ONE THIRD AND A WAKEUP
Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 12/17/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Milblog url: billandbobsadventure.blogspot.com
been eight months since the plane touched down at Bagram. That was the most physically uncomfortable plane ride I ever
had. The C-17 has palletized seats that roll into the aircraft and lock
into the floor. They look like airline seats.
They are not.
they are is fiendishly clever torture devices specifically designed to
cause pain, numbness, and stiffness. I am convinced that this is so no encouragement is needed to get those on board to absent themselves as quickly as possible when the plane lands. It also has
the secondary effect of making your first steps in Afghanistan seem
pleasant by comparison.
I remember how strange it all was in the
beginning. I remember being amazed at the international village that
was Bagram at first sight. I remember wondering if I was going to get
lost trying to find my way back from the chow hall to the flight line where we awaited transportation to Camp Phoenix.
That seems like it was forever ago.
remember the first ride through Kabul and the sensory overload of the
turbulent river of humanity, animals, and machines that swirls around
you as you pass through it like an alligator. Those first few times it
was like an alligator on acid -- senses overhelmed, overcautious,
perceived dangers everywhere.
There were the speeches from
unseasoned officers who spoke as if they actually knew what they were
talking about. They warned of the same dangers, spoke of ineffective
TTPs, and prognosticated about what danger would actually look like as if they had seen it themselves.
They were just trying to do
their jobs. Each of us, internally, was doing the same thing. We saw the SECFOR* guys from the Kabul FOBs driving in a
super-aggressive manner, and we assumed they were professionals. We
assumed that they knew what they were doing. We imitated them. This is
how you stay alive.
No, this is how you piss off the local
nationals. Those SECFOR guys, gate fobbits on wheels, had no idea what
they were doing. They threw water bottles at local national drivers as
if they were passing out candy. They pointed machine guns at the least
I now realize they didn't drive like they knew what they were
doing. They drove like they were scared. To us, at the
time, they were veterans. Now, in retrospect, I realize that they were
just tower guards on a day outing.
Not that there's anything
wrong with tower guards. Thank God for them. And thank God I'm not one of
them. The point is; they don't really spend a lot of time outside the
wire, and when they do they have a distorted view of the danger level
Since then I've learned that you have to be a relatively
aggressive driver or the local nationals will cut you off. In Kabul, that is.
You've just got to get out there and let them know that you know you have the right of way. There is no reason to ram, rarely a reason
to scream or throw water bottles, and almost never a reason to point
weapons at them.
None of those guys had any overt desire to
actually shoot someone. They did, however, have a strong desire to
remain unharmed. Their leaders should have helped them to calm down.
That was a failure in leadership. I didn't see that then. I didn't know
what I was looking at.
The person most likely to shoot a local national unnecessarily is a fobbit. Armed fobbit = danger to the locals.
The fobbits are all armed. Yeah.
are okay, though. Afghan drivers need to focus forward in the chaos and
rarely use the multitude of mirrors that are attached to their vehicles. Mirrors
are for jingle, not for situational awareness it seems. Horns assist
local nationals with their situational awareness.
Humvees need better horns. They sound like old Volkswagens with anemia. Something along the lines of a foghorn would be nice.
Now it all looks so clear. I laugh at myself in retrospect.
takes a while to get to know what normal looks like. Your greatest
safety lies in knowing what normal looks like so that you know what
abnormal looks like. When someone, or a group of people, is behaving
abnormally, that's when it's time to poise for an attack. The guys say
that their "spidey senses are tingling".
Most times, nothing is
wrong. But that's when you become hyper-aware. The rest of the time,
you literally cannot afford to remain hyper-aware. I think that's one way
people wind up with PTSD.
I did realize when I was home that these days not
being hyper-aware for me is hyper-aware for people at home.
I'm sure that'll wear off with extended periods of time in a relaxed
environment. At home, though, it was annoying. I was constantly
scanning around me, and I realized that I ignored women and children
until I had checked all the men for signs of hostile intent or aberrant
behavior. Then I checked everything else. Eye contact drew my attention
immediately and I had to remind myself that everyone was assumed
friendly in Ohio.
