The Targeting and Killing of a Helmandi Combatant

I interviewed everyone present in the tactical operations center during a routine airstrike in Helmand Province. Without exception they believe themselves to be doing the right thing.

Nick McDonell | An excerpt adapted from The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars | Blue Rider Press | September 2018 | 25 minutes (6,786 words)

In the tactical operations center the general and I are watching out for innocent people like you, very closely, on-screen. We’re in southern Afghanistan still, a short helicopter ride from OP Shamalan, but most proper nouns inside the room are classified, and in exchange for entry I have agreed to leave my phones and recorders outside, so what I will describe comes from my notes and memory, can be verified only by those who were present. It is not necessarily their mission to tell the truth, but eventually I interview and record all of them separately outside that room, too, and without exception they believe themselves to be doing the right thing.

The operations captain, John, keeps dice on his desk and shakes them in his fist while he coordinates airstrikes. There is, on my arrival, much talk of how we don’t joke, we don’t cheer when we hit ’em, but soon everyone loosens up — like I’m cool with Hiroshima and You can’t say that shit in front of the reporter! And the word for a man who has escaped an airstrike and is running for his life on-screen is squirter. How could they not banter? Some of them are still kids, in that steel and plywood room. Not the chaplain, Sidney, though.

“And tell me one more time what you did in your life before you were in the military?”

“Yeah, I was actually in college.”

“Where did you go to college?”

“Originally I started going at Wallace Community College in Cullman, Alabama. I was a paramedic and bouncer in a strip club before I joined the Army.”

“You’d probably do both your jobs in one night, then, huh?”

“Well, actually I bounced at night and worked the ambulance during the day.”

“What was the name of the strip club?”

“It was called Dream Girls. It was on Rideout Road in Huntsville, Alabama. I don’t even think it’s there anymore.”

Sidney, a Southern Baptist from a family of coal miners, tells me that the ends never justify the means and that everyone in the tactical operations center, deep down, agrees. He is tall, cheerful, bald, youthful in his late thirties, and watching the screens, too, providing confidentially privileged spiritual guidance as requested, or as he deems necessary. Some of the screens are crisper than others, but on each we are looking at a typical Helmandi compound, and you can almost, but not quite, make out the faces of the men who are about to be killed. The compounds are mud brick and roughly built, cut open to daylight by a few precious windows.

It is jarring to square these shapes with walks I have made between such compounds, through bronze leaves fallen to dust, moving north or south through the pixels. Despite this realization, and despite the blimps and insectile drones I have seen, and against shrewd advice, I have not taped over this laptop’s camera, preferring to put my faith in irrelevance over increased security. We hold these surveillance devices close. To be in that room is to feel the immense power differential which flows from their control. The view is imperfect but godlike.

In the tactical operations center the general and I are watching out for innocent people like you, very closely, on-screen.

Captain John, with the dice, has dark circles under his eyes.

“How long is this deployment gonna be for you?”

“That’s kind of up in the air right now. Most likely until next July.”

“How long will that be?”

“That’ll be nine months.”

“Nine months. That’s nine months — will that be every day in that room, looking at those screens?”

“Yes.”

“Do you dream of those screens sometimes?”

“Yes.”

First, they soaked the area, which meant keeping cameras on it and watching the screens — which everyone was half doing all the time, and fully doing some of the time, like when the general was in the room. I will note here that in addition to giving up my phones and recorders to enter this room, to watch the soaking of mud-and-timber compounds, I signed an agreement, as I have signed similarly before every American embed, running as follows: “Intending to be legally bound, I hereby accept the obligations contained in this agreement in consideration of my being granted access to classified information. . . . I hereby agree that I will never divulge classified information to anyone unless . . .” And it goes on. Two public affairs officers witnessed my signature of this agreement with regard to classified information acquired during the five days in question — but agreed also that it should have no bearing on my reporting before or after that period. We amended the document to emphasize this fact, and I am glad we did, because in chapter 13, having signed no agreement to the contrary, I will report classified information acquired under other circumstances regarding the death of hundreds of Afghans.

