The Transition Home

The Bus Stop

I got called into our company operations meeting early one night last week. A terrible incident had occurred. The company commander detailed the serious engagement of an engineer Route Clearance Package (RCP) upon a bus of civilian local nationals. The engineer unit was traveling along highway one during the early morning in reduced visibility. The passenger bus came from the rear at a high rate of speed and the soldiers engaged the vehicle with heavy caliber machine gun fire, killing anywhere from 4-5 civilians and wounding dozens more.

From what I understand, most of my family and friends also heard about the incident, but from a nightly news broadcast or an article such as this one from the NYT. I was actually a little surprised to see that the event created such big headlines. My unit and our area of operations has appeared in the papers several times, but there was something about this that was different. It forced me to consider, not only my reaction in present day, but the manner in which I would have reacted had I read this article years ago as a West Point Plebe…or what about 10 years ago as a high school freshman?

If I were a civilian student reading this article, I would be appalled and embarrassed. I think, ten years ago, I probably would have joined the rest of the media and academic circles in scoffing at the carelessness of soldiers and their disregard for civilian life. The event would have bolstered my perception of the U.S. military as barbaric and unable to conduct a civilized war.

If I were a cadet at West Point, I would have scolded that unit’s senior leaders. I would have accused them of not enforcing an institutional culture of professionalism and restraint in their unit. I would swear that, “when I get over there, I’d be better than them…I’d be different.”

Sitting in my combat outpost in Afghanistan, I read and re-read the media accounts of the event that occurred no more than a few kilometers outside my front door. I closed my eyes and tried to recreate the platoon leader’s sensory inputs during those unyielding seconds of decision. I didn’t have to try too hard to understand what that platoon leader was going through; I’ve been there countless times. And at the end of my meditation…I opened my eyes to a striking realization: I would have done the exact same thing.

I’ve dealt with several reporters out here in Afghanistan. It’s not surprising that the journalists who make their way out to our remote and dangerous outposts are usually a little cockier and more arrogant. After all, their job is to find action and to sell the story of the amazing things they’ve seen. At first, I found that cockiness endearing. I saw it as a means of trying to relate to the atmosphere of the Army’s combat arms units. Ten months into my tour in Kandahar, that arrogance has lost its charm. I view journalistic arrogance on the front lines more as a defense mechanism used to cope with the fact that they are only writing about history, not making it.

To me, the global media outlets who reported negatively on this issue all did so with a mixed combination of arrogance and ignorance. They discuss the issue, not in the context of an officer’s decision making process, but in the most controversial manner possible because, well, at the end of the day…it sells.

Here’s my take on what happened.

First, if there’s one thing that I have found common in all bus and truck drivers in Afghanistan…they’re all high. They’re doped up on hasheesh, marijuana, and other drugs of choice. They speed relentlessly and dangerously. Afghan drivers are not right in the head, and this is coming from an officer who has not only conducted hundreds of vehicle searches in Afghanistan, but has also driven on roads in Chennai, Nairobi, Cairo, Amman, Moshi, and dozens of other third world cities. Afghan commercial drivers are almost always intoxicated.

Secondly, it used to be that a sight of a Stryker could scare a vehicle into driving slowly and carefully out of fear of incurring our military wrath. Unfortunately, after a year of our population-centric Rules of Engagement, the locals seem to have figured out that we can’t shoot back at them just for being unsafe. They’ve figured out that they can drive recklessly around us, and we won’t respond with force to control the situation unless we’re taking lethal contact. We will only wave flags and shine lasers, and maybe honk our horns. But just as children will degrade their already poor behavior when their actions go without consequence, Afghan drivers have been pushing the line of acceptable unsafe driving for quite some time.

Most importantly, the vehicle borne IED threat in Zhari district is incredibly high. We hear about it everyday: they’re out there, and they’re waiting for the most opportune time to attack.

“But it was a bus full of civilians?!” some may argue. But for those of us who actually are the victims of the threat, we can’t be deceived by such assumptions. Why does its matter that it was a bus full of civilians? Are we supposed to assume that the Taliban are incapable of hijacking a bus, loading it with explosives, and running it into an American military convoy? I’m pretty sure if terrorists can hijack commercial planes and fly them into the Twin Towers, an Afghan bus wouldn’t be too much of a challenge for them.

