Afghanistan: The Futility Of War
By Sean Smith
30 July, 2010
Guardian film-maker and photographer Sean Smith has just spent five weeks in Afghanistan, first with a US helicopter ambulance crew, and then with the US marines. This is his astonishing diary of his time with special forces
At 8.30am I leave Kandahar US airbase on a flight with the Guardian Angels; these are specially trained US air force helicopter pilots who fly into combat areas to pick up the injured. Accompanying them are the "jumpers", the armed paramedics who will jump out and get the wounded – or the bodies. There's also a gunner who mans the machine guns as the helicopter lands.
They are working 12-hour shifts. Mostly they are watching movies, doing emails. Today there was a class on how to treat burns.
In the morning we pick up a US soldier who has been shot in the face and chest on patrol. We're hit by two rounds of gunfire shot through the underneath of the helicopter. To take out the helicopter when it comes in to pick up the wounded soldier – that's the real prize.
The injured guy was on the verge of passing out and couldn't move his face or say anything because his cheek had been shot away, and his airways were blocked. He survived. Later on, we pick up another soldier who had lost two legs and an arm. He made it too.
Pick up an Afghan lorry driver caught by an IED (improvised explosive device).
Pick up an Afghan soldier who has shot himself in the foot.
We are called out to a soldier who has stepped on a mine. We land, as there is no one shooting at us. He has lost an arm and a leg but still has a pulse. The medics are doing emergency resuscitation. We are only in the air five minutes and they are pumping and pumping and still going at him on the stretcher as he is taken off the copter. He doesn't make it.
I am at Camp Bastion with the British and am trying to fly to Nadi Ali. But the first flight is full. They get me on a Lynx helicopter later for Bastion, with the letters and parcels for the troops.
I'm in Dand district, near Kandahar city. I'm with the US army and we're supposed to go out at 8am to talk to locals, to do the hearts-and-minds stuff. The problem is that the Afghan national army who are with us don't speak Pashtun; they only speak Dari. So the Americans end up doing all the talking through a translator – which is missing the point of what we are supposed to be doing. The American medic passes out in the heat and is sick twice. It's over 50C.
Road-opening ceremony. It was in one of the little villages where they are paying Afghans to build roads. We drive off the tarmac in case of IEDs. When we get there, there are lots of young men standing around with brand-new blades and picks, paid for by the Americans. They have clearly never been used. There's no new road.
The governor has even come down from Kabul to make a speech. We only stay 15 minutes because the whole thing is rubbish. The lieutenant colonel is very angry.
Three soldiers are brought in today injured at a nearby deserted school by an IED. Even in this "stable" area all the schools are deserted. None of the kids is going to school. I leave for Kandahar base.
US air force special forces medics administer aid to a wounded soldier in Kandahar province. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
Kandahar air base is the main military operational hub for southern Afghanistan. There are thousands of French, Canadian, Italian, British, Romanians and Americans here. But it's clear the Americans are running the show. There's a big contrast between here and the smaller bases. Everyone is in clean uniform. There is a dress code; in some areas you have to salute, and others you don't – it's quite surreal. There is a German army shop here that's selling all sorts of expensive penknives, muscle-builders' magazines and combat clothing. There's Columbia outdoor clothing and chequered shirts for contractors. All the restaurants are awful; we are better catered for in the army canteen – except that every soup there, no matter what flavour, tastes of cream of chicken.
All the journalists here are starting to act like they want to be soldiers. They're talking about "L-shaped attacks" and speaking military speak. I hear one saying, "Right, now we're being drawn into L-shaped attacks, so they're planting IEDs in front of them." They're all getting very enthusiastic, going into the military shops and buying contractor-type trousers and getting military haircuts.
I arrive around 1.30am at Camp Bastion, then I have an early flight to the US Marine Corps' HQ at Camp Dwyer. No one is expecting me. I find that I am not going to Marjah in Helmand province, but I am instead going south. The long journey has begun.
