By Sebastian Junger
Excerpt from “WAR”
The Black Hawk gunners bang out half a dozen rounds into the stone hillsides to clear their guns and we bank so hard that I can practically look out the bay door straight down to the ground below. Two Apaches trail us a quarter mile back, low-slung with weaponry and prowling from side to side like huge dark wasps. Neat green fields slide by a 1,000 feet beneath us, and here and there I can see men bathing in the river or washing pickup trucks that they’ve driven into the shallows like workhorses. One farmer waves at us as we pass by, which surprises me until I realize that maybe he’s just trying to keep from getting shot. I waved at an Apache once; I was by myself on a hillside above the KOP (Korengal Outpost) and since I was not dressed like a soldier I was worried what this might look like from the air. The pilot had come down for a closer look and I thought I’d seen the .30 mm chain gun under the nose swing in my direction. It may have all been my imagination, but it was not a nice feeling.
We pass the American base at Asadabad and swing west up the Pech River. We’re flying at ridgetop level and the valley has narrowed so that I can look straight out at Afghanistan’s terrible geology. Everything is rock and falls off so steeply that even if you survived the crash, your helicopter would just keep bouncing downhill until it reached the valley floor. Soldiers, as far as I can tell, don’t think about such things. I’ve seen them fall asleep on Chinooks like they’re on the Greyhound coming back from an all-nighter at Atlantic City. They don’t even wake up when the helicopter gets spiked downward by the convection cells above the valleys.
We climb over a ridgeline, the rotors laboring like jackhammers, and then drop into the Korengal. From the air the KOP looks smaller than I remember and more vulnerable, a scattering of Hescos clinging to a hillside with camo net strung between some of them and a landing zone that looks way too small to land on. Red smoke is streaming off the ground, which means the KOP is taking fire, and we get off the bird fast and run for cover behind the Hescos. I find [Captain Dan] Kearney in the command center looking tired and 10 years older than two months ago. He says that as bad as things had been earlier in the summer, they’ve fallen off a cliff since then. Last week Battle Company got into 13 firefights in one day. Eighty percent of the combat for the entire brigade is now happening in the Korengal Valley. After firefights, the outposts are ankle-deep in used brass. Restrepo was killed and Padilla lost his arm and Loza got hit in the shoulder and a Kellogg, Brown, and Root contract worker was shot in the leg while taking a nap in his tent. “We built another outpost, though,” Kearney says. “We named it Restrepo, after Doc Restrepo who was killed. It gets hit all the time, but it’s taken the heat off Phoenix. The whole battle has shifted south.”
In the dead of night a week earlier, Third Platoon walked up the spur above Table Rock and started digging. Second Platoon went as well to protect them. They set-up fighting positions west of the new outpost and on the hillside above it and then all night long listened to the dink, dink, dink of pickaxes hitting shelf rock. Third Platoon was desperately digging in so that when dawn came they’d have some cover. The new outpost was on top of a position the enemy had used for months to shoot down into Firebase Phoenix and there were still piles of brass up there from their weapons. ([Specialist Misha] Pemble-Belkin found a round that had misfired and carried it for the rest of the deployment. He considered it good luck on the theory that, had it actually fired, it might have been the bullet that killed him.) From that hilltop the Americans controlled most of the high ground around Phoenix and the KOP, which meant that those bases could no longer be attacked effectively. It was, as Kearney told me, a huge middle finger pointed at the Taliban fighters in the valley.
Dawn brought fusillades of grenades and wave after wave of machine-gun fire. Third Platoon hacked away at the mountain and shoveled the results into sandbags that they could then pile up around them to provide more cover. The Taliban attacked every hour or so from every position they had all day long. The men of Third Platoon worked until the next firefight, rested while firing back, and then resumed work once it quieted down again. Second Platoon shot through so much ammunition that the guns started to jam. “Once I was shooting and I look over and bullets are ******* pinging all around Monroe and he’s not firing,” [Sergeant Brendan] O’Byrne remembered. “I’m like, ‘What the *, Monroe, get the **** SAW ****** firing, why the **** aren’t you firing?’ ”
Monroe shouted that the weapon had jammed and then he methodically started taking it apart. Bullets were smacking the dirt all around him, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. He wiped the weapon down and oiled it and reassembled it, and when he was done he slid an ammo belt into the feed tray and started returning fire.
After the initial build-out, Third Platoon walked back down to the KOP and Second Platoon took over. Temperatures were over 100 degrees and the men worked in full combat gear because they never knew when they were going to get hit. Some men swung pickaxes to break up the rock and other men shoveled the rubble into ammo cans and still others hoisted the cans over their heads and dumped them into an empty Hesco. Hescos are wire baskets with a moleskin lining that the U.S. military uses to build bases in remote areas. They measure eight feet cubed and can contain roughly 25 tons of rock or sand. It would take the men of Second Platoon an entire day to fill one to the top, and the plans called for 30 or so Hescos laid out in the shape of a big fishhook facing the enemy. Every time they filled a Hesco their world got a little bigger and every time they got into a firefight they realized where the next Hesco should go. They used plywood and sandbags to build a bunker for the .50 cal and arranged their cots against the southern wall because that was the only place that couldn’t get hit. When it rained they stretched tarps over the cots or just got wet and when it was sunny they crouched in the coolness of the .50 cal pit smoking cigarettes and telling their endless grim soldier jokes.
