"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Thursday, December 27, 2012


For weeks now, I have mocked the gods by gloating about our mild winter weather and unusually high temperatures.  Over the last few days, I've even entertained the notion that we might escape the Brutal Afghan Winter altogether.

Today, the temperature plummeted below freezing, and we are currently in the throes of one of the windiest, most miserable sandstorms it's been my misfortune to experience.

Universe, you win again.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Winter is coming

In the literal sense, no, winter is not coming, at least out here.  More on my intent below.  In Afghanistan – at least, in our little part – winter seems to be keeping its distance.  We’ve had a couple of impressive rain/thunder/hail storms in the last few weeks, which have left light dustings of snow on the peaks of the Hindu Kush to our north.  But every time the temperature drops for a day or two, and we think that the season is finally upon us, it climbs up 5-10 degrees the day after, leaving us with an Indian (Pashtun?) summer that just won’t go away.  I suppose I shouldn’t be in a hurry to have the Brutal Afghan Winter show its face – this time of year on the last deployment, apparently the squadron was freezing its cajones off – but I confess I miss having “seasons”, and part of me wants a winter with cold, and snow if we can arrange it, just to remember what it’s like.  I honestly think the last time I saw snow was Christmas of 2007 – in Iraq, of all places.  I’d hate to think that during my time in the Marine Corps, I’m doomed to experience the pleasure of seasonal change only in the most hellish of countries, surrounded by desert and restless natives who’d cut our heads off as soon as take our charity.

My flights continue to be unexciting, which is fine.  There was a little too much excitement a few days ago, on another mission, one which I was not a part of.  I will not go into operational details, save to say that it was a "simple mission" that turned out not to be so simple.  Occasionally we’ll send out a raid force package to interdict drugs or suspected Taliban target areas; and sometimes we do find drugs, bad guys, and bad guy toys.  But there generally aren’t many fireworks.  This time, there were.  Long story short, the raid force was dropped off on the objective, and walked into a buzzsaw of unexpected enemy fire.  Close air support was requested; bombs, missiles, and 20mm chaingun fire was used to suppress the enemy so our helicopters could come in.  Our birds landed, picking up the raid force package, which had a couple of casualties with them.  Our birds got a little shot up getting those guys out of there.  One of the casualties, shot in the neck, didn’t survive the ride home.  Coming back to the line, our aircraft shut down, and then the after actions began.  What’s remarkable is not the rapidity with which the debrief/analysis phase started – good mission, bad mission, bad guys shooting or simply a broken aircraft, we debrief everything, as soon as the rotors stop turning – but the attitudes of the crews throughout the process.  Progressively higher and higher ranks showed up at the squadron, asking what happened, and congratulating the crews for getting everyone out of a shitstorm. 

But for our crews, no other outcome was possible.  Our job is to bring the ground guys in, and bring them – all of them – out, and if that means coming back with a few holes in the airframe, so be it.  No one in the flight saw their actions as something besides doing what we, as professional assault support pilots, are supposed to do.  In their minds, any combination of crew members from our roster would have done the same.  Now, I wasn’t part of those many meetings with the many brass who’ve come by to give their thumbs-up.  I don’t know what it meant to those crews, who are sort of tired of the attention and would like to get back to the daily routine.  But I was around for another set of congratulations, which I think may have meant more than the accolades of various and sundry generals.  Several days after this all went down I was sitting in the chow hall with some other pilots, when an infantry captain came up to our table and asked if any of us were part of the crews from the operation.  Two were; whereupon he thanked them, profusely, for getting him and his men out of there, saved from he saw as a pretty bad day.

This small skirmish will never hit the headlines; it will only be mentioned in tangent, as part of the background of another Marine dying in this war that rarely seems important enough to report on.  But let the record show that the war is not over; that Marines are still dying; that they’re willing to press the enemy hard enough that casualties are the results; and that for our guys on the ground, the old adage from Vietnam still holds true: when a Marine is wounded, surrounded, hungry, low on ammunition or water, he looks to the sky.  He knows the helos are coming.

