The last time I shot my rifle in war, I killed an old man.
I wasn’t the only one shooting, but I could see my rounds riddle into him through the scope of my M4 carbine as he barreled toward us in his car on one of the most dangerous highways in Iraq. As we fired through the windshield, red polka dots of blood covered his white dishdasha, and the car ground to a halt. When I was certain the vehicle wasn’t laden with explosives, I dragged the man from his seat and onto the shattered glass littered across the road.
Only then did I notice that his eyes, now lifeless, were covered in cataracts. He was probably blind, or damn near it, and simply hadn’t seen us. Like other civilians we’d killed. “It’s their own goddamn stupidity,” I’d thought. Once you’ve accepted that the values you grew up with don’t apply in war, once killing becomes a given, it’s easy to convince yourself that these things just happen. The fear fades, and you bury the guilt somewhere deep. We did what we had to do to keep one another alive.
At least that’s what I’ve always told myself. It’s been a little over seven years since that deployment, nearly twelve since I raised my hand and swore my soul away to the Big Green Machine. Twenty-three and almost out of college, I enlisted in the Army as a rite of passage more than anything. I never imagined I’d see combat. But my first day of basic training just happened to be September 11, 2001, and in an instant, my fellow newbie pukes and I became the first class of the new American war.
Two years later I was assigned to 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. A storied brigade known as the Rakkasans—a nickname given by the Japanese that loosely means “falling umbrellas”—the 187th has served in every major conflict since World War II. In the spring of 2003 I was deployed to northern Iraq, where I spent the majority of the year near Mosul and Tal Afar, as well as along the border with Syria. In 2005, after a return to Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, my unit redeployed, this time to Salah Ad Din province, where we operated in and around the towns of Tikrit and Bayji. By then I’d been promoted to staff sergeant and was the section leader of my platoon. We trained Iraqis, went on patrols, and gathered intelligence. By night, we conducted raids and sniper missions; by day, we tried to rebuild communities. We fell asleep concussed from IEDs and woke with a mind to kill. We washed blood from our uniforms and Humvees and listened to wailing prayers that were never for us.
War is a relative experience. Some people love it. They make it their work and disappear into that world for the rest of their lives. Others hate it. They abuse themselves forever after, never recovering from the things they were asked to do. I fall somewhere in between. I saw more combat than most, but less than some. I know what an M240 Bravo or an IED does to a human body. The violence and killing have yet to torment me as much as the guilt over the war arbitrarily taking my friends when it could have—maybe should have—taken me instead. Sometimes I wake to them hovering over my bed, paroled from my dreams. I’d ask their forgiveness if I knew they could hear me. There have been days when I’d give anything to trade places.
Still, even now, nearly a decade since I first went to Iraq, I miss war. I miss the highs from surviving roadside bombs, firefights, snipers, and the hellish madness of combat. Even more, I miss my men and my friends and the insular camaraderie forged between us. Sharing a dip of Copenhagen with our morning coffee, a bracing combination we called an Amarillo-Dillo. Chatting about the depraved lengths we’d all go to for the chance to earn a million dollars or fulfill a sexual fantasy with our favorite actress. I miss going by “Sergeant” and even more by my old call sign, Shooter Five, which at times I believe defines me better than my own name.
I was honorably discharged from the Army in December 2006, two months after we returned home. Getting out wasn’t a difficult decision; I knew I was done. What I didn’t know was what to expect from civilian life. I moved to Austin with aspirations of going to graduate school and making money and settling down, but I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for any of that, because none of it seemed to carry the kind of purpose I’d felt as a Rakkasan. I was good at being a soldier; the thought that I might never be as good at anything else was terrifying. I became listless, unmoored by simple decisions and mundane tasks. I developed a hair-trigger temper. My head hurt every day, and I fought spells of dizziness. I’d drive, forget where I was going, and end up miles from my destination. I drank myself into blackouts and picked fights. Though I wasn’t suicidal, I often fantasized about dying. When I finally got an office job in the oil and gas business, in Fort Worth, I found it impossible to fit in. The war had changed my political views, and though my co-workers were good people, I spent most of my day staring out the window, wondering how so many of them could support a conflict without any real knowledge of the sacrifice it required.
There were some grace notes during this bleak period. I met my future wife, for starters. And I returned to what I’d enjoyed most before joining the military: writing and acting. I published a couple of magazine pieces, made a documentary, appeared in some commercials, and got cast in a cheap, campy horror movie directed by actor Barry Tubb. Not long after, I sold a screenplay and moved out to Los Angeles to try my luck as a screenwriter. As I began to land work, I found I could mine my time in the military and the people I knew for inspiration. There was the red-eyed, liquor-breathed instructor I’d had at airborne school, an ex–Green Beret who had a bumper sticker that read “Fuck Jane Fonda, American Traitor Bitch.” Or First Sergeant Nye, wounded by a car bomb in Tal Afar, who would take out his glass eye and set it on the table during promotion boards just to mess with you. Or the acne-faced private I met who used his reenlistment bonus to buy out the contract of the Russian hooker he’d fallen in love with from the local brothel so he could marry her.