I once asked O’Byrne to describe himself as he was then.
“Numb,” he said. “Wasn’t scared, wasn’t happy, just ******* numb. Kept to myself, did what I had to do. It was a very weird, detached feeling those first few months.”
“You weren’t scared of dying?”
“No, I was too numb. I never let my brain go there. There were these boundaries in my brain, and I just never let myself go to that spot.”
I walk out to Restrepo a couple of weeks after the outpost was started, climbing two hours up the hill with Captain Kearney and a guy from headquarters who keeps throwing up because he’s not used to the heat. One soldier bets another $25 that we’ll get hit with machine-gun fire on the last stretch before the outpost, which is wide open to Taliban positions to the south. We take that part one by one at a sprint and the guy loses his bet. Restrepo sits on a ridge and rides up the mountainside like a freighter on a huge wave, the bow in the air and the stern, filled with the bunkers and communications gear, sitting heavily in the trough. There is a wall of Hescos facing south and a burn-******* enclosed by a supply-drop parachute and pallets of bottled water and MREs, and of course, stacks and stacks of ammunition: Javelin rockets and hand grenades and 203s and cases of linked rounds for the .50 and the 240 and the SAW (squad automatic weapon). It seemed like there was enough ammo at Restrepo to keep every weapon rocking for an hour straight until the barrels have melted and the weapons have jammed and the men are deaf and every tree in the valley has been chopped down with lead.
When we arrive the men of Second Platoon are sitting on their cots behind the Hescos smoking cigarettes and slitting open pouches of MREs. There is no electricity at Restrepo, no running water, and no hot food, and the men will be up here for most of the next year. Propped above them is a plywood cutout of a man that Second Platoon uses to draw fire. The cutout is eight feet tall, big enough to see from across the valley. The talk turns to an American base called Ranch House. Two weeks ago—right around the time Second Platoon was building Restrepo – 80 Taliban snipped the wires to the Claymores around the position, overran three guardposts, and were inside the wire practically before anyone knew what was happening. A platoon of Chosen Company soldiers [10th Mountain Division] was manning the base, and they’d gone through the first three months without getting into a single major firefight. They came spilling out of their hooches in their underwear throwing hand grenades and trying to put on their body armor. The Taliban were so close that the platoon mortarman had to shoot nearly straight up into the air to hit them; at one point he thought he’d miscalculated and mortared himself. A badly wounded specialist named Deloria found himself unarmed behind enemy lines and picked up a rock so that he could die fighting.
Video shot by a Taliban cameraman during the battle shows heavily armed fighters walking around the base as calmly as if they were organizing a game of cricket. The A-10s finally showed up and the platoon leader asked for a gun run straight through the base, but the pilots balked. “You might as well because we’re all going to die anyway” – or something to that effect – the lieutenant yelled into the radio. The gun runs saved the base, but half the 20 American defenders were wounded in the fight, and the command started discussing how fast they could close the base down without having it look like a retreat. Word quickly got around that not only was the enemy unafraid to fight up close, they were willing to absorb enormous casualties in order to overrun an American position. There are small bases like Ranch House all over Afghanistan – they’re a cornerstone of the American strategy of engaging with the populace – but most of them are manned by only a couple of squads. Tactically speaking, that is not an insurmountable obstacle to a Taliban commander who has 100 men and is willing to lose half of them taking an American position. Restrepo was the most vulnerable base in the most hotly contested valley of the entire American sector. It seemed almost inevitable that, sooner or later, the enemy was going to make a serious try for it.
-Sebastian Junger is the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont, and Fire. As a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and as a contributor to ABC News, he has covered major international news stories in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
For the last decade, Junger has been traveling to the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, most recently embedded with the United States Army’s 2nd Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Reporting on the war from the soldiers’ perspective, Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington spent more than six months behind enemy lines at a remote Korengal Valley outpost and experienced firsthand the physical and emotional struggles of fighting in one of the deadliest regions of the world.
Junger’s time in the Korengal is also the subject of the New York Times best-selling book, WAR, and the documentary feature film Restrepo, which Junger directed with award-winning photographer Tim Hetherington. Restrepo, which won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, was released theatrically as a National Geographic Entertainment presentation of an Outpost Films Production in June, and will have its worldwide television premiere on the National Geographic Channel this fall.
Junger lives in New York City and on Cape Cod.
Excerpt from the book WAR Copyright © 2010 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group, New York, New York. All rights reserved.