I received permission from the estimable folks at CONSEQUENCE Magazine to post my piece (in their annual 2012 issue) on the blog. Make sure to check out CONSEQUENCE’s website. It’s an extraordinary international literary journal with an urgent mission statement—to focus “on the culture of war and social injustice.” Subscribe and donate!


During my tour in Afghanistan from February 2010 to January 2011 as a Marine lieutenant on intelligence duty, I wrote several group emails to friends and family. Some of the recipients have encouraged me to publish an excerpt from them. I hope the following will be of some use both to those who have seen service in that country and those who haven’t.

—LJR

March 5, 2010

There isn’t one war. There’s a slew of them, many overlapping. The most conspicuous is the drug war. Sitting in on a mission debrief, you could easily mistake it for an after-action with the drug enforcement agency (DEA) in Colombia. It’s clear that the grunts in my area of operations (AO) have spent the past six months mainly raiding drug labs. They know everything you can about opium, morphine, etc. It’s quite impressive listening to them speak about it, but about the intricacies and contours of the insurgency, not so much…

Then there are the other wars. The standard narratives hold up: tribal, sub-tribal, ethnic, religious, geopolitical (Pakistan, Iran), etc. There is also a war of memory. Villagers every day, especially where I am, wrestle with this or that traumatic Scylla and Charybdis. Infidel intrusion on the one hand (Russians, NATO), “Afghan/Islamic governance” (Taliban, the government of the past eight years) on the other. They all carry some bad memories. Most farmers are simply left to scrounge along with the powers that be at any given moment. This usually means giving the thumbs up to the Americans one day—a gesture, I’ve heard but have yet to confirm, that was derogatory in Pashtun culture not too long ago—and running drugs for the Taliban the next. Or just nodding their head in agreement with everyone who happens to pass by…

March 14, 2010

1. I was sitting on the back of a roofless up-armored 7-ton (Armadillo) for the convoy, so I had a nice view of everything. (The “bad guy” probably had a nice view of me, too.) The first thing I noticed on the way out was a downed Russian tank from the 1980s, on the opposite side of the HESCO barrier (1)  that lines my unit’s compound. I had no clue it was there. I spotted more monuments to the Soviet-Afghan war on the way, somersaulted or buried beneath heaps of sand, but this was the first one that really raised an eyebrow. Then there was the stream of camel caravans, usually led by a woman pulling on a rope, her face glazed with exhaustion and dirt. Our convoy must have been split up seven different ways by caravans zigzagging across the patches of pavement. Young men on motorcycles (they’re everywhere), stared you down as they sped (or strolled) across the road. Little kids (mostly boys) chased after our vics (2), miming with their mouths for food or water, or just offering a thumbs up. There were cities of sheep, a solitary shepherd somewhere in the middle. A lone gas station on the outskirts, with two pumps, no food mart, no employees, no customers. One green highway sign, in English: “Herat: 300 km.” Once off-road, nothing but the haloes of sand our trucks kicked up as we skated across the desert. And then, two hours in, a couple of tents, staked in no-man’s land, massive dogs and three boys watching at a distance as we halted and a Marine or two pissed off the flanks.

2. The first COP (combat outpost) I stayed at was typical. You crap in a bag (“wag bag”) and you piss in a tube (a simple, narrow cylinder that juts out from the ground, out in the open for all to see). The village lives right next to you. You can hear it going about its
business on the other side. Then the patrol: fifteen of us, thirteen of whom have risked similar patrols for six months straight, every day and into the night. A smart, disciplined young corporal who had lost a friend in an IED blast a few months prior, and with whom I would later share an hour passing intel (he was determined to avenge his friend), led the charge. Stepped off at 1600. The first hour was desert. Wadis. Ditches. Trash. They warn us to avoid the trash. At one point, we take a knee (3) as the squad leader and another Marine pull out their metal detectors and sweep a patch of suspicious dust. They mark a portion with the outpourings of an opened-up chem light, so that when we return that night, we will know which side to walk on. Then the farms, and the farmers standing still with their shovels and scythes. A pair of worn slippers lies on the edge of the green. The farmers are all shoeless, and I glance at their feet, wondering who the slippers belong to. I wave. One mimes back, asking for food and water.