My days were spent making up stories and worlds and characters, then catering them to movie stars, directors, and producers. I happily perpetuated Hollywood myths about the military—all soldiers are black belts, know how to become invisible, are expert marksmen, screw with a thousand-yard stare—and yet, as time passed, I’d catch myself thinking less and less about the war itself. Every story I told at a dinner or a meeting began to feel half-remembered or like a lie. I felt increasingly cut off from the war that had made me who I was. I’d look through old pictures of myself from Iraq, and a horrible asphyxiation would grip me: I no longer recognized that soldier.
I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to feed on the pain of war again. I wanted to hawk it back into the smug faces of the talking heads and politicians I watched on TV who seemed to use the conflict as a mere excuse for camera time. I wanted to feel the brotherhood of my old unit, the delightfully hard-assed, head-stomping light-infantry world of the Rakkasans. One day it dawned on me, with a mix of punch-drunk compulsion, fear, and excitement. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to go back to war.
IT WAS EARLY last November when I landed in Kabul. A blanket of haze covered the city, and the air was crisp with the first notes of winter. Besides a few guards and employees who exhorted me to watch my bag, the arrivals terminal was empty. The smell of ashtrays, body odor, and Pine Sol hung over the hall. I grabbed my pack off the dirty conveyor belt and followed the crowd of civilians and United Nations and NATO workers heading outside.
The Rakkasans, which hold the distinction as the most deployed brigade in the Army since 9/11, had returned to war twice since I’d left: to Iraq in 2007 and to Afghanistan in 2010. By the time I reached out last year, in May 2012, to my old battalion commander, Colonel Randy George, with the idea to embed as a writer, the Rakkasans were gearing up to return to Afghanistan. That same month, President Obama announced the end of U.S.-led combat operations in 2013, followed by the withdrawal of coalition forces by the end of 2014; this would likely be the Rakkasans’ last deployment for some time.
Within two weeks of my request to embed, I’d been approved, and now I found myself looking out onto a sparse parking lot, searching for the airport’s designated taxi area. I’d called a local taxi service as soon as I’d landed—an NPR correspondent gave me the number of a trustworthy company before I left the U.S.—and now I needed to find the driver who would take me on the hour-long ride from Kabul to Bagram Airfield, from where I’d fly out to connect with 1st Battalion. The dispatcher had told me in broken English to expect someone in ten minutes. When I asked two Americans with NATO badges where I might find the taxis, they pointed me to a gate across the lot. “You know the Taliban are kidnapping every foreign journalist or worker they can?” one said, shaking his head at me. “Go through that gate. You’ll pass two more security checkpoints. Stay on the sidewalk until you get to the reception area, and don’t leave it until you’re certain your cab is there.”
I waited in the reception area for my driver to call, surrounded by Afghans waiting for friends and loved ones on other flights. Half of them were dressed in traditional garb, the other half Western-style. I felt their stares as I stood there. I thought of my wife, Lauren. When I’d told her about my plan to return to war, she’d said the only thing she could say: “Okay. Just don’t die.” As we’d said goodbye at the airport, I’d wondered if she thought I was being selfish.
Finally, my phone buzzed. I threw on my pack. And as I walked through the glass doors to the outside, I felt a sudden rush, like what I’d felt on my first jump at airborne school. A pardon from responsibility. A sense of crossing a threshold where you have no choice but to place yourself in the hands of fate. A horde of taxi drivers swarmed me, and I felt a hand touch my back. I turned to find a tall man with thick black hair and a soft smile. “Matt?” he said.
Sayed loaded my pack into a dusty white Toyota Yaris, and we sped into the heart of Kabul. The city was part progressive, part primordial. Cars, buses, and jingle trucks—overflowing with people and decorated with flowers, ribbons, and tassels—moved according to their own laws as thousands of pedestrians darted in and out of traffic. Concrete barricades lined the streets. Soldiers and police manned rooftops, street corners, and machine-gun nests at busy intersections. Above us, massive cranes towered like broken weather vanes over half-completed fortresses. Sayed explained in decent English that construction had been stalled for a while, and no one knew what the buildings would be.
I watched from the window as we passed shops, decrepit shanties, smoldering trash pits, machine parts piled in the streets, and open-air markets. Dust billowed up from the ground and coated the raw meat hanging from hooks at butcher stands. The smell of burning hair and grinding metal brought back memories of Tal Afar and Mosul: they were lawless and dangerous but so alive you could place your fingers in the dirt and practically feel a pulse.
We passed a group of men fistfighting in front of a shop, blood dripping from their mouths and noses. Sayed scowled. “Maybe they fight because Taliban make them,” he said. “For bets.” I asked if there were many Taliban left in Kabul. “They come now for the winter,” he replied. “It is very dangerous.” Sayed was 32 but looked 50. He’d lived in London for years but had returned to Kabul at his mother’s urging after his father died. Shortly thereafter he’d married a local girl, who was now pregnant with their first baby. I asked if he planned to stay in Kabul, and he shook his head. “No way to hell. Fuck Afghanistan!”
We ended up on a two-lane highway winding north out of the city. The shoulder was filled with large shipping containers and train cars stacked in twos and threes. At nearly every bend, more stalled construction projects rose up from the dirt. Sayed wove quickly between trucks and cars, chatting casually about London versus life in Kabul. We rounded a curve, and I spotted a squad of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at a traffic stop. Sayed, wrapped up in a discussion of the merits of London pubs, didn’t notice them. Talking, he darted among the slowing vehicles around us. The soldiers waved at us to stop, but Sayed kept driving. Closer and closer. The soldiers raised their AK-47s. A gunner in a truck spun his turret and aimed his mounted Dushka at our windshield.
