Convoy Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

American and Afghan army vehicles on the move in Khost province, 2008

A few years ago, I wrote a Time Now post that poked fun at stock scenes often found in contemporary war-fiction. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, although I was, a little, for what do we expect from war-writing but vivid portraits of common experiences shared by soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? Since that post, I’ve continued to keep an eye on the representation of characteristic deployment moments, and have become something of a connoisseur of how and how well they are carried off by the writers who offer them.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how war writers have portrayed the vehicle movements that were so integral to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Life on the Forward Operating Base and Combat Outpost offer much grist for fiction, as do scenes of urban combat in Iraq and rural combat in Afghanistan, as well as night-time raids in both places. For all that, the quintessential combat experience for many deployed soldiers and Marines, as well as deployed airmen and sailors, were the vehicle movements that took them from FOB to FOB, or out of the FOB into sector on patrols and missions.

These vehicle movements were almost always made in convoys of at least three, and usually four, vehicles, either “up-armored” Humvees, or tank-like “MRAPs” (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Within each vehicle the important crew positions were that of the driver, the “TC” (or truck/track/tank commander), who rode in the shotgun seat and was usually the senior member on-board, and the gunner, who stood in a roof-turret manning a machine gun and keeping look-out. Other occupants were generically designated “guys- in-back” or “GIBs.” The driver, TC, and gunner were linked by an intercom system and had visibility of the road ahead, with the gunner able to view to the sides and rear as well. The TC could also speak to the other vehicles via radio and to the headquarters back at the FOB. The guys-in-back had little or no visibility and were typically not linked into the intercom, and, jammed in tight with one another, had little to do but stare at each other until the movement was over.

In the sector of Afghanistan where I deployed, we called vehicle movements “CONOPs,” an abbreviation for “convoy operations” (or maybe a misapplication of “concept of operations”–a phrase from the military mission order format). CONOPs were always high-tension, as ambushes and IED attacks were a constant threat, and once they occurred there was little crews could do but hope they lived through them. Also possible were vehicle breakdowns and getting lost. But as ratcheted up as the tension was, there was also boredom, as most drives were uneventful and often excruciatingly long and slow. But there was also exhilaration, too; exiting the confines of the FOB and heading out into “bad guy country” is the stuff that many or most soldiers and Marines joined their respective services to do. To while away the time and defuse pitched emotions while on CONOPs, those on the vehicle intercom talked about everything under the sun and listened to music jerry-rigged through the vehicle radios. The admixture of boredom, danger, and heightened expectation, as well as the camaraderie enforced by joint endeavor in close quarters, is ripe for depiction by skilled authors.

Non-fiction portraits of CONOPs are scattered throughout books on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ll focus on fictional and artistic depictions here. Before we get rolling (pun), I’ll recommend the mini-series Generation Kill and Colin Halloran’s volume of poetry Shortly Thereafter for their representations of vehicle movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

In fiction, several novels make vehicle movements central to the stories they tell. In other words, what happens during the journey is the story, not the mission that awaits at the end of the journey. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives (set in Iraq) is exemplary in this regard, as is Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road (set in Afghanistan). Works that portray well, in my opinion, the fine-grain detail of the CONOP, while also using the scene to describe the social interaction and psychological outlook of the vehicle crewmen, include John Renehan’s The Valley and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils.

The Valley, for example, begins with a passage describing from the point-of-view of protagonist Lieutenant Black as he rides as a passenger in a night convoy of Humvees from a large Afghanistan FOB to a tiny COP high up in the mountains:

The convoy wove its way through the buildings and trailers of the base, radios chirping as vehicle commanders made their perfunctory commo checks with one another. Black looked out the little armored glass windows as the buildings fell behind, replaced by sandbags and blast barriers on either side.

The convoy rolled to a stop at the FOB’s east gate, in the exit channel. Electronic jamming equipment was switched on, and the vehicles filled with the clatter of weapons being charged. The manifest was passed to the guards, and the gate was opened.

The convoy rolled forward beneath the guard towers and machine-gun nests and wove left-right-left-right through a serpentine channel designed to slow down car bombs. They cleared the walls and the golden plain opened up before them, mountains rising from the horizon ahead.

