The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “LOSING OUR WAY: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America” by Bob Herbert from Chapter 4 “War and Its Aftermath” from page 66 and I quote:
“Every gun is made, every warship
launched, every rocket fired signifies, in themselves
final sense, a theft from those who hunger
and are not fed, those who are cold and are
—DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
“The heat. Lieutenant Dan Berschinski was used to intense summer weather, having grown up in a suburb of Atlanta. But the August heat in southern Afghanistan was something else again. It came with blast-furnace intensity. Daytime highs climbed well into the hundreds. The heat was a relentless, throbbing, shimmering presence, and the flaming sky over the sparsely settled desert landscape only heightened the feeling among American troops that Afghanistan was some grim, alien, hostile universe. Patrolling in that kind of heat in full combat gear, eighty or a hundred pounds of it, was beyond miserable. It could make a GI’s legs go weak. It could disorient you, defeat you as surely as the enemy could. One of Lieutenant Berschinski’s long list of duties as an infantry platoon leader in the summer of 2009 was to protect his men from the heat.
Berschinski was new to combat. Just twenty-four years old and a recent graduate of West Point, he had not had time to acquire the cynicism that developed like a permanent case of indigestion in so many veterans of repeated tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was in the first month of his first tour, and there was an unmistakable earnestness about him, the talented rookie just called up to the majors.
The weather was on his mind on Tuesday, the eighteenth, as his unit was gearing up for a reconnaissance mission in the Arghandab River valley, a bleak rural area in Kandahar Province north of the Taliban stronghold in the city of Kandahar.
“Water consumption was a big problem,” he would say later, during a period when he had to come to terms with what had happened that day. “You combine those extreme temperatures with the load that soldiers now carry, and you could only move about three or four kilometers before you were totally dry, completely out of water. Trucks would have to drive in a resupply before you could go any farther. So not only did you have to worry about bombs and bullets, but you had to monitor your soldiers because if a guy went down from heatstroke, that could be a huge problem—you know, getting him evacuated and all. Guys were literally just frying their brains in that heat.”
The news coming out of Afghanistan when Berschinski arrived in Kandahar Province was all bad. Soldiers and marines were dying at a higher rate than at any previous time in the long war. Commanders were telling the new American president, Barack Obama, that they didn’t have enough troops to successfully complete their mission and didn’t know if the war could be won even if more troops were poured in. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen, when asked publicly to assess the situation, was blunt. “It is serious and it is deteriorating,” he said. Polls showed that Americans, struggling with terrible economic conditions at home, were tired of the war and cared little about it. The big story in the United States was the death several weeks earlier of the singer Michael Jackson. The war in far-off Afghanistan seemed more and more like a lost cause. Pundits were openly asking if it was becoming Obama’s Vietnam.
If the war was out of sight and out of mind for most Americans, it was absolutely everything to the three dozen or so men in Berschinski’s platoon. Their focus was as narrow as a steel blade. They were about killing the enemy and surviving to go home from a dangerous hellhole. The war’s problems were especially acute in the southern part of the country where they were deployed. Maddeningly elusive Taliban insurgents were attacking towns and villages with all manner of homemade explosives, keeping the American forces off guard and tormenting the local populations. Dan’s job that Tuesday was to take his platoon into a small town near the west bank of the Arghandab River, have his men dismount from their $3 million Stryker armored vehicles, and then lead a contingent on foot into orchards that were behind the town and irrigated by the river. The idea was to learn whatever they could about Taliban forces that would hide out in the orchards in the daytime, concealed by the canopy of trees from U.S. helicopters flying overhead. At night the Taliban would creep back into the town.
Berchinski’s men, some of them as young as eighteen, were still getting used to this soft-spoken, unassuming lieutenant who didn’t look much older than a high school kid himself. He wasn’t very big, about five nine, 160 pounds. But they were learning that he was fiercely intelligent, athletic, tough, and a good guy once you got to know him. He’d only been in the war zone a month, assigned to the First Battalion of the Seventeenth Infantry Regiment, which was part of a huge Stryker brigade. The Stryker units were lightly armored and highly mobile. Berschinski was the leader of the Second Platoon in Bravo Company.
Berchinski and his men knew from intelligence reports that members of the Taliban were in the orchards, but they didn’t know much else. No one had actually seen them. He had maps that showed a rough system of paths and trails inside the orchards, but basically the soldiers were walking into the unknown. Officers higher up the chain of command wanted to know more about the Taliban. How many were there? Where were they? Combat missions could be maddeningly vague. “Our mission overall,” said Berschinski, “was simply to move into a new area, gather intelligence, and start making connections with the local populations. What did they need? Did they have schools? Stuff like that.”
