Our first sun-rise in Marjah

Stepping off the loading ramp into the cold moist air, our feet sink into the quagmire of wet soil and newly planted crops. The sky above our heads is aglow with infrared light which we witness through the single green eye of our night vision goggles.

For all the high-tech advancements of the US military and all of our neat toys, the developers and masterminds always seem to forget key elements. Like the importance of maintaining depth perception when designing optical equipment.

You could see well enough with the five pound paperweight attached to your helmet, but if you took just one step you'd fall and break an ankle, and several of us nearly do. That black patch on the ground that looks like a bush, sorry son, that's a six foot chasm that you've just pitched head over heel in to. Call a medevac, we've got another.

So often the most well laid plans of mice and men can be easily summed up in just one or two words. In this case, the word is gaggle-fuck.

And what a gaggle-fuck it was.

What was supposed to be a swift and hard helo-insertion into a Taliban held city, was not.

The Taliban were supposed to go to bed the night prior, and awake in the early morning on the following day to see hundreds of pissed off Marine Corps grunts in their backyard, and none the wiser until it was too late.

This was not the case.

By the time the last bird gave birth to its cargo and tore off into the night, a steady stream of red spurted skyward like some volcanic cumshot.

The red lines multiply as the other AA Guns come to life, spewing their rounds at the receding transports, tracing a tic-tac-toe board in the sky. It's like some deadly cosmic etcha-sketch.

The attempt at stealth which was abandoned early on, due to the irony of whispering over the sound of whirling rotor-blades, is reinstated. Like a half blind albeit heavily armed herd of cattle we struggle towards our destination within the city.

I used to think I was just along for the roller coaster ride, but am beginning to realize that I'm part of the theme park, and not a patron. No, not a theme park, a goddamn carnival, a fucking circus.

Come one, come all to the Cirque Du Corps! See the amazing dead men - the tan-clad zombies. Watch as they stumble, as they kill, as they laugh and cry. See them die! See them tightrope across trip wire, juggle hand grenades and swallow 500 lb bombs. Just $3.50 for adults! Free admission for the kids! Bring your whole family and join the fun - just grab a complementary AK at the ticket stand, and join the turkey shoot.

Yeah, the Great Zambini ain't got shit on this circus.

As we trudge through the mud, we cross deep, dark canals and perform balancing acts with full body armor as we tip-toe over planks eight inches wide, in the dark.

We walk, and then walk some more. No one speaks, not even when the column of Marines grinds to a halt and we start taking positions along mounds of dirt. We're completely exposed in every direction save one, so we naturally decide to choose this as an ideal place to wait for contact.

That's when it starts to hit me. For the first time in my life, I truly feel it. Inescapable, undeniable and all consuming fear.

It creeps in slowly, like a virus.

It starts as a nagging frustration. I'm trying to take off my gloves which have become sopping wet and ice cold. Frost collects on the frayed edges. It covers my fingertips. It gets under my nails. I can't make my fingers move. I start ripping at them in earnest. I need to piss and I can't unbutton my pants. I can't take off my gloves. I can't stand it. I can't. I JUST CAN'T!

It's like broken glass in my mind. That rising hopelessness. It aches and multiplies with each thought. My heart is pounding. I'm shaking. I need a dip. I can't open the can. My hands, they're so cold.

My mind jumps from frustration over cold hands to a sudden sense of powerlessness over the whole situation. The realization that I don't know what we're up against, what we're going into, what will happen. It's not a new thought, but for the first time it's not exciting. It's terrifying. 

Irrational thoughts come crashing in like so many waves. I need to get out. I need to go, I won't do this. I don't want to. No, fuck this, I'm done playing Marine.

I feel like I'm trembling. A wreck, a quivering, jabbering wreck.

Then at that moment, when it all seems lost. When I feel like I'm about to become that cautionary tale of the spineless fuck who ran away before the fight. I see them.

The grunts.

Just sitting there. Smoking, chewing gum, talking.