Another passage from The Valley renders the flavor of convoy radio traffic:

“Vega X-Ray, this is Cyclone Mobile, over.”

The sound of the sergeant speaking the name of their destination into the radio roused Black from a near trance.

He pushed the light on his digital watch. It had been another ninety minutes of slogging wet travel. The ride had gotten bumpier and slower the farther they went.

The sergeant keyed the hand mic again. Tried his call again.

Moments passed as the signal made its way up into the dark, dancing among the windswept peaks and stone faces above them. Black wondered how far they were from the outpost, how many mountain passes or switchbacks still lay ahead of them. The vehicles ground on through the muck.

A burst of static from the radio.

“Cyclone Mobile, Vega X-Ray,” came a scratchy call back.

“X-Ray” denoted a command post or operation center. The voice on the other end was probably a soldier pulling late-night duty in Vega’s radio room.

The sergeant keyed the mic.

“Cyclone Mobile inbound, six vehicles, twenty-five personnel. Checkpoint Grapevine, time now.”

“Roger,” came the voice through the static and interference….

The sergeant turned to the driver.

Hit it,” he said.

The kid pulled off a glove and reached up to the ceiling, touching something with a bare finger. A square of sky blue illuminated on a tiny MP3 music player. He tapped it.

The vehicle erupted in sound. Black jumped.

The crew had wired speakers into the four corners of the Humvee. Not regulation, but not uncommon. Black hadn’t noticed the black boxes until now.

An obviously old rock recording echoed in the crew compartment….

In Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro’s first-person narrator, a medic named “Doc” Rodgers, describes duty as a gunner on CONOP in Afghanistan:

Grunting and straining, I managed to pull open the two-hundred-pound door of the Humvee and throw my bag in the back. I then climbed up over the hood of the truck, onto the roof, dropping down through the opened hatch, and settled into the turret. The hole in the roof was about three feet across. My feet were able to touch down on the steel of the interior even if I was seated on the thick leather strap that hung from either side of the hatch. I rotated the .50-cal forty-five degrees to the right…. The gunners of the convoy were supposed to stagger their weapons to protect the trucks from all angles….

My mind wandered carelessly as our convoy moved unobstructed and unthreatened through enemy territory…. It served me well whenever I was in the turret, I always felt, to try and put myself somewhere else in my mind while remaining in the moment somewhat in case we were ever attacked and I had to respond either with the .50-cal or with my medbag or with both.

In Spoils, Van Reet opens with a scene describing drowsy enlisted soldiers waiting out dreary checkpoint duty on a cold, rainy Iraq night. The gunner, Cassandra Wigheard, has been called back inside the troop compartment to warm up and get dry. Nothing’s happening, or seems likely to happen:

Her eyes have grown inflamed from lack of sleep and the recycled hot air steadily blowing, and she blinks to wet them, losing focus sleepily… She’s lulled by the darkness and the roaring heater and the rain that pools on the gunner’s hatch and drips through a leaky rubber seal. Like Chinese water torture. Like they are trapped in an unsound submarine. With the hatch closed it has grown muggy inside, hot and slimy as a locker room with all the showerheads blasting steam. Beads of condensation join in branched rivulets that dart down the windows, themselves no more than flexible sheets of vinyl. Their crew wasn’t lucky enough to draw an up-armored truck. Lieutenant Choi and his bunch have received the only one allotted for the platoon. Their own is nothing but a rolling coffin. No, not even that sturdy. Oak would at least stop some shrapnel, but these vinyl doors wouldn’t stop a pellet gun.

The heater, the rain, sleeplessness, bring on a rheumy-eyed stupor, fuzzy and electronic. Her pruned hands twitch involuntarily, a hypnic jerk acute enough to bring her back. She wills her eyes open. McGinnis and Crump are both nodded off in the front seats. Radio and GPS cables lie kinkded around them like black umbilical cords; there’s the humming sound of the truck, and half dreaming, caught in the tripping sensation of present eternity dwarfing the past, for a moment she forgets herself and might be convinced that all her days have been lived like this, in here, the truck, the only solid place in the universe.  