The watching of screens, meanwhile, is not classified. Neither is the Collateral Damage Estimate Methodology, which governs the strike that morning and is laid out in Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3160.01, among other places. It requires that the team’s strikes, or target packets, meet a series of criteria, or pillars — positive identification, for example. It is the business of the room to build pillars in order to execute target packets, and the lawyer in the room, Bobby, agrees that the process is somewhat like building a capital punishment case. Bobby’d been a litigator in Texas, has the physique of a weightlifter, and drinks cartons of milk with his dinner — which he usually eats out of styrofoam takeout boxes beside Captain John, watching the screens, instead of in the dining facility.

“In the American legal system,” I say to him later, “we talk about ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ If you were to describe the standard that you need to reach here, how would you describe it?”

“Somewhere about probable cause.”

On-screen a man is digging behind a stone wall on the edge of a field. It’s farmland in every direction. Five other men are nearby, pacing, sitting, reclining in the dirt, watching him dig. The room snaps to as General D.A. enters. We’d been in his office for a formal interview when the digger was spotted shooting at an Afghan National Army outpost on the other side of the field. The general crosses his arms beside Captain John and asks, What’s the situation?

Captain John tells him: types of jets and drones they have in the air, grid numbers, the nearest object on the no-strike list — historical ruins, at a safe remove from the expected blast. More besides. The no-strike list names buildings that require high approval to destroy: mosques, orphanages, nurseries. Only occasionally do we hit such buildings, like the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, and kill the people inside.

The digging man sits down, stands up. On-screen, behind him, is a hole in the ground with a few logs over the top, a crude bunker. This bunker is an established fighting position, and though the team does not know the names of the men they are watching, they have built a target packet for the bunker that has received approval from command in Kabul, so, if the general agrees, they can launch. They are obviously eager to do so.

General D.A., short for Douglas Arthur, is an affable, white-haired forty-eight-year-old Army football fan. He played baseball himself and has the lean physique of a shortstop, though he’d be small for the majors and in fact did not play ball at West Point, which he attended like his father before him. He smokes cigars and wears authority easily, warmly. He’s served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and eventually we’ll have the following exchange:

“Are they the right wars to be fighting?”

“It’s not my choice, right? I mean . . .”

“I know, but now that you’re a general officer, you don’t get to . . . You have to . . . right?”

“All I do is . . . And nobody’s asking me, but at some point all I do is offer the best military advice. I mean, really, that’s all I’m doing. If you were to ask me would I rather be shooting pheasants with my dog right now, going to my daughter’s softball games, or sitting here talking about this? I’d choose the former.”

“Of course.”

“But that’s not my choice.”

What I will describe comes from my notes and memory, can be verified only by those who were present. It is not necessarily their mission to tell the truth.

It’s December. A few strands of tinsel hang around the tactical operations center. A plastic Santa Claus clings to a secure phone receiver on which a young lieutenant relays coordinates. Like any office, but almost all male: candy bars, coffee, inside jokes, catchphrases, fantasy football. Most of the men in the room have a wife or girlfriend at home, most have children. Half a world away these children wait for their fathers, become distracted on Skype calls, play video games. Half a world away in vast university libraries, graduate students sleep in the crooks of their elbows, type, finish their books. Their books collect dust, are checked out, returned, uploaded into the single searchable text that is the Internet. Borrow a volume, if so inclined, read it to a child tonight — Justice, for example: “A volunteer army,” writes the political philosopher Michael Sandel, “fills its ranks through the use of the labor market — as do restaurants, banks, retail stores, and other businesses. . . . The soldiers are ‘volunteers’ only in the sense that paid employees in any profession are volunteers.”

Sandel teaches at Harvard, which General D.A.’s father-in-law (’52) and brother-in-law (’92) both attended. General D.A. himself has completed a fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

We are all looking at the screens.

I cannot tell the age of the six men. Whether they are young or old. They are too tall to be children, but not to be teenagers. I don’t know many Helmandis but the ones I do tend to be short, by American standards. The shortest I know is also among the bravest, a mustachioed police officer named Asadullah. He was once wrongly accused of killing Marine special operatives and imprisoned for some weeks with men he had previously helped lock up. The subtext of our talks about his imprisonment was that he had been abused in that cell. He was eager to get back on duty.

