This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
IN THE EARLY LIGHT, he stood on the mountain with the buoyant and spirited Northern Alliance soldiers behind him in their mud huts, bickering and laughing around their fires and their pots of boiling water, but he scarcely heard their noise. He stood frozen in wonder, looking down and out over the sea of mist and drizzle and settled dust, the vapid landscape of Afghanistan. What would become of him here? What would he prove to be?
He had never been the kind of man who struck other men as powerful. His tremendous shoulders did not sit high but sloped downward and so looked smaller. His eyes were clear and untroubled. He was not tall and did not seem to be; he slouched a bit and laughed often, and when he smiled, his padded cheeks would double out and catch the light, the soft skin ungrizzled like a boy's. He was twenty-seven years old, with nine years in the service, but time had been sparing to his generation. The service had been sparing. It had not yet asked for his blood. That was a truth he hated to admit: He had never seen combat.
And now, facing the frontier of it, Matt was ecstatic and jittery and terrified all at once. He looked down the valley and through it, and he studied the mountains around it. The bend of the hills folding into the basin resembled to him a crumpled canvas sheet. He saw things there that other men did not. He saw aircraft that were not there, and he imagined how to play them, how to move them, where to align the fighter strikes, how the bomb patterns might decline. The men behind him, looking at the same thing, would see only soil and slope, trails winding across emptiness. They could see only sameness and war, the same war they had been fighting for so many years, the same approaches, advances, retreats. He saw the promise of victory. He saw the battle for control of this valley and the drive across it to the mouth of the Dar-i-Suf Canyon. He saw the push through that canyon, beating back the enemy, and he saw the long, embattled march up the Balkh Valley to Mazar-i-Sharif. He saw the Northern Alliance storming the city, seizing that Taliban stronghold. He saw the first major step toward American victory, saw it as he was trained to see it. But was it only training? Would it work? Would he?
The Afghans at least had been tested on the battlefield. In that, they had something he could only imagine: the knowledge of themselves within. Many of them had been in this valley and on these mountains since the days when his mother packed his lunch and fixed his dinner in a little town in Missouri. While he had fished the river for trout, these men had been fighting and killing. There was wind at the corners of their eyes, and they wore rubber sandals made of old tires. They banged cookware out of tin cans, camped on the battlefield, and slept soundly under the shriek of war. They did not rely on training to refine their skills; they lived the skills, lived with them and because of them, and by living so, they knew their limitations. They knew the depths of their own courage, while he could only guess his own.
He had felt fear already in this place, and it shamed him privately. He hated fear in all men, but most of all in himself. And yet he had been afraid the night before, coming up to this mountaintop on horseback in freezing darkness, winding up the narrow trails in a shoddy wooden saddle, his horse toeing the edge of the cliff. He had left his night-vision goggles dangling around his neck, but the moon had been good and he could see all too clearly as the drop-offs grew steeper and the horse beneath him hesitated, trembled. He imagined himself tumbling off the side of the cliff, trapped on the back of the animal, crushed under its weight, and he shook his head to clear the image. It was only his fourth day in Afghanistan, and already he realized that training and war were more different than he had ever understood. Here, death hovered relentlessly.
Just getting from the staging base to the battle zone had been treacherous. Five days of trying and failing and trying again to pierce enemy lines. On the first night, Matt had sat in the back of an open helicopter charging at 150 miles per hour through sniper fire, the frozen wind blasting his face and billowing under his shirt, the flares popping away from the chopper to distract gunmen below, the spatter of ice beating down from the sky, and he had felt a rush of adrenaline surging in him. But when the helo crashed down hard in the blizzarding wind, barreling forward and leaning right, the blades nearly shattering on the ground, when the pilots had to return to the staging base with him still on board, alone and shivering, his anxiety swelled. And when the helo couldn't bear the weather for another three consecutive nights, when he spent the days in between those nights at the base planning, configuring and reconfiguring his rucksack to make it lighter, tighter, smarter, more efficient, trying desperately to keep his mind focused on the mission ahead, gearing himself for the insertion, believing it would come each time, only to be canceled at the last minute, he felt that crumbling sensation grow. By the fifth night, he was warped on anxiety. He boarded the giant bird without any confidence that he would make it. Just another night of the same, he figured, gazing blankly through his night-vision goggles as he sped through the spikes and needles of mountain that erupted from below. He saw men rushing from their homes as the helo passed, heard his gunners returning fire with .50-caliber machine guns, but he did nothing, felt less than nothing, until the helo finally slowed and sank. He looked down and saw a campfire, the signal for his landing zone. Only then did he believe that his mission would begin.
