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.


March 07, 2012

Name: Old Blue 
Stationed in:
: Afghan Blue III and Afghan Quest

This blog is about the experience, and part of the experience is feeling it. I can relate to readers the way that it feels to be cold, I can relate to readers how it feels to crunch across gravel on the camp. I can try to relate how it feels to sit and converse with my Afghan counterpart. I can try to relate how it feels to ride in an MRAP through the streets of Mazar-e Sharif, the feeling of earphones and body armor, viewing the normal world of Afghans through armored slats and thick glass as we do our little part to influence their Border Police to make their lives better, safer and more stable so that we can have that at home, too.

How does one convey the feeling of being seven thousand miles from home while two countries go mad?  I swear, it feels as if so many people have lost their damned minds both here and at home.

Many of my blogging friends are talking about nukes and smallpox-infested blankets and carpets.

I read the comments on the news stories on dozens of outlets both liberal and conservative. They blame the Afghans for the violence. They cannot understand how a book can be worth the loss of lives, especially American lives. They cry out in rage for our immediate withdrawal, as if their moral outrage is now an excuse for wholesale abandonment -- failure -- in an effort they have grown weary of and no longer understand (as if they ever did). Our moral compass has no point upon it where an idea, much less the physical repository for that idea, is worth lethal outrage. They throw rocks and burn tires. We throw comments and flame those who dissent. It’s as much as we can care about anything.

Of course, we have those in our country who will destroy property and endanger lives over the outcome of a sporting event, but that’s usually a local affair and not a national outburst.

Of all the things one could do in this country with the demonstrated potential to cause such outbursts, burning the Quran tops the list. We have inadvertently bombed weddings and suffered only a fraction the outrage that disrespecting the religion, even if “inadvertently,” has caused. If there were one thing to avoid doing in this entire country, burning the Quran would be it. We spend literally tens of thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to avoid causing civilian casualties -- as well we should -- in order to attain our exceedingly poorly stated goals. Yet we cause more chaos in ten minutes of book burning. We can blame the Afghans all day, we can talk about how most of them can’t even read the book that was burned, we can spout off about hypocrisy and curse them as a backwards people.

It solves nothing. All we are doing is feeding the insurgents.

How does it feel? Frustrating.

It’s frustrating to know that after ten-plus years, about a quarter of which I have been personally present, we still don’t have the discipline to not make such “mistakes.” To us, burning a book by “accident” is an understandable mistake. But in a country where our enemy is constantly telling the people that we are here to destroy Islam it may serve to some as confirmation, turning a skeptical observer into a rock-throwing rioter.

In this country, piety is respected as much as education, regardless of literacy. It is a moral value. Millions of Catholics have given something up for Lent, and millions of others have not with no fear of reprisal. In all my time in Afghanistan, I have yet to see an Afghan willing to break the Ramadan fast in a way that would cause his fellows to judge him a poor Muslim. It is a core value in this religiously homogeneous culture. They have a word, “Qari,” (pronounced “Cory”) for those who can recite the Quran from memory. That doesn’t mean that they have to be able to read it first. And to be a Qari is a respected thing.

It’s not like being a Kentucky Colonel.

There is no way in hell I could memorize a book, much less the Bible.

Our people took a careless action with the one thing that could possibly inspire such widespread rage, and over 30 people are dead, four of them Americans. It’s like the perfect storm of ignorant jackassery. This rivals the bags of rice coming off the boat from the United States to a hungry Vietnam, each being stamped in Vietnamese as it came off the boat under the eyes of approving American supervisors who could not read Vietnamese, “A gift from the people of the Soviet Union.”  Except it has greater weight to the insurgency both here and at home than the rice bags ever did. It is still an example of inexcusable ignorance of the environment in which you are operating. That, my friends, is a clear sign of a lack of discipline, of attention to detail in what is important in this particular mission.

The Afghans did not burn the books and blame us for it. We did it; and we freaking knew better.  

It’s not like we didn’t know this type of thing had the capacity for such a nasty reaction when not even one year ago we saw such outrage when that “Christian preacher” in Florida decided to commit homicide by YouTube. It is the red button that you don’t press in this country.  My judging the red button to be inappropriate, backwards or hypocritical does not alter the value system here, and we are the ones who are seeking to gain security by working to stabilize Afghanistan. Making the strong appearance of attacking their value system at its core does not help them to edge towards progress. Following it up with a vitriolic reaction to their anger does not help me to avoid the problem in the future, only to feel justified in continuing to ignore and disregard the values of those I would help.

