Archidamus gave a great defeat to the Arcadians, in the fight known by the name of the Tearless Battle, in which there was a great slaughter of the enemy without the loss of one Spartan . . . The old men and the women marched out as far as the river Eurotas, lifting up their hands, and thanking the gods that Sparta was now cleared again of the disgrace and indignity that had befallen her, and once more saw the light of day.
MARINES CROWDED THE FLIGHT DECK. Only an hour after the attacks half a world away, most of the Dubuque’s sailors and Marines were already back aboard T and far more restrained than usual this late on a night in port. My platoon milled around, clad in sandals and Hawaiian shirts. No one spoke. On the stern, two sailors manned a machine gun. They trained it on the cars depositing passengers at the gangplank. The ship rumbled and smoked from its funnel. The Dubuque was making steam, getting ready to sail.
I climbed up to Captain Whitmer’s cabin, to let him know his officers were all aboard. I found him sitting at his desk, wearing sweatpants and looking relaxed. His incense burner smoldered, and acoustic guitar played softly in the background. This was Captain Whitmer at his best, embodying the line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem about keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs. Yes, he knew about the attacks. Yes, he expected we’d be sailing earlier than planned. No, he saw no need for concern. We would hold a company formation at 0100 on the flight deck. Standing there in flip-flops and a T-shirt, I wanted to salute him but only nodded and closed the door.
At 0100, the flight deck looked like a party that had been halted in midstream. Marines, mostly drunk but acting very sober, bobbed and weaved in a rough formation. The ship was at THREATCON DELTA, wartime footing. I counted my men and found them all present. In fact, every sailor and Marine on the Dubuque returned to the ship within two hours of hearing the news from the States. Just as people at home were gathering together to absorb the blow, we did the same.
Even on the flight deck in the middle of the night, I recognized the pivotal moment. It was like a weight settling on my shoulders. I scanned the platoon’s three ranks of faces. They looked worried, disoriented, uncertain — the same way I’d felt before I saw Captain Whitmer. They would take their cue from me just as I had taken mine from him. A dumb-ass lieutenant banging on his war drum would be of no help.
“Fellas, get some rest,” I said evenly. “I’m sure the ship’s e-mail will be shut down pretty soon, so try to get a message off to let your families know you’re OK. I don’t know how this affects our plans, but I’m sure we’ll have more information tomorrow.”
Captain Whitmer’s calming effect was contagious. I could see that my reaction surprised them. Already, the worry lines began to disappear. Before dismissing the platoon, I turned it up just a little bit. “When the shock wears off, we’re gonna be pissed. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll be the ones to get revenge for this.”
It resonated with them, and I saw a flicker of resolve. My emotion surprised me. Looking at the Marines, I saw football stars and thugs and baby-faced eighteen-year-olds. Black and white and Hispanic. They were my platoon, my men, my responsibility. Ruefully, I remembered Staff Sergeant Marine’s comment about golden memories and no ghosts.
“Semper fi. Dismissed.”
I stood on the dark deck and looked out over the lights of Darwin for a minute before slowly climbing the superstructure to my stateroom. There was an e-mail message from my dad. “Stand tall,” it read, “but come home physically and psychologically intact.” When I woke at six, we were already out of sight of land, three hours before our scheduled departure.
The ARG was ordered to “proceed at best possible speed” and join the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Sea. Fifteen knots crept to eighteen and then to twenty, as fuel consumption became unimportant. Our scheduled stops in Singapore and Hong Kong were canceled. But the MEU interrupted its sprint for a daylong humanitarian mission in East Timor, the former Indonesian province then struggling for independence. I rode to the beach in Dili aboard a landing craft filled with lumber, grain, medicine, and, inexplicably, a crate of ThighMasters. Apparently, someone far up the chain of command wanted us to extend an olive branch to one nation before blowing the hell out of another.