“Sayed!” I yelled. “Fucking stop!” He jolted to attention and slammed the brakes, and we slid off the road and onto the shoulder, kicking up dust. The soldiers were half a second away from emptying every round of their magazines into our bodies. They rushed toward us, aiming their rifles at our heads. Sayed threw up his hands, and I quickly did the same. The soldiers surrounded the car, swinging their barrels inches from our heads, yelling, glancing into the backseat, finally pulling us from the car to search it. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re saying,” I pleaded. “I’m a journalist. He’s taking me to Bagram.”
The soldiers demanded my passport. Hands shaking, I gave it over. Sayed apologized profusely and offered everyone cigarettes. I took one too. A moment later, the squad leader returned from his truck with my passport. I exhaled with relief, then filled my lungs with as much smoke as I could.
“Matt,” said Sayed. “Look.” He and the soldiers pointed across the road, where a dead man lay facedown in a shallow ditch, his arms and legs locked in unnatural positions. Apparently a car had driven by just minutes before and dumped him out. Hence the checkpoint. I asked who the man was, but no one knew or cared.
Back in the car, Sayed and I didn’t speak another word until forty minutes later, when we reached Bagram. I thought about the old man I’d killed in Iraq for the same reason we’d just nearly died ourselves. My soldiers and I would have never held fire for as long as the ANSF had. I would have killed me much sooner. As a soldier, armed with the beautiful cold weight of your rifle, you are shielded in the moment by the clarity and purpose of your task. But this time I’d been on the wrong side of that equation. I remembered looking through the old man’s wallet and finding a picture of him with his arm wrapped around a young man I presumed was his son. I wondered if somewhere that young man was still out there, a stab of hatred twisting in his stomach, ready to shoot me dead if our paths ever crossed.
THE HINDU KUSH mountains, which run between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, are barren and jagged, a lunar-scape of blanched peaks and ridges. High-altitude gusts whip furiously around the rocky summits, and the harsh emptiness makes it easy to see why the range has forced the end of military conquests throughout the ages, from the Persian forces of Darius the Great to the Soviet Union’s 40th Army.
I caught a ride on an Mi-8 civilian transport helicopter over this foreboding terrain several days after landing in Afghanistan. Looking out over the mountains, I was right where I wanted to be. I’d known this as soon as I’d arrived at Bagram, where thick, nauseating exhaust from generators, jingle trucks, and military vehicles permeated the air and a welter of activity engulfed me in chaotic purpose. Civilian contractors from seemingly every part of the world moved about doing God knows what; locals with hairnets over their beards smoked cigarettes on their breaks outside the chow halls and stared at soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors from every nation under the NATO flag. Special Forces teams, Special Ops members, operators, contractors in dark sunglasses, and bearded, long-haired spooks roamed in and out of walled compounds protected by additional security gates. When I chose a chow hall and stood in line, between a squad of Danish soldiers and several U.S. National Guardsmen, and overheard them whispering about a rumored brothel run by Russian contractors on base, I instantly felt myself relax.
From Bagram, I’d flown to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Gardez to meet with the Rakkasans’ 1st Battalion command team. Together we’d devised my marching orders: three stops in ten days, all inside the Paktia province, in eastern Afghanistan. The first stop was Combat Outpost (COP) Herrera, the camp for Alpha Company, whose call sign is ABU, for Army’s Best Unit. Only a couple of kilometers from the border with Pakistan, the outpost sits on a flattened mountaintop in a region dominated by the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. I’d caught the helicopter to get there at FOB Gardez, and now I found myself scanning the ground below, looking for the enemy and checking my water, my soldier instincts reemerging like distant memories.
As we neared COP Herrera, I couldn’t help but think that it looked like the set of M*A*S*H. One dirt road in and out. Walls of dirt-filled HESCOs and guard towers painted with the unit symbol of the Rakkasans, a red Japanese torii. Howitzer and mortar pits. Satellite dishes on top of small wooden structures lined with sandbags. In the tactical operations center, two noncommissioned officers (NCOs), Sergeant First Class Tripp and Sergeant First Class Coleman, eyed me with faint recognition.
“Fellas!” I said, offering a handshake. “It’s Staff Sergeant Cook. Or was. I used to be in First Bat with you guys.”
“That’s right!” laughed Coleman. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I’m a writer now. I’m going to be spending a few days with you.”
“No shit.” Tripp shook his head and smiled. “You’re the reporter Captain Jones mentioned?”
The infantry has a way of keeping some men looking young while aging others faster than crack. Tripp and Coleman looked the same—if maybe a little wiser, more serious. They had been in a different company from mine, but an infantry battalion is a relatively small group, and it’s surprising how many people you remember. They’d been sergeants and squad leaders when I got out; now here they were, high-ranking NCOs and platoon sergeants.
Their task at Herrera was simple: prepare and equip the Afghans to take control of the area and close down the outpost. I asked about the ANSF soldiers they’d worked with so far. The Guardian had recently released a tally of “green-on-blue” incidents, or attacks by ANSF soldiers on U.S. or NATO forces; according to the report, 106 troops had been killed in 63 such attacks since 2010.
