Leaving Leatherneck

An abridged version of this appeared in The American Prospect on 13 December 2019.

I recommend USMC Major General Smedley D. Butler’s 1935 book “War is a Racket” for further reading. 

Around this time in 2014, I was preparing to fly out of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan to Kandahar, as part of the operation to close Camp Leatherneck and Bastion Airfield and turn them over to the Afghan National Army (ANA). In the 5 years that have elapsed, I have forgotten details of my underwhelming “inside the wire” deployment; the names of colleagues from other units I saw routinely and even the operation name itself-it was always just called “B-Day” (for Bastion). Its official name never caught on, but was probably something overwrought like “Operation Enduring Resolve.” Unfortunately, I lost the green notebook that accompanied me everywhere around base. I took detailed notes at all the meetings, editorialised what I thought was stupid, who was an asshole, and whatever entertainment my battalion’s LPA (lieutenant protection association) had circulated via email. Our communications officer would send us scathing summaries of the weekly staff meeting. He satirised our paperwork-obsessed commanding officer, the 2 majors holding the billets of Executive and Operations Officers prone to ego-fuelled pissing matches in front of subordinates, and the captains who took credit for the work done by their lieutenants. 

The notebook contained statistics relating to the plan to dramatically shrink the footprint of Leatherneck, reduce its capabilities as American and British forces withdrew, and turn it over to the fledgling ANA, an “ally” we didn’t trust enough to have in our own operations briefings, even though they, as the subsequent force to assume control of Leatherneck, had an ostensibly important role in our withdrawal. It’s these numbers I especially regret losing; they captured the unfathomably wasteful manner in which the United States fought-and continues to fight-a two-decade war with no end in sight.

*

In seventh grade I received the standard public school assignment of “interviewing a veteran,” rooted in superficial yellow ribbon patriotism. It was part of a larger lesson plan culminating in an assembly honoring local veterans, featuring the school band and photographs of servicemen (I remember no women) hung along the gymnasium wall. Naturally, I selected my grandfather George, whom I adored and whose Army stories from World War II had already captivated me for years. He was awarded a Purple Heart when shot in the leg and a Bronze Star when he rescued his surrounded unit from the Nazis in France. He told me about the banalities of training and the terrors of combat: when he (a sergeant) punched a major in the face for slapping an unsuspecting French girl’s ass (O-4s, more often than not, are assholes); carrying a dead friend out of combat; watching over his drunk colleagues celebrating the end of the war rather than indulging himself. His stories about his and his fellow soldiers’ heroism and the horrific violence they were a part of were plaintively recollected and free of self-aggrandizement. When I asked what his life was like after the war, he described nightmares so extreme his father would come into his room and hold him still in bed.

Concluding the interview, I must have asked for my grandfather’s general parting thoughts. I was too young and blindly patriotic to have asked a pointed-enough question to provoke his response. With the most emphasis and incredulity displayed throughout the interview, my grandfather said that it was hard to wrap your head around how wasteful it all is. The waste of war is incomprehensible. 

*

The following are my observations from my 4-month deployment, Operation Enduring Freedom 14.2 from July-November 2014. Several former colleagues, some of whom I had not spoken to since redeploying, assisted me in remembering what happened, and I’m grateful for their help. I was a Powerpoint-bound logistics officer untested by combat and enjoying the amenities Camp Leatherneck (or Pleasureneck, derisively nicknamed by the saltier units in remote forward operating bases). While the dining facilities (D-FACs) were still open, I ate ice cream nearly every night. I left the relative safety of Leatherneck just once, a trip via some Army helicopter to Camp Dwyer with my Battalion’s Executive Officer, who I think pitied my personally uneventful deployment. I trailed the major around as he visited CLB-1 Marines at Dwyer, without purpose and feeling very much like a hapless guest on Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

