Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Lessons about Afghanistan from a rapid education

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Jonathan Gourlay writes in The Morning News:

U.S. Army Specialist Mihkel Gilmete spends his days flying in a UH 60 Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan. Two hours of show time, prepping the helicopter. Then six or seven hours in the air, looking down at the brown expanse of the Afghan steppes. Thousands of feet in the sky, he snaps a picture for Facebook through the open side-door of the helicopter. A door-mounted M60 machine gun is in the foreground; the vast yellow-brown plains of Afghanistan are far below. The shadows of high clouds dapple the desert. There is no sign of human activity in the desolate land below except a pair of tire tracks that appear to travel from nowhere to nowhere. He is sitting atop the whole of central Afghanistan, staring at it, as so many have, through the sights of his gun.

Gilmete, a Micronesian, spends hours watching Afghanistan from above. It’s peaceful, mesmerizing, almost like staring at the ocean from his home on the sunset side of a small island in the central Pacific. The Afghans below him would never guess that there is an islander hovering above, one of many U.S. military enlistees from tiny island countries all over the Pacific. In fact, per capita, there are more casualties from Gilmete’s home island of Pohnpei than from any U.S. state. Afghans who wonder what life will be like after the U.S. leaves should look to Micronesia, which the U.S. never really left after the end of the Cold War brought an end to its military significance. Basically: more political independence and more economic dependence. The Federated States of Micronesia is a constitutional democracy whose economy is now run by a five-member board—three Americans, two Micronesians.

Gilmete has been fired upon four times in the past year. A Black Hawk just like the one he rides was shot down near Kandahar in August, all crewmen dead. But most days nothing much happens: The Black Hawk crew transports soldiers where they need to go. Gilmete helps provide a kind of armed valet service in a country with few working roads.

Sometimes there is a distress call and an order. Then they swoop down and extract troops from these little nothing villages or ancient, dry waterways or steep mountains where, periodically, the enemy sees an easy target and attacks. The enemy? It’s better not to think about the enemy because there is no one cohesive enemy, no “Taliban,” to go attack. There are just locals, villagers, who one day are farmers and the next day “insurgents.” This lack of a fixed enemy poses a problem for big armies. There is no way to win such a fight short of just killing everybody, a tactic that some have tried. But wondering about the enemy is above Gilmete’s pay grade. He has just has one role: Move the troops. The rest is just flying and staring at the landscape. All of this time looking at Afghanistan and yet the country remains as abstract to him as it is to the rest of us. “I don’t interact with the locals too much because we fly,” he says. “We do fly low over the locals sometimes and it gives me great sadness to see these people living in such poverty.”

Years ago, I was Gilmete’s poetry teacher on the lush, tropical island of Pohnpei. He was a pain in the ass, spitting red juice from a cheek full of betel nut, defying me to teach him anything, wanting nothing more than to leave the island. He had no patience at all for the Romantics. That’s too bad because one could imagine the face on Shelley’s statue of Ozymandias, his sneer of cold command disappearing in the sand below the Black Hawk. Through the centuries, kings, warlords, traveling English gadabouts, Western-educated technocrats, and iron-fisted Soviets have contemplated the same blank map of Afghanistan from the same top-down perspective. They come to this country, declare some version of, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” and soon enough find their works ground into the dust. But Gilmete is just here to do the job he enlisted to do. He’s counting the days before he returns to his base in Hawaii with the rest of the Tropic Lightning Division. Most of the troops will follow him back home, far from the lone and level sands of central Afghanistan.

It is often joked that Americans don’t really know a country exists until we invade it. But even that isn’t always true. Even today, how many (few?) of us can actually find Afghanistan on a map, without computer help? Like most Americans, I knew next to nothing about Afghanistan when we began bombing the country in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks. Like most Americans, I still know next to nothing about Afghanistan. More than 2,000 U.S. soldiers killed, more than 3,000 civilians dead in just one year of the conflict (2011), and somehow it still doesn’t register. Why is that? There are reporters on the ground; we get updates when something particularly horrific happens; many of us read or watched The Kite Runner; and although the main author may be a shyster, there was Three Cups of Tea. Yet the whole decade-plus of war seemed distant and bloodless to me until I read a college scholarship essay written by an Afghan girl, Sabera, that made me pause to consider her country.

Through the centuries, kings, warlords, traveling English gadabouts, Western-educated technocrats, and iron-fisted Soviets have contemplated the same blank map of Afghanistan from the same top-down perspective.

“I was born in the middle of a civil war,” she wrote, “when people were running from one house to another to seek shelter from heavy rocket and mortar bombardment.” She was born in Kabul, in chaos, in a period when Mujahedin were fleeing the city and the Taliban were destroying it. In her essay, she wondered why they were fighting over pools of blood, piles of debris, the ashes of a city. “What were they trying to gain from each other when they had already destroyed everything the country possessed?” To read this essay—well, the poetry teacher in me must refer you to the Wallace Stevens poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” —Sabera’s essay, like the bird’s cry in the poem, caused “a new knowledge of reality.” I considered that there exist people, girls in particular, in that antique land that Gilmete gazes upon all day, who are targeted for death or beating or maiming because they go to school. There exist families for whom educating their children is so important that they would risk their lives to do it. There is nothing—not bombs, guns, tanks, missiles, God, love, or money—that so upsets the Taliban and other groups of their ilk as much as a girl who can read, write, and speak her mind. These girls, their families, and the country they could create deserve our support.

It’s a good policy to be thoughtful about one’s own righteous indignation, especially when one is feeling that indignation on behalf of other people in cultures one does not understand. As Teju Cole reminds us, there is nothing more frightening to much of the world than an American who wants to help fix things. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2013 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Afghanistan War

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