Energy on the ship began to build. I learned that one of my Dartmouth classmates had died on the 104th floor of the North Tower. Marines had fathers and brothers in the New York City Fire Department, and sailors swapped the Dubuque baseball caps they normally wore with their uniforms for hats emblazoned with FDNY or NYPD. One Marine captain played bagpipes for the New York City Police Department band. He led a sunset memorial service on the flight deck, piping the mournful notes of “Amazing Grace” out over the empty ocean. Patrick, another New Yorker, received a note from a classmate whose boyfriend had died in the towers. She had been on the telephone with him when the line went dead. Patrick’s father, a doctor, had waited for the injured at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. On a wall in the gym, a Marine painted a mural of a bald eagle sharpening its talons with a file.
Lacking a definitive mission, the MEU prepared to do everything. Captain Whitmer spent most of our westward transit aboard the flagship Peleliu, where he could more easily keep up with the ever-changing plans. Consequently, Patrick and I camped out in TACLOG, the ship’s radio room for Marine communications, living on scraps of information passed back to us. “Great concern about possibility of multiple noncombatant evacuations. May want to focus on such an operation in and around Pakistan.”
Over the next two weeks, reams of information flowed to the MEU in preparation to evacuate up to nine thousand Americans from Pakistan. Bravo Company was tasked with flying to Islamabad to secure the U.S. embassy and ready its staff and their families for movement out to the ships. The ship’s executive officer wondered aloud how many people we could squeeze onto every available inch of deck space: four hundred? six hundred? What if the ambassador wants to bring her cat? Central Command gave us detailed blueprints and aerial photographs of the embassy and its grounds. Common features of American embassies and consulates are lovely soccer fields and lawns that double as helicopter landing zones. Patrick and I scoured the pictures looking for light poles, electrical wires, or anything else that would hinder our approach. We studied the buildings and surrounding gardens so we would waste no time with maps while rushing through them in the dark. By the end of the week, I knew the American embassy in Islamabad as well as I knew my parents’ backyard in Baltimore.
After reaching the Arabian Sea south of Pakistan, the Dubuque steamed in circles. The ocean had been carved into six boxes, named along a 9/11 theme: Pentagon, Pennsylvania, WTC North, WTC South, NYPD, and FDNY. The ships moved continuously but stayed within the boundaries of their assigned boxes in order to avoid collisions. It was a legitimate concern. By early October, dozens of American ships steamed circles in the same small patch of ocean.
The MEU slowly pulled back from its plans to evacuate civilians from Pakistan. Marine security guards at the consulate in Karachi and the embassy in Islamabad reported the situation well in hand. Nonetheless, we shared the general expectation that American strikes against Afghanistan would prompt a virulent anti-American backlash in neighboring countries. So we kept the evacuation plans on ice and began to focus more intently on Afghanistan.
After dinner on a typical Tuesday evening in the north Arabian Sea, I climbed to the upper deck and slid through the blackout curtains to the rail outside. The ship rocked gently on the dark ocean. Without visual reference points, the stars seemed to sway back and forth overhead. Far below, I saw and heard the white foam of the bow wave slide along the hull as the ship sliced through the water.
So much for a peaceful world. I remembered the day at OCS when the embassies in Africa had been bombed. I had been so naive. That afternoon, I’d still believed in the so-called peace dividend. Now my generation had its own Pearl Harbor, and I was an infantry lieutenant in the Marines. I could have been in medical school or wearing a suit to work. How could I have done this to my family? I wondered how many Marine infantry lieutenants in December 1941 had survived to see 1945.
I always did my best thinking outside on the deck. Fresh air, wind, and a view — even of only a dark horizon — brought me back to reality. Skippy peanut butter and CNN in the wardroom were of great comfort but disarmingly artificial. The wardroom was, for me, always in San Diego. Ten thousand miles from home, I would eat dinner and then open the hatch, fully expecting to see the lights of Coronado off the stern. But tonight there were no lights at all. I imagined the dozens of blacked-out American warships and, beyond them, the coast of Pakistan. A few hundred miles beyond that, across the mountains and deserts, was America’s newest target: Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was not only landlocked but time-locked as well. I sat on a metal chair in the TACLOG and flipped through printouts of a CIA analysis of the country. Patrick sat across from me, reading about Taliban battle tactics.
“Listen to this,” I said. “Population of twenty-five million people, but only thirty-one thousand telephones and one hundred thousand televisions. Thirty percent literacy, eight hundred dollars GDP per capita, life expectancy of forty-five years, and the biggest exports are opium, nuts, carpets, and animal pelts. It sounds like we’ll be fighting guys armed with clubs and slingshots.”
