A few months ago, I read the memoir of a lieutenant who served in Afghanistan in 2008, which I argue had to have been the most frustrating year to fight in Afghanistan because it was the last year before policy makers had started paying attention to the war again but also one by which the Taliban had been fully reconstituted. The memoir was as depressing as you might imagine, but it was also a great reminder, contra Rajiv, of the incredible people we have sent to war. We have sent our fair share of lemons, true, but also some amazing Americans as well. I got to break bread with Matt Zeller over lunch a few weeks after reading his book and was blown away by the guy, who is something of a national treasure. Hopefully you will be as impressed as I was and will buy his book.
1. Your book opens with you as a somewhat idealistic young officer eager to serve in Afghanistan. It ends with your intense frustrations at the way the war was being fought. Walk me through that transition.
I come from a long tradition of American military service. My great-grandfather nine generations ago served under General Washington in the Continental Army during the War for Independence. My great-great-great-great-grandfather’s Civil War Union Army uniform currently hangs in my closet along with the uniforms my great-grandfather wore in Europe in World War I and my grandfather wore in the South Pacific in World War II. So when the 9/11 attacks occurred, I felt a strong sense of not just patriotic duty to serve, but also a familial obligation. I struggled with the question of “how can I look at my children in the future and not do what my ancestors did before me?”I couldn’t justify my relatively privileged middle class existence, for I hadn’t really earned any of it — my ancestors had. So after a few weeks of struggling with whether to drop out of school or shirk my civic duty, I walked into a mall in New Hartford, NY to buy a Christmas present and promptly enlisted to the first person I saw in uniform — a National Guard recruiter. Two years later I earned my officer’s commission through ROTC and finished college. Upon graduation, I was awarded the David Boren National Security Fellowship, which allowed me to go to grad school in fall 2004. While at grad school I was recruited into the Central Intelligence Agency. Thus, in the summer of 2007, when I learned my reserve unit would deploy, I had just begun my agency career.
I focused my life to national service because of 9/11 and had hoped to serve in Afghanistan. I wanted revenge. The attacks had both profoundly angered and frightened me. Moreover, I wanted to ensure that I did my part to provide my children with the freedoms my ancestors provided me. I was thrilled to be headed to Afghanistan, for I felt that it was there I could make the most difference. The Army had ordered our unit to undertake the training of the Afghan Army and Police — which to me, was the most important thing we could be doing in Afghanistan, even more important than killing Taliban, for by leaving a security force behind that could adequately replace us, we could ensure that the Taliban and Al Qaeda would never rise to power in Afghanistan again.
So yeah, I’d say I was overwhelmingly naive when we entered training at Fort Riley, Kansas in January 2008. But my naivety began to morph into angered frustration as we progressed through our pre-deployment training. I’ll never forget how nearly every classroom training session began…
A sergeant would stand in front of our group and with an authoritative voice say, “Good Day gentlemen! Today I’m here to tell you how the enemy uses IED’s (or whatever weapon/tactic/etc…) in Iraq!” Then they’d turn around to make sure their powerpoint presentation had started. When they’d turn back to face us, caught off guard to find all of our hands would be up. The sergeant would find our Colonel’s hand and ask for his question. We’d all lower our heads as the Colonel would say, “Sergeant, we’re not headed to Iraq, we’re headed to Afghanistan….” The sergeant would get a deer-in-the-headlights look, pause, breathe, regain his composure and say, “well sir, I’ve never been to Afghanistan, I’ve only been to Iraq, but I’m sure its all the same…” And we’d resign ourselves to another likely meaningless two hour lecture. By the end of training, we had turned rather jaded, but still anxious to take on the mission.
We entered Afghanistan not really sure of what to make of it — almost none of us had been there before. We found it to be the 5th World — calling it the 3rd World is an insult to the 3rd World, for few places on Earth share Afghanistan’s level of poverty and destruction. But, few places also share its natural beauty. People instantly loved or hated it there — I fell in love the 2nd morning as I watched the sun rise over the snow packed mountains that ring Kabul.
That afternoon, the commanding General of CSTC-A at the time, MG Robert Cone, spoke with all 300+ of us — the newest class of Embedded Combat Advisers. He asked by a show of hands how many people in the room had served in Iraq — half of the people in the room raised their hands. And then he said the most profound statement I probably heard all of the war, “Men, I want you to understand something right now. This is NOT Iraq. This is Afghanistan. In Iraq, we do everything we MUST to win. Here in Afghanistan, we’re doing everything we can.” He then went on to contrast the time of response for a QRF in Iraq (which at that time was 12 minutes) to Afghanistan (2-4 hours), the time of flight for a medivac in Iraq (20 minutes) to Afghanistan (1-2 hours)…He told us we’d be alone, work under extremely austere conditions, and that the Army would ask more of us than it would ever be able to give. The speaker who followed him showed video of our predecessors getting blown up by Taliban IEDs and that’s when it started to hit home — not everyone in this room would go home alive.
