THE RAID FORCE MADE a triumphal return to Pentagon in the predawn darkness. Weeks later, General Franks would send the MEU a note declaring that its prowess as a “power projection strike force was superbly demonstrated” that night. I laughed when I read the accolade. I hadn’t thought of a few buddies with rifles as anything so grand as a “power projection strike force.”
Just before sunrise, in the coldest hour of the day, Jim relieved me at the radios, saying, “Don’t touch your rifle without gloves on.” He opened his fingers to show me a palm missing a quarter-size piece of skin. “Cold stuck me right to it.”
Without even taking my boots off, I lay on the gravel and pulled my sleeping bag over me. I had slept only one hour in the past twenty-four. Thirty seconds later, Jim stood above me.
“Don’t shoot the messenger, but Shaka wants the platoon commanders at the tent for a brief.”
“Three minutes ago. Sorry, bro. I must have missed the first call.”
The wind cut through my skin and I was nearly blind with exhaustion as I stumbled down the ridge. I remembered a night march at Quantico when I’d fallen asleep in midstride and woken up on the pavement with bloody hands. This was why our training had emphasized fatigue. War pares existence to its core — little food, little sleep, little shelter. The only thing I had in excess was stress.
A dozen people packed the tent. Body heat warmed it, and the generator-powered bulb overhead made the place almost homey, a long way from the dark holes up on the ridge.
“We’re closing the ring, gentlemen,” Shaka said. He looked tired, too. “Karzai is close to Kandahar. Shirzai is in part of the city. Intel thinks Mullah Omar fled to Pakistan, but Kandahar is still important to us. As you all know, it’s the spiritual capital of the Taliban. And we need that airport.”
He paused for a moment and turned a page in his green commander’s notebook. “I don’t normally call everyone in here for operations orders, but I wanted to look at each of you. I’ve had officers tell me they can’t accomplish missions because their troops are too tired. Bullshit. You are tired, and those Marines are capable of more than they know. We had a two-hundred-meter gap in the lines last night. It’s sloppy, and it’s dangerous.” He made eye contact with each of us. “Keep your heads in the game.”
The battalion operations officer took over at a nod from the colonel and began to brief the day’s mission. “At 0130Z 10 December 2001, BLT 1/1 conducts a movement to contact near Kandahar to seize key terrain astride Highway 1 in order to interdict al Qaeda and Taliban forces fleeing from the city.”
I scribbled notes as the formal order was translated into plain English. “Gents, we’re going to get up on that highway in broad daylight, and you will fuck up anybody who tries to escape until the CIA can sort out who’s who. Everyone with a vehicle will drive up there. Bravo Company,” he pointed at Captain Whitmer standing next to me, “will set up landing points in the desert here and fly up in two CH-53s.”
Catching the major’s eye, I asked, “Fire support, sir?” Dill’s assessment had been right: outnumbered was fine as long as jets were overhead.
“Cobra escort during your flight, but they have only thirty-five minutes on station. Otherwise, Navy fixed-wing. Two F-14s, call sign Cosby 41. Four F-18s, call sign Noah 55. Six F-18s, call sign Gumby 21. They’re on station for two hours.”
The operations officer took a last look at his notebook and slammed it shut. “Two more things. Expect tactics of desperation — car bombs, suicide bombers, booby traps, attempted kidnappings. Also, there are known minefields three kilometers east and four kilometers west of where we’re going, so don’t walk all over the fucking place to take a leak.”
After the rest of the force snaked down to the river in a winding convoy, I stood on a flat piece of desert with the platoon, cocking my head to hear distant rotor blades. We saw the Cobras first. They raced to our north, flying low and fast. I knew the Super Stallions would be close behind and turned on my strobe light. It was after sunrise, but a thick overcast blended the morning light and the desert into an indistinguishable gray.
I turned my head as the helicopters roared onto the landing zone we had marked, throwing dust and rocks everywhere. Staff Sergeant Marine and I stood at the tail ramp and counted the Marines aboard. Space was tight because a pallet of fuel cans and ammo was strapped in the center of the cargo bay. I would have to stand on the ramp.