He had jumped to the soil as the chopper set down, falling into a sea of faces that swarmed around him in the darkness. Arms, hands, all grabbing, clutching at him, a jumble of men pushing and reaching for him, jabbering at him in Dari with AK-47's slung over their shoulders and expressions that were almost empty. But where were the Americans? He was supposed to join a small unit of Green Berets here, the Army's Special Forces. He had instructions to help them move through the Dar-i-Suf Canyon and up the Balkh Valley into Mazar-i-Sharif, to fight alongside them and control the skies above them, but he couldn't see a single one of them. And who were these men, these blank faces circling the chopper, frying to scramble inside? He leaned into the bird and shouted, "I can't see any Americans," and the door gunner shouted back, "I think we're in the wrong place!"
Now it was three days later and he could see that it was all the wrong place, no matter where you landed or who was there. His pilot had eventually found the Green Berets a few miles away, and the soldiers had come to the helo to greet him as he landed, but still he felt alien here, a stranger among other strangers among thousands of Northern Alliance warriors. The Berets at least had known one another and trained as a unit. They made jokes and laughed easily together and eyed Matt warily. He was the odd man.
So now he stood alone on the mountaintop, gazing down on the unsuspecting men waging war below, the men fighting as they had fought every day for two decades, oblivious to the events of September 11 and the fact that he had arrived in their country armed, the fact that within the hour everything about their war would change forever. The battle for Mazar was about to begin, but the men below could not yet fathom the way the war would be fought from this day forward. Matt felt the butterflies rippling in his stomach at the thought of it. He lifted his spotting scope and got a closer look. He could see through the fog and beyond the tracers emerging from the friendly trenches, across the field of traded fire and past the enemy trenches, up to the bunkers scattered on the hillsides and the observation posts beyond them. He knew that American fighter jets and bombers were not far from here, armed with cannon and satellite-guided and laser-guided bombs. He could change this part of the world with those. He could pummel the Taliban position all day and leave no survivors, just bodies strewn from the trenches to the highest posts. He could show the Northern Alliance men below, the friendlies who still didn't know he was here, a vision of death and violence erupting from the skies that would look to them like the hand of God. And he would. He knew he would. He could feel it in him, rising. He was not hungry for it, just ready. Above all, he was no longer afraid.
FOR HIM, IT WAS A MATTER of believing. Put simply, he believed in America, but that didn't sound quite right. It wasn't that he thought America was flawless. He wasn't blind or stupid. It was just that he believed in his country, believed that America was good and that a good country stood for things, which sometimes meant fighting for things, and he believed that when his country stood and fought for things, he had a responsibility to stand and fight with it. That, to him, was patriotism.
And so Matt had been eager to join the battle. He had spent his whole adult life preparing for it. His unit trained two hundred days a year, sleeping in the bush, eating wild vegetation, drinking from streams. In fact, he had been on a training mission in Kansas when the planes hit the Twin Towers. He had been eleven hundred miles from his base in Florida that day, conducting mock air strikes in the field with three other men, and at the first news of the attack, they had not hesitated. They rented a minivan on the spot, piling inside with all their training gear, their lasers and infrared markers and beacons and night-vision goggles and helmets, and they sped across the country in one straight, twenty-hour shot, tuning in to the president on the radio, fuming at the audacity of the enemy, hoping collectively in the late, quiet hours of the night for a chance to destroy whoever had done it.
He had known from the moment it happened that he wanted revenge. He had known, too, that he would get it, that he would be sent for it. Few men were as trained as he. In the Air Force, there was no more specialized job. He was not just any airman. His orders came from an elite branch of the military that extended over all three services, the U. S. Special Operations Command. It was the same command that oversaw the Navy SEALs, the Army Rangers, and the Army Special Forces (or Green Berets, including the small team known as Delta Force). SOCOM was the most elite command in the American military, and he had qualified for it at the age of eighteen. But more than that. He had qualified for the most selective, most competitive branch of Special Ops. He had joined the Special Tactics squad of the Air Force. Most people didn't know the ST existed. A lot of people in the Air Force didn't even know. Which was the way the ST Commandos liked it. They set themselves apart. Their motto: First there. When Matt arrived for basic training, he was told that only 1 percent of recruits make it through Special Tactics selection. One. The rest fail. Some walk away; some collapse; some die.