A movie about my wartime experience would be a short film and more like Office Space than Jarhead. I was the Assistant Future Operations Officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 1 (CLB-1). Future Operations Officers don’t have assistants, and my billet was frequently scoffed at when I introduced myself to senior officers outside my unit. The job made sense, though. CLB-1 was the last Marine Corps logistics unit to deploy to Leatherneck and our mission was to facilitate the redeployment of personnel and equipment before turning the base over to the ANA. Camp Leatherneck was originally scheduled to close on New Years Eve, but the commanding general moved it up to Halloween. Beyond the routine grind of logistical convoys dismantling forward operations bases, our operations section had the long-range task of collaborating with the British Army, and Marine air and infantry units to get us all out by B-Day. Bearing the ridiculous acronym A-FOPSO, I was dispatched to meetings all over the base to ensure CLB-1 stayed abreast of the various efforts in service of B-Day. It was an unglamorous job with a made-up title, but afforded me exposure to the broad workings of the base and how the big-picture task of leaving Leatherneck would be executed hour-by-hour. In the last month or so, I worked out of 1st Marines, 2d Division’s (1/2) headquarters as a liaison officer, speaking to CLB-1’s capabilities and helping to coordinate logistics between the units. My battalion commander was reluctant to send a woman to work in the strictly male infantry unit. For my own safety I was ordered to wear the green skivvy undershirt I had eschewed in the first weeks of deployment, lest the exposed triangle of skin below my neck bait someone into sexually assaulting me. I complied with this rape-proofing order by cutting the torso and sleeves off a skivvy shirt and fashioning a bib long enough to cover the space between my clavicles. 

The author rape-proofed in her skivvy shirt bib.

We reported not to a regiment but directly to the joint command, led by a Marine brigadier general, since we were the only logistics battalion. Because of this atypical hierarchy, I’d often be one of the most junior officers in the room, a first lieutenant representing a battalion amongst majors and lieutenant colonels from Command staff sections. I went to meetings run by the top administration and personnel officers on the remaining numbers of Marines, British soldiers, civilian contractors, and third-country nationals (TCNs), the low-wage workers from impoverished countries who did jobs like laundry and food service. I toured the base’s main entry point, where civilian delivery trucks idled for hours awaiting inspection and detainees sat handcuffed in concrete cells. I sat in on meetings run by the Marine fixed-wing squadrons about what equipment would be loaded onto C-130s bound for Kandahar, and the bigger equipment that’d be transported via the Air Force’s C-17s and C-5s. I ventured frequently to the British side to parse how we’d share equipment. I went to 1/2’s staff meetings, bib in place, listening to intelligence updates about Taliban activity in the battlespace. The military police would report contraband like cellphones taken from TCNs in the unannounced searches of their living quarters, delivered by a captain who reported these figures with the glee of a teacher’s pet ratting out his classmates. He seemed to delight in barging into the encampments of the TCNs and confiscating the phones used to call whatever home country staying in had been less appealing than working in Afghanistan.

*

My job took me all over the Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak Complex (British-American-Afghani, respectively). It was a sprawling city built with plywood, corrugated metal, concrete, and no windows. Its size shocked me. By the time CLB-1 relieved our predecessor, CLB-7, many buildings had already been knocked down. CLB-1’s Engineering Services Company continued this demolition and incrementally moved the concrete and sand-filled hesco barriers inward to shrink the periphery of Leatherneck and thus reduce the number of troops required to man the guard posts. Driving one of the hard-to-snag Tata pickup trucks or John Deere gators around the flat, uniformly dun brown 10 square miles of Bastion and Leatherneck would take about 30 minutes. The wide, straight streets, C-wire topped fencing, concrete roadblocks, and hesco barriers delineated the base into multiple sectors, most of which were vacant by the time CLB-1 arrived. It felt weirdly familiar, like driving through collapsed industrial towns common in the Rust Belt and deserts of southeastern California. Towering geodesic structures and long tents with semicircular tops loomed gaping and empty, and the canvas stretched across their frames had started tattering. They had held either thousands of people or pallets. 