“They’re actually much better than I expected,” said Coleman. “At least compared to the goddamn Iraqis. Their tactics are for shit, but they don’t mind a fight if it happens.”
“Has it much?” I asked.
“A route-clearing team took an IED a couple of miles from here a week ago. Killed three,” Coleman replied. “We get the occasional indirect fire on the COP and have been in a good handful of TICs [troops in contact]. We were in one a few days ago. We laid so much goddamn fire on them, twelve Taliban turned themselves in the next day to their amnesty program.”
Tripp offered me a cigarette. “I’m taking my platoon out in an hour, if you wanna come along,” he said.
“Hell, yeah,” I replied. “I didn’t come all this way to bum a smoke.”
WE HEADED OUT the gate and down the steep mountain road. I fell in between Tripp’s two squads, next to the company’s bomb sniffer, a springer spaniel named Dakota, and her handler. The men were loaded with equipment: rifles, machine guns, ammunition, grenades, mortar rounds, night-vision goggles, batteries, radios, Garmins, knives, Warlocks (for jamming IED signals), food, and water. Including body armor and vests, each soldier was hauling between sixty and one hundred pounds. Seeing them carry so much weight, I felt appreciative of the Humvees we’d used for patrols in Iraq.
About half a mile down the road, we stopped at an Afghan Border Patrol (ABP) outpost and picked up a squad, plus an interpreter. The men were dressed in dark-gray uniforms, with Ranger, Airborne, and Special Forces tabs velcroed to their body armor. They looked at my camera with interest. The plan was to pass through the village of Bara-Shega and into a valley where another platoon had taken fire the day before.
My heart raced, expanding in my chest under my armor. I opened the can of Copenhagen I’d been saving for my first patrol and put a pinch under my bottom lip, and it burned, sweet and customary. I was hoping for an engagement, something unexpected and terrible that might release a symphony of guns and explosions.
Near Bara-Shega several gutted Russian transport and assault vehicles lay along the road, rusting where they’d been destroyed decades ago. “They won’t get rid of them,” Tripp explained. “They consider them war trophies. A point of pride, I guess.” In the village, colorful sheets and rugs hung outside a few of the homes and shops. Shallow streams, the overflow from a nearby creek, crisscrossed the streets. Boys waved and chased us curiously as we snaked through. Old men nodded and smiled. Women completely hidden beneath burkas kneaded dough and ignored us. Young men frowned and stared, following us from a distance.
The sun dove between the mountain peaks, and a slight haze settled over the valley as we moved into the area where the platoon had taken fire. Around us, bundles and bundles of marijuana sat in nearly every field. On our path, a farmer led a donkey strapped with heaps of it stacked several feet high, prompting more than a few wisecracks. “Just leave all that for me inside the gate, thanks,” laughed one of the men.
Tripp asked the ABP commander to take one of the squads to sweep the valley and bait out any possible ambush, while he led the other squad to high ground to cover their movements. If they made contact, Tripp’s squad would lay down suppressive fire so the ABP could maneuver on the target. “No problem. We ready,” said the ABP commander, nodding. He repeatedly glanced at my camera, as if begging for a photo.
I followed Tripp and his squad up a steep saddle, and they got down behind their weapons, scanning for signs of enemy movement, waiting for a reason to empty their magazines and ammo belts. As we watched the other squad move hundreds of meters below, I thought of the battles fought in this valley and the souls of forgotten soldiers trapped in these mountains. My own first firefight was an ambush. It took place on July 20, 2003, outside Tal Afar in a pro–Saddam village called Abu Marie. It was near midnight, and we were hit with an RPG and small-arms fire. There were six of us in two trucks. Two friends, Jason Jordan and Justin Garvey, were killed. Another was wounded. I walked away without a scratch and with the realization that bullets and rockets are nameless.
There were only echoes in the mountains today. After a couple of hours, we headed back to Herrera. It was nearly dark, and my legs and lungs burned from the climb and altitude. I tried to shake my disappointment. I’d wanted a fight. I’d wanted to see what might wake inside me.
THE NEXT FEW days at Herrera were quiet. Routine patrols. No engagements. I watched the ABP soldiers and wondered what would become of them after Alpha Company was gone. No real tension appeared to exist between them and the Americans; the Afghans seemed mostly willing to go out on patrol, but how much did they actually do on their own? No one could tell me. Since the Afghan forces already had fortified bases in the area, the plan was to completely dismantle Herrera within a few months.
“I’m hearing rumors that we might get sent home once we close it down,” the unit’s commander, Captain Trevor Jones, told me one night. A native of Houston and a graduate of West Point, he was 28 and carried himself with easy confidence, though without the arrogance that enlisted men sometimes detest in cadet officers. “But there’s a lot for us still to do, and I don’t think many of us are ready to leave yet. I know I’m not.”
“It’s starting to get cold,” I said. “Will you see any heavy activity before you’re out of here?”
“It ain’t snowing yet. We’ve got intelligence that they might be coordinating something soon.” He smiled. “Maybe even while you’re here.”
We laughed, wishing we could will a fight into existence. I liked him. He was responsible for the lives of more than a hundred men and in charge of overseeing the closure of a vital outpost, and he wasn’t even thirty years old. I asked if he’d stopped to think about that. “Have you considered how that compares to what men your age are doing back home?”