So I ask you, my reader, to replay the scenario again in your head. It’s dark. You’re moving at a relatively slow pace, and a bus is charging at you. Odds are, it’s a civilian vehicle. You signal it to slow down: lights, lasers, and horns. What’s going through your head right now? Are you scared for the lives of the Afghan civilians? Are you scared for your own life? Well, you’re like me and the dozens of other honorable platoon leaders out here, your first thought is of the safety of your men. If I felt even the slightest suspicion that this vehicle was a VBIED, an intoxicated driver, or even a bus with no brakes, I would have firmly ordered my men, “You fire if you feel unsafe.”

Now, in the above scenario, I make a very serious assumption: that the soldiers used lights, lasers, and horns. But even if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t matter at all. The most elementary students of the Laws of Land Warfare all know that a soldier always has the right to defend him or herself. Lights, lasers, or nothing, if those soldiers felt threatened, they had every right to engage.

Those soldiers didn’t know that the bus was actually not a bomb, but would you be willing to take that chance with their lives? How bout with your parents’, children’s, your own life?

Those soldiers didn’t know if that driver was intoxicated or just playing a game of chicken. But would you be willing to risk one of your soldiers getting hit by a bus because a careless Afghan chose to smoke a joint before getting behind the wheel?

Those soldiers didn’t know if that bus was going to stop. But quite frankly, no matter what anyone else says, I’m not here for the Afghan people. I’m here for the American people. I’m an American platoon leader here to protect Americans. It sounds callous, but the risk to just one American life on that morning would have given me enough of a reason to open fire.

Maybe that’s the wrong answer. Maybe us platoon leaders need to assume some more risk with our own soldiers’ lives in order to win this war on terror. After all, If that’s the only way to secure Afghanistan, and securing this country is critical to American national security, I will execute this mission as ordered.

But the minute a soldier feels his life is at risk, his inclination is to turn to the leaders he trusts. If those leaders turn to him and explain that his “life is being risked for Afghan civilians”…well…what would you do?

Personally, I would stop trusting my leaders. I would follow their orders just to the point where I knew I’d be protected. I would lose faith in the mission. I would distrust the Army, and I would only work just hard enough to stay out of trouble. Is that the force you want defending America?

Whether that platoon leader on the ground made the right decision or not is not my call, and it’s a call the Army has yet to make, and I’m confident the outcome will be fair. But what I lack confidence in is the media’s ability to portray the vigorous intellectual debate that goes through a platoon leader’s mind during such life and death matters. I have little confidence in a reporter’s ability to understand what it’s like to own the lives of a platoon of 20 year-old kids. I have very little confidence in a news outlet’s willingness to tell the whole truth if it means selling fewer papers or receiving lower ratings. The purpose of this post is not to change your mind about what happened on the ground that day. The purpose is to reassure my audience that, in spite of what you may hear on the news, the American soldiers on the ground in Kandahar are good people. They may make some mistakes sometimes, but we all want what’s best for the country we love and our brothers in arms. We recognize that we are strategic-level actors; it’s time for the nation to start trusting us to make our own strategic-level decisions.

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36 responses

  1. I’m so glad you posted this, and that you were able to reflect on how this experience has given you a newfound understanding.

    FYI, when my husband was the surgeon in charge of the FST, they made a blanket decision: no journalists inside. The reason? Too much had been taken out of context, too much had been misrepresented by the reporters.

    And so they shut the doors, much to the embedded journo’s protest. It was that same mix of arrogance and ignorance that he found, that you now see.

    Not all are like that, but unfortunately, the ripe and the less refined embeds calling themselves journos ruin it for everyone. Hopefully, at some point you will meet one who will stop to ask the 5-W’s. It’s boring, and hopelessly out of fashion –the who, what, where, when, and why, but if a journo is willing to present himself with this, then sometimes it’s an indication of someone who will listen. The others are on the frontline not to get the story, but to have an experience for themselves to share with an audience that they imagine need clamoring for. And you don’t need to talk to them or win them over.
    Be safe. And to your family, I say be proud of your son. Let me know if you need anything.

