Thursday, March 10, 2005

Thanks for playing "You Bet Your Life!"

And the answer is . . .

OK, so it was a trick question. The common thread in all of the shoot / don't shoot scenarios I outlined below is that the man behind the trigger held his fire. If you thought differently, though, that's OK - some of these scenarios aren't set up for cut and dried decisions.

Situation One: This one came from a friend of mine while we over there. There was confirmation later that they were the bad guys, but the sniper didn't see any weapons and he was concerned that they might have been pack mules. The bad guys had been known to grab men up off the road and make them do the heavy carrying, so without seeing weapons, our guy didn't take the shot. I think it was the right call, but it would have saved a lot of trouble later on if he had just shot the bastards.

Situation two: Less than 72 hours after I got to Afghanistan, there I was ... We were doing a "relief in place", where another SF team about to go home was handing off their area to us. A few of us had gone forward to meet with them to plan the handoff, and they offered to take us along on some missions so we'd have a feel for what we were getting into. So there I am, standing outside the gate of the compound and trying to look like I know what the hell I'm doing, when this guy starts walking up at a pretty good clip, smiling and jabbering away in Pashtu. I didn't know what the hell he was thinking, and I still don't - if some guy in body armour festooned in grenades and ammo pouches was pointing a rifle at my chest and yelling at me, I sure wouldn't be smiling. Finally, he got the point and stopped walking about 10' away from me, and I managed to get him to put his hands up. The hidden hand was just holding his shawl, something I figured out later was fairly typical. If that hand had moved, though ... Turned out he was a neighbor, and had been embroiled in a long-standing property line dispute with the owner of the compound we were searching, and just wanted to see if there was anything he could do to make sure his neighbor got it in the neck.

Situation three: I was the buddy by the chest on this one. The guy with me was a big, burly coalminer type from out west - western Pennsylvania, where his family really had been coal miners. It didn't help that the woman was waving the knife all over the place, screaming and yelling. Later, the terp told us that she was calling us "Spetnaz" and yelling "Just tear the chest up. Blow it up. I don't care." She intended to use the knife to pry the trunk open, but she never got the chance. I heard the commotion behind me, and turned around to see this really big knife waving in my face. Before I could react she was on her ass - my coalminer type buddy grabbed her by the wrist and the scruff of the neck and put her down pretty firmly. Of course, if she had been a male, I'd never have had my back turned in the first place. My lesson learned was that sexism could get me hurt. Never let somebody behind you, even if it's a 5' tall, 90 lb. woman.

Situation four: So we're searching this compound, and I hear on the radio that they've detained a man with a gun right outside. I went out to talk to him and found out what happened. It was a really foggy morning, and we had already secured the compound and were doing our detailed searches and interviews. Our perimeter security was just sitting there keeping an eye on things when they saw a man with a shotgun appear out of the fog. Of course, the man with the shotgun saw an armoured HMMWV with a .50 cal machine gun on top suddenly appear out of the fog, too, so it's hard to tell who was more startled. It turned out that the guy was out rabbit-hunting. He even had the only (mostly) beagle I ever saw in Afghanistan. We detained him until the search was over, but our guys fired up a chai burner and had some tea with him while they were waiting. (a "chai burner" is an Afghani propane tank with a stove attachment on top - you took your life in your hands every time you lit one. We had taken to carrying one in each vehicle to heat water and meals while on patrol.) He was actually a pretty good guy - we got an invitation to come to his place for an early breakfast and a rabbit hunt sometime.

Situation five: Decided not to have the Afghans shoot back because of the danger of hitting civilians in the village. There were a couple of security guards that stayed in the bazaar at night, and some of the shopkeepers slept in their shops, so... In retrospect, I'm not sure that the attack wasn't an attempt to provoke us into causing collateral damage, anyway. We did have an A-10 (an attack aircraft) pick up the car on the way out of town, but by the time we had the aircraft on the target, the bad guys were in one of three cars driving away from the bazaar, so the aircraft didn't fire either (I actually think that all three of the cars were bad guys, and the other two were pulling security for the attackers, but there was no way to be 100% certain of that.) Anyway, we got some good rapport points out of the incident - the officer in charge of the Afghans in the compound went with us to talk to the local chief of police about the incident the next day, and they were both pretty impressed with our restraint, and made sure the story got around. "The Russians would have leveled the entire village for something like that, and the Americans wouldn't even let us shoot into the village because we might hurt innocent men." Of course, I'm sure our adversaries viewed that as a weakness, but I think that it's part of the reason we're winning over there while the Soviets lost.

Situation six: The Afghan soldiers were supposed to be in a fixed position, and they weren't supposed to be anywhere near where our guys were. But, sua sponte, after calling their report in, they decided to move around themselves and try to intercept the bad guys. They called it into their officer, but we didn't get the word. Part of the problem was that we retreated the the Opcen (operations center) when an incident started - the Afghans weren't allowed in their because of all of the classified commo gear, so we didn't have a direct line of communications with their leadership when we needed it. After that night, we started sending a US soldier with a radio and an interpreter to stay with the Afghan commander whenever something was going down. Anyway, after a lot of give and take ("Say again your grid coordinates?"), puzzling over maps, and running back and forth to check with the Afghans, we figured out that we had 2 armed patrols 50 feet from each other and about to throw down. Fortunately, the Afghan soldiers never saw our guys, and our patrol held its fire until it was sure of its target. Unfortunately, in all the confusion, the bad guys got away.

You'll notice that there wasn't anything here about roadblocks or checkpoints - that's because we never did them, at least not alone. We had the Afghan Army manning any checkpoints or roadblocks that we set up. Sometimes we'd go along in an "advisory" capacity, and sometimes they ran them on their own. Either way, there didn't seem to be any confusion on the part of the populace that trying to run an Afghan Army roadblock would be a bad idea.


Blogger Watch 'n Wait said...

Damn! You surely do make some incredibly right decisions under the most difficult circumstances. I'm impressed...and no way convinced that I'd have done nearly as well.

11:18 PM  
Blogger JA said...

Amazing...i have a huge amount of respect for you guys. Thank you for your service, and for sharing your experience with us!

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm glad to hear that the shots weren't taken. All the situations sounded pretty ambiguous with a lot of room for error (or in these cases, tragedy, as you said). The reason I thought #5 was ok for fire was because I was imagining a deserted construction site, but my reasoning for the situations really goes back to our justice system: innocent until proven guilty, and better to let a guilty man go than punish an innocent. And also on a point of chivalry, I think it's better lay down your life than to take another, innocent life. Although I'd imagine that to live that way would take nerves of steel and an unwavering conviction, but if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.

Tom M

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the "quiz". I have to say that I would have shot in Situation #1 (no logical reasoning, just gut instinct), but held fire in the other cases. All of the situations were very ambiguous and a good case could have been made to open fire in each one. I have a lot of respect for the difficult calls you guys have to make every day. --RLR

10:50 PM  

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