3. We’re in the first village. More like a compound: three mud huts, a circle of waist-high sand keeps in two camels. We’re on our knees again, providing security as the corporal and the terp (4) consult the village elder, white-bearded. Vast poppy fields surround us. Three brothers watch, a couple meters away, a tall teenage one in the middle, the other two leaning against him on either side, smiling, miming. I pull out a candy bar. They smile some more and wait. The questioning proceeds.

“How many wives do you have?”
“Thirty.”
“What are you, a pimp?” The corporal cuts me a smirk.
The terp, a local national, asks, “What’s a pimp?”
“I’ll explain later. Never mind. Ask him where he sells his poppy.”

About an hour later the questioning is complete. The kids are still spectators. I get off my knees (now sore) and approach my lance corporal, a linguist. “How do you say we want peace?” “Muj hram quarum.” (This is what I hear, at least.) I walk over to the three brothers. Hand the bar to the oldest. “Muj hram quarum.” He smiles and nods his head. Not quite sure if I said it right. Not quite sure if he understands. In any case, he removes the gum from his mouth (a gift from another Marine on patrol, for sure) and offers it back. “No, thank you,” I say. I wave goodbye. He waves in return, puts the gum back.

4. The night patrol back was interesting. The best part was being able to finally let out a piss. I did it while providing security in the prone. Unbuttoned and let it rip. Might have gotten some on my trousers. I told my gunny about this and he asked why I didn’t do
it while the patrol was moving. That’s what he does. Unbuttons and lets it rip while moving.

5. I was using the single-eye NVGs (night vision goggles) of one of my Marines, a leftie. So my weak eye wasn’t exactly prepared for bearing the whole of the effort. The dispersion among each Marine back to base was impressive, and there were times when I felt like I was all alone in the desert, with nothing but NVG green and barking dogs as comfort. Fell in a couple water-filled wadis. Just missed a six-foot ditch. Walked on the right side of that IED-marking chem light, though. At one point a few Marines spotted movement (other than the rabid dogs (5)) about fifty meters out, marking it with their infrared. I got on my knees and pointed the barrel in that direction. Then a woman’s voice, screaming. And children. And a father. All rushing back into their hut. They likely didn’t see us. But they definitely heard us.

6. Late that evening, when I returned to my living quarters, one of the human intelligence (HUMINT) Marines was booming Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Reminded me of the Wagner in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

7. The second COP I stayed at bordered a bazaar. We were allowed to head out there with just a handful of Marines. It’s a town that’s been battered pretty relentlessly for the past eight years, and was still recovering from its latest clearing, so it wasn’t flourishing, to say the least.
Still, things were being sold. Delicious nan (we bought stacks), live chickens (the head was cut off in front of us, though we were given the option to twist it off ourselves), communication devices, etc. Children everywhere, asking for gum or cigarettes. (One teenager, training to be a policemen, is reported by my Marines to have described the experience of smoking American cigarettes as “ice in his mouth.” He is also reported to have shown them a nasty scar on his leg, the result of those “Taliban bastards.”) In general, the street population fell into three categories: children (mostly boys), old men, and young Afghan policemen and soldiers. The tragic logic was that if you were a young man and not a policeman or a soldier, you were somehow involved with the Taliban. So when young men in motorcyles stopped by, unfriendly and aloof, our rifles were raised. No women. A few girls, quiet and shy.