    23 April 10 at 21:33

  2. Dennis K

    Forty years and not much has changed. At that time, while going thru training, I had a Platoon Leader who told us that his unit had been reported destroyed by NVA in Viet Nam. His presence tended to refute the news article. We just have to realize that many journalist are not in place to report the truth but to tell a story. My own son-in-law, in Special Ops., has stated very matter of factly that the U.S. military saves more lives than it takes, through humanitarian missions. But why report on that? You are the best judge of your actions and probably the most critical analyzer of them. Experience evokes wisdom, and hopefully you’re the wiser for it.

    24 April 10 at 01:37

  3. Srivats Iyer

    Great article Rajiv. It really explains what the actual situation is like on the ground. In the age of the internet, we can get the news directly without relying on the bias of reporters. Stay safe and keep up the good work. Let me know when you return from deployment.

    24 April 10 at 02:01

  4. thank you for this. I try to portray this side of the news stories of “recklessness” in Iraq & Afghanistan… but I am not a soldier nor have I ever been (but I have had many of these stories related to me in detail — and many where they DIDN’T fire)…. but nothing can compare to the view from THAT side of the glass, with that level of experience and your level of analysis. Thank you.

    24 April 10 at 02:08

  5. Mew

    Thank you so much for this piece. You have written what I think, but do not know how to say when I read the msm war stories. I always think… what is the real story?

    My belief is when your country is at war for many years and you don’t get the hang of how to behave to save your own life, then it’s your own fault. So I have no empathy for these type of “civilians”. Those Soldiers did the right thing.

    I will forever be on the side of the American Soldier and Marine…no matter what. I trust them to do the best they can in every situation and challenge they face. God Bless them and keep them safe.

    24 April 10 at 05:03

  6. Greyhawk

    Some try to complicate it but it’s simple to me:
    They’re making noise and we’re making history.

    24 April 10 at 11:17

  7. Dear Rajiv,

    I am so thankful to be able to read your first hand account. The mainstream media seems to have a desire to demonize our troops & make the entire population of Afghanistan appear simply as innocent bystanders.

    Your blog has educated me on many areas of the war; the corruption, the horror, and the nightmares that our troops face daily. The window you share is one that is much clearer than I can find anywhere else.

    Regularly, I pray for your safe return home along with the rest of our troops & for peace for the Afghanistani people.

    Keep writing,
    Donna Dilley

    24 April 10 at 15:10

  8. Linked and hopefully will generate some traffic to you. (Okay, my three readers might visit.) Great writing and spot on.

    24 April 10 at 19:19

  9. Irene Clark

    Rajiv,……I’m glad to hear that you are alright and looking forward to being home bound! You deserve a trip home to see family and friends. I too, had heard of this news article. I think most of us have figured out that the press is out to sell a story. You soldiers have your own personal stories and you especially have a talent for writing and I believe that you could write a book and perhaps should!
    None of us can know how we would re-act in a situiation such as the one that happened. We want our soldiers to come home safe. War is the pits! Many of you will have nightmares for years to come, because of what you have gone through. I pray for all of you to be healed mentally, emotionally and physically. We support our soldiers knowing that they have been sent into harms way and knowing that they have to make split second decisions. We do hear of the good that our soldiers are doing, but not to the extent that we probably should. For the most part most of us would wrap our arms around all of you and hug you and tell you that things will be alright. We send our prayers and we cry our tears knowing that we can not support you nearly enough. The country there is not something that we are used to….we can wish them well and reach out a helping hand, but they too will need to help themselves and do their part. They feel pain and grief just as we do. It is unfortunate that we don’t come together for the greater good….but, who is to say and decide what that is. We love America and I suppose we all love our homeland wherever that is. Hindsight can not change anything; nor second guessing what we should have done. Danger comes and we deal with it the best that we can. God is still in control at the end of the day and we can count our blessings and pray that all is well with our soul. God bless you & the rest of our soldiers.
    Keep up the posts! Hugs 2U!