I spent some months speaking with him and his father, Shamsullah, taking down the story, and when we finished they insisted I accept a gift, a carpet to bring to my own father, which I did. Asadullah in a green police jumpsuit, his wide eyes manic; Shamsullah, deeply wrinkled beneath a beige turban, knockoff Armani glasses on the tip of his nose, pigeon-gray eyebrows, desperately adoring of his son. On worn carpets we ate dates, chain-smoked, made optimistic phone calls never answered or returned. Asadullah spoke often of vengeance. I discouraged the idea, as did Shamsullah. I wouldn’t have recognized either of them on-screen in the tactical operations center.

But even if I could have, even if those screens were perfect, in each moment was the question of whether killing Talibs was right or wrong. Some of the key personnel weren’t sure. Back in Kabul the month before, Mark, forty-seven, an erudite and combat-tested lieutenant colonel just removed from his position as head of the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team, told me about a phrase a colleague of his liked: “ten-dollar Taliban.” Mark came from a line of Bengal Lancers and sat for his interview with unusual grace, as though on a barge floating the Nile, or at a university high table, after dinner. “They need ten dollars today,” Mark explained. “They need ten dollars tomorrow. So they’ll join the team for the sake of earning that ten dollars in order to put food on the table. And what joining the team may mean: that they drive a leader from one part of the province to another, or they provide accommodation for him, or they provide food for him. Or actually they provide the cordon for the laying in of the IED. You know, is that guy Taliban, or is he civilian? And if we are gonna win this, isn’t he, you know, the swing voter that we need to be focusing on instead of killing him? Because that guy is supporting — he’s got eight or ten dependents. And we’ve just killed the guy.”

On-screen, the digging man fires a rifle over the wall at the Afghan National Army outpost.

The tactical operations center goes quiet save low radio chatter. There are quick glances from all corners at the general. A junior officer half breaks the tension.

Squirters, he predicts, are gonna run southeast like Usain Bolt.

What’s the slant? asks the general.

The slant refers to the number of men, women, and children present in the target area. Written, the numbers are divided by slanting lines, in this case: 6/ 0/ 0.

The screen I am watching freezes into static. Text appears: Media server error. Retrying in 15 seconds.

***

It’s a common complaint among the men that too many people watch these strikes, causing the feeds to freeze and skip. Later, in our official interview, I ask Captain John about this.

“So how many people could’ve been watching that, then?”

“Anybody,” he says.

“ So . . .” I try again, “how many people are on the — — — system? Do you know, Kay?” I ask, turning to the woman across the table. She’s an Air Force public affairs captain who is chaperoning me throughout this embed. She is thoughtful, diligent, considering a career in the foreign service when she gets out of the Air Force.

“I don’t know, actually, but . . .”

“A lot,” finishes Captain John.

“Like, one hundred thousand people?” “The majority of people in the military have a — — — account” — Kay chuckles — “ so . . .”

As of this writing, the United States has 1.2 million active military personnel.

“I get bored sometimes,” John says, “and pull up videos from Iraq, or pull up live feeds from Iraq. . . . I just go see what’s going on in Syria, zoom in, and watch a feed.”


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***

At this point, jets are streaking to a target under the guidance of a joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, a blond lieutenant named Rob. JTAC training is rigorous — requires air traffic control under simulated fire, in the wilderness, sleepless — and Rob has a certain swagger. His banter is high quality, generous but not lame. He wears a mustache and is in constant direct contact with the pilots, whom, if kept aloft un-engaged, he describes as burning holes in the sky. But mostly, on the job, Rob speaks in call signs and coordinates. For all his swagger, it is easy to imagine that machines will replace him, one day soon. The way we kill from the sky is in a process of lock-in, especially as we use more drones and fewer jets. Standards we set now — protocols to abort a strike, say — will define future lives as surely as the gauge of railroad tracks defined the American West, as Twitter’s character limit has defined the language of America’s forty-fifth president. But the process is not up for debate, and mostly the men don’t think it should be.

