Fort Story, 2002
The sand hill was called Loch Ness. It rose out of the Virginia coastal flats like the hump on that mythical dragon. Every conditioning hike at the Marine Corps Amphibious Reconnaissance School-known as ARS-ended with a sprint up Loch Ness. The instructors watched us closely, and if you stumbled or your rifle touched the sand like a crutch, they would push you down the hill and tell you to start again. Temperatures hovered in the nineties that summer. More than once I vomited in the sand. Most of us did. Years later, a friend of mine who graduated the course kept a glass Coke bottle filled with Loch Ness sand on the mantel above his fireplace. He said he kept it there as a reminder for when things in his own life got difficult. Written in black Sharpie on the bottle was the word Perspective.
Jack and I met at ARS not even a year after 9/11. The war was new then. No one understood how long it would last or where it would take us. We even worried we might miss it. I was a year from finishing college and had talked my way into attending the course, where we lived in a squat barracks atop the hill. Jack was about to take command of an elite force reconnaissance platoon. Every week or so, the instructors would give us a night or even a whole day off. We would drive into town in Jack's car, a beat-up, sand-brown Jeep Cherokee his parents had given him when he graduated college. Because I was only an ROTC midshipman and he was a commissioned officer-a first lieutenant-I called him sir. The Marine Corps is a funny place, the type of place where you call your friends sir.
Jack is a southerner, raised among the Blue Ridge Mountains. In college he minored in creative writing. He likes to talk about Faulkner and Walker Percy. He's a fan of the poet James L. Dickey. For years, Dickey worked in advertising. He wrote copy for Coca-Cola and Lay's potato chips while writing poetry after work. Later, Jack tells me something Dickey once said about writing poetry: "I was selling my soul to the devil all day and trying to buy it back at night." At ARS, Jack used to string a poncho around his bunk so he could read late into the night with a headlamp. He would keep his books stacked beneath his bed, alongside his combat boots. In Afghanistan, years later, guys would call him the American Pashtun. I think he liked this. He spent so much time in Afghanistan that the Musa Khel around Khost would eventually grant him tribal membership. Two decades ago, driving out the gate onto Route 60 toward Chili's or Applebee's, after days spent training in the Virginia woods, I remember the Steve Earle CD he would play. The album was 1995's Train a Comin' and the track was "Mercenary Song." It goes like this:
Me and old Bill there, we both come from Georgia
Met Hank out in New Mexico
We're bound for Durango to join Pancho Villa
We hear that he's paying in gold
I guess a man's got to do what he's best at
Ain't found nothing better so far
Been called mercenaries and men with no country
Just soldiers in search of a war
And we're bound for the border, we're soldiers of fortune
Well, we'll fight for no country, but we'll die for good pay
Under the flag of the greenback dollar
Or the peso down Mexico way
Neither one of us suspected our wars would go on for twenty years. That we would become like the professionals Steve Earle sang about. When the Taliban-led government refused to turn over Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and President Bush sent the first US combat troops into Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, it took only two months of fighting for the Taliban to collapse. The war-as we understood it then-had proven swift. The summer Jack and I met, the US-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was formed, and even though bin Laden had escaped, the media was debating whether the time had come to declare victory in Afghanistan. This triumphal air soon vanished.
Of the many fatal mistakes made in our Afghan tragedy, the Bush administration would soon make the first: it would begin the war in Iraq. Within a year, Jack would be in Iraq leading a platoon during the invasion. Within two years, I would also be in Iraq, leading a platoon in Fallujah. Afghanistan is the older war, but for both of us Iraq was our first war; we deployed there first because Bush had made Afghanistan a second-tier priority. As the Iraq War raged, the lack of US focus in Afghanistan set conditions for the Taliban to reconstitute in neighboring Pakistan. By 2005, a Taliban-led insurgency reestablished itself in Afghanistan. President Bush's fixation on Iraq allowed this. What neither of us knew as we suffered through training in 2002 was that the Bush administration was laying an architecture that would sustain twenty years of war.
To wage war, America has always had to create a social construct to sustain it, from the colonial militias and French aid in the Revolution, to the introduction of the draft and the first-ever income tax to fund the Civil War, to the war bonds and industrial mobilization of the Second World War. In the past, a blend of taxation and conscription meant it was difficult for us to sustain war beyond several years. Neither citizens nor citizen soldiers had much patience for commanders, or commanders in chief, who muddled along. Take, for example, Washington reading Thomas Paine's The American Crisis as a plea to his disbanding army before they famously crossed the Delaware ("These are the times that try men's souls . . ."), or Lincoln, whose perceived mismanagement of the Civil War made his defeat in the 1864 presidential election a foregone conclusion to many, until Atlanta fell to the Union two months before the vote. The history of American warfare-even the "good" wars-is a history of our leaders desperately trying to preserve the requisite national will because Americans would not abide a costly, protracted war. This is no longer true.
After 9/11, in the opening act of the wars that followed, the Bush administration engineered a new type of war, one that is ahistorical-and seemingly without end. Never before had America engaged in a protracted conflict with an all-volunteer military that was funded through deficit spending. By the end of the Afghan War, our national debt hovered at around $28 trillion, with approximately $6 trillion being the bill for our post-9/11 wars, by far America's longest. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was no serious public debate about a war tax or a draft. Our leaders responded to those attacks by mobilizing our government and military, but when it came to citizens, President Bush said, "I have urged our fellow Americans to go about their lives." And so, by the summer of 2002, as Jack and I were listening to "Mercenary Song," the war effort had already moved to the shopping mall.
For those who fight in a never-ending war, you must choose to leave it or to finish it. A decade in, when I made this choice, it nearly ended my friendship with Jack. And that night, in Rome, I wonder if he's forgiven me when I ask him for one last favor in Afghanistan.