Vehicle breakdowns and vehicle recovery operations were facts of life, especially when convoys were forced off the hard-ball main roads and onto goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains or canal-berm paths in Iraq. In Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman vividly describes a vehicle recovery op in Afghanistan, but one with a twist: the vehicle is one of the “HiLux” pickups favored by the Afghan army and various Afghan militias, friendly and otherwise:

Our truck was now set to back out. This would be the most dangerous part, reversing down the steep and narrow switchback. All of the Special Lashkar’s trucks had a winch in front—two hundred or so feet of steel cable wrapped tightly around a motor that could pull a tree from its roots. The soldier wearing the balaclava hooked his winch under the front axle of Atal’s HiLux. On the far side of the crater, the driver took in all the slack. In theory the winch would lower us along the tight switchbacks and ensure that we didn’t topple down the mountainside, but the driver took no chances. He left his door open and both his legs dangled from the side of his seat. If he had to jump he’d be ready, even as his truck, as well as ours, toppled into the ravine below. Whoever drove our truck would have to sit behind the steering wheel. This made jumping a more difficult prospect….

Atal shifted into reverse and the winch ground as the steel cables pulled taut. I shouted out directions: Come right, come right. Straight! STRAIGHT! Atal leaned his head out the driver’s window. Then he shot across the cab, planting his face in the passenger’s side mirror. He continued to weave back and forth in this way as we inched out our descent. The winch strained and the steel cable slide against our front axle. The air filled with a hot metal burn. We soon dipped out of sight from the soldiers above us, be we were still tethered to their winch. I continued to shout my directions and Atal, unable to see the space around our truck, followed each one blindly. Come left. Straight. Now, right, right! RIGHT!

IED strikes and vehicle ambushes do not figure prominently in contemporary war-writing, but one very memorable such scene occurs in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The protagonist, Levi, is riding in a Humvee in Iraq in a convoy in which another soldier named Tom Hooper is riding in the vehicle in front of him:

They had spent many hours crawling down the dusty canal roads. The monotony of it all, the slow pace, the lack of conversation, and the crash from the day’s earlier adrenaline rushnearly caused Levi to fall asleep. He stretched as well as he could in such a small space, and he complained about being bored.

His driver, Specialist Pete White, looked over at him and nodded in commiseration, but had nothing to say.

After Levi saw his best friend’s Humvee disappear into a cloud of fire, dust, and gravel, both time and sound stopped, which left Tom Hooper flying through the air, suspended against a backdrop of smoke and flames, weightless and serene. His unbloused DCU-patterned pants were rumpled by the wind; his limbs were spread against the sky, one foot bootless but still covered by a green sock. Levi stared in wonder at his friend, who was not flying, but was simply the subject of a photograph, oblivious to his surroundings, or to gravity.

When Levi lurched forward because White had slammed on the brakes, time started again and Tom hit the gravel on the side of the road. Despite the height from which he fell, his form did not bounce, roll down the shallow embankment into the tall grass, or move in any way at all. He simply stopped when his body met resistance. Tom lay supine, staring up into the sky, one arm stretched out, the other seemingly twisted under his back.  Levi looked left at White, but he only saw wide eyes and a moving mouth….

As Levi neared the truck he heard a tumultuous crash. A great crack stung his ears and he felt the peal rumble through his stomach. He wondered why it would be thundering when there were no clouds in the sky. It was only after the second crack of thunder shook his head and nearly knocked him over that he realized it was not thunder at all; but rather, it was the warheads of rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the left side of the truck. With this realization came other realizations. The smaller cracks he had been ignoring were bullets snapping past him. The more sporadic and lower-pitched pops were rounds burning and exploding like popcorn in the rear of the Humvee….

These are just some of the characteristic elements of vehicle movements and their representation. This post has already gone on long enough, but we might also mention the “mission brief” that precedes every convoy operation (both Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives have great passages describing this important and interesting event); the decision by vehicle gunners to identify friend-or-foe/shoot-or-don’t-shoot decision-making in regard to oncoming traffic; and the exuberant, almost euphoric feeling that overtakes soldiers when they “RTB” (return-to-base) or arrive at their destination safely. Maybe a part II for this post?

