The title storywhich begins on one of the bloodiest days in the war in Afghanistan and follows the father of one of the fallen soldiers into battle against the military establishment back homeis one of five rich, narrative pieces on war that form the heart of this thought-provoking collection. In “The Killing Machines,” a nineteen-year-old marine sits at a desk with a joystick and must decide whether or not to press the button that will launch an anti-tank missile thousands of miles away in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In “The Last Ace,” Bowden considers the faded glory of another type of air warfare through the eyes of one extraordinary retired fighter pilot. The Three Battles of Wanat also includes Bowden’s incisive sports writing, think pieces, and a selection of fascinating profiles on subjects ranging from Kim Jong-un to The Wire creator David Simon. This is an essential book for fans of Bowden’s writing and for anyone who enjoys first-rate narrative nonfiction.
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The Three Battles of Wanat
Published as "Echoes from a Distant Battlefield," Vanity Fair, December 2011
1. The Lieutenant's Battle
One man on the rocky slope overhead was probably just a shepherd. Two men were suspicious, but might have been two shepherds. Three men were trouble. When Second Platoon spotted four, then five, the soldiers prepared to shoot.
Dark blue had just begun to streak the sky over the black peaks that towered on all sides of their position. The day was July 13, 2008. Captain Matthew Myer stood at the driver's-side door of a Humvee parked near the center of a flat, open expanse about the length of a football field where the platoon was building a new combat outpost, known as a COP. The vehicle was parked on a ramp carved in the rocky soil by the engineering squad's single Bobcat, with its front wheels high so that its TOW missiles could be more easily aimed up at the sheer slopes to the west. The new outpost was hard by the tiny Afghan village of Wanat, at the bottom of a stark natural bowl; and the forty-nine American soldiers who had arrived just days earlier felt dangerously exposed.
Myer gave the order for an immediate coordinated attack with the platoon's two heaviest weapons — the TOW system and a 120millimeter mortar — which sat in a small dugout a few paces west of the ramp surrounded by HESCO barriers, canvas and wire frames that are filled with dirt and stone to create temporary walls. The captain was walking back to his command post about fifty yards north when the attack started.
It was twenty minutes past four in the morning. Myer and Second Platoon, one of three platoons under his command scattered in these mountains, were at war in a place as distant from America's consciousness as it was simply far away. Wanat was legendarily remote, high in the Hindu Kush, at the southern edge of Konar Province in Afghanistan's rugged northeast. It shared a long border with the equally forbidding territories of north Pakistan. Here was the landscape where Rudyard Kipling in 1888 had set his cautionary tale, The Man Who Would Be King, about British soldiers with ill-fated dreams of power and conquest. Little had changed. It is one of the most mountainous regions of the world, with steep gray-brown peaks reaching as high as twenty-five thousand feet. Its jagged mountains towered over V-shaped valleys that angled sharply down to winding rivers. Wanat was at the confluence of the Waygul River and a small tributary. It was home to about fifty families, who carved out a spare existence on a series of green irrigated terraces that rose like graceful stairsteps to the foot of the stony eastern slopes. A single partly paved road wound south toward Camp Blessing, the headquarters for Task Force Rock — Second Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. This battalion HQ was just five miles away in the fish-eye lens of a highflying drone, but on the ground it was a perilous journey of almost an hour — perilous because improvised explosives and ambushes were common. In Wanat it was easy to feel that you were hunkered down on the far edge of nowhere fighting the only people in the world who seemed to badly want the place. You needed something like a graduate degree in geo politics and strategy to have any idea why it was worth dying for.
