By Steve Mumford
War artist Steve Mumford shares a dispatch from Afghanistan.
View of Camp Dwyer
Lance Corporal Benjamin Creely
A Call to Allah
Camp Coutu, Marja
Marines of Lima Co.
Navy Corpsman Justin Foxworthy
In late June, a “Reintroduction Shura” takes place at Camp Hanson, the forward operating base for the 3/6 Marines.
Perhaps 200 tribal elders arrive to reclaim some prisoners who’d been captured by the Marines. Seven are handed over with assurances from the elders that they won’t take up arms against coalition or Afghan forces in the future. One made a tearful speech: “May Allah take away my sight if ever I wish to fight the Marines!”
An AK47 is symbolically passed around to signify the laying down of arms.
No one I talk to among the Marines or the reporters has any idea if this is real or pure theater.
The next day I hitch a ride to Camp Coutu on a convoy bringing supplies to the outlying bases.
A Staff Sergeant gives an energetic briefing before we leave Hanson. Roadside bombs are a constant danger here. “We’re gonna be traveling slow this morning — I’m taking my time. No one’s in a hurry to get here; no one’s gonna tell me to be in a hurry out there!”
He continues: “Canals — be careful! Remember that truck from the other company that slid into the water a couple weeks ago? Guys couldn’t get out — they drowned to death! Take it slow and smart. Don’t wind up with guys in dress blues showing up at your parents’ house to tell ‘em you got killed for a stupid reason. . . now let’s do this. This is awesome! I am motivated to be here!”
As I travel further out the bases get progressively smaller and more spartan. You shit in a plastic bag, designed to fit around a toilet seat; for a shower — if you must — you fill a can perched on 2 x 4s with bottled water heated from the 125 degree temperatures during the day.
This is an active combat zone, as dangerous as anything I experienced in Iraq. The Marines are taking a great gamble here, applying the counterinsurgency theory developed in Iraq, which calls for a soft hand, small bases with multiple patrols a day, mentoring an army of largely illiterate Afghans who’ve had little training, and adhering to very strict rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties. The Taliban understand and exploit these rules expertly, boldly scoping out bases and patrols, sauntering away from ambushes after hiding their weapons, knowing the Marines can’t fire on them no matter how obvious the association. At one small patrol base I visited a Marine was being investigated for shooting a dog. Had the dog really attacked him, or was there some frustration in his act? Has an army in combat ever been held to such account? And will it make any difference?