place and are enjoying the new scenery, catching up with friends, and so on, before the crippling depression of everyday routine catches up and overwhelms you with its deathlike certainty.
As I mentioned earlier, our promised relief was another Company operating nearby our battle space. The situation required us to stay in place until relieved, so that although the hoped for plan called on us to leave in the morning, in reality we were not leaving until the second Company arrived to replace us and fall in on our security plan — the process of handing over complicated by the fact that Company personalities don’t often get to see one another, so there’s 30 minutes of battle handover, then 30 to 60 minutes of catching up, complaining about higher, and so forth.
Needless to say, the morning’s high spirits had evaporated by the time early afternoon rolled around and our relief finally showed up. An hour and a half after we were relieved, after the man in charge had had his fill of grabass/catchup, we lined up to depart, Military Police in front, set to lead us to S.
We left at around 1pm, and everyone realized that there was only the smallest chance that we’d be able to make S and still have the daylight necessary to push on to The Mother Ship. And if we couldn’t push on to The Mother Ship, there was an excellent chance we’d be stuck there for 24 hours, which would require us to spend yet another day away from B — at that time, still a desirable objective. I mean, from my end, I hadn’t seen the place for over a month and a half, as I’d arrived back in country just in time to get sucked into “Operation Outrageous Success". Two weeks for everyone else was more than enough to make the prospect of spending any more time anywhere but B a nearly-intolerable prospect.
With high, fragile hopes riding on the MPs' ability to navigate us back to S as quickly as possible, you can only imagine the scene when, not three minutes after leaving our security position, deep into a web of narrow, twisting roads separating the compounds that made up the village of S, the MPs stopped the convoy.
“A.T. 2-6, this is X-5,” I called over comms, not wanting to know the reason we’d stopped but needing to know anyway, “Um, I’m curious: why are we stopped? Over?”
“X-5, this is A.T. 2-6,” said the lead MP. “Please be patient with us. We’ve actually never been here, we’ve only been as far as O. We’re trying to find a route through the village, but this one dead-ends in a square. We’re turning around and going to try to bounce East around the village.”
A great, fiery anger went coursing through my veins, like the time I spent all summer saving up for a plane ticket so I could go visit this girl I was exchanging letters with in high school, then when I got there, she told me that two days earlier she’d started dating one of her brother’s friends. Rage, waves of emotion coursing through your body. Wanting to shatter something, or drink aggressively, pick a fight with someone bigger than me, and get my nose pushed in. At this point, I also realized that the MPs were not fit to lead us to O, and that they would almost certainly get lost again. Still, my belief is that a man wants a chance to redeem himself, he deserves a shot.
“A.T. 2-6 this is X-5. Roger.”
Sure enough, thirty minutes later we were turning around again, and the MPs had been consigned temporarily to the rear of the convoy pending our arrival at the O Pass, from which they were to show us the paved roads to S. Now our 1st Platoon was in the lead, and they brought us without further incident to O, a trip that took us far to the North. At 3pm we reached our 2nd Platoon, which was staged at O, linked up with them, and approached the pass.
Ah, O Pass. Described to us by the MPs as “Two Tight Turns and a Cannonball Run to the bottom", for some reason we expected a relatively easy ride. I guess we focused on the second piece — the cannonball run, and not so much on the tight turns. A “cannonball run", for those readers who aren’t familiar with the phrase, is any long downhill stretch of road where you go faster than you should, and flirt with death therefore; for example, the stretch of Autostrada that runs through Italy into Monaco and then into Nice/Cannes.
This was just the sort of road we were looking for after the stop-and-go, steep uphill, treacherous downhill, tight squeeze, ambush-alley mountain passes of the past week. As it turned out, we should’ve been focusing on the “Two Tight Turns” warning, not because our HMMWVs couldn’t make them easily — they could, and did — but because we had an “LMTV Wrecker” with us, a mobile mechanic’s vehicle about half again as long as a HMMWV, and ours was towing a HMMWV behind it (a victim of the aforementioned mountain passes).
