THREE HOURS LATER, in the dim red light of the C-130’s cargo bay, I sprawled on top of a huge rubber fuel bladder as we barreled north. Sitting on five hundred gallons of kerosene stoked my already overactive imagination. I tried to remember the maximum altitude of a shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile and wished I knew how high we were flying. Thinking of 1/1’s peacetime slogan — “Safety is paramount” — I realized that priorities were changing. The Marines all played it cool. Some pretended to sleep; others read. But there was enough eye contact made and quickly broken to know it was a front.
We knew we were almost there when the airplane plunged and we floated a few inches off the floor. The landing gear slammed down with a thud, and the fuselage rocked back and forth as we slowed. Dust choked the cabin when the pilots dropped the ramp. My platoon suffered its first casualty when a private caught his leg in a piece of cargo webbing and broke his ankle before even touching Afghan soil.
We lugged our gear off into a frigid, barren landscape. The full moon washed the sand in silver all the way to the horizon. It looked like fresh snow. The crystalline air reminded me of the mountains, and I remembered that Rhino was 3,285 feet above sea level. After the C-130 spun around and roared off for Pasni, the runway lanterns blinked out, and we walked in darkness to a walled compound at the southwest corner of the field. One of the great topics of speculation among the Marines in Afghanistan was the origin of this camp. Ninety miles from Kandahar, more desolate than any place I’d ever been, Rhino was a short dirt runway and a complex of buildings enclosed within a white block wall. Guard towers studded the four corners. Inside the wall stood a high-ceilinged warehouse, a water tower, half a dozen smaller buildings, and a mosque. All were impressively constructed, with marble floors, granite countertops, new lighting fixtures, and white plaster walls. Paved roads flanked by brick drainage ditches connected the buildings. Some people swore that the CIA had financed it early in the campaign to capture bin Laden. Others claimed that it was the private falconing camp of an Arab prince.
The whole place had been shot up during the Sword mission a month before. Each guard tower had a single cannon hole in its roof — direct hits from the AC-130 Spectre gunship we had listened to from the Peleliu’s TACLOG. Heavy machine gun fire had raked most of the walls, and small arms casings littered the ground. Many of them were from AK-47s, indicating that whoever had been there had fought back.
We slept on the floor of the warehouse that night, waiting until daylight to move out and take our positions on the perimeter. Bravo Company manned the southeastern corner, with Charlie tied in on our left flank and Alpha on our right. My machine guns and assault section were attached to the rifle platoons to put more firepower out on the line, and Staff Sergeant Marine dug in his mortars behind the center of the company’s position. Jim and I went in search of a spot with good visibility. Flat desert stretched almost unbroken to the horizon in every direction, but there was one lone hill next to the runway. We decided to climb it and check out the view.
Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries on earth, so we kept one eye to the ground as we walked, even though a land mine inside the compound was almost unimaginable. While looking down at the ground, I spotted a piece of paper plastered against the dried husk of a bush by the incessant desert wind. I peeled it off. It was notepaper, the size of a thank-you card, bearing a photocopy of the famous picture of three firefighters raising the American flag over the rubble of the World Trade Center. Above them, in block letters, were the words FREEDOM ENDURES. The flip side of the paper had the same photo, and the Pashto translation of the motto. It looked like a calling card left by Task Force Sword. I pocketed it.
The hill was too far from Bravo’s lines to be useful to Jim and me, so we settled for setting up in the guard tower at the southeastern corner of the compound. It stood about thirty feet high, intact except for the shell holes in its peaked roof. From the top, we looked across Bravo Company’s entire front — a perfect place to control mortars in a fight. It would also be a perfect place for the enemy to shoot at, but lacking any alternative, we put that out of our minds.
We stood watch in the tower for almost a week. American aircraft continued pounding Taliban positions, and we often saw them high overhead, tiny fighters hanging on to larger tankers. Besides us, the only Americans on the ground were a few Special Forces teams farther north. They were all fighting in and near population centers — Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz. No one lived around Rhino. Our patrols went out every night and saw nothing. We watched from the tower all day and saw nothing. To be of value, we had to go where the bad guys were.
