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Cold in Gardez


Stories about ponies are stories about people.

More Blog Posts181

  • 1 week
    Against Literalism

    “I think I see it,” Rainbow Dash whispered. She squeezed as low to the rocks as she could and crawled forward over the tumbled-down ruins of the jungle temple. “It’s just up ahead, in the nave.”

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    18 comments · 539 views
  • 3 weeks
    Who loves Sci-Fi (Spoiler: It's this guy)

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    16 comments · 403 views
  • 6 weeks
    Some original fantasy writing

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    12 comments · 479 views
  • 9 weeks
    Romance Novels

    “What if,” Spike said, “Ginger Gypsy hadn’t been afraid to confess her love? Would you still hate her so much?”

    I frowned. “Hate is a strong word. I never said I hated her.”

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    24 comments · 637 views
  • 11 weeks
    Back to a more normal posting schedule

    Hey folks,

    I just published a pretty huge chapter in my favorite story, The World is Filled with Monsters. I have a good plan for the rest of the current act, and the rest of the story to follow.

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    26 comments · 547 views
Sep
26th
2021

That drone strike in Afghanistan... · 5:14pm Sep 26th, 2021

After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and in particular after the drone strike that killed an aid worker and several family members, a few people reached out to ask about I story I wrote several years ago for the Writeoff original fiction contest. It was, in fact, the first original fiction piece I'd written in years, and it dealt with the (fictional) aftermath of drone strike that went wrong. I had removed it from the Writeoff site, but since enough people have inquired about it, I've decided to post it here.

Although inspired by real events and my experiences, the specifics of this story are all fiction.


IDDP

Seen from thirteen-thousand feet, the motorbike was little more than a bright spark flying across the sere brown moonscape of southern Afghanistan. The few rolling hills and even fewer trees did nothing to block our view of the man, though distance and haze and dust all conspired to blur him into more the idea of a rider than anything concrete. Only his tan kameez, worn beneath a thin black vest and whipping in the draft behind him, served to differentiate him from the millions of other bearded men going about their lives beneath us.

His motorbike was fast, but the aircraft was faster. It was small and light and nearly invisible from seven kilometers away, but none of that mattered because men who ride motorbikes across the patchy dirt roads of Zabul province can’t afford to look at the sky for more than a few seconds unless they want to wipe out. As far as our target was concerned, he was the only person for miles around. 

Which was perfect for our purposes. Much safer that way.

The aircraft slowly orbited over the motorbike. Unconstrained by the twisting and turning landscape it flew nearly perfect circles around the man, completing a single gyre every few minutes. It gave us a slowly rotating perspective – first the man’s right side, then his front, his left, and finally his back.

“Can you pause there?” I asked.

The analyst pushed a key, and the image on our screen froze. It seemed to lose half its detail, blurring into a mess of blocky pixels, and for a moment the illusion of reality fled. Nothing on the screen resembled a man or a motorbike.

I reached over the analysts’ shoulder and tapped the forward arrow. The image advanced, one frame at a time, and clarity returned. The blur became a man, sitting on a chrome bike, and the streaks behind him resolved as cracks and rocks in the bare earth.

“You can see his weapon here,” the analyst, a young Navy petty officer, said. She tapped the screen with her pen, atop the man’s back. “AK-47 or, uh, RPK. Slung behind him under the vest.”

I frowned at the screen. There was a small, almost imperceptible glint near the bottom of his vest, and the merest suggestion of a straight, narrow shape. The barrel, supposedly.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, he’s trying to hide it, but it’s too long to fit under the vest. You can see better images of it later.”

“Show me.”

The petty officer glanced at her notebook, a scribbled mess of arcane acronyms, numbers, times and coordinates in two different colors of ink, as though she had lost whatever pen she started the page with. It was all hieroglyphics to me, but she must have found what she was looking for and punched some numbers into the keyboard. The screen went black except for a tiny hourglass icon spinning in the center, and when the image returned the shadows were longer. The timestamp in the video’s upper corner read 1434Z. Early afternoon for people sipping tea in Greenwich, England, but late evening here in Afghanistan. The low sun, filtered through the ever-present summer dust, painted the video with orange and yellow.

The man stopped on the side of the road, standing next to his bike. He was talking on a cell phone, the one piece of modernity that Afghans had embraced without hesitation, and walked in a slow circle, kicking little rocks across the road. 

And there was the weapon, plainly visible now, so obvious I felt stupid for not seeing it earlier. The blocky receiver and folding stock between his shoulder blades, the curved magazine that followed his spine. 

Who is he talking to? I wondered. A wife, a friend, a son? Another insurgent, preparing an attack on the district police station? Perhaps chatting with the police. Afghanistan’s civil war was messy, with twisting lines between the warring sides that made sense only to the Afghans themselves. Men who embraced and called each other ‘brother’ one day might shoot at each other the next. 