Suffice it to say that I spent an hour and fifteen minutes at the bottom of the cannonball run (well described) alternately staring through my binoculars (thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Burke) as the wrecker did its best impression of the Austin Powers parallel parking move made famous in the first movie of that franchise, scanning the ridgelines that surrounded us for ambushers, and watching nervously as the sun dipped toward the horizon. The last thing anyone wanted was another night in a patrol base, MREs, and dry-shaving. Eventually, the Wrecker made it, to great cheering from everyone at the front of the convoy, and caught up to us, to great cheering from everyone. Lesson learned: don’t take a big vehicle up the O Pass, unless you feel like wasting an hour of your time.
As we started to roll forward toward the base of O Pass, I got a call from the convoy’s de facto leader, our Company 1SG: “X-5 this is Y-7; I talked to Battalion and we’re staying in S tonight.”
Well, it was better than another night freezing my bags off in two dust-coated sleep-systems beside my HMMWV. Besides, the MPs were about to link us in with what, by now, had blossomed into a veritable interstate in the minds of the convoy members.
I’ve thought a lot about this since then, and I’m pretty sure it would’ve been anticlimactic if a paved road had existed at the bottom of that pass. Certainly nobody expressed surprise when we came down off the mountain on a dirt trail, no evidence of a paved road in sight. Still, it bore commenting on, so I spent the next 10 minutes making unkind remarks over our Company net to the individual who’d been naïve enough to believe the MPs attractive, if obviously bogus, description of the countryside.
As it turned out, in many places, no road existed leading to S, so that a good 25% of our journey was spent off-roading.
Further, the time we’d spent getting the Wrecker down off O Pass (miraculously, accomplished without loss of life or equipment, though the gunner manning the heavy weapon on the Wrecker’s turret soiled himself) had burned what little daylight remained, so most of the journey was spent driving with night vision, which, for those of you who’ve done this for extended periods of time — it turned out to be a bit over two and a half hours — totally blows.
A special thanks goes out to 2nd Platoon, which despite a valorous record in combat, couldn’t manage to follow the vehicles in front of them and took a wrong turn at one point, driving 6km in the wrong direction before they noticed that they weren’t following anyone. This maneuver resulted in thirty minutes wasted; they only found the convoy after F-15s that were flying air cover for us guided them back to us using their lasers.
By that point, the prospect of spending another night in a patrol base had so shaken even the bravest from the convoy that nobody complained when we rolled in, and the MPs actually did us a solid, squaring us away with tents and keeping the chow hall open. Ultimately, that’s the memory I have of those guys — they set us up proper when we got to their FOB, gave us food, water, and fuel. Hospitality goes a long way when you’re out in the sticks; it’s basically frontier rules.
Their Platoon Sergeant also squared me away with some internet, which I used rather than take a shower. I did shave, but when I have the dirt and stench of 15 days on me, I need me a long shower without interruption, and loads of steaming hot water. I figured I’d wait until B. In any case, there were some words from a woman — I guess you could say the woman — I’m totally crazy about, so that kept me going. You get word from the outside world and it’s enough to make everything else OK, even after a long, impossibly long, day.
I’d just gotten back to the tent I was staying in — everyone was out taking a shower or cleaning up, minus our Air Force “JTAC” (the guy who talks to the planes, and brings down the wrath of God when the Taliban come knocking), when 1SG came in. He’d been curiously nonchalant during my ribbing concerning his having bitten on the old “paved road” bait. Understandable, as it reflected poorly on him -- he can dish it out but he’s pretty bad about taking it when the criticism is justified. But he had a look, a bad look, like the kind of look he gets sometimes when he’s just seen or heard something serious.
“What’s going on, 1SG?” I said.
“I just talked to Battalion,” he said. “Apparently they weren’t tracking us going to S. They want us to go back to [OPSEC] tomorrow.”
“You’re f***ing kidding me.”
“I’m going to talk to someone about this, there’s no f***ing way.”
1SG left the tent looking agitated. Me and the JTAC looked at one another and broke out laughing. I laughed so long and hard I was almost in tears. What else can you do?
1SG straightened it out, thankfully, and the next morning we were on our way to The Mother Ship. From there, the rest of the journey was pretty routine, and we were back in B that evening, pulling in just as the sun was going down. So went “Outrageous Success". So goes the deployment. We’re doing well out here, and we’re doing our job. It just takes a sense of humor sometimes. Because nothing ever goes according to plan, and the guys who thrive are the ones who can adjust fire.
HA: Humanitarian Assistance
RTF: Return To Base
FSO: Fire Support Officer