One afternoon in early December, Jim stood watch while I lay on the floor of the tower to write letters to my two younger sisters. A sentence into the first one, I fell asleep. Thudding footsteps on the spiral steel staircase woke me an hour later. Three women and a man, all Navy doctors, poked their heads above the floor. They were anesthesiologists and trauma surgeons, sent to Afghanistan from San Diego’s Naval Medical Center with thirty hours’ notice. They wore their pistols self-consciously.
“What do you guys do up here?” The woman’s glance took in our binoculars, maps, and arsenal of weapons piled in the corner.
“Give you all three or four minutes’ early warning before the human wave assault,” Jim answered blithely.
She blinked but didn’t smile.
“So why all the doctors?” I tried to deflect more questions by asking one of my own.
A man with the carefully gloved hands of a surgeon explained that the nearest trauma facility was in Oman, about four hours away by C- 130. With a growing American presence in Afghanistan and correspondingly more casualties, higher command had decided to set up a tented operating room in Rhino’s courtyard.
“We can perform three simultaneous lifesaving surgeries,” he said.
Jim and I nodded gravely, unsure whether this was meant as reassurance or merely information.
The doctors took a last look from the tower and retreated down the stairs. The surgeon, looking over his shoulder, said, “We hear you’re leaving soon. Good luck up north. We’ll be here if you need us.”
That one was definitely meant as reassurance.
Heading north was news to Jim and me, so we called Staff Sergeant Marine to take our place in the tower and went to visit Captain Whitmer at company headquarters. As we walked across the sand toward the olive-drab tent hidden in the dunes, a figure approached us with an unusual collar insignia glinting in the sun. It didn’t look like a bar or an oak leaf.
It was a star. General Mattis had arrived to take command of Task Force 58.
“Good afternoon, sir.” Our greeting tried to make up in vigor what it lacked in salutes, since Marines in the field never salute officers for fear of attracting enemy sniper fire. That seemed unlikely here, but it was policy nonetheless. I certainly didn’t want to be reamed out by the general for a life-threatening show of respect.
“Good afternoon, young warriors.” General Mattis stopped to speak with us. Of slender build and wearing glasses, he carried his pistol in a leather shoulder holster. Without preamble or small talk, he praised our mission in Afghanistan. “You need to know how much you’ve already accomplished by being here. You prove that the United States has the balls to put troops on the ground in Afghanistan. You’ve emboldened the Northern Alliance to renew its pressure on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Kandahar. You’ve reassured Americans at a time when they sorely need it.”
He shook our hands in the way that generals do, grasping us each behind the elbow for emphasis. Part of me wanted to be unimpressed, but Jim and I both walked a little taller toward the headquarters tent.
The next afternoon, we climbed the stairs to the task force COC and pushed through the plastic sheet doorway into the warmth and light of the crowded room. The effect was all cheer and goodwill after the cold emptiness of the desert outside. The doctors were right: we were heading north the next day. The plan was mostly set, and platoon commanders were brought in only for the final confirmation brief.
Computer stations filled the back corner, and track lighting overhead bathed laminated maps taped together across the longest wall. Rifles were stacked by the door like umbrellas. Forty infantry officers, helicopter pilots, SEALs, Australian Special Air Service operators, and CIA liaisons crowded around in a whatever-keeps-you-warm assortment of fleece jackets and skullcaps. Most sat on piles of carpets, which outnumbered chairs by two or three to one.
Captain Eric Dill, commander of the recon platoon, held his face six inches from the map, tracing a line with his finger. Dill shaved his head bald and had a reputation for frankness and good analysis. I joined him.
He greeted me with “One vehicle per minute at night.”
