It's been eight months since the plane touched down at Bagram. That C-17 ride was the most physically uncomfortable plane ride that I've ever had. The C-17 has palletized seats that roll into the aircraft and lock into the floor. They look like airline seats.
They are not.
What they are is fiendishly clever torture devices specifically designed to cause pain, numbness, and stiffness. I am convinced that this is so that there is no encouragement needed to get those on board the plane when it lands to absent themselves as quickly as possible. It also has the secondary effect of making your first steps in Afghanistan seem pleasant by comparison.
I remember how strange it all was in the beginning. I remember being amazed at the international village that was Bagram at first sight. I remember wondering if I was going to get lost trying to find my way back from the chow hall to the flight line where we awaited transportation to Camp Phoenix.
That seems like it was forever ago.
I remember the first ride through Kabul and the sensory overload of the turbulent river of humanity, animals, and machines that swirls around you as you pass through it like an alligator. Those first few times it was like an alligator on acid... senses overhelmed, overcautious, perceived dangers everywhere.
There were the speeches from unseasoned officers who spoke as if they actually knew what they were talking about. They warned of the same dangers, spoke of ineffective TTP's,* and prognosticated about what danger would actually look like as if they had seen it themselves.
They were just trying to do their jobs. Each of us, internally, was doing the same thing to ourselves. We saw the SECFOR guys from the Kabul FOB's driving in a super-aggressive manner, and we assumed they were professionals. We assumed that they knew what they were doing. We imitated them. This is how you stay alive.
No, this is how you piss off the local nationals. Those SECFOR guys, gate fobbits on wheels, had no idea what they were doing. They threw water bottles at local national drivers as if they were passing out candy. They pointed machine guns at the least provocation.
They didn't drive like they knew what they were doing, I now realize. They drove like they were scared. To us, at the time, they were veterans. Now, in retrospect, I realize that they were just tower guards on a day outing.
Not that there's anything wrong with tower guards. Thank God for them. Thank God I'm not one of them. The point is; they don't really spend a lot of time outside the wire, and when they do they have a distorted view of the danger level involved.
Since then I've learned that you have to be relatively aggressive, or the local nationals will cut you off. In Kabul, that is. You've just got to get out there and let them know that you know that you have the right of way. There is no reason to ram, rarely a reason to scream or throw water bottles and almost never a reason to point weapons at them.
None of those guys had any overt desire to actually shoot someone. They did, however, have a strong desire to remain unharmed. Their leaders should have helped them to calm down. That was a failure in leadership. I didn't see that then. I didn't know what I was looking at.
The person most likely to shoot a local national unnecessarily is a fobbit. Armed fobbit=danger to the locals.
The fobbits are all armed. Yea.
Horns are okay, though. Afghan drivers need to focus forward in the chaos and rarely use the multitude of mirrors attached to their vehicles. Mirrors are for jingle, not for situational awareness, it seems. Horns assist local nationals with their situational awareness.
Humvees need better horns. They sound like old Volkswagens with anemia. Something along the lines of a foghorn would be nice.
Now, it all looks so clear. I laugh at myself in retrospect.
It takes a while to get to know what normal looks like. Your greatest safety lies in knowing what normal looks like so that you know what abnormal looks like. When someone, or a group of people, is behaving abnormally, that's when it's time to poise for an attack. The guys say that their "spidey senses are tingling."
Most times, nothing is wrong. But that's when you become hyper-aware. The rest of the time, you literally cannot afford to remain hyper-aware. I think that's how people wind up with PTSD.
I did realize when I was home that not being hyper-aware for me these days is hyper-aware for people at home. I'm sure that'll wear off with extended periods of time in a relaxed environment. At home, though, it was annoying. I was constantly scanning around me, and I realized that I ignored women and children until I had checked all the men for signs of hostile intent or aberrant behavior. Then I checked everything else. Eye contact drew my attention immediately and I had to remind myself that everyone was assumed friendly in Ohio.
The thing is, that's not what I consider hyper-aware here. I just consider that being aware of your surroundings.