ST Commandos were different from all other Special Ops units. They were not trained to operate in small groups of their own kind. They were trained to integrate and cooperate with other units. They were trained to parachute alone into war zones and join SEALs or Rangers or Green Berets encamped there, to merge instantly and seamlessly with those teams. That meant they had to be trained in the skills and operating procedures employed by those teams. They were panic-proofed at the Army's combat dive school, forced to stay underwater for an hour with instructors tearing off their masks and oxygen tanks. They were crash-proofed by the Navy, trapped in a sinking aircraft and forced to break free and swim to the surface. They got parachute training at the Airborne jump school in Fort Benning, and when that was through, they went to the school the Green Berets attend in Fort Bragg to learn advanced high-altitude, low-opening techniques. They were taught to sharpshoot, to survive in the water with their hands and legs hog-tied behind them, and to drive motorcycles at thirty miles an hour through dense woods over rough terrain wearing night-vision goggles. And that was just the basic skill set. Then there were the refined skills, the air skills. They were trained to direct flight patterns and guide precision strikes using a skyful of warplanes, bombers and fighters alike. They were trained to secure landing sites with the use of demolitions. They learned the strengths and speeds and weaponry and ammo loads of every aircraft in the U. S. arsenal, and they learned air-traffic-control skills to keep those aircraft circling safely above while they called on them, one by one, on cue, to fire.
From the eyes down, the battlefield would always belong to the Army and the Navy, but the skies belonged to Matt. Other men carried machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades. Some drove tanks. He carried an M-4 rifle, but his radio was his weapon. With it, he controlled a fleet of F-14's and F/A-18's armed with 20mm cannon and laser-guided bombs. With it, he controlled B-2's and B-52's armed with thousand-pound MK-83 dumb bombs and two-thousand-pound $DAM satellite-guided bombs. With it, he controlled a battalion's worth of firepower in all. A Commando with a radio was the most dangerous man on the battlefield. And yet they shunned celebration. They did not salute one another or anyone else on the battlefield, they rarely spoke to the press, and they did not show their faces in photographs. They merely trained, and waited for war.
WAR HAD COME. In the glare of midday, the mud huts blended into the soil and the bunkers that were dug into the mountains seemed to disappear, and as he stood on the battlefield below the mountaintop, in a trench with his radio, he understood more than ever why he was there. From the sky, the pilots would see little of what he saw. They would see what he had seen from the mountaintop the day before: the beige of the valley floor and the canyon snaking through it and the rocky cliffs surrounding it. They might spot tracers of gunfire spitting from AK-47's and PK machine guns on both sides of the battle, but everything else about this place would dissolve in the glare and monotonous brown. He was there to see and tell.
He sat low in the trench, studying the field. The tatter of automatic gunfire echoed from all corners of the valley, but it sounded farther away than it was. Everything about the battlefield felt a step removed to him. He felt himself becoming more remote with each passing hour, and he knew the value of it and was glad. It had been two days since he first stood on the mountaintop alone. Two days since he had taken his first lives there, calling in air strikes through the mist and fog and rain, peering through his scope and straining his eyes to see the damage he had wrought.
Now, from the valley floor, he could see the enemy bunkers clearly. They were carved into the sides of the hills and reinforced with rough and spindly pieces of timber that had been dragged by mules out of the riverbed at the bottom of the canyon. He watched the men inside one bunker in particular. They wore black turbans and had beards and moved and gestured in the same manner as the Northern Alliance soldiers beside him. The difference was which side of the valley they were on. Maybe that was the only difference. It was enough. He pulled his global-positioning device from his rucksack and marked his own coordinates. Then he looked at the map and estimated the distance between himself and the bunker, calculating the coordinates of the men. Clockwork. He got on his radio and identified himself, asking the command for planes. Then he switched to a flight frequency and waited for the bombs to come.
He had never been a patient man. It bothered him that he was there and the planes were not. Waiting brought him a feeling of helplessness, the most stifling feeling he knew. He had waited that morning while the Afghan soldiers drank tea and ate fruit and nuts and jackjawed over an endless breakfast. He had been as patient as he could, had tried to wait gracefully, but after several hours he had broken down and interrupted them and insisted they get moving. People were the same no matter where you went, he thought. Most needed leadership.
On the far side of the field, he could see the men dispersing from the bunker he had marked, moving up the hills and down to the trenches. He was angry for a flash. It was bad to lose these opportunities, bad to waste time like this. He didn't want to be in these mountains for five or six months waiting for planes and listening to men jabber in Dari over endless breakfasts. He wanted speed and tangibles. He wanted things to work.
