Date: 28 November 2009
Location: Arabian Sea, South of Pakistan
Sitting behind cat four, my mind kept drifting back to what was happening back home. Or rather, what would happen. It was combat mission number twenty for me. The day prior and that morning, I felt a strange premonition about that flight, but couldn’t put my finger on it. A few hundred feet in front of me, the Commander of the US Central Command, Gen David Petraeus, was about to get the first cat shot of his life, ensconced in the back seat of our colorfully painted CAG bird. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving in the Gulf kept moving forward.
I thought about the table that was to be used back home. The history it had seen, the many people who had eaten off it. It wasn’t anything spectacular: just two long pieces of plywood found at some point decades before, stained and connected with hinges pinned together using stray nails. A couple of 2x4’s laid across two beaten sawhorses provided the platform for it to support the coming meal. A few years back, we started signing it in the spot where we ate that year, and the names had begun to stack up. Friends from college, an old girlfriend, new military families needing a place to spend the holiday, the odd traversing long lost family member. And of course, the names that were repeated over and over, but rarely in the same place. Most of the year it was stored in some garage, passed around from home to home depending on who was to host.
As we taxied into the shuttle, about to launch, a game played on that table from the late 1980s flashed into my head. I think this was where I got hooked, at 7 years old; where another tradition had flourished and continued on. I sat by my father’s side as he played the annual Thanksgiving Risk game in the dining room of my great-grandmothers house at 4911 Sunnyside. His opponents were my Uncle Joel, and our Colorado cousins, Bill and Frank. It came down to Bill, with the Yellow blocks, and my Dad, playing as the Black Horde. He (we), lost. I was devastated.
Thus the game was played for years after, continuing to this day. I eventually got my own team -- Black. At one point, I decided to add a sense of realism to the ancient board and created a permanent land bridge in pen between Australia and Peru. Apparently, this world is supposed to be flat. It was not looked kindly upon by my Father, the owner of said world. But despite some missteps, I learned the principles of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu at a young age without ever having read their books. Find your opponent’s center of gravity. Mass your forces. Expect the unexpected, especially from irrational opponents. Adapt. Use deception when necessary. Accept defeat magnanimously (I’m not sure I’ve worked that one out yet…) And never get involved in a land war in Asia. Another principle too: there comes a point in love and war where you may have to choose one over the other. Sometimes winning the war is the right answer, because if you don’t, she will. To your eternal chagrin.
So here I found myself, halfway around the world in the middle of the real thing, wondering who would occupy Afghanistan in a quaint Minnesota basement. I was a single black block, a pawn in the grand schemes of some strategic grandmaster. A grandmaster, interestingly enough, who happened to be launched off the same expansive ship mere moments before me.
The weather has started to turn, and in dramatic fashion. From our location South of Pakistan, the change is barely noticeable: calm seas and warm, clear skies as always. We missed the oppressive heat of the summer, and the climate where our ships float is what vacationers everywhere seek. Occasionally the haze lifts enough so that at 25,000 feet, hundreds of miles in any direction are easily visible. Pressing up North, however, is markedly different.
When we first arrived in theater, the skies over Afghanistan were always free of clouds, with an impenetrable haze our only obstruction. The haze has slowly lifted, but layer upon layer of clouded buildups are now regularly encountered, especially when pressing into the jagged expanses of Northeast Afghanistan. The temperatures have come down dramatically too: in the North, they now equal those of my childhood home in the Northern climes of America during January. On clear days, the virgin snows of the towering mountains in the North punctuate the horizon from the edge of the southern deserts.
What follows are some observations about the landscape of Afghanistan, as seen on Thanksgiving, in the matter of a few hours transit from one end of the country to the other. A one thousand mile commute in each direction, passing from one geographical extremity to another.
Entering from the south introduces you to a barrenness appropriate to the desert that it is. For about 150 miles from the border with Pakistan to a startling and abrupt transition, there is nothing but red-hued, windswept dunes and the rare lonely outcropping of rock. Our moving maps within the cockpit capture this in an eerily perfect fashion: half circles in chaotic rows with virtually no contour lines. There is no notion of civilization, nor even empty carvings of where seasonal rivers flow. This is the case in every direction.
Then suddenly, it ends. Flying over this demarcation line is surprising. The unvarying red sand runs abruptly into a plateau of flat, grey rock that forms the foundation for the population within. It is a line that turns and juts, but unquestionably continues, as far as the eye can see – which is quite a ways from altitude. And just as there was no evidence of life to its south, civilization begins to teem just north of this natural border.