By the time we left, half of Leatherneck’s 600 or so structures remained. Outside the squat windowless metal buildings we slept in lay an expanse of identical concrete slabs, about 16 by 20 feet and 10 feet apart, presumably used for the same purpose before their demolition. A few mornings a week, I’d exercise on one of them, staring at the matrix of rectangles accumulating layers of sand while I jumped rope, struggling to imagine  Leatherneck at its peak population of 26,000.

Once a building was demolished its materials were thrown out or sold as scrap to the locals living in dusty Helmand Province outside Leatherneck. Other trash we produced was cremated by two schoolbus-sized incinerators that worked through a ever-growing pile as tall as a house in an open structure the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Interestingly, the Marines at the incinerators reported finding inordinate quantities and varieties of sex toys. Burning the base’s garbage was among the many functions that transitioned from contracted to troop labor while the base’s footprint shrank. The unsanitary, noxious task fell to junior enlisted Marines of CLB-1, who also took over the trucks that sucked out the port-o-johns. The battalion commander’s penchant for administration proved worthy for this occasion, and he ordered these duties noted in the Marines’ official records lest future health complications arise. One of the biggest orders the incerators faced was the burning of over 10,000 expired meals, ready-to-eat (MREs). To accept the concept of an MRE “going bad,” one must believe that an MRE is ever in a “good” state, or that objects like bricks have shelf lives. MREs are expensive, but the $100,000 or so the US government burned of its own supplies is pittance compared to the money recklessly spent elsewhere on base.

The Marine Corps is supposed to be deployed as an expeditionary force-the “first to fight.” Its logistics doctrine is based on self-sufficiency, moving quickly, and not staying in one place for long. Its function as “the first wave of bullet catchers” (as described by one disenchanted veteran) is rarely adhered to in today’s endless wars. Leatherneck was built in 2008 and operated on disposables until its closure 6 years later. The three D-FACs could each make 7,000 meals daily, all of which were served on throwaway trays and eaten with plastic cutlery. I don’t think Marines should suffer for suffering’s sake, but pre-deployment training is deliberately difficult and prepares us for half a year without luxuries of garrison life. There was, for example, no operational need for a juice bar, KFC, or 10,000 square foot PX, yet there they were. Pallets upon pallets of 12-ounce water bottles were left all over the base for any passerby to grab. They were stacked under wooden awnings that resembled bus shelters and shaded the pallets part of the day, but the thin plastic started disintegrating in the brutal sun. Crinkled bottles were left everywhere, half full of either water or dip spit. A Washington Post article written during the withdrawal reported we left 420,000 of these bottles behind, enough to form a 50-mile line of flimsy plastic. 

I’m not sure when or how bicycles found their way onto Leatherneck, but they made for a convenient way of getting around. I had a mountain bike outfitted with a white basket, passed onto me by a Corporal before she redeployed. We were required to wear head protection if biking on base, so I wore a matching white hard hat en route to meetings, and kept my notebook in the basket. Before getting the bicycle, I was constantly scrambling to find a ride to meetings in the far reaches of the base, too unimportant to reserve a Tata or gator for myself. This lack of reliable transportation spectacularly failed me on one occasion. The major (of course) who had promised me a lift from CLB-1’s headquarters to a weekly logistics meeting didn’t show. I can’t remember how I ended up getting there, but I rushed into the conference room 10 minutes late and only after flopping into one of the chairs along the wall realized the faces seated around the long, rectangular table were not my usual associates but instead all of the commanders, a crowd of Colonels deferentially looking towards the 1-star General at the head of the table, whose back was to me when I huffed into the room. My battalion commander, who had previously expressed his displeasure at my informality when dealing with superior officers, stared at me wide-eyed and mortified at my surprise appearance at this O-5 and above discussion. I saw myself out of the room, learning afterwards I’d been left off the email rescheduling the logistics meeting.

