The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


June 29, 2010

Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 6/29/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA

Framed Smenos Bermal valley Long before my days as an air force officer, my attitude was shaped by a couple of things my dad liked to say. For example, the famous cautionary, "Ya don't tug on Superman's cape, ya don't spit in the wind, ya don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger (who?)..." and so on. Years later, after some real-life experiences of my own, I would like to add the following: "Ya don't engage in a protracted counterinsurgency in Afghanistan."

A few years ago, as a deployed operations officer supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, I served in the eastern part of Afghanistan for about a year. It was one of the most difficult experiences in my life. Planning missions with little or no solid intelligence, working every day beside flakey Afghan foot-soldiers, and placating corrupt and greedy Afghan officers, it was hard to quantify progress, or even common purpose, in the day-to-day struggle to be everywhere at once in that desolate, war-torn, corner of nowhere. During some of those soggy, cold, disappointing nights, at war using intelligence qualified by the word "maybe," and uncertain on whom we could rely, many of my fellows and I often resorted to a steady stream of colorful, creative complaint and criticism aimed at anyone or anything that could be even remotely tied to our suffering. 

This kind of commentary often drew a laugh, or at least a grin, from our permanently sour faces, and helped to ease the emotional burden of such a seemingly thankless effort. I'll never forget one particular night in our ops center, during which one of the convoys we were monitoring was attempting to breach the walls of a far away qalat. This structure was suspected of housing heavily armed and dangerous anti-coalition militia forces. The men we had on the ground for that mission were all quite young, several fresh out of basic training, very few with any combat experience at all. 

Meanwhile, nearby, a fort full of veteran "allied" soldiers sat playing World of Warcraft over a US-supplied Ethernet connection. Though we all knew those idle hands betraying that evening's death-defying mission were more than capable and completely available to assist in subduing a very real threat to our security, a poor structure of communication channels and a non-existent chain of command made it impossible for the mission planners to reliably call upon any allied support at all. Those "night-elf bitches," as we referred to our allied brothers-in-arms, in bitter jest to one another, were simply no-shows in a war they considered to be "not their problem." This was simply unacceptable, and yet there was nothing we could do about it. So, we carried on alone, and complained a lot. Is that so hard to understand? 

(For those who might be curious, that night's mission was a success. However, in my opinion, it was at too high a cost of precious blood, effort and much-needed equipment.) 

I can easily sympathize with similar frustrated rhetoric from others. Now when I did it, I had the advantage of not being within ear-shot of a reporter from a major US magazine. (Oops). When I did it, I was a nobody whispering nothings to no one in particular. And that sad anonymity was the price I paid for the freedom to criticize others in such a hostile manner. When I did it, I was not the senior military officer representing the US presence in the Afghan war. When I did it, it didn't matter. 

The recent statements expressing well-earned and justifiable frustration made by General McChrystal and recorded in Rolling Stone magazine, regarding his difficulty with US and allied leadership in Afghanistan and abroad, seem to have struck a nerve with our sensitive citizenry, many of whom, while US and allied forces fought for their freedom, were at the mall trying to decipher their "sleep number," or at home "jail-breaking" their iPhones.  To these "victims," so appalled after TiVo-ing Chris Matthews or Sean Hannity, I would offer the perspective of someone who understands the cathartic need for sardonic humor in the face of crushing adversity. 

There is a difference between insubordination and the expression of opinion. It could be said our nation was, in part, founded upon this principle. And if anyone has earned the right to a patient differentiation between the two, it is our men and women in uniform. It seems fairly obvious that a public figure such as a general is not allowed to speak his mind to such a degree, even to utter heartfelt frustrations related to an ongoing war to which there appears to be no end in sight. That is a sad, but likely necessary, fact of life. Though my sympathy for McChrystal is hard won and true, I am again forced to recall another of my father's sayings, upon which I often reflect when feeling insubordinate or fed up: "You don't have to like it, but you do have to do it." 

Man, I hated that one. My father's immovable and unchallengeable edict, evoking the very core of personal responsibility, has echoed through me during many unhappy moments in life. It has always interested me the way my father's first axiom seemed to dovetail so well with this second bit of wisdom. As if to say, if you do engage in unwise behavior, it is now your duty to see it through to the conclusion, regardless of how undesireable that path may seem to you. So, now that the insatiable hunger of a bloated blogosphere has been awakened by the leaked private comments of one of the most besieged men on Earth, leading to his resignation and the appointment of the honorable General Petraeus in his stead, what now? Perhaps this "scandal" better serves as a jumping off point for some much-needed redress of a calamitous situation. 