With his scope, he spotted another enemy bunker where some of the men were reconvening, and he calculated new coordinates and waited for the planes again. Finally, one came. He heard the crackle on his radio and spoke to the pilot, and then he called out to the Green Beret team that a B-52 had arrived. It had laser-guided bombs, not satellite, so the Berets prepped their laser marker. On cue, a sergeant stood tall in the trench, holding it with both hands, shining the laser beam through the front doors of the enemy bunker while the plane passed overhead, and soon a streak of bomb came pouring through at five hundred miles per hour, following the energy through the opening of the bunker, bursting into a massive flash, booming echoes across the valley and sending billows of black smoke and burned dirt into the sky.
He gritted his teeth in the mess of it. As the smoke began to clear, he could see the concave impression left on the mountainside where the bunker had collapsed. Fragments of blackened timber poked up from the crater, and enemy soldiers poured in from the hillsides to dig their wounded from the wreckage. He reached for his radio again. He was becoming a warrior fast. He called for a second strike on the same location. He watched the new explosion atomize the men digging for their friends.
THAT NIGHT, EVERYONE retreated to the mud huts and built campfires and ate rice and goat meat with their hands. He and the Berets were becoming friendly now. War brought men together just as it split them apart. They played spades in the huts and went outside and stood under the moon and tried to communicate with the Afghans. They drew shapes in the soil and traded words. He learned the Dari words for friend and enemy, airplane and goat.
He was content to rest like this, but he never would have chosen it. Night was a natural ally, and he would have worked through it. He had night-vision goggles, so he could move freely, as if it were day. He wanted to work in two-day and three-day bursts, leaving no chance for the enemy to rest. Command had given him six months to travel fifty miles up the enemy-fortified valley to Mazar, but he knew he could do it faster than that. If only he could work at night, and if command would send enough planes, he could battle his way through this valley in just a couple months.
But it wasn't up to him. His instructions were to blend with the Northern Alliance soldiers as he would blend with an American team. His orders were to follow their orders. It was their battle. On one level, he understood this. On another level, it bothered him. The Afghans had been in this war too long, long enough to see it as a long war. They would have to drive themselves harder than ever to push through this valley. He wondered if they knew that. He wondered if they were ready to fight for land and hold it or if the whole thing had just become a way of life for them. He dragged his sleeping bag away from the noise and unrolled it and lay down.
TWO DAYS PASSED. Little changed. His stomach began to reject the goat meat, and his bowels became sore. Stubble formed on his chin. He played a lot of spades and sat in the trenches and watched the Afghans trade small-arms fire. He hit targets sporadically, but he spent most of his time waiting for planes. Sometimes he waited for hours.
And then on the third morning in the valley, just as he was waking up, he heard aircraft that he wasn't expecting. He fiddled with his radio to hear what was coming. It was a flight of Navy F-14's in search of a nearby Green Beret team. The pilots sounded frustrated. They had orders to hit targets for the team, but they couldn't find them. Did he have any targets? Matt smiled. Oh, yeah, he said. Everywhere.
The sun was still creeping up, turning from red to white as it rose, and he rattled off a list of target coordinates, then watched as a torrent of thousand-pound MK-83 bombs made black plumes against the horizontal morning light. Soon a flight of F/A-18's materialized and joined the F-14's in battering his targets. Now, this was more like it, he thought. One pilot spotted a cluster of Soviet tanks a few hills away, and a deep tearing sound echoed through the valley as the armor blew apart. The Northern Alliance soldiers heard it and danced. It was still only dawn, and they were just waking up, but enemy bunkers were collapsing already, tanks exploding, trench lines filling with fallout. They had never imagined war like this. With each strike, Matt was taking out ten, twelve, twenty men. The Northern Alliance guys shouted and doubled over with laughter as the bombs fell.
He wanted to shout with them and shake their hands, but he had to stay focused. With each blast, the enemy reconfigured on the battlefield, and he had to track their movements. There was one ridgeline about two thousand meters to the west that caught his eye in particular. He had seen enemy soldiers running there for cover. How many he didn't know. Some had climbed to the top of the ridge and crouched in a bunker. Others hid in the trenches around it. He wanted to strike the whole area and move his men over there. From there, he would be able to spot a whole new set of targets and move closer to the mouth of the canyon.