“Do we know who he’s calling?” I asked. Worth a shot.

She shook her head. “No, we don’t even know who he is. Just an associate of Abdul Aziq. Low level fighter, probably.”

I’d heard that name too much lately. Abdul Aziq was the Taliban shadow governor for Zabul Province. Like most senior Taliban he never actually set foot in Afghanistan, preferring to hole up in one of the Pakistani sanctuaries south of the border. Afghanistan, after all, was a dangerous place. You never knew when an American drone might be overhead.

It didn’t look like the man was in a hurry to finish his phone call. “Can you skip to the strike?”

“Sure.” The analyst punched in another set of numbers, not even bothering to check her notebook. “This is about five minutes out.”

A black and white scene replaced the warm evening. Several hours after sunset, according to the timestamp, and the drone had switched to its IR camera. The resolution was lower than the daylight camera, but the image was sharper – no blur of brown and gray here, just bright white and deep black. The motorbike, with its hot engine, raced like a star across the darkness.

He had crossed the desert, and now there were trees lining the road. I could see them in my mind’s eye, dusty poplars that shaded our humvees in a memory years gone by. Now they were only black shapes on the screen. The motorbike danced between them, here and gone, there and gone. Tall mud walls, the traditional form of architecture in rural Afghanistan, blocked the rider’s view.

They didn’t block the drone’s view, of course. The walls were just lines on the ground to us, with houses on one side and the vast emptiness on the other. They provided not even the illusion of privacy.

“He’ll be out of the village in about 200 meters,” the analyst said. “The strike was authorized as soon as he hit green terrain.”

The 200 meters passed quickly, and soon the motorcycle was back in the barrens. Civilization was like that here. Spots of life: farms, trees and people wherever water flowed, then empty desert for miles. The camera briefly zoomed out, giving us a god’s-eye view of the parched land below. The motorbike was an almost invisible speck, a single white pixel against the endless black world.

The drone zoomed in again, and a white reticle appeared over the speeding bike. A black box drew itself around him as the drone’s computer accepted the distant pilot’s target. Block letters appeared beneath the box. LSR DSG.

Laser designated. The only part of a complex electronic dance that humans could see. The drone illuminated the motorbike with a pulsed IR laser, invisible to our eyes, and determined the target’s exact distance and bearing. It passed the information to the Hellfire missile hanging from the drone’s wing, which accepted the telemetry and began calculating a controlled burn that would take it in a high arc toward the target. The seeker head in the missile’s nose activated and began passively searching for the laser’s dot.

All this happened in milliseconds, before I even finished reading the letters. I only knew the steps involved from my training books, and those were years out of date. For all I knew Raytheon or whoever made the missiles now had developed something faster, better, more lethal.

The image shook and lost focus for a moment as the Hellfire left the rail. “Launch,” the analyst said. “Thirty seconds time-of-flight.”

The video was nearly twelve hours old at this point, and I was struck with the odd sense of watching a television rerun, or a show I’d never watched but nevertheless knew how it ended. There was no mystery here.

I started counting up in my head. I reached ‘ten’ when things started going wrong.

The motorbike slowed, and rather than continue on the empty road turned down a smaller path. After a hundred feet small compounds appeared alongside the road. The path bent in a gentle turn, and the motorbike slowed more. About twenty-five seconds had passed, I guessed. A small single-family compound sat north of the road, its walls forming a box on our screen, inside which was a low house with a few evening lights still burning in the courtyard.

The camera shifted violently, jerking away from the man on his motorbike. It slewed south, into an empty field, then bounced madly around, up and left and right, never stopping. The missile impacted just as the camera, and its laser reticle, crossed the compound.

Hellfires don’t have a large warhead, as missiles go. They were designed to kill tanks by punching through their thin top armor with a shaped charge. Modern Hellfires, like the Romeo version on our screen, were modified with a general-purpose high explosive and a fragmenting metal sleeve. The warhead only weighed eight kilograms or so, which doesn’t sound like much until it goes off right next to you. Then it sounds very loud.

The screen flashed white, overwhelmed by the explosion’s IR signature. When it adjusted a plume of bright grey smoke rose from the compound, lit from below by the brilliant light of the missile’s impact. A thousand bright sparks slowly settled to the ground, turning the world into a speckled starscape. A fire burned in the corner of the compound where the explosion had ignited a pile of hay.

Outside, the man had fallen from his motorbike. He ran to it and stood it up, then sped away at dangerous speeds. The camera didn’t bother following him. Instead it watched the burning compound.

“Shit,” I mumbled.

“Yeah, someone fucked up,” the analyst said. She paused the video and pushed her swivel chair away from the desk to face me. “So, how’d you get tapped for this?”

* * *

I was dreaming of Minnesota when the knock came.

