This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In the eight years I've reported on Afghanistan, I've "embedded" regularly with Afghan civilians, especially women. Recently, however, with American troops "surging" and journalists getting into the swing of the military's counterinsurgency "strategy" (better known by its acronym, COIN), I decided to get with the program as well. Last June, I filed a request to embed with the US Army.
Polite emails from Army public affairs specialists ask journalists to provide evidence of medical insurance, a requirement I took as an admission that war is not a healthy pursuit. I already knew that, of course—from the civilian side. Plus I'd read a lot of articles and books by male colleagues who had risked their necks with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. What struck me about their work was this: Even when they described screw-ups coming down from the top brass, those reporters still managed to make the soldierly enterprise sound pretty consistently heroic. I wondered what they might be leaving out.
So I sent in a scan of my Medicare card. I worried that this evidence of my senior citizenship, coupled with my membership in the "weaker sex," the one we're supposedly rescuing in Afghanistan, would raise questions about my fitness for missions "outside the wire" of a Forward Operating Base (FOB, pronounced "fob") in eastern Afghanistan only a few miles from the tribal areas of Pakistan. But no, I got my requested embed—proof of neither fitness nor heroism required (something my male colleagues had never revealed). In the end, my age and gender were no handicap. As Agatha Christie's Miss Marple knows, people will say almost anything to an old lady they assume to be stupid.
Boys and Their Toys
Having been critical of American policies from the get-go, I saw nothing on the various Army bases I visited to change my mind. One day at that FOB, preparing to go on a mission, the sergeant in charge wrote the soldiers' names on the board, followed by "Terp" to designate the Afghan-American interpreter who would accompany us, and "In Bed," which meant me. He made a joke about reporters who are more gung-ho than soldiers. Not me. And I wasn't alone. I had already met a lot of older guys on other bases, mostly reservists who had jobs at home they felt passionately about—teachers, coaches, musicians—and wives and children they loved, who just wanted to go home. One said to me, "Maybe if I were ten years younger I could get into it, but I'm not a boy anymore."
The Army had sent me a list of ground rules for reporters—mostly commonsense stuff like don't print troop strength or battle plans. I also got a checklist of things to bring along. It was the sort of list moms get when sending their kids off to camp: water bottle, flashlight, towel, soap, toilet paper (for those excursions away from base), sleeping bag, etc. But there was other stuff too: ballistic eyewear, fireproof gloves, big knife, body armor, and Kevlar helmet. Considering how much of my tax dollar goes to the Pentagon, I thought the Army might have a few spare flak jackets to lend to visiting reporters, but no, you have to bring your own.
That was perhaps a sign of things to come, as I was soon swamped by complaints from soldiers and civilian contractors alike: not enough armor, not enough vehicles, not enough helicopters, not enough weapons, not enough troops—and even when there seemed to be plenty of everything, complaints that nothing was of quite the right kind. This struck me as a peculiarly privileged American problem that seemed to underlie almost everything I was to see on the eastern front of this war. Those complaints, in fact, seemed to spring from the very nature of the American military enterprise—from its toxic mix of paranoia, entitlement, and good intentions.
Take the paranoia, which I suppose comes with the territory. You wouldn't be there if you didn't think that there were enemies all around. I turned down a military flight for the short hop from the Afghan capital Kabul to Bagram, the main American base—a rapidly expanding "city" of more than 30,000 people. Instead, I asked an Afghan friend to drive me out in his car.
A Public Affairs officer warned me that driving was "very dangerous," but the only problem we met was a US military convoy headed in the opposite direction, holding up traffic. For more than an hour we sat by the highway with dozens of Afghan motorists watching a parade of enormous flatbed trucks hauling other big vehicles: bulldozers and armored personnel carriers of various vintages from Humvees to MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles). My friend said, "We don't understand. They have all these big machines. They put them on trucks and haul them up and down the road. Why?"
