The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gun traces the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through its most at-risk participants, offering insights into such events as the hunt for bin Laden and counterguerilla warfare in the mountains of the Korengal Valley.
Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.
Excerpt: The Fighters
FEBRUARY 14, 2010
The American medevac helicopter descended toward a shattered home on the Afghan steppe, sweeping grit against its mud-walled remains. Gunfire cracked past. Inside the ruins, several young infantrymen from Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, crouched near the bodies of freshly killed civilians. They had tallied eleven corpses so far. All but two were women or children.
Two American rockets had struck here a short while before, a pair of errant blows in a battle between the Marines and the Taliban that had begun in the morning of Valentine’s Day. In the seconds after, as a dusty smoke cloud rose, a small girl scrambled out. For a moment she stood still. Then she ran, sprinting headlong to another nearby building, which the Americans occupied as a temporary outpost. Her father was detained inside.
Soon Marines were hustling across the field, crossing the open space where a gunfight had raged for hours. When they entered they found one more survivor—a young woman lying in a pool of blood. She was calling out children’s names. The blasts had severed both her legs and one of her arms. Covered with dirt, streaked with blood, she moaned and repeatedly asked for the kids. She tried sitting up. A corpsman and a few Marines consoled her. A lieutenant and a sergeant with radios called their commanding officer, seeking a Black Hawk medevac aircraft to rush the woman to care. Around her the bodies of her family were scattered where they had died, not far from dead poultry and sheep. Gently the Marines assured the dying woman that all would be okay.
The Pentagon and the manufacturer of the weapon that struck here, known as a HIMARS,I consider its ordnance to be precise. Its GPS sensors and guidance system help the rockets fly scores of miles and slam to earth within feet of the coordinates they are programmed to hit. Each carries a high-explosive warhead and a fuze that can be set to burst in the air, maximizing the spread of shrapnel below. The manufacturer markets them as “low collateral damage” weapons. This is true on practice ranges. Battlefields rarely resemble ranges. More often they are the lands where people live and work, and in this profoundly poor village, the Pentagon’s precision weapons had hit precisely the wrong place. A sniper had been firing on the Marines from near another home, but the rockets landed here. A family following American instructions—stay inside and out of the way—had been almost instantly destroyed.
By the time the Black Hawk arrived, the woman had died.
The aircraft flew into a trap.
Automatic fire erupted. Kalashnikov rifles joined in. The Taliban had been waiting, and ambushed the aircraft as its wheels settled toward the ground. The lieutenant and sergeant ran into view, arms waving, warding the pilots off. Their company commander shouted to a radio operator: “Abort! Abort! Tell him to abort!”
The helicopter lurched forward, gathering speed. A rocket-propelled grenade whooshed into the whirling tower of dust. An explosion boomed behind the Black Hawk’s tail rotor—a near miss. The helicopter flew across the field, banked, and put down near the company commander to pick up a wounded Marine, whom the sniper had shot. Then it was gone.
A lull replaced the din. Young men muttered curses. Inside the compound, Afghan soldiers working with the Marines covered the dead with cloth. A Taliban commander, overheard on his own radio frequency, berated his fighters in Pashto for missing the Black Hawk. He’d almost realized his prize. “That was your chance!” he said.
These Marines were almost all young men on their first enlistments, the type of citizen who serves for four years and returns to civilian life. They were thoroughly trained, visibly fit, thoughtfully equipped, and generally eager to participate in what they were told would be a historic fight, a campaign preordained for American military lore. Most of them were also so new to war that the dead women and children were the first casualties they had seen. Many of them wanted then, and still want now, to connect their battlefield service to something greater than a memory reel of gunfights, explosions, and grievous wounds. They wanted to understand accidental killings as isolated mistakes in a campaign characterized by sound strategy, moral authority, and lasting success. They didn’t get this, at least not all of it. Instead, the major general commanding NATO forces in southern Afghanistan circulated a publicly palatable version. The HIMARS rockets, he said, hit the correct building after all. For years the Marine Corps and the Pentagon said little more, even as Marja, seized by Marines and then held by their Afghan army and police partners, returned to Taliban and drug-baron control.
This book is about men and women who served in American combat service in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It covers these combatants with a simple organizing idea: that they are human. It details personal experiences: what these experiences were, how they unfolded, and what effects they had upon those who were there. And it covers them from their own perspectives, offering their own interpretations of their wars.
