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February 14, 2011

The War Nerd, 10 Feb 2011: Want to see how we lose men in Afghanistan?

Are you sure?

Well, if you really want to, you can, thanks to this clip from French TV(scroll down to view it ). I warn you though, it’s pretty nasty stuff.

It starts out boring, the way most patrols in guerrilla territory always do. The French crew is filming a US soldier, Sgt. Allen, standing by the mud wall of some compound or old fort. Allen’s doing his job, calling for more radio contact. He’s probably done this ten times a day for his whole tour. He says something like, “They’re gonna be passing through,” so I’m guessing he’s arranging for another US unit to move through his patrol’s area without the two groups shooting each other up by mistake.

While he’s talking you get a look at the dust world around them. A few knobby dead trees around the compound wall, but everywhere else nothing but dust. Every time Allen moves, he scuffs up dust. Except for the G.I.s calling out to each other, there’s total silence.

The camera moves to a closeup of a machine gunner on the far corner of the compound. Allen’s pacing around on the near corner, back and forth. You can only see his feet now, kicking up the dust.

Then the screen blows up. Dirt flying in the air, and before it settles you hear Allen screaming. The camera stays on him. I have to give the French crew credit here. They keep filming. Allen is lying in the dirt at the corner of the compound, screaming. His legs are gone. You can see the pink stumps, and you can’t help thinking, “All that dust, all that dirt in the wounds.”

The first thing he screams is the same thing you or I would: “Oh fuck! Oh fuck!” I don’t know French, but I know enough to know the French subtitle, “a l’aide,” isn’t the right translation. I’m guessing that means, “Help!” He does scream that a little later, but his first scream is just “Fuck!” which sums up the horribleness of hitting a mine. No enemy firing at you, just you stepped in the wrong place. Allen was walking all around that patch of raised dirt by the compound wall, but nothing happened until he hit the pressure plate on the few square inches that tore his legs off.

In a few seconds, everyone’s screaming. Allen screams for morphine; another soldier—another sgt., I think—says, “I got you, sergeant!” while the medic screams to the radioman to get the medevac chopper sent. Finally the sergeant who was helping the medic goes off to grab the radio himself.

Allen’s quieted down now, so I guess the morphine’s working. That’s the only thing that could quiet you after a wound like that. Nobody, not the Romans, the Mongols, the Cree, nobody could stay quiet with their legs torn off.

The French reporter backs away from the scene, looking kind of greenish. The dog and his handler stand next to him, silent. I bet the dog wasn’t as popular in the unit after that, because I assume the damn dog’s job was to sniff out mines. He didn’t do such a great job today.

While they wait for the helicopter—I think the French guy says it took ten minutes to arrive—the sergeant who first helped Sgt. Allen goes crazy. He’s looking down at Allen, where Allen’s legs used to be, and he just loses it. The medic says, “Get him away from here,” which is sensible: the last thing Allen needs is somebody sending his heartrate up, stressing the tourniquets they’ve tied on his legs.

That’s it. The helicopter takes off, Allen lives as a legless cripple or dies before they make it to the hospital. Most likely he lives, but he’s out of the war.

Watched it? Okay, now this is where the real nastiness of irregular warfare comes in. People who romanticize guerrilla war just haven’t thought it through. Why did the Taliban (or just the locals) plant that mine? They’re not hoping to wipe out the US forces with little mines like that. What those mines do is push up the level of hate between the foreign army and the locals.

Most armies throughout history would retaliate fast and brutal. A lot of what we call Nazi atrocities, like wiping out the village of Lidice, were reprisals like that. Heydrich, a Nazi honcho, gets killed right by this Czech village; the villagers act innocent; the Germans wipe them out. We did the same, off the record, to a whole lot of Vietnamese villages after a bouncing betty took some guy’s legs off walking down the same path the villagers walked, without every getting hurt, every day of their lives.

You know they know. Imagine Allen’s squad walking back through an Afghan village. The natural impulse is to kill every living thing in that village. Especially if they smile at you.

And the Taliban’s fine with that. Any guerrilla army with a clue what it’s doing WANTS the occupying army to slaughter locals. There’ll always be enough left to help you, unless you’re dealing with the Romans or some other ancient empire. Very few empires have the ruthlessness to wipe out all the civilians in retaliation. And very few empires care enough about their low-level soldiers to want to. Those villagers are chips in the pot, they could be worth something to the empire; you don’t kill them all.

But you sure want to, walking back through their villages. It would drive you crazy, patrolling to “protect” these people and knowing they were laying traps like the one that just got Sgt. Allen. Talking about “fighting like men” and “stand-up fights” makes no sense in guerrilla warfare, but if I were a soldier in Allen’s patrol, I wouldn’t be thinking that; I’d just hate the cowardly bastards who wouldn’t face you rifle in hand but snuck out at night to bury mines where they knew you’d walk.

So a unit that’s been hit with a mine won’t be much good for the whole “hearts and minds” work of counterinsurgency. They’re not in the mood any more. More like heads and centers of mass. Either they retaliate, on the quiet—making the villagers even more full of hate and pro-Taliban—or they don’t, driving soldiers like the one in the video even crazier.

It’s not a workable way to wage war. Keep in mind that 75%, three quarters, of our casualties in Afghanistan happen just the way Sgt. Allen went down. Three quarters. A war without firefights, just the nastiest kind of booby traps.

There’s no more demoralizing, destabilizing weapon than the antipersonnel mine. And it’s the weapon of choice for whoever it is we’re fighting in Afghanistan. That’s what I meant when I said in another article that this XM25 super-rifle won’t change things. Imagine if everybody in Allen’s squad had one of those. What could they do, blast the walls of that compound? Blow up some dust?

The only consolation for the occupying army about these mines is that people forget where they were laid, so once you leave you can be sure kids herding goats will get their legs blown up for generations afterwards. Unless the US funds mineclearing operations, which we probably will.

And Allen’s teammates probably know that too, which must boost unit morale just no end. Mines are a nasty, nasty weapon, but not by accident or because the Afghans are just bad people. Mines are designed to poison the whole landscape for the occupier. The fact that they poison it for long after the occupier’s gone home…well, to a serious guerrilla army that’s a price you’re more than willing to pay.

I’m telling you: once you see how guerrilla warfare works, you have two reactions: you’re downright awed by how simple and brilliant it is…and it makes you sick.


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