I couldn't get an answer, but I got a clue when I took an Army chopper from Bagram to a smaller base and met a private contractor partly responsible for Army vehicle maintenance. He gave me a CD to pass on to his foreman at the FOB I was headed for. Rather than music, it held an instruction manual for repairing the latest model M-ATV, a hulking personnel carrier with a V-shaped hull designed to repel the blast of roadside bombs. These are currently replacing the older MRAPs and deadly low-slung Humvees. The Humvees are, in turn, being passed off to the Afghan National Army, whose soldiers are more expendable than ours. (You see what I mean about entitlement.) Standing in a lot full of new M-ATVs already in need of fixing, the foreman seemed pleased indeed to get that CD.
It's a measure of our sense of entitlement, I think, that while the Taliban and their allies still walk to war wearing traditional baggy cotton pants and shirts, we Americans incessantly invent things to make ourselves more "secure." Since no one can ever be secure, least of all in war, every new development is bound to prove insufficient and almost guaranteed to create new problems.
Still, Americans feel entitled to safety. Hence the MRAP was designed to address a double whammy of fear: roadside bombs (IEDs) and ambushes. I was trained to be a passenger in an MRAP for a mission that never materialized, but in the process I learned where the built-in handholds are for those frequent occasions when the top-heavy MRAP rolls down a mountainside.
The trainer talked so assuredly about what to do in case of a rollover that he almost gave me the impression you could swivel your hips and right the vehicle, like a kayak. But no, once it rolls, it's a goner. You have to crawl out and walk. (So much for ambush protection.) Then, one of those big trucks we saw on the highway to Bagram has to come out and haul it back to base, where the foreman with that new instruction-manual CD may have a go at fixing it. That, in a nutshell, is why the 7-passenger MRAP is being replaced by the 5-passenger M-ATV, a huge armored all-terrain vehicle not quite so inclined to tip over. Because it holds fewer soldiers, however, you have to put more of those vehicles on the road, and I'm sure you already see where that leads.
One benefit of our addiction to expensive, state-of-the-art stuff, however faulty it may prove, is that the private manufacture of armaments now helps keep our economy on life support and makes some military-industrial types rich. One drawback is that—though it's a hard point for American soldiers in the line of fire to grasp—it actually undercuts our heralded COIN strategy. Afghans out there fighting in their cotton pajamas take Western reliance on heavy armor as a measure of our fear—not to mention the inferiority of our gods on whose protection we appear unwilling to rely. (By contrast, the watchman at the small Afghan National Army base adjacent to the FOB I was visiting slept on a cot on the roof, exposed to enemy fire with his tea kettle beside him, either trusting his god, or maybe knowing something we don't about the "enemy.")
All the Comforts of War
On the great scale of American bases, think of Bagram as a city, secondary bases as small towns, FOBS as heavily gated communities in rural landscapes, and outlying COPs (Combat Outposts) as camps you wouldn't want your kid to go to. A FOB is, by definition, pretty far out there on the fringe, but I have to say straight out that when the chopper dropped me off in full (and remarkably heavy) body armor and Kevlar helmet at my designated FOB, it didn't look at all like "the front" to me.
I should explain that my enduring image of war comes from the trenches of World War I, from which my father returned with a lot of medals, lifelong disabilities, and horrific picture books I wasn't allowed to see as a child. In that war, men lived for months on end without a change of uniform, in muddy or frozen trenches, infested with rats and lice, often amid their own excrement and their own dead.
The frontline FOB where I landed and its soldiers, by contrast, are spic-and-span. Credit for this goes largely to the remarkably inexpensive labor of crews of Filipinos, Indians, Croatians, and others lured from distant lands by American for-profit private contractors responsible for making our troops feel at home away from home. The base's streets are laid out on a grid. Tents in tidy rows are banked with standard sand bags and their super-sized cousins, towering Hescos filled with rocks and rubble.
The tents are cooled by roaring tornados of air conditioning, thanks to equipment fueled by gasoline that costs the Army about $400 per gallon to import. It takes fuelers three to four hours every day to refill all the giant generators that keep the cold air coming, so I felt guilty when, to prevent shivering in my sleep, I stuffed my towel into the ducts suspended from the ceiling of my tent.