My thought is that, with time, vehicle movements will be seen as a characteristic military scene associated with Iraq and Afghanistan soldier fiction, one at right up there with portraits of night-time Special Operations raids, gun-battles on Combat Outposts, in-theater memorial services, and welcome-home ceremonies. If that’s true, interested readers will turn back to the scenes above in the way Civil War buffs like to read about cavalry charges, World War I students read about trench warfare, and Vietnam narratives relish depictions of helicopter air assaults.

The War on Drugs: Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road

Old Silk RoadThe narrator of Brandon Caro’s novel Old Silk Road is a junior enlisted Army medic named Norman “Doc” Rogers. Assigned to an Afghan National Army advisor team in Nangarhar Province, near Jalalabad, Doc is a competent medic—someone you want nearby in combat. When it comes to soldiering, that’s the quality that matters most, which is fortunate because Doc’s other human virtues are questionable. He’s irritable, arrogant, impatient, selfish, scornful, lazy, emotional, and contemptuous of authority, and none of these defects come close to being the main problem. Addicted to the opiates in his aid bag and those he can wangle from Afghans in exchange for downloaded pornography, Doc surreptitiously shoots-up on the FOB and while on mission. When not nodding out, he hallucinates wildly. Visions of the ghost of Pat Tillman and a cast of doomed Afghanistan invaders dating back to Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors remind him of his own mortality, but Doc’s over-stimulated imagination, it turns out, is no match for the incredible reality he encounters in Afghanistan: evidence that his military chain-of-command is massively involved in an opium-and-heroin cultivation and smuggling operation.

Or maybe not, for Doc’s story is so enveloped in dream, vision, flashback, flashforward, and other narrative trickery that exactly what’s real and what’s not is often hard to determine. Clearly and defiantly, though, Old Silk Road places soldier drug use on the Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing table, much as Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them asks us to think about male-on-male rape in the military. American soldiers, or at least some of them, smoked hashish in Afghanistan when they had a chance, and the few stories I’ve read about American military complicity in Afghanistan drug smuggling rings makes me think we’ve only yet heard about the culprits who have been caught. Caro writes in detail of the mechanics of shooting up and the allure of druggy bliss. I don’t know if the authority comes from experience or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the contemporary national issues of traumatized veterans and record levels of white middle-and-upper-class heroin addiction are more tightly entwined than we have so far considered. Old Silk Road gives these possibilities imaginative portraiture, and I for one am inclined to believe that if an author can envision something, it’s probably already happening.

True to its title, the plot of Old Silk Road is that of the picaresque travel narrative. Doc Rogers’ Embedded Training Team has decided to convoy from FOB Mehtar Lam near Jalalabad to Camp Cobra near Kabul to partake of the Camp Cobra dining facility’s awesome Thursday night Mongolian barbecue. The advisors know the “Con-Op” is a boondoggle that might get them killed, but they are infected by a screw-it-all attitude generated by boredom and contempt for their fruitless mission trying to train the hapless Afghan army. Adventures ensue along the way; Doc has in mind a quick fling on Camp Cobra with a fellow medic named Gomez, but a suicide bomber attack kills a team member named Mortin and forestalls the hook-up. Worse, or almost as bad, Doc believes the Afghan army is complicit in his friend’s death. Doc is not the most reflective of young men, as illustrated by the following passage describing his thoughts as he mans the gun on his Humvee while spaced out on morphine:

Doing my best to keep an eye on potential troublemakers, I allowed my mind to drift carelessly into the abstract. I thought about Gomez. It was just as well we were foregoing our visit to Cobra. No need to encounter the legion of Joes she was probably sucking off in the aid station after dark.

And as much as I tried to avoid thinking about it, my thoughts inevitably wandered back to Mortin. He was so young. And why had it been him up in the turret and not me? Dumb luck, I suppose.

