When Uncle Sam meets ‘Stan
Despite five years covering events in Afghanistan, nothing prepares Jason Burke for life in Viper City on the Bagram air base. But at least this time everyone’s been watching the same movies…
Sunday May 26, 2002 The Observer
I am standing outside Tent Five in Viper City in Bagram air base on the Shomali plains in north central Afghanistan. It is midnight and around me, except for the soldiers out on operations or on guard, 5,000 fighting men and their support staff are sleeping. For once it’s quiet. There is a live-firing exercise a mile or so away but the rippling of automatic gunfire, swelling and dying away in the distance, is as soft and reassuring as far-off waves. The helicopters that usually ferry Special Forces soldiers in and out of the base during the night hours are silent. I can see them on the airstrip about 70m away: the great, fat-bellied Chinooks, the squat Blackhawks, the vicious little Apaches. The Chinooks are closest and I can see the moonlight glancing off their huge, drooping 30ft rotor blades.
The moon came up four hours ago, huge and the colour of a malfunctioning striplight on an office ceiling. Despite scattered clouds silvered by its light, the moon is bright enough to read by and the tents, the helicopters and the old steel stanchions that the Soviets used to mark the minefields cast hard-edged shadows on the dusty ground. A huge C-130 transport plane comes in to land. It is very low and has no lights on. I don’t hear it until it is very close. Even then I hardly hear anything at all.
Two sounds from Bagram: the distinctive, familiar and fantastically evocative ‘thwop thwop thwop’ of the Chinooks. And the American soldiers and their blithe, confident good-natured yell: ‘Hoo Har!’ Of course there are many variations. You can’t just holler, ‘Hoo Har’ at will or at random. For example, the US Rangers, the specialist light infantry, shout: ‘Hoo Har, Rangers lead the way, sir’ when they meet someone of a higher rank. They make the two syllables very distinct. The US Marines, by contrast, mangle it all into ‘Hooonnngaaa’ with a strangled half-glottal stop halfway through. The Special Forces, being that cool, don’t say it at all.
Technically, ‘Hoo Har’ derives from ‘Heard, Acknowledged, Understood’. Thus HUA. Less technically, it means, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘OK, sir,’ ‘Absolutely, sir,’ ‘Fucking A, sir,’ ‘Yes, sir I will go and clean the latrines or dig a ditch or fill sandbags or jump out of a helicopter in the middle of the night and stagger around big, dusty hills for days on end carrying a giant pack and trying not to get killed searching for an elusive and fanatical enemy. Sir.’
And less technically still, it means the Americans in Afghanistan. It means Cheesy Nachos on the Shomali plains. It means sealed packs of beef teriyaki and bags of Hot Tamales chilli sweets (The Patriot’s Choice) in the mountains above Khost. It means Pop-Tarts and peanut butter in Kabul, Bibles in tactical camouflage covers, the lone star of Texas flying over rows of dusty tents on a heavily mined, deforested, ruined plain that the Soviets fought for bitterly and never really conquered.
It means T-Rats and A-Rats and disembodied words over a loudspeaker announcing ‘the Large Voice’ and QRFs (Quick Reaction Forces), M16s, SARs, ‘friendlies’ and ‘jinglies’ and ‘bad guys’ and the AMF (Afghan Military Forces) ‘who are fighting alongside us in our righteous war’. It means Homeboy trying to raise T-Dog on the radio, Sharps half-per cent alcohol beers and ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on the insides of toilets. It means 19-year-old boys from Kentucky playing ball with M16s on their shoulders before going off and kicking in the doors of local village houses as they search for an elusive, highly motivated and well-armed enemy who looks like everyone else. It means five helicopters flying in formation out of a sunset. Sound familiar?
Welcome to ‘the Stan’. Honestly, I kid you not, fingers uncrossed, that is what they call it. ‘The Stan’.