Anyway, in the last few weeks of the deployment, one of the on-base tasks to prepare for the closure was to collect all the bicycles and dump them at the landfill. One morning I awoke to find my beloved bike taken. I indignantly headed to the landfill with 2 friends in futile hopes of recovering it. “Landfill” is a bit of a misnomer, as the trash was left directly on the ground, my bike luckily laying at the base of the newest heap near the entrance, basket intact. About the size of a soccer field, it was haphazardly piled with building materials, paper, plastic furniture from Marines’ barracks, canvas linings from tents and hesco barriers, untouched crates of food, bicycles, garbage from the dining facilities, and more of those ubiquitous water bottles. It being on the periphery of the base, it was a security vulnerability as Afghans from the local area would attempt to sneak over the dirt embankments to salvage the useful items out in the open. They did the same with the on-base ranges, in the hopes of collecting the brass for scrap.

The author after recovering her bike from the landfill.

*

Upon arrival in-country, every Marine was subjected to a series of briefs in stifling, airless tents. Jetlagged and unacclimated to the heat, we struggled to stay awake on rows of backless benches while various Marines droned through Powerpoints about about handling classified material and base security, most of what they said drowned out by industrial fans roaring impotently. All I recall of this interminable afternoon was some Staff Sergeant yelling “there are people on this base who want to kill Americans” and to keep our wits about us accordingly. Of course there were people on the base who wanted to kill Americans. We hired them to do jobs for which military occupational specialties already exist, like food service and utilities. Local Afghans and TCNs drove buses around Leatherneck, served our meals, washed our laundry, and burned our trash. They cleaned the port-o-johns, septic tanks, and waste water tanks and emptied the collections in a stagnant stinking pond on the edge of base. TCNs were subcontracted out by companies like Sodexo and AECOM and kept in separate living areas of lower standards. One morning, particularly bored with my circumstances, my run took me to the section of base where the TCNs were quartered. A big stray dog nosed through the trash. There were no doors, only flaps, to the canvas tents that MPs had free reign to enter to search for cell phones. They could have potentially been used to detonate IEDs by the people on the base who wanted to kill Americans.

I can’t understand why, if we were so concerned about on-base security, these hazardous yet crucial jobs were subcontracted to people we could not trust. It was certainly not a funding issue. Why were multinational corporations with multi-billion dollar contracts allowed to farm out this work to Kenyans, Bangladeshis, Malaysians? An investigation into a 2012 Taliban attack on Bastion reported every interviewee expressed concerned about the insider threat posed by local and third country nationals employed on the base. On the walk back from my office to my sleeping quarters, I’d pass the walled compounds where other contractors resided, the ones from the United States pulling in six figures, often veterans themselves recycled back into the business of war through lucrative contracts for maintaining specialty equipment like the signal jammers on trucks, training Marines in counter-IED tactics, or setting up wifi where we slept. I’d catch glimpses through the walls of flat-screen televisions and occasional festive bonfires.

*

We were leaving Leatherneck and Marines were withdrawing from Regional Command Southwest. But we were leaving the base in the hands of the Afghan National Army to continue fighting the Taliban, who were watching, waiting for us to leave. There was no feeling of a mission being accomplished or some greater ideals served. It was widely understood the Taliban would ramp up their operations and take Leatherneck for themselves as soon as American and British forces departed. Locals who had allied with us feared for their lives once we departed. The offensive patrols outside the wire were routinely engaged in combat with the Taliban up until our withdrawal, but the last attack on the base entailed an inconsequential shipping container blown up by a rocket, in early summer before had CLB-1 arrived. Why destroy what you could use later? 