Here, alluvial plains of green spring from the rivers that flow from the mountains hundreds of miles away. This is by no means a concentration of people that we back in the States would refer to as urban. Rather, it is a ribbon of life along that most fundamental of life giving sources, water. A mile in width, maybe, from most rivers, filled or not. The evidence of seasonal outcroppings of water is visible, and what a torrent it must be to carve through the hard land, but since we have been here, most remain as empty as the terrain outside the irrigated farms. Square structures inhabit the edges of roads and in the middle of tracts of land. From the air, the farms are clearly divided by ditches and raised embankments, into parcels that must only provide subsistence and barely more.
A quick note about the buildings the population inhabits: Their very structure says much about the culture that lives within them. Their design is not merely unique to Afghanistan itself, but the entire region. They are all of the same general shape and internal composition, and when looking down upon them, I couldn’t help but think of flying over suburbs of the US. Not in the sense that they were built similarly, because they are starkly different, but in their ubiquitous uniformity.
Nearly all are walled compounds, with expansive courtyards inside surrounded by living spaces on two of the four walls. Without knowing the history of this troubled land, a keen observer would be able to tell that this is a society used to conflict, and not just from without. The walls are meant to keep the unwelcome out – even amidst a culture in which hospitality is one of the defining features. Their structure also shows the decentralized constitution and tribal nature of the Afghan people. This is not a society that implicitly trusts a national, centralized bureaucracy to provide protection: it is a requirement that must be met at the local, if not individual, level.
Even in the few large cities that exist, this same architectural framework is evident. Kandahar is the major urban center of the South, and its streets are lined with similarly built structures. Flying over it, I have never seen any building taller than a few stories. There are central areas, but it seems that they are more communal, and thus less evident, than would be the case in America. It is clear where the center of a region’s power lay in the States, even in smaller conglomerations of people: the big buildings and all major roads leading to the thrones of power. The haphazard structure of streets prevents this over here.
It is easy to tell where the NATO bases are from the air. They are surrounded by a wall, like the native buildings, but these walls are usually hundreds of meters long and only along the outskirts. Western buildings in their neat rows and corrugated roofs with perfectly aligned roads are evident within. Wires and antennae and massive vehicles fill the empty spaces. The clash of civilizations, writ through architecture.
Moving farther north, beyond the population center of Kandahar, the land begins to burst forth to greater and greater heights. The high plains increasingly become disrupted by isolated mountains, and then chains of mountains, some snow bound, others not. On the sides of these outcroppings, little villages are sprinkled, seemingly removed from any other elements of civilization. There appear to be no visible evidence of agriculture or easy accessibility to water, but there they sit. The roads are few; the passes unseen. The rectangular open courtyards remain, sometimes built on a slope. Eventually, the capital of this disparate nation appears.
Kabul lays at yet another stark physical border, nearly 250 miles North from Kandahar. The occasional peaks and high flatlands meeting the legendary Hindu Kush. I had seen Kabul once before, at night, but didn’t quite comprehend its isolation until Thanksgiving. It is surrounded on three sides by peaks that are part of the same chain of mountains that contain the worlds highest and most treacherous. In the summer and autumn, the haze obscures their majesty, and melted caps leave only a dull brown to contrast with the rest of the surrounding landscape. But what a difference the snow makes. An oasis deep within a bowl of towering, cold stone.
The crystal clear and frigid air leaves no particles to drape the range’s endless progression in opaqueness. The last bastion of civilization before embarking through the murderous passes of deep winter for those brave enough to risk the journey. James Michener describes the named genesis of the Hindu Kush in his marvelous book “Caravans.” He tells of it being referred to as such because of the deaths incurred by Indian merchants seeking the legendary crossroads of Samarkand across their heights. Seeing it firsthand makes the source believable.
Passing over these endless mountains and the deep valleys below is a bit unnerving. These are not the relatively quickly flown over mountains of the Rockies or even Alps. They are the creation of one tectonic continent slowly smashing into another immovable landmass, driving the land caught in the middle to stupendous heights as far as the eye can see. Afghanistan borders China and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan amidst these mountains, though no discernable natural demarcation is evident. Why men would fight for such regions, and politically contend for patches here and there, eludes me, but power is its own elixir. Regardless, it was here, at the end of the thousand mile trek – and the end of the world for that matter, that the day’s battle was fought.
Not since General Eisenhower has there been a military celebrity as well recognized. To be sure, General’s Westmoreland and Schwarzkopf had their days in the sun (and in infamy, as the case may be), and General Powell is still widely respected by the American population. But our generation’s, and this war’s, Ike is General David Petraeus. The latter would likely dismiss this comparison, especially since Ike became President, but I think it accurate nonetheless (and didn’t Ike vociferously and genuinely object to the notion of his candidacy? But I digress into politics…). My unqualified admiration for the man is no secret, and seeing him in person was no disappointment.
