Before each mission, I stand up on the back ramp of my Stryker with my platoon huddled around for a quick brief to ensure we’re all on the same page. Soldiers throw their glowing cigarette butts on the ground, and whip out a pen and paper to take down any notes they may need.
“Arright guys, how’s everybody doing!?” I begin with my classic opening, sounding like a game show host. Sometimes I get an enthusiastic “KILL!” or “fuck yeah!” from my boys. Though lately, it’s just been a series of slow nods. Perhaps the sexiness of combat duty has finally withered away. Maybe they question the value of these missions, and thus the sacrifice of their fallen brothers. I can’t say I don’t sympathize with them, but alas, the show must go on.
These ramp briefs are fairly simple. I start out with our mission in the form of Task and Purpose. I go over our scheme of maneuver, our order of march, sectors of fire, all the stuff needed to get us from A to B safely. I talk about the enemy’s activity in the past 48 hours. I brief the radio frequencies we’ll be operating on for platoon, company, air support, artillery, and medevac operations. Though, I find the most important part of my brief is when I discuss actions on contact. I always say the same thing, “take a deep breath, clear the net, and let the seven (my platoon sergeant) and I establish 360 degree security and maneuver us on the objective.” It’s taught as the tactical pause in the classroom. It helps leaders slow down the tempo of violence and keep from falling into a state of mental chaos when things get rough. Taking that deep breath allows us to develop the situation, understand our surroundings, and make better decisions. I guess I brief the tactical pause more for myself than for anyone else in the platoon.
“Anyone have any questions?”
“…FOR ENGLAND!” cried out SGT Espy from the back in his flawless Braveheart voice. The crowd chuckled just enough to lift our spirits ever so slightly.
“Arright, let’s mount up!”
It was a painfully dark night in mid November. The moon was nowhere to be found. I could barely see my hands in front of my face as we rolled out the gate. I remember chatting with SSG Norman, a field artilleryman turned infantry dismount and now my rear air-guard, as we conducted our cross country movement.
“Dude, why would J.D. dump Elliot…it just makes no sense at all,” I whined as we discussed the latest Scrubs episode I caught before our mission.
“I know!” replied Norman, “I mean W-T-F! It’s like they’re trying to screw him up mentally on purpose! Don’t worry, Sir. You’re still on season three. Wait till you hit season five, there’s this one time when—“
“Yo! Don’t ruin it for me man! Are you crazy?!” I take my sitcoms very seriously out here.
“Gahh alright, Sir…but it’s a good one!”
Sand was flying all over the place, I could tell we were rolling pretty fast. I ducked down quickly to check our grid and make sure we were still heading in the right direction. By the time I came up, the dust clouds had settled and our speed was decreasing.
“What’s going on there, 1?” I called to my lead vehicle.
“Hang on, 6, I’m just checking something out.”I wanted to turn and look at the direction in which my wingman’s optics were facing, but I continued to scan my sector and waited patiently. I was freezing, it had to have been 15 degrees outside.
“Okay, I got four dudes digging! There are no fields around. They’re carrying around dirt in a blanket. These guys are fucking planting an IED!” sounded my lead tanker.
“Hey 6, you get that?” rallied my platoon sergeant.
“Hang on,” I replied, trying to calm everyone down. The Maywand district in which we operate is ridden with IEDs and this could have been one in the making. But something felt wrong. I wasn’t going to let excitement get the best of us. “How far out are they?” I asked.
“They’re about a click out, they got four dudes, one of em has a motorcycle…fuck, they’re starting to walk into the village, one just got on the motorcycle! This is the real deal, I think we need to shoot those fuckers!”
“…this is 46, standby.” And then silence. I took my deep breath. Something didn’t seem right. I could feel the soldiers itching for me to issue a fire command at those men. I was probably the only person in the platoon who felt it, but something was out of place.
“Hey 6, it’s 7. I think we need to shoot these guys. This is some shady shit.”
Our enemy was digging right in front of us, and I was going against the advice of my senior NCO leaders…but this was going to be one of those times when I put my foot down. I was not going to allow my men to open fire. “Negative, continue to observe, move slowly towards their position, 41.”
“Fuck…they got away,” my lead vehicle announced over the net. The rest of the platoon let out a collective sigh of frustration.
“Aright, let’s focus on that IED area. I want to arrange our vehicles to get the best eyes possible on that spot while maintaining standoff,” I called over the net.
