When the Washington Post began running The Afghanistan Papers, its recent series on the ineptitude of the US military mission in Afghanistan, I was sure that one of the articles would feature a photograph of a US soldier perched on the opened back ramp of a Boeing CH47 Chinook looking out over an Afghanistan landscape. Such photos are ubiquitous in articles about the Afghanistan War, and it’s easy to see why. The image of the solitary soldier looking backward and downward at the “Graveyard of Empires” seems to be an apt visual symbol for how Americans can only know Afghanistan from a distance, if at all, and understand their deployments only in hindsight.
In a sense I’m suggesting that the pictures have become a generic Afghanistan motif, but, still, the photos are always striking, what with the bulb-headed helmeted soldier, framed in the door hatch, hanging precariously off the back lip of an aircraft flying over a scenic Afghanistan rural or urban locale. The pictures evoke equal amounts of tension, serenity, wonder, thoughtfulness, and thrill, which in my experience are the same emotions that come with actually flying in a Chinook while looking backward over an open ramp.
The only fictional representation of the Chinook back-ramp scene that I can remember comes in the first chapter of Kathleen J. McInnis’s war-romance The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018). The opening episode of McInnis’s novel has her first-person protagonist, a civilian Pentagon analyst, being treated to a ride on the opened ramp of a Chinook as she flies into Kabul. The narrator is tethered in, as are the aircraft crew members, but the feeling is still precarious. Here’s how McInnis’s character describes it:
“Are you sure this is safe?” I screamed over the noise of the whirling blades to the sergeant to my left. His machine gun points outward into the dusty, blue beyond, looking for anyone–or anything–that might use our helicopter for target practice….
…I peered down between my boots at the brown baked mountains of the Hindu Kush which were peppered with dried scrub brush and the occasional cluster of homes. The villages grew more frequent, eventually merging together as we flew and forming the outskirts of the city of Kabul. And although the mountains themselves looked like they were made of dust as fine as powdered sugar, somehow the houses clung halfway up the slopes and squeezed themselves into narrow valleys before spreading open into the city itself.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that hundreds of feet of air were all that was separating me from the streets below. Or that hunks of metal weighing forty tons shouldn’t be airborne.
…I looked off into the distance and saw a black speck floating behind us. I could just make out another helicopter’s long barrel shape and dual rotors. Looking down from the city below to the hills in the distance, now partially shrouded in late afternoon haze, I remembered [an] interpreter talking about his homeland in lightly-broken English. “We could make it beautiful again,” he said, “if only there were peace.”
To return to the Washington Post series, sure enough, within a couple of days a backshot of a helicopter gunner looking out at Afghanistan accompanied the story here. To be exact, it’s of a gunner keeping watch out of the side door of a Chinook, but you get the idea. A quick search of the Internet found thirty or forty photographs shot looking out over the back ramp. Most of them are copyright protected, but I’m posting a few from public domain websites and DOD sites that will illustrate. You can also find a number of short videos depicting ramp-down Chinook rides on YouTube.
In regard to The Afghanistan Papers, I’m following the series closely and reading as well the follow-on commentaries and social-media responses to them (many written by friends). Most of the problems described in the articles I have addressed in my two blogs, and were apparent to all of us while we were in-country. The articles mostly address “big picture” issues of national and command policy and strategy, but the problems were felt with force at our level.
Corruption, rules-of-engagement, conflicting chains-of-command, stupid reporting and briefing requirements, Pakistan aiding and abetting the insurgents (and sometimes helping fight them), green-on-blue incidents, friendly fire incidents, dealing with special operators, balancing military ops with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and that was before the bullets, mortar rounds, and missiles started flying and the IEDs began exploding. You had to be pretty nimble to deal with it all and keep going. If you let things overwhelm you, you weren’t going to be of much use to anyone, though you could certainly use your dismay and anger to build a righteous argument that it was all stupid and worthless.
Strategically and structurally, my biggest gripe were the unit rotation policies and practices, which never kept units and key leaders in place long enough to become truly effective. My advisor team, for example, was rotated out of Khost Province at the seven-month mark of our deployment, just when we were really beginning to build trust with our Afghan counterparts and understand the lay-of-the land. Also, during my time I served under nine different chains-of-command due to constant task organization changes. Though it was kind of neat to be have been able to wear any one of nine “combat patches” representing the different units I belonged to over the course of a year, the problems with so much change are obvious.
To have complained about it at the time would to have been labeled a whiner, a naysayer, and a foot-dragger. It would have meant being fired immediately, as (among other things) it would be insubordinate to the chain-of-command, and ruinous for troop morale and unit cohesion, which was high at the time and by all accounts remains high. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best the we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.
However small our results may have been, I’ve always held that advisors at least felt like we were doing the most good, compared to other Americans. I also felt like we had the highest regard for Afghans and had mostly funny or warm-hearted stories about working with them. That’s not saying much, because the soldiers in the line-force units in our area-of-operations distrusted Afghans and wanted to spend as little time around them as possible. The articles and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports on which they are based also seem hostile to Afghans as people. Continually dwelling on corruption and making blanket statements and assumptions about incompetent, unreliable Afghans is definitely off-putting to me. In my experience, if that was your attitude going in, or a “fact” “proven” to you by your suspicions and initial encounters with Afghans, well then everything that followed was going to confirm that. The Afghans we worked with made distinctions, and they sensed quickly if an American was predisposed to be snoopy and judgmental about them. If so, they pretty much acted to type. If the opposite, then they were great partners, eager to please and amenable to suggestions and direction. The negative comments about Afghans in the Post articles and the SIGAR reports seem to have been written by people who may have worked or fought side-by-side with Afghans once or twice, but never day-in, day-out for seven months in Khost and five months in Paktya.
Not entirely reassuring, I’m sure, or beyond critique, or free of self-justification, but those were my thoughts then and they mostly remain the same now.