The equipment list we left the Afghans with reads farcical. ANA soldiers were hastily trained by US Marines on some functions like bulk fueling, but top officers expressed concern they’d be incapable of maintaining generators and heavy armored vehicles. We left them instead with the fleet of John Deere utility gators, outfitting them with the tactical equivalent of golf carts. We left them weight-lifting equipment and thousands of televisions, but we, world’s biggest arms exporter, left the ANA zero bullets. Despite leaving them desperately unprepared to face the Taliban, certain tasks which seemed futile and pointless were highly prioritised. The top supply officer for the joint command catalogued hundreds of desks and chairs in the remaining buildings, not a single one of which would have a computer. The ANA was left the landfill, wastewater pond, and leftover garbage we couldn’t incinerate in time, but each unit was assigned a several-acre plot of the base to police call. One afternoon, the staff officers and enlisted of CLB-1’s Operations Section left our jobs to walk for hours across a long-deserted tract of Leatherneck, all its buildings razed, trawling for whatever trash fit into standard black garbage bags.

Not everything we deemed the Afghans unable to manage could be burned, sold, shipped back to the United States, or discarded in the open landfill. One of CLB-1’s recurring missions was the disposal of live ammunition. The weather and sloppy storage had deteriorated its packaging to the point where repacking it to send back to the United States would have been cost prohibitive. Civilian contractors had been burning through the excess 800,000 pounds of ammo in pits on-base, but once they departed Leatherneck, the task fell to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Company attached to CLB-1. 

In three separate missions, CLB-1’s truck company convoyed under the concealment of darkness into the open desert, where EOD blew the ammo up. This is no campfire-sized situation. Armored vehicles and trucks that get single digit mileage to the gallon trundled out into the desert, forklifts and diggers in tow, where a huge security perimeter would be established, as locals would otherwise rush the site following the explosion to salvage the scrap. Each controlled detonation involved 7,000-11,000 pounds of explosives. Forklifts lowered pallets of it into a hole 15 feet deep and 30-40 feet across. The first controlled detonation startled me awake in the early morning hours. It shook the building and the boom rippled through the air from miles away. The truck platoon commander, another first lieutenant and one of my roommates, told me Afghans on motorbikes circled the oversized lumbering trucks with cellphones out. She was certain they were attempting to detonate IEDs but were thwarted by the signal jammers mounted in the trucks. What if one of those explosive-laden trucks had been blown up? Marines would have died for their country, taking out the trash.

*

The future operations I had been working on became current as B-Day approached. Leatherneck emptied of people, a deliberate creation of a ghost town. Laundry service, the post office, and refueling stations closed. The D-FACs closed and MREs were issued for the final two weeks. With the plan I had helped design now in execution mode, I found myself with ample free time. Waves of Marines were flying out daily to Kandahar, making the gators suddenly abundant. One late afternoon, two of my closest friends and I drove one out to a CVOT course built into the dirt of an abandoned plot of the base a couple miles from where the remaining population was concentrated. CVOT stands for Combat Vehicle Operator Training, a loop course featuring obstacles like sand and uneven roads across which drivers learn to negotiate hulking armored vehicles. Nearby stood a few cinderblock buildings with plastic corn stalks stuck in the sandy dirt, a fake village for units to practice tactics. The three of us raced through the course, the gator easily flying over the engineered bumps. The eeriness and exhilaration reminded me of when I was a teenager and snuck into a creepy local theme park that closed in the mid-80s after a mass shooting.

*

The plan for B-Day was briefed on several different occasions. One occurred in a hangar, where pairs of pilots holding aloft sticks with cut-outs of their aircraft slowly walked back and forth across a ring formed by gawking Marines as their sorties’ time and manifest was recited. 2,000 sorties were flown in the last 3 weeks leading up to B-Day, but there was still valuable equipment left behind, its removal deemed too expensive. I have no memory of this, but more than one colleague mentioned serviceable Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) either being burned or buried in the desert as their own Marines were left to conduct patrols in MRAPs in various states of disrepair. One hulking MRAP, 18 tons, nine feet tall, and with tires about half that height, costs about $1 million.