The depression in my soldiers’ voices was striking. Everyone from my senior leaders to my driver was demoralized. We roll out everyday on dangerous missions, they’ve had dear friends lose their lives and limbs here. To my men, I had let our enemies get away. To them, I had hesitated. It’s difficult to describe the tone I hear in the voices of my men when they’re upset with me. It’s respectful, but not cordial. It’s courteous, but not warm. The jokes and insults stop flying, the sibling rivalry pipes down. For that evening, I was not a mentor or a member of the family…I was just the Lieutenant. I felt a sense of practical guilt pulling me down with the weight of my decision. But strangely enough, and I don’t know how I was able to convince myself of this, I didn’t feel bad. Those may have been enemy insurgents…but I had no regret, no desire to turn back time.
As we rolled closer to the area, I had the best optic systems in the platoon take the forefront as they scanned for suspicious locations where the enemy could have emplaced IEDs. It was scary. Taliban forces had been at work in this area before, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned, IEDs don’t ever roll solo. They come in cliques of two, three, or even four. I suppose in the Taliban’s gamble, they can do more damage to us by making a small number of concentrated IED hotspots, rather than planning random single IEDs around the vast terrain. They’ve watched us for nine years. They know when we get hit once, everything stops, recovery assets and additional security fall into the same area. I guess it’s about the bang for their buck. I felt better knowing we hadn’t rolled through this area aggressively.
Through the darkness, I saw a tall tower springing from the edge of the village where the men were digging. It was about 50 to 100 meters north of where we would have engaged…it was a minaret. It was a mosque.
“Hey Coolie, scan over in that area. I think that’s a mosque there. See if there’s anything crazy going on?”
“Roger, Sir.” Coolie’s silent and simple reply said more to me than all the painful things I had ever heard in my life. He was miserable. “There’s nothing there, Sir. I think there are people are just praying. There’s actually a lot of ’em, like forty or so.”
“Okay…thanks.” They were just praying. Why would so many villagers be filing into this mosque at this hour? Their final prayer was well past due…it’s not a holy day or religious holiday. What is going on here? A light finally came to mind. A mild grin began to emerge on my face. The men were still upset, but I knew in my heart we had done the right thing.
Would we have hit the mosque with our fire had we engaged those men digging? No, probably not. But at the same time, does it matter? Could it still be devastating to our population-centric mission?
Each time we dismount in an Afghan community, we hear from thousands of Afghan civilians from myriad tribes and villages who fear Americans will kill anyone who goes to the mosque to pray. It sounds absurd, but that’s what they believe. It’s mostly because the Taliban has its own information campaign about the infidel Americans, but also because the Soviets were not so considerate of the religious establishments in this country. It’s part of the vicious cycle of warfare seared into every Afghan’s mind.
No, we probably would not have hit the mosque if we engaged the men digging…but the people inside would still hear gunshots. I imagined women and children breaking their peaceful prayer with the rapid pulsation of .50 caliber rounds flying through their village. I imagined the fear in their eyes when they looked over the mosque walls to find American Strykers oriented at their huts.
As if that wasn’t enough of a red flag, my thoughts were still flying over a random hunch. Having four men out there digging didn’t sound tactical enough . It was too much of an obvious footprint. Our enemy is smarter than that. What if they weren’t planting an IED?…What if they were burying a body? The villagers were filing out of a mosque at a late hour at night, four men were near a hole just outside their mosque. Could this have been an Afghan funeral?
I don’t know. And I never will. It’s been almost a month since the incident, and thankfully my soldiers are over it. They still think we should have engaged, but they understand my cautious nature as a leader. There’s no need to impulsively run towards chaos; it will always find us on its own. The platoon is essentially back to normal, but having my soldiers doubt my decision making, even for just a minute, was a painful feeling. That degree of pressure is not fun at all, but it’s how us Platoon Leaders earn our money. It’s our job to show restraint when our soldiers want revenge. It’s our job to show patience when our men want action. It’s our job to consider the strategic interests when everyone around us is looking for a tactical victory. The burden of authority is difficult in war; I guess it just feels a little more painful when the soldiers under me have sacrificed so much for what feel like trivial accomplishments. I guess sometimes you have to deny their sense of fulfillment for the greater cause.
We’re a little more than half way done with our tour out here, but still have a long way to go. I guess it really is just a prolonged series of deep breaths and tactical pauses from here on till we board the plane home. I’m a cautious leader. I don’t like to play games with people’s lives, American or Afghan, for the sake of chest beating as I feel much of the Army does. This is going to be a long war, and it won’t be won in a day. For me, the romantic nature of heroism and triumph in battle is gone. The only excitement I’m looking forward to in this new year is whatever I get from watching season five of Scrubs.