‘I joined up because I watched Full Metal Jacket too many times,’ the 10th Mountain Division’s combat photographer tells me. Later, admitting that he had thrown away a Fulbright scholarship at college through partying too hard, he talks about being mortared during the set-piece battle between American troops and al-Qaeda and former Taliban fighters at Shah-e-Kot in March. ‘Now I can tell my grandchildren that I have been in the real shit,’ he says. The line was borrowed from the film. Later that day I heard a US marine sergeant address a platoon. ‘Listen in, ladies,’ he began. He explained how he wears a set of dog tags on his boots – as recommended by Doc, the drill sergeant in Hamburger Hill – so that his corpse could be identified if decapitated.
In her book An Intimate History of Killing , the historian Joanna Bourke looks at the narratives men create to comprehend their own roles in war and, more specifically, in combat. Apparently, soldiers in each war look to the previous for a frame of reference. Those in the Pacific in the Second World War looked to the First World War. Those in Vietnam looked to the Pacific Theatre. No prizes for guessing where the men in Afghanistan were looking.
Thus the graffiti on the walls of the Portakabins where, if you got to them later than 9am, you’d be greeted by a 5ft-high pile of soldiers’ faeces:
Toilet 7: ‘I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds’; ‘I am become Bored, Destroyer of Motivation’
Toilet 3: ‘Though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil, because I am the meanest motherfucker in the valley.’
Toilet 6: ‘MARINE – Muscles Are Required, Intelegance [sic] Not Essential’
Toilet 2 (women only): ‘I miss my cat.’
One day there is a ceremony to name the main road through the base Disney Drive in memorial to Specialist Jason Disney, 20, who was killed on 13 February in a welding accident. It says his ‘dedication, diligence and dogged determination mark him as one of America’s finest and is reflective of the warrior spirit and warrior pride’.
Bagram was actually built by the Soviets as part of a Cold War aid package for Afghanistan three years before they invaded. It was carefully sited at an altitude of 5,800ft in the centre of the once fertile Shomali plains 30 miles north of Kabul. The main road from the capital to the north of the country runs past the base before climbing towards the Salang Pass. To the northeast is the mouth of the Panjshir, the beautiful high mountain valley where Ahmed Shah Massoud held out against the Soviets and then the Taliban until his assassination on 9 September last year. To the west are range upon range of dusty, rocky hills. Beyond them, Bamiyan and Afghanistan’s high, desperately poor central plateau.
So the 10,000ft long airstrip, which the Soviets built large enough to take both an international passenger jet and their biggest military transporters, has big brown mountains on three sides. Even in May they are snowcapped and, particularly in the evening, very beautiful. At about six o’clock I go for a run: out of Viper City, turn right past the Spanish contingent and the hospital they had set up (more than 1,000 locals treated a month), past the Special Forces with the barbecues next to the barbed wire, through the British ‘Camp Gibraltar’ with its Union flags and St Andrew’s Crosses, and then out on to the airstrip. The American troops run on Disney Drive, keeping their guns with them. The British troops, largely Royal Marines, run on the strip. One day the Norwegian mine clearers bring up a huge metal mechanised flail, beat the mines out of the earth and lay out a football pitch.
Every morning at nine, Major Bryan Hilferty and his British counterpart brief the press. The Brits say little of any great interest. The Americans are always good value.
Hilferty starts every briefing with a reminder of why we are all there. ‘Today is the 233rd day since al-Qaeda terrorists murdered more than 3,000 innocent children when they attacked the World Trade Center in New York.’ And every day he reads out another short, potted obituary culled from the New York Times website. So we had:
‘One of those who died was Robert McCarthy, 33, a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald who gave his wife six dozen roses on their anniversary. Five for each year they had been married and a dozen for her colleagues. Every time she looks into the eyes of her son Shane she sees her husband.’
A day later it was ‘Ricardo Quinn, 40, a paramedic who loved to make life-sized sand sculptures on Jones Beach, where he loved to go with his family.’
Hilferty ends every briefing with: ‘The hunt goes on. The war on terrorism in Afghanistan continues.’
