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.

WHAT WE'RE DOING IN AFGHANISTAN |

January 01, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Unit: Deployed to Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

Don't call this a Gift Guide, or even a "Best Books of Pre-Deployment" review. Reading these five titles won't make you an expert on Afghanistan. That said, as a citizen-soldier, I've found each of these helpful in piecing together What We're Doing in Afghanistan.

Best of all, each of these is accessible to non-military audience. In other words, you don't have to be a military historian fluent in Army acronyms to get a lot of bang from these books:

WAR, by Sebastian Junger

This book covers much of the same ground as the 2010 documentary "Restrepo," which author Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm") co-produced with Tim Hetherington after continually embedding with a U.S. infantry company in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007-08. I saw "Restrepo" first, and even been lucky enough to have seen it a couple of times. The book enriched my understanding not only of how the soldiers of Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team fought the fight, but how they came to the fight in the first place--and where it left them afterward.

  • First impression on reading the book: "Wow! That was ... Wow!"
  • Second impression: "I can't wait to read that again!"
  • Third impression: "I can't wait to see "Restrepo" again!"

I've decided to start describing Junger's book as one facet of a larger multimedia work, one that needs to be visited and re-visited, turned over and reflected upon. Yes, each of the components--"Restrepo," Junger's War, and Hetherington's Infidel (reviewed below)--is independently worthy of much praise and consideration. They add up to something even greater, however.

For his part, Junger makes writing about war look almost too easy. One can spend hours unpacking his simple prose, as if the sentences were written by Confucian fortune-cookie makers. Here are some personal favorites or mine:

Every time you drove down the road you were engaged in a twisted existential exercise where each moment was the only proof you'd ever have that you hadn't been blown upon the moment before. [p. 142]

Rear-base limbo: an ill blend of apprehension and boredom that is only relieved by going forward where things are even worse. [p. 199]

When I asked the men about their allegiance to one another, they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but that the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to the brigade level--three or four thousand men--any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical. [p. 242]
*****


INFIDEL, by Tim Hetherington

Packaged to resemble the type of black Moleskine sketchbook favored by some artists and writers, this collection is a jumble of Hetherington's photographs, words from soldiers and Sebastian Junger, and other mental ephemera.

Hetherington's photographic view extends to a more-artistic, less-journalistic treatment of some of his subjects. Sometimes, rather than a straight-forward newshound's pictorial account of soldierly toil, Hetherington gives the grime and squalor a near-transcendent treatment--combat as still-life. Trust me: After reflecting on these images, you will never look at fly-strips, Army cots, and cheesecake centerfolds the same way.

The book takes its title from one of the tattoos shared by the Battle Company soldiers. (One of the soldiers packed a tattoo gun up to the remote outpost.) Hetherington documents the body art in both photographs and drawings. Each soldier has his own designs, his own scars, and his own brand--variations on a theme.

If "Restrepo" allows us to witness the conditions that Battle Company endured, and War illuminates how fighting men are bound together, then Infidel allows us to see each of these men again as individuals: flawed, young, and innocent.

As Junger writes in Infidel:

Creeping through the outpost came Tim, camera in hand, grabbing photographs of the soldiers as they slept "You never see them like this," he said to me later. "They always look so tough, but when they're asleep they look like little boys. They look the way their mothers probably remember them." [p. 15]


Having seen the war through Hetherington's eyes, you will not look at your sleeping sons and daughters the same way, either.

*****


WHERE MEN WIN GLORY, by Jon Krakauer

I'm not sure I would've liked Pat Tillman. That's probably saying more about me than it is him, but more on that in a second. In the mid-1990s, Tillman played college football for Arizona State University, and eventually ended up playing professionally for the Arizona Cardinals. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, he and his brother enlisted in the Army--he gave up millions of dollars to serve his country--and later deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I tend to be biased against jocks and meatheads, and pictures of Tillman as the square-jawed Army Ranger or the long-haired gridiron gladiator tend to play into my worst high-school instincts.

The problem is, Tillman doesn't fit anybody's stereotype. And he was anything but a meathead.

As he was an everyday free-thinker, iconoclast, and patriot, I probably would've ended up liking Tillman, if I had been given a chance. Unfortunately, too many of us were never given the chance. He was killed in Khost Province, Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident April 22, 2004.

In the United States, political and Army leaders at the highest levels sought to celebrate Tillman as a martyr in the "Global War on Terror," a position at odds not only with the circumstances of his death, but with his increasingly articulated views against the invasion of Iraq.

The events leading up to Tillman's death were largely driven by bad calls made by unthinking leaders who were back in a Tactical Operations Center (TOC), rather than out on the ground. Army leaders failed to investigate and accurately report those events. Tillman's death was used for cheap political gain.

Ask any soldier: Accidents can happen--even fatal ones--but cover-ups are made. Cover-ups are more insidious than friendly fire. Cover-ups chip away at trust and honor within an organization. If we don't have trust and honor, what are soldiers left with? And what good is an Army?

*****


AFGHAN JOURNAL, by Jeff Courter

I reviewed this book in June, and had the pleasure of working with the author when he guest-blogged for Red Bull Rising in November.

Illinois Army National Guard Sgt. First Class Jeff Courter weathered a 2007 deployment to Afghanistan with plain-spoken good humor, quiet faith, and a passion for trying to put it all together. A former Marine cook and Navy Reservist, he deployed to Afghanistan as as an Army ETT tasked with training Afghan Border Police (A.B.P.). While there, he blogged about his experiences, and later self-published this book. His blog-posts are presented here chronologically, which creates a conversational, easy-to-read pace.

When a National Guard mother or father asks me about what the Afghan mission is like and for, I often start by putting Courter's book in their hands.

*****


GREETINGS FROM AFGHANISTAN: SEND MORE AMMO, by Benjamin Tupper

Reviewing this book was one of the first good things I did shortly after launching the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009.

New York Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper had worked in Afghanistan as a civilian in 2004 before deploying as an Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) member in 2006. An ETT is a small group of U.S. soldiers who train and mentor Afghan police and army counterparts. As such, they're really the less-celebrated core of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. You can kick down as many doors and kill as many bad guys as you want, but until the Afghan government can keep its own people safe and secure, it's all just tactical cats-and-mice.

As Tupper writes:

Sending an additional 30,000 soldiers may seem like a rational approach to fighting and defeating the growing Taliban insurgency, but it misses a simple truth. As the Afghans like to say: "You Americans have all the watches, but we Afghans have all the time."

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