Now, back to the first point: winter is coming.  Where and when?  To the “city on the hill”, and sooner than anyone, a few lonely voices excepted, realizes.  I stayed away from any election commentary because, well, for starters, public commentary on most political matters violates a few important rules of the service.  But more, because the blow was too painful to contemplate for more than a moment.  Followed rapidly by the disintegration of Gen. Petraeus’ career, it was a dark week, in my mind.  There’s no knowing what kind of president Mitt Romney might have been; but I think he could have stopped the downward spiral that now seems destined to continue, even pick up speed.  But, the votes have been counted, and that trajectory now seems all but certain.  There’s little reason to think it will be changed in the near future.  One party in Washington seems utterly unconcerned that the nation is broke and getting broker, that we are in economic thrall to other countries who do not have our best interests at heart, that eventually the national credit card will run out and the rest of the world will stop funding our profligacy, and that when that day comes, America as we know it will cease to function.  The other party seems incapable of finding the language, and the leader, required to bring this truth, stark and harsh as it is, home to the citizenry.  So we lurch along, not recovering, slowly bleeding out more resources than we gather; and all because no one in power has the will or desire to face the arithmetic.  I wonder, and start to doubt, that my children will have the same opportunities available to my generation when it came of age and faced the workplace.  I wonder if I will even recognize the nation when they grow up.  In my darkest thoughts, I wonder – fear – whether the nation will last their lifetime; or mine. 

Paranoia, you say?  Bred from a life of watching too much X-Files?  Maybe; but paranoia bred more from a long study of history and the rise and fall of the world’s great powers, and the simple fact that nothing lasts forever.  There is a saying in the Bible: “this, too, will pass away”.  That, in a nutshell, is the story of every great power; eventually, they end.  From the Persians to Alexander, the Romans to the Arabs, from Napoleon’s Continental System and the British Empire, to the German Reich and the Soviet Union: all end.  Some deserve to, some don’t; some carried on in gentle decline for centuries, and some didn’t outlast the deaths of their founders.  But all reached a point where their people looked around them and knew that it was over.  Growing up I never believed I would see America’s last day in my lifetime, nor would my children.  Certainly I hope that neither I, nor they, will have to look around them at the remains of a once-great civilization and despair that everything they’ve known is gone.  But hope is not a strategy, and for those who have eyes to see – and can face the arithmetic – the immediate future holds tremendous challenges for America, which will place her civil structure under great stress, and there is no guarantee that when the day of reckoning comes, we will have the right leaders around to make the right decisions.  Oh, we’ve had them in the past: at the nation’s darkest hour, when the country was literally coming apart under stresses that had built since her founding, America had Lincoln, who saved it.  But decades of poor leaders, poor decisions, and even good leaders bending to bad judgment, brought the country to that point.  We were lucky that time.  And even then, it took years of blood-letting to put things right.  Do we want to come to that point?  Do we want to trust in luck and hope that another savior pops up just when he’s needed, to fix the problems we, the people, refused to face until it was too late?  The answer, of course, should be no.  But we, the people, seem to be showing the same willingness to perpetually kick the can down the road, until we run out of perpetuity and have to face the music.

I’ve gone down this road because I think it leads to a fair question about my line of work; namely, that if the future seems so glum, and the republic seems beyond redemption, what is the point of putting on the uniform, picking up the rifle, and manning the ramparts while the world burns behind you?  If that trajectory seemed inevitable; if the house of cards were destined to fall, then the smart thing to do would be to find a nice, quiet place, as far removed from the gathering storm as possible, move anything you care about there, and ride it out until it had run its course.  But there are problems with that attitude; not just Marine machismo about never retreating, but real problems that are the moral equivalent of abandoning your post.  Sure, there’s a certain guilty satisfaction in imagining that one might be able to step aside, let those who brought us into this mess reap the reward of their folly, and then fix things with them out of the way.  That’s not how civilizations fall.  When they fall, the innocent and guilty suffer alike, and the suffering of the innocent is always more extensive because they generally vastly outnumber those few idiots who brought them to the precipice.  To stand aside and consign to the flood the masses who don’t deserve to be swept away would be as a great a crime as throwing them into the torrent yourself.  Again, as the Bible goes: so long as one good person remains in the city, the city is worth saving.