The CIA base at Shkin is a satellite of Khost Base. The two are tucked into the high desert of the Hindu Kush. The CTPT that I advise in Shkin is several hundred troops strong. The CTPT at Khost is several thousand strong. For the past year, Jack has been riding a desk at Langley, having left the Marines for the CIA several years before. He oversees the schedule of who goes where in Afghanistan and when. He has taken good care of me and my career by placing me in Shkin. But his desk-riding is about to end. In a couple of months, he'll take over the mammoth task of overseeing what is-basically-a secret army at Khost Base. In preparation, he is flying in from the United States to get a measure of the place. When he takes over in a few weeks, I'm scheduled to be his deputy in Khost. I hop on a helicopter and fly an hour north from Shkin to meet him. The entire flight, I feel like I'm going to be sick, because I know that when I land, I am going to tell Jack that I'm not coming to Khost with him, that I'm leaving the war, that I'm done.
In the Marines, Jack was my big brother. Every place I served, he vouched for me. The summer after we'd met at ARS, I attended the Marine Corps Basic School in Quantico. When I arrived, Jack had already told his friends who were instructors that we'd gone to ARS together and that I would make a good infantry platoon commander. Later, at my first infantry battalion, he vouched for me with the staff noncommissioned officers, telling them that I was a solid, competent lieutenant. He did the same when I went to Marine special operations. When my formidable team sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Willy "Bare Knuckles" Parent III from South Boston, called Jack to ask whether I was "a piece of shit or a good dude" (because you were either one or the other in that community and nothing in between), Jack again vouched for me, and shortly thereafter Willy and I got on famously. And, lastly, when it came time to leave the Marines, to head to the CIA, he was already there, ready to place his reputation beside mine and vouch for me. He had hand-walked my application through Langley. Every time I thanked him, he would laugh it off, say it wasn't a big deal, that I was good at my job and so he wasn't doing me any favors. He would also say, "Someday we're gonna run this place."
And now we were about to run this place-or at least a corner of this place-by running Khost. But I was going to tell him that I wanted out, that I wanted a life outside these wars.
Again, I felt sick. Try as I might to rationalize it away, leaving the war meant betraying my best friend. It meant leaving him to fight on his own.
Every person who has fought in these wars and left them has had to declare the war over for themselves. Peace never arrived for us at a negotiating table or a surrender ceremony. There has been no single peace; rather, there have been tens of thousands of separate peace deals that each of us who walked away from the war had to negotiate with our own conscience. Like any peace deal, some have proven more lasting than others.
When I arrived in Khost that night, a raid was in progress outside the base. Because Jack would soon be taking over the unit, he'd tagged along as an observer. We kept odd hours back then. We'd wake up in the early afternoon. We'd go to sleep in the early morning. In the center of Khost Base was a little tiki bar, a Margaritaville transplant with a thatch roof and bamboo-legged stools. I perched on one of the stools and waited for the raid force to return. Not long after midnight, a convoy pulled into the motor pool. When the engines shut off, I could hear laughing and joking. Cleary, no one had gotten hurt. Maybe they'd even captured or killed their target. The Afghans left for their side of the base, and one by one the half dozen American advisers filtered past the bar, stripping off their body armor to reveal their sweat-stained uniforms.
I remained relatively new at the CIA. I'd met a couple of the other paramilitary officers at Khost before, but most I hadn't. Jack was quick to introduce me around. He was all jokes, recounting the particulars of the raid with the others-talking about who had jumped up on what roof, or had dipped around what corner, as they collectively chased their target down. Watching him, I could tell how much he'd missed this after his year at Langley. I could also tell how much he was looking forward to his time out here, running the vast CTPT in Khost, going out on raids like this almost every night. When he introduced me to the others, he said more than once, "Ack's gonna be deputy when I head out here."
Before too long, things at the bar wound down. One by one, everyone dispersed to their respective rooms for some sleep. That's when I asked Jack if he had a minute. There was something I needed to talk with him about.
"Can't it wait until morning, Ack? I'm beat."
I told him it couldn't.
The Colosseum, Rome, in the morning
I watch Kabul fall in my mother-in-law's kitchen, on a Sunday. I speak to Nick shortly thereafter. He tells me he's raising money to charter private flights out of Hamid Karzai International Airport, or HKIA. Do you have any ideas on how to raise half a million dollars in a hurry? . . . None come to mind. I ask how many flights he can get with all that money. Just one, he explains, an Airbus A320. How many does that carry? About 150, he says. I do the math, calculating dollars per seat-trying not to remind myself that the real calculation being made is dollars per life.
The calls keep coming in.
Another friend calls, a former Marine turned businessman. One of his investors, a wildly successful tech entrepreneur, has a desperate request. He's long sponsored the Afghan all-girls robotics team. He needs to get them out, whatever the cost. I put him in touch with Nick. The entrepreneur commits to funding half a flight. Other commitments soon follow. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone to a first A320. The money seems to flow from everywhere-from Eric Schmidt, from the Rockefeller Foundation; people want to help.
That Thursday afternoon, I leave on vacation with my family.
When I land Friday morning, the problems have piled up. The issue now isn't flights but access to the airport itself. No one can get inside. The Biden administration has ordered the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to secure HKIA. Which they've done, to great effect. The North Gate, the West Gate, the Abbey Gate, they're all closed. When Jack returns my call about our buses going through the Unnamed Gate that night, I'm standing in the Colosseum gift shop with my two sons, who both want the same toy gladiator souvenir, and there's only one left. They're arguing as I answer the phone.
Copyright © 2022 by Elliot Ackerman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.