With many of my veteran friends and 99% of all citizens who bother to leave a comment on a news site raging about how these people are barbarians and not worth our time and effort -- and with months to go on my third tour -- how do I feel?

Isolated. Outcast. Alone. My will to fight the good fight has the gravitational pull of the black hole that is the loss of national will dragging it towards the event horizon. It feels different. It is a sea change that is occurring… or has occurred.

We have lost our national will to the point that the troops over here sense it. It’s an underlying feeling, a sensing more than a feeling, that whatever we do, it doesn’t matter. We are here, tasked with something that our own civilian masters, if not the majority of our own people, don’t support us in. Our poorly stated national objectives, the inexorable pulling away from a task that those of us who are close enough to see can tell is not ready -- we sense it.  Enough progress was made to say that we put in a peak effort, but that peak effort was always on a timer. It was given just enough of a chance that had it brought massive success it would have been welcomed.

And if it didn’t, a claim to have made that effort would suffice.

My efforts, and the sacrifices of my friends like Jon Stiles have been sold for the sake of domestic politics. It’s not about getting anything done; it’s about leaving. By a certain date. Or, as it used to be called in Congress, “a date certain.”

If our efforts and sacrifices are not made -- and sold -- in the intelligent pursuit -- the purchase -- of sensible and well-stated goals and outcomes that favor the United States for not just an election cycle but for the following decades, then they are being sold cheaply. This I resent with all my heart and soul.

My problem is that I actually think about that and what it means. Some people don’t think about stuff as much. They are happier. Still, even they know. They just don’t think about it.

I just got an email as I was typing this, that was sent to multiple recipients by someone who, if I gave you his name, Google would easily recognize.  It started out, “So this is what it feels like to lose.”

Thanks, man. Do you realize that I’m still here?????  Kinda like talking about how messed up a burn victim looks while he’s sitting in the room. Dude, I’ve got months to go, and I’ve got this coming at me?

My brother’s war was Vietnam, and I think that I’ve gained some small appreciation for how he felt, even though this is no Vietnam. The loss of will, the national fatigue that gives way to dehumanizing and/or demonizing those whom we are supposed to be helping to grow. I sense it more than feel it; the will to succeed has gone nearly completely, the will to excuse growing stronger. We are seeking our excuses and in this moment we have found one to add to the list so that the loss here will be a justifiable loss if not a moral imperative.


Meanwhile, I’ve had numerous requests for more pictures, so let’s see what we can do…

For some reason, this version of WordPress only allows three sizes of pictures, and the largest winds up cutting the picture up.  Each of these can be downloaded to see much more detail.   My camera is a five year old HP Photosmart on its third tour, but it’s got the most effective anti-shake of anything I’ve seen, so I keep using it even though three tours in a grenade pouch has made it cranky and temperamental.

Second of Third Tour 013 300x224 Random Pictures

Interesting architecture in MeS.

There is a lot of really interesting architecture in Mazaar-e Sharif. Afghans have a strong sense of aesthetics. It may not always jibe with our own -- take jingle trucks, for example. But it is a sense of aesthetics, and sometimes the results can be very interesting. Every Afghan city is a kaleidoscope of styles, from traditional mud and straw to metal and glass.

 Third Third 004 300x225 Random Pictures

Snow on the mountains and concertina wire.

Sometimes I try to juxtapose the Rockies-like beauty of the Hindu Kush with the accoutrements of conflict. There is something stark about mountains in winter which may seem to forbid human access, but there is something even more stark about concertina wire, the only reason for which is to forbid human access. Beauty and the beastly.

It turns out that mud and straw construction is a pretty good construction solution in this country. It’s not something completely foreign to us, when we call it "adobe."

Fourth Third 044 300x224 Random Pictures

Satellite dish on a mud hut... technology and tradition.

Of course, “adobe” sounds so much more quaint than “mud.”   But it’s not uncommon to see technology and tradition mix in unlikely ways. Satellite dishes on traditionally-constructed houses. Afghans on Facebook, Twitter, blogging.

The city of Mazar-e Sharif is a sprawling city. Its daily patterns are probably more similar to those of a large city in America around the turn of the 20th century than our patterns of life today.

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Mazar-e Sharif from a distance.

The same challenges, the same issues with electricity, services, law enforcement. Except that the extremes are greater now. You can have a dirt lot and a banking center that does direct deposits side by side. From a distance, you can’t tell that this is a city in Central Asia. It just looks like "a city."

