Best Defense

Comment of the day: Quiggle on what kind of sh*t is going down in Afghanistan

Tom: I believe this is a Best Defense first, an author commenting on the comments posted in response to his original column and being promoted to comment of the day. "As the author scans these responses, he’s struck by how truly their tones of anger, frustration, and, especially, disgust echo the same tones of anger, ...

Carol Mitchell
Carol Mitchell

Tom: I believe this is a Best Defense first, an author commenting on the comments posted in response to his original column and being promoted to comment of the day.

"As the author scans these responses, he’s struck by how truly their tones of anger, frustration, and, especially, disgust echo the same tones of anger, frustration, and disgust he heard so often and so eloquently expressed by his students at FOB Fenty. Outrage and just plain-old RAGE toward Afghans, toward the war in Afghanistan, and toward those running the war in Afghanistan often erupted into our classroom discussions. (Most of the time, however, we laughed our relatively clean butts off. The gift of laughter is something that those students at Fenty gave in abundance to each other and to the classroom. Laughter, it often seemed to me, was the only possible human response to what the students described of war’s innumerable inhuman absurdities.) As one responder notes, such discussions were nothing but "navel-staring." Where else does one begin a discussion about the treatment of shit, if not by re-examining the essential nature of one’s own core values? Navel staring and even sphincter sniffing-indeed!

"Cleanliness," as another responder rightly notes, is a core military value. And shit really is the great leveller. It demands self examination. But after all, our own shit smells like roses, doesn’t it? Or, as one student put it, "this type of war is anything but clean."

Behind my student’s outrage was his legitimate perception of an injustice. He smelled a turd in the milk. And it was my duty as a professor to encourage him roll up his sleeves and fish around for that turd. As many responders have noted here, there IS something fundamentally unjust about U.S. soldiers being forced to use toilettes made filthy and unsanitary by their ANA counterparts and vice versa. Like many responders here, some of my students suggested that that student’s outraged sense of justice points to and emerges from the underlying injustice of the war in Afghanistan. (Or, as they put it, "What the hell are we really doing here?") Others suggested, like a few responders here, that that injustice stemmed from unintelligent, lazy, or incompetent military leadership. ("Give the ANA separate latrines," as one responder put it. Separate but equal?) Still others suggested that that injustice is rooted in the purportedly barbaric cultural habits of Afghans.

(To the responder who distrusts historical canine analogies, the Alexander "meme" was brought forward spontaneously in response to the student’s outrage, as what we might call a "teaching moment," because that class happened to be Greek mythology, and I happened to have prepared a lecture on the history of Alexander’s invasion of Bactra. You make an excellent point, though, and it would make more sense, especially right now, to give a detailed lecture about the final days of Mohammed Najib’s rule, such as Peter Tomsen performs in The Wars in Afghanistan.)

That the situation U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan face right now is fundamentally unjust cannot be denied. As recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate, U.S. soldiers are increasingly likely to be shot by ANA even within the supposed safety of the FOB. Fobbits must watch their backs in Afghanistan today.

All of my students were suffering in one way or another from multiple-deployment fatigue. And all expressed (or vented) serious doubts about the value of our mission in Afghanistan. Morale there, as compared to that of AFRICOM where my students held their head very high, is low.

My intention in posting the essay was to draw attention from an increasingly indifferent civilian U.S. population to the tragic predicament in which our servicemen and women find themselves in the war in Afghanistan.

The trickiness of their predicament was mirrored by what I was also hearing from my Afghan tent mates at Fenty, which were exactly the same tones of anger, frustration, and disgust-only, they aimed their outrage and RAGE at U.S. soldiers. Quartered in a "transient" tent that was supposed to be exclusively designated for local-national Afghan interpreters, Pashtun, Nuristanis, and Pashais, I was the only non-Afghan living in this tent. And I admit that I was not especially comfortable in that tent, chiefly because a few of them told me they didn’t want me there. They didn’t want any of us there, as one fellow put it. So, I asked him what would happen to Afghanistan if we were to go home immediately, as he claimed he wanted. What about Pakistan? What about the Taliban? What about the Uzbeks? And Tajiks? He responded by saying, "Afghans are not afraid to die." When I heard that, I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.

One responder rightly notes that to get compliance at the macro-level you need to gain it at the micro-level, first. I can only wonder how you gain compliance at any level from a people who are not afraid to die?

And if compliance be impossible in Afghanistan, then I very well may have been sent, as another responder put it, on a "fool’s errand." I most certainly did feel like a fool much of my time in Afghanistan, but not when I was in the presence of those students. Despite the impossibility of the many tricky situations they confront daily on behalf of a nation that has largely forgotten this war; despite the frustration, the disgust, the outrage and the rage, despite shit in their showers and in their sinks, despite their deployment fatigue, they demonstrated daily the mental resiliency that General Petraeus believes is essential to becoming a competent war fighter. "We cannot," Petraeus argues, "be competent warfighters unless we are as intelligent and mentally tough as we are aggressive and physically rugged." Fool’s errand or not, my students did, on the whole, demonstrate that their core values are strong and resilient enough to "take their shit."

But perhaps the really difficult part for many of my students will be leaving the shit of Afghanistan behind when the time comes to make the long odyssey back home to a nation of civilians who largely do not understand the nearly imponderable nature of the task our servicemen and women were asked to perform in Afghanistan."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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