In the eight years I've reported on Afghanistan, I've "embedded" regularly with
Afghan civilians, especially women. Recently, however, with American troops
"surging" and journalists getting into the swing of the military's
counter-insurgency "strategy" (better known by its acronym, COIN), I decided to
get with the program as well. In June, I filed a request to embed with the US
Polite e-mails from army public affairs specialists ask journalists to provide
evidence of medical insurance, a requirement I took as an admission that war is
not a healthy pursuit. I already knew that, of course - from the civilian side.
Plus I'd read a lot of articles and books by male colleagues who
had risked their necks with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. What
struck me about their work was this: even when they described screw-ups coming
down from the top brass, those reporters still managed to make the soldierly
enterprise sound pretty consistently heroic. I wondered what they might be
So I sent in a scan of my Medicare card. I worried that this evidence of my
senior citizenship, coupled with my membership in the "weaker sex", the one
we're supposedly rescuing in Afghanistan, would raise questions about my
fitness for missions "outside the wire" of a Forward Operating Base (FOB,
pronounced "fob") in eastern Afghanistan only a few miles from the tribal areas
of Pakistan. But no, I got my requested embed - proof of neither fitness nor
heroism required (something my male colleagues had never revealed). In the end,
my age and gender were no handicap. As Agatha Christie's Miss Marple knows,
people will say almost anything to an old lady they assume to be stupid.
Boys and their toys
Having been critical of American policies from the get-go, I saw nothing on the
various army bases I visited to change my mind. One day at that FOB, preparing
to go on a mission, the sergeant in charge wrote the soldiers' names on the
board, followed by "Terp" to designate the Afghan-American interpreter who
would accompany us, and "In Bed," which meant me.
He made a joke about reporters who are more gung-ho than soldiers. Not me. And
I wasn't alone. I had already met a lot of older guys on other bases, mostly
reservists who had jobs at home they felt passionately about - teachers,
coaches, musicians - and wives and children they loved, who just wanted to go
home. One said to me, "Maybe if I were 10 years younger I could get into it,
but I'm not a boy anymore."
The army had sent me a list of ground rules for reporters - mostly commonsense
stuff like don't print troop strength or battle plans. I also got a checklist
of things to bring along. It was the sort of list moms get when sending their
kids off to camp: water bottle, flashlight, towel, soap, toilet paper (for
those excursions away from base), sleeping bag, etc. But there was other stuff
too: ballistic eyewear, fireproof gloves, big knife, body armor and Kevlar
helmet. Considering how much of my tax dollar goes to the Pentagon, I thought
the army might have a few spare flak jackets to lend to visiting reporters, but
no, you have to bring your own.
That was perhaps a sign of things to come, as I was soon swamped by complaints
from soldiers and civilian contractors alike: not enough armor, not enough
vehicles, not enough helicopters, not enough weapons, not enough troops - and
even when there seemed to be plenty of everything, complaints that nothing was
of quite the right kind.
This struck me as a peculiarly privileged American problem that seemed to
underlie almost everything I was to see on the eastern front of this war. Those
complaints, in fact, seemed to spring from the very nature of the American
military enterprise - from its toxic mix of paranoia, entitlement and good
Take the paranoia, which I suppose comes with the territory. You wouldn't be
there if you didn't think that there were enemies all around. I turned down a
military flight for the short hop from the Afghan capital Kabul to Bagram, the
main American base - a rapidly expanding "city" of more than 30,000 people.
Instead, I asked an Afghan friend to drive me out in his car.
A public affairs officer warned me that driving was "very dangerous", but the
only problem we met was a US military convoy headed in the opposite direction,
holding up traffic. For more than an hour we sat by the highway with dozens of
Afghan motorists watching a parade of enormous flatbed trucks hauling other big
vehicles: bulldozers and armored personnel carriers of various vintages from
Humvees to MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles). My friend said,
"We don't understand. They have all these big machines. They put them on trucks
and haul them up and down the road. Why?"
I couldn't get an answer, but I got a clue when I took an army chopper from
Bagram to a smaller base and met a private contractor partly responsible for
army vehicle maintenance. He gave me a CD to pass onto his foreman at the FOB I
was headed for. Rather than music, it held an instruction manual for repairing
the latest model M-ATV, a hulking personnel carrier with a V-shaped hull
designed to repel the blast of roadside bombs.