Laughing.

Smiling.

Nothing shows. They appear to all the world to be completely at peace.

They're serene and natural. For the first time I really see them. Some of them are kids. Big, goofy and innocent children. Just boys playing war with their friends. Other's are seasoned from years of hardship, stoic and resolute.

There are several Marines openly flaunting the facial hair they've just sprouted after not shaving for a few days. For several it's probably the most chin hair they've ever had.

As I watch them, the weight begins to lift and I feel something warm on my face.

The sun is rising, casting us all in an orange hue. It paints reddish pink and yellow halos above our heads. It pushes back the crushing darkness of night.

It makes them look divine, these grunts. Not like angels, nothing of the sort. More like God's burly bouncers. The brutish ogre blocking the sinners' entry into Heaven's night club.

I pull my can of dip back out, crack the lid and put a large pinch in my lip.

A nearby machine-gunner asks if I have some to spare.

I pass the can.

My hand is still. It was never trembling to start with. That fear, it was all inside. All in my head.

It always is.

And I realize that it's the same for all of us. We all feel it. We just don't show it, and that resolve, that knowledge that the fear is all encompassing and consuming, but completely unseen - it strengthens me, it bolsters my will. It does this for each and every Marine.

It's empowering to know that it can be controlled, it can be masked and hidden. That you can manage it instead of letting it unman you.

I've never been more afraid than I was at that moment, and afterward, I've never felt more safe. More hopeful. When you accept that it's beyond your control and stop struggling against the current you can just float along. You can let go.

You can laugh and smile.

You can enjoy the sunrise.

And I do.

I do a great deal.

D-Day

Rattling around like so many nuts and bolts inside of 'the' machine. We cruise over empty fields and dead crops. The moon is gone, ducking behind distant mountains or pulling clouds over its head like a child hiding under the sheets. It's scared of us. The boogie men.

It knows we're on the move.

It knows we're on the prowl.

The cyclopian eye of my night vision goggles paints the world in a lime green hue. Everyone looks sea sick when they're this color.

It is February 13th, 2010.

It is 0300 hours.

It is our D-Day.

We're headed to the city of Marjah, which is regarded by the mass media, who “heard it first” from Uncle Sam's trusted advisors, as the last known Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, which is the heartland of the insurgency.

A few hours ago we stood out in the open, being battered by the frigid wind of Afghanistan's ebbing, yet still potent winter.  We all feel it. Each of us, no matter if you're standing, sitting, pretending to sleep or talking nonchalantly about how much of a badass you are. That pressure, that feeling of emptiness that has a weight all its own as it forces itself down on your chest. Making it hard to breath. Making your heart struggle with each successive beat. It's like we were already in our last throes of life. We were, each and every one of us in our own way, preparing to die.

I stood to the side, on my own for a moment, when I overheard a group of grunts talking. One kept pointing to the horizon, where seven bright dots hung unmoving in the air. In all likelihood it was just a series of illumination rounds falling over Marjah, prior to our arrival, but there were other theories, the one most enthusiastically pursued was that they were alien space ships.

I shit you not.

In a sense though, I understood. It was more of a comfort to imagine that some random space invader might take an interest in the fickle comings and goings of men. It offered some small reassurance that the mission we were about to embark on, this act that could claim our lives, might be something of note for someone or something beyond us.

It was an empty and false hope, but it was something. Just the illusion of being watched, not watched over, but observed. So long as someone or something else could bear witness to what we were about to do, that was enough.

There's nothing more devastating than the thought of being completely forgotten once you die. Even if we could be just a footnote in the great fuck-up of our time, that would be better than having no place in it at all.

After hours of waiting on the cold tarmac, we finally got our orders.

As the great metal beasts took off from the flight strip, I finally felt as if I'd reached the point of no return. Things beyond my control and power were now in motion and the nerves that had threatened to unsettle me were calmed. There was nothing I could do, but be moved, like some pale white pawn on a massive chessboard.