When we drive through I see daily life unfolding all around us. We are separate. We are in a bubble that travels through the life that goes on all around us. Iron bubbles, steel elephants that make their way through the streets of people leading challenging lives. When I watch movies about, say, gangsters in Chicago or in New York in the heyday of the bootleggers, I think that the everyday people were affectedby them in one way, shape or form.

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The average family just had to hope that they never showed up on the radar screen of someone like Al Capone. Or that they never had to consider borrowing money from a mafioso. Here it is similar. Organized criminals, politically-motivated insurgents, warlords who know that you can’t spell “warlord” without “war;” all have their impact on the lives of the little guy trying to make a living. The parents, the young men trying to make their mark on the world and feeling the allure of easier money, street cred, a little power and influence.

Our own libraries are full of the cautionary tales from similar times. Our own history shows examples of criminality, or corruption, of political dynasties run amok.

But here, we rumble through these daily human dramas in our metal bubbles, insulated from all knowledge of what these individuals and families are going through. We don’t know what their concerns are and can only guess. We are insulated from them by our blast-resistance. We are kept from them by inches of ballistic laminate viewing material.  We are held aloft by massive tires to make room for our blast-deflecting hull shape as we shuttle along our way. We are a momentary distraction in the day of those who are living in these neighborhoods.

We will never know them. And they will never know us.  We will never have a conversation. They will never hear me speak my limited Dari. I will never hear their opinions, their concerns; hear their viewpoint.

But we sleep securely at night in our massive camp. Guarded by the snack that smiles back:

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Again, like Vietnam, those charged with the task are handcuffed and left flapping in the breeze by those who sent them. Finger pointing from both sides of the aisle and empty praise for the job being done.
A famous quote, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".
As the song says, "When will they ever learn?"
As long as there are those willing to follow orders, things will not change. I do not advocate disobeying orders. That is the glue that keeps this country safe. I just wish that those sending would have to be at the front leading. Not in the back, directing.
Stay safe. There are those who understand. Unfortunately, most never will.
Thank you for your service. Thank you for your honest writing. Not that it will do much good. Unfortunately.

Thank you for being there. Thank you for telling it like it is. Your insights and abilities to analyse the situations are a much needed relief from the garbage published by the press here at home. And most of all, thank you for being you. I've read your blog for years.

P.S.: If I can send you a package of stuff you want or need, please let me know.


Mazar is the safest place in AFG. Enjoy your vacation cupcake.

Take heart. You are making a difference every day as you carry out your mission. What's more, your n excellent writer. Your post is dead on, and it certainly changed my mind in the aftermath of the book burning and now this unfortunate slaughter of Afghan families. Please know there are people like me who read your postings and are refocused on the value of your efforts and the simple fact that you are still there dealing with the fallout every day while pols and pundits run their mouths.

I dunno, I think you and your cohorts are the saints among us ... embodying the human struggle for meaning in the modern age, but the struggle pitched so much higher, a civilian can hardly imagine. Kafkaesque. Joe Heller without the comedy. It is said that the need to participate in a meaningful life is the strongest human need. To remain at all sane in the face of all the nonsense and worse—and to serve nonetheless—like I said, some kind of saints.

Your post has been an eyeopener. Thank you. Take heart - we ARE learning (unfortunately by our mistakes). We know so much more about Islam and the Quran than we did, and some eyes have been opened to the outside world - on all sides. Stay safe.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

I appreciate your posts and all the posts on this milblog. The writing, in general, is extraordinary (sorry, I'm an English teacher), but what is so valuable is the clarity and honesty of all the posts. The only thing (until now) I've seen to match it was a letter a student gave me that her husband wrote just before he came home from VietNam. I keep wondering why we are doing this again to our children, our friends, our colleagues.

I have been checking this blog to see if someone will write about Sgt. Bales and your reaction to this situation. I keep thinking of My Lai, and hoping someone here will post because so much of what I read is fractured, sound bites, accusations, and general ignorance.

Thank you, all of you, for posting.

Halló ég er svo spennt að ég fann blog síðuna þína, ég fann virkilega þér eftir slys, meðan ég var að leita á Yahoo fyrir eitthvað annað, En ég er hér núna og vildi bara að segja þakka þér fyrir frábæra færslu og allt um kring skemmtilegt blogg (ég elska líka þema / hönnun), ég hef ekki tíma til að lesa í gegnum það allt í augnablikinu en ég bók-merkt það og einnig bætt við RSS straumar, svo þegar ég hef tíma mun ég aftur að lesa miklu meira, þá skaltu ekki halda upp á frábær vinna.

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