Impressions of Americans at war

People back home ask me what my impression is of the US military in Afghanistan. I usually tell them my feelings change with the context, and with the person I’m dealing with. I also let them know that I interact much more often with European soldiers. This answer is met with disappointment more often than not. Americans want easy answers. They want heroic defenders of liberty or psychotic occupiers, soldiers who rescue injured children and raise orphan kittens, or ones who torture prisoners and kill Afghan farmers for shits and giggles.

Coverage of this war is very limited in scope emotionally, and I’m always happy to find exceptions to that rule, even when they’re obscure or terribly sad. Here are three:

1) In this TIME audio slideshow, American soldiers in Marja deal with the aftermath of accidentally killing a 14 year old girl.  Quotes from the audio: “I feel like a bad man because of this,” (soldier) and “What am I going to do with ‘sorry’?” (the victim’s father).

2) An American trainer in Kunar blogs about hard stuff:

Upon getting into the village, we did the usual – looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (2 Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to. We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying. Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

And absurd stuff:

I can recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation regarding a panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up…since the book on pandas stated that a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he does eat shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.

3) Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini writes about the frustrations of an embed-gone-wrong in Kandahar.

I have been waiting for many days to go to Arghandab, a lush green valley few kilometres northwest of Kandahar city. A military operation is going on in the area since the last couple of weeks. I’m staying in Kandahar Air Field (KAF) for the last 19 days and during my stay I’ve covered a Medevac unit in US military camp Ramrod. During all this time I’ve been asking the US army to send me to the war zone in Arghandab valley. At first, they canceled my trip telling it is so dangerous out there for journalists. So little they know that we are here to cover that kind of operation and we do it with our decision and it is our own responsibility to take care of our lives.

Our camp is abuzz with rumours. Some say the US Army is losing there and that the Taliban have put up a vigorous resistance against foreign troops. Others say a tough battle is going on there with a lot of IEDs and mines making it difficult for troops to move. Some also say that a lot of civilian casualties have taken place during the military operation in Arghandab valley and that’s why the US Army would not let any journalist go there.

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