Now, with the flight-line and personal safety far behind us, we ditty bop through the air in CH-53 helicopters, the draft horses of the sky. Muscled, monstrous and clumsy.

A flock of Super Cobra attack helicopters glide alongside of us. Seeing them I remember a key fact. The Taliban have several, possibly as many as four anti aircraft guns. Allegedly they were left over from the cold war, just tossed aside like an empty pack of cigarettes.

Fucking Soviets. The hammer and sickle have rusted and fallen to ruin, but the blade's still sharp enough to cut and give you tetanus.

We all heard the stories, and in every retelling a more credible source is noted. First it's an intel Marine who shares with me that they have the guns posted on four separate compounds, pointed towards the only stretches of farmland not littered with improvised explosive devices and anti-tank mines. The places we're most likely to land.

I spoke to another Marine who claimed that the officer for Charlie Company said the Taliban had a crack team of foreign fighters, anti-tank specialists and snipers there, waiting just for us.

And by the time we left, several guys were certain that the 'General' himself was quoted saying the Taliban had just launched their first jet-fighter squadron and that they were on standby near the city.

That being said, these soviet made weapons, that can drop a bird out of the sky in seconds, were positioned and waiting for just such an opportunity. And we were on our way to provide one.

As I remember this, I get the feeling that this was a very bad idea.

It's not the first time, and it certainly won't be the last.

The first round

Photo by James Clark

What did I just do? A loud crack. What am I doing? There's a soft clatter as something metallic hits the dirt near my feet and sends up a small plume of dust.

Why am I shooting?

Another series of solid and hollow cracks as more cylindrical casings pool at my feet.

Where are they?

Where did they come from?

What am I doing?

Five minutes ago we were walking along. The only shooting was from a small camera. The only sound aside from the clomp of boots on dead earth was the snap as the shutter opened and closed.

It's odd how that goes. Time. Just minutes ago we were all jim fucking dandy before john doe started some shit. And several month's ago, before all of this; I was peachy fucking keen, relaxing on the catwalk of my barracks, sipping cheap beer and dipping Cope Long Cut, back home in the states. And what seems like eons before that, I was relaxing on the beach in sunny Santa Cruz, California. The archetypical hippie. Dreadlocked. Stoned. Naïvely innocent and so sure of what I knew and understood.

How did things go so wrong?

Or maybe they went just right.

The sweat stings my eyes and spills down my neck bringing me back to the present.

We're on patrol across the arid landscape that makes up the countryside of Afghanistan's Helmand Province. We're looking for the Taliban.

We pass dead crops and dying one's. Dried up husks of plants curl their fingers up at us in protest of our trespassing. Our patrol slithers along.

We head northwest. That's where they are. Just walk twenty minutes and you'll get contact. That's what we were told. So Charly, a fellow cameraman, and I just nodded our heads with all the foolhardy eagerness we could muster.

We showed up, easily excitable by the prospect of 'contact.' Such a deceptive word for incoming enemy fire. Out to cover the war. To get the scoop. To see action.

Northwest. That's where it is.

They were absolutely fucking right.

We walked for just over a half hour. Trudging along because we had intel that a machine gun nest was located somewhere within the cluster of mud huts before us.

Charly and I, with our cameras and pads of paper. Our pens and pencils.

Oh, and our rifles and ammunition. Turns out we needed those.

Passing through a hole in a mudwall we begin to step across another blank space. That's what it would look like on a map. Just empty smudged space, like when you write something with a number two pencil and try to erase it with that shitty pink rubber at the end of it. You get that off-greyish brown smear. That's what this place would look like on a map.

Seven men passed out into the open. I was the fourth back from the front. Charly next to me, his video camera rolling and me, snapping away – getting hero shots.

Then we heard the first crack. Then the next.

The first gunshot is always the loudest.

The other thirty or forty are hardly noticeable. Save for the clouds of dirt that kick up around your feet or the high pitched squeal as they zip past your helmet, the air tickling your ears as it roars by and imbeds itself into the wall behind you.