The next day I packed up my bags and headed to join a convoy on its way to my new post in Ghazni on a small FOB called Vulcan. While loading up my gear I met the guys we were replacing. I asked what their year had been like, was Ghazni dangerous, and had they seen combat. They got really silent and then one of them smiled the strangest smile I had ever seen — I’d later come to know it as the “I cannot believe I’m going home alive smile” — and said “yeah man, Ghazni is fucked up. Really fucked up. Don’t worry, you’ll all earn your CIBs and CABs, every single one of us did…”
Two weeks later I had my Alive Day as I joined 14 of my brothers in an hour long firefight against approximately 45 Taliban who tried to overrun our position as we guarded one of our MRAPs that had just been destroyed by an IED. I ran out of grenades during that fight. The last thing I remember is a mortar round landing about 10 feet in front of me, its blast sending me flying backwards. In that split second between consciouness and the dark, I remember thinking “they’re walking the rounds in on us, the next one will almost certainly kill me.” When I came too, someone yelled “Zeller, friendlies to your six, DON’T SHOOT!” I lifted my head and saw the most beautiful sight — three of our unit’s hummers flying up the hill behind me. SFC Robinson swung his door open and in his South Carolina drawl exclaimed “Hey sir! I hear you’re in a pickle. But I brought ya some help, including my MK-19, where do you need us?” To which both I and CPT Dean pointed to the ridge line at the crest of the hill. SFC Robinson’s hummer charged into battle, its MK-19 blazing and the ridge line turned into the napalm scene from Apocalypse Now. The battle ended with all of us, by some miracle, still alive.
Whatever naivety remained on the morning of April 28th 2008, died by 1615 that afternoon, its fate sealed by the RPG rounds that initiated the assault on our positions.
So why this day? Well it personifies MG Cone’s speech. Our QRF took an hour — and they weren’t even supposed to be our QRF, they were technically the radio retrans unit sent out to relay our comms as we think the Taliban were jamming us. Our air support consisted of two Dutch F16’s, whose pilots didn’t speak English and flew off the minute the Taliban attacked us. The 101st that was the actual QRF? They arrived three hours after the fighting stopped. And why were we there in the first place? Because our patrol that day had got lost as our maps were from the 1980’s (when the Soviet Union still existed as a nation and fought in Afghanistan) and we ended up going down the wrong road, driving right into a Taliban ambush site. Our initial standard operating procedure following an IED was to secure all casualties and simultaneously assess if we held a defensible position. If not, we were to move to a position that was defensible. We quickly realized our position on a road outside an unfamiliar village, lost in some part of Waghez District, Ghazni Province, was not that defensible and thus we should employ our SOP — i.e. move to better ground and destroy whatever equipment we couldn’t take with us, which in this case was the $1.3 million paperweight that had been our convoy’s lead MRAP. We radioed our intentions to the 101st (the unit to which we were op-conned) to which their battalion commander personally responded, “if you don’t bring back that blown up vehicle don’t bother coming back at all. We don’t leave monuments to our failure like the Russians.” And thus, our die-in-place mission and my alive day.
From that day forward, I watched as the war slowly fell apart at the hands of our Army’s middle management — typified by that battalion commander. Case and point, GEN McChrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan. To me, the most compelling part of the Rolling Stone article is the scene where a sergeant down range writes an email to McChrystal stating he believes GEN McChrystal doesn’t get the war and has ordered policies that are killing men on the front lines. GEN McChrystal gets on the next flight to this sergeant’s FOB and goes on patrol with the sergeant’s unit. Afterwards, he holds an After Action Review with the sergeant and his men in the outpost’s makeshift chowhall. During the AAR he notices a laminated list posted on the chowhall’s wall that reads something like “Rules of Engagement As Ordered By COMISAF.” Upon reading the list, McChrystal says aloud “these aren’t my rules.” And thus my point, somewhere between GEN McChrystal issuing orders and the point at which these front line soldiers received them, the Army’s middle management bureaucracy altered them to be significantly risk adverse.
This risk adverse mentality drove our operations by the end of our tour — hard as we tried to fight and ignore it, it came to dominate our every movement, or lack thereof. On 26 JUN 2008, a unit in our bridage embarked on a trip from Paktika to Kabul. They ended up taking a route that bisects Logar and Wardak province, a road known as the Tangi Valley Road. In 2008, allied efforts in Afghanistan had two divergent commands, ISAF and CSTC-A. These commands divided the country differently and often had their field units residing on different FOBs. ISAF had all the resources and most of the men, CSTC-A had all the embedded combat advisers training the Afghan Security Forces. ISAF had deemed the Tangi Valley Road a black route. For whatever reason, CSTC-A never put this information out, so when the convoy traveled down the road, they had no idea that they’d drive straight into a horrendous ambush that would leave two of their three hummers destroyed and three US soldiers and one interpreter dead. As a result of this attack, the next day, CSTC-A declared that all of its units (i.e. we mentors) could only travel in convoys with six or more vehilces — and that we needed to get permission for every mission from an O6 (Colonel) 72 hours prior to each movement. That one, risk adverse call, nearly sidelined us for the remainder of the war. We lived on a base of approximately 40 US soldiers divided into 5 teams. Six vehicle convoys meant that two-three teams had to travel together on each mission. As a result, every time a team went out, two Afghan units went without our mentoring, simply due to this vehicle restriction.
