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.