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They Didn’t Know What They Were Getting Into

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Posted on Nov 8, 2013
isafmedia (CC BY 2.0)

By Ann Jones, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars—Iraq, for example, or Vietnam—and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics.  To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.

Frankly, I didn’t like the U.S. soldiers I met in those years.  Unlike the ISAF troops, who appeared to be real people in uniforms, the Americans acted like PowerPoint Soldiers (with a capital S), or, as they preferred to be called, Warriors (with a capital W).  What they seldom acted like was real people.  For one thing, they seemed to have been trained to invade the space of any hapless civilian.  They snapped to attention in your face and spat out sentences that splashed your flesh, something they hadn’t learned from their mothers.

In time, though, their canned—and fearful—aggressiveness stirred my sympathy and my curiosity to know something about who they really were, or had been.  So much so that in the summer of 2010, I borrowed body armor from a friend and applied to embed with U.S. soldiers.  At the time, General Stanley McChrystal was massing troops (and journalists) in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan for a well-advertised “decisive” showdown with the insurgency.  I, on the other hand, was permitted to go to a forward operating base in northeast Afghanistan on the Pakistani border where, it was said, nothing was going on.  In fact, American soldiers were “falling” there at a rate that took their commanders by surprise and troubled them.

By the time I arrived, those commanders had become secretive, cloistering themselves behind closed doors—no more PowerPoint presentations offering the press (me) straight-faced assessments of “progress.”

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For TomDispatch, I wrote a piece about that base and included one fact that brought me a deluge of outraged email from wives and girlfriends of the Warriors.  It wasn’t my description of the deaths of soldiers that upset them, but my noting that the most common disabling injury on that base was a sprained ankle—the result of jogging in the rocky high-desert terrain. How dare I say such a thing, the women demanded.  It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans.

I learned a lesson from that.  America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be “real people” even to their loved ones.  To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

And that may be the point: that there wasn’t one, not to this war of choice and revenge, or the one in Iraq either.  There were only kids in uniform, most of whom by that time knew that they hadn’t known what they were getting into, and now were struggling to keep their illusions and themselves alive.  They walked the streets of the base, two by two, battle buddies heading for the DFAC (mess hall), the laundry, the latrine, the gym. They hung out on the Internet and the international phones, in the war and out of it at the same time, until orders came down from somewhere: Washington, Kabul, Bagram, or the map-lined room behind the closed door of the base commander’s office.  As a result, every day while I was on that base, patrols were ordered to drive or walk out into the surrounding mountains where Taliban flags flew. Very often they returned with men missing.

What had happened to those boys who had been there at breakfast in the DFAC? Dead or torn up by a sniper or a roadside bomb, they had been whisked off by helicopters and then… what?

They lodged in my memory.  Unable to forget them, almost a year later, when I was officially not a nosy journalist but a research fellow at a leading university, I again applied for permission to embed in the military.  This time, I asked to follow casualties from that high desert “battle space” to the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, onto a C-17 with the medical teams that accompanied the wounded soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany—the biggest American hospital outside the United States—then back onto a C-17 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and in some cases, all the way home.

Over the years, more and more of America’s kids made that medevac journey back to the States. Costsofwar.com has tallied 106,000 Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan or evacuated from those war zones because of accident or disease.  Because so many so-called “invisible wounds” are not diagnosed until after soldiers return home, the true number of wounded must be much higher. Witness the fact that, as of June 2012, 247,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq had been diagnosed by the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as of May 31, 2012, more than 745,000 veterans of those wars had filed disability claims with the Veterans Administration (VA).  Taxpayers have already spent $135 billion on medical and disability payments for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the long-term medical and disability costs are expected to peak at about midcentury, at an estimated $754 billion.

Then there were the “fallen,” the dead, shipped to Dover Air Base in metal “transfer cases” aboard standard cargo planes. They were transferred to the official military mortuary in ceremonies from which the media, and thus the public, were until 2009 excluded—at least 6,656 of them from Iraq and Afghanistan by February of this year. At least 3,000 private contractors have also been killed in both wars. Add to this list the toll of post-deployment suicides, and soldiers or veterans hooked on addictive opioids pushed by Big Pharma and prescribed by military doctors or VA psychiatrists either to keep them on the job or, after they break down, to “cure” them of their war experiences.


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