NINE MONTHS IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR |
February 28, 2008
NINE MONTHS IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR
Name: Adrian B.
Posting date: 2/28/08
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog url: The Satirist at War
In his book Infantry Attacks, Erwin Rommel discusses the feeling one experiences upon leaving one's first unit; the unit that forms most of one's ideas about leadership. I'd already experienced that gut-wrenching feeling during training in Germany, when our Company Executive Officer was (correctly) fired for gross incompetence, and I, as the Senior Platoon Leader, was moved into his position, saying goodbye to the Platoon I'd trained and trained with for eight months.
My Platoon Sergeant had already left the unit, which was hard too; he was, as NCOs go, an outstanding mentor and tutor, and the whole thing felt sudden and contrived. As Rommel observed nearly a century ago, this is the way of Armies; leaders are constantly rotated through different positions, for professional development and as a way of keeping fresh ideas and motivation in circulation. Make no mistake; I don't have enough time in the Army to make any kind of criticism about how personnel moves are conducted, and it seems that these moves are always justified. All I'm saying is that change, and movement away from the soldiers one has grown to know, intimately, is unimaginably difficult.
So I come to the story at hand. After a year and a half with the only unit I've ever known in the Army, the powers that be said "enough is enough", and moved me to a new unit, a horizontal move into a more difficult logistical position. Suffice it to say that the new position has been equal parts challenging and rewarding; new location, different scenery, more responsibility, more latitude to implement our Commander's vision. And, for the moment, more patrolling. So many faces had joined and left my old Company since last July when I joined it, that it didn't even feel like I was leaving C Company. It felt like I was the last one to board a ship departing for the New World.
Since leaving two weeks ago, I've had enough physical and emotional distance to think about certain events, and today I wanted to write about one of those, because it's been on my mind a lot lately, and not in a good way. It's one of many things that's been contributing to a low, low mood; the inexorable advance of old age, an impossibly frustrating inability to be present for the people I love during their moments of hardship and crisis (my grandfather died during an operation, the last person in our family that had any direct knowledge of what I'm going through right now), and the fact that I cannot properly court the woman I love from the mountain valley prison I call home. Add to this angst and ennui the realization that when I return to the problems of civilization, I will certainly yearn for this time and place, and wonder why I took its beauty for granted.
But here's the thing I'm remembering now -- and getting off my chest, because along with everything else it's been putting me in a rotten mood and I can't do anything about "everything else". A few months ago, we were doing a patrol (really more of a simple escort), delivering gravel to reduce dust-off on a regular HLZ* site. The gravel was needed, on short notice, and we happened to have some jingle truck drivers sitting around after a delivery, so I took it upon myself to convince them to make the trip. It was a hard sell, but in the end, after appealing to their pocketbooks and their patriotism, they agreed to make the dangerous trip. Once.
Six loads of gravel wasn't going to do much, but it would be better than nothing, and I figured that after the first successful trip, it'd be easier to convince them that there was nothing to worry about.
But as it turned out, there was an IED in the road. My vehicle and two other HMMWVs rolled right over it without setting it off. One of the jingle trucks wasn't so lucky, and the IED blew up its cab and sent the poor driver flying through the air like a broken rag doll, to land in a heap 40 meters away. This driver's brother was in the convoy, and the brother was in such bad shape that he fainted. I'd never seen someone faint before, and had actually been under the impression that fainting didn't exist. A liberal female teacher had made us read several articles proving that "fainting" was some kind of hysteria limited to Victorian Era Women, and somehow was a tool used by the patriarchal establishment to keep women down. Anyway, when this dude saw what remained of his brother's body, he totally fainted.
We established security and chased down a couple shepherds who were, as it turned out, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Afghan Police questioned them and established their innocence and they were released to their tribe.
It's my reaction to the event that's been on my mind. At the time, I remember feeling an extraordinary mixture of relief and horror; relief that the heap of skin and blood and shattered bones lying on the side of the road wasn't me, horror that said heap used to be a person, and that that person had, not an hour ago, expressed misgivings about driving such a dangerous stretch of road, concerns that I'd dismissed out of hand as frivolous, and which I'd had the audacity to ameliorate with cash.
Since that time, I've protected myself by saying or thinking things like: "Well, he bought it cheap," or "Guess he should've gone with his gut, instead of grabbing for the money," like it's his fault; or, quite obviously, like it's not my fault.
I'm not looking for sympathy here. I signed up understanding the spiritual risks I'd be incurring as an officer. Nothing's simple. Since arriving in Afghanistan I've attended countless Shuras*, seen a couple Jirgas*, watched as two towns were transformed by CMO* projects and the hard work of those Afghans who are tired of ceaseless warfare and just want peace and a chance to make a better life for their families; they're making progress.
That makes it all worthwhile; you talk to these people about the "Russian" times, how entire villages would be wiped out, how every man woman and child would help resist the invaders. Everyone over 30 has seen both sides of the coin, and understands that this is different, we're here to help. The foreign jihadists, the Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Turks, they're the new foreign army, working against the prosperity and self-determination of Afghanistan.
And if I didn't have that knowledge, gained from firsthand experience, to balance out the horror and hatred, also gained from firsthand experience, I don't know what I'd do. I can't imagine how those poor, conscript Russians felt, fighting for old Karl Marx's vision.
* HLZ: helicopter landing zone
Shura: reconciliation council
Jirga: tribal council
CMO: Civil Military Operations