“Surveillance assets report an average of one vehicle each minute on this stretch of road between sunset and sunrise.” He pointed to a black line snaking west from Kandahar toward the town of Lashkar Gah.
“Who are they?”
Dill arched an eyebrow. “How many Afghan farmers have you seen tooling around in Toyota pickup trucks?”
I hadn’t seen any Afghan farmers. I hadn’t seen any Afghans at all. But I knew that the Saudis had sold the Taliban several hundred Toyota pickup trucks. They weren’t quite as identifiable as a tank with a Taliban flag painted on the side, but they were close.
The square-headed MEU operations officer called the room to order. We minimized note taking in secret briefs, so I rolled my watch cap above my ears to hear better.
Australians worked in the Helmand River valley to our west. Joint Special Operations Task Force South, made up of SEALs and Special Forces, operated along the Pakistani border to our east. Opposition leader Hamid Karzai continued to pressure Kandahar from the north, and another opposition commander, Gul Agha Shirzai, was moving aggressively toward the city from the eastern town of Spin Boldak. His fighters had captured a bridge only seven kilometers from Kandahar International Airport the previous afternoon. The Taliban and al Qaeda were reported to have nineteen thousand supporters in Kandahar.
An intelligence analyst wearing jeans and a flannel jacket pushed his glasses back on his nose and stepped to the center of the room. But for the pistol on his hip, he could have been in front of a college class. He predicted that Kandahar would collapse within a week, certainly by mid-December. The Taliban were expected to defect and run for home, some to Pakistan, some to Iran, and many to the hills around Kandahar. Al Qaeda, by contrast, would be more ruthless. Many fighters would prefer death to surrender.
“We’ll give it to ’em,” the operations officer said, then continued briefing the plan. Within an hour, a force of recon Marines would depart Rhino to drive north nearly one hundred miles. By the following morning, they were expected to identify a landing zone and a site for a patrol base near the highway between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. LAR and CAAT, the light-armored reconnaissance company and combined anti-armor teams, would join them that afternoon. Their LAVs and Humvees would provide the bulk of the force’s punch. My platoon and a rifle platoon would follow via helicopter late that night or early the next morning. Together, we would be known as Task Force Sledgehammer. Our mission was to interdict traffic on the highway to prevent the Taliban and al Qaeda from escaping the Northern Alliance onslaught against Kandahar. Despite the task force’s name, we would be the anvil to Hamid Karzai’s hammer.
Locking eyes with me and the other young commanders in the room, the operations officer finished with a recap of the “Five Bullets” that every Marine in our platoons had to know: mission statement, challenge and password, rules of engagement, lost Marine plan, and escape and recovery plan. It amounted to knowing what we were doing, how not to get killed by our own people, how to ensure that we were killing only bad guys, and what to do in case we got lost.
The brief ended, and the men in the room disappeared into the dark to make their final preparations for the day to come. Eric and I stood by the compound gate. As I pulled gloves from my pocket, I asked him, “What do you think — good aggressiveness or a bridge too far?”
Eric reflexively tugged on the magazine of the M4 rifle slung across his chest. “We’re way outnumbered, that’s for sure. But with all our airpower, it shouldn’t be a problem. I think we have to kick somebody’s ass once, and then word gets out.”
Later that night, I walked my platoon lines to check on the Marines. After midnight, there was no ambient light within a hundred miles and probably fewer than three dozen internal combustion engines. The air was so clear that the Marines on patrol would report headlights or campfires on the horizon, only to realize that they were watching stars rise.
My first stop was the mortar pit, where I found Staff Sergeant Marine on watch while his Marines slept.
“Evenin’, sir,” he said.
“Good news. Day after tomorrow, we’re flying north. Just third platoon and us, and some other parts of the BLT. I’ll have more details tomorrow.”
Marine took the news with a quick nod, leaning to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the sand. “Good. The sooner we kill ’em, sooner we go home.”
“What happened to all that talk about ‘golden memories and no ghosts’?”