He leaned back in his seat and smiled. “The way I see it, I’m the lucky one.”
His words resonated in my head the next day as I flew to COP Chamkani, a Special Forces base southeast of Herrera that is home to a team of Green Berets and the 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company, call sign Crusher. I’d not been at this second stop on my tour for more than ten minutes before I detected a stagnant, aimless vibe, like being in a garrison where uniform standards and haircuts are top priorities. The sense of purpose I’d felt with Captain Jones was missing. I could see it in the soldiers’ body language.
“There’s not much going on,” explained my escort, Sergeant Rene Morales. Tall and thin, with sharp features, the 25-year-old had enlisted after a stint in college. He was articulate, one of those guys you know could be anything in the world, if only he could figure out what that is. The Army is full of men like him. “We’ve been out a lot but haven’t even sniffed a TIC,” he continued, as he gave me a tour of the base and introduced me to some of his Joes. “Though I keep hearing the Special Forces dudes are out getting kills every night.”
The living quarters were better than those at Herrera, but the soldiers all seemed bored to death. “These new guys are desperate for a TIC,” Morales said. “The biggest thing they’re afraid of is leaving here without a CIB, and they know this is probably their last chance.”
CIB stands for Combat Infantryman Badge, and it can be earned only by engaging with the enemy. No infantryman wants to return home from war without it. I got mine the day of the ambush that killed Jordan and Garvey. I remember thinking I was now a member of an elite club, but it came at a terrible cost.
With little going on at Chamkani, I decided the next day to fly on to my next stop, COP Zormat, the home of 1st Battalion’s Delta Company, call sign Dragon, in the southwest region of the Paktia province. The outpost lies near the Shah-i-Kot (“Place of the King”) Valley, where the first major offensive of the U.S.-Afghanistan war took place, including the deadly clash between Taliban and Special Ops forces on the peak Takur Ghar, in March 2002. I wasn’t in the Rakkasans then, but the unit played a role in the fight, which eventually left more than two hundred Taliban soldiers dead, and when I got to my platoon about a year later, I loved listening to the stories from the guys who had been there. It had been a bonding, sacrosanct experience for them, and I’d wished many times that I could have been there.
As I waited at the landing zone for the next Black Hawk, a Special Forces team nearby readied vehicles and weapons for a mission. I noticed two privates from Charlie Company watching the team with envy, and I struck up a conversation. The two talked about the war drawing to a close and discussed whether or not it was worth staying in the Army if there was no war to fight. They had been eight or nine years old when 9/11 occurred, and they had only vague memories of that day, yet here they were, eleven years later, locked and loaded in Afghanistan, eager to get into a game that had started when they were in elementary school.
“I’m not worried about it,” one of them said finally. “I’ve been watching the news. We’ll be fighting North Korea soon.”
IT WAS TWO in the morning and well below freezing when we caravanned out from COP Zormat in twenty MaxxPro MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles), large armored trucks with undercarriage plating and wire netting designed to redirect IED blasts and stop RPGs. Delta Company’s Headquarters Platoon, 1st Platoon, and an explosives ordnance team were headed out to Sahak, a stretch of villages about ten kilometers from Zormat known to harbor both Taliban fighters and Haqqani network militants from Pakistan. It was to be a large-scale, three-day mission, and I’d been invited to join it: Operation Paiwastoon.
The mission, a joint effort between local and foreign forces, had actually been initiated by the Afghans. (The word paiwastoon means “unity” in Pashto.) The day before, I’d sat in on the mission brief while a commander of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), a squatty middle-aged man with a mustache and round face named Colonel Mahmoud, had laid out timelines, phase lines, suspected IED sites, and his plans for patrol bases to a room full of both Afghans and Americans. Delta Company’s commander, a tall and lean officer named Captain Jacob Carlisle, had listened intently through his interpreter, a young Afghan named Ray. Though he was firm about where and how his company would be involved, Carlisle’s enthusiasm for the mission was contagious.
“This is the first time they’ve all come together and coordinated something this big without us pushing them,” he explained, pointing out the commanders and NCOs from the ANA, the Afghan National Civil Order Police, and the Afghanistan Uniform Police. “They’ve planned it all. Even their own logistics. The colonel told me he’s expecting around three hundred men.” Their uniforms had been a study in contrasts: polished boots and ragged Converse, camouflage blouses and black leather jackets, Yankee baseball caps and bright-green berets. “Afghans from different units and tribes all collaborating,” Carlisle said. “It’s symbolic. This is what we hope the future looks like.”
Two hours after leaving the outpost, we reached an empty compound large enough for all the MaxxPros. The plan was to link up with the ANSF, hump to Sahak, clear the western villages, then return to the compound that night. There was no moon, and the early-morning darkness was intensified by a thick fog. The ANSF soldiers trickled in slowly; they stood in circles, smoking, or huddled in their truck beds to stay warm. I felt my feet turn to ice as we waited for them to organize. Finally, at around four-thirty, we stepped out behind a platoon of ANSF and followed them toward Sahak. From what I could tell, only about 120 had shown.
I fell in behind 1st Platoon’s Staff Sergeant Cristobal Perez, whose outline I could make out intermittently in the fog, his face silhouetted by the green glow of his night-vision goggles. We’d met when I’d first landed at Zormat. A 26-year-old from California, Perez had enlisted despite his father’s objections when he’d turned 18. Now he was married, with two kids. “This war is nothing like Iraq,” he told me. “Here you can fight back. It’s more traditional. I think the guys enjoy it.”