Checked in for the helicopter flight to Forward Operating Base Delhi in southern Afghanistan. I'm joining the 1st battalion, 3rd US marines. I don't spend any time there. I've had about three hours' sleep. I'm trying to find out where I'm going – I'm told there is a convoy next morning going south, so I'm getting on that. I overhear on a radio in the background that there is a helicopter under fire where I am going. They've got injured.
Joining the route-clearance convoy driving even further south. It is all by road now. These clearance guys are trying to keep the main roads going south clear for supplies and stuff like that. There are 10 trucks in the convoy.
They drive down the road and if something blows up under the first truck, then that is one more IED cleared from the road. The first truck is supposed to be IED-resistant, but still there is only one guy in it in case it is blown up. They've got rollers in front of it to try to blow up the IED before the truck itself gets there.
No one is talking much. The engine is very noisy. They have air conditioning in most of the trucks, but sometimes it doesn't work because it gets clogged up by all the dust. We're reading magazines, everything from porn to National Geographic. We drive for about eight hours.
Still with the 1st battalion, I join a convoy pushing further south to PB Karma – Patrol Base Karma. No one knew why it was called that. Probably a joke. It's almost the furthest point south that the Americans have reached.
The gunner up on top is watching everything, trying to see if there are kids about. If there are no kids and it looks as if people have cleared away, then you might be expecting an IED. So kids can be a good sign. We left at seven in the morning and it is now getting dark but we have probably moved less than 20km. It has taken eight hours.
I'm now in Karma base. It's an old hospital with sandbagged compound walls. Sleeping on a fold-out bed in the corridor trying to get a bit cooler. There are probably 30 people based here. I later find out the company has lost three people in the last two weeks.
The area is completely littered with IEDs. This is the front line. From Karma, just 800m south, you will meet the Taliban.
A memorial service for Cpl Harris at Karma marine base, southern Helmand. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
The idea of the foot patrols here is to talk to any locals, to visit a few houses about a kilometre from the base on the edge of the desert. People are pretty polite but guarded. Nobody says: "We hate you, we don't want you here." We get back around six or seven in the evening.
Take "contact" heading south. Our patrol is on foot. We are trying to keep on owning ground, keeping the Taliban away from the patrol base. We are about 20 people, maybe less, walking, carrying water, body armour, grenades, helmets. It's sweaty, but you forget about it after a while. It's a short patrol, maybe three hours. A long patrol would be about 10 hours. The temperature will get up to 55C. The combination of the heat, the weight, the uneven ground . . . you just have to try to look where you're going, try to keep aware of your surroundings, all the while trying to film. It is difficult because you have to keep walking. We are spreading out in case one of us steps on an IED – best to keep about 50m apart. So, we are spread over half a kilometre.
It's so hot. A little jump over an irrigation ditch becomes a huge effort, even though it would normally be a small step.
Then the attack comes. It went like this. The radio operator got news that an attack was imminent. The message that came over the radio was: "We don't know if it is your position or not, but there is a possible imminent attack."
The lieutenant says, "You are using a double negative, dickhead. 'Possible' and 'imminent' are two different words – what is it going to be? Possible? Or is there an attack about to happen?"
Over the radio: "This is Top Three. We have a marine hit. We've got a gunshot wound in the back."
They're now getting shot at. All I can hear is: "Fuck. He's over here. Ah fuck, oh shit, fuck. It was right over our heads. Which way are we going?"
Something incoherent comes from the radio. Radio again: "I say we have got an RPG hit. Rocket-propelled grenade. Two casualties."
The helicopter then comes in and picks up the two casualties. They survive. The marines then walk 1.5km back to their base.
Afterwards, everyone is pretty hyper, joking, a great release of tension. One guy has been grazed by a bullet. Their uniforms are shredded from lying around on the ground.
I'm worried that I haven't got it all on film.
A recruiting sergeant turns up to see if he can re-enlist people for another four years. He sits around for a few days, but isn't busy. Only a couple of people re-enlist. That night, the guys are sitting playing Risk. I also play a bit of poker with them – the marines are pretty standoffish in the beginning. But if you are prepared to do what they do, go out on patrol with them, then you are all right.
