Shades of Green

A Marine in Afghanistan writes home

by Michael Christman '00SEAS Published Fall 2013
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We went back and forth with this. I got up, took a round, and got back down. Since World War II, one of the first rules of combat has been that the enemy will try to kill the guy with the radio. Turns out I had a big-ass bull’s-eye on my back. That, and my American uniform. Johnny Taliban isn’t stupid: he was targeting the Marines.

“Crack! Crack!” My face was back in the dirt as two more rounds snapped over my head.

The author, at the end of his final deployment. / Courtesy of Michael ChristmanOne of the biggest frustrations we have with the Georgians is that they, like many former Soviet militaries, don’t empower their junior and midlevel leaders. Once the patrol leader decided that we were going to try to egress our end of the patrol, the Georgians should have immediately started bounding back, providing cover for each other. But they just sat there in the open, taking rounds. After spending what seemed like forever getting shot at, I finally got fed up and started directing traffic. The advantage of being a Marine is that these guys will listen to you. Be loud, be forceful, and they’ll move. Give them some leadership and they will execute to a T.

As we bounded back, we took up a defensive position, waiting for the aircraft that I had requested. I noticed that some of the kids from earlier were crouched behind a berm (they must have been much smarter than us to find actual cover). Fifteen minutes earlier they had been playfully running a wheelbarrow with a bag of fertilizer across the fields. Now they were intently watching us, not scared or frightened but curious, like any eight-year-old boy would be.

We could see their heads poking out from behind the berm, and perhaps taking a cue from us (we were now kneeling rather than lying flat) the boys started to come out one by one, wheelbarrow in tow. I’ll always remember the look that two of the older boys gave us. Their younger compatriots had already scurried off, but here they were with their wheelbarrow and us blocking the way. You could see the wheels turning in their heads. They had to get the wheelbarrow and its contents past us, but we blocked the path. They clearly didn’t want to stay here, but they couldn’t leave their parcel. What to do?

We shooed them through our formation, hoping to get them out of the crossfire before we took any more rounds. As the kids headed off, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to grow up like that. Maybe they’ll see us as something better than the Taliban, but probably not. We don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture. We might as well be space aliens.

The rest of the patrol was uneventful. There were a half dozen farmers around for the shooting whom we talked to, but of course none of them knew anything about who or where the Taliban might be. Such is life in the Helmand Valley.

February 24, 2013

This base, belonging to the Georgian sister battalion, served as a logistics hub. A Russian-built helicopter can be seen in the landing zone.The most dangerous times of any deployment are the first and last thirty days. In the first thirty days, you don’t have the experience to keep you from making stupid mistakes. Add to that the swagger that any young person might have when heading off to war for the first time, and you’ve got a potentially dangerous combination. In short, you’re too stupid to realize that your aggressiveness and confidence is what is most likely to get you killed.

During the last thirty days, you have the benefit of five to six months of combat experience, but you are tired and have convinced yourself that you have everything under control. You’ve patrolled the same roads and talked to the same people for half a year, and all you can think or talk about is going home. In short, you’ve become too cocky to realize that letting your guard down is what will get you killed. In both cases, it is our hubris that is our most dangerous enemy.

Timing has it that the last thirty days of our deployment coincide with the start of the spring offensive, on February 22. That morning, an American-only convoy had just left our base, where they had dropped off some mail and people. As usual, we enjoyed the opportunity to speak with visitors, asking how so-and-so was doing at the main base to the north, poking fun at how they lived the privileged life with their fancy showers (Marines wear harsh conditions like a badge of honor), and hearing the latest rumor of who was going home early and who wasn’t. We had had some violent weather over the last couple of days, but the storm had passed, and I was enjoying the crisp Afghanistan winter morning and company.

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