The crew chief, grinning behind his opaque facemask, handed me a nylon strap and scrambled forward, over the laps of the seated Marines, to get behind his door-mounted machine gun. I looped the strap around my waist and clipped into the airframe overhead. With my boots at the ramp’s edge, I looked down and watched the desert disappear in a cloud of dust.
We tilted slowly out of the cloud and accelerated, dropping back down to rooftop level. It was a five-minute flight. We passed over the houses I had watched from afar for so many days. The river was a muddy ribbon — sitting, not flowing. Cultivated fields of green, probably poppies, contrasted with the bland rock and sand all around. The sand stretched in an unbroken plain up to the edge of Highway 1. The highway looked like a driveway, no more than a lane and a half wide, the last paved road for two hundred miles to the west and south. A single line of crooked telephone poles stretched next to it as far as I could see in both directions. North of the highway, the ground changed abruptly to a rocky scree field extending a couple of kilometers to the base of the mountains.
We landed in the center of these rocks. Narrow arroyos reached like veins from the foothills down to the road. Beyond it, I saw the trees near the river, and beyond them, the dunes and the ridge where our patrol bases had been. This spot was much more exposed than our previous sites, in plain view of the highway and dominated by the mountains towering above us to the north. I had the unbidden thought of mortars crashing into the rocks, adding jagged flying chips to their explosions of shrapnel.
With the LAVs all around us, the platoon didn’t have much of a security mission. I settled them into the deep crevasses, safe from indirect fire, to clean their weapons, eat, and rest while I searched for information about our next move. Commanders are always with the radio antennas, so I looked for the biggest bunch of antennas and walked toward them.
Halfway there, I noticed two Afghan boys walking toward our position, smiling and waving. Remembering the major’s warning about suicide bombers, I called for the translator and joined him to intercept them. Lance Corporal Ajmal Achekzai had been working as a cook on the Peleliu before 9/11. After the attacks, he let on that he had been born in Kabul and spoke Pashto. Achekzai became the primary translator for the task force.
The boys wore flowing jackets over their baggy trousers. One had leather sandals, and the other walked barefoot on the rocky ground. They had bright, intelligent eyes. The barefoot boy smiled and reached out shyly to touch my hand. In Pashto, he told Achekzai we had been lucky to escape with our lives from the villages along the river.
“They are all Taliban.”
I shook my head and laughed. “Those villagers told us they were happy to see Americans and that everyone else in the area was Taliban,” I said. Achekzai shrugged. “Don’t tell him that,” I added. It wasn’t a lieutenant’s decision to play local politics. “Just thank them for their friendship and tell them we’re impressed by the beauty of their country.”
The boys smiled at the compliment and waved as they walked back across the gravel toward the highway. I turned to continue my walk toward the headquarters and thought of one more thing. “Achekzai, tell them to keep people away from our positions, especially at night. They could get hurt.”
The battalion commander and his staff clustered in the center of three Humvees, sitting on campstools. A map of southern Afghanistan was spread at their feet, and puffs of cigar smoke dissipated in the cold wind. I waited a few feet away until the meeting ended and Captain Whitmer joined me.
“What’s the word, sir?”
“We’re staying here. Reports of Taliban in a village to the southeast and al Qaeda to the northeast. You know the drill by now. Set up a good integrated defense. Rest half your Marines at a time, and be ready to support any patrols or other missions the battalion decides to run.”
“Right. So do nothing, but be prepared to do anything.”
Captain Whitmer laughed. “Seems like a pretty good general rule.”
Two hours after sunset, we had just settled into our defense for the night. I was nestled in a narrow wadi, monitoring the radio and trying to clean my rifle by feel in the dark. A terse order crackled through the handset to pack up and prepare to move immediately. I slipped my rifle back together and ran to the colonel’s Humvee. Several other Marines were already there. The operations officer updated us.
“Electronic intercepts are picking up Pashto radio chatter nearby. At least two groups of fighters know where we are and are moving into position to ambush us with RPGs.”