But there was only a short window of time to make the move. He spoke with the Green Beret team leader, who spoke with the Northern Alliance subcommander, and the go-ahead was given: He landed a series of laser bombs on the bunker and the ridgeline, watched them burst and burn and collapse, then he gathered his equipment, threw it on the back of a horse, hopped in the saddle, and took off across the valley with his men.
Nothing about the valley was remarkable to him. It was the most desolate place he had ever seen. The mountains in the distance caught his eye briefly--they rocketed to the sky in sheer vertical leaps--but the valley floor itself was a dry, brown dustscape without a trace of vegetation. And yet he knew it was precious to the Afghans with him. It was the largest chunk of land they had taken in months, and to them, that's what this war was about. Land. They would never understand what it was to him, what he had felt in Kansas in September, the shock of it. These men were numb to that kind of shock, as he was numbing now.
As he neared the ridgeline, he heard gunfire picking up. Dirt scattered around him. He could see enemy troops to the south and west, all taking shots in his direction. He had read somewhere that a hundred thousand shots were fired for every man hit. He could believe it now. The bullets scattered wildly. He tried to ignore them. You either adjusted or you lost yourself. He had heard that, too. He climbed the ridge on his horse and settled into the trench. He radioed for more air support, but planes would be a while coming; the F-14's had flown off to resupply, and the F/A-18's were low on ammo. He wondered how long they could hold this position with nothing but their rifles. He wondered what was coming next in the sky. Maybe a bomber this time. Satellite munitions would help.
Then he saw the ZSU 23-2 moving across the far side of the battlefield. It was a Soviet antiaircraft gun, fifteen feet long and double-barreled. It took two men to operate. The shells were the size of knockwursts, and it could squeeze off a thousand rounds per minute at a distance of seven thousand meters, or a little more than four miles. The enemy had bolted it onto a truck bed and pointed it at him. Fuck. He had a girlfriend back home. No, he couldn't think about that. The bullets were coming like missiles, hard and loud, thudding the soil around the trench. He had to stay focused. He was the only one who could get rid of that thing. They couldn't shoot it away. Their bullets wouldn't even carry that far. He needed some satellite-guided JDAMs, but all he had left was an F/A-18 with one laser bomb. That meant somebody would have to stand in the trench and brave the fire to direct the laser sight. Not a pretty option. But it was that or nothing. He got on the radio with the F/A-18. Bring it in, he said, and a Green Beret sergeant took the sight with both hands and stood in the showering dirt and pointed it at the target. But just as the bomb screamed overhead and down the energy beam, the ZSU 23-2 rolled behind a hill. The bomb erupted beside it. Shit. Had it been close enough? Had they wiped it out? Or was it about to veer around the other side of the hill and come out firing again?
There wasn't time to think about it. The small-arms fire had reached a frenzy, and he could see the enemy standing in trenches on all sides, firing. They were under full counterattack. He shouted into his radio, "American troops in contact!" but even as he did, he saw the mass of men with machine guns to the west rushing his position full tilt. They were still at least half a mile out, maybe even a mile, but as they reached the top of each successive hill, they paused and opened fire, then streaked to the next perch and fired again. They looked like a swarm of locusts.
He heard the Northern Alliance subcommander shout behind him. He turned and saw the subcommander pointing and jumping around. He wanted to retreat. The Green Beret team leader was shouting back at him, waving his hands to show that more aircraft were coming, but the subcommander wouldn't hear it. He threw his AK-47 on the ground and picked it up and threw it down again, four or five times in a row, until it was mangled. When he realized he had wrecked his weapon, he paused, then tried to take the team leader's M-4, but the team leader yanked it away, saying, "No way, hell no," which only upset the subcommander more.
Matt's radio crackled, and he turned his attention back to it. A B-52 was on the way, calling to check in. He strained to hear the pilot's voice over the shouting behind him. The bird was still ten minutes out. Could he wait? He looked at the field. Enemy troops were closing fast. Ten minutes was pushing it. He tried to brief the pilot on the situation, but he felt someone tugging his shoulder, and when he turned around, the subcommander was in his face shouting, spitting on his lips and nose, pointing at the enemy and stomping his feet. Matt wished he spoke Dari. "Get the fuck out of my face!" he shouted in English, shoving the subcommander away and turning back to the radio, trying to ignore the frantic incoming fire. He sketched the layout of the battlefield in words for the pilot. He tried to anticipate where the enemy would be when the plane arrived. And when he finished, he looked up and saw that the subcommander and his men had mounted their horses and were galloping away. He watched as the last one disappeared over a hill.