Yet killing and dying — mostly killing — were what Task Force Rock was doing here on the front lines of America's forgotten war. In army parlance, Afghanistan had become an "economy of force" action, which meant, in so many words, "Make do." The hopeful infrastructure and cultural development projects that had arrived with the first wave of Americans seven years earlier had dried to a trickle. Ever since President Bush had followed up rapid military success in Afghanistan with a massive invasion of Iraq in 2003, the nation's attention had been riveted there. But the war against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and like-minded local militias had never ended in these mountains. Small units of American soldiers were dug into scores of isolated tiny combat posts, perched high on promontories, crouched behind HESCO walls and barriers of concrete and sand, ostensibly projecting the largely theoretical Afghan central government into far-flung valleys and villages where politics and loyalties had been stubbornly local and tribal since long before Kipling.
Second Platoon was part of Myer's Chosen Company, the "Chosen Few," who wore patches on their uniforms displaying a stylized skull fashioned after the insignia of the Marvel comic book character "Punisher." Twenty-first-century America had staked its claim to this patch of ground, punctiliously negotiating its purchase from village landlords. The platoon had occupied it in darkness, in a driving rain, just three days earlier.
Myer had arrived only the day before. He had sketched out a basic plan for the outpost, and then left supervision of the construction to First Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom, a cocky, muscular, popular twenty-four-year-old platoon leader from Hawaii. Brostrom had a long, slender face, and dark brown hair worn, like the other soldiers', in a buzz cut, high and tight. His body had been sculptured by daily weight lifting over the fourteen months of this deployment. After consultations with Myer and the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Ostlund, the lieutenant had drawn up detailed maps of the new outpost on whatever scraps of paper he could find, so that he could show his men sectors of fire for all of the vehicles, placement of the Claymore mines, fighting positions, latrine, and everything else. A small force of Afghan engineers with heavy equipment were to handle most of the construction, but they had been delayed at Camp Blessing, awaiting the completion of a road-clearing mission that would enable them to make the trip safely. In the interim, the platoon itself had begun digging out and building the outpost's preliminary defenses, toiling through hundred-degree-plus days with limited water and resources, hacking away at the baked, stubborn soil with picks and shovels, building sandbag walls, stringing razor wire, and filling the HESCOs as well as they could — the Bobcat could not reach high enough to dump earth into the frames, so they had been cut down to just four feet.
The men of the platoon had felt particularly vulnerable in these first days, expecting to be attacked. It was particularly unsettling because they had nearly completed their hazardous tour. They were just two weeks away from heading home. Platoon Sergeant David Dzwik had rallied them as best he could to complete this dangerous assignment before leaving, pointing out that they had signed on to fight for the whole fifteen-month tour, and how they were better equipped to handle the danger than the inexperienced troops who would replace them. But down deep Dzwik shared their misgivings. He hated both the task and the location.
It wasn't just that the outpost sat at the bottom of a giant bowl. There were dead zones all around it where you couldn't see. The ground dipped down just outside the perimeter, down to the creek, which ran to the west, and to the road that ran bordered it to the southeast. The battalion could not provide them with steady, overhead visual surveillance because of weather and limited availability of drones. So they lacked a clear eye on the terrain. Where the land sloped uphill to the northeast there were the bazaar and the mosque and other buildings. It was as though the Afghan village — and Dzwik was a long way from trusting even the Afghans whom he knew — were staring right down at them. There were just too many places for the enemy to hide. In the preceding weeks, he had heard reports of Taliban by the hundreds gathering for an attack on Bella, the outpost they had evacuated to move here. They had managed to clear out before that attack came, but Bella was only four or five miles north. And even though the terrain was formidable, the enemy was skilled at moving rapidly and silently through it. Worse, everybody in the Waygul Valley knew exactly where the Americans had purchased property and planned to resettle.
Dzwik was a puckish, solid, career soldier from Michigan who enlisted after starring on the gridiron in high school and realizing that he would never be able to sit still long enough to finish college. He was fit and full of youthful energy, and after a boyhood spent hunting, fishing, and camping he took readily to the rigors of military life. He had been in the army now for thirteen years and planned to stay until retirement, even though the job meant spending precious little time at home with the wife and three kids. This was his second tour in Afghanistan. He had inherited the position of platoon sergeant when his predecessor, the man for whom this COP was named, Sergeant First Class Matthew Kahler, had been killed by a shot fired by a "friendly" Afghan soldier. The army had ruled it an accident, but Dzwik, like many in the platoon, wasn't convinced. They considered the tragedy of Matt Kahler's death somehow emblematic of the whole Afghan conflict.
