Best Defense

To answer Tom’s question: In my war, Spec Ops was just sound on the horizon

I couldn't see the big picture from a lance corporal's perspective on the ground.

050628-N-0000X-001
Navy file photo of Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From left to right, Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, of Cupertino, Calif; Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Daniel R. Healy, of Exeter, N.H.; Quartermaster 2nd Class James Suh, of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell; Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, of Boulder City, Nev.; and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, of Patchogue, N.Y. With the exception of Luttrell, all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wing. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)
050628-N-0000X-001 Navy file photo of Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From left to right, Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, of Cupertino, Calif; Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Daniel R. Healy, of Exeter, N.H.; Quartermaster 2nd Class James Suh, of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell; Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, of Boulder City, Nev.; and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, of Patchogue, N.Y. With the exception of Luttrell, all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wing. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

 

By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

We push out a large, 15-man patrol one morning, about eight clicks to a “house” outside a village. It’s open fields the whole way, they see us coming for miles. We BAT and HIIDE all the people in the house and surrounding field. No hits. Our interpreter doesn’t speak good English, so we can’t really figure out what, if anything, is going on. The intel package might have mentioned an IED maker. Who remembers. We RTB (return to base.)

Maybe we stopped on the way back. Some business about a canal. Locals had some heavy earth moving equipment (from where, who the hell knows) but wanted to fuck up the one bridge we could get our big, clunky, heavy, armored vehicles and their unwieldy mine-rollers across. Eventually we just ripped out some of the ignition components so the big machine can’t work. Our bridge is safe, tough luck for the opium farmers.

On post that night I hear a helicopter, rare in butt-fuck nowhere Helmand. COC says they know about it. Next morning they tell us some Special Operations Task Force hit the house, killed everyone except a teenage boy they took prisoner.

Seems like there is always one survivor from those raids. Spec Ops guys are awesome, good people, but in my head I think about the Mongols who encircle their enemies and kill them all until a single living thing is left. The metaphor isn’t right, it isn’t brutality going on here, and it isn’t a fair comparison to the men in the night who do the work we aren’t allowed to do. We are grateful for them anyway. They seem plugged into the real war going on, where things make sense, and maybe there is some semblance of strategy and a bigger picture, instead of aimlessly walking every day, dodging IED’s we never can see implanted, and an “enemy” who never seems to show himself.

I don’t ever remember hearing anything about that raid from locals. No angry family members, or reprisal attacks, like when our unit killed some guys with an A-10 gun run, and the dad of one (or was it two?) of the dead boys came and asked for the bodies back, and someone erected a rock shrine on the berm above the field of reeds on the banks of the Helmand River. Maybe whoever built it was the same person who left us the nice present of an IED on the trail leading to the shrine, maybe not. We found it pretty easily, and blew it in place.

The only evidence I had that the raid even took place was the whirling sound of a helicopter in the dark Afghan night, and the report we got in the morning. For a lance corporal riflemen, the “real” war was always two steps removed. Running out of the PB on QRF for a gunfight that was already over. Cordon and knock operations for an HVT that was already long gone. Locating and blowing IED’s that no one had seen buried in the ground.

It wasn’t until we only had one or two months left we made a hard turn and decided to start trying to train the Afghan Border Police on IED finding procedures, first aid techniques, and the basics of squad movements. Most of them were too fucked up on weed and opium to learn anything, and our terp certainly couldn’t translate some of the finer points of military SOP’s, but it did cut down on the number of patrols we had to do, so that was nice.

I know it isn’t right, and I just couldn’t see the big picture from a lance corporal’s perspective on the ground, but COIN always seemed like a narrative written for newspapers and strategy magazines, bearing little to no resemblance of what was actually happening on a deployment. We sure as hell didn’t resent Spec Ops guys for doing their thing. We weren’t just jealous of their beards and velcro and rolled sleeves and slick looking rifles and gear, we were jealous of their mission, their intel, their perspective. Body counts seemed like a sign that at least someone, somewhere, knew what they were doing, and maybe, even though we couldn’t see it, we were getting closer to “winning.”

This was at the end of the war, as I spent my whole five years one step behind the real thing, always chasing stories of my sergeant’s real fights in Fallujah, Ramadi, Now Zad, and Sangin. “Winning” — what a joke. The only things left to win were the pro-forma Bronze Stars for battalion staff, and NAVCOM and NAM V’s for company level officers, with a few extra awards thrown to enlisted who distinguished themselves, and the scramble to get everyone who needed one a combat pump so promotions could happen on a level-playing field. Careerists could even get a one week break from the action to go visit the in-country career planner and discuss their next move, while others would “jump” around the battle space to wherever was hot, so they could pick up that oh so necessary combat action ribbon.

I was a lance corporal, who then (and still now) had only the most cursory understanding of the war I fought. But Spec Ops guys never caused any problems for me.

Peter Lucier is a former Marine infantry rifleman (2008-2013) who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo/Wikimedia Commons

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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