    24 April 10 at 22:22

  10. Pasquale Squillante

    My brother in-law said kill them all and sort them out later. He was a Marine sent over Vietnam at the age of 17. He had his father sign the papers to allow him to join at the early age. As harsh as it may sound, he is right. No risk is woth 1 American soldier. Yes we try to help everyone, but there is a limit. No one wants to kill a child or a parent or grandparent but in war nothing is fair and reaction is a split second decision. Many of us are behind the troops and what thay do. The media is a joke, 1/2 truth and 1/2 lie, read inbetween the lines. Rajiv, keep up the excellant job that you and your troops, and all the troops that are overthere are doing. May you all make it home safe with the grace of God. As always, stay safe and hope to meet up with you soon!

    24 April 10 at 23:58

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  12. Bill Kinzie

    Rajiv,

    Just to add a hearty “amen” to what the previous comments have expressed. War has always been an action of destruction. Incapacitate the enemy to the point
    of surrender. I don’t understand “a gentleman’s war”. Our colonial American soldiers learned guerrilla warfare from the Native Americans who were defending their territory…the only way. Yes, rebuild schools and infrastructure when you can. Offer medical help and compassion to the victims of war when possible. But at the moment of implied threat take care of your self and your men first. Stay safe…and keep telling the truth as you see it right there.

    25 April 10 at 00:42

  13. Cam Srpan

    I am very sorry that citizens got killed….it is WAR. Kill or be killed.
    Take no chances! Come home safely!
    Cam S.

    25 April 10 at 01:32

  14. Meredith

    Awesome post Rajiv! You have given us so much insight through your account and analysis, and by example, you encourage us to think and read critically. When leaders act to protect the members of their platoon from danger, perhaps their protective instincts resemble those of parents. There’s no question we depend on these instincts for survival, at the personal, societal, and national level.

    Sometimes the spin that journalists take when reporting on civilian deaths in war reflects a coping mechanism–blaming–for dealing with fear. “If they’d only done x, y could have been prevented.” But stopping a bus potentially armed with IEDs seems like stopping a suicide bomber from detonating herself. Even if the pack of dynamite somehow failed to ignite, we would still have been justified in intervening where several signs pointed to terrorism.

    I hope you know how much we appreciate your sacrifices, your courage, and your leadership. TWO months left, yes!!!

    25 April 10 at 15:10

  15. Alex

    I’m not unsympathetic to your position, but I do think it’s deeply wrong, and points to the impossibility of your mission. The entire point of terrorist action is to encourage this sort of behavior, and you’ve played into it.

    You ask whether five civilian Afghan lives are worth risking the lives of American soldiers. Part of the training of a soldier is to think that your lives are worth more than those of another nation. By accident of birth, we are expected to discount the lives of those who are not US citizens. This is morally reprehensible.

    I recognize that it may also be a result of an impossible position: soldiers who have to deal with an insurgency that uses the local civilian population as cover. But it doesn’t make it any more right.

    Your attempt to shift the blame to the local civilians makes no sense. The appropriate punishment for bad driving is not execution. Moreover, it works against the mission, and against US interests. I will not make a moral equivalence, this does not make the shooters the “same” as those who target civilians with suicide bombs. But it also is not something that is just. Fighting for survival is understandable and maybe even excusable, but don’t pretend that it is right.

    25 April 10 at 15:18

  16. defendUSA

    This is an excellent read. The objectivity you display is a great credit to yourself and those you lead.

    I would have done the same thing. Period. For all the reasons you state, as a soldier and as a civilian if necessary to protect whomever needed it.

    25 April 10 at 15:29

  17. Alex

    In re-reading what I’ve written above, I realize it sounds particularly judgmental. That’s not what I intended. And it also isn’t intended as a personal attack. I do recognize that people make decisions in the heat of battle, as well as after significant time under duress, that are less than ideal.