Then the rocket hit. There was a whistling sound and a concussion that sent a load of dust into his face and made the walls of the trench vibrate. He sat stunned for long seconds. His head wouldn't clean He heard the pilots on his radio asking if he was still there. He tried to get awake, tried to move. Yeah, he mumbled finally. Yeah, he was still there. Where were they? In position, they said. The plane was stacked with twelve JDAMs.
Shit. Now that he needed laser bombs, they were finally giving him satellite. Those were designed for static targets, big things that didn't move. He needed to hit people. How do you draw coordinates for a gang of men running across a valley? Even dumb bombs would have been more useful now. But fuck it. He gave the pilot a rough set of coordinates and told him to spread the damage in that general area. Then he told the Green Berets to get their heads into the trenches because hell was coming.
He had never heard a sound like what he heard next. It was the sound of sixteen thousand pounds of explosives detonating almost simultaneously less than a half mile from where he sat. It didn't even sound like a noise. It had no character or texture or tone, just volume. It was the sound of every noise all at once, a sonic roar. And when he finally peeked over the edge of the trench, all he could see was a dense wall of black smoke, several hundred meters long, rising into the sky. The stench of explosives burned in his nostrils. He called for the four remaining bombs to finish off any survivors, but just as he heard the pilot call "Bombs away," he turned and saw another gang of men pouring toward him from the south.
He had nothing left. The B-52 was out of bombs. No more planes were on the way. The enemy soldiers to the south would be on his ridgeline in a matter of minutes. He realized that they were going to capture his position whether he was there or not. He looked at the Green Berets. Nobody had to say it. He raised the radio and hailed the B-52. We're leaving position, he said. We'll be in touch as we go.
Time was close. The Northern Alliance had ridden off with their horses, so they threw together their things and put on their rucksacks and took off running, skirting the top of the ridgeline. They didn't know how far they would have to run or how much time the running would buy them. Running would not be enough. On foot, they would be overtaken. That much was certain. The Taliban had no rucksacks to carry, only AK-47's. They knew the terrain and could move through it effortlessly. Soon their faces would pop over the ridgeline and they would begin firing down. Then it would be over. It would be a massacre.
He kept his radio headpiece on, but he saved his breath to power his legs. His boots were sticking in the sand and he was losing speed. There had to be another way out, he thought. His eyes darted around for ideas. At the bottom of the ridgeline, he spotted a small rocky outcropping. Bingo. They could take cover there. But how could they get down that far? It was a long way, and the slope of the hill was too steep to run. He dropped on his butt and slid. The crush of rocks tore into his tailbone, but he pushed himself faster and faster with his hands, and when he reached the bottom, he dove into the rocks. The Berets joined him, and they crouched together, looking up the hill for the first sign of the enemy.
Then he heard the crackle of his radio again. It was the B-52 pilot. There was a flight of F14's nearby; did he want them? It took him a minute to decide. The F-14's were restricted to high altitude to avoid taking Taliban Stinger missiles, but if the pilots wanted to help him now, they'd have to fly low to see their targets. They would also have to use their cannon fire, which meant thousands of 20mm rounds spraying the rocks around him. Not safe. He studied the terrain again. He and the Berets were going to be outnumbered, and they held the low ground. Their M-4's didn't have as much range as the AK-47's. They had no chance. Okay, Matt said to the F-14 pilot. Bring it in, but be careful. He recommended a flight path and ducked into the rocks while the F-14 swept low over the ridge, strafing. All he could do was hold his breath and hope he wasn't hit.
And then it was quiet. He could hear the fighter in the distance, dropping dumb bombs on enemy troops farther afield. He waited, listening. Soon the pilot checked in. That was it, he said. He had spent his load and the enemy was de ad, and he was heading back. It was over.
THEY FOUND THE Northern Alliance men back at the place they had started from that morning. He threw off his rucksack and sat looking over the battlefield without a word. He was furious and bitter and his chest was tight. In the distance, he could see the enemy moving back onto the ridgeline. His ridgeline. After all the men he had killed that day, he was back where he started, and now he wondered if six months would even be enough time to seize the valley with men like these, who couldn't hold a piece of ground for a single afternoon. The push had seemed so strong that morning. If only they had been able to keep the ridgeline, they would have controlled a whole new section of the valley, and they could have continued their march into the Dar-i-Suf Canyon. Instead, they had gotten nowhere.