8. The most memorable part of the tour was, later that day, standing on top of the HESCO barriers bordering our compound, unarmed (except for a pistol at my thigh) and unprotected (no flak jacket, no kevlar helmet) throwing chow and candy at a dozen or so kids on the other side. At first, they would fight for every piece that came their way. One of my linguists told them they would only get more if they shared, so that stopped the fighting. A few girls stood in back patiently, wearing beautiful sparkling Sabbath dresses (it was Friday). We asked them to come forward and threw them the best we had. They smiled fleetingly and returned to the rear. A few boys approached them during the hour-long giveaway, discreetly passing them a pencil or a pound cake. Otherwise, they were spectators. Toward the end, a woman (the first I’d seen in the village), dressed entirely in black, encompassing the whole of her face, including the eyes—what the Pashtuns in the area would call a “chadaar”—walked through the crowd with a little girl. Everyone went silent. One of my Marines welcomed her. She continued to walk, no acknowledgement. Once she was a safe block away, the kids resumed their game of who could win the most bounty. In the distance, past the mud huts, just off the path to the mountains, two young men on motorcycles watched. I advised my Marines, once the giving was done, that this was not something they would be doing regularly.

April 1, 2010
This week I executed my first major mission. What I actually did was prep for and execute the same mission two and a half times. My team and I spent one full day op-checking gear and our vic, staging everything, receiving briefs from higher, only to be told the mission was canceled. We spent another full day doing exactly the same thing, except this time we actually spent around nine hours outside the wire on the way, only to be turned back at the last second because of weather concerns. (I can’t get into the specifics here, but this had to do with another aspect of the operation that did not involve our convoy.) We then spent a third day doing exactly the same thing, except this time we RTB’d (returned to base) at about the 10-hour point.
The element was led by your standard-bearing grunt officer, a bulky-chested lieutenant with sunglasses, a forever-installed dip compartment in the right bottom niche of his mouth, and a countenance that never makes it past freezing point. The crowd he shepherded wasn’t much different, as far as the dip. But not all of them sported sunglasses, and there were a few with chests more concave than convex. Before stepping off, we all got in a circle for a chaplain-led prayer. It included phrases like “Please, Lord, allow us to track down and kill those cowardly little pricks…” and “Loan us the force and fury of your almighty power, to be the instrument of justice, in finding the snares”—IEDs—“where they may lie and destroying those who laid them…” I can’t help thinking those divine words were tailored to the audience and don’t exactly blend well with the broader counterinsurgency mission. In any case, once complete, a few of the grunts took a picture in front of their vic, cigs at their crotches, jutting out so as to mimic something else, the other hand with the middle finger up and toward the sky, pointed upward to God Almighty.

….

There’s a schizophrenia that comes with modern war. On the one hand, you still have the killer, crusading ethos of yore, the sort alluded to with that prayer about hunting down the “little cowardly pricks” with the help of God’s grace. In addition to the religious undertones, you have the alpha male aspect, the part of the equation that really makes it feel like you’re playing a bit part in someone else’s elaborate gladiator sport, free of all notions of justice and politics. On the other hand, you have COIN, counterinsurgency doctrine, smart officers (and quite a few smart enlisted men and women), well-attuned to the complexities of the war we fight—one that demands a lot less fighting. This is the part that brought me here in the first place. The part about means and ends, rights and wrongs … some kind of striving for real human justice, in the here and now. The irony of my past week here in Afghanistan centered around the point where these two (three) conflicting visions met, where the sheer on-the-ground desire to fight (as a matter of machismo or religious will) went head-to-head with broader, smarter, more humane concerns about the logic of the specific situation. I was on the ground throughout this, so I didn’t hear until after the fact why the op was terminated. Without getting into the particulars, I’ll just say that counterinsurgency doctrine won, and the primitive war-fighting instincts lost. And while I know this was a good thing, I can’t help regretting the outcome at some level. After all, me, on the ground, with my men, didn’t get to complete our mission, didn’t get to finish the fight…

May 9, 2010

Much has taken place since my last email. For starters, we are now in the middle of both the opium harvest and the fighting season-–they coincide, for reasons not hard to figure out–-so we’ve seen an increase in “kinetic operations,” as they like to say here in the bureaucratic world of modern warfare. About a third of my Marines are in the process of being awarded “CARs” (Combat Action Ribbons), another bureaucratic coinage that attempts to recognize those Marines who have been fired at and/or blown up, and performed “honorably” in the process. This usually means they’ve fired back “responsibly” in the case of a firefight, or they didn’t react “irresponsibly” in the case of an explosive detonation of some sort. I find the whole enterprise of combat awards tedious and improper, but in this instance, it does demonstrate an overall uptick in violence. In any case, all my guys remain unscathed at the moment, despite being involved in regular combat, and my gratitude for this fact snowballs as the minutes pass.
This is a very difficult email for me to write. Let me try to organize my thoughts, or at any rate express the most urgent of them before they’re all submerged in the rush.

