America’s Potemkin War in Afghanistan
This piece originally appeared on antiwar.com.
Series note: It has taken me years to tell these stories. The emotional and moral wounds of the Afghan War have just felt too recent, too raw. After all, I could hardly write a thing down about my Iraq War experience for nearly ten years, when, by accident, I churned out a book on the subject. Now, as the American war in Afghanistan – hopefully – winds to something approaching a close, it’s finally time to impart some tales of the madness. In this recurring, semi-regular series, the reader won’t find many worn out sagas of heroism, brotherhood, and love of country. Not that this author doesn’t have such stories, of course. But one can find those sorts of tales in countless books and numerous trite, platitudinal Hollywood yarns.
With that in mind, I propose to tell a number of very different sorts of stories – profiles, so to speak, in absurdity. That’s what war is, at root, an exercise in absurdity, and America’s hopeless post-9/11 wars are stranger than most. My own 18-year long quest to find some meaning in all the combat, to protect my troops from danger, push back against the madness, and dissent from within the army proved Kafkaesque in the extreme. Consider what follows just a survey of that hopeless journey…
It was, at heart, a nice gesture. Much of that was lost in all the (some of it fair) controversy about Trump’s surprise Thanksgiving visit with the troops in Afghanistan. Whether a war is right or wrong – and this one is emphatically the latter – it is the president’s job to both review and stiffen the morale of the nation’s deployed soldiers. Especially in year nineteen of a ludicrous, endless, war. Nevertheless, to use the parlance of our post-millennial times, you could say I was “triggered” by Trump’s Turkey Day Afghan visit.
Watching the whole trip on television conjured nightmare visions of the countless times that then Captain Sjursen hosted general after general at the forward edge of American “freedom,” deep in the Arghandab Valley of rural Kandahar in 2011-12. Such VIP stopovers were – as per kiss-ass army conventions – inevitably absolute dog-and-pony shows. And God help me if they weren’t the bane of my existence. I still have nightmares, quite literally, in which a young soldier from my tactical operations center (TOC) wakes me with the news that my squadron commander is on the phone, and (yikes), gives me twelve hours notice that some senior colonel or – worse still – a general officer would be visiting my humble sandbagged version of the Alamo.
Few without insider knowledge of military deployment culture know just how much useless labor goes into preparation for such a visit, or, quite how dangerous the events themselves can often be. First off, every one of your exhausted soldiers must go on alert to perform such worthy war zone tasks as sweeping dust off floors essentially made of dust, hiding the inevitably accumulated trash, changing into “clean” uniforms, and (hopelessly) trying to convince our allied Afghan soldiers to bathe and wear their helmets.
Worse still, senior colonels and most all generals want to join a young captain and his ground-pounding troopers on an “authentic” “combat” patrol during the trip. That way, so they say at least, the senior officers can see the battlefield “situation” and buck up the low-ranking soldiers that slog that perilous terrain on the daily. Secretly, of course, such patrols mainly serve to boost the egos and assuage the office-ridden consciences of the generals themselves. And, not-so-secretly, real combat soldiers don’t give a shit about seeing the generals and find the whole charade to be little more than a needless pain in the ass.
Some of the bother tends towards the cosmetic and annoying. Like the onetime I went on my obligatory two-week leave and then returned to get my butt chewed because apparently while I was gone the brigade commander visited my little base and (say it ain’t so!) found one of my soldiers had shed his blouse – in triple-digit heat – and wore only his issued tan t-shirt. Then there was another instance, when the command sergeant major who advised the general commanding the whole Afghan War, dropped in. As a senior enlisted soldier he was, ostensibly, an up-from-the-ranks kind of fella who should’ve “connected” with the troops. Instead, in the middle of a ceremony where he got the honor of pinning medals for valor on a few of my battle-hardened, bone-tired, soldiers, he too decided to berate one of the awardees for having a bullet-hole through the sole of his boot. When I tried to intervene and explain that the soldier had miraculously escaped injury in the firefight which produced the hole, and that friends of his were shot that same day, the sergeant major silently fumed. Then, in the vein of a truly “manly” army-style man of integrity, he tattled to my colonel who proceeded to rip my ass the next day.
More often though, the trouble was rather more treacherous. One time, that same brigade commander – a full-bird colonel earmarked for general – decided to tour the new (empty) marketplace we’d been ordered to construct in an all-but-abandoned stretch of still contested scrubland. Which meant, of course, that I had to coax, bribe, and threaten enough area Afghan elders to dig up enough locals and faux merchandise to fill the vacant stalls in time for the boss’ visit. To tell you the truth, the tribal leaders – at least half of whom played both sides in the conflict – did a bang up job. In spite of my strenuous protests to the squadron commander that the area was too dangerous for a bulky patrol that would inevitably include the brigade colonel’s entourage, when the nature walk kicked off, the joint really resembled a flourishing marketplace.
Thus, I felt the terrified – if vindicated – prophet of sorts, when the Taliban soon unleashed a brief but intense barrage of machine gun fire at our unwieldy patrol. It was a closer call than most, but perhaps because no one was hurt, I took significant pleasure in watching my prima donna colonel dive for his life into a dry canal. Who knows, maybe he wrote himself a commendation for valor after the “authentic” experience of muddying the knees of his fatigues just a bit. It all worked out, I suppose. None of us died, and the diva colonel got all he’d ever wanted and made general.