The thing is, here that's not what I consider hyper-aware. I just consider that being aware of your surroundings.
I still make a habit of waving a lot; it's an instant temperature check on mood and sometimes it causes dead giveaways.
out in the provinces is a totally different protocol. Most places, they
are used to the drill. They also aren't nearly as resentful as the
Kabul drivers, who have had quite enough of fobbit drivers on their hyper-aggressive day outings.
There are many other things that
I've learned since I've been here. I've learned that Kabul is no more a
microcosm of Afghanistan than New York City is a microcosm of America.
It is its own entity, whole and nearly complete in and of itself. It is
magnet and repellent, it is capitol and symbol, it is heaven and hell
all at once in its compressed humanity. Millions of souls, each seeking its own way, all forming in their aggregate a living organism that is
truly enormous and completely out of any one's control. It is a
parabolic mirror of Afghan society, focusing the energy and ethnic
variety of Afghanistan on a very small piece of terrain.
see...I've also learned that our training at Ft Riley was wholly
inadequate. We didn't train realistically, and we either didn't train
at all or trained very little for the types of missions that we do most.
I've learned that we overcome that deficiency readily.
learned that the biggest factor in play here is adaptability. You just
have to do the best that you can with what you have and then be a drama
queen when requesting anything, because the squeaky wheel gets whatever
lubricant is available.
The most dramatic drama queen doesn't get anything, so it's got to be skillfully played. No Gone With the Wind scenes. A little subtlety goes further.
learned that the geographically-closer squeaky wheel gets the available
lubricant more quickly, with no regard as to wait times or level of
need. Unless they do a Betty Grable, in which case they still get
nothing. The Clark Gable reflex kicks in.
experience in Afghanistan varies widely. Some areas get no activity,
some areas get excessive activity. The fobbits of Bagram may never
leave the confines of that most august enclave for their entire tour.
The fobbits of Phoenix may only boast two CONOPS* in their entire tour.
The young men out in Kunar get shot at nearly every day.
The young men and women at Bagram and Phoenix get shot at never. Ever.
are necessary, and generally they are quite acceptable creatures unless
they become Black Ops Store junkies or FobaThors, or Fobasaurus Rex's.
FobaThors are fobbits with dramatic tales consisting of "This one time,
at FOB camp..."; stories of heroic imaginings, like the time they nearly
fought the vicious Chicken of Tagab.
"I am FobaThor, deadliest of all the fobbits! Gaze upon my Black Ops gear and fear me!"
of course, comes the dreaded Fobasaurus Rex. The F. Rex often takes the
form of a logistics daemon who somehow forgets the reason that a
logistics system exists and begins to terrorize needy supplicants who
drove hours to get there, often denying the presence of needed supplies
and bellowing at their customers with F. Rex roars that sound a lot
like, "You don't understand how the supply system works! First, you
gotta submit a..."
"Okay, did I mention that our phones don't work out where we are and the internet is something that we vaguely remember?"
once nailed an F. Rex right between the eyes. It roared at him, "You
don't understand how the supply system works. Lemme 'splain this to
To which O. replied, "No, let me explain this: You order
the bullets. I shoot them. Get more bullets. I'm taking what you have."
Chalk up one stuffed Fobasaurus Rex head for O. I love that guy.
sub-species of F. Rex has a fetish for reflective belts and specializes
in smoking enforcement and ensuring that tower guards are completely
miserable at all times. I have seen senior officers in this country
perform acts of dereliction that in previous conflicts would have
resulted in firing squads, and they get away with a medal. A young
Specialist in a tower in a FOB that hasn't been shot at in ages takes
off his helmet and gets an Article 15 and loses rank.
The main visual difference between the F. Rex varieties is a different stripe pattern.
supply and logistics people do amazing jobs to get the stuff that we
need out to us. Most are nearly overwhelmed with the magnitude of their
tasks. Most are hamstrung by the fact that we are the forgotten front. Everyone is preoccupied with Iraq, and we get what's left.
civilian contractors up at BAF* who provided maintenance for our
up-armors were the coolest people who have ever been born. If I needed
blood for my power steering fluid, they would slice their own jugular
to get it. Fabulous. Those guys deserve a medal.