“Do you think that regular folks, in Gardner, Kansas, own a piece of it?” I ask Captain John.

“I think they empower us to own it for them,” he tells me.

Gardner is his hometown, population 21,000. Captain John speaks in a flat Kansan drawl past a wad of chewing tobacco.

“Do you talk to people about this when you go back to Gardner?”

“Not too much. People I grew up with, my best friends from home, one’s a car salesman, one’s a high school basketball coach and teacher. They really don’t relate on the same level of what we do, so not really.”

“Do you think that they should? Do you think that they should have a better grasp of what’s going on with the kind of work you do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s really necessary for them to.”

“Because they have empowered you to do it, and they voted the way they voted and that’s . . . ?”

“I think so. The more levels involved, the way our government’s set up, we’re empowered to do what we do. We have the checks and balances and the chain of command in place the way we do in order to make sure we’re making the right decisions. We’re trusted to make those decisions. Putting it up to, maybe, people who don’t have the same training or the same sense, it’s not necessarily — they need to just trust us with that decision, which I think, on the whole, they do.”

On-screen, the final minutes of their lives are passing.

Whether or not Americans trust the military and intelligence communities, we celebrate them, attend the funerals. Even, especially, in media. I attended one for a long-serving Moscow station chief, in a white church in a seaside town, crisp leaves pinned against clapboard by a salt wind. The politics were excellent, all of ours were, on those dark pews, flexible, intellectual, kind. There was a cousin who had shaved his head and taken saffron Buddhist robes, there were champions of Wall Street become philanthropists, there were on-air correspondents. All taught their children to work diligently, learn languages, respect religion, get a job at the premier institution in the field. All were generous, righteous, did not even have to stoop to ad sales, mostly. Did they intuit they were the crest of the American power? And are they, who admired elegant eulogies for CIA operatives, now so surprised at how mightily they must fight for truth, in late middle age?

***

On-screen, the final minutes of their lives are passing. Bobby the lawyer points out that despite the media error, several feeds remain operative, as I can see, allowing for unbroken positive identification of the digger-shooter and the five men around him. They are clearly within a blast radius predicted by the fires team — the targeteers, who sit a couple seats over from the JTAC. The top targeteer is Chief Warrant Officer Ron, thirty-two, of Biloxi, Mississippi. He worked as a dishwasher, before he enlisted.

“You’re the guy who picks out where the thing’s gonna fall?”

“Yes.”

Chief Ron is on his fourth deployment. He is watchful and possessed of a low-volume certainty that puts other men at ease. He has four kids, and ten years in. He is looking forward to getting out.

“Oh, yeah. Already told my wife. I was like, ‘You know what? When I hit twenty, I’m out.’ She goes, ‘Why? Why don’t you wanna stay in if you want to?’ I was like, ‘No. Kids’ll be fourteen, be able to stay home and be with them.’ ”

“Aside from raising your kids — that’s plenty, but do you think you’ll do something else, too?”

“You know what? Maybe I’ll just find some mindless job where I don’t have to think. I just show up, do something.”

On this deployment Chief Ron works from nine a.m. until about eleven-thirty p.m. every day. It is he and his men who generate the collateral damage estimates, predicting how many people will die and what will be destroyed in any proposed strike. This is a technical process, which requires special training. Chief Ron received his certification in collateral damage estimation in 2014 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“Was it hard?”

“Oh, yeah. It was hard.”

“Why is it hard?”

“It was hard at the time because everything was manual. Everything was on paper, so they’d hand you the print-off, and you’d have to manually calculate the heading for the mitigation techniques. . . .”

