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In Bed With the US Army: An Older Woman's Tale

Why you shouldn't fart in front of a village elder, and more notes from Afghanistan.

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:00 AM PDT

More permanent buildings are going up and some, already built by Afghans and deemed not good enough for American habitation, are scheduled for reconstruction. Even in distant FOBs like this one, the building boom is prodigious. There's a big gym with the latest body-building equipment, and a morale-boosting center equipped with telephones and banks of computers connected to the Internet that are almost always in use. A 24/7 chow hall serves barbequed ribs, steak, and lobster tails, though everything is cooked beyond recognition by those underpaid laborers to whom this cuisine is utterly foreign.

There's a remarkably speedy laundry and, as for the toilets and showers—I can speak only for those few designated "Female"—they were the best I'd seen anywhere in Afghanistan. A sign politely suggested limiting your shower to five minutes, a nod to the expense of paying for-profit contractors to hire truckers to haul in the necessary water, and then haul out to undisclosed locations the copious effluence of American latrines. (At Bagram, that effluence goes into a conveniently nearby river, a water source for countless Afghans.) The other detritus from this expanding FOB is dumped into a pit and burned, including a staggering, but undisclosed, number of plastic water bottles. All this helps explain the annual cost of maintaining a single American soldier in Afghanistan, currently estimated at one million dollars.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not making a case for filthy trenches. But why should war be gussied up like home? If war were undisguisedly as nasty and brutish as it truly is, it might also tend to be short. Soldiers freed from illusions might mutiny, as many did in Vietnam, or desert and go home. But this modern, cushier kind of pseudo-war is different.

Many young soldiers told me that they actually live better in the Army, even when deployed, than they did in civilian life, where they couldn't make ends meet, especially when they were trying to pay for college or raise a family by working one or two low-wage jobs. They won't mutiny. They're doing better than many of their friends back home. (And they're dutiful, which makes for acts of personal heroism, even in a foolhardy cause.) They are likely to reenlist, though many told me they'd prefer to quit the Army and go to work for much higher pay with the for-profit private contractors that now "service" American war.

But the odd thing is that no one seems to question the relative cushiness of this life at war (nor the inequity of the hardscrabble civilian life left behind)—least of all those best able to observe firsthand the contrast between our garrisons and the humble equipment and living conditions of Afghans, both friend and foe. Rather, the contrast seems to inspire many soldiers with renewed appreciation of "our American way of life" and a determination to "do good things" for the Afghan people, just as many feel they did for the people of Iraq.

I emphasize all this because nothing I'd read about soldiering prepared me for the extent of these comforts—or the tedium that attends them. Plenty of soldiers don't leave the base. They hold down desk jobs, issue supplies, manage logistics, repair vehicles or radios, refuel generators and trucks, plan "development" projects, handle public affairs, or update tactical maps inscribed (at certain locations I am obliged not to name) with admonitions like "Here Be Dragons" or "Here Do Bad Stuff." They face the boredom of ordinary, unheroic, repetitive tasks.

The most common injury they are likely to suffer is a sprained ankle, thanks to eastern Afghanistan's carpet of loose rocks—just the size to trip you up. On the wall in the FOB medics' clinic is a poster with schematic drawings and instructions for strengthening ankles, an anatomical part not enhanced by any of the fitness machines at the gym. The medics dispense a lot of ibuprofen and keep a supply of crutches handy.

What's Going On

As this is an infantry base, however, most squads regularly venture outside the wire and the characteristic, probably long-term disability the soldiers take with them is bad knees—from the great weight of the things they wear and carry. The base commander reminded me of one of the principles of COIN: Security should be established by non-lethal means. So most infantry missions are "presence patrols," described by one officer as "walking around in places where we won't get shot at just to show the Afs [Afghans] that we're keeping them safe."

I went outside the wire myself on one of these presence patrols, a mission to a village, and—I'm sorry to say—it was no friendly stroll. It's a soldier's job to be "focused"; that is, to watch out for enemies. So you can't be "distracted" by greeting people along the way or stopping to chat. Entering a village hall to meet elders, for instance, may sound cordial—winning hearts and minds. But sweeping in with guns at the ready shatters that friendly feeling. Speaking as someone who has visited Afghans in their homes for years, I have to say that this approach does not make a good impression. It probably wouldn't go over well in your hometown either.

Nor does it seem to work. Since the US military adopted COIN to "protect the populace," civilian casualties have gone up 23 percent; 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed last year (and that's undoubtedly an undercount). No wonder the presence of American troops leaves so many Afghans feeling not safer, but more endangered, and it even inspires some to take up arms against the occupying army. Ever more often, at least in the area where I was embedded, a non-lethal presence patrol turns into a lethal firefight.