One morning Hilferty brings Colonel Patrick Fetterman, a short, stocky man with clipped grey hair and combat fatigues and clear blue eyes. He is there to explain to us the role played by his unit, the 187th Battalion of the 101st Airborne, in the one ‘contact’ with the enemy in the last 10 weeks. Four suspected al-Qaeda fighters were killed after they opened fire on an Australian SAS patrol. Two hundred men from the 187th, the ‘Quick Reaction Force’ who lounge around their tents in Viper City all day waiting for an alert, were airlifted in when the shooting started.
The Colonel tells us: ‘We landed on a hard LZ in very steep terrain above a village. We moved down into it and found blood traces and three large caches of ammunition. We had an overwhelming force and though some villagers were not very happy about it, we asked them to unlock their doors and we went through the village. Sometimes we had to break down doors, and that was hard for my guys who are going from strong sunlight into interiors that could be hostile. Any AQT [al-Qaeda and Taliban] elements would not have been able to flee because we had air.’
He is very keen to stress that the mission was not to ‘search and destroy’ but to ‘clean and sweep’.
I ask him where he is from. ‘I’m out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, sir,’ he says. ‘God’s Own Country.’
I spend an afternoon on the main checkpost on the way into the base. Flanked by minefields, it comprises a tent, several machine guns, two Humvee semi-armoured utility vehicles, lots of oversized, blast-proof sandbags, five young American soldiers and an Afghan fighter they nicknamed Crazy. Crazy has learnt three English phrases: ‘Fuck you,’ ‘Suck my dick’ and ‘I am a crazy Mo Fo.’ He is very pleased with his English and uses it a lot.
The soldiers are doing 12-hour shifts. Though they are bored stupid (‘Ain’t nothing a man can concentrate on for 12 hours ‘cept pussy,’) they are unfailingly polite to the Afghan drivers whose battered, painted trucks form a long queue in the dust. Two locals on painted bicycles – one with what sounds like a Casio VL Tone playing My Darling Clementine fixed to a dynamo on the rear wheel, the other with a spray of plastic flowers on the handlebars – cycle up.
‘Salaam, how you doing?’ says Private Parker, a frame fitter in Oregon before he joined the 101st Airborne a year ago.
Parker, who had never left America until January has recently been transferred up from Kandahar, the southern desert city which was the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Taliban.
‘Man, that place was where God took all the shit that was left over after making the world and dumped it,’ Parker says. ‘The second battalion was_ scared out of there. They were telling some horror stories about going up and down those mountains. Some of those guys got shot to shit.’
In the tent the soldiers are passing round a holiday supplement full of pictures of beaches and palm trees and talking about Cuban women.
Parker is frisking more Afghans. ‘You gotta say 11 September had some good in it. Bad for us but good for these guys. Made us all think about the rest of the world, and we ain’t so good at that sometimes.’
Outside the gate of the base a small market has sprung up. Half a dozen stalls selling carpets, traditional Afghan pakol hats, Soviet military belts, Uzbek vodka and local hashish. They also stock hundreds of pilfered ration packs, crates of maple syrup, giant tubs of Tang fruit-drink mix and boxes of Patriot’s Choice Hot Tamales. Most have been robbed from the PX, the military mini-supermarket on the base, or salvaged from the sprawling base rubbish dump.
The Americans’ catering provisions are mystifying. Everything their soldiers eat is cooked in Germany, flown 2,500 miles and then reheated and served on disposable cardboard trays in a hangar. Unsurprisingly, the processed ‘chicken pattie’, the reconstituted scrambled eggs and the ‘grits’ are virtually inedible. Lunch is an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) – the American field rations. There are 30 menus. The best is no 21, Chicken Tetrazini, in which, along with the main meal, you get a packet of Skittles sweets, a plastic sachet of processed cheese with jalapeÃ±o peppers, some crackers and ‘ice tea’ powder with added sugar. In every MRE there is a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce, a moist face towel and a chemical pad that reacts with water and partially heats things.
