Manhattan Project #35 Berman’s war

(wherein Jed Berman, embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, interviews a young soldier and notches his first kill in battle)

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“Shoot. I have few secrets.”

“Do you know if you’ve actually killed anybody since you came out here?”

He looked at me quizzically.
“You know, I have. I heard Chris telling you how he teed off on that one guy’s head. I caught two of ‘em coming out the other end of the tunnel and shot them with my M-16. One of them grabbed a knife out of his belt and tried to come after me, so I drilled him a couple more times.”

“Was that your first time?”

He nodded, no emotion showed on his face.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did that feel? Were you ready for it? Had you thought about what it would be like before it happened?”

“Sure, in basic they make you think about it and they make it easier for you to do. Other than Chris over there, and maybe one or two other guys I’ve run into over here, I don’t think most of us grew up thinking of ourselves as killers. It just doesn’t seem natural. But I can tell you this, when it’s gonna be either him or me that gets it, I’m gonna’ do everything in my power to make sure it’s him.”

“That sounds a lot different than the stuff they drill into you in school, isn’t it? I mean, what about fighting for God and country and the corps, all that stuff?”

“Oh, I guess I buy that for the most part. I don’t think I would have joined up if I really had a problem with that. It’s what I’ve always believed, right? I’m an American. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to do. Like I said, I don’t think it’s really a natural thing to do, but most of us can learn it. It just messes with some of our heads more than others. But with these little babies,” he patted his pocket and rattled the pills in the plastic bottle, “you can get the job done.”

It seemed to me he had it about right, pretty clear thinking for someone so young. Hell, here in the States he wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer, but over there they stuffed his pockets with drugs, his head with patriotic rhetoric, and he killed. What that might all mean to him over the long haul, I don’t know. But the drug part surprised me.

First chance I got, I jumped online and checked out the Time article he mentioned. His numbers were about right. And it turned out using drugs to anesthetize soldiers wasn’t new at all. The reporter pointed out that Washington plied his troops with rum during that dark, despondent winter at Valley Forge, the Nazis used amphetamines to fuel their attacks on France and Poland, and the U.S. apparently supplemented the voluminous supply of grass in Vietnam with amphetamines, too. I didn’t do a story on the doped up soldiers during ratings month, but it sure seemed to me that the practice was a point in favor of those who say we aren’t born to kill each other.

I had to think of Nathan Thibodeau. He thought he could kill for his family and his country and it ended up stripping him of his sanity and ultimately his life. The Time article included some disturbing suggestions that the very drugs today’s Army uses to keep soldiers out there fighting may be connected to the rising rate of suicides among veterans, out there and when they get back. You gotta’ at least think seriously about Richard Leakey’s argument. Seeing what killing did to these youngsters didn’t do much for Ardrey and Lorenz’s claims, as far as I could see.

Chapter Twelve

It wasn’t really much fun being out there near the border. The Army provides basics, but no frills, like the video arcades and good food available in Kandahar and Kabul. My new friends took me along on several patrols into the mountains, looking for bad guys. Mostly we didn’t find any. I was grateful for that, but also a little bored. I did learn what people meant when they talked about how tough it is to find insurgents when they’re hiding in those mountains. Just following the trails out there was tough.

The targets we checked out came from the intel people who were hanging out with the locals. In fact, by the time I got there the Army was relying on civilians to cozy up to tribesmen and find out what they’re thinking and doing. They even had a name for the civilian group—Human Terrain Team. They were college professors, sociologists mostly, who signed on to go to these very rough places to do their part for the war effort. Since they’d studied these cultures, the military figured they would know how to charm the secrets out of the Afghanis. But it didn’t always work out that way.

One afternoon when we got back to camp, everyone was buzzing about what happened in a little village that morning. Apparently a woman on the HTT—those military abbreviations are infectious, I have to admit—anyway, this woman walked up to a local who was carrying what she took to be a jug of fuel and started chit-chatting about the price of gas. Before she knew what was happening, the guy poured the contents of the jug all over her and lit a match. Her colleagues doused her with water and put out the fire, but she ended up in the hospital with serious burns over better than fifty percent of her body. But that’s not the worst part of it. One of her buddies was so pissed that the Afghan guy did it, that he grabbed a gun, which he was not supposed to have, and shot the guy in the head and killed him. You can probably understand why he would do such a thing, but last I heard he was back in the states looking at a manslaughter charge.

