There's a remarkably speedy laundry and, as for the toilets and showers - I can
speak only for those few designated "Female" - they were the best I'd seen
anywhere in Afghanistan. A sign politely suggested limiting your shower to five
minutes, a nod to the expense of paying for-profit contractors to hire truckers
to haul in the necessary water, and then haul out to undisclosed locations the
copious effluence of American latrines. (At Bagram, that effluence goes into a
conveniently nearby river, a water source for countless Afghans.)
The other detritus from this expanding FOB is dumped into a pit and burned,
including a staggering, but undisclosed, number of plastic water bottles. All
this helps explain the annual cost of
maintaining a single American soldier in Afghanistan, currently estimated at
Don't get me wrong. I'm not making a case for filthy trenches. But why should
war be gussied up like home? If war were undisguisedly as nasty and brutish as
it truly is, it might also tend to be short. Soldiers freed from illusions
might mutiny, as many did in Vietnam, or desert and go home. But this modern,
cushier kind of pseudo-war is different.
Many young soldiers told me that they actually live better in the army, even
when deployed, than they did in civilian life, where they couldn't make ends
meet, especially when they were trying to pay for college or raise a family by
working one or two low-wage jobs. They won't mutiny. They're doing better than
many of their friends back home. (And they're dutiful, which makes for acts of
personal heroism, even in a foolhardy cause.) They are likely to re-enlist,
though many told me they'd prefer to quit the army and go to work for much
higher pay with the for-profit private contractors that now "service" American
But the odd thing is that no one seems to question the relative cushiness of
this life at war (nor the inequity of the hardscrabble civilian life left
behind) - least of all those best able to observe firsthand the contrast
between our garrisons and the humble equipment and living conditions of
Afghans, both friend and foe. Rather, the contrast seems to inspire many
soldiers with renewed appreciation of "our American way of life" and a
determination to "do good things" for the Afghan people, just as many feel they
did for the people of Iraq.
I emphasize all this because nothing I'd read about soldiering prepared me for
the extent of these comforts - or the tedium that attends them. Plenty of
soldiers don't leave the base. They hold down desk jobs, issue supplies, manage
logistics, repair vehicles or radios, refuel generators and trucks, plan
"development" projects, handle public affairs, or update tactical maps
inscribed (at certain locations I am obliged not to name) with admonitions like
"Here Be Dragons" or "Here Do Bad Stuff". They face the boredom of ordinary,
unheroic, repetitive tasks.
The most common injury they are likely to suffer is a sprained ankle, thanks to
eastern Afghanistan's carpet of loose rocks - just the size to trip you up. On
the wall in the FOB's clinic is a poster with schematic drawings and
instructions for strengthening ankles, an anatomical part not enhanced by any
of the fitness machines at the gym. The medics dispense a lot of ibuprofen and
keep a supply of crutches handy.
What's going on
As this is an infantry base, however, most squads regularly venture outside the
wire and the characteristic, probably long-term disability the soldiers take
with them is bad knees - from the great weight of the things they wear and
The base commander reminded me of one of the principles of COIN: security
should be established by non-lethal means. So most infantry missions are
"presence patrols", described by one officer as "walking around in places where
we won't get shot at just to show the Afs [Afghans] that we're keeping them
I went outside the wire myself on one of these presence patrols, a mission to a
village, and - I'm sorry to say - it was no friendly stroll. It's a soldier's
job to be "focused"; that is, to watch out for enemies. So you can't be
"distracted" by greeting people along the way or stopping to chat. Entering a
village hall to meet elders, for instance, may sound cordial - winning hearts
and minds. But sweeping in with guns at the ready shatters that friendly
feeling. Speaking as someone who has visited Afghans in their homes for years,
I have to say that this approach does not make a good impression. It probably
wouldn't go over well in your hometown either.
Nor does it seem to work. Since the US military adopted COIN to "protect the
populace", civilian casualties have gone up 23%; 6,000 Afghan civilians were
killed last year (and that's undoubtedly an undercount). No wonder the presence
of American troops leaves so many Afghans feeling not safer, but more
endangered, and it even inspires some to take up arms against the occupying
army. Ever more often, at least in the area where I was embedded, a non-lethal
presence patrol turns into a lethal firefight.