Our boots crunched over ice and frost as we cut across fields and sleeping villages. As dawn began to break, its light painted us gray, like ghosts. The fog lifted, and a strange, ancient world materialized before us. All around sat grave sites, old and new: mounds of dirt marked by headstones or long tree limbs, from which old scarves and strips of clothing hung like loose flesh.
The ANSF soldiers separated, and 1st Platoon followed the Afghan army’s 4th Coy, a company of about thirty men. After trudging a couple of hours, we reached our first objective: a string of buildings and fortified family compounds, known as qalats. Perez spread out his men to pull security, then sat back as the 4th Coy searched the area. They were slow and disorganized, disappearing and reappearing without tactical regard. As we waited for them to deem the area clear, a village elder and several boys emerged from a qalat bearing chai. The old man’s long beard was black at the tip, rust-colored in the middle, and white closest to his face. He informed us that there were no Taliban in the area and hadn’t been for a long time. Ray, our interpreter, didn’t believe him, and the two argued. I told the old man I liked his beard. He grabbed it and smiled. “It was black when I was a young man,” he said, as Ray translated. “It turned red when I fought the Russians. And it turned white when the Americans came.”
I asked Ray what he thought of the area. He shook his head. “The Taliban are everywhere,” he replied. “I have a very bad feeling.” A native of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, he’d been an interpreter for two years. His work supported his parents and eight siblings. “I worked for the British SAS my first year,” he told me. “They paid me $1,800 a month. Now I have to work for the U.S. Army, but they only pay me $800.” I asked if he would file paperwork to be allowed permanently into the U.S. “Of course,” he said. “I have to. The Taliban will kill me if I stay.”
The 4th Coy finished clearing the qalats, and we pushed deeper into Sahak. Outside a schoolhouse, we linked up with Colonel Mahmoud and the rest of the ANSF, as well as Captain Carlisle and Headquarters Platoon. The school, set in a large, open field, was the newest building in the area. It was enclosed by a tall stone wall, and we arrived just as hundreds of children were pouring out of the front gate. Mahmoud claimed the field for his patrol base. As 1st Platoon spread out and pulled security, ANSF soldiers plopped down anywhere they could find, sleeping and eating, a few of them rolling joints. Many had painted their RPGs and AK-47s or decorated them with flowers, ribbons, and tassels, and they posed eagerly when they saw my camera. A few offered me their rifles: “It very dangerous. You take.”
We set back out to clear more villages to the south. It was tiring and monotonous. Starting and stopping. Constantly pulling security. Around noon, the clouds broke away from the mountains; I noticed the peaks had turned white. Then suddenly, as if timed by Ares himself, there was a distant popping-boom of a warhead triggered from an RPG, followed by machine-gun fire, then another boom as the warhead hit. Everyone fell to the ground, and I lay next to Perez, who told me the fighting was happening back at the school. The machine-gun fire intensified. Then, distinct thuds.
“Fuck!” said Perez, smiling. “They’re dropping mortars too.”
We lay there and listened. ANA soldiers ran around, yelling and pointing, jumping into trucks, looking for any way to get into the fight. Two American Kiowa helicopters arrived overhead followed by two Warthog gunships. Against the sound track of battle, I felt my pulse pound steady. I was plugged into war again. I fought the urge to take the Afghans’ offer and trade my camera for an AK-47. Not for some deeply bloody desire to kill but for that rush that comes from pulling a trigger.
We made it back to the school during late afternoon. With the MaxxPros parked a few miles away, we decided to stay put for the night. Colonel Mahmoud volunteered a few of his men and trucks to retrieve our packs, food, and water from the compound. In a sign of trust, Captain Carlisle agreed—though not before assuring his men that if their gear went missing they wouldn’t have to pay the Army for it.
The sun was setting, the sky so clear and vivid it seemed digitally enhanced. Suddenly, a faraway boom sounded, followed by machine-gun fire just outside.
“Contact! Contact!” everyone yelled at once. We rushed into the yard, grabbing tiny school desks to stand on and peer over the wall. “Hold your fire! Hold your fire! The ANA are out there!”
I spotted the Afghan soldiers opening up from several trucks and positions in the field. They fired into the surrounding villages. Tracer rounds crisscrossed in the air, disappearing into the dirt and buildings. A moment later, Ray told me the boom we’d heard was an IED. It had been in the path of the soldiers returning with our packs, but it had detonated too late and not hurt anyone.
“This is so fucking stupid,” he said, pacing. “Why do we stay here? There are Taliban everywhere in Sahak. Waiting to attack.”
When the ANA arrived with our packs, it was dark. We popped some ChemLights and dug into a box of MREs. I was thrilled to find I’d grabbed Beef Enchilada. The smell of rotten eggs rising from the magnesium packs warming our meals filled the room. I sat on the dirty concrete floor and ate, listening to the foul, witty banter of hungry grunts packed tight as sardines after a tense day. Black, white, Asian, Latino—they shared knowledge of one another that no one else could understand, and they trusted one another more than they’d trust anyone again. I wanted to tell them to savor the moment, file it as “important” in their line of memories, because years from now they’d miss this more than they could imagine.