These are currently replacing the older MRAPs and deadly low-slung Humvees. The
Humvees are, in turn, being passed off to the Afghan National Army, whose
soldiers are more expendable than ours. (You see what I mean about
entitlement.) Standing in a lot full of new M-ATVs already in need of fixing,
the foreman seemed pleased indeed to get that CD.
It's a measure of our sense of entitlement, I think, that while the Taliban and
their allies still walk to war wearing traditional baggy cotton pants and
shirts, we Americans incessantly invent things to make ourselves more "secure".
Since no one can ever be secure, least of all in war, every new development is
bound to prove insufficient and is almost guaranteed to create new problems.
Still, Americans feel entitled to safety. Hence the MRAP was designed to
address a double whammy of fear: roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices -
IEDs) and ambushes. I was trained to be a passenger in an MRAP for a mission
that never materialized, but in the process I learned where the built-in
handholds are for those frequent occasions when the top-heavy MRAP rolls down a
The trainer talked so assuredly about what to do in case of a rollover that he
almost gave me the impression you could swivel your hips and right the vehicle,
like a kayak. But no, once it rolls, it's a goner. You have to crawl out and
walk. (So much for ambush protection.) Then, one of those big trucks we saw on
the highway to Bagram has to come out and haul it back to base, where the
foreman with that new instruction-manual CD may have a go at fixing it.
That, in a nutshell, is why the seven-passenger MRAP is being replaced by the
five-passenger M-ATV, a huge armored all-terrain vehicle not quite so inclined
to tip over. Because it holds fewer soldiers, however, you have to put more of
those vehicles on the road, and I'm sure you already see where that leads.
One benefit of our addiction to expensive, state-of-the-art stuff, however
faulty it may prove, is that the private manufacture of armaments now helps
keep our economy on life support and makes some military-industrial types rich.
One drawback is that - though it's a hard point for American soldiers in the
line of fire to grasp - it actually undercuts our heralded COIN strategy.
Afghans out there fighting in their cotton pajamas take Western reliance on
heavy armor as a measure of our fear - not to mention the inferiority of our
gods on whose protection we appear unwilling to rely. (By contrast, the
watchman at the small Afghan National Army base adjacent to the FOB I was
visiting slept on a cot on the roof, exposed to enemy fire with his tea kettle
beside him, either trusting his god, or maybe knowing something we don't about
All the comforts of war
On the great scale of American bases, think of Bagram as a city, secondary
bases as small towns, FOBS as heavily gated communities in rural landscapes,
and outlying COPs (Combat Outposts) as camps you wouldn't want your kid to go
to. A FOB is, by definition, pretty far out there on the fringe, but I have to
say straight out that when the chopper dropped me off in full (and remarkably
heavy) body armor and Kevlar helmet at my designated FOB, it didn't look at all
like "the front" to me.
I should explain that my enduring image of war comes from the trenches of World
War I, from which my father returned with a lot of medals, lifelong
disabilities, and horrific picture books I wasn't allowed to see as a child. In
that war, men lived for months on end without a change of uniform, in muddy or
frozen trenches, infested with rats and lice, often amid their own excrement
and their own dead.
The frontline FOB where I landed and its soldiers, by contrast, are
spic-and-span. Credit for this goes largely to the remarkably inexpensive labor
of crews of Filipinos, Indians, Croatians and others lured from distant lands
by American for-profit private contractors responsible for making our troops
feel at home away from home. The base's streets are laid out on a grid. Tents
in tidy rows are banked with standard sand bags and their super-sized cousins,
towering Hescos filled with rocks and rubble.
The tents are cooled by roaring tornados of air conditioning, thanks to
equipment fueled by gasoline that costs the army about $400 per gallon to
import. It takes fuelers three to four hours every day to refill all the giant
generators that keep the cold air coming, so I felt guilty when, to prevent
shivering in my sleep, I stuffed my towel into the ducts suspended from the
ceiling of my tent.
More permanent buildings are going up and some, already built by Afghans and
deemed not good enough for American habitation, are scheduled for
reconstruction. Even in distant FOBs like this one, the building boom is
prodigious. There's a big gym with the latest body-building equipment, and a
morale-boosting center equipped with telephones and banks of computers
connected to the Internet that are almost always in use. A 24/7 chow hall
serves barbecued ribs, steak and lobster tails, though everything is cooked
beyond recognition by those underpaid laborers to whom this cuisine is utterly