A mitigation technique is any practice that makes an airstrike less deadly. A fuse, for example. If a bomb explodes when it hits the roof of a house, it’s likely to kill everyone inside. If, instead, it rests in the earth on a fuse before detonating, there is a greater chance for inhabitants to run outside and survive, and the earth dampens the explosion. Such mitigation techniques are variables in any collateral damage estimate. The process, these days, is on-screen. The relevant program looks like Google Maps, but with a specific set of tools for planning and predicting the consequences of a strike. Chief Ron picks aim points — spots where the missiles are supposed to land — with the click of a mouse. Likewise, he measures distance from aim points to the nearest object on the no-strike list — in this morning’s case, some unspecified historical ruins. He compares blast radii for different weapons — a five-hundred-pound bomb versus a two-hundred-pound bomb. Some of his options are binary, others appear in the form of long pull-down menus — for example, collateral structure functionality, which looks like this:

1_DroneStaffTable2

Example graphic, Department of Defense Joint Targeting Cycle and Collateral Damage Estimation Methodology

The zoo (“outdoor extensive”) is most striking, to me. I visited the Kabul zoo, once, with mustachioed Asadullah’s father, Shamsullah. Together we observed a half-blind lion, who, rumor had it, had lost her eye and mate to a Pashtun out to prove his courage. Other foreigners I knew who’d visited the zoo remarked, as I did, on the poor state in which the animals were kept, particularly the bear, patchy and trembling in its cage.

I never visited any zoos in Iraq, but read they had similar problems. It was a trap to assume anything about Iraq based on Afghanistan but unavoidable for many, and Chief Ron, like most soldiers I met in that tactical operations center, had served in both countries. The collateral damage estimation process for both countries was identical on paper. Only the variables changed. The estimated population density of zoos, for example, or the availability of certain missiles, or who could approve a strike, or why we said we had gone to war, or whether we were killing Iraqis or Afghans. Those last two are not included in the pull-down menus, but Chief Ron is wise and I think his plans for retirement have as much to do with the variables he can’t control as the ones he can. Shamsullah, for his part, loved the zoo, grinned as we stood at the bear’s cage.

***

General D.A. gives the okay. I can’t recall exactly how he puts it, whether it’s Go, or an All right, engage, or a Proceed, or what, but in the seconds afterward a gear shifts into place, or warm-ups are suddenly over, and the routine sharpens. Captain John repeats the general’s order to the room. The young comms lieutenant alerts higher American units in the area, and the Afghans. Chief Ron’s out of the room, but his junior targeteer, a thickset sergeant named Albert, previously employed in an applesauce factory — picking rotten ones off the line — confirms the collateral damage estimate, which is zero, structural or human. Rob the JTAC translates the order to the pilots in Air Force jargon. The pilots radio back that they copy, bank their supersonic machines. And for a moment, everyone waits.

There’s a story I heard a few times in which, just before striking, a pilot refuses to fire missiles because of civilians — a kid running suddenly into view, for example, or a bigger crowd than expected. I was always on the lookout for such a pilot, but no American I spoke with ever admitted knowing one — just that the thing happened, from time to time. The point of the story was never the heroism of the individual pilot, or that the airstrike might have been poorly conceived. It was rather that our Air Force was the best in the world. A corollary: Even our missiles could be turned aside, midair, into the dirt. Certain stories reaffirmed the mission for the people who fought it, consoled them with exceptional moments of competence within the frame of what even the most hoo-ra grunt usually knew, on some level, to be bad news.

I did eventually meet a pilot who claimed to have lived the story. He was a young Iraqi, his skin shiny with oil and creased with acne scars. In a faux French café in Baghdad we were smoking a shisha. He told me he had been flying low over Anbar one day when he saw some kids around a target and, disobeying orders, held fire. He did not want to specify or go on the record and described an air force of great dysfunction and danger to its people, though he was proud of being a pilot, showed me pictures on his phone of his squadron in formation against a horizon of enormous, gentle cumulus clouds. He did not, he told me, believe that speaking publicly would change the situation, but he was certain it would jeopardize his career.

There’s a version of this story for drone operators, now, too, which Captain John relates in the tactical operations center. Not all of the screens in that room run surveillance feeds — some display text, and a big one in particular resembles a chat room. It’s called mIRC. Drone-feed analysts and operators, earthbound from Nevada to Qatar, communicate with the men in the tactical operations center via this chat screen. In Captain John’s story, one of them objected to a missile launch on mIRC. When asked what the problem was, he wrote back, in black letters upon that white screen, I don’t like to see people die.