There’s also the fact that, while our internal turmoil is great, and likely to become greater, it will become much harder to deal with while facing external strife as well.  So long as our ramparts are manned, we can work through our own problems on our own time.  Indeed, manning the walls will become even more important, because adversaries are drawn to weakness; there is no doubt that as we lurch from crisis to crisis, other powers will push and probe to see what inroads they can make against us.  It is happening already, and with unserious leadership, will continue.  We must remain on the walls, to give our leaders time to save themselves from their own folly.  Many factors can contribute to a society’s downfall; at the very least, by keeping America’s enemies at arm’s length, we can remove one of those factors.

Finally, there’s the fundamental fact that there’s nowhere else to go.  People come to America to escape to something better.  Where does one run from America?  If you have to think long about the answer, then there’s really no answer.  You stay, and fight, and remember that the United States has a remarkable capacity for self-correction, even if it also embraces a gamut of bad choices before getting it right.  And that capacity is only possible because a small number of citizens refused to simply give up, pack up their things, and move away.  There’s nowhere to go.  Retreat is not an option.  So you take a breath, stay engaged, and refuse to throw in the towel.  There’s really no other choice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy, or a sandy hurricane

I’m by no means diminishing the impact Hurricane Sandy is having on the East Coast; New York City actually looks like all the disaster movies that have been made about it.  But it felt like Afghanistan decided it needed to change things up a little too.  Today started off ‘weird’, as we all said coming into work: the winds were out of an unusual direction, there were clouds in the sky (might not seem like a big deal, but in a place where normal weather is CAVU [clear and visibility unlimited], clouds are a sign of impending doom), and rain in the forecast (no, not hurricane rain; but again, any rain in the desert is a big deal).  I was leading the flight, and we briefed and got ready to launch on time with a wary eye on the horizons around us.  It was hazy, but it’s been hazy before.


So, sitting in front of the rotary wing passenger/cargo ramp, as we were onloading our pax, clouds of sand started billowing in from the east.  I thought it was looking sketchy, but my wingman assured me that it was just dust kicked up by a backhoe that was filling up HESCO barriers.  Then the dust got thicker, and methinks “That’s a lot of dust for a little construction”.  Sure enough, I could no longer see the line of aircraft only a few hundred feet away, and dash 2 could no longer see ME, sitting little more than 50 feet in front of him.  It was our first haboob of the season!  Of course, the weather decided to get crappy right when our full load of passengers and their three bags apiece had gotten completely settled; and we had to tell the guys to pick up the trash they had just manhandled on board and get lost.


From there, the weather kept teasing us: it got down to 200 feet visibility at our destination, but clear here; then it was garbage here, and clear at our destination.  We finally got clear weather at both locations, ran out to our helicopters, lit off our engines…only to be told by the duty officer that our destination had, again, gone to 200 feet visibility.  You can only play the weather game for so long before meeting diminishing returns; feeling our returns were sufficiently diminished, I canceled the mission and had the flight regroup at the chow hall for grilled cheese sandwiches.  War is hell.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Things have been busy, to put it mildly.  I’ve gone from eh, a little flying, to FML, flying so much I don’t know what day it is, what’s going on in the office, or which aircraft I have to do post-flight paperwork for.  I’m now pretty familiar with most of the zones the AO has to offer, having been to them at least once and some more times than I really care to.   They’re all similar, generally a square of dirt scraped away in one corner of the FOB with some river rock spread around to keep us from landing in a dust ball.  A few, however, keep the flying interesting.  One up north is by a dam; not on a dam, like we had at Haditha in Iraq, but next to it.  The approach requires quick reflexes, as we descend rapidly from altitude over the lake, blow through a spillway barely wider than our rotor arc, and then make a hard decelerating turn to land on a little finger jutting out near the dam, with the terrain dropping away several hundred feet on three sides and the fourth usually occupied by our LZ security.  It takes some practice getting the approach right the first time, especially at night when cultural lighting blots out what little terrain contrast we get through the soda-straw goggles.