And I thought once again about the Embedded Training Team’s advisory mission and how futile it had become, if ever it had been a justifiable use of resources. It was hard enough to get the ANA soldiers to form a line for chow or sick call or God forbid clean their weapons, let alone execute complex tactical maneuvers or practice battlefield medicine. We couldn’t even count on them to show up on time for our convoy from Cobra to Bagram some two weeks earlier. And now we couldn’t trust them not to turn their weapons on us.

Doc, and maybe Caro, too, is also not much of a literary stylist. Passages careen between overwrought and under-nourished emotional responses to events, Doc never misses a chance to write “imbibe” for “drink” and “procure” for “take,” and he lards his narrative with chunks of insider technical explanation. It’d be interesting to compare the passage above with John Bartle’s similar portrait of an aid-station cutie and a dead soldier-friend in Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds–the last thing Doc’s interested in or capable of is Bartle’s melancholy lyricism. As for the ANA, Doc’s opinion is lower-than-low. If only those lazy, lousy ingrates were more like their heroin-addicted and joyriding American mentors they might actually defeat the Taliban! The Taliban in fact hardly figure in Old Silk Road—who needs them when the Afghan army is treacherous enough? Doc reports a troubled relation with his father, but the Oedipal juices have not stewed long enough to transform him from angry to thoughtful, let alone allow him to see his story as comic farce. For all that, Doc is perhaps representative of many male junior enlisted soldiers, if they were permitted to openly voice their thoughts. Chris Kyle somewhere said that the ghostwriters and lawyers who helped him write American Sniper made him look not too crude, but too nice. Left to his own authorial devices he might have sounded much like Doc Rogers: the kind of guy who figures if you don’t like him it’s your problem, not his. That sentiment may be close to the true spirit of American soldiers, no better and no worse than they should be. But Doc also reminds me of the apocryphal veteran described by Karl Marlantes in What It is Like to Go to War. Ask a young vet how hard it was to kill in combat, Marlantes writes, and he’ll probably tell you it was easy. Ask him again when he’s 60, and if he’s sober enough to answer….

Kudos to Caro for replacing one traditional soldier obsession—alcohol—with a fresher, more modern, equally depressing one–drugs. Also for giving his contemporary story an historical consciousness that includes the Russian, British, and Mongol failed takeovers of Afghanistan. I also like how Caro incorporates Pat Tillman—the doomed patron saint of our collective mishap in Afghanistan—into a personalized story of deployment tragedy. As an ex-Afghanistan ETT myself, I enjoyed Caro’s descriptions of places and events I too have experienced. My regard for the mission was far higher than Doc Rogers’, who hates it and thinks it is stupid. I was an old officer, though, and so were most of the other advisors on my team. I’m sure the mission baffled and the Afghans rankled our junior enlisted members just as much as they do Doc.

My real point of connection with Old Silk Road, however, is literary, not military. A few years back, I wrote a PhD dissertation on pre-Civil War popular fiction, the stuff everyone was enjoying except for the few who actually read Melville and Hawthorne in their time. Reading Old Silk Road brought back in spades styles, themes, and characters I encountered in early American stories. The hyper-skittishness about honor and slights exemplified by the berserk protagonists of novels by Charles Brockden Brown and John Neal. The picaresque road trip of Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry. The odd ruptures of the time-space-body continuum and racial paranoia of Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee. The sensational booze-induced hallucinations of temperance author T.S. Arthur’s Six Nights with the Washingtonians and Ten Nights in a Bar-Room. The exposé of extravagantly sinister and corrupt power à la George Lippard’s The Quaker City. Read Old Silk Road alongside Paul Gutjahr’s anthology Popular American Literature of the 19th Century and David Reynolds’ Beneath the American Renaissance if you don’t believe me. Judging by the fiction, people circa 1835 walked around half-addled by bad water or bad whiskey. Old Silk Road has the same manic, crazy-quilt energy. It’s not interested in propriety or what’s come before and it’s capable of anything. Alarming as it is to think of the drugs that are doing the damage today, especially against the backdrop of military duty, in the great war-writing game Old Silk Road asserts the value of raw idiosyncrasy in the face of more mannered and nuanced approaches.

Brandon Caro, Old Silk Road. Post Hill Press, 2015.