The sentence resembles nothing on mIRC in register or content. According to Captain John there was no danger of civilian casualties for that particular strike, and the analyst was crazy. The records are classified — I never see them — but the story rings true. The tone of the analyst’s objection echoes a familiar strain of indignant video-game bro culture, and as Captain John mentions to me, the job is “like playing Call of Duty all day.” He also mentions that everybody says this, and he’s right. The video-game comparison has recurred since the beginning of the recent wars in accounts of both journalists and soldiers. The dehumanization it implies is as obvious as the superfluity, for some, of speaking with a bank teller to withdraw money, or a grocer to buy vegetables, or a librarian to read a book, or a driver to ride in a taxi. Less frequently mentioned than this rapidly expanding robot culture is the inversely proportional relationship between access to automated luxuries and the likelihood of getting merced by a drone-flying young man who cannot control his rage or alienation long enough to stop typing even when everyone — the generals and the spies and everyone — can see what he writes, the moment he hits return.

***

The missile flying toward the target is just under ten feet, nine inches long. It has a diameter of approximately eleven inches and weighs 510 pounds, of which slightly more than half are steel casing designed to shatter into shrapnel. The rest is navigation and guidance, for which the missile employs two systems, laser and GPS. In the former, aircraft or ground units first paint the target with a laser beam. Imagine a super-high-powered pointer of the sort used during presentations or lectures. When the beam hits the target, it bounces off. You can’t see it, but like all light this beam has a particular electromagnetic wavelength — defined on a spectrum running infrared in one direction and ultraviolet in the other — which can be represented mathematically. The missile is equipped to detect the beam’s particular wavelength, to adjust fins and flaps, and to fly to it. The other system — GPS — depends on the military’s network of satellites. Like a smartphone providing directions, it triangulates location by bouncing radio waves between earth and space, then adjusts the fins accordingly. The missile’s price hovers around $20,000 and is paid by the U.S. Department of Defense to Lockheed Martin or Raytheon, depending on the contract and year.

Such industrial defense companies do more than provide the missiles. They also provide contractors who perform integral tasks — like intelligence analysis. In the tactical operations center, a contractor from BAE Systems — one of the largest of these companies, controlling assets of some $30 billion — is among the people who synthesize the intelligence that guides the missile in a more general sense. Chief Ron, the targeteer from Biloxi, reminds me what is at stake in this particular job: “It all depends on the intel,” he says. “I don’t walk in there and be like, ‘I wanna hit these buildings.’ We let intel build itself, and then once we gather all the intel, then we identify the positions that need to be possibly engaged.”

“Is intel the most important part of this process?”

“Yes.”

“By how much?”

“All of it,” he says. “All of it.”

It starts long before lasers and radio waves. What we know, or think we know, or say we know, what we’ve discovered with spies and cameras, or in the rubble of office buildings in lower Manhattan or Dar es Salaam. Imaginary weapons of mass destruction, or tanks rolling into Kuwait, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Intelligence is history and informs every step of a war. No intelligence, however, exists in a vacuum, or independently of our values. By seeing some facts as intelligence and others as the status quo we make decisions before our decisions, before any vote or executive order or tear gas canister tossed in a crowd.

This is common sense, and soldiers I was embedded with knew it on some level already, as they opened the door, in darkness, in Mosul, years ago. They shone white lights in the face of an old man and asked for information, first gently then less so, as he shooed children inside, away from the door. How old was he? A sergeant took him by the elbow, brought him into the street to scan his retinas. Suddenly his age was intelligence, of new value, though the intelligence with which the Americans justified their presence that night was long since debunked. His beard was white, his cheeks pitted, he was not a fighting-age male, like the digger-shooter is said to be. But would we have known, from a camera, from above, in the dark, if he was younger — young enough that his lower lip didn’t tremble as the sergeant raised the haj box to his rheumy eyes? Perhaps we would have had additional intelligence. We could have analyzed his stride, what he was wearing. We could have intercepted a phone call. We could have been soaking his house for days.