    But I also think it’s important not to let understanding those decisions extend to supporting or accepting them. Five people had their lives cut down because someone incorrectly perceived them as a threat, and had the means to cut them down preemptively. Five lives may not seem like much in a time and place where lives are cheap. I’ll be curious, when you look at your words in 20 years, with kids of your own, if you will reach the same decision as to the justification of those actions. So, I don’t mean to judge, only to suggest that perspective is important.

    25 April 10 at 15:37

  18. Rurik

    Forty years, and the essentials of war have not changed. Fid I expect they would? Not at all. probably not for the last four thousand years. Forty years ago, I had a strikingly similar incident, save that the outcome was happier, but encountering a little girl with a grenade changed my perception forever, not only of war but also of police work. And reporters. Not all changes necessarily in the same direction.

    25 April 10 at 16:39

  19. Great post. I particularly like the way you put it: “But quite frankly, no matter what anyone else says, I’m not here for the Afghan people. I’m here for the American people. I’m an American platoon leader here to protect Americans.”

    That gets overlooked far too often in my view. When it comes down to it, you have to protect your guys first. If the natives don’t like that, then we’ll be happy to leave as soon as they can police their own damned country.

    25 April 10 at 17:51

  20. Mew

    http://www.cnbc.com/id/36715336?slide=11

    I would think that the American Soldier would be on this list? How many have to face what those in this story do daily?

    25 April 10 at 18:53

  21. TJ

    are the afghan civilians who were passengers on that bus so ignorant of the situation in their own neighborhoods and tribal areas and country or so passive or so stoned themselves that they couldnt make their concerns known to their driver to slow the F down?
    or to stop the bus and ask for an inspection?
    or like the korean co-pilots in civilian airline crashes, are they forbidden by their culture to question authority even if it means their own deaths?
    the passengers who chose to remain silent in the face of their driver’s lunacy unfortunately died for their lack of action. so be it.
    the soldiers did the right thing. not only would their own deaths have been devastating but an incredible waste and would become a monument to indecision but also devastating to their families and friends and fellow soldiers who would survive them.

    25 April 10 at 19:23

  22. Alaska Paul

    This is a most excellent post of the “big picture” thought processes going through the mind of a soldier when faced with limited “givens” and the potential for a major catastrophe to either his men, his fellow soldiers, the passengers on the bus, or both.

    A good writer could make this into a story that would be educational and fascinating. In fact you did just that.

    In the information war, these stories and issues are what our top military and leaders should be dealing with, but they are not. The enemy is way inside our OODA loops on this one.

    Again, thank you for this great posting. Stay safe!

    25 April 10 at 19:35

  23. Wolflpack46

    Good piece, very good in fact/if you are the caliber of leadership that our boys depend on/Bless you Sir.
    I have one with the 82nd, will have a second one with the Marines shortly and the last one will be with the NG of a state. Thank you for the clear picture instead of the garbage that’s been fed to the zombies.

    PS: I am a retired soldier and yes I would have given the same order/my boys depended on my judgement and I always strove to bring them all home.

    25 April 10 at 20:13

  24. Roy

    Right on, Rajiv. Except for one modification. Decide before rather than in the context of conflict.

    40 yrs ago in Viet era while in training I thought thru all sorts of parallel scenarios. Realized I would not have the luxury of time to ‘go to the mat’ in that internal debate come the potential combat contact. Made up my mind *before* the fact that any group I commanded would receive the same treatment I give to anything I meet armed and possibly dangerous: repectful courtesy. That means “If doubt compromises safety, shoot.” Providentially worked out I never had to face combat, so I don’t know that experience firsthand. But I know it as close as I want to get.

    25 April 10 at 21:11

  25. thanks for posting this, and thank you for your service.

    26 April 10 at 00:31

  26. Great post, showing that in public discourse we always have to integrate multiple perspectives. And while your perspective is very relevant and plausible, it also shows, that if we fail in Afghanistan, we less fail because of the Taliban but because of us.

    Excellent read related exactly to the incident described above from Time Magazine: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1982093,00.html

    26 April 10 at 10:12

  27. Cynthia Koehler

    Rajiv:

    I am so glad that you posted this article! I, too, am a SSgt in the USAF and have seen how the media skews the military reports. They have been doing that for decades! That is why they call it yellow journalism. Having worked command post while I was in service, I know what the truth was compared to what the media reported at the time I was in. It is ashame that the media cannot speak the truth and honor our young men and women who are serving in a foreign land, helping establish freedom for a country/people that has been oppressed, and bringing so much goodwill to the people as witnessed by so many people on the social networks!