More than 2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since late 2001. Many went to both wars. Nearly 7,000 of them died, and tens of thousands more were wounded. President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, retired Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, who lost a son in combat in Afghanistan and under whom I briefly served three decades ago when he led the course that trains new Marine infantry officers, called these men and women “the best 1 percent this country produces.” He added: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them.” This book is an effort to remedy that, in part through demystification. In doing so, it also rejects many senior officer views. It channels those who did the bulk of the fighting with the unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who order them to action—and often try to speak for them, too.
No single military unit or individual character can capture the breadth of the national projects the wars became. But the cross section of characters who follow represents the experiences of a significant portion. Many of them served in the infantry or the Special Forces or performed jobs—as a strike fighter or scout-helicopter pilot, or as a corpsman—that were closely connected with infantry life. These men and women volunteered, uttered their oaths, and entrusted themselves to politicians and officers who would decide where, when, and why they would go. Some had brief enlistments. They felt compelled to serve for part of their youth. Others chose full careers, embarked upon multiple combat deployments, and stayed beyond twenty years, returning to the wars with tiring bodies and graying hair. All of them had personally grueling wartime experiences. Most of them suffered wounds—physical, psychological, moral, or all three. Together, their journeys hold part of the sum of American foreign policy in our time.
Stripped down, such journeys also hold something else: the recognition that for many combatants the wars were for a time reduced to something local and immediate, little more than who was near and whatever happened. This human experience of combat is often unexpressed by the public relations specialists and senior officers who try to explain the purposes of operations rather than describe the experience of them, and who together drive an outsized share of the discourse of American wars in real time. The pages that follow offer personal experiences over official narratives and slogans. They are a presentation of what results when ideas about warfighting, some of them flawed, become orders.
Grunts, as members of the infantry call themselves with grim pride, live beyond the end of the road. They do not make policy. They are stuck in it, which is to say that they are the inheritors of the problems caused by the ambitions, poor judgments, and mistakes of others, starting with their politicians and generals and continuing down the line. They have jobs that are almost impossible to do perfectly, much less perfectly all the time. Even when they mean well, they are often attacked with as much ferocity and thwarted with as much cunning as when they intend to do harm. Often they are punished simply for being present, set upon for the offense of being there.
On one matter there can be no argument. The foreign policies that sent these men and women abroad, with an emphasis on military activity and visions of reordering foreign nations and cultures, did not succeed. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the officers in command. Astonishingly expensive, operationally incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars continued in varied forms each and every year after the first passenger jet struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without a satisfying end in sight.
As the costs grew—whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost, or blood shed—the wars’ organizers and the commentators supporting them were ready with optimistic predictions. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, spread democracy, prevent sectarian war, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent, and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists with evil designs.
Little of this turned out as briefed. Aside from displacing tyrants and the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. New enemies emerged or multiplied, including the Islamic State. Corruption and lawlessness remain entrenched. An uncountable tally of innocent people—many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in Washington, Pennsylvania, and New York—were killed. Many more were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces that American action helped unleash. The scale of waste was almost immeasurable. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many structures are now husks, nothing but looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an uncountable number are on markets or in the hands of enemies. The billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers, and thieves. National police or army units the Pentagon touted as essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded, ceding their equipment as they disappeared. The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile and willing to align with Washington’s competitors or foes. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have grown savvy through the experience of fighting the American military machine. The Pentagon specializes in war. Across three presidential administrations, with a license to spend and experiment unmatched by any nation on earth, it managed, again and again, to make war look like a bad idea.
More than a decade and a half after the White House insisted that American troops would be welcomed as liberators, large swaths of territory in both nations are so hostile to the United States that they are no-go zones, regions into which almost no Americans dare to tread, save a few journalists and aid workers, or private contractors or American military and CIA teams. The American fighters who do venture into the badlands operate within a dilemma. Their presence is fuel for insurgency and yet their absence can create sanctuaries for extremists to organize and grow.
Such are the legacies of the American campaigns.
To understand some of what is portrayed in the pages that follow, two elements of these campaigns demand forthright explanation here: the relations between American combat units and civilians where they operated, and the struggles of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s security forces.