“Hey, Matt. How long since you had an MRE?” Perez asked.
“Not since Iraq. Over seven years ago, I guess.”
“You’re gonna be shitting pellets tomorrow.”
We laughed. Afterward, I stepped outside to take in the stars. Standing on a desk, I looked out over the wall into the villages, whose outlines I could make out by the light of a crescent moon. Peering into the darkness, I pictured a hundred Taliban fighters rushing us at once. Timed and coordinated right, they could kill many of us. Maybe even sneak a suicide bomber inside the school. It seemed feasible. No backing out and nowhere to hide. The more I thought about it, the more I hoped they would try.
Ray came out and handed me a cup of tea. I asked what he thought would happen when the U.S. left. “Many of the ANA will quit, and the Taliban will take over again,” he said.
“Why will they quit?”
“Without the U.S., they have no helicopters, no technology, no intelligence, no infrastructure.”
“But neither do the Taliban,” I said. “And the ANSF are better armed now and outnumber the Taliban. What’s to stop them from standing up and fighting?”
“Fear,” Ray replied. “The Taliban do horrible things to people that you can’t even imagine.” He looked out over the wall. “How do you defeat the devil?”
I headed inside, stepping over slumbering bodies and gear, and crawled into my sleeping bag. The entire school reeked of pot; a few ANA soldiers had lit up in classrooms down the hall. I was tired and filthy, and the floor was freezing. I remembered what it was like to be a grunt again, and I loved and hated it all at once. Thinking I’d hear the night explode into shredding gunfire, it was hours before I could sleep. When I finally did, my dreams were inhabited by Taliban fighters who mutilated young women and cut off the heads of taxi drivers and men with colorful beards.
THE NEXT DAY we set out with the 4th Coy again, this time to clear the eastern villages, and soon the morning split open with machine-gun fire. Perez and the rest of 1st Platoon hesitated to return fire for fear of hitting the Afghan soldiers, who were running everywhere. Some of the ANA men returned fire but stopped after less than a minute. Perez turned to me and laughed. “What the fuck can we do?” he said. “We want them to do the fighting anyway.”
A few minutes later, more explosions and gunfire erupted, this time back at the school. Standing in the middle of the Sahak villages, I felt a million pairs of eyes on us. Young boys edged through the commotion, peeking around corners to watch. Farmers in their fields looked on with irritation, hitting the ground during gunfire, then getting back on their tractors during the lulls.
The 1st Platoon leader, Lieutenant Joseph Lasata, urged the ANA commander to push further into more villages, but the Afghans refused to move until the Kiowas and the Warthogs were back above us. We advanced into the next village only when the air support arrived. But then, once we’d secured the area, the ANA soldiers sauntered brazenly into the open, smoking joints and laughing, ridiculing the Americans for spreading out and taking cover. Getting mocked by Afghan soldiers is the last thing a nineteen-year-old with an M-60 SAW needs, especially after risking his life for them. I was trying to be objective, and even I found the ANA’s behavior insulting.
We humped the three kilometers back to the school. It was early afternoon and there was plenty of light left, so we loaded our packs into two ANA trucks and began our march back to the compound for the night. By then the Afghans appeared to have all but lost interest in the mission, scattered around us, groups of them disappearing behind qalats, walls, and buildings, then reappearing in smaller numbers. As we pushed on through another open field, in a wedge formation, machine-gun fire opened up about a kilometer away from a small village to our three o’clock. It was followed immediately by mortar fire. The gun rounds were close, kicking up dirt and rock as we rushed for cover. I jumped into a hole with Ray just as several rounds snapped between us, cracking inches from my head. “Holy shit, Ray!” I gasped.
Perez radioed the Taliban’s positions to Lasata, then got his squad to return fire with everything it had. Two ANA trucks arrived behind us, and their gunners joined in with the Dushkas mounted in the truck beds, jolting from the recoil as the belts of ammo fed their weapons.
Without warning, an ANA soldier with a radio ran up, screaming at Perez to stop shooting. He pointed to a tree orchard at our five o’clock. “ANA! ANA!” he shouted. Though the Afghan soldiers there were clearly out of the line of fire, Perez ordered his squad to cease. The ANA men in the trucks behind us, however, took no heed, continuing to fire into every door and window in the village.
The machine-gun fire from the village continued. Perez ordered Ray to tell the ANA soldiers in the orchard to assault. They refused. As bullets rained down on our position, Lasata, about a hundred meters behind us, sent a squad forward. Perez, growing more irritated by the second at the ANA’s inaction, ordered his squad to open up fire again to cover the other squad’s advance.
“Fuck this,” he said. “Cover their movement!” He kneeled next to his men, pointed at targets, and laid down suppressive fire. Cordite filled the air. My ears rang from the noise. Before Lasata’s squad could get close enough to assault, the shooting stopped.
A moment later, an ANA private carrying a loaded RPG stepped from the cover of the orchard. He stormed toward us, yelling, his arms in the air. Ray jumped from the hole and cut him off, but the soldier pushed Ray aside. One slip of the finger on that RPG, I thought, and we were all dead.
Perez stood and motioned for his squad to stay down. He held his own weapon at the low ready. “Ray, you tell this guy to chill the fuck out,” he ordered.