Despite the precarious position they now occupied, Dzwik had been forced to slow construction of defenses because of the extreme heat and limited water supplies. Gradually, as the stunted HESCOs were filled and as shallow excavations were chipped out, their position improved, and Dzwik found himself hating it a little less. When Myer arrived on the fourth day, the captain was impressed by all that had been accomplished, but he could see that the COP was still far from secure.
All of the fighting positions were makeshift. The command post was a sunken space about two feet deep, no larger than a big conference table, framed by Dzwik's Humvee, a line of HESCOs, and the outer mud wall of a structure built to house the village's bazaar. Southward down the gentle sloping ground were the TOW Humvee, parked on the ramp; two mortar positions similarly excavated and surrounded by HESCO walls; and, farther south toward the road, two more positions, the closer one marked by a Humvee, and beyond it an Afghan army position, placed there to man the outer checkpoint on the road. There were several more dugout fighting positions to the north, and two larger positions toward the northern edge manned by the Afghan troops, with two Humvees armed with M-19 grenade launchers. The Bobcat was already at work that morning digging a trench around one of the mortar positions to drain off water that had pooled in it the day before.
The biggest problem was obvious: the platoon did not control the high ground. Every outpost on this frontier had observation posts high in the hills to spot approaching enemy troops, and sent out regular foot patrols to make contact with the locals and to discourage hostile approaches. Lacking enough men for both construction and patrolling, Brostrom had chosen to concentrate on construction. He had sent several perfunctory patrols just to scout the immediate vicinity, but that was it. And the platoon had yet to establish a useful observation post.
It was a pressing priority. As Myer was giving the order to fire that morning, Brostrom was busy assembling a thirteen-man patrol to look for a suitable location in the hills to the south. As was the daily practice, the entire platoon had all been up for almost an hour, all the men dressed in full battle gear and "standing-to" their small fighting positions.
They did have one elevated position, which they called Top side, and it was visible to the northeast over the rooftops of the bazaar. The nine men there had two machine guns and a grenade launcher in three fighting positions behind a maze of low sandbag walls and a loose perimeter of unstaked razor wire. Topside was midway up the lazy terrace steps, and was set against three large boulders. Myer was not happy with it. It was not high enough to be very useful, and the men there were dangerously isolated from the main force. But he could understand Brostrom's thinking. Any farther away, Topside would have been impossible to quickly reinforce. Until the promised engineering group arrived and freed up more men to patrol, it was about as far away as the platoon dared to put it. As it was, it would be hard to defend if it came under attack.
Which it did, suddenly, on this morning. Two long bursts of machinegun fire were followed immediately by a crashing wave of rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs. It felt and sounded as if a thousand came at them at once, deafening blasts and fiery explosions on all sides, from close range and continuing without letup. Myer judged that the first had come from behind the homes looking down on them from Wanat, but soon enough they were zeroing in from everywhere. The TOW and mortar teams had not yet fired; they had still been checking grid numbers when the onslaught began.
Myer ran the rest of the way to the command post, ducking behind cover and standing in the open door of his Humvee beside his radio operator Sergeant John Hayes, who had two FM radios, one tuned to the platoon's internal net and the other to the battalion headquarters at Camp Blessing.
"Whatever you can give me, I'm going to need," Myer told headquarters calmly, the sound of intense gunfire and explosions in the background lending all the emphasis his words needed. "This is a Ranch House-style attack," he said, referring to the worst single assault his men had experienced months earlier at an outpost by that name farther north.