And that wasn’t the only incident like that over there. Guys in my unit told me a British guy and a couple of soldiers had been killed when a roadside mine blew up, and another woman died along with ten or eleven other people when a bomb exploded. I found an old newspaper article about that violence that quoted an HTT spokesman saying, “It’s a war, that’s what we’re involved in.” I thought, no shit, Sherlock. Bet you had to dig deep for that one. That same article quoted some other social scientists who refused to join the Human Terrain Team, because they thought scholars should stay neutral about such things, not sign on with either side in the fracas.

I convinced my gang to haul me into the village where it happened so I could get some footage and do a story about it. I didn’t think most of our viewers had any idea how deeply involved civilians had become in that fight, other than those private security guys who’ve been in trouble for gunning down innocent Iraqis while they’re ushering visiting diplomats around Baghdad. I didn’t include all of my thoughts in the piece I did about it. But as hard as I pondered, I couldn’t anymore understand how Iraqis or Afghanis could blow up people like that than I could understand how our soldiers could fly into those countries and mow down people they didn’t know. I was feeling pretty self righteous thinking about all of that stuff, and then came the day I wish I could rewind or erase, not just from my mind but from reality.

It happened on our way back from another foray into the mountains. Just when we got back to the Bradleys, shots rang out from somewhere above us. We scrambled into the rocks as the hail of fire grew heavier. Bullets were bouncing off rocks all around us. Just as I was thinking what lousy shots these Afghanis were, one shell ricocheted and slammed into the kid beside me. He slumped down and tossed me his gun.

“Shoot that bastard, Jed, will you? Just blow his fuckin’ head off.”

I grabbed the gun but didn’t try to fire it. Instead, I squinted toward the higher rocks, trying to spot the shooters. A few seconds later I saw a flash among the rocks, off to our left. Then I saw a guy’s head sticking up, with a turban on it. He wasn’t firing at the moment, but the gunfire wasn’t letting up. I kept watching him. After a minute or so, he started lifting his gun up to his shoulder. The soldier beside me was still conscious but mostly groaning as his right shoulder turned crimson. He looked up at me, his face pale and his voice weak, and motioned toward the rocks. “Shoot him,” he urged me, “Just fuckin’ shoot him.” He didn’t know I could see the Afghani. Neither did the guy on the other side of me. And the Afghan’s gun was getting closer and closer to his shoulder.

I had a decision to make, and it seemed like everything went into slow motion to give me time to make it. Actually, I’m sure it happened in less than five seconds. My crazy tortured brain went into cognitive overdrive trying to figure out what to do. You have a pretty good idea by now how I feel about these things. I think humans killing humans is not natural. I don’t think I have the right to blow away another person, for any reason, especially in an artificial setting like war. It’s like Leakey said, that kind of fighting is a product of human culture, the human mind, not the human heart, not genetic inclination. At that point I still didn’t have much evidence to explain everything; that’s just what I always thought.

But now here I was, hyperventilating like crazy, an armed Afghani getting ready to take aim at me and my companions, a soldier maybe dying at my feet, and another maybe about to die when the Afghani got ready to shoot. And my head sticking up as another convenient target. It didn’t seem likely that the other guy would spare me just because I was wearing a badge that said journalist on it. Hell, as mad as some of those guys were, he might have been especially pleased to shoot me. That’s not a joke. I have never been so frightened in my life. I actually did see my whole life flash before my eyes. I saw Jane and my family and my friends and even the old standpipe up on the hill in Bangor. I saw the anchor desk, and DeMarco’s shiny bald head and his hands stuffed in his belt like a monk.