The intel that justifies the strike on the digger-shooter and his compatriots, I read in my notes, consists of “no farming, visualops, firing, ISR, humint.” That is, the men on-screen are suspiciously not farming on that farmland; they have been conducting visual operations, i.e., looking at friendlies; they have fired on friendlies or been in proximity to someone doing so; and there is additionally relevant imagery, surveillance, reconnaissance, and human intelligence.

One of them objected to a missile launch on mIRC. When asked what the problem was, he wrote back, in black letters upon that white screen, ‘I don’t like to see people die.’

The BAE contractor who synthesizes such information in the tactical operations center, in concert with a small team of military intelligence officers and NCOs, is named Callie.

Callie is thirty years old, from Crane, Missouri, population 1,462. She says she lives by three rules:

  1. “Shit happens.”
  2. “Life’s not fair.”
  3. “Nobody owes you anything.”

Her father was a truck driver, her mother became a pharmacist after the divorce. Callie holds a master’s degree in sustainable development and has worked as a television actress. She was one of the first female combat-line platoon leaders in Afghanistan, clearing IEDs ahead of infantry and Special Forces in Kandahar between 2010 and 2012. All that, before she began work for BAE and landed two seats to the right of Captain John. She is married to Captain John’s predecessor. The job allowed her to be deployed with him, but he rotated out before her contract was up.

“You know I have a passion for sustainable development,” Callie tells me, “and building developing nations, but to be honest that doesn’t pay the bills. So while I try to figure out what my path is, this is a job.” “So do you think what’s going on in that tactical operations center,” I ask her, “is contributing to the sustainable development of this country?”

“I do in the aspect of . . . something has to happen.”

What, exactly, she isn’t sure — but she has a theory. Afghanistan needs a strong, moral leader, she says, and after that: “You have to ensure that an assassination doesn’t happen.” Callie elaborates, unbidden: “You know, in Africa, there’s been a lot of great leadership that would’ve made something better of their country, and they were assassinated before they received the opportunity.”

“Who are you thinking of, for example?”

She pauses, stutters: “I . . . um . . .”

“You mean like Patrice Lumumba?”

I am helping, here, but I am also laying a trap, have done so before I can even think. The way you snap at someone you love over dinner and realize by dessert that you’ve only betrayed yourself. This unconscious aggression is the heart of partisanship. There are no cameras here, no judge, no witnesses for cross-examination — so how best to understand Callie, to do justice to the word synthesize rather than redeploy it in anger, to encompass ignorance of the local language, the truck stop, the master’s degree, the satellite feeds, the partial power over life and death, her long sigh?

“No,” Callie says, finally, “’cause I don’t have enough knowledge to wanna make a statement, but, you know, corporations get in the way a lot, right? And that’s part of my struggle, my own struggle in sustainable development is, I want to have my own sustainability, my own family, but yet do I feel like, you know, I’m working for a corporation who is takin’ advantage of other people?”

She is pale as a plate and freckled, brown-haired.

“Well it’s funny you bring up the African leadership,” I say, “because that is one of the places in the twentieth century where the United States is most famous for assassinating leaders, who some people, like Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, it’s sort of widely understood — known — that the CIA assassinated this guy, and it wasn’t great for the country.”

“I mean,” she says, conciliatory, “just like the British were here doing that in the 1800s, you know, colonialism is what it is.”

“Do you think we still do that kind of stuff?”

“Personal opinion? I don’t know at what extent, but I’m sure it still happens.”

“So does it freak you out?”

“I mean the world is complicated. It’s gray, there is no black and white, anywhere.”

“Yeah. You got your three laws. I appreciate someone who lays down axioms in the middle of an interview. That’s great. And did you say you had kids, too?”

“No. No.”

In asking about kids I am gently attacking her. I do not mean to, but I am, somehow. To discuss childbearing in this context, to interpose it suddenly in a moment of political tension is nothing, but it is everything. It is every interaction on a base full of men, another mote of disrespect, small but airborne. She is the only woman in the TOC that day, aside from my chaperone, Kay. I try to link it all back to something else, to reverse.

“You said something about raising a family, and um, the future of sustainable development. . . .”