Landing in the provincial capital is fun of a different sort.  We call it the Death Star Trench Run: drop down to an open area in between two city blocks, fly at max speed at rooftop level to keep the s**theads from getting a bead on you, then honk the nose up and try to go from 120 knots to zero in five seconds or less to make the zone, which is right in the middle of the city.  At that speed, you think you’ll be able to pull out in time?  Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home, except here there’s a fair chance the womp rats will take a pot shot at you on the way in.  Fortunately, Annie Oakley they are not.


It’s also getting colder, especially at night, which is a harbinger of the onset of the Brutal Afghan Winter and the end of Fighting Season.  Thus far, having to put on a jacket and a few minutes of drizzle a couple of days ago is all the Brutal Afghan Winter has inflicted on us, but doubtless it will get a little more miserable before we’re through.


Otherwise, I’m keeping myself occupied when not flying.  I finished volume 1 of Shelby Foote’s Civil War narrative history and Mark Owen’s No Easy Day (interesting book, though per DOD guidelines I’m not allowed to talk or speculate about it; yet there’s also no injunction against buying it, so I’m not sure what they’re hoping to accomplish.  So I won’t talk about it, except to say that I would love to have the high-speed night vision goggles those guys get: four tubes with 120 degree field of vision, compared to our 40 FOV on aviator goggles).  I’m slogging through Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, a work of historical fiction about the real Macbeth; very well written, but I feel like I’ve been reading it forever because the way the pages are formatted, there are more words than your average novel per page (no, I’m not complaining that there are too many words in the book; I just feel like I’ll read a lot, and only turn a page or two when I’m done, and it’s putting me behind schedule getting to the other books I brought).  I’ve also been training for the Marine Corps Marathon Forward, where we will run twenty laps or so around Camp Bastion, which I hope to be able to actually participate in, since we can’t request to not be on the flight schedule to run it, it cannot impact our office duties, and if we break ourselves we’ll probably be standing a lot of duty.  So we’ll see.


Well, time for chow.  I need to leave the office before I go crazy from the steady stream of R&B tunes that my S-4 chief plays day in and day out.  I don’t want to ask him to turn it off, because compared to the rap and angry death metal most shops play, his smooth music is a welcome change.  But when I say ‘smooth’, I mean ‘smooth’ as in ‘my music is smooth, I’m smooth, and I want you to take your clothes off and be smooth with me’.  Every day, I’m treated to choruses like “I want you so bad / You been running through my mind / All I see is your behind”, “Lose the panties and the bra / Imma start with a  massage”, and “This one’s a baby-maker”.  If this is an insidious passive-aggressive form of torture, it’s brilliant because it’s driving me mad with a Barry White melody.  We should use this on the dirtbags in Gitmo.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Finally, (farther) outside the wire

There was not much new for me in the days immediately following the base attack.  I spent another two weeks on the FCF schedule, working to keep our birds in the air so that we could clean out the logistics backlog caused by days of not flying after the assault.  Other pieces of information cropped up on exactly how the insurgents were able to get in, and what they were after.  Most of it I can’t disclose; however, for those with the stomach, this piece by Michael Yon (http://www.michaelyon-online.com/false-sense-of-something-some-observations-and-thoughts-on-the-unfolding-wars.htm) has some interesting thoughts along with pictures that he grabbed from the ‘victory’ video released by the Taliban.  Looking at those pictures was disconcerting: none of those guys will win an award for best drawing (even if they could, they won’t, because all but one are dead), but sure enough, there’s the airfield, and sure enough, there are our helicopters right where they should be.  No one can predict the whims of Fate, but it’s chilling to think that, had the attackers made the simple choice of turning one way rather than the other after breaching the wire, that could just as easily have been our flight line up in flames, rather than the Harriers’.  Anyway, they missed their chance, and should they ever attempt anything similar in the future, they will find us somewhat less unprepared.  Since the attack made it obvious that on our side of the field, we’re pretty much on our own, the squadrons have hardened the flightline facilities so that any future attacker that manages to make it that far will run into a buzzsaw of obstacles and firepower.  Not that they COULD make it as far again, since the base perimeter has been hardened too; but we’re no longer relying on the promises made by other from the safety of their bunkers over on mainside.  Give us the tools; we’ll take care of ourselves.


