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Best Defense

Book excerpt: A Canadian officer remembers ‘The Battle Within’

God it had been hot, so hot he’d needed gloves to hold his rifle.

The Battle Within. (Inkshares Inc.)
The Battle Within. (Inkshares Inc.)

God it had been hot, so hot he’d needed gloves to hold his rifle. He’d been baking underneath his body armor, Kevlar helmet, protective glasses, radio, and chest rig, and he didn’t even have special gear, like a grenade launcher. Technology was supposed to lighten a soldier’s load, but in practice, that meant more gear could be carried.

“We knew right away something was wrong, because the car didn’t slow down, not like the others,” he said. The car was white, just like in the intelligence reports, its image shimmering in the heat radiating from the road. “And it looked like it was running heavy.”

Although it had been difficult to tell. The hundred days of wind had begun, and fine sand had been thick in the air, moondust that caked fresh, glasses, sights on the weapons, everything.

“Running heavy?” Dr. Taylor said. “Why would that have been significant?”

“A car rigged as a bomb will sometimes run low on its axles from the weight of the explosives,” he said. “Unless the suspension has been reinforced, but that’s pretty sophisticated. As this car got closer, it looked weighted down, but we couldn’t see inside because of all the shiny stuff Afghans decorate their cars with.” He took a sip of water. His mouth had been dry then, too, like it was made from the same blasted landscape. Strange what stood out after all this time. “At this point, everyone’s aiming their weapons at the car and signaling for the driver to slow down.” Why hadn’t it slowed down?

He’d been standing with the platoon commander, teasing him about how badly he smelled. The platoon had been aggressively patrolling for weeks, even forsaking the isolated operating posts by living out of their vehicles. To a soldier they’d stunk, their uniforms so absolutely filthy they probably would have stood up by themselves.

“Then what?”

He glanced up, startled. “Someone fired a warning shot, and the car swerved a couple of times, but it didn’t stop. Everyone was pretty frantic, wondering what to do, should they shoot? Time was running out, it wasn’t slowing down,” he said. If anything it had sped up. Hadn’t it? “I asked the platoon commander what he was waiting for. He was so pale, even under the dirt.” Tinny voices had broadcast urgency across the platoon’s radios, vehicle commanders looking for direction.

Dr. Taylor leaned forward, notebook perched precariously on his lap. “So what did you do?”

“We fired,” he said softly. “Everyone fired, and the car stopped. It was so close.” The air exploded as the LAVs [light armored vehicles] engaged with their 25-mm chain guns, the concussions alone jarring the body. Then it was over, silence but for the ringing in his ears and the reek of gunpowder. “We all got under cover, expecting it to blow, but it just sat there. After a few minutes, one of the Afghans went up. We yelled at him to stop, but he ignored us, just walked up and pulled open the driver’s door. Nothing happened.” He swallowed. “Then a body toppled out, a man, his head smacking the road and just sitting there at a crazy angle. Then the Afghan waved us up.”

“What did you find?”

He blinked repeatedly. “No bomb,” he said. “Just a family. Dad up front, mom and a little girl in the back. All shredded. The girl was the worst, probably only eight or ten. It’s hard to tell ages there, life’s so harsh, people age before their time.” He drew a shuddering breath. “Half the girl’s head was red mist all over the backseat and rear window. Of course there wasn’t a weapon or explosive anywhere to be found, just a car with a shitty suspension.” And the coppery smell of blood, mixed with burning plastic, an acrid odor he could almost taste. The blood had run from the man’s body, staining the massive concrete slabs that formed the highway.

The silence in the office grew oppressive. Dr. Taylor pushed the Kleenex box closer to Hugh.

“We told the guys they did the right thing, they’d stuck to the drill and executed it to the letter. There was an investigation, too, and it came to the same conclusion — we were well within our authorized use of force. It was us or them.” He sat back and folded his hands in his lap, then spoke in a deep, authoritative voice. “We were told what we’d done was preferable to the scenario where we didn’t open fire and it really was a suicide bomb.”

“Do you believe that?” Dr. Taylor said.

His lips tightened. “We didn’t have a choice,” he said, his normal voice returning. Then why was he here? “I keep asking myself why they didn’t stop. Why the fuck did they not stop?” He massaged his temples. “Do you remember the other session when we talked about religion?”

“I do.”

“Well, I might have lied a little when I said I didn’t believe.” He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his hands. “I must believe in something, because I’m absolutely sure I’ll have to answer for killing that little girl one day.”

Excerpted, with permission, from The Battle Within, by Lt. Col. Alastair Luft, Canadian Forces. (Published by Inkshares)

Photo credit: Inskshares Inc.

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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