Manhattan Project #33 Violence is violence

(Wherein Jed Berman ships out to Kabul, Afghanistan to boost his TV station’s ratings by reporting from a war zone)

The first thing I had to do was spend some time at a Pentagon fitness program. It wasn’t required, but they’d come up with it after having to put up with a bunch of fat-assed, slow-moving journalists when the Iraq war first broke out. Pretty sobering stuff, as it turned out. Not the physical part, I’ve always kept in pretty good shape. Although the five mile march with twenty five pounds of gear strapped on my back posed some challenge. So did learning to jump on and off helicopters, with their rotors slamming what felt like hurricane force wind down on you. But when we had to pull on protective suits and masks and goggles that would protect us from chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, all of which our instructors honestly believed Saddam and Al Qaeda might actually use against us, that really gave me some second thoughts. I didn’t get the impression the other reporters saw any real difference between the WMDs, but the stuff about nukes really got to me. It seemed horribly ironic that I could end up getting snuffed out by nuclear weaponry that my own mother had been part of creating, so we wouldn’t be wiped out by the Nazis all those years ago.

If you’re wondering if I saw getting embedded as another chance to figure out the questions that plagued me for so long, I guess I’d have to admit part of me did. I knew I’d have to be careful about it, but what better time to ask someone why they pick up a weapon and kill somebody with it than when they’re actually doing it? I also have to tell you I was more than a little anxious about what kind of reports I would actually file from out there. We didn’t have budget to send video via satellite, so I couldn’t do packages every day and ship them home. I did have a little digital video camera and a bunch of tape, so part of the plan was for me to get the pictures for stories I wanted to do, maybe even write the script for them and get them edited in my laptop, and then save them for air when I got home. While I was actually there, I had a satellite phone, so I called in to the station during news time every day for a brief conversation, and the director would roll whatever Afghanistan footage had come through recently over my conversation with my co-anchor.

It was a fairly clever plan on Fred’s part. He could only afford to have me over there for about a month, so he sent me in October and we promoted the hell out of the fact that my reports from the front, some of them featuring our local Maine soldiers, would appear in the news during November, the most important ratings book of the year. It’s the one the station uses to set advertising rates for the next twelve months. And I’m sure you know how important advertising is to the station. Anything you can do that boosts the size of the audience during the book—that’s what we call the ratings report they put out based on viewing diaries people agree to keep during the month—is always seen as a plus. DeMarco made people upstairs very happy by sending me to Afghanistan.

I took off out of Boston on a Wednesday night in late September, and first hooked up with the Army in Kabul. It’s in the northeastern part of the country not too far from the Pakistan border, the border everybody believes Osama bin Laden scurried across when U.S. troops tried to capture him way back when the fighting started over there, after 9/11. I hoped to get close to that part of the world, to see what it looked like, after hearing the networks say over and over that the reason we didn’t catch him was because the terrain was so rugged and he and his supporters knew their way around there a whole lot better than we did.

We had done a lot of stories over the years since the war started, mostly cut-down stuff from the network, and we often threw in that line about how the Russians had obliterated Afghanistan when they fought a war with them, and that the U.S. was in the process of bombing them back to the stone age for a second time. And I can tell you honestly the place does not impress. Piles of rubble left from endless fighting pressed up against signs of modern civilization. And now a tremendous American presence, with bases scattered around the country.

What Fred wanted me to bring home was word on how our people were making out over there, and I got started as soon as I landed in Kabul. My handlers invited me to a video conference that linked the Army Corps of Engineers in Virginia with soldiers in Kabul and one of the provinces for an award ceremony—the military seems to do a lot of that. The award was called the Defense of Freedom medal. Apparently Donald Rumsfeld created it shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers to recognize civilians who joined the war effort. In this case, it was a guy who was in Afghanistan building roads and schools for the local people. He had just extended his time in the country when a rocket attack took out two Navy corpsmen and blew this civilian guy apart.

Those pictures I saw in that library book back in elementary school came roaring back as I watched this guy limp into a room in Virginia, his left hand in his pants pocket, his stump of a right arm mostly covered by a short-sleeved, white shirt. There were tears all around. The people I was standing beside knew the guy and really liked him. I interviewed some of them after the ceremony. I knew it would make a really good story about how Americans pull together when they have to, and make that kind of sacrifices without complaining. Geez, the guy was standing there, less than sixty-five percent of the man he used to be, thanking the Corps of Engineers for giving him the honor of working with them and getting blown up. The whole thing just seemed sad to me; of course, I couldn’t say that in my story. I could just play it out, show people the pictures and let them hear what everybody said, and I knew it would produce an emotional reaction. If you look at it from the guy’s point of view, I can see how everybody might feel good about this nice man getting the award. In fact, when I thought about it that way, I had to think there are lots of other people—civilians—who should get that award. I don’t mean to be too self-centered, but my mom made at least as great a sacrifice as that guy did.

That wasn’t the first time I’d hung around with the Corps of Engineers. We worked with them a long time ago when a summer of heavy rain swelled the rivers of the Midwest and sent flood waters pouring into the streets of many a town. Our state’s river rescue team went out to Iowa to help evacuate people trapped by the high water, and we tagged along. We met the Corpsmen while they were working to shore up the levees along the Des Moines River. They told us that was their usual job, responding to natural disasters. They have a great reputation for that. I liked working with them in Des Moines.

But the Corps of Engineers also basically invented the atom bomb. General Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was part of the Corps of Engineers. You could defend them and say their role in the Manhattan Project was every bit as patriotic as anyone else in those days. And building military bases in Afghanistan now could look like much the same thing. And you could add all the work they do on civilian projects, like levees and dams. And you could believe all the public works balance out any negatives that come with things like building nuclear weapons. I mean, you could, but I wouldn’t.

Anyway, while I was in Kabul, I was reminded of something I realized years ago when I went to visit my brother’s Air Force base in Europe. Wherever America ships its soldiers, it tries to create a little, self-contained version of the States. My brother’s base had a high school, a hospital, a dental clinic, a bowling alley, a gym, even a snack bar. The cheeseburgers were especially good. I’m pretty sure they shipped in American beef for the patties. So I had that in the back of my mind as I strolled around the compound in Kabul, and sure enough I came across another little America, or at least an attempt at it.

Right there in the middle of this bullet-riddled, dusty, ancient city I walked right into a New York style fashion show, complete with runway and original fashions. It made a great story. Turned out all the models were soldiers, some very attractive ones, I have to admit, and two of them were from Maine. So I shot some video and then did some interviews for a piece that would run during November. And I talked about how strange it seemed to see something like that in a place where the landscape outside looked more like the surface of the moon than Madison Avenue. Like the bowling alleys and snack shops, I wondered if encouraging soldiers to put on a fashion show was another way to get their minds off of what they came to do, a kind of security blanket, or maybe a familiar shot in the arm to keep their heads from coming apart so far from home and under incredibly stressful circumstances.

You never knew when a suicide bomber was going to blow up a market or a sniper would take a bead on your head as you walked around the city. Plus, from what I’d heard and read, I was pretty sure Afghani men who embraced the Sharia Laws would take a dim view of women striding along a runway with their well-turned legs bare above the knee, their cleavage showing, and nothing covering their faces or their hair. I remembered reading about hassles in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, because U.S. troops wanted to drink some beer and watch racy videos. From what they’d told us in our training classes, these Taliban guys and certainly Al Qaeda were much worse than that. Sharia Law permits husbands to manhandle their wives if they even suspect them of doing something wrong. And it calls for cutting off a thief’s hand if you catch them. I have to admit I don’t find that any more attractive than the idea of warfare in general. Violence is violence.

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