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General News    H3'ed 11/12/18

Tomgram: Rory Fanning, Will the War Stories Ever End?

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Death-by-ally: now that, by definition, is a fate from hell. You might at least imagine that such "insider attacks" -- in which a member of the Afghan security forces turns his weapon on his American or NATO trainers or advisers and tries to gun them down -- would be the rarest of events. After all, if you're an armed Afghan who decides to try to kill such an ally, you have to be aware that you're almost assuredly committing suicide. You have a moment to fire and then, in that armed environment, you're likely to be dead. And yet those attacks, which started in 2007-2008 with four American deaths, peaked in 2012 with dozens of them, and by 2017 had resulted in 157 deaths, most of them American (along with many uncounted Afghan deaths). However, between 2013 and this year, such desperate acts faded, becoming the exceedingly rare events you might expect them to be. But no longer. In one case after another recently, armed Afghan allies have been turning their guns on their American and European advisers and trainers, sending a devastating message our way about the now-17-year-old American war there (even if we, in the U.S., have largely preferred not to hear it).

Since early July, Americans have died in five such attacks, including a sergeant major and the mayor of a town in Utah (deployed with his National Guard unit), while an American brigadier-general was among the wounded. This has left Americans in Afghanistan reportedly dealing with their Afghan counterparts largely by phone and email, rather than in person.

To put more than a decade of deaths-by-ally in perspective: historically, such numbers are, I suspect, simply unprecedented. No example comes to mind of a colonial power, neocolonial power, or modern superpower fighting a war with "native" allies whose forces repeatedly found the weapons they were supplying turned on them. There is certainly nothing in the American historical record faintly comparable -- not in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian wars, nor in the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the last century, nor in Korea in the early 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, or even Iraq in this century. In this sense at least, Afghanistan is unique.

And here's the thing: thought about a certain way, those aren't the only kinds of insider attacks that Americans continue to experience, thanks to this country's never-ending war on terror. There are others right here in the homeland, even if they're never thought of as such. TomDispatchregular Rory Fanning who, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion, walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009 and then wrote a book, Worth Fighting For, about his experiences, is an expert on the subject. As he suggests on this Veterans Day, many of those like him who took part in America's unending twenty-first-century wars brought those conflicts home with them. Sometimes, years later, they still experience what might be thought of as ambush-by-ally. Call this post-traumatic stress disorder or anything else you want, but such moments should be considered insider attacks and, as Fanning indicates, they are unlikely to end until America's perpetual wars do. Perhaps it tells you all you need to know that neither discussion of those Afghan insider attacks, nor more generally of America's never-ending wars played any role in the recent midterm elections. Tom

The Stories War Tells Me
A Veteran and Parent Can't Stop Thinking About the War He Fought
By Rory Fanning

I'm here in Chicago, 7,000 miles and 15 years away from Jalalabad, a desolate town in southwestern Afghanistan. Yet sometimes it seems to me as if it were yesterday, or even tomorrow, and anything but thousands of miles distant.

There are moments when it feels like I never left -- or maybe I mean, when it feels like it left with me, like Afghanistan and my once-upon-a-time life as a U.S. Army Ranger are all right here, right now, in my unheated garage workshop. Right here, right now, in fact, the sawdust is swirling as I run a two-inch slab of walnut through my lousy Ryobi table saw. The dust and the noise from that saw instantly bring to mind an image of an American helicopter landing in the Afghan countryside, not too far from Jalalabad. It all seems suddenly to flash before my eyes -- only the dust in Afghanistan was chalkier and finer than the dust from this walnut slab, which is old, but not Afghanistan old.

Each of those dusts has dry, earthy, almost sugary smells. It's hard right now for me to tell which is louder, the helicopter still in my head or the table saw in front of me. That helicopter is taking away two Afghan men with sandbags over their heads. It's dark out, but my night vision goggles make everything seem eerily bright green.

I helped snatch those two men -- or were they teenagers? -- from a house in the middle of the night. That was in May of 2003 and sometimes, right here in my workshop, I can still hear the screams of the little kids inside that house. They're louder than the helicopter, louder than the saw. Maybe one of those men had info that would help lead us to Osama bin Laden, then missing in action somewhere, it was believed, in Pakistan -- or so we were told anyway. My job wasn't to ask or understand; it was just to snatch people, sandbag them, and ship them out. Others higher up the chain of command would ask the questions under conditions that we now know -- and I guessed then -- were anything but pretty.

My own kids are three and five, probably close in age to those terrified children I glimpsed ever so briefly in that house and still can't get out of my head. My daughter and son couldn't be sweeter, but they do like to tell me "no" a lot. Sometimes they, too, scream and sometimes, when those screams set me off, I yell back, which is frustrating for me and unnerving for them, as well as my wife. And so I find myself out in that garage more than she would like and more than I would like, too, since it often means that I've taken that endlessly unnerving trip back to Afghanistan.

"Try to remember what it's like to be the kids' age and parenting will be easier," my mom tells me when I complain. Being a parent, I guess, means being a good rememberer. The problem with remembering is that when I do, my mind feels like it's filled with landmines or maybe I mean IEDs.

So many years later, fragmented memories from my time in Afghanistan still flood my head when I least expect them. Sometimes, I'll push them out quickly; other times, particularly since my kids were born, they just won't leave and I end up writing them down. That, at least, gives me the passing feeling of being a little more in control.

I used to have a good memory. As a kid, I remembered everything: phone numbers, names, each play in a baseball game a month later. At forty-one, nearing the decade-and-a-half mark since my time in Afghanistan, my recall leaves something to be desired. I blame it on that war and on the distracting memories I just can't keep out of my head.

Controlling bad memories particularly at night when I'm trying to go to sleep is important. So I keep my laptop close. It was one thing years ago to get through the workday on no sleep; it's another to raise two little kids while bleary-eyed and sleepless. It's not good for them, my wife, or me.

Making a Desk in "Afghanistan"

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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