No one at Wanat expected this level of intensity to continue for long. Often a single big show of force — an artillery volley or a bomb dropped from an aircraft — would be enough to end things. The enemy would typically scatter. But Wanat was too remote to get help fast. The closest air assets were at the Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, and it would be nearly an hour before planes or choppers would arrive. Reinforcements by road would take at least forty-five minutes. The big guns at Blessing had to be pointed nearly straight up to lob shells over the mountains; this diminished their effectiveness, especially when the enemy was so close to the outpost. Some Taliban were shooting from the newly dug latrine, right on the western perimeter.
Myer directed artillery to fire on the riverbed that ran near the latrine ditch along the western edge of the village. It might not hit anyone, but the blast alone might make the enemy think twice.
"Hey, shoot these three targets," he said; "then we can adjust them as needed."
Before he had time to finish that order, the main source of enemy fire had shifted to the northeast, toward Topside, which was getting hammered. Grenade explosions could be heard.
"We have to do something," said Brostrom. The men were too pinned down to assemble a large group, but the lieutenant knew Topside was outgunned. "We have to get up there," he said.
"OK, go," said Myer.
It was like the lieutenant to insist on joining the firing line. It had been an issue between him and the captain. Myer was six years older than Brostrom, with five long years of experience in warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. He saw in Brostrom a tendency shared by many talented young officers; they became too chummy with their men. Brostrom was always hanging around with them, lifting weights, joking; he had joined the army out of ROTC at the University of Hawaii, and, with his every-present Oakley shades and his surfer nonchalance, he wore the burdens of command lightly. He had once signed an e-mail to Myer, "Jon-Boy," and that struck Myer — a West Point grad — as characteristically off-key. Of a piece, as Myer saw it, was Brostrom's inclination to wade forward into a fight alongside his men. Much as that endeared him to the platoon, it was sometimes unwise. There were times Myer had needed him at the command post in a fight and couldn't find him. The captain would be juggling urgent requests for artillery and air support, and calculating grids, while Brostrom, who might have helped him, was instead off shooting a rifle.
"That's not what your role is," the captain had explained later. "You need to be able to bring more than an M-4 to the fight. You have all these other assets that you bring, which is more firepower than the rest of the platoon combined."
Brostrom had acknowledged it, and was working on it, but this situation was different. The need was dire, and both officers knew it.
The lieutenant ran to the fighting position of the platoon's second squad. After a short consultation there, he took off with Specialist Jason Hovater and the platoon's medic, Private William Hewitt. No sooner did they emerge from cover than Hewitt was hit by a round that blew a hole as big as a beer can out of the back of his arm. He crawled back toward cover and began bandaging himself. Brostrom and Hovater, the fastest runner in the platoon, continued up toward Topside.
It was not immediately obvious — too much was happening at once — but the enemy's attack was cunning and well orchestrated. The Taliban were primarily targeting the platoon's crew-served weapons. The Humvee with the TOW missile system had been hit hard right at the outset — it hadn't gotten off a shot. Two RPGs hit the driver's side, one setting the engine ablaze and the other exploding against the driver's-side rear. A third RPG exploded against the rear of the passenger side. The engine was destroyed, and the vehicle caught fire. The three-man TOW team fled to take cover in the command post, leaving nine unfired missiles trapped in the inferno.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Three Battles of Wanat"
Copyright © 2016 Mark Bowden.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
The Three Battles of Wanat 3
The Ploy 54
The Last Ace 78
The Killing Machines 108
Jihadists in Paradise 142
Just Joe 179
The Inheritance 208
The Bright Sun of Juche 242
Defending the Indefensible 286
The Angriest Man in Television 305
The Measured Man 320
The Silent Treatment 343
The Hardest Job in Football 358
The Man Who Broke Atlantic City 375
Attila's Headset 388
The Story Behind the Story 407
The Great Guinea Hen Massacre 424
Rebirth of the Guineas 429
Cry Wolfe 436
Abraham Lincoln Is an Idiot 447
Dumb Kids' Class 453
Saddam on Saddam 458
Zero Dark Thirty Is Not Pro-Torture 464