1. I have seriously considered not writing these anymore. Most of what I want to say can’t be said in a mass email. The medium isn’t right. It’s a betrayal of what I’m actually experiencing. Nonetheless, I still have an urge to place my words somewhere, so others can struggle with them in the here and now. This means that the hundreds of words I jot down every day in various hidden journals won’t cut it. So here’s a try at compromise.

2. This war has taught me far more about my own society than about either war or the enemy. Most of this instruction does not reflect well on my previous ideals and is sharply disorienting, though also liberating.

3. It has been years since I could speak confidently about this war being “just and necessary” (the precise phrase I deployed in my college newspaper to explain my decision to join up five years ago). My experiences out here have convinced me that our foreign policy, as it actually plays out in Afghanistan (and likely elsewhere), is not at all what I once imagined.

4. This is not another Vietnam. The symbol of this war is not a decapitated ear as souvenir. The symbol is American gladiators tumbling through Afghan backyards in heavily up-armored vics, while herds of children chase after the dust crying for water and chow.

5. Given the kind of person I am and the kind of war this is, a certain schizophrenia is inevitable. I wake up every morning loving my Marines and worrying about them. And yet, when I visit them and shoot the shit, and the conversation turns to boasts about kills, I feel lost. I can no longer reconcile my own idealism with the realities of this war. This war (maybe every war?), no matter how just its conception, is losing out to the gladiator ethos that feeds it. I waver between a necessary camaraderie and a necessary guilt.

6. I have trouble seeing this war, or at any rate the actions I am currently involved in, as “right” or “wrong.”   I suppose what surrounds me is an epidemic, and I have no choice now but to fend it off as best I can, by preventing the “kinetic” (the bureaucratic euphemism for violence). This is essentially how I reconciled my doubts about coming out here in the first place. So now I am back at square one.

7. Despite all the childish bravado and subtle (6) criminality being waged on “my side,” I remain aghast at the all-encompassing oppressiveness and bloodlust infecting the Taliban vision. Were it a simple question of the “actually-existing” Taliban program in Afghanistan versus the “actually-existing” American imperial program in Afghanistan, I would choose the latter without hesitation. Of course, the question is not so simple. Nor do I believe the U.S. military is well-equipped to fulfill the counterinsurgency mission it has set for itself, at least in Afghanistan.

8. If you are looking for an answer, I don’t have one.

9. I began by saying that this war has instructed me far more on the ways of my society than the ways of war. I then proceeded to focus on the war. I think this means I’m not quite ready to write freely about where I come from, much less in a mass email.

10. I’ve included two pictures, one with the team that’s been hit the hardest. My all-star linguist is holding up the dictionary my brother bought for him. (Thanks, Eman, and anyone else who contributed on this.)

11. As you can see, we’re not smiling. I’m not smiling in that other picture either. The Marine Corps is not a photo culture, nor a smiling culture. We do some of both (“smoking and joking” is a common term for socializing), but it is not something we advertise, especially when forward. We are a culture that wears sunglasses not so much to block out the sun, but to block out the surrounding aggression. This is why on a cloudy day, you can still see a good many Marines wearing sunglasses.