I really did see it all, and I’m sure it took no more than an instant. And at the very edge of that instant, the back edge, I made a decision. I leaned over to the guy on my left and pointed out the Afghani, who was just about to take another shot at us. The young soldier beside me already had his gun up. He shifted slightly to his left, squinted through his M-16’s sight, and pulled the trigger three times, very fast. I kept my eyes on the Afghani. Somewhere between the second and third shots, his head exploded, sending a plume of red blood and bits of flesh and skull up the rocks behind him. He dropped out of sight. There was no doubt he was dead, and there was equally no doubt that I had sentenced him to death, every bit as much as if I had pulled the M-16’s trigger myself.

Okay, you’re thinking: What a hypocrite! All that breast-beating and noble protest over the way human beings have treated each other for so long, and first time I’m in a jam, I help do it, too. Fine, think that if you want to. But at least I told you about it. I could just as easily have left it out. I never mentioned it in any of the stories I did when I got home. And you don’t have to believe this either, but as soon as it happened, I felt like I was going to get sick or just pass out. I was instantly horrified and totally disgusted with myself. I squatted down beside the wounded kid on my right, and held my head in my hands. The soldier on my left fired another couple of shots and then knelt down beside me.

“You okay, Jed? How’s Tommy?” That was the guy on the other side of me, the one that got hit. There wasn’t time for moral reflection; we were still in the middle of a skirmish, and the guy beside me was moaning. I turned toward him and asked him how he was. He pulled himself up to a sitting position, and looked at me. I have never seen what I saw in his eyes in anyone else’s before or since that day. It was the look of a man who knew he was dying. He had his arm wrapped around his chest. He pulled it away and showed me the hand he’d been holding over his wound. It was soaked in blood. When the other soldier, Randy, saw it, he squeezed past me to get to his buddy.

“Jesus, Tommy, how bad is it?”

He leaned across Tommy’s chest and examined his shoulder and his chest.
“Dammit, you got hit a couple of times, and one of them must have torn a really big artery. You’re bleeding like a faucet. Can you hang in there, man? This ought to be over pretty soon and we’ll get a medic in here.”

He sat down beside Tommy, put his arm around him and tried to apply pressure to the gushing wounds. Tommy didn’t offer any resistance; he just laid his head against Randy’s shoulder, not speaking, his breathing slow and shallow. A couple minutes later, the patrol leader signaled that it was safe to come out. The band of Afghanis had melted into the rocks as quickly as they had come. Randy stayed on the ground beside Tommy and called for help. A medic came charging over to us, and knelt down beside Tommy. As he was pulling Tommy’s vest and shirt away to get a look at the wound, Tommy arched his back and cried out, then slumped back against the rocks, motionless, his head on his chest. Randy lifted Tommy’s chin and looked in his face, but didn’t try to talk to him. We all knew Tommy was gone.

The medic called for a stretcher and Randy left with the patrol leader to check the nearby area to see how many Afghanis had been killed or left behind. Tommy turned out to be the only casualty in the unit. I climbed across the rocks to the spot I’d pointed out to Randy, where the Afghani was standing when Randy took him out. His body was still there. He looked to be no more than fourteen, although it was a little hard to gauge given the damage to his face. I knew I wasn’t supposed to get involved in any way, but I was feeling a pain like I’d never felt before. It wasn’t as if I’d never seen dead bodies. You can’t do the news as long as I have and not come face-to-face with some really unpleasant sights. But this was way different. I’d never helped create this kind of scene before. I just felt very, very sad, for the kid, even though I knew he would have been happy to do to me and the Americans I was with what we ended up doing to him.

Maybe I was in shock, or maybe some sort of battle was raging between my ego and my superego and conscience won the round, but I suddenly needed to know who he was. He was wearing trousers under the tunic he and his comrades wore to fight. I checked his pockets and found an ID card, with his name on it, and his home address, a village not far from my unit’s camp. As I stood there looking at the card and this dead child, lying on the ground with an assault rifle beside him, Randy came up behind me.

“Jed, what are you doing, man? There could still be some of them hiding around here. You could get yourself killed.”

He took the card out of my hand.

“Nice work, dude. The lieutenant is going to like this. We always want to know where these guys come from. You just set up our next mission. I’ll bet we’ll be paying a visit to that village very soon, to roust out any more Taliban sympathizers or trainees.”

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