This is a story that is at once new and old. But few correspondents have reflected as wisely on men’s actions and reactions in combat, and fewer still have recorded the sights and sounds, the voices and character of the men in such taut, pared-down prose.
‘One of the most difficult things about combat is having to give it up, having to give up the very secure and close bond created in a small unit in a situation like that’
Do you feel that war is essentially unchanging?
The tools change, but psychologically it is all the same. An aerial bombardment is not the same as a sword fight, obviously. But if you are talking about small-arms fire, it is pretty much all the same.
We hear Afghanistan is a “different” kind of war. Did the soldiers you were with think so?
It’s the only war they know. They’ve seen movies, so they understood it was different from World War II and Vietnam. But the main distinction they made was between this war and Iraq—and there was way more combat in Afghanistan.
Were they aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as a “graveyard of empires”?
Not really. And the United States was not really seen as an invader by the Afghans. I was in Kabul when the Taliban fell, and the Afghans were overjoyed. They definitely saw the Americans as heroes—at least for a while.
Who did the soldiers think they were facing on the battlefield?
They understood they were fighting a conglomeration: local boys with AKs, timber mafia mobs, foreign fighters, Pakistanis who came across the border. And Chechens, who were as well trained as the Americans. But essentially they were just fighting the people who were shooting at them.
Which other historical campaigns resemble Afghanistan?
There was a bit of Vietnam—in the sense of a small outpost in a wild place—and of the American frontier. The Indian wars were essentially a counterinsurgency: There were small groups of white guys, who were pretty well armed, in very hostile territory, fighting an enemy they rarely saw…and it drove them crazy. And the same thing drove the American soldiers crazy in the Korengal.
Explain what you have termed the “choreography” of close combat.
Some people lay down suppressive fire while others maneuver to gain a tactical advantage to kill the people shooting at you. It’s taught in training, it is intricate, and it’s honed through experience. One of the big things is restraining your fire. As soon as you shoot, the enemy can see where you are. You shoot in bursts, so the guns talk. It’s called “talking the guns.”
What are the consequences of not restraining one’s fire?
Inexperienced troops take casualties because they are not restrained, they wreck their guns, they give away their positions, and they get killed. One of the marks of experienced fighters is that they are very judicious in their use of firepower.
Does the enemy do the same thing?
The Chechens do. I don’t think the local boys knew much. They were just getting paid to crawl up behind a rock and empty a magazine into the outpost and run.
Do you perceive combat as a test of character?
Yes, definitely. Character is: Are you willing to make yourself do things you don’t want to do, to put the interests of the group above your own interests? That’s, essentially, being an adult. It’s an extreme version of being a responsible and selfless adult.
Is there anything “noble” or “glorious” about combat, or has it become just industrialized killing?
Industrialized killing really was a hallmark of World War I and, to an extent, World War II, and I think it would be hard to find nobility in that. But nobility is an individual act, and in the kind of war I saw, the individual is extremely important. One individual could make all the difference in a battle. In Afghanistan they were fighting in very small units; it really was on the scale of warfare that probably existed in the Stone Age.
What motivated the soldiers in the Korengal Valley?
They enlisted for a variety of reasons—9/11, family tradition, and some were just looking for some excitement and a test. But in combat, they were really fighting to survive and for their friends to survive.
You quoted military theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” How does that apply to what you saw in Afghanistan?
Very small things could create very large effects: You go to carry ammo to the top of the hill, and suddenly you need a whole squad to do it, and you come under fire, and you have to call in the Apaches. In any other context, it would just be a miserable half-hour walk with a heavy load on your back. Suddenly, because it’s war, it all just goes screwy.
Do you think that combat has always been a life-altering event?
Anything where you confront your own mortality is life-altering, whether it’s disease, a car accident or combat.
Have we as a society gotten better at helping soldiers return from war?
There are some things you just can’t return from. Most of those guys saw someone they really loved die in front of them. It’s not a realistic expectation that you can reset that clock to zero.
I think the government is getting better at dealing with the effects of combat. My opinion is that one of the most difficult things about combat is having to give it up, having to give up the very secure and close bond created in a small unit in a situation like that.
Not wanting to give up combat? Is that a surprise?
People see combat through a paradigm of trauma. But there are also psychologically positive things that happen within a small group that cannot be duplicated back home. That’s another way of looking at PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. And it’s serious. I think it’s as serious as the trauma component.
How do the soldiers handle that?
That’s why they all wanted to go back. They didn’t want to go back because it was traumatic, but because it was a place where they understood what they were supposed to do. They understood who they were. They had a sense of purpose. They were necessary. All the things that young people strive for are answered in combat. And it’s going to take them years to answer those things in a satisfactory way in the civilian world.
Did this 15-month frontline experience change you?
I think so. I just get emotional about things that otherwise would have left me unmoved, before. That happened to everyone in the platoon.
How were they changed?
The guys were almost alarmed by it. They’d ask, “Why do we keep crying about stuff that’s not sad?” Life things happen and trigger emotional responses, and they were not used to that. The same thing happened to me, and I think it was the aftereffect of this very close bond. There’s post-traumatic stress disorder, but there is also the positive side that’s known as “traumatic growth,” the positive changes that come with a traumatic experience.
Is that what you saw happening with the soldiers?
The experience really opened them up; it opened me up. I find myself getting choked up about things that don’t have an obvious emotional charge. A lot of guys in the platoon commented on the same thing. Some even complained about it, asking, literally, “Why are we turning into girls”?