We had known of his visit for weeks prior, although to be sure, for most of us it was just another DV coming to play on the Nimitz. But as his arrival approached, it became increasingly clear this was not going to be an ordinary visit.
For one thing, out came the paint cans and power sprayers. For the length of the entire starboard (right) hallway on the level of the ship just below the flight deck, sailors spent day and night whitewashing any area the General might traverse. Interestingly enough, the official schedule was written such that he would only see those hallways that were painted. Traveling from the right to the left side of the ship was comical in its disparity. Months of accumulated combat grime on the latter, while the former as if not a moment was wasted from keeping it clean. The carrier is not a clean place. If ever there was an analogy to putting lipstick on a pig, this was it.
On a flight deck walkdown two days prior to his visit, I saw other sailors hurriedly power washing the flight deck. The same deck we were to launch aircraft off of for twelve hours in each of the subsequent days including that of his arrival. The same deck that was to see engine changes and fuel transfers and leaky oil collectors drop black ooze onto its surface. Rumor was, the general might decide to take a run on it, and it had to be clean in order for him to do so. I generally discount the things I hear, but given the painting fiasco, I didn’t doubt it. One enterprising sailor even power washed a “Happy Thanksgiving” into the now dark, thick white line at the very end of the ship.
The ironic thing is that the man who arrived probably couldn’t have cared less what the ship looked like. The consummate warrior, the man who trod the halls of the White House and the streets of a collapsing Baghdad, was here to recognize the warriors and troopers who were in the grime day in and day out. But here the military showed its finest bureaucratic accomplishments to impress everybody’s boss.
In a somewhat sad turn of events, all the preparation for the General’s arrival seemed to have overlooked the necessities of taking care of the troops. When I emerged from the near empty Officer’s Mess after our Thanksgiving meal, I wandered up to the hanger bay and was shocked by what I saw. Enlisted sailors, many of whom had spent hours painting the walls, and cleaning the floors to present an image of perfection to our superior, were standing in an endless line hundreds deep waiting to get their meal. A meal that was due to close minutes later. I had never seen a line so long on the ship before. Somewhere the logistics chain failed, and priorities were askew. I did what I could for a few of them, but many still missed out on their meal. As a leader of these men and women, I felt ashamed. As far as I know, General Petraeus didn’t get wind of this – had he, I wonder how it would have turned out.
His personality would probably never have allowed such an oversight. In short, he is a self-deprecating and humble leader. I think a telling story is one I heard from some of my troops who got to eat Thanksgiving dinner with him. He didn’t want to talk shop at all, didn’t speak one word of the White House personalities he had sat with three days prior. His sole focus was on them, and their interests and things not of war. What was happening back at home, how their families were doing, eating up every moment and enjoying the company of deckplate Americans. He mentioned his joy at being out there with them, and seeing him say it in person while he visited the ready rooms, I believed him. His time seems to mostly be spent talking with politicians and our nation’s strategic leaders. Seeing the way they act on most days before camera’s, I can understand his relief for a few days respite from the self-important Beltway.
Late that night, the General took the stage in the hangar deck, and put on a show. The Nimitz was supposed to have hosted Jay-Z as part of a USO event, but at the last minute an MTV contract didn’t get signed, and the show was cancelled. The General joked that he was the replacement, and they decided to bring out “General P” instead. He cocked his ballcap just slightly to the side and struck a pose. The crowd erupted in laughter. He called up sailors and challenged them to feats of strength, winning most of them.
It’s a rare celebrity who is actually deserving of his acclaim, and even more so one who is so at ease with laughing at himself. He is an academic who has been the first to volunteer for combat assignments in the most dangerous and unwinnable situation. He has come out on top every time. It is no wonder he is so revered throughout our military and beyond.
I could tell he was at ease with this crowd. The last time I saw him on TV was during last year’s Super Bowl. His 5’8” slight frame was dwarfed by the massive Steeler and Cardinal captains who joined him at the 50 yard line for the coin toss. He said little, and somehow seemed out of place. It appears his natural niche is not on the contrived battlefield of the gridiron, but rather on one where lives contained within iron are risked for grids upon which nation’s fates are determined. On Thanksgiving, he was back on his turf.
His last stop of the evening was in the ready room of our sister squadron, the VFA-14 Tophatters, for a quick greet and go with the air wing’s Super Hornet aviators. Its not often we get to see men of substance so close, but here he was, mere feet away. It made the mission completed just hours before all the more meaningful, knowing the guy whose leadership was guiding our cause stood looking me straight in the eye.
The transit across the length of Afghanistan was not expected. In fact, it only transpired at the last possible minute.