After a few such nightmares, it didn’t take long before I learned to “play-the-game,” in order to appease my immediate boss (who veritably worshipped each visiting general), and still keep my troopers as safe as humanly possible. So, being the geeky historian I was and am, I got to thinking about Potemkin Villages. The term refers to any literal or figurative construction built to deceive an observer that any situation is more favorable than it really is. See, back in the 18th century, as the (likely exaggerated) story goes, Catherine the Great of Russia’s former lover, Grigory Potemkin constructed fake portable villages to impress the empress along the route of her journey to Crimea in 1787. In fact, the fancy, flourishing, structures would be disassembled as soon as she passed, only to be quickly reassembled farther along her route. Even if partly apocryphal, the use of Potemkin villages later in history was quite real and usually employed by totalitarian states. The Nazis built them; so did the Soviets, and North Korean Communists. In fact, just such a village was featured prominently in the controversial, absurd Seth Rogen comedy film about life in North Korea, titled “The Interview.”
What a brilliant, albeit ludicrous, idea, I’d then thought. Why can’t I do that? After all, the big wigs only visited every few weeks, and only for an hour or two at time at that. It simply wouldn’t be too hard to fool career-obsessed combat voyeurs who were almost never (in my experience) half as smart as they styled themselves. Therefore, when, quite suddenly, my own early and (for the province) unique experimentation with raising Afghan Local Police (ALP) – essentially warlord led militias – to combat the Taliban village by meaningless village, suddenly caught the attention of the military powers that be, I set my plans in motion. It mattered not to these feckless general officers, I realized, that our own “success” with living in muddy villages and arming illiterate young Afghans of questionable loyalty, was having very mixed results, and had alarmingly questionable long-term implications. They wanted to see a “win,” one that they could sell to their bosses, the media, and the American people as proof positive of “success” in a then ten (and now eighteen) year old war.
For about two months at the end of our troop’s tour of duty – by which point three men were dead, thirty or so wounded, many having lost limbs – one, two, and even three-star generals started stopping by my base to observe the miraculous “miracle” of my ALP program in the nearby villages. See, my pilot-program, despite its (should’ve been) obvious inability to turn around a failing war, had produced that which most generals prize most of all: a temporary, statistical, drop in violence. Suddenly, my weathered little cavalry troop was in high demand. Everyone who was anyone, it seemed, wanted to visit our besieged sandbag paradise.
So for two months I pulled off my greatest trick of all: pleasing, whilst deceiving, the star-cladded visitors, and saving a few of my soldiers’ lives to boot. It was a complicated, if theoretically simple, ruse. I’d, with the help of (somewhat) friendly tribal elders, and my subordinate lieutenant accomplices, preemptively, and temporarily, secure a small perimeter around the village in question, fill it with happy Afghans that didn’t really live in the abandoned hellholes, and map out a safe, bomb-cleared route for the expected general’s combat tourism patrol. The vacuous flag officers absolutely loved it. They’d shake hands with happy Afghans, fortuitously run into, and banter with, my more charismatic young soldiers, and witness a thriving village lifestyle straight out of a quaint Central Asian Norman Rockwell scene.
I know, I know. Undoubtedly I was a willing contributor to the illusion of Afghan War progress sold to Congress, the media, and thereby to the public. Don’t you think I knew that?!? My complicity is undeniable; but my conscience can bear as much. I’d spent nine months trying to tell my colonel, his colonel, even generals – anyone who would listen – the truth: we aren’t winning; we can’t win; the whole strategy is preposterous. They silenced me repeatedly. Told me I couldn’t possibly understand the big picture that they (apparently) divined from the safety of their massive secure bases.
With only a few months left to drag as many of my beloved boys back to Kansas – with as many of their limbs as possible – I guess you could say I quit. Maybe a better officer wouldn’t have. Thing is, after fifteen months toiled away in Iraq, and by then nine months suffered in Afghanistan, I knew something civilian observers didn’t: most generals didn’t want the truth anyway. They bought my Potemkin patrols hook-line-and-sinker because they wanted to believe, needed to believe, that the aimless wars, which defined their careers and augured their coveted promotions, could be won. And, surprise: they still haven’t been; and won’t be.
Let’s call the moral of my admittedly tragicomic farce of a story, then, this: in our current world of absurd forever wars, a bit of higher-level deception might just be in order – even if the historical inspiration (oops) derives from absolute monarchies and authoritarian dictatorships. Which leads to yet another of my ubiquitous “modest proposals:” if presidents are going to pretend to think the wars they start and continue are winnable, and if Congress is going to pretend to sanction and oversee them, then the generals – at least those with any conscience left to speak of – ought to pretend to fight them.
Keep the boys on their bases, generals. Send phony reports, produce the requisite PowerPoint slides that no one reads anyway, and put on a theater-level Potemkin show when this, or the next, president decides to make his semiannual visit to whichever of the dozen or so war zones America remains hopelessly immersed in. The kids in the proverbial trenches will thank you. So will their poor mothers. And no one else will even notice…
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVetWait, before you go…
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