Callie is unfazed. “Even single,” she tells me, “you want to have a livelihood, but at what cost is my livelihood affecting somebody else’s? But that’s just a third world–first world all-around moral dilemma. . . . I think we all ignore some pieces more than others when it comes to first and third. . . .”

She continues her non sequiturs, floating them like moondust kicked up at great risk to her body, her eyes, back when she was on patrol, not at a desk as she is now, responsible for managing intercepted information and contextualizing it in the local culture, about which she explains:

“You know, you and I are talking, and in our culture, we tend to trust what each other are saying. In Pashtun culture, you know, they know that the person they’re talking to is probably going to stab them in the back with something, so I’m gonna try to beat you to the punch. . . .”

We are sitting at a long table in a conference room with no windows, down the hall from the tactical operations center. We are approximately 7,500 miles from Crane, Missouri. We are in a small white building bordered by the rubber walking paths which like capillaries carry us around Camp Shorab, formerly Camp Bastion, formerly logistics hub for the U.S.-led international coalition in southern Afghanistan. On my previous trips it had been crowded, tens of thousands of men, hundreds of aircraft. This time it’s almost deserted, fences bent down to the wind, the Afghan National Army occupying only a fraction of the desert offices their foreign allies built, a few hundred Americans garrisoned to advise them, fly drones, watch, and strike.

“I’m trying to figure out,” I tell Callie, “in my own head, in my own heart, whether it is appropriate sometimes to kill innocent people to get what we want.”

“In this world you have good people and bad people, and sometimes the bad people are evil, and I’m not sayin’ we have to go to their level but on a personal level, I can understand having to take steps to mitigate the evil so that that does not enter the world on a larger stage.”

“When you say ‘mitigate the evil,’ you mean what I was saying about killing civilians?”

“No, well, no, I’m talking about enemy.”

“I’m talkin’ particularly about civilians. I’m saying, is there a moment when it’s okay, when it’s right, to be willing to kill a civilian, to do what you need to do?”

“I just think that’s how the world works. I don’t think anybody would say that’s right. I just don’t know if there’s a mitigation on how not to do that when you’re fighting an enemy who will protect himself with women and children,” she says. “I mean, that’s the evil, right? An evil person is going to protect himself with women and children. . . .”

***

These words, good and evil, lie in every childhood. I cannot forget the feel of dirt under my fingernails from a potato field where I pulled and lobbed clod bombs at my younger brother. A sweat in the autumn air, the whiskery bales of hay, the cold skin of a pumpkin against a cheek, playing games of war, or cops and robbers, hide and seek. Universal games, and there are pumpkins in these fields, too, cold and therefore near impossible to see on-screen during the night shift when the thermal imagery is hypnotic, the men in the fields white hot, or black hot. But there is no lens to reveal our halos or small cruelties, our intent or guilt or innocence as we step into whatever field lies out the back door, without the luxury of choosing our family, neighbors, countrymen.

***

On-screen, the explosions resemble red flowers.

Good effects on target, says someone.

A plume of black and gray smoke obscures the view. Two of the six men emerge, running from its edge. The surveillance drones follow as they sprint away through the fields, over a wall, along irrigation canals, into a stand of trees, where we lose sight of them.

General D.A. nods — Good work, everyone — and leaves quickly.

Several men in the room predict the squirters will be back for the dead. Or someone will. After a few minutes the wind carries away the smoke, revealing a crater where the digger-shooter had been. The bunker, several men point out to me, is untouched, so precise was the missile. And within half an hour some men do return and collect scattered remains from the crater, by hand. I cannot tell if it was the digger-shooter who escaped, or one of his compatriots, but everyone in the room is satisfied with the outcome. No one admits any doubts — to me, at least.

[This excerpt has been updated to reflect that the chat software used by the U.S. military is called “mIRC,” an internet relay chat client, and not “merc,” short for mercenary.]

* * *

Nick McDonell is a novelist and journalist. Born in New York City in 1984, he studied at Harvard and Oxford. He is the author of several books, including the novel Twelve, which was a New York Times bestseller.

Editor: Dana Snitzky