12. I was on a foot patrol that stopped in a small village thought to be housing a suicide bomber. There were about fifteen military-aged males on each side of the fields farming poppy, and two children in the distance, who disappeared within minutes of our arrival. This was in stark contrast to the day before, when the village was full of children approaching with open hands, and the fields were being tended by a mix of young and old. I posted security about five meters away from the fifteen farmers. Whenever one of them reached down the stalk of the plant, I imagined a weapons cache at the deck, hidden by the long green vertical (5), soon to reveal itself in its fateful glory. There was one man who glared at me with the eyes of Medusa, sporting an unusually classy cashmere top amid the summer swelter. I imagined a vest beneath the cloth, lined with explosives. During the debrief, all the grunts voiced similar thoughts. They, along with my Marines, suffer this paranoia every day, all six months… a wartime trauma all its own…

13. What I read en route to Afghanistan: The Company of Critics, Michael Walzer.

14. What I’ve read in country: (a) White Teeth, Zadie Smith, (b) The Sexual Life of Catherine M., Catherine Millet, (c) The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Deduce from this list what you will.

15. Nearly 100 percent of what I have experienced, up to this point, both within and without, I have yet to write.

July 18, 2010

Fortunately, I made it to my R&R date, and I’m presently reclining in a hotel in Rome, with Tuscany and Venice in my near future. It’s quite an experience traveling from the mud huts of Helmand to one of the more populated bases in Afghanistan to a gigantic Air Force base in Qatar to a glossy airport mall in Kuwait City (7)  to your standard European mag stand at the Frankfurt airport to the ruins and riches of Rome. The experience makes you feel extremely guilty and extremely arrogant at the same time. Guilty for being smacked in the face (again) with your own privilege, and arrogant for scoffing—as you catch up with the headlines—at every attempt by journalists, artists, and intellectuals to capture a global reality most have never dared to soak themselves in. (The arrogance is in assuming all that.)

….

1. Courtesy of my all-star linguist, I spent a solid week getting to know a gregarious bunch of ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers in a small abandoned bazaar that translates as “Peace Bazaar” (Salaam Bazaar), in a district that translates as “Fort Moses” (Musa Qalah). Unfortunately, my Kindle cracked around then, so I took to reading one of those military Bibles a bubbly chaplain had passed along a few months before. I made it all the way through Psalms before heading off to Europe. The Afghan sheep and shepherds fit right into Genesis and Deuteronomy, and the scorching winds provided a terrifying accompaniment to all of God’s more harrowing retributions, as well as an unsettling backdrop to the Book of Job. This all came to a head when the ANA soldiers, over tea, bread, and goat meat, and following a candid discussion of Pashtun sexuality (8), engaged in a passionate—mostly one-way—conversation attempting to convert us all to the true faith of Islam. I was reminded of the series of wars and slaughters described in the Old Testament, with divine and human hypocrisy the overarching theme. I effectively replied, “No thank you” by saying nothing at all. After an awkward silence, we returned, somewhat abruptly, to tits and ass.

2. On the way out of the bazaar, as part of a short convoy, I served as gunner behind a 50 cal mount. About one hour in, a vehicle ahead hit an IED. The entire front engine block was blown at least five meters from the cabin. The 50 cal on the vic flew five meters behind. All Marines inside blacked out and were medivaced by bird, but last I heard they were all “fine,” including the gunner, who has proven himself a veteran of the sport, this being his fifth hit (and blackout). When I heard this, I immediately thought back to Rocky Balboa’s later brain troubles, and crossed my fingers. I’d ridden with the kid a few times, and he always had a book with him to read between stops. The last one was Three Cups of Tea. He told me he was interested in going to college once he was out. So I hope he goes, without troubles.

3. After the blast, our vic became lead security. I spent the next hour or so turning the turret in 360-degree rotations, using night vision goggles, looking for signs of enemy movement. At one point I convinced myself that a series of shrubs were really bad guys in the prone, uniquely talented in the art of total motionlessness. Before all this, two lance corporals (with whom I had shared a previous convoy listening to Bruce Springsteen in the middle-seater of a 7-ton (9)) guided our vic to our security point, wanding with their metal detectors as they scrambled along. I awaited a misstep and a boom, my two young friends suddenly misted and gone. Thankfully, there were no secondaries or tertiaries, something we had to wait till sunset for EOD (10) to confirm.