We go out on 11-hour foot patrol at about 6am. The temperature is up to 55C again. There are about 10 of us. No one speaks. We are just putting one foot in front of the other, plodding along in the heat, walking over rough ground. There aren't many roads and you try to keep off them. As well as full battledress, each marine must carry five litres of water.
The next day, I move to another US marine patrol base nearby, a small base in an old vineyard, about 800m south of the Karma base. This is the southernmost base of the US and British – the last frontier. The vineyard has been bulldozed and the base is surrounded by giant sandbags. The soldiers live in tents inside. It is called Patrol Base May – named after a Marine killed a few weeks earlier. Base Johnston – about 400m from Karma – is named after another dead marine. A third base is about to be built, another 400m away. It will be called Harris; he was killed just last week.
All three were killed by IEDs. Corporal Harris was trying to help an injured marine during a firefight. While he was moving him, he stepped on an IED that took his leg and arm off.
I talk to Staff Sergeant Jeremy Wilton. "It's steady progress. We're trying to move south down to the border of Pakistan. It's taken a year to move 20km. It's work in progress."
The next day we go out with engineers to sweep the road in front of our base. There are 10 of us. They keep finding more IEDs just opposite the base. They blow them up as the easiest way of getting rid of them. After one, Wilton chuckles: "I love the smell of cordite in the morning."
At 3am we head south to check out deserted family compounds to see if any people have come back. We find one man walking along the road. The lieutenant stops him to tell them that we are here to bring security. While we are talking, it appears that a group of armed Taliban are about 800m away – we watch them and they watch us.
They are waiting for the marines to attack but they don't. We get back to the base at about 9pm. There is a bit of a debrief from the lieutenant explaining why the marines weren't allowed to attack. The Taliban, he says, cannot dictate the terms of the engagement. A couple of the marines are disappointed, but mostly everyone is just knackered and beyond the gung-ho stage.
There are five Afghans based with the marines – but not much talking. It's polite enough. A supply truck arrives with a big box of T-bone steaks that someone has "liberated" from the main base. The marines make a barbecue and cook the steaks, and the Afghans make rice in return.
Everyone is ordered to get their hair cut because today we are going to walk back up to Karma base for the memorial service for Cpl Harris. The marines have taken a few casualties over the last couple of weeks so the colonels and big wigs are coming down for the memorial service.
A couple of Harris's friends speak and pay their respects in front of his boots, rifle and dog tag. The preacher does the "Why did God take this man form us?" stuff, and then it's back to the fray.
After the memorial, Harris's friends are back on guard duty. One starts talking about the day Harris died: "I felt hopeless. There was nothing I could do. I was only 50m away. We couldn't go there because we didn't have any metal detectors. We heard Cpl Harris had had his legs blown off. I thought he'd be fine.
"I remember hearing he was gone. I just didn't want to be believe it. I was like, 'Yeah, there's no way he's gone. He'll make it.' But I heard he'd stopped breathing. I didn't want to believe it for a couple of days."
Hanging around. It's a quiet day. We are told there will be no patrolling because a big suicide bomb hit a bazaar 20km behind the front line and all the hospital space is full. So they don't want us going out on patrols and getting injured.
Eight of us go out on a very short patrol along the little canal near the base. We go less than 100m. We see a couple of people down at the canal. They look like Taliban who appear to be planting IEDs. They are watching us and we are watching them.
Then we retrace our steps back to base. When we get back there is a massive explosion from the canal, big enough to blow up a bus, a huge column of dust and smoke about a kilometre away. Looks like they blew themselves up planting the IED.
London is pulling me out. I hitch a lift on a truck heading back up north. It is like being in a huge metal coffin. But the mood is light because we are moving back from the front. A couple of kids start chucking rocks at us. They are always chucking rocks at us. The gunner on top gets hit.
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