This is my first real patrol since we've been in country. It's early January and just a month since we've gotten here. My first taste of what I've been after. My chance to do the gig. To do it for real, the way it's meant to be done.

But, for some reason, all I do is make a stupid face and stand there for a second, watching as everyone else does the same. We seem to be debating crouching down and returning. Then, as a whole, we realize we just walked past a wall. A foot thick chunk of dirt that appears to be doing a very good job of stopping incoming bullets.

It's not fear that grips me and I don't really hesitate. I just seem to be waiting. Maybe for a bullet to come hurtling out of the distance and lodge itself lovingly in my chest, snuggling up against my heart until it pierces that most vital organ and rebounds throughout my chest cavity.

In that brief moment of stillness it's not trepidation or fear. It's elation. Excitement. A thrill of being alive this close to death. I can go at any second. But I don't want to, not just yet. That would put an end to the 'game.'

Turning on our heels we sprint with a speed that we've never had before. Leaping over discarded plows and wheelbarrows. We bolt back to the wall and jump over the lip, like Bruce Willis in a bad action movie as the bullets chase us. They swerve, rise and fall as we do. They're drawn to us. Bullets have a thing for Marines.

The volume, which was turned down, suddenly jumps back up. We're being ambushed and we don't feel too bad about it. In fact, I can't stop smiling.

I didn't think I would like this. I feel like I shouldn't. But, against my better judgment and conscience. I do. I do a great deal.

Peering from behind cover I see muzzle flashes from the compound across from us.

Looking around, I see that the grunts have begun to work. Their confidence is infectious. It seeps from them. They look down range, standing tall and unafraid, like some fairy tale creature made real.

As they press up against the wall or peer around corners sighting in. I mimic them, bringing my rifle up and looking down the scope, but my mind pulls me to my camera, dangling at my hip.

Charly slinks about, head low and knees bent, but his videocamera is up and rolling. One eye glued to the LCD screen as he checks the footage, and the other open for incoming rounds.

I can already see the smile forming at the corners of his lips. That Cheshire Cat grin tells me he's making the movie of the year, a real-time Full Metal Jacket.

I should be taking photos. There are still Marines in the open scrambling for cover, but I should let the grunts handle it. They have it under control, they don't need my help, but it's not a matter of need. It has become a matter of want, and before I can think on it any more I commit. My finger curls around the trigger and pulls it back.

I fire and the empty cartridge ejects. Falling to my feet. I do it again and again. Each time the voice gets quieter, until it has faded completely and all I'm left with is the comforting cacophony of gunshots.

We unleash a wall of lead. Dust seems to fall from every inch of the compound as bullet holes appear, turning the outside into Swiss Cheese. After a few moments we can't hear the flat clatter AK-47 fire anymore nor can we see muzzle flashes.

We keep shooting anyways, just to be sure.

After a while, I pull back. Camera in hand I scurry about. Each round fired is followed by a series of snaps as the shutter opens and closes, making the moment eternal.

It's not like the movies. No one shouts “Oorah” or “Get Some!” They are consummate professionals. These are the Wall-street poster boys and Oxford grads of warfare. They are the Lebrons of combat. The Kanye Wests and Bob Dylans of death. This is their world. War is their oyster, or whatever the saying is.

This is what they do and they execute each movement with a precision that stops you in your tracks. It's beyond muscle movement, their weapons aren't just an extension of themselves. The very act of war is a part of them.

I watch as they shoot and assess the impact. They react instinctively, never losing a beat. Several of them hold conversations in between bursts of fire. “Think we'll get back in time for chow? Shit, did you see that?! I wonder what we're having for dinner, probably same shit as last night. Damn, he's getting close, how many do you think there are?” and so on.

The quiet that has begun to settle is interrupted as a stubborn fighter opens up with his AK-47. He shoots wildly and the bullets fly everywhere. They hit the ground, the wall and zip past our heads. None of the grunts move.