Indeed, throughout my tour, I also saw this middle management come into country for the first time, declare all policies before them to be 100% failure, and attempt to implement some new regime — simply for the point of implementing new policy. Remember, no-one ever got promoted by maintaining the status quo, regardless of its effectiveness. By the end of our tour, we had two boards in our makeshift TOC — “You Can’t Make This Shit Up” and “Oh My God, Something Actually Went Right.” The former had over 100 check marks, the latter had two.
I didn’t want to leave Afghanistan this frustrated, but I realized early on that fighting a war with 100% organizational turnover every 365 days accomplished two things — we repeated the mistakes of our predecessors and we never had a firm consistent set of goals that continuously directed our strategy and actions.
2. The year you spent in Afghanistan was arguably the toughest year of the war for U.S. servicemen — the year before the Bush and Obama Administrations devoted new resources to the war. Did you feel neglected by the country? Did you feel your efforts were overshadowed by the war in Iraq?
Yes, totally. Look no further than what MG Cone said to us on Day One. Everything we MUST vs. everything we can. We had three route clearance patrol units for all of RC-East during my deployment. By the end of our tour, 80% of our territory was off limits without an RCP leading your travel on a mission. We went from running multiple missions a day to sitting on our FOBs waiting for one of those three RCPs to be available and capable (i.e. not in maintenance or repairs). And if we couldn’t drive, flying was hardly an option either. In 2008, we had one aviation brigade for all of RC-E.
I’ll never forget sitting in Kuwait, waiting for a flight home to take leave, and having soldier after soldier coming out of Iraq walk up to me and ask we what it was like to fight in a war where there really was a war still going on. That floored me, because they had everything and we had nothing. My FOB didn’t have SIPR or even internet — each man paid $50 a month to a guy named Baktash who lived in Kabul and in return he made sure that the satellite dish we bough received satellite internet, with speeds that rivaled dial-up from the mid 1990’s.
The first time I went to Bagram I walked into one of their chowhalls and just stared in disbelief. I hadn’t seen an ice machine in 6 months — I had forgotten what it was like to have choices for food, let alone desert.
3. You served as an analyst in the intelligence community after you served in combat. What is the difference between the perspectives on the war one gets from each job?
As an analyst in the IC I had every tool and resource imaginable at my disposal and I couldn’t share almost any of them with the guys who’d benefit most — the front line soldier. Our military fights at the Secret or SIPR level. The IC fights at the Top Secret level. Very few FOBs in Afghanistan have Top Secret level connectivity, let alone personnel cleared to use top secret information. Its a problem that persists to this day and one we must fix.
Additionally, as an analyst in the IC, I found that there is too much duplication of effort throughout the 16 organizations that make up the US Intelligence Community. As a congressional candidate, I actually called for the consolidation of the IC into one US Department of Intelligence, headed by a Secretary of Intelligence. The current duplication of effort results in a gross waste of scarce budget and personnel resources and serves up too much confusion to US policy makers — who are left wondering who to believe when Organization A reports the exact opposite of Organization B.
4. If a young man approached you and said he wanted to serve in the U.S. Army, what would you tell him?
That true leadership and respect are earned, always do what’s right regardless of difficulty or popularity, always listen to his sergeants, and to only sleep under his sheets in basic training the night before linen turn-in.
5. You ran for Congress after returning from combat. Assuming we need more veterans serving in the Congress, what are some pitfalls that prevent veterans from doing so?
Money. During my run for office I came to realize that too often Americans send the best funded candidate to office, rather than the best candidate. Too much of my election was dedicated to raising money in order to put television ads out in the fall. Unfortunately, many Americans learn about candidates for office via political ads that air on TV — hence, the importance of fall TV ads. Unfortunately, it costs around $2.2 million to win a seat in the United States House of Representatives. I don’t know many veterans with $2.2 million to kick around. Moreover, running for Congress is a full time job (between the meetings with constituents, town halls, debates, fundraising, media events, press interviews, and parades). Thus, anyone who seeks to take on the burden of running for federal office must either have an employer who is willing to keep them on the payroll while they’re off running an election, or suffer unemployment.
Regardless, I think veterans make ideal legislators, mayors, governors, and Presidents. Veterans are natural leaders who put their team (i.e. their constituents) and the mission (serving their constituents) ahead of themselves. If we could only take money out of the equation, then I think veterans would trounce any opponent, as they’d be competing on an equal playing field.
6. The last question is always about food or drink. What food or drink did you miss the most while deployed?
Bourbon and a good burger.
Not hard to understand why. Buy Matt’s book here.