The evening light spread across the valley in the same shades of orange and gold that he had enjoyed that morning when the F-14's arrived, but it was different now. He couldn't let the day go. The Afghans were prepping dinner, but he wasn't hungry. He took out his map. One of the Green Beret sergeants came over and asked what he was doing.
Making coordinates, he mumbled. For the ridgeline.
The sergeant frowned. But don't you already have them on your GPS?
And suddenly a weight was gone and he lifted his head and laughed. He did have them. He had them exactly. He knew the coordinates of the men on the ridgeline because he had been on the ridgeline earlier that day and he had marked the spot as a matter of protocol. Now all he had to do was pull those coordinates off his GPS and he could stage a perfect strike. His mood lifted. He raised his radio and hailed a B-52. Two JDAMs, he said. The first one set for impact fusing, to burrow in as it blew, the second one set for proximity fusing, to detonate in the air and rain shrapnel down on the heads of any survivors. That'll teach the sons of bitches, he thought. He signed off with the pilot and picked up his spotting scope. It would take one minute for the bombs to hit.
He could see several men at the top of the ridge. Some were talking to one another, some were digging new fighting positions. One little guy was walking toward his friends in a hurry to help clear debris from the trench line. Four, three, two, one, and a ball of flame erupted around them. He watched the torch for a minute, then put down the scope. He wondered if anything was left of those men. Probably not. They had probably been vaporized in the blast. Good.
He turned to face the Northern Alliance sub-commander, who had come forward to watch the explosion. They nodded to each other. Matt shot a look at the Afghan men, then nodded toward the ridgeline. Get your troops over there, he was saying. Hold that piece overnight. We'll be moving through tomorrow.
AND THEN THE enemy was gone. He had never imagined it would happen so quickly. At daybreak, he looked over the valley floor and it was deserted. The Taliban had snaked up through the mouth of the canyon and headed back toward Mazar, sixty miles away. So this is it, he thought. We're on the chase.
He ate breakfast and grabbed his rucksack and jumped on his horse and rode across the valley with his men. Other Northern Alliance factions were flooding in from the surrounding hills to move up the canyon together, thousands of them in all. Gun battles flared up where they encountered pockets of enemy troops. He wondered who the holdouts were. Were they too brave or too weak to run?
At the mouth of the Dar-i-Suf Canyon, he stopped by a collapsed bunker and watched as thousands of Northern Alliance soldiers streamed by him in turbans and tunics. He studied the bunker up close. There was blood splattered inside it, and body parts were strewn in front. He saw a head and torso smushed into the dirt, bleeding out of the eyes. He saw a piece of a foot with three toes attached. He realized that there was a difference between feeling sick and feeling sorry. The carnage was enough to turn his stomach, but he felt no sympathy at all.
Another Green Beret unit stopped and spoke with him. They had seen his bombs over the hills. He had done good work. He nodded. There were still many miles to go, straight up the canyon and through the Balkh Valley. Somewhere along the way, the enemy would appear. There was plenty of good work left to do.
Matt made his way into the canyon. The cliffs sprang from the riverbed, and the road sliced up the narrow bank. There were burned-out vehicles and bodies scattered by the trail. He rode next to a Green Beret from another unit who said he had seen a dog pulling a torso that didn't have any head, arms, or legs. The Beret said he had laughed when he saw it, and that one of the Northern Alliance men had looked at him with hatred for laughing. Hearing that story, Matt realized that he would have laughed, too. And if that was heartless--if it was heartless to hate your enemies--he could live with being heartless. War was heartless. September had been heartless.
He spent that night in a hut with pots and pans and children's books lying on the floor. There was a copy of the Koran that had been left open. To be in that place gave him a feeling he couldn't identify. It seemed too personal somehow. The people who lived there had fled from him. Why? Were they Taliban? Or just scared? He was eager to leave the next morning.
At noon the next day, his unit stopped at the town of Keshendeh, forty miles south of Mazar. The Northern Alliance subcommander wanted to meet with another commander, and everyone from both teams had to wait. Matt spent the afternoon on a rickety wooden porch eating nuts and watching men roll by with guns slung over their shoulders. They were loud and argued with one another. It reminded him of Dodge City, from the westerns he watched as a kid. When a gunfight broke out between two Northern Alliance factions, he went inside and sat by the window with his rifle. Automatic fire echoed through the canyon for almost an hour. When it was over, he went back outside and asked questions. The fight had been over a goat or a horse; nobody was sure which. A young boy had started it. Later he saw men escorting the boy to his execution.