In the last ten days, after swinging to one of our mission shifts, I’ve finally flown beyond the stretch of sand where we take our aircraft for testing.  Unlike Iraq, where general support – hauling ass and trash – was the name of the game, here there are still a large number of tactical missions to support alongside logistical movements.  I’ve primarily flown the GS anyway, since compared to the rest of the squadron that’s been here for two months, my delayed arrival still make me ‘new’, but it’s been good to explore this Helmand River valley that everyone’s been talking about.  A few observations: one, this place looks exactly like the Marine base at 29 Palms.  It’s uncanny actually: apart from the large river running through the province, the terrain and mountains look identical.  On my first flight up into the lower Hindu Kush, I thought I might see some more greenery and maybe even snow.  Nope; just more brown nooks and crannies.  The river valley itself bears a passing resemblance to that along the Euphrates; on either side are long stretches of irrigated farms (the “green zone”, for future reference), and then it stops and turns immediately into desert.  But population distribution is very different.  Along the Euphrates, there were distinct towns interspersed between the farm zones, and the closer you got to Baghdad it turned into familiar urban sprawl.  Not here.  Here, each farm is its own little compound, with dwellings walled in from each other.  There are a handful of larger communities scattered along the green zone, but by and large everyone is on their own.  At night on the goggles the contrast is most striking: not the large blobs of lights of town after town along the Euphrates, but rather a scattered smattering of individual pinpoints, with any large blob denoting an American or coalition base.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on the different social and tribal dynamics of Sunni Arabs and Pashtuns, but from simply flying overhead it seems clear that the locals aren’t big fans of having close neighbors.


The river is where most of our GS work is done.  Up in the mountains, there’s other work.  With the concerted effort over the last couple of years to drive the Taliban out of the population centers, such as they are, along the river, the focus is now to the north, in the mountains and isolated valleys where we have little presence and the insurgents can work relatively unmolested.  There are coalition task forces dedicated to remedying this situation, and we frequently support them by lifting troops to places they can’t get otherwise.  I flew one of these as well a few days ago.  Working with these guys – not Americans, not Brits, but other Commonwealth members – was interesting.  They’re not out here with much; as one of them put it, they only brought “good food, and the desire to kill bad guys”.  They’re good at the latter.  We dropped them into a known IED manufacturing area, and within a few hours they’d found lots of bomb parts, weapons, and left 4 dead bad guys in their wake.  They left without a scratch on any of them.


Anyway, off to more flying.  It’s good to be doing something besides testing the same aircraft for the same problems.  Game on.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hell of a night

For anyone seeking more information on the events of a few nights ago, the two stories below are the most accurate I’ve read:






Maybe someday I’ll discuss it in more detail.  But that will not be until I’m somewhere with a stiff drink in my hand.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

To hell with you people

On a sacred day of national mourning, you storm two of our embassies.  You murder our countrymen, including an ambassador, which is generally considered an act of war.  You tear our flag down and replace with al Qaeda's, the very group at attack us this day eleven years ago.  This is after we helped bring you to power in one country.  In the other, we give you over a billion dollars every year to help your basket case economy.  And all because you don't like a movie some private citizen made, which he is free to do in our country.

To hell with you. All of you.  Everywhere.