One of the many sorrows of the wars is that most American troops had little substantive interaction with Afghan and Iraqi civilians. Language and cultural differences, tactics, rules, security barriers, operational tempo, violence, racism, mutual suspicions, and a dearth of interpreters all combined to prevent it. The people who lived where Americans fought and patrolled, and whose protection was presented in official statements as one of the wars’ organizing ideas, often were regarded by those on duty in the provinces as scenery, puzzles, problems, or worse. Citizens and occupiers had physical proximity but almost total social distance. Special Forces units, depending on how they were used, could be an exception but often were not. The result was that during action, and after, American combatants had little means to gain insight into the views or experiences of Afghan and Iraqi civilians, as is often evident in veterans’ memories and accounts of their tours.
As for the Afghans and Iraqis that American forces did interact closely with—members of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s security forces—many American troops, including many in this book, formed harsh views. These views were true to their time. They reflected particular circumstances during the occupations and relations more generally between American and local partner forces among the conventional rank and file. But they should not be read as an indictment of Afghan and Iraqi troops overall, especially during the most ambitious years of these forces’ expansion. This is because the conventional national forces of Afghanistan and Iraq—as organized and provided for by American generals—were poorly matched for operations alongside American units. In retrospect, they were built almost perfectly to fail.
The design flaws were many. From the outset, Afghan and Iraqi volunteers were issued less capable weapons and vehicles, and fewer items of protective equipment, than their American partners. Their training was rudimentary and hurried, and opportunities for improvement via battlefield experience were undercut by competing American ambitions. (As local units became seasoned, and capable noncommissioned officers emerged, many of these promising Afghan and Iraqi veterans were offered jobs to work with American special operations forces, depriving line units of competent people.) Limited vetting of applicants ensured that the local ranks were infiltrated by collaborators and spies. Ugly disparities and unwise thrift were manifest on the battlefield, undermining morale. One example: The quality of medical care for Afghan and Iraqi service members was so far beneath the care provided to Americans that the arrangement resembled a caste system in which local lives were less valued than those of the occupying troops. This was often on display after firefights and bomb attacks in Afghanistan. Wounded Americans were rushed to modern Western military hospitals staffed by robust surgical teams; Afghans cut down beside them were flown to Afghan medical centers with little equipment and comparatively abysmal standards of trauma care. Another example: Wages for Afghans and Iraqi conscripts were small enough that their rifles and pistols could fetch several months’ worth of pay on black markets—a structural imbalance that encouraged mass desertion and the flow of weapons to jihadist hands.
All this amplified the already substantial difficulties in forming cohesion between forces that did not speak the same languages and were culturally apart, and helped foster the mutual resentment evident between the forces. Nonetheless, well-intentioned Afghans and Iraqis gambled on American promises, only to suffer and die in quantities far exceeding the American loss of life. Blame for their shortfalls cannot fairly be assigned only to them. They were victims of Pentagon folly, too.
How to examine personal combat service in wars replete with miscalculations of such scale? By remembering that national failures and individual experiences, while inextricably linked, are distinct. One chronicler of prominent veterans of Vietnam called his subjects “a flesh and blood repository of that generation’s anguish and sense of betrayal.”II For veterans of recent American wars, the postwar experience has been different. Beyond their physical wounds and the psychological toll, the bulk of them were not betrayed in the same sense—at least, not by most of their fellow citizens, who have mostly been supportive of this generation’s all-volunteer force. These American veterans confront something pernicious but usually invisible: the difficulties of trying to square their feelings of commitment after the terrorist attacks in 2001 with the knowledge that their lives were harnessed to wars that ran far past the pursuit of justice and ultimately did not succeed. They were betrayed not by their neighbors, but by their leaders. Although each of the combatants in this book was different, they shared a pair of behaviors that shaped their lives and became part of who they were—a determination to serve the American public, and an intensity with which they came to their fellow fighters’ aid. Selflessness in extreme circumstance was a binding, animating trait. Stripped of all other context, apart from the errors and misjudgments above them, this is what the pages that follow are about, so that their labors—what they gave in good faith—might be more fully understood, even where squandered by those who sent them into circumstances of grave danger, moral confusion, and agonizing deed.
New York, N.Y.
I. Acronym for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, a product of Lockheed Martin.
II. From The Nightingale’s Song, by Robert Timberg.