One day, near the end of my embed, I watched a public affairs officer frame a photograph of a soldier who had been killed in a firefight and mount it on the wall by the commander's office beside the black-framed photos of seven other soldiers. This American fighting force had been in place at the FOB for only a few weeks, having relieved another contingent, yet it had already lost eight men. (Five Afghan soldiers had been killed as well, but their pictures were notably absent from the gallery of remembrance.) The Army takes a photograph of every soldier at the beginning of his or her service, so it's on file when needed; when, that is, a soldier is killed.

Most American bases and combat outposts are named for dead American soldiers. When a soldier is killed—or "falls," as the Army likes to put it—the Internet service and the phones on base go dead until an Army delegation has knocked on the door of surviving family members. So even if you're one of those soldiers who never leaves the base, you're always reminded of what's going on out there. And then usually toward evening, some unseen enemies on the peaks around the base begin to shoot down at it, and American gunners respond with shells that lift great clouds of rock and dust from the mountains into the darkening sky.

Doing Good to Afghans

On the base, I heard incessant talk about COIN, the "new" doctrine resurrected from the disaster of Vietnam in the irrational hope that it will work this time. From my experience at the FOB, however, it's clear enough that the hearts-and-minds part of COIN is already dead in the water, and one widespread practice in the military that's gone unreported by other embedded journalists helps explain why. So here's a TomDispatch exclusive, courtesy of Afghan-American men serving as interpreters for the soldiers. They were embarrassed to the point of agony when mentioning this habit, but desperate to put a stop to it. COIN calls for the military to meet and make friends with village elders, drink tea, plan "development," and captivate their hearts and minds. Several interpreters told me, however, that every meeting includes some young American soldiers whose locker-room-style male bonding features bouts of hilarious farting.

To Afghan men, nothing is more shameful. A fart is proof that a man cannot control any of his apparatus below the belt. The man who farts is thus not a man at all. He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises or plans.

Blissfully unaware of such things, the Army goes on planning together with its civilian consultants (representatives of the State Department, the US Department of Agriculture, and various independent contractors who make up what's called a Human Terrain Team charged with interpreting local culture and helping to win the locals over to our side). Some speak of "building infrastructure," others of advancing "good governance" or planning "economic development." All talk of "doing good" and "helping" Afghanistan.

In a typical mess-up on the actual terrain of Afghanistan, Army experts previously in charge of this base had already had a million-dollar suspension bridge built over a river some distance away, but hadn't thought to secure land rights, so no road leads to it. Now the local American agriculture specialist wants to introduce alfalfa to these waterless, rocky mountains to feed herds of cattle principally pastured in his mind.

Yet even as I was filling my notebook with details of their delusionary schemes, the base commander told me he had already been forced to "put aside development." He had his hands full facing a Taliban onslaught he hadn't expected. Throughout Afghanistan, insurgent attacks have gone up 51 percent since the official adoption of COIN as the strategy du jour. On this eastern front, where the commander had served six years earlier, he now faces a "surge" of intimidation, assassination, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and fighters with greater technical capability than he has ever seen in Afghanistan.

A few days after we spoke, the Afghanistan command was handed to General Petraeus, the sainted refurbisher of the military's counterinsurgency manual. I wonder if the base commander has told Petraeus yet what he told me then: "What we're fighting here now—it's a conventional war."

I'd been "on the front" of this war for less than two weeks, and I already needed a vacation. Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans—men of extraordinary dignity—who have seen all this before and know the outcome.

Being on the base was tedious, often tense, and equally sorrowful at times when soldiers fell. Then the base commander, on foot, escorted the armored vehicles returning from a firefight on to the base the way a bygone cavalry officer might enter a frontier fort, leading a riderless horse. The scene would look good in a Hollywood war movie: moving in that sentimental Technicolor way that seems to imbue with heroic significance unnecessary and pointless death.

One night I bedded down outdoors under a profusion of stars and an Islamic crescent moon. Invisible in the dark, I couldn't help overhearing a soldier who'd slipped out to make a cell phone call back home. "I really need to talk to you today," he said, and then stumbling in his search for words, he broke down. "No," he said at last, "I'm fine. I'll call you back later."

The next day, carrying my helmet and my armor on my arm, I boarded a helicopter and flew away.

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan, 2006). Her newest book about women in conflict zones, War Is Not Over When It's Over, will be published by Metropolitan in September.

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