“And Stingers. They bled the Soviets white,” Patrick said without looking up from his reading. The Stinger is a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking, surface-to-air missile.
“Yeah, and the ragtag Chechens just kicked that same army in the teeth because the Russians’ tactics and training and leadership suck. I don’t think the comparison with us stands up.”
“Maybe not. I’m just saying we need to remember the history.” Patrick ran through a sketch of the foreign powers that had come to grief in Afghanistan’s mountains.
“In 327 B.C., Alexander the Great comes through the Khyber Pass and gets hit by an Afghan archer’s arrow. He nearly dies. Almost a thousand years later, Genghis Khan imposes his will over this whole part of the world. Who are the only people to pry concessions from him? The Afghans. And then there’re the British. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony Blair wants no part of this operation. They lost three fucking wars to these people.”
Patrick flipped back through his sheaf of papers and held one up. “Check this out. January 1842. The Brits withdraw from Kabul in a column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians. They’re trying to get to safety at a garrison in Jalalabad, 110 miles away. Guess how many made it?”
“No, one. The Afghans slaughtered all of them except one. They let him live to tell the story.
“Christ, and the Soviets,” he continued. “They admitted to fifteen thousand dead in the 1980s, plus at least ten times that number wounded and thousands dead from disease. And that’s only what they admitted. So my point is just that this place has been a graveyard for a lot of guys like you and me, and we owe it to ourselves at least to learn from their mistakes.”
I turned to a report on Taliban tactics. Their technique for moving through a minefield, according to the brief, was to put the unit in single file with the man at the front holding a large sandstone rock. Before each step, he drops the rock in front of him. If it falls on a mine, it will explode in a puff of dust, with the soft sandstone absorbing most of the blast. The point man may be stunned and temporarily deaf, but he will just go to the back of the line while the next guy takes over with a new rock.
The brief also said the fighters never carried any of their own gear — women and mules did that. If there were no women or mules available, they’d do without that particular equipment. The briefer finished with a note that Westerners who worked with the mujahideen in the 1980s said it was almost impossible to launch a coordinated attack with them; they quickly abandoned support positions in order to join in the glory of the assault.
“Death before dishonor.”
“Say again?” Patrick looked up. I hadn’t realized I had spoken aloud.
“Death before dishonor. Marines tattoo it on their forearms, but these fuckers live it.”
Any cavalier bravado I might have had — what Captain Novack would have called my “posturing behavior” — was ebbing away.
“Gents, the order we’ve all been waiting for is on the street.” It was October 7, and I stood at the back of the nightly brief in the wardroom, listening to the ship’s operations officer. He shook a stack of papers and went on. “This is the night’s theater air-tasking order. This document is usually one page of resupplies and medical flights. As you can see, this one looks more like a telephone book. Our neighbors this evening will include B-1 and B-2 bombers, B-52s, and every type of carrier air. Lots of it.”
I had learned earlier in the day that Charlie Company had flown off the Peleliu. Their mission was to secure an airfield in Jacobabad, Pakistan, for use by combat search-and-rescue aircraft. That could mean only one thing: American pilots would soon be in the sky over Afghanistan.
The operations officer continued. “The phased air campaign against Afghanistan begins in about an hour. Tomahawks from the Philippine Sea will be part of the first wave. Now I want to wrap this up so we can all get on deck to watch the show.”
Word had spread quickly through the ship, and dozens of Marines gathered in the dark on the upper decks. One level below, two sailors strummed guitars and sang Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.”
Patrick saw it first. A distant glow resolved itself into a small orange ball, rose vertically to the top of a haze layer about one finger above the horizon, and then flattened to horizontal flight as the Tomahawk missile disappeared to the north.
We’d been waiting for this moment for weeks. September 11 had been an act of war, but we couldn’t really say we were at war until the United States responded. Now all ambiguity disappeared. As if to confirm my thoughts, the ship’s captain made an announcement over the shipwide loudspeaker that all scheduled events for the next two days were canceled “in anticipation of operational taskings.” We were at war.