One of the LAR officers spoke from the darkness. “So what? We’re in a good defense. Even if they lob ’em, RPGs won’t reach out much more than a klick. We’ll just use the thermal sights on the LAVs and hose anyone who closes within a kilometer of us.”
All suggestions that we should stay in place were brushed off. “The battalion commander wants to move. We’re stepping off in fifteen minutes and going south of the highway, less than ten kilometers from here. Everyone with a vehicle is in it. Bravo Company is on foot.”
I raised my hand. “Sir, I’m packing almost two hundred mortars and ten thousand rounds of 7.62. I need to get some of that weight into the vehicles so my platoon can keep up.”
He replied that the vehicles were full and that adding more weight risked breaking the axles.
“OK, so we’ll put the ammo in them, and some of their Marines can walk.” This seemed logical to me.
“Lieutenant Fick, I don’t want units all mixed up. Guys in the trucks stay in the trucks. You figure out a way to carry those rounds.”
With all our other gear, that meant each of my Marines would be carrying almost two hundred pounds of equipment.
“Sir, that’s bullshit.” I worked to soften my angry words with a deferential tone. “I’ll have Marines breaking ankles on these rocks, and then we’re all fucked. Do you expect me to go back and tell my guys we’re carrying two hundred pounds apiece while everyone else rides in trucks?”
The operations officer fixed me with his most authoritative glare and lowered his voice an octave. “Lieutenant, you’re about to feel the wrath of a field-grade officer.”
I stumbled back through the rock field to the platoon, cursing the operations officer, the Marine Corps, Afghanistan, and the fact that a well-armed force of Marines was running away from a few ragtag jihadis with RPGs. After all the talk about aggressiveness and taking the fight to the enemy, we were turning tail instead of going hunting or setting an ambush. I dropped down into the wadi, where Staff Sergeant Marine had taken over for me on the radio. He shook his head when I told him the plan.
“Running like this is a bad idea,” I said, stripping off my extra clothes and stuffing them into my pack.
“Sure as Christ made little red apples,” Marine replied as he stood to pass the word to the platoon.
The column formed up and began to move south across the highway and away from the mountains. Weapons platoon shuffled along next to the Humvees, struggling under the weight of weapons, flak jackets, packs, helmets, ammunition, water, food, radios, batteries, shovels, and bad attitudes. None of the Marines in the vehicles walked.
Each of my men carried his body weight or more. The ground underfoot was a jumble of head-size rocks, too large to walk over but too small to hop across. It was ankle-rolling hell. Faces gleamed with sweat in the moonlight. We crossed the highway within feet of the burned-out trucks from two nights before. I pulled the “Freedom Endures” picture of the firefighters from my cargo pocket and slid its edge into the metal frame of a truck skeleton, where it waved defiantly.
Near the back of the column, a machine gunner began to crumple beneath the gun resting across his shoulders like the yoke on an ox. I watched as a corporal, already carrying one machine gun, took it from him and threw it across his own shoulders. The two guns together weighed more than fifty pounds. I carried six mortar rounds in my pack, plus the radios and all their batteries. But most of the Marines carried even more. I thought of the operations officer sitting in his Humvee.
I thought, then, of my favorite time at Quantico, those moments in the bunk after we sang “The Marines’ Hymn.” Now, as I had at OCS, I sensed an outpouring of grit, pride, and raw desire to live up to the traditions we’d inherited. These Marines came from places like Erie and Tuscaloosa and Bedford Falls. The most junior of them earned nine hundred dollars a month. Some had joined the Corps for adventure, others for a steady paycheck or to stay out of jail. Now they all kept walking for one another.
I took one of the guns from the corporal and resolved that I would never again cut a corner in training or accept an excuse when it came to the physical fitness of my men. Captain Whitmer was right: train in bloodless battles to fight bloody exercises. Television commentators could pontificate from their climate-controlled studios about technology and the “revolution in military affairs,” but out on the battlefield that night, long history marched unchanged into the twenty-first century. Strong men hauled heavy loads over rough ground. There was nothing relative about it — no second chances and no excuses. It was elemental and dangerous. It was exactly why I’d joined the Marines.