A Marine to my left, with a stocky build and a bulldog's shoulders and under-bite, snorts and then spits, embarrassed for his attacker. I get the feeling he feels sorry for the poor fuck. So sorry he levels his M249 SAW, which looks like a tommy-gun on steroids, and peppers the compound with rounds.

The shooting stops.

As the minutes wear on , we prepare to move from the wall to another series of buildings. Everywhere we go we're chased by incoming rounds. Signal fires are lit and smoke unwinds skyward. The universal sign for 'come here and help us kill the Marines.'

Breaking up into several four man teams we prepare to cross the vast divide. That long stretch of ground is our own personal slice of no-man's land.

We are so fucked.

Photo by James Clark

The first group tears out into the open. A few seconds pass and we begin to breath easier – the others are near the half-way mark. Then, like the Grinch trying to steal Christmas, they snuff out our elation. Soviet made machine guns scream to life as bullets tear past the Marine's legs, or slide across backs and under chins.

Screaming with a voice that never goes hoarse, Sgt. Bee, the consummate grunt, hollers “I want a fucking wall of lead!.” Our reaction is instinctive, and every Marine turns towards the sound of enemy gunfire and unloads. We don't care what we hit, we're sending a message.

You don't fuck with our friends.

Abruptly, you can see each man turn it up a notch. The war-time marathon runners reach the far compound and crash behind oil barrels and thick mud walls. They're safe.

Now it's our turn.

The order is given. I'm the third man back, Charly just behind me. We tear off, the remainder of the squad in tow. Our feet struggle to get purchase on loose earth. Ankles strain to the breaking point as we leap over rivets in the ground at a thunderous pace. After sprinting at dead speed, we begin to slow down. Maybe we got them, they're not shooting at us anymore.

That was a very bad idea. The moment our pace slows, you hear it. The first round. This time, they're close. They're aiming this time. They're really trying to kill us. The thought is strangely unexpected.

Someone's trying to shoot me. What the fuck did I ever do? Oh wait, my bad, I'm a Marine. Carry on then. My inner monologue won't ever stop. If I do get killed, it'll keep going until the last neuron has shot off its remaining rounds. Well, this death thing isn't so bad...I mean, it stops hurting after a whi–...(Insert flat-line here.)

A tingle runs up my spine as I feel a rush of air. A bullet. A fucking bullet just flew past my neck. Without knowing how I do it, I'm suddenly tearing across the field. We all are. Our breathing is heavy, but it goes unheard over the thumping of our hearts.

There's no motivation quite like impending death.

We're almost there and the Marines on the other side have opened up on a dilapidated farmhouse, or the Afghan equivalent of a farmhouse. It has four walls, one with a hole for a door and at one time or another, a roof.

Once again it's quiet, if only for a moment.

Days later, Charly shows me some of his video clips. He left his camera on by accident while we ran and although the video is useless, it captures the moment perfectly.

It's the noise.

The ragged and enraged way we breath as we run. The clatter of rounds hitting the dirt around us, and of course Charly'sflippant commentary, 'Well, that'll make you run faster,' and the like.

The key lesson is this; just because someone's trying to kill you, it doesn't mean you can't die with a smile on your face and laughter in your belly.

Soon enough other fighters have heard the call, and minutes move into hours. The allure has begun to wear off. Rounds are traded. Rockets are swapped. Curse words are hurled back and forth in different languages.

There's never any conclusion.

We just shoot back and forth. Fire and move. Duck and dodge. Never getting any closer to ending it. We pantomime one another.

At one moment we've got them on the run and the next we're surrounded. They advance and are pushed back by Marine snipers, holed up in the crushed shell of a building. It's like any healthy relationship, with equal parts give and take.

At one point we lob three rockets toward a building a hundred feet away and miss with one, destroying the storehouse next to the occupied compound, before taking them out with the next two.

The next second, we're taking fire from medium machine guns and watching as vibrant red tracer rounds zip overhead like low-flying shooting stars.