For the ground-side operations brief, each unit representative pointed with a broomstick on a dancefloor-sized map where his unit would be throughout each phase of the tactical withdrawal. The preparation for this briefing to the General was an operation in and of itself. Interacting with generals elicits in staff officers stage-mother like tendencies, in which every detail of the upcoming dog-and-pony show is fretted over, the staff officer acutely trying too hard, fussing over his subordinates’ uniforms and forcing laughs at the general’s attempts at humour. We had several rehearsals, one of which included, absurdly, a catered lunch in a windowless 2-story office building that cost $33 million and had never been used. This 64,000 square foot compound garnered headlines for its excess and pointlessness. Commanders on base neither wanted nor needed it and asked to cancel the would-be “Taj Mahal” of command and control centers three months after its funding was allocated. Yet there it was, and for one afternoon about 30 senior enlisted and officers had the overhead fluorescents turned on as we practiced handing the broomstick off and picked through trays of sandwiches ordered from the last open D-FAC. This monument to military industrial excess and contractor grift conjured more of the same feeling of teenaged exploration of abandoned places. Fully furnished offices created the same atmosphere of a place abruptly left, but in this case none of the dusty rolling chairs, desks, or blank whiteboards had ever been used. This building, nestled in concrete barriers and surrounded by a tall perimeter of chain-link fence topped with concertina wire was not torn down. It was a gift to the ANA capable of holding 1,000 people but bereft of any useful command and control infrastructure, and incompatible with the Afghan electrical system.  A couple of my fellow lieutenants and I started wandering the first floor of offices, but couldn’t venture far down the long hallways without headlamps. I remember one of us, peering into a darkened cubicle farm, incredulous: “what the fuck is this place?” 

*

The final days were a meticulously choreographed tactical withdrawal, demanding down-to-the-minute planning to logically order the endless sorties shuttling equipment and its corresponding people to Kandahar. Concurrent to this stream of C-130s cycling between the 2 bases was the falling back of Marines from guard posts and disassembly of security systems. As Leatherneck’s population dwindled, the surveillance blimp was taken down and replaced with an unconvincing decoy that became untethered shortly after its launch. The base’s hospital was disassembled; any last casualties would be treated in Kandahar. While all of this was going on, flights of journalists descended onto the base to photograph and wax poetic on “the last Marines in Afghanistan” (which has proven to be wildly untrue) and enjoy an extravagantly catered meal flown in from Kandahar after the ceremony retiring the British and American colors. The whole production was inane and self-indulgent. What were we leaving behind? A woefully unprepared ally we were washing our hands of after 13 unproductive years. Top ANA leadership was at the ceremony, but hadn’t been invited to the actual operations brief for B-Day, in which their soldiers were to assume guard posts as Brits and Americans left them to amass at the airfield. This ceremony, the photo opportunities for journalists, and the flown-in feast consumed a not-insignificant portion of some final logistics meetings. More than one major stressed about cold desserts spoiling en route.

The author leaving Leatherneck (right). REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

I was one of the last 1,000 Marines on base and flew to Kandahar on 26 October. Kandahar was the Army’s enterprise, and still in the full swing of war. Whereas Leatherneck was built in the middle of nowhere, Kandahar is an existing Afghan city, and the abutting Army base was nothing short of a garrison metropolis. With our mission complete, my friends I passed the days there playing beach volleyball, eating take-out pizza, and marvelling with disgust at soldiers roller skating in a rink surrounded by kitschy shops. 