I still make a habit of waving a lot; instant temperature check on mood and sometimes it causes dead giveaways.
Driving out in the provinces is a totally different protocol. Most places, they are used to the drill. They also aren't nearly as resentful as the Kabul drivers, who have had quite enough of fobbit drivers on their hyper-aggressive day outings.
There are many other things that I've learned since I've been here. I've learned that Kabul is no more a microcosm of Afghanistan than New York City is a microcosm of America. It is its own entity, whole and nearly complete in and of itself. It is magnet and repellent, it is capitol and symbol, it is heaven and hell all at once in its compressed humanity. Millions of souls, each seeking their own way, all forming in their aggregate a living organism that is truly enormous and completely out of any one's control. It is a parabolic mirror of Afghan society, focusing the energy and ethnic variety of Afghanistan on a very small piece of terrain.
Let's see... I've learned that our training at Ft Riley was wholly inadequate. We didn't train realistically, and we either didn't train at all or trained very little for the types of missions that we do most.
I've learned that we overcome that deficiency readily.
I've learned that the biggest factor in play here is adaptability. You just have to do the best that you can with what you have and then be a drama queen when requesting anything, because the squeaky wheel gets whatever lubricant is available.
The most dramatic drama queen doesn't get anything, so it's got to be skillfully played. No Gone With The Wind scenes. A little subtlety goes further.
I've learned that the geographically closer squeaky wheel gets the available lubricant more quickly, with no regard as to wait times or level of need. Unless they do a Betty Grable, in which case they still get nothing. The Clark Gable reflex kicks in.
The American experience in Afghanistan varies widely. Some areas get no activity, some areas get excessive activity. The fobbits of Bagram may never leave the confines of that most august enclave for their entire tour. The fobbits of Phoenix may only boast two conops in their entire tour.
The young men out in Kunar get shot at nearly every day.
The young men and women at Bagram and Phoenix get shot at never. Ever.
Fobbits are necessary, and generally they are quite acceptable creatures unless they become Black Ops Store junkies or FobaThors, or Fobasaurus Rex's. FobaThors are fobbits with dramatic tales consisting of "This one time, at FOB camp..." stories of heroic imaginings, like the time they nearly fought the vicious Chicken of Tagab.
"I am FobaThor, deadliest of all the fobbits! Gaze upon my Black Ops gear and fear me!"
Then, of course, comes the dreaded Fobasaurus Rex. The F. Rex often takes the form of a logistics daemon who somehow forgets the reason that a logistics system exists and begins to terrorize needy supplicants who drove hours to get there, often denying the presence of needed supplies and bellowing at their customers with F. Rex roars that sound a lot like, "You don't understand how the supply system works! First, you gotta submit a..."
"Okay, did I mention that our phones don't work out where we are and the internet is something that we vaguely remember?"
O once nailed an F. Rex right between the eyes. It roared at him, "You don't understand how the supply system works. Lemme 'splain this to you..."
To which O replied, "No, let me explain this: You order the bullets. I shoot them. Get more bullets. I'm taking what you have."
Chalk up one stuffed Fobasaurus Rex head for O. I love that guy.
Another sub-species of F. Rex has a fetish for reflective belts and specializes in smoking enforcement and ensuring that tower guards are completely miserable at all times. I have seen senior officers in this country perform acts of dereliction that in previous conflicts would have resulted in firing squads and they get away with a medal. A young Specialist in a tower in a FOB that hasn't been shot at in ages takes off his helmet and gets an Article 15 and loses rank.
The main visual difference between the F. Rex varieties is a different stripe pattern.
Most supply and logistics people do amazing jobs to get the stuff that we need out to us. Most are nearly overwhelmed with the magnitude of their tasks. Most are hamstrung by the fact that we are the forgotten front. Everyone is preoccupied with Iraq, and we get what's left.
The civilian contractors up at BAF who provided maintenance for our up-armors were the coolest people who have ever been born. If I needed blood for my power steering fluid, they would slice their own jugular to get it. Fabulous. Those guys deserve a medal.
