The Last Journey

Article #24 “Some Say...”


26 August 2010, Camp Dwyer, Helmund province, Afghanistan

Thursday and still at camp Dwyer.  The air is clearing and some flights are on.  But there is a backlog.  More waiting.  More time to read and chat with folks.  More information.  More decisions about what to think about things.  It is the part I don't like to do.  Think.  Keeping things simple has always been my excuse for not having to think hard about many things.  It is a survival method for me of sorts developed over the course of many years now.  So many people ask me, “so what are you doing here and why?  Whom do you work for?  Where are you published?” and so on and so on.  Maybe twenty five years ago, when I thought I could make a living doing this, I would have tried hard to convince people that I was a real somebody working my way up the ladder with a camera and notebook.  But I learned in El Salvador in 1987 that I would never make a dime doing this, nor do I ever want to. This is the life of an historian, not a journalist. The only thing I wish I had done differently in this game was to have stayed with film and my old Pentax K-1000 camera.  I liked black and white photography a lot but it's been too long now.  I'm in the digital age.  But, I can still stay simple in my mind even in the midst of the most complex situation the world has to offer.  Some say Afghanistan is not for the faint of heart.  That may be so, but what I say is, it's definitely not for intellectuals who only want to spin a yarn about this or that just for the sake of hearing themselves talk. 


I've been reading lately some things by some folks who have done much more than I have done in this country.  One of them, Michael Yon, has much to say about the course of things here in Afghanistan.  I respect Michael's views on things and know that his work, both photographically and literary is very good and many know of his work.  I met him in El Paso, at Ft. Bliss, in April of 2008 when we were both invited by the commander of 2/7 Cav for their military ball and dinner.  Both Michael and I were embedded at one time or another with 2/7 Cav in Mosul, in years past.  Since then, Michael has spent a great deal of time in Afghanistan as an embedded reporter and managed this year to get himself thrown out of Afghanistan.  I do not know the circumstances but he did find himself, “dis embedded”.  That means, he probably said something in print about some circumstance that he perhaps should have thought twice about, or run the risk of having his credentials yanked.  It happened and serves as a reminder that treading lightly from time to time is a wise choice.  There is always more than one way to skin a cat. 


Michael Yon is by far the best in the game of combat journalism.  He has been in theater for over six years.  He has met with three and four star generals.   He has been to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has been under fire on more than one occasion. He has been to Mosul.  He has been to Helmund province. He was present during the surge in Iraq in 2007 and  has been present during the surge in Afghanistan in 2010.  He has a good following of contributors helping fund his trips.  Many like what he does.  I like and respect what he does.


In recent writings Michael Yon held back when asked whether or not we, the USA, would be successful in our current efforts here in Afghanistan.  In simple terms that means, “not sure yet”. 


Let's hold that thought for a while.


General James T. Conway, the CMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps) recently stated something rather profound regarding the Obama administration's announcing of a July 2011 time line for beginning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.  In short, General Conway, the highest ranking Marine currently in uniform, basically said that such an announcement gives the enemy a morale boost especially where Conway is most concerned, that being right here in Helmund province, where I happen to be.  This is also where the Marines are because this is where a big fight is on at the moment.  General Conway is set to retire in October of this year after 40-years of service in the USMC. 


Afghanistan has in recent months been in the spotlight for a variety of reasons.  Michael Yon gets dis embedded.  Former Army General Stanley McChrystal says a bit too much to a Rolling Stone reporter and the next thing we know, McChrystal resigns.  General Petreaus takes a step down and assumes full command of Afghanistan.  General Conway makes a statement pretty much bringing into question the President and Commander in Chief's current policy and strategy for Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is in the light.



Today I interviewed a young Army Captain who is in charge of five medevac helicopters and is attached to the USMC here at Camp Dwyer.  He told me some things about this deployment in relation to his previous deployment in Anbar province during the surge in Iraq in 2007.  He was at that time also attached to the USMC and flew medevac missions there as well.  What he told me about the differences was simply, “it's more kinetic here”.  (meaning Afghanistan)  That term, kinetic, means the bullets are flying more often.  I've been told on more than one occasion by members of both the Army and the Marines, throughout this country on this journey that, “this is not Iraq”.


When I first flew over this country I realized at a glance that the logistics would be nothing short of challenging to say the least.  I also realized that in the remote villages all across this land it would be more than difficult to win every heart and mind.  Nine years ago, next month, we were attacked by Osama bin Laden's network of people that were based somewhere throughout Afghanistan.  Most of us stateside had never really heard of Afghanistan prior to the attacks of 9/11.  Most probably did not know that we Americans spent a great deal of money in the 1960's building an intricate irrigation system throughout the Helmund province area creating a gigantic arable region for agriculture.   It also resulted in producing the largest supply of opium the world has ever seen.  Then, the Soviets invaded in December of 1979 and thanks to the late Charlie Wilson of Texas, we, the USA succeeded in pushing the Soviets out.  There are some that say perhaps it may have been better for us to have let the Soviets at that time deal with Afghanistan.  We may not have had the current problems we have today in Afghanistan.  That's a stretch, but, some say it. 


Everyone here wants to know who I work for and where do I publish.  I try to explain, “I'm an historian”.  Stateside, everyone wants to know, “how are we doing over there in Afghanistan?”  That really means, “when are we coming home?”  The highest ranking Marine currently in uniform does not want to tell the enemy when we are planning to come home.  Michael Yon says at the moment, “he's not sure how it's going to go.”  Now, that brings it to me, the little guy from New Mexico who has just arrived in Afghanistan for the first time, last month.  People want to know what I think, what I see, what I predict. 


Like Michael Yon, I've been coming to this theater since the first week in January 2004.  That's over six and a half years ago.  Like Michael Yon, I've been under fire more than once.  Like Michael Yon, I was embedded during the surge in Iraq with both Army and Marines in 2007.  Like Michael Yon, I've been embedded with Army and Marines in Afghanistan during the current surge of 2010.  Like Michael Yon, I've rubbed shoulders with three and four star generals.  I am  no Michael Yon. I do not have a large following of contributors.   He is a combat journalist.  I am not.  I am an historian who happens to operate these days in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.


I already realize that “I don't know so much”.  I learned in El Salvador during 1987, when I was 23-years-younger than I am now, that it may be best to “not know so much”.  It does not mean I'm not aware of things, it just means I don't know that much.  But...I  know a little.  And what I know I learn from the everyday Soldiers and Marines whom I meet in these war zones and have been deployed, once, twice, three times, even more to these war zones called Iraq and Afghanistan.  I am concerned about some things in this war, mostly how I can get from point A to point B a little quicker.  I think that one experience alone sheds a lot of light on the entire picture of things here in Afghanistan.  Whether it is more or less kinetic here or there, is irrelevant if a bullet or an IED has your name on it, whether you are in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else.  It's dangerous in these places.  That's a given. 


Michael Yon, perhaps the best in the combat journalism game does not want to say how it's going to go in the months and years ahead, yet.  General Conway, the highest ranking Marine currently in uniform does not want to say when we are planning on leaving.  My son is scheduled to come to Afghanistan next year on what will be his 6th deployment to this theater in his 10-year career. Looking at history, the smart money bet would tell me that dealing with this place called Afghanistan could perhaps take a very, very long time.  So far, we, the USA, put a lot of time and money and effort into this place long before the events of 9/11/2001.  Since those events, we've put a lot of   blood, sweat, tears and money into this place as well. 


Journalists say opinions.  Generals say strategy. 

Historians just say how it was and how it is, not how it's going or where it's going.  That would be way too hard.  Historians keep it simple.

Jim Spiri Last Journey