Yet another solid principle to which I was exposed while serving in the US Air Force was "Don't criticize until you can suggest a solution." Perhaps the reason why so many Americans are disappointed in the recent comments by the General is that much of the current counterinsurgency strategy was his idea. An idea to which Congress committed another 30,000 American troops, while facing increased disagreement and condemnation from our coalition allies. It's not hard to understand the world's mistrust in Afghanistan's leaders. President Karzai is often said to have toyed with the idea of reuniting with the Taliban. Our other "ally" in the region, Pakistan, doesn't provide much encouragement either, especially when people face the fact that the Taliban itself was originally a Pakistani concept. 

Not to bore anyone with an amateur history lesson but Pakistan gave birth to the Taliban, as students of Sharia law, many of whom were displaced Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion, trained in Pakistani madrassas and sought to reclaim their home from a hostile attacker. Many Afghans had remained behind to fight the Russians, and were, coincidentally, trained to do so in large part by the previous incarnations of George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and contributed to the formation of the earliest components of what we now know as Al Qaeda. Yet as it stands, we act as if we share a common purpose with Pakistan, and not as if they are politically, and perhaps directly, related to those we seek most to defeat.

Another quick war story: I remember standing on a promontory in the eastern part of Afghanistan, known as Bermal. My companion was a Lieutenant Colonel from a Marine Corps reserve component under whom I served as part of the joint task force. He pointed east to distant settlements on the horizon, telling me he had strong suspicions that they housed and trained anti-coalition forces working for the Taliban. As I observed his imposing armored figure, bristling with frag grenades, knife handles and ammo belts, I asked him why we didn't just plan a mission for his Marines and go get the bad guys. At this, he indicated the ground at our feet and said, "This is the Pakistan border, son. We can't touch 'em. They might as well be on Mars."

In light of our contradictory relationship with Pakistan, it might behoove the US to consider another option in the region for support against the fundamentalist wing of the Islamic community, namely our ally and partner India. In India we might find a largely secular and pro-West ally interested in a similar vision for the region, and one who is ready and willing to assist. Such an evolution would require great patience, flexibility and diplomacy along with a renewed will to contain the terror-exporting industry of nihilistic madmen in an underdeveloped corner of the world. It wouldn't be easy, but it might actually yield results. There are many Americans who will not like this plan There are many who will grumble and complain. Pop-culture magazines will have no shortage of counter-arguments, complete with ill-advised criticisms of leaders and allies. It's impossible to please everyone, that's America.

But they don't have to like it, they just have to do it. Thanks, Dad.

Editor's note:   Matt Smenos was a frequent early contributor to this site during 2006-2007.  His numerous posts include DOHA, I DREAM OF DJINNI, OLD SCHOOL, LATE-WATCH DUTY, MAHN, SIGNS and WHEN MATT GETS HOME, some of which were included in the Sandbox book.


Thanks for laying down the straight scoop on these issues! Your Dad sounds a bit like mine. Thanks especially for your service, and "welcome home" from an old vet.

Well thought out commentary on the realities of the situation that only one who has been there can express. Unfortunately, only those who seek the truth will read this.
I am glad to see that your father is also a Jim Croce aficionado "You Don't Mess Around With Jim"{Refrain}
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim, da do da do....
I salute you and appreciate your service and update on the continued grind that is military service in a time of conflict.

Matt: Anyone who works in a thankless profession that is a serving one (military, medicine, ministry), must have a gallows humor or bust. Especially if you are the leader with no power such as yourself. I am a RN and serve in a "charge" position= no power and expected leadership with no power to enforce or get reinforcements. It sucks. I was hoping (when I first heard about the comments in Rolling Stone) he considered the consequences and "Frankly just didn't give a damn." I have been in that position several times but as you said - who care what a nobody says to another nobody? Hey I kinda like being a nobody and will wear my status and pick up by role with a sneer and a curse to any nobody with in earshot. I hope our all too human General can adjust to his new nobody status and roll with it. I'd love to see him stick a boot up a few highers to get them thinking in a higher key. Having been to Afghanistan, I know how desolate it is and I was there before the USSR. What a waste - even if there is gold in the turds get out and stay out and let them sort it out themselves until there are only dogs and goats standing if that is what they want.

Captain Smenos,
You nailed it perfectly. My son is currently deployed Marine Infantry. He's loyal, honorable and his sardonic humor has increased since he joined three years ago. I understand your points partly from him.
I wish you well, much success and good luck. Thank you for your service. Welcome home.

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