“That time is past. We’re committed now. No more pray for peace. Now it’s shoot to kill. Fight to win.”
I shivered and hoped that Marine would attribute it to the wind. I changed the subject. “You reading anything good right now?” Marine was an avid reader, and we often traded books.
“Funny you should ask, sir, funny you should ask.” He reached into his pack and pulled out a paperback. In the moonlight, I read “Rudyard Kipling” on the cover. “I’m not much for poetry, but this is almost enough to convert me:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle an’ blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
“If I’m wounded, Staff Sergeant, and you fuckers leave me on Afghanistan’s plains, I’ll put my last bullet between your shoulder blades before I put it in my own head,” I replied.
Marine laughed and shot another stream of brown saliva into the sand. “I expect you will, sir.” He paused and added, “Even Hadsall might’ve done that.”
I continued down the line to see the rest of the platoon. A white halo surrounded the moon, looking like an iris around a pupil. The moonlight cast my shadow across glowing sand, again reminding me of new snow. Normally, I chafed under the twenty-pound weight of my flak jacket, but now it was the only thing keeping the icy wind off my skin. I imagined the chill air pouring off glaciers high in the Hindu Kush and racing across miles of desert without a tree to slow it down.
One of my machine gun teams was dug in with Patrick’s platoon, anchoring the far flank of the company’s lines. They were in the middle of Sergeant Espera’s squad, the former repo man with whom I’d flown into Pakistan on the Sword mission. For a few hours each night, Espera turned one of his holes into the company’s social center, brewing coffee and debating the issues of the day with all comers. I slid into the hole, and Espera caught me up on the night’s discussion.
“Sir, we’re talking about Lindh. These guys” — he nodded at the other Marines in the hole — “think he’s a freedom fighter.”
John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, had been captured the week before at Qala-i-Jangi prison in northern Afghanistan. Now he was imprisoned in a metal container a few hundred yards from Espera’s hole.
“And what do you think?” I asked Espera.
“Traitor. And the most vicious kind. He turned his back on the society that raised him, that gave him the freedom and idealism to follow his beliefs.”
“But what was his crime?” I goaded Espera, happy to play devil’s advocate. “Other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
“Joining the Taliban. Claiming to be a member of al Qaeda. Shit, sir, if that ain’t enough for you, his buddies killed a Marine!” Mike Spann, a CIA officer and former Marine captain, had been killed shortly after interrogating Lindh. “If my grandma killed a Marine, she’d be on my shitlist.”
Espera turned serious again. “We’re young Americans out here doing what our nation’s democratically elected leaders told us to do. And he’s fighting against us. Why’s that so hard to figure out? And already the press is bitching about how he’s being treated. He’s warm. He’s protected. He eats three meals each day and sleeps all night. Do I have that? Do my men have that?”
“Their freedom to voice stupid opinions is part of what we’re fighting for,” I said. It was well after midnight, and I still had more positions to check on, so I climbed out of the hole as Espera and the other guys resumed their debate.
Farther down the line, in the middle of a gravelly flat near the runway’s end, I approached another fighting hole, careful to come from the rear and listen for the verbal challenge. It was an assault rocket team, and there should have been two Marines awake. In the moonlight, I saw three heads silhouetted against the sky. I slid down into the hole with a rustle of cascading dirt. General Mattis leaned against a wall of sandbags, talking with a sergeant and a lance corporal.
This was real leadership. No one would have questioned Mattis if he’d slept eight hours each night in a private room, to be woken each morning by an aide who ironed his uniforms and heated his MREs. But there he was, in the middle of a freezing night, out on the lines with his Marines.
General Mattis asked the assault men if they had any complaints.
“Just one, sir. We haven’t been north to kill anything yet.”
Mattis patted him on the shoulder. I had heard that he was old school, that he valued raw aggression more than any other quality in his troops.
“You will, young man. You will. The first time these bastards run into United States Marines, I want it to be the most traumatic experience of their miserable lives.”