    I would like to see the media fight this battle rather than our young men and women–let the media find Osama bin Laden without the financial help of our government! Or any other government for that matter. Let’s see how that works. I wonder how the people of Iraq or Afghanistan would receive them as yellow warriors then? Oh, that means cowards!

    In the movie, “We were soldiers once” a reporter that was sent to Vietnam was forced to fight with the unit in which he was embedded. By the way, the movie was based on the real Colonel Hal Moore’s life in the Army and the unit he served with in Vietnam. The reporter did fight in Vietnam and was affected by his experience so much that he reported on Vietnam speaking the truth!

    Yellow journalism is alive and well in this day and age. That is why we need people like you to tell us the truth about what is going on on the front lines. We appreciate what you are doing and keep up the good work!

    Stay safe and keep your head down!

    SSgt Cynthia A. Koehler, USAF
    Command Post

    26 April 10 at 10:15

  28. Leilani

    Thanks so much for the insight you relate in this article. Thanks even more for defending our nation and the troops around you. You embody the type of military personnel that many in our country are proud of and pray for daily. The MSM seems to be intent on denigrating our troops and the very foundations that made it exceptional since inception. Thank God for New Media and that people are beginning to wake up. May wisdom, protection and discernment be your constant companions along with heaven’s angel armies.

    26 April 10 at 11:19

  29. Daniel

    Sir,
    Thanks for your service to our country, from the bottom of my heart, I really mean that.
    Keep doing what your doing. Don’t apologize. Bring yourself and your men home alive. To hell with the media. I know all about this cowardly reporting. I’m a law enforcement officer of 14 years and I know all too well about the monday morning quarterbacking the media conducts.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future. Take care, stay safe and God bless,

    -Daniel

    26 April 10 at 15:04

  30. WarriorMomx3

    Thank you for your post and your sacrifice for our country! Unfortunately when journalists write only half the story I believe they are guilty of aiding the enemy and causing our soldiers harm! Their stories are used to feed hatred of American forces and all the trust that has been built to be torn down. They are selling their souls along with their stories and they too shall have to face judgment someday hopefully it will be by someone more merciful and just than they were!

    26 April 10 at 19:52

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  32. What an excellent display of careful, insightful, writing.

    29 April 10 at 16:32

  33. Wolflpack46

    Alex; Your attempt to shift the blame to the local civilians makes no sense. The appropriate punishment for bad driving is not execution. // You missed the point, he did not shift the blame/ he made a choice as a leader of a combat platoon in a very tough situation.

    The assumption seems to be/ happy trigger madmen that enjoy shooting the country side/ how about “stormbringer/milblog” and his account/what about the joe’s that run into a hell of bullets for a kid or another wounded “civilian”.

    How about building barricades at night in the vicinity of Sard city/to minimize the effect of IED’s and getting shot at all night long/knowing that the animals that are doing this will celebrate if they kill two Americans and twenty or thirty civilians with them, because in their blogs and news media those civilians died because of America.

    No, Alex; WAR IS HELL/do you know who knows best that it is madness?? look into the eyes of that Platoon Leader or Company Commander after they finish placing the remains of a couple of twenty year olds in body bags. You will see someone that hates war like no one has ever hated before. Look into the eyes of their friends.

    War is not an exercise in glory/war is a manifestation of what hides in the heart of man.

    I love the comments about the Ia-Drang Valley and the 1st Cav Div/ Joe is a journalist and Joe knows what war is/that is why Joe hates war so…

    30 April 10 at 16:22

  34. Pingback: Pollsters on the Frontlines « A Handful of Dust

  35. Jim Richards

    When you feel threatened, shoot!

    6 May 10 at 00:45

  36. Pingback: UNTO THE BREACH » NATO’s proposed ‘Courageous Restraint’ medal – another victory for our enemies

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