The Many Burdens a GI Faces in Afghanistan


"I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest." Lt Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, 1917

In a move calculated to change the subject from his new hot-to-touch healthcare law, President Obama recently made a six-hour visit to American troops in Kabul. On TV he smiled a lot, and looked light on his feet, perhaps because he wore nothing heavier on his back than a fetching Air Force bomber jacket vaguely resembling George Bush's macho flight gear in his notorious "mission accomplished" speech on an aircraft carrier a few years ago. He walked tall and erect.

In my infantry pack in basic training I had to carry only about 40 to 60 pounds on my back including weapon, ammo, water, webbing, K-rations etc. Add another 15 pounds for a mortar base plate. By contrast, today's deployed soldier on patrol in Afghanistan often carries twice that, up to 150 pounds that includes all the above plus body armor and radio and anything else he might need when miles from resupply. Forget the danger from sniper fire and cheap-to-make killer roadside bombs (IEDs), just think of the muscular-skeletal strain schlepping all that stuff at 8-11,000 oxygen-thin feet in freezing cold or down on the Helmand plains in stifling heat.

Obsessively I follow the trajectory of one of my old units where I was once sent as a stateside replacement, the Fourth ("Ivy") Division, from its capturing Saddam Hussein in Tikrit to to its recent combat presence in the Perch valley in Afghanistan. Although for years I carried its cloth four-leaf clover shoulder patch in my wallet as a good luck charm, I'm not sentimental about its thuggish side under inhuman stress. (Shooting prisoners, filling Abu Ghraib prison by indiscriminate arrests, and so on.)

The GIs are doing the best they can, and then some, sometimes staggeringly beyond the normal call of duty, in a "job" the politicians command them out of imperial hubris and historical ignorance. Graveyard of empires indeed. An example: despite a $17bn counter-measures programme, General Michael Oates, in charge of defeating the treacherous roadside bombs admits, "I don't think you can defeat the IED as a weapon system. It is too easy to use." In the past year the Taliban has doubled its use of these hard-to-detect explosives, and our casualties have doubled.

Almost every night, through a GI newsletter, I read the daily casualty lists often in the form of obituaries from home town newspapers. Overwhelmingly these boys, men and increasingly, women, are from small towns and rural areas like Bald Knob, Arkansas and Hungry Horse, Montana, or former factory cities. There's a certain pattern. "He wanted to be in the military since he was nine … he loved playing soldier … a true patriot … he did what was right for his country … he signed up on September 12 … a three letter high school athlete … dropped out of school when a recruiter came around … "

Our so-called mercenary all-volunteer army is full of young men and women who enlisted for mixed motives. A common thread runs through their stories. Patriotism aside (no small matter), they simply couldn't find jobs or needed money for college or wanted to "fast track" for citizenship papers. It's the economy, plus a need to serve their country.

Despite the fact, by now almost universally acknowledged (by all except Bush-Cheney and Blair-Brown), that we were suckered into a Middle Eastern war, and despite our leaders having not even a foggy notion of what "winning" in Afghanistan means, the military keeps grabbing them and making adults out of children (as it did for me) and, in so many cases, tossing them aside if they get badly injured. Until a few senators protested, the military, with Veterans Administration collusion, refused disability benefits to shell-shocked GIs on the fake diagnoses of "pre-existing personality disorder".

There is an American tradition of officers breaking ranks to speak truth to power at the risk of their careers, but this hasn't happened recently in Afghanistan. We don't have any parallels to a previous era's Marine general Smedley Butler ("War is a racket") or army general "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell. There was a "retired generals' revolt" a few years ago – led by Marine general Anthony Zinni – blasting Bush and Rumsfield for lies over Iraq. But Afghanistan has not yet produced its Smedley Butler or Anthony Zinni. Instead, overlording Afghanistan, we have the politically ambitious David Petraeus, already testing 2012 presidential waters, and Stanley McChrystal who is said to have covered up the truth about football star Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death.

Soldiers humping their 100-pounds-plus packs up and down Afghanistan's rugged mountain ranges have the additional burden of carrying on their backs the fanaticism and careerism of their politicized generals who may never get around to reading the home-town obituaries of the men and women they put in harm's way.

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