Our initial tasking placed us south of Kabul, with the mountains in view but far enough away to be complacent as to their effect. For an hour, we had meanderingly searched some roads for IED’s. I was in endless, slow left hand turns while my WSO operated the FLIR, looking for anything suspicious. The JTAC controlling us seemed more interested in seeing if some of our digital transmission systems were working correctly than what we were actually reporting (“hey, guys, thanks for the reports, but realize we’ve just had lots of snow, and its melting now, so a lot of what’s out there is probably just puddles of water.” Glad I’m here on a holiday…) Since it was Thanksgiving for him too though, I wasn’t too concerned with the boredom setting in, as it meant not much was transpiring. To pass the time, I counted down the minutes until our next tanker hit, then until we would head home, mentally calculating fuel flow rates and trying to predict how much extra gas we would have when we finally arrived. I know what you’re thinking…
Coming off the tanker, fat on gas, and slowly making our way back to our original killbox with the preoccupied JTAC, we got retasked. In an instant, the boredom disappeared when I heard the callsign of the element declaring the TIC and the location he was reporting from. These were SpecOps guys on the border – way up North. This is where the action was, and these guys get whatever they want. We used some of our extra gas to speed up our transit, but it still was going to take twenty minutes, leaving us with little more than fifteen minutes of on station time, barely enough to be of any use.
We entered the Hindu Kush, that foreboding region where empires had been absorbed time after time, never to be heard from again. I could feel the temperature within the cockpit drop as we passed overhead the snow covered land below, subconsciously turning up the cabin temperature. That premonition returned -- Nervous shivers and small beads of cold sweat started.
Upon checking in, and getting the situation update, the JTAC had immediate coordinates to pass so that we could engage the enemy attacking them. A spotter team that had engaged the American Special Forces earlier in the day had been tracked and identified.
The tactics of mountain warfare have caused headaches for generals, great and small, for millennia. No less daunting are the physics of mounting attacks from the air in such a region, especially for targets on ridgelines within deep valleys. The advent of precision guided munitions has significantly aided this endeavor, but any errors in target coordinates, laser energy or GPS satellites are magnified.
For instance, on a flat piece of land, a horizontal miss of ten meters is a miss of ten meters. On top of a ridgeline however, a miss of ten meters can mean a bomb falling hundreds of meters or even kilometers (.62 miles for you non-metric types) in an unpredictable direction depending on the slope of the incline surrounding the target and the terminal angle of the bomb. If the bomb vertically misses the ridgeline on say, a four thousand foot peak by a mere foot, it could travel the entire way down a steeply sloping embankment and impact the valley miles below. Not good.
In addition, bombs fall towards the earth. This is obvious. But this also means they cannot hit anything on their way down if they are to reach the intended target. Say, a 20,000 foot mountain. So you have to find an unobstructed run in. For preplanned missions, geographical software can determine this before we take off. For targets of opportunity, we make the best estimate possible airborne. While also accounting for the speed and direction of winds aloft (which at the high altitudes we need to work in while operating above towering peaks, are often quite significant). Sometimes the only run in heading available is unusable if the winds are unacceptable. Then you need to make sure that when using particular fuses, the bomb time of fall is long enough, but not too long such that the fuse runs out of power.
Fortunately, the computers in the jet take care of most of this. We just have to make sure the bomb falls unimpeded. In our case it did. There were a few seconds of panic after the elapsed time of fall had arrived and past with no visible impact on our IR sensor, but eventually we saw the boom in the correct location. The target was neutralized.
Within fifteen minutes of checking in, we were on our way back home, relieved by a section of Air Force F-16s. The changes in circumstances of this profession never cease to amaze me. You can be having the most uneventful few hours of your life on a holiday you never imagined missing, and in an instant, be called upon to flawlessly execute rigorous procedures to protect soldiers on the ground and kill those that would harm them. To turn it on and off, just like that – it certainly lends itself to fostering adaptability.
Upon waking up on Friday and checking my email, I got the report from the home front. In deference to my absence, the black pieces I traditionally used had been set aside in an observational status. The girls, Michelle and Sophia, took up the traditional mantle of the girl’s team carried forth for years, playing as the eponymous “Pinkies,” making their initial stand in my favorite base of operations, Australia. My brother, home unexpectedly from his Navy training in Virginia, managed to make a game of it. I got a running commentary from my Mom, and at the end of their day, she revealed my Dad won, his victory recorded in perpetuity on the back side of the game’s cardboard cover.
I’ve never missed a Thanksgiving with my family before. I hope I never have to again, even if it is spent with a personal hero doing a job I willingly signed up for. Sometimes, it’s just nice to be home.
New Website: disruptivethinkers.org
5 years ago