4. Before returning to my home base for a short respite, I spent another week socializing with a few Afghan-American interpreters. I’ve had the opportunity to befriend a number of Afghan-Americans, something I’ll forever cherish. Most are delighted to hear that I’m Jewish, and our subsequent conversations, were they superimposed on the future history of Muslim-Jewish relations, would make for nothing short of a vibrant and proud peace. Alas, while being treated to further chai, okra, bread, and potatoes, that week, I did stumble into my first unpleasant “dialogue.” I was chatting with an interpreter who had been born in southern Afghanistan during the Afghan-Soviet war, emigrated to Russia for reasons I do not understand, and eventually got to the States, where he established enough of a livelihood to become both a citizen and a government employee with a security clearance–-all this while appearing to be in his early thirties. I told him he should write a memoir, seeing that there are very few people who have lived within the borders of the two greattwentieth -century superpowers, not to mention growing up in their most unfortunate imperial playground. He responded, with a mischievous grin I will never forget: “Oh, no, if I were to write a book, it would be a very dangerous book.” I asked him to elaborate. He then launched, ever so tactfully, into a hint-ridden narrative involving a mysterious “people,” currently inhabiting a “small but very influential country,” who were responsible for all the wars and conflicts of the past….
5. My first experience of official, paperwork-worthy combat took place in the vicinity of the Kajaki Dam, the most beautiful spot in southern Afghanistan, and home to one of the few surviving internationally-financed public work projects. The Taliban have been attempting to destroy it ever since the 2001 invasion, and considerable fighting has taken place. However, this “kinetic” spot has now been reduced to something of an amusement park ride, where Marines line up to patrol a click or two out from base, only to be shot at by a few stray bullets, occasionally replying with a few back, and then return to base in prompt order. For about a month now, this has served as the main ticket to combat, with only one bullet wound to a Marine’s knee to show for it. While a round to the knee is still a big deal, its ultimate implications pale in comparison to what my Marines were surrounded by in Salaam Bazaar—namely, weekly casualties of a far higher order (triple amputees and KIAs). This change in burden is matched by a change in mood. In Salaam Bazaar, the Marines would joke, but it was desperate humor, almost akin to nervous laughter. At one point, shortly after another squad leader was lost, morale was so low that the lieutenant on station called for an hours-long meeting with his troops, to allow for venting. I wasn’t part of the conversation, but I watched from a reasonable distance. From what I saw, the Marines, in a disheveled circle, appeared to be crying without actually crying. In Kajaki, however, good humor abounds. When the sole American knee wound of the AO (area of operations) was noted, my staff sergeant, in his typically overdone southern drawl, quipped, “Purple Heart! Free education for the kids! Lifetime health insurance! I want a 7.62 to the knee!” When I first arrived, the same staff sergeant patted me on my back and said, “Congratulations, sir, after all your travels, you’re finally gonna receive your CAR.” As I noted in a previous email, the CAR—Combat Action Ribbon—is the gift the bureaucracy bestows upon those warfighters who have actually “seen war.” While I appreciate the distinction on some theoretical level, the reward has resulted in an unfortunate mass of “CAR-chasers,” Marines who are eager to fight as long as and until they earn their CAR, and then are ready to go home. This phenomenon reached a pinnacle of absurdity when, the award having been misinterpreted to acknowledge only those warfighters who shoot back, some Marines began firing wildly in “the general direction” at the first sign of enemy contact, in order to ensure their bounty. The bureaucracy responded by unveiling a reward for “restraint”: warfighters who found themselves in combat and chose not to return fire would be awarded a ribbon of even higher worth.

