I JUST SAT NEXT TO A VERY TOUGH SOLDIER FROM THE 82ND AIRBORNE on a flight back from Europe. I have been thinking for two days about how to share some of the things he told me without compromising him.
This guy I met is not one prone to talk; he was very serious, very mellow — and comes from a family of enlisted military men. His dad was in Vietnam.
He has had one rotation in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. He is now in Germany but will soon be transferred back to Iraq. He was at Tora Bora and has seen a lot of Iraqi, Afghan, and American dead.
According to him, 75% of all soldiers want Bush defeated in the election and don’t care who defeats him; anger and resentment are high. He says that 90% of the officers remain far out of harm’s way. From lietenants all the way up, there is general understanding that the officers are hiding in holes, or holding back in well-defended buildings and quite cavalier about sending troops out for assignments and errands that are frequently stupid, poorly planned, and dangerous.
He has said that he has experienced good and bad commanders to whom he reported — but that when it came to taking the anthrax vaccine (which a judge has just said that the military can no longer order its soldiers to take), he quietly refused. He told his commander that he just wouldn’t take it — and that many, many soldiers have avoided taking this anthrax vaccine without incident. He said that a friend of his took it and his nervous system was severely affected and is now permanently disabled. He said he would rather have “an Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) than be dead.”
I asked him about Lariam, an anti-malarial drug which I have written about before. Lariam, also known as Mefloquine, can, according to drug warning labels cause aggression, psychosis and suicidal tendencies.
He told me that he had been issued seven tablets to take over a week — and stopped after the second because of incredible negative physical reaction to the drug. He said that several people in his unit became deeply depressed, others very sick. And he said that most people in the military have had to become somewhat accustomed to the idea that the Pentagon looks at the soldiers as “guinea pigs” to test drugs on.
At Tora Bora, he reported on the massive bombing that went on there and said that during the clean up period, they used sensors to detect the remains of those killed and then would punch large poles down into the dirt with pricks that would suck blood up to test the DNA of the victim there on the spot. He said that it surprised the soldiers that they had DNA testing capabilities that were advanced enough to give readings immediately — and said that they scoured everything that was bombed to try and find bin Laden.
At this time, I learned from one of the stewards on the flight that there was the coffin with a dead American soldier on the plane. The person to whom I was talking just reacted by saying, “everyone wants out — everyone.”
I asked him what he thought happened at Abu Ghraib and the handling of prisoners in general. He blamed both the people in the prison and their superiors. He says that everyone knows that the adrenaline rush and completely new experiences these young Americans are having lead to scary behaviors. He also stated that it is well known among the troops that al Qaeda takes (or keeps) no prisoners.
Early in the Afghanistan incursion, he said that he was on one of the last helicopters out of a very scary incident in which about ten U.S. soldiers were killed in a well-planned diversion and ambush by al Qaeda and the Taliban. He was at a fueling station between Kandahar and Shkin, very close to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. A group began firing on U.S. soldiers at the fueling station, and some choppers and soldiers went after them. From behind, from the mountains on the Pakistani side, a massive number of al Qaeda and Taliban forces were streaming down behind the Americans — and the soldier I was talking to could see this from the air in the chopper he was in.
Black Hawks were called in — and the Taliban took out one or two — but basically everyone just retreated. According to him at least ten soldiers surrendered to al Qaeda, and they were found later. One of the soldiers had had his penis castrated, and then this was stuffed in his mouth (sorry for the graphic detail, but it’s important). The other soldiers were all shot in the head. Several others were “cut up,” he said. To him, it was clear that they had been tortured.
He said that these experiences have been repeated in other encounters with al Qaeda — and thus many of the soldiers who feel on the front lines of a war they don’t understand and can’t figure out — have them so incredibly on edge that it’s not surprising that they could come undone in a prisoner-holding situation. What he said though is that all of the officers know this to be the case and probably expected this kind of behavior from the soldiers and MPs.
He said that at night, when they are moving people or supplies, or making deliveries, they are scared — and drive at 80 or 90 miles an hour with their lights off. He said lots of innocent people are killed by this night-driving and while the troops are supposed to report any damage or harm they do, almost none do — no one wants to stop. This confirms an anecdote about the same kind of killer-driving that Seymour Hersh recently shared with me.
Interestingly, he said that all enlisted men or officers in command positions have orders not to talk about their war experiences with the junior and fresh troops. He refuses — and tells those people under him everything he knows because he thinks it will help save their lives. When he went to Afghanistan at the beginning, basically nothing was told to them; he kept repeating “nothing.” And he said that their basic training in North Carolina was 180 degrees opposite of what they really needed to know for this kind of combat.
He said morale is very low among the troops and that they all want out — few believe in the war or Bush, and he thinks that many of these troops’ negative feelings are being transmitted back to extended family networks that have traditionally been supporters of the Republican Party, like his own family.
He shared quite a bit more, including that his military commanders are planning for at minimum an eight year deployment in Iraq, maybe longer. He also shared an interesting anecdote that about a year ago, certain commanders in the 82nd Airborne had been told to prepare for a quick incursion into Cuba. I was stunned.
He said, “Yep, we couldn’t believe that on top of everything else, Bush thought he could go take out Castro.” The Navy Seals were going to go in and do the dirty work, he said, and the “82nd was going to go in for clean-up.” He said that he never heard more about it but that the orders clearly didn’t go forward — but they were prepared for that possibility and told that “Bush just wanted to take out Castro.”
Another thing he shared was that after this incident at Shkin, mentioned above, the Navy Seals were sent in to go find the al Qaeda and Taliban troops hiding in the Pakistan mountains. He said that they were all through those mountains in Pakistan and what he told me was probably classified. But they found nothing, packed their bags, and went home.
I don’t want to analyze all of this — but I want to emphasize that the guy who spoke to me was someone who quite genuinely believed in his country and in military service. He looked like the kind of guy who kept to himself and was clearly not used to articulating the kind of feelings and experiences he was sharing. He said he is just a very stable kind of guy, someone who doesn’t react much to all the death he has seen — though he feels for people. But he says that few of the soldiers he knows and with whom he works has the detachment from events and this horrible situations he generally has.
He said that in contrast to Vietnam where U.S. soldiers were killing other U.S. soldiers and officers whom they didn’t like — that is not happening in Afghanistan or Iraq. But he said people are getting depressed and disillusioned. They don’t know what their objectives are — and they see lots of dead children, dead innocent men and women, grieving families, whose early appreciation for Americans has given away to profound hate and resentment.
He said that if he were one of the Iraqi citizens experiencing what an occupying force was doing, he’d be fighting too. He said that the only way to win is to get out of there — let the Iraqis resolve the issues they need to resolve internally. Give them money, give them resources, give them advice if asked — but get the U.S. troops out.
Needless to say, my mind has had a hard time detaching from the grimness of this brave soldier’s assessment.
— Steve Clemons