In mid-afternoon, with the sun blazing, the men started the complicated process of pulling on and hooking up their heavy combat gear. Nerves are always on edge at the start of a patrol, and there was not a lot of talking as the men worked their way into their moisture-wicking T-shirts and body armor, their camouflage shirts and trousers, their combat boots, and the helmets with the mount for night-vision goggles. The goggles themselves were carried in a pouch. Each man had an M4 carbine, and Dan carried six spare magazines loaded with twenty-nine rounds each. He also carried a smoke grenade, a first aid kit, a compass, a six-blade knife, a Global Positioning System similar to those used by civilian hikers, and a CamelBack canteen.
Berschinski had already been on several patrols through towns and farmland scattered along the river. It was hostile terrain and Second Platoon had been hit with roadside bombs nearly every time. The expectation as the men mounted the Strykers around three in the afternoon and began the drive toward town was that this patrol would not be any different. A violent encounter of some sort was anticipated. The plan was for Second Platoon to enter the orchards from the north and move south. Bravo Company’s Third Platoon would head into the orchards from the south, and they would end up eventually in roughly the same area.
Things did not go well. Third Platoon was about five hundred yards down a trail into the trees when there was an explosion. Berschinski and his men heard the blast and saw smoke rising on the horizon. A feeling of dread swept over them. The young lieutenant received emergency orders by radio for his men to link up as quickly as possible with Third Platoon, which had been hit with an IED and was taking small-arms fire. One of their soldiers was missing.
Combat is almost always surreal. Despite the wonders of twenty-first-century weapons and communications, what unfolded that afternoon seemed almost primitive: young men with deadly weapons hurrying along dirt paths, through fruit trees, trying to reach comrades being attacked on a hot summer afternoon by other young men with deadly weapons. Berschinski’s men came to a small wooden footbridge, about two meters long, maybe a meter wide, that crossed an irrigation canal. Berschinski sent one team across with its squad leader and watched them move on down the trail. Berschinski followed, along with his radio telephone operator. He had gotten about three meters beyond the bridge when the explosion occurred. It was an enormous sound that shook the afternoon. Men went flying. Berschinski was sent sprawling and for a brief moment lay stunned on the ground. Then he began crawling in the dirt and debris, calling out the names of his men, taking inventory. One after another responded. Most seemed okay. But when he called the name of Jonathan Yanney, a twenty-year-old private first class from Litchfield, Minnesota, there was no answer. Yanney was the only one of the bridge when the bomb went off. There was no bridge left, just a huge crater. And Yanney was nowhere to be found.
Stunned and still shaken, their ears still ringing from the sound of the blast, the men searched literally high and low for any sign of their comrade. Berschinski jumped into the crater. Others checked the flood walls that protected the orchards. The antenna from the radio Yanney had been carrying was spotted in a tree. Other bits and pieces of equipment were found—parts of a rifle, a battered helmet and a boot. No Yanney. The men pushed deeper into the orchards, still looking. An order came in by radio to halt the search and link up with Third Platoon, which by then had been evacuated from the site of its encounter with the Taliban. Bercschinski ordered his men off the trails, hoping to avoid contact with any more bombs. They trudged with their heavy packs through muddy fields, exhausted now, frightened and over heated, and filled with sorrow and anger over the loss of Yanney.
It’s hard to make sense of these tragic encounters in which healthy young people, not much older than children, are lost for reasons that, at best, remain obscure. This was not the landing at Normandy. It was a reconnaissance mission that came down the chain of command without being well thought out. Just head into those orchards, guys, and see what you find. Maybe it’ll be something interesting. Now two lives were lost and the GIs were left to negotiate their way through Taliban-infested territory with no clear purpose, or even exact destination, in mind.
“By the time I linked up with the company commander, it was dusk,” Berschinski would say later. “I said,: ‘What’s going on?’ He said we were going to hold our position overnight and then search in the morning for the missing soldier from Third Platoon. I said we still didn’t have Yanney. I assumed he was dead, but we hadn’t found his body. He said we’d look for the other soldier first, his name was Troy Tom, and that we’d go get Yanney later.”
Troy Tom was a twenty-one-year-old specialist from Shiprock, New Mexico, a Navajo Indian whose middle name was Orion. He’d joined the military in part to get veteran’s benefits for college. The army would promote him posthumously to sergeant.
