Air Conditioning, Farting Contests and Other Snapshots from the US War in Afghanistan
Photo Credit: Andrey Burmakin / Shutterstock.com
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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 U.S. 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.