Ray began to plead, but the soldier only grew more animated. He took a step closer. “He’s very angry,” said Ray. “He says you tried to kill them.”
Perez shook his head. “Bullshit,” he answered. “We knew where they were. We weren’t firing anywhere near them. It was probably his own guys.” He motioned to the ANA trucks behind us. “Now tell him to stand the fuck down.”
But the angry private carried on with his tirade, swinging his RPG in all directions. Other ANA soldiers stepped in and tried to take him away; he broke free from their grasp. Tension was mounting by the second, and I studied Perez as he weighed his options. If he shot the soldier dead—which he had every right to do by now—the ANA might very well turn their guns on us.
Minutes passed. Then the 4th Coy commander appeared. Tearing into the private in rapid Pashto, he sent the soldier, along with a few others, straight into the village where we’d just taken fire, ending the standoff. Perez and Lasata immediately briefed Carlisle when he arrived a moment later. Miraculously, no one had been hit during the entire fight. But the growing antipathy among the squads was going to take a while to shake.
We pushed on until we reached the compound, and gunfire broke out again. I ran up to an empty guard tower and watched. It was magic hour, the world glowing neon. Hundreds of tracer rounds ricocheted, burning off into the air. Bright-orange rockets zipped across fields, disintegrating in sharp flashes. Thunderous concussions followed a second later. A few mortar rounds landed off target in empty fields, scattering dirt and rock and smoke. The ANSF soldiers dispersed, firing erratically into the villages.
I found Ray. “Do you think things will be okay between the ANA and 1st Platoon?” I asked.
“Hard to tell,” he said. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
I looked down on the chaos below. In December 2005 I’d lost one of my soldiers while out on patrol with the Iraqi Army (IA) in Bayji. After pausing to monitor a mosque, we’d pulled back onto the main road, but the IA had refused to leave the mosque’s parking lot. When Private Jonathan Pfender rose from his turret to signal them into our formation, an IED blew up next to his Humvee and killed him. I couldn’t prove it, but I was certain that the IA had known the explosive was there and let us drive right into it without warning. We were all furious, and my commanders pulled me and my platoon off IA duties. I never would have allowed retribution, but I’d hated the IA then. Part of me still does. “Iraqi failures in our eyes are nothing compared to our failures in their eyes,” our commanders had preached. But try and convince yourself of that when all you want is to kill every one of them.
An hour later, Captain Carlisle and the Afghan commanders decided the mission had come to an end, and we caravanned back to Zormat. As far as I could tell, only one man had been detained with an AK-47 over the course of Operation Paiwastoon. But in the end, I realized, clearing Sahak hadn’t been the real mission. The real mission had been to get the Afghan forces working together.
FOUR DAYS AND several helicopter rides later, I was back in the crowded reception building at Kabul Airport, this time at the first security check to catch my flight back home.
“Ticket. Ticket,” the guard hissed, refusing to let me by. Showing him my passport, I explained that I didn’t have my ticket, it was waiting for me inside. “No ticket, maybe we arrest,” he said, tapping the handcuffs on his hip with his AK-47. “Or maybe you pay.”
He rubbed his fingers together like a Hollywood gangster, the international sign for money. I couldn’t tell if he was bluffing, and I was completely alone. I took some cash from my wallet and slid it into his hand. He pocketed the money, patted me down, and motioned for me to pass. Another guard led me down the sidewalk. I thought I’d paid for an escort until we reached the guards at the next checkpoint.
“No ticket, no go home.” They clicked their tongues at me like I was a child, but their threats seemed extraordinarily real. I looked at the guard who had accompanied me, and he nodded as if to say, this is how it goes. They shook me down two more times before I finally reached the safety of the terminal twenty minutes later, my wallet $180 dollars lighter.
I was exhausted. I couldn’t wait to see Lauren—to kiss her, to tell her about everything. But I also felt strangely unsatisfied. I wasn’t quite ready to leave. To be part of something bigger than myself again had been meaningful. I thought of the soldiers at Chamkani, waiting for the fight of their lives. I hoped they’d see combat, just not at great cost. I thought of Ray. In Iraq I’d become friends with one of our interpreters, Fouad, and had even written letters of recommendation for his visa. But we’d lost touch, and last I’d heard, two of our other interpreters in Iraq had been killed. I told myself I’d try to look Fouad up.
I also thought of Sayed. After our close call in the taxi, I’d finally felt the remorse I’d always thought I should have felt for killing the old man in Iraq. I also felt angry for being put in that situation in the first place. I was glad that the only killing I’d ever do again was on paper. I climbed onto the plane, closed my eyes, and thought of my old soldiers and how different my world back home is.
I don’t know how the war will end. I thought Iraq would have collapsed by now, but it hasn’t. Perhaps Ray is wrong and the ANSF will multiply, stand, and hold their ground. (After I left, I learned from Captain Jones that COP Herrera was turned over to the Afghans rather than being dismantled.) What I do know is that, for better or worse, I recognize the soldier in the Iraq photos on my walls again. And there’s a voice now too from new photos in Afghanistan. I plan to take counsel from them both. I’ll never fully understand why we went to war in Iraq, but I’ll always be proud I was a part of it. I think of the men in my platoon every day. And to the ghosts hovering over my bed, if you can hear me, I am grateful.
Ne desit virtus. Let valor not fail. Rakkasan.