One day, near the end of my embed, I watched a public affairs officer frame a
photograph of a soldier who had been killed in a firefight and mount it on the
wall by the commander's office beside the black-framed photos of seven other
soldiers. This American fighting force had been in place at the FOB for only a
few weeks, having relieved another contingent, yet it had already lost eight
men. (Five Afghan soldiers had been killed as well, but their pictures were
notably absent from the gallery of remembrance.) The army takes a photograph of
every soldier at the beginning of his or her service, so it's on file when
needed; when, that is, a soldier is killed.
Most American bases and combat outposts are named for dead American soldiers.
When a soldier is killed - or "falls", as the army likes to put it - the
Internet service and the phones on base go dead until an army delegation has
knocked on the door of surviving family members. So even if you're one of those
soldiers who never leaves the base, you're always reminded of what's going on
out there. And then usually toward evening, some unseen enemies on the peaks
around the base begin to shoot down at it, and American gunners respond with
shells that lift great clouds of rock and dust from the mountains into the
Doing good to Afghans
On the base, I heard incessant talk about COIN, the "new" doctrine resurrected
from the disaster of Vietnam in the irrational hope that it will work this
time. From my experience at the FOB, however, it's clear enough that the
hearts-and-minds part of COIN is already dead in the water, and one widespread
practice in the military that's gone unreported by other embedded journalists
helps explain why.
So here's a TomDispatch exclusive, courtesy of Afghan-American men serving as
interpreters for the soldiers. They were embarrassed to the point of agony when
mentioning this habit, but desperate to put a stop to it. COIN calls for the
military to meet and make friends with village elders, drink tea, plan
"development", and captivate their hearts and minds. Several interpreters told
me, however, that every meeting includes some young American soldiers whose
locker-room-style male bonding features bouts of hilarious farting.
To Afghan men, nothing is more shameful. A fart is proof that a man cannot
control any of his apparatus below the belt. The man who farts is thus not a
man at all. He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises
Blissfully unaware of such things, the army goes on planning together with its
civilian consultants (representatives of the US State Department, the US
Department of Agriculture and various independent contractors who make up
what's called a Human Terrain Team charged with interpreting local culture and
helping to win the locals over to our side). Some speak of "building
infrastructure", others of advancing "good governance" or planning "economic
development". All talk of "doing good" and "helping" Afghanistan.
In a typical mess-up on the actual terrain of Afghanistan, army experts
previously in charge of this base had already had a million-dollar suspension
bridge built over a river some distance away, but hadn't thought to secure land
rights, so no road leads to it. Now the local American agriculture specialist
wants to introduce alfalfa to these waterless, rocky mountains to feed herds of
cattle principally pastured in his mind.
Yet even as I was filling my notebook with details of their delusionary
schemes, the base commander told me he had already been forced to "put aside
development". He had his hands full facing a Taliban onslaught he hadn't
expected. Throughout Afghanistan, insurgent attacks have gone up 51% since the
official adoption of COIN as the strategy du jour. On this eastern front, where
the commander had served six years earlier, he now faces a "surge" of
intimidation, assassination, suicide attacks, roadside bombs and fighters with
greater technical capability than he has ever seen in Afghanistan.
A few days after we spoke, the Afghanistan command was handed to General David
Petraeus, the sainted refurbisher of the military's counter-insurgency manual.
I wonder if the base commander has told Petraeus yet what he told me then:
"What we're fighting here now - it's a conventional war."
I'd been "on the front" of this war for less than two weeks, and I already
needed a vacation. Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I
watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded
Afghans - men of extraordinary dignity - who have seen all this before and know
Being on the base was tedious, often tense, and equally sorrowful at times when
soldiers fell. Then the base commander, on foot, escorted the armored vehicles
returning from a firefight onto the base the way a bygone cavalry officer might
enter a frontier fort, leading a riderless horse. The scene would look good in
a Hollywood war movie: moving in that sentimental Technicolor way that seems to
imbue with heroic significance unnecessary and pointless death.
One night I bedded down outdoors under a profusion of stars and an Islamic
crescent moon. Invisible in the dark, I couldn't help overhearing a soldier
who'd slipped out to make a cell phone call back home. "I really need to talk
to you today," he said, and then stumbling in his search for words, he broke
down. "No," he said at last, "I'm fine. I'll call you back later."
The next day, carrying my helmet and my armor on my arm, I boarded a helicopter
and flew away.