6. I mentioned the amusement park analogy. It’s something I’ve discussed with friends for some time now while trying to make sense of my travels. It serves me well because it answers a troubling question: Am I really “at war?” Have I really been “in combat”? Certainly not in the sense the war poet Isaac Rosenberg was “at war” and “in combat” in the trenches during the Great War, or my grandfather was during the island-hopping campaign of the Second World War, or Stanley Kubrick’s or Oliver Stone’s film characters were during Vietnam. On the other hand, I do believe some of my Marines, and certainly some of the Marines they hang with, have experienced horrors worthy of the phrase. Different horrors for sure, but horrors nonetheless. So I really have to revise the analogy. My experience in country hasn’t been so much like various highly-charged, somewhat dangerous amusement park rides, although it has been something like that. But there is also the haunting knowledge of a darker, more costly, usually hidden ride right around the corner, one whose haunts I can even hear at moments, one whose victims I can even spot ever so briefly, but one I never quite experience myself. It is this knowledge of my surroundings, more than the particulars of my own, relatively cost-free adventures, which I think will stay with me to the end.

7. The night before I left Kajaki to catch my flight to Rome, I witnessed a fairly extended firefight from the mountain peak where our sleeping quarters happened to be. Or rather, I witnessed the muzzle flashes. I could not see the more bloody results… or whether there were any, for that matter. All I know is that Talibs from three separate locations began to shoot at one of our observation posts. Our guys returned fire—of a significantly larger round—back in the general vicinity of the muzzle flashes. I don’t know if any locals were hurt in the crossfire, or if any Talibs were injured or killed, although I did learn the next morning that the local ANP (Afghan National Police) suffered casualties, since they were tasked to confront the Taliban shooters once the firing commenced. During the foot patrol in which I “saw combat,” a similar series of events took place, in which one of our 50 cal gunners on the top of one of the observation peaks spotted a man run into a compound with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). It is unclear what took place next—whether it was our 50 cal gunner or the insurgents that fired first—but by the middle of it, the 50 cal gunner, along with a machine-gunner from our squad, were laying down rounds at the compound. (11) Later on, men and even some children walked into, out of, and around the compound, none of them carrying weapons, as far as we could see. Again, I do not know the results. All I know is that a series of our rounds moved in the general direction of a compound that shortly thereafter had a number of seeming “noncombatants” roaming around. So when I speak about my surroundings, I am not only referring to the tragedy felt by certain American forces, but the tragedy visited upon the Afghans as well.

I wish I could read (and you could read) a similar diary by an Afghan soldier, policeman, or local villager. I suspect it would be far more tragic than my own. (As would, I suspect, one coming from an actual insurgent—I say nothing about whose experience does or does not deserve to be called “tragic.”) Of course, neither you nor I ever will.

1. A HESCO barrier is a series of portable containers filled with dirt, a convenient advance on a stack of sandbags.

2. “Vics” is short for vehicles.

3. To “take a knee” is military-speak for to kneel on one knee.

4. “Terp” stands for interpreter.

5. One of the dogs was actually put down, with a 5.56 round, a few nights earlier by a Marine who claims the dog attacked.

6. The crimes that are not so subtle, at least in my limited experience, have all resulted from ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANP (Afghan National Police) involvement. E.g., a girl is shot, indiscriminately, by an ANA soldier. Marines medivac the girl. This is a dilemma. By loosening the imperial hold on the country, will we unleash more open forms of criminality?

7. I witnessed an elder, in full Arabian peninsula attire (white robe, black-tubed halo), old enough to be around when the Allies and Axis were fumbling about his borders, twirl the cream about his Frappucino with a Starbucks tall straw. He’d clearly done this before.

8. They were surprisingly candid about chasing little boys and occasionally settling for soldierly comrades. This is something I and other Marines have heard whispers about and/or seen across the gamut of the battlefield. Of course, when presented with the opportunity to share an imported (female) prostitute in Kabul during R&R, they jumped at the chance.

9. One of them had never heard of “The Boss.” As punishment, I made sure it was all we listened to. I like to think they enjoyed it. In any case, after another IED hit the convoy, we put Bruce on pause and made faces at the local children. We also threw some candy. I could go on about Marine attitudes toward Afghan children. Suffice it to say that having the opportunity to throw goodies is a rare treat for them these days, sadly.

10. “EOD” stands for explosive ordnance disposal.

11. Neither my Marines nor I had positive identification of the enemy, so we did not shoot.