*

My 4 months on Camp Leatherneck gave a glimpse into how the United States goes about the business of war. Not what we see mythologised in cinema-I never fired my weapon or rode in convoys, and I felt more tangibly threatened by the men on base than the Taliban. However, my made-up job of A-FOPSO exposed me to how the strategic-level machinations of war mirror domestic American consumption, disregard for immigrants, environmental havoc, and corporate profiteering. It is, as my grandfather said, mind-bendingly wasteful. The American military squanders the taxpayers’ dollars, environmental resources, the civilian lives of whatever country we have invaded with arrogant abandon. The argument that a combat zone is not the appropriate venue to care about consumption falls flat when it is the same entitled wastefulness warping our climate and inciting more violence globally. The United States cannot earnestly claim we start wars in the name of peace, freedom, or democracy when the very instruments used to wage it cause disputes over precious resources. The average American is divorced from and disinterested in the realities of military service. We prefer hollow platitudes like “support the troops” and “thank you for your service” rather than know what’s going on in our multiple, simultaneous moneypits of war. However, a civilian transplanted onto a base like Leatherneck would recognise many of the trappings of typical American overconsumption that demands on-going exploitation of servicewomen and men and foreign resources and people. 

What about those foreign people? Do the civilians of the nation invaded and occupied for a generation not warrant our sympathy, or even our curiosity at what suffering we have perpetrated under the unbelievable premise of democracy and American domestic security? Here I write of taxpayer money pissed away and gross overconsumption of the United States military, but this logistical waste was just background noise to the two-decade bombing and massacre of a country we have effectively abandoned. We can quit wars at our convenience when the American public no longer finds them palatable and the ruling class justifies moving the violence elsewhere, drawing up trillions’ worth of new contracts for more weapons, vehicles, planes, ships, and equipment. The military-industrial complex gets richer and we forget about maimed children, dead parents, and destroyed society in our wake, if it’s even possible to forget something that was never on our minds anyway.

*

In 2011, I emailed my cousin Daniel, a Marine veteran and anti-war activist, to ask him to be my first salute in the ceremony commissioning me as a second lieutenant. We had corresponded via letters when he was deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s. He declined, and explained how by joining the Marines I was becoming a cog in a system: “whatever your specific role will be within the institution, you will find yourself unable to separate yourself from the worst of what goes on.” He continued:

We can reasonably say that the character of the military, as a singular entity, is such that human rights abuses are frequently committed, that they are furthermore the predictable result of policies and protocols (indeed predicted prior to operations’ start), and that as evidence of abuses arise, the evidence is suppressed, when it cannot be suppressed it is as a matter of course denied, blame is shifted, feeble justifications offered, or the incident is paid no attention at all. It is reasonable to infer that the safety of civilians is not a high priority (a violation of international law) in spite of the widely understood problem that “collateral damage” fans the flames of anti-U.S. hatred (wouldn’t you be pissed?). It may be that flame-fanning is an important part of the enterprise of war-making: ensuring people remain angry so the wars remain necessary, the stream of customers for military campaigns keeps steady, and the war business can therefore stay in business. It is easy to drift into speculation here, but the peculiar phenomenon does require some explanation, after all. The fact of these ongoing campaigns being illegal and causing inestimable harm apparently bothers our civil and military leadership not in the least, and the rank and file servicemen beneath them, having no choice, follow along, do their part, and so make possible the whole horrible ghoulish enterprise. I said they have no choice; it’s not entirely true. Their only choice is to refuse cooperation and deal with the consequences, which, I will admit, are probably no fun at all.

*

The headquarters buildings, the one I went to personnel meetings about the phasing out of contractors and troops, was a plywood compound that branched off into multiple windowless wings. Its official entryway was filled with rows of framed portraits of every killed Marine in the operating area of Regional Command-Southwest. Most of the Marines were memorialized with the standard photo from boot camp. The walls were tiled with recruits in slick dress blues, young and shaved. Squarely facing the camera, they stared at the camera solemnly, if not a little bewildered, in front of a backdrop of the Marine Corps and American flags. Regardless of when they were blown up or shot, these pictures rendered the Marines forever 18 years old. We knowingly left the ANA piteously ill-equipped and set up to fail, begging the question what the point of any of these Marines’ deaths were. What are we still doing there, 18 years after invading? 

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