Berschinski’s platoon was assigned to an area in one of three compounds that the company had set up at the edge of a small town. The houses and trails inside the compounds had been cleared and supposedly secured. Berschinski settled his men in for the night and promised they would resume the search for Yanney the next day. The men tried to relax. Some smoked. They listened to sound coming in from the darkness outside and wondered where the Taliban was and how many insurgents there might be. Would they attack? Two or three hours passed and some of the men were dozing when Berschinski received a radio message ordering platoon leaders to assemble at the headquarters compound for a meeting with the company commander. It seemed odd, but he shrugged. Such is life in the military. Berschinski reached for his helmet, picked a soldier to accompany him, and headed outside. They walked past a guard and through a gate and about twenty yards down a trail to the other compound. The meeting was on the roof of a small building and did not last long. The platoon leaders got essentially the same message Berschinski had received informally ours earlier: they would remain in the compounds overnight and resume searching for the missing soldiers the next day. It wasn’t much of a meeting and Berschinski was ready to get some sleep. He and the other soldier, a private first class, began walking back to their quarters, Berschinski in front, the other soldier a few steps behind.
As they approached the gate, they were walking on a path that had been traversed by soldiers countless times over the previous few hours. Berschinski was about three steps from the gate when he gave out the challenge to alert the guard that he and the PFC were coming in. And then, suddenly, the explosion. The noise was deafening. There was a tremendous sense of pressure closing in on Berscshinski, and then he was lying on the ground, seemingly on a slant with his head lower than the rest of his body. He knew what had happened and assumed he was in the crater that tends to be left when an IED goes off. His helmet was askew and partially covered his eyes. He had trouble hearing. He knew something really terrible had happened, but he tried to keep his wits about him. He unbuckled the chin straps of the helmet and tossed it away. He tilted his eyes backward, not wanting to look down and see something shocking.
Later, the men who ran to assist him would tell him that he had screamed, “I need help! I need a medic! I have no legs!”
By 2014 nearly sixty-eight hundred American service men and women had been killed in the two wars, and tens of thousands more had been wounded. The military was trying to cope with an epidemic of mental problems—depression, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other ailments. Suicides were off the charts. With enlistees for the marathon wars in short supply, troops had been ordered to serve tour after tour in combat zones with precious little time to recuperate between deployments.
There was no way to minimize or finesse the financial cost of America’s obligation to care for those troops. The U.S. will be paying for them for decades.
The recklessness of the nation’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was underscored by the federal government’s willingness, even as the troops were pouring into harm’s way, to dramatically cut taxes and sharply increase nonessential domestic spending. It was a policy stance that was historically unprecedented and wildly irresponsible. As Robert D. Hormats wrote in his book The Price of Liberty: “By supporting and signing expensive spending and tax legislation, President George W. Bush broke with a tradition that had extended from Madison through Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and eventually Johnson and Reagan. All of them insisted on, or at least acquiesced in, wartime tax increases, cuts in civilian programs, and sometimes both, as they devoted more resources to the nation’s military requirements.”
Lyndon Johnson lost his war on poverty to the war in Vietnam. It didn’t matter that the economy was booming at the time. The idea that the country would go to war without giving any thought as to how the war would be paid for, and without engaging in some form of national sacrifice, would have been considered absurd. Johnson knew well what was at risk. He would later tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, “If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs . . . all my dreams.”
By 2003, Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful Republicans in the House of Representatives, was insisting, “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.”
(IF WE’RE EVER GOING TO END WAR, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO FIND PEACE BETWEEN THE JEWS AND THE ARABS WHICH EACH ARAB TRIBE HAS THEIR OWN COUNTRY AND RESPECTS THE JEWS TO HAVE THEIR OWN COUNTRY. BUT NOT THIS CONTINUOUS GREED, UP TO NOW, WITH JEWS WANTING MORE LAND AND WAR WITH ONE ANOTHER TO GET IT. IN THE END, UP TO NOW, NOBODY HAS WON. THERE HAS TO BE A DEMOCRACY ESTABLISHED WHERE THE LEADERS, WHO ARE MANY TIMES WEALTHIER STOP EXPLOITING THE 99% ,WHICH ARE CAUSING CIVIL WARS IN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. SO THE UNITED NATIONS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM OF THE LAND DISPUTES AND THE COUNTRIES OF THE DIFFERENT RELIGIONS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO SOLVE THEIR OWN DISPUTES OF WHY THEY CAN’T WORK EFFICIENTLY LIKE WE DO IN TH UNITED STATES WITH STATE GOVERNMENT WORKING WITH FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ,WORKING TOGETHER AS A DEMOCRACY WITH HONESTLY-RUN ELECTIONS.
LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members