Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Hearts and Minds
Hearts and Minds
I had a chance meeting with a young soldier home from Afghanistan for R&R with his family in Brenham, Texas. He gave me something. Something I very much needed to understand. He gave me a clear picture of what is happening in this war on terror. But he described the mission in very different terms than what I typically hear on CNN, Fox News, or the conventional networks.
He lives on the side of a mountain in northern Afghanistan. As an Infantryman and scout attached to an engineering company, he is in harm’s way every moment of every single day. Yet he describes their mission as “hearts and minds”. He said when he first heard General Petraeus frame the war in these terms, he thought it was ludicrous. But over time, he’s begun to understand the wisdom of this effort. This is an ancient land, with a history, culture, and landscape that we will never fully appreciate. There are over 13 dialects spoken in Afganistan, and they’re difficult to learn and discern. So this soldier travels with interpreters throughout the day, and on missions that last for months at a time. He wears armor under his civilian clothes, has grown a beard to his belly and hair down his neck. For the past 45 days he’s been in a remote location, guarding and protecting his unit from the enemy while they build a bridge for the Afghani people. At every farm and homestead, his job is to find out what support is needed to prevent that family from getting their needs met through the twisted tactics of the Taliban. Coerced to be loyal to the Taliban by threats of poisoned food and wellwater as well as genocide, Afghani families are asked by these interpreters to allow the Afghani National Army to meet their needs instead. They’re told that the “good guys” will create a freshwater well, help them find food, protect their livelihood, in exchange for information about where the Taliban is headed. Behind these promises and pledges of support from the Afghani National Army is the U.S. military, ready and able to instruct the good guys and provide the resources needed for wells, crops, safety, and shelter.
He tells me how skewed the news is; how little we hear about what’s really going on. He tries not to watch the news anymore as it creates cynicism and discouragement when what is happening on the ground is more hopeful; progress is being made.
We talked about the danger he faces as he travels and his eyes narrow, his expression changing in subtle ways. I see him wince, ever so slightly. I know that he has seen too much. He describes the burden of dealing with primitive warfare tactics. This young soldier describes the incidence of IED’s as declining due to the military’s additional armor and detection devices yet the use of homemade explosives (HME’s) is on the rise. With fewer resources at their disposal, the Taliban is using nitrogen and other agricultural chemicals that are readily available outside military supply sources to craft primitive HME’s. He asks me to forgive his language, but says all soldiers view the Taliban as “chicken-shit.”
He said one of the tactics used by the Taliban is the exploitation of children. The enemy will implant an HME on the side of the road, then send a young child out to the road to throw rocks when the military approaches. While soldiers might be led to believe in the child’s innocence, it’s anything but. The child’s rock triggers a trip wire daisy-chained to an HME, and the explosion ignites. How do you destroy a child throwing rocks at you? War requires something of our soldiers that few can even discuss. What name do you give such horror?
Then my new friend frames what I think is the most interesting thing I will learn today about this war: the battle being waged is not so much about the one on the ground, it’s the one in the soul- a battle to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people. By developing national pride, patriotism, and belief in their ability to self-govern, the American military is empowering the Afghani people to win their own war. The military’s interpreters ask the Afghani people to defect from the coercion of the Taliban, promising a level of protection that is far better for nation-building. He tells me the interpreters are naturalized U.S. citizens who’ve volunteered to return to their homeland to help their compatriots regain their country. He tells me they’ll never be able to divulge their identities, as it would be lethal to their survival, as well as the safety and well-being of their families in the U.S. But as surely as American soldiers are fighting for “hearts and minds”, these Afghani brothers are as well.
The soldier I’m talking with is soft-spoken, polite. He has three combat tours of duty under his belt. He is 25 years old. This fact slays me. Like so many Americans before him, he was a combat soldier and a teenager at the same time. He’s been in Afghanistan for eight months, with four more to go. I pray that as he returns to a land that he’s learned to respect, he will be as safe from harm as possible, given the environment that he’s in. He’s spent a quick R&R with his parents, sharing precious time with his family before he returns to the front lines. One of his plans during leave is skydiving. While the adrenaline rush is real, he has a higher purpose. When he returns from this tour of duty, he’ll begin the process of selection, hoping to be chosen as a candidate for Special Forces training. He tells me “De Opresso Libre”, which all Green Berets recognize as a call to arms to liberate the oppressed. He gives me the titles of a couple of books he wants me to read, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan and Chosen Soldier. He tells me, “I’m kind of a nerd; I like to read.” I tell him that I’m a librarian, so those words are music to my ears. In just a couple of short hours, I’ve come to care very deeply about this young man’s “heart and mind” and I have a new appreciation for the role of our military in this war. I ask God for mercy on this young man, and all of our soldiers, who are so willing and able to pay the high price for freedom that we take for granted every day.