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.