Throughout it all Sgt. Bee stalks about, his helmet discarded earlier in the fight. Sweat has dried and come anew, plastering the mud across his face. A cigarette hangs from his lower lip, smoked down to the filter, but he doesn't seem to notice. He grips his rifle in one hand as he shouts orders to the men along the wall of the compound where we now take cover.

Grabbing the radio, Sgt. Bee requests air support. When he's off the radio the acronym-riddled radio jargon vanishes and he switches to Marine-speak. The word fuck, in all its diversity, is used frequently.

After what seems like an eternity they give the A-OK and a premature cheer goes up amongst us, only to fall silent in our throats.

The harrier roars in, low and vicious. I can imagine their white and wide eyes. The insurgents. The Taliban, clinging to cover, praying it doesn't happen. Scared out of their fucking minds as this metal bird of prey rips out of the distance, low and fast.

Photo by James Clark

As it screams overhead it unleashes...flares...seven flares...No bombs, no boom, just a limp dick show of force. We got air, but that doesn't mean much if we can't drop any ordnance.

The strike has the opposite effect. We're disheartened and our opponents are elated. They fire back in earnest, and the tradeoff continues as if it never stopped.

As daylight fades we chase shadows until darkness falls and they disappear. We never know for sure how many we get.

How many we get.

Like war is some massive game of freeze tag. Ohh! I got you, you're dead now, no moving. Hey cheater! I said no moving. Yeah, a game...just one big fucking game.

As we trudge back to the patrol base, a small part of me can't help but hope that I missed. Each and every time.

I'll have more opportunities to miss and many moments of doubt ahead. Many more, I just haven't realized it yet.

Moon dust and distant mountains

Photo by James Clark

Down the loading ramp and across the plateau of coffee brown earth, we walk with packs, flaks, and weapons. We have arrived in Afghanistan.

Each step we take along the 'road' towards our camp causes small mushroom clouds of moondust to bloom underneath our heavy leather boots, as if foreshadowing the destruction we've been sent here to bring. An atom bomb goes off with each step taken and we are the fallout.

We're giant alien men in a desolate alien world. Perpetual foreigners. Professional fighters from an immigrant nation, traveling the world to wage war on another man's soil.

Pulling off my sunglasses as I walk, I blink back against the light that spills in from every direction and surges up from the flat reflective ground.

Flat. It's so fucking flat. So barren, dusty and blank. Lifeless, but teaming with movement. Steal freaks outside of nature and utterly removed from the landscape lumber along on treads or soar through the air on tilted rotor blades. Tan clad dead men soar in the skies aboard flying coffins. Others stalk the earth.

In this part of the world Middle Eastern oil is pumped through western machines and used to fuel industry in the lands we've killed and we are utterly oblivious to the fact that it doesn't want the life we're offering it. This land. It's people, they don't want the existence we've crafted for them. Which is probably why we killed them in the first place.

We try unsuccessfully to breathe life back into a corpse, but succeed only in creating a socio-economic monster like some new age Doctor Frankenstein that will one day wake and unleash hell through righteous rage and indignation.

We're laying the foundation for our own destruction with every brick we slam into place. Every building we construct. Every western ideal that we push on eastern land and eastern people serves only to corrupt. We're the greatest obstacle in our own path. We bring American freedom to Afghan people, and never consider that they may want more than the pursuit of happiness. They may want true freedom. Something we cannot offer them.

Tearing my eyes away from the tar-less runway I fall in with the rest of our company and drop my flak jacket. The heavy wool lining is already slick with sweat. It's the dead of winter and the sun bears down on us, causing rivers to run from our brows and make waterfalls off of our chins.

I've finally arrived. I'm finally on the path that will bring me to the door. Right up to it. Knocking at it. Begging to look through to the other side. I'm not ready to cross over, but I want to see what's through the looking glass too badly to stay away.

I will know soon enough, and even now, I'm aware that I won't like what I find. Which only makes me want to see it more.