We don't train our line units in counterinsurgency. We train them as maneuver units, and they are damned fine soldiers; the best in the world. However, they often don't play well with others. Treating your host country's forces with disdain is a huge mistake. I saw this mistake blatantly made out in The Valley by junior leaders. It made an impression on the men who I was working with, the Afghans. Everyone can tell when they are being disrespected, even in another language; and it is not a motivator. In fact, it is not a positive in any regard. To my Afghans, the American platoon making this major error did not look like a force that they wanted to emulate; they looked like assholes. Ugly Americans.
Those young Americans, even if they read this, would never put it together. They see nothing wrong with their behavior. They will go home and tell stories about how f'd-up the Afghans were. That's like making yourself look better by racing against a guy with broken legs. They will totally misrepresent the progress being made here and unwittingly perform the same function as PVT Beauchamp, degrading our efforts and calling into question the very reason why we are here.
Fortunately, they didn't see that from all the Americans they dealt with. The other small group of American combat forces out there were very patient and had a sense of humility. They were also a bit more elite. The higher the level of training and self-sufficiency at the small unit level, the more respect they showed for others.
It's a reflection of us as a nation, though. We are an isolationist, myopic country with tremendous arrogance and a complete misunderstanding of the depth of what we are involved in. We are not global citizens, but we are global consumers. The fact is that we do actually look down on the rest of the world. The rest of the world gazes back at us in amazement, wondering what in the hell we are thinking about to feel so self-righteous.
We should point with pride to the buttprints on our national couch. We have given the world 90210 and Baywatch. Oh, and music television and excessive consumerism. Fear us. Respect us.
We developed the sitcom. Don't ever forget that.
We don't have to give away the farm and please everyone, but there's a huge difference between pleasing everyone and treating them with disdain.
We need to look at our training model. We break young trainees of many other bad habits, but we reinforce the arrogance. Something wrong here. Yeah, okay, you jump out of planes and you're a bad-ass... have some humility, kid.
It starts with leadership.
I've seen a huge difference between how we are treated here and how the Russians were treated. Everyone fought against the Russians except the ones who worked for them. In this conflict, most of the people aren't fighting on either side. There are Taliban, and they have their supporters, and there are the ANA, who are enjoying a growing reputation among the populace, and then there are the local governments who vary greatly in effectiveness and ethics. The ANP, being local, often do not enjoy local favor due to corruption and shaking down the populace. We are working on that.
Be that as it may, a lot of mujihideen from the old days are sitting this one out. There are a lot of places where we see the remnants of old Russian vehicles and we never get attacked there. This is significant because the Afghans always use the same ambush points. They go with what has worked for hundreds of years.
On the other hand, the Russian response to being shot at from a village was to raze the village. We have to have an act of Congress for someone to drop a bomb. We pass out candy that doesn't kill and toys that don't explode. I think most of the Afghans can see the difference.
And, we have never gassed them; always a plus in the hearts and minds arena.
What else have I learned in the past eight months? I will have to reserve much of that for later, as I don't want to get into ranting at the nobility at this point. I've learned that I like Afghans... most of them, anyway. I've learned that I can do my job in this war. I've learned respect for the local national forces that I've worked with and I've earned their respect.
I've got one third of my tour left. And a wakeup. I'm sure that there's more that I've learned, but this was a little stream-of-consciousness, and now it's all receded like a wave from the high water mark. It seems like yesterday and ten years ago that I was looking at getting to the 1/3 complete mark with a sense of dismay, wondering if I could really take it for that long. In about three weeks, I will become a "double digit midget" counting down to seeing the people who I know and love after having done my job.
No one can ever take this away from me. The biggest things that I have learned are inside. They are for and about me on the inside. I am tried and tested inside myself, and that's what really counts. I have seen myself in circumstances that I could only have imagined before (and a few that I could never have imagined) and I know what I do when the chips are down. That will be with me always. Many things can be taken from me, but not that.