We don't train our line units in counterinsurgency. We train them as
maneuver units, and they are damned fine soldiers; the best in the
world. However, they often don't play well with others. Treating your
host country's forces with disdain is a huge mistake. I saw this
mistake blatantly made out in The Valley by junior leaders. It made an
impression on the men who I was working with, the Afghans. Everyone can
tell when they are being disrespected, even in another language; and it
is not a motivator. In fact, it is not a positive in any regard. To my
Afghans, the American platoon making this major error did not look like
a force that they wanted to emulate; they looked like assholes. Ugly
Those young Americans, even if they read this, would
never put it together. They see nothing wrong with their behavior. They
will go home and tell stories about how f'd-up the Afghans were. That's
like making yourself look better by racing against a guy with broken
legs. They will totally misrepresent the progress being made here and
unwittingly perform the same function as PVT Beauchamp, degrading our
efforts and calling into question the very reason why we are here.
they didn't see that from all the Americans they dealt with. The other
small group of American combat forces out there were very patient and
had a sense of humility. They were also a bit more elite. The higher
the level of training and self-sufficiency at the small unit level, the
more respect they showed for others.
It's a reflection of us as
a nation, though. We are an isolationist, myopic country with
tremendous arrogance and a complete misunderstanding of the depth of
what we are involved in. We are not global citizens, but we are global
consumers. The fact is that we do actually look down on the rest of the
world. The rest of the world gazes back at us in amazement, wondering
what in the hell we are thinking about to feel so self-righteous.
We should point with pride to the buttprints on our national couch. We have given the world 90210 and Baywatch. Oh, and music television and excessive consumerism. Fear us. Respect us.
We developed the sitcom. Don't ever forget that.
don't have to give away the farm and please everyone, but there's a
huge difference between pleasing everyone and treating them with
We need to look at our training model. We break young
trainees of many other bad habits, but we reinforce the arrogance. There's something wrong here. Yeah, okay, you jump out of planes and you're a
bad-ass...Have some humility, kid.
It starts with leadership.
seen a huge difference between how we are treated here and how the
Russians were treated. Everyone fought against the Russians except the
ones who worked for them. In this conflict, most of the people aren't
fighting on either side. There are Taliban, and they have their
supporters, and there are the ANA, who are enjoying a growing
reputation among the populace, and then there are the local governments
who vary greatly in effectiveness and ethics. The ANP, being local,
often do not enjoy local favor due to corruption and shaking down the
populace. We are working on that.
Be that as it may, a lot of
mujihideen from the old days are sitting this one out. There are a lot
of places where we see the remnants of old Russian vehicles and we
never get attacked there. This is significant because the Afghans
always use the same ambush points. They go with what has worked for
hundreds of years.
On the other hand, the Russian response to
being shot at from a village was to raze the village. We have to have
an act of Congress for someone to drop a bomb. We pass out candy that
doesn't kill and toys that don't explode. I think most of the Afghans
can see the difference.
And, we have never gassed them; always a plus in the hearts and minds arena.
else have I learned in the past eight months? I will have to reserve
much of that for later, as I don't want to get into ranting at the
nobility at this point. I've learned that I like Afghans... most of
them, anyway. I've learned that I can do my job in this war. I've
learned respect for the local national forces that I've worked with and
I've earned their respect.
I've got one third of my tour left.
And a wakeup. I'm sure that there's more that I've learned, but this
was a little stream-of-consciousness, and now it's all receded like a
wave from the high water mark. It seems like yesterday and ten years
ago that I was looking with dismay at getting to the one-third-complete mark, wondering if I could really take it for that long. In about
three weeks, I will become a "double digit midget" counting down to
seeing the people who I know and love after having done my job.
one can ever take this away from me. The biggest things that I have
learned are inside. They are for and about me on the inside. I am tried
and tested inside myself, and that's what really counts. I have seen
myself in circumstances that I could only have imagined before (and a
few that I could never have imagined) and I know what I do when the
chips are down. That will be with me always. Many things can be taken
from me, but not that.
TTP: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures
SECFOR: Security Forces
CONOPS: Convoy Operations
BAF: Bagram Airfield