Battleland

Afghanistan: How’d We Get Here?

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Army photo/Spc. George Hunt

U.S. troops from the 101st Airborne Division survey the Afghan-Pakistan frontier from Paktika province, Afghanistan

The gray-matter grit of the war in Afghanistan comes through loud and clear in this essay by Neil Shea, who has written for National Geographic and the Atlantic Monthly, among other publications:

Since 2006 I have written off and on about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly all of my work in those countries has been done embedded with NATO, mostly American military units. Many times I have watched soldiers or Marines, driven by boredom or fear, behave selfishly and meanly, even illegally, in minor ways. In a few searing moments I have wondered what would come next, what the men would do to prisoners or civilians or suspected insurgents. And I have wondered how to describe these moments without reporting melodramatic minutiae or betraying the men who allowed me in.

Most soldierly stupidity does not amount to crime; most soldiers never commit atrocities. U.S. soldiers shooting at goats, for example, or pilots getting drunk on base, or guards threatening the lives of prisoners, all things I have seen, defy military rules and erode efforts to win hearts and minds. But how bad is it, really? Do we care? What is my responsibility when I see it? I have never found good ways to write about the subhuman wash of aggression and the small episodes of violence military men and women cycle through daily, or the choices they make in the midst of this.

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