Everyone supplements their diet from the PX. It sells 6lb bags of pretzels and beef jerky and you can buy PlayStations (with Soldier of Fortune to play on them) and magazines ranging from Sports Illustrated to Shotgun News . There are Stars-and-Stripes pendants, keyrings, cards and posters and ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ T-shirts showing a New York fireman standing in the ruins of the World Trade Center handing an American flag up to a soldier, with the words: ‘Over to you, buddy.’ There are ‘Moist Toilet Wipes’, tactical towels and Special Forces headscarves as well as Afghan necklaces and handmade carpets with a map of the country surrounded with carefully stitched pictures of guns and helicopters.
One Friday evening we hear that Donald Rumsfeld, the American defence secretary, is coming to Bagram to rally the troops. So at 11am we are all on the runway waiting for him. Major Hilferty has stuck white tape to the concrete to form a press pen. He points out a transport plane 100 yards away, its nose bulbous with surveillance equipment.
‘We have sensitivities towards that aircraft,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what the fuck it is but we have sensitivities towards it. So don’t film it.’
At 11.05 two huge C17 jets circle in from the south. Rumsfeld walks swiftly past us. I notice he is not a big man and that the trouser legs on his black undertaker’s suit are too short.
A stage has been built in a hangar, where several hundred troops are waiting beneath five regimental pennants. American concert rock and country and western are blasting out of several huge speakers. Many of the songs are about 11 September.
The chorus of one is:
‘I am just a singer of simple songs I am not a real political man, I watch CNN but I am not sure I would tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran, But I know Jesus and I talk to God And I remember this from when I was young, Faith, hope and love are some good things he gave us And the best and the greatest is love.’
Rumsfeld speaks for about 15 minutes. He talks about Afghanistan and the war on terrorism and how the country must be rebuilt so it never provides a safe haven for enemies of the US and the free world. He tells the soldiers that the ‘Afghan theatre’ is a testing ground for future operations and hints heavily that an attack on Iraq would come next.
‘This is a momentous time,’ he says. ‘And you have a momentous mission.’
‘Hoo Har!’ the men shout back.
‘You have been commissioned by history.’
‘When the war is over, and it will be over, you will be able to say I fought with the coalition forces in Afghanistan.’
For us, the journalists, there is little in the way of news. This is not a problem. It is nice and cool in the hangar, out of the midday sun. A sense of torpor has settled over Bagram. In the afternoon we sit in the stifling press tent and try to work. Apparently a local warlord has offered substantial amounts of money to anyone who successfully attacks the base. No one is very concerned. An occasional helicopter hovers over the strip as pilots perform routine checks and manoeuvres; by the gate the Afghans hawk their Soviet bayonets and their necklaces and rummage through the rubbish; anyone who has been out on operations overnight or on guard duty is asleep. It is very hot and the flies are getting bad.
This evening, as usual, the soldiers will jog with their M16s on Disney Drive, muffled R&B will drift tinnily over the tented lines of Viper City, the chow queue will shuffle through the dust, the Royal Marines will play football, Private Parker and the soldiers on the gate will still be bored, more anatomically extraordinary pornographic drawings will appear on the toilet doors, the men in the tent next to ours might ask me again if I can get them some ‘liquor’, the hacks will probably watch Full Metal Jacket for the seventh time and pass around a bottle of bootleg Johnny Walker ($100 a bottle from Kabul) and the Special Forces units will get ready to move out to whichever chunk of Afghan mountain the ‘sweep-and-clean’ operations are in this week.
And in the night Colonel Fetterman will dream of ‘God’s Own Country’, the distant sound of live firing exercises will ripple around the perimeter of the base, the occasional mine will go off with a dull pop and, if the clouds clear, the fat, heavy, sickly moon will gleam off the long, drooping rotor blades of the Chinooks.
Then it will be a brand-new morning in Afghanistan.