The next day, his team rode farther north. Still no sign of the enemy, but he did run into another ST Commando, a guy named Dennis he had known for five years. At their base in Florida, Matt and Dennis rode motorcycles together and went out to bars and clubs. Now they found themselves telling war stories in Afghanistan. Only ten days had passed since they were on the staging base together, with military meals and mirrors to shave with. So much had changed since then. They had pierced enemy lines and killed men. They had beards and dirty hands. They had each lost ten pounds. They had lost a lot of things.
Dennis shouted when Matt told him about the counterattack on the ridgeline. "Man!" he said. "Did you get any trigger time?"
"Yeah, I was squeezing the trigger off."
"I would've stayed there and fought till the end," Dennis said.
"Nah," said Matt. "It wasn't worth it. They were going to get the hill either way. The Northern Alliance guys took off."
"Why didn't they stay?"
"You know these guys. They're not gonna stay and fight."
They studied the ground for a minute, and just as they were about to say goodbye, a Northern Alliance soldier came running over. It was time to move. The enemy had surfaced at a place called the Gap that was thirty miles north, where the mountains stopped and the valley spread open again. The Gap was the Taliban's last stand, the gateway to Mazar. It was time to get there and engage. Matt piled into the back of a Soviet flatbed truck with his unit and another Beret team he didn't know. They arrived at midnight and huffed up a trail into the mountains on horseback. It was four o'clock in the morning when they reached the summit. Rain streaked diagonally across the sky, and clouds and fog obscured the world. He wrapped himself in his poncho and shivered until daybreak.
When at last the dawn cut through the fog and lit up the canyon, he looked down and saw enemy positions sprinkled across the hills, and he remembered looking down from the other mountain, at the mouth of Dar-i-Suf, ten days earlier. He thought about how different he had felt then. War came easily now. It did not excite or disturb him. It did not scare or stimulate him. It just was.
He took an inventory of the enemy. They had bunkers and outposts at the higher elevations and vehicles down by the river, and in the low-lying hills they traded fire with the Northern Alliance men. This would be the last barrier between the Northern Alliance and Mazar. This was the dam to stave off the flood. It was his dam to break.
He did a radio check. There were F-14's and F-15's and F/A-18's and B-52's above, more airpower than he could possibly use. He looked down the river and saw a group of men walking slowly toward the battle. He watched them through his scope. They wore black turbans and they were moving toward the Taliban lines. Enemy. He hailed a B-52 and requested a strike of dumb bombs. He had counted thirteen men. He called in eighteen 500-pound bombs.
Through his scope he could see the men bolt when they heard the plane sweep above them, but by the time they broke into a run, the bombs were already coming down, and he watched as the streaks landed on the men and turned them into black smoke. Then he looked for something else to hit.
Up the riverbed, he saw a five-vehicle convoy approaching the battlefield. He counted fifteen men inside. The Northern Alliance subcommander had seen the convoy, too, and he was shouting and pointing at the vehicles, gnawing on a hunk of goat meat that he held in his bare hands. Matt hailed a B-52 and landed a volley of fifteen dumb bombs on the convoy. The subcommander jumped around, tearing apart his piece of goat meat and trying to share it with the Green Berets. Matt kept his scope high, scanning for targets.
He hit bunkers and trenches and outposts, directing fire with the cool detachment of a practiced warrior. Soon the Gap was clear and the Northern Alliance soldiers trickled down the hillsides and into the river valley, up toward the city. But Matt didn't leave the mountain. By afternoon, a group of ranking American commanders, including a Green Beret lieutenant colonel and several Beret team leaders, had joined him on the observation point. There were maybe ten Americans now. They were men of few words. They looked out over the valley quietly. It was wet and misty and decimated. When an F-15 pilot checked in on the radio to describe a convoy of two hundred vehicles fleeing from the eastern side of the city, another ST Commando calmly gave the order to engage the targets. Several minutes passed, then the pilot reported back. The two hundred vehicles had been destroyed.
Matt breathed deeply. It was done now. The city was taken. The enemy was destroyed. They had been given six months to get to Mazar, and it had taken just over a week. The last few days of it seemed like a dream. They were a dream to him. The mission had given him something that eight years of training never could. He was different now, unconflicted. Now he knew what he was. He knew that he could kill, and without hesitation, without losing a wink of sleep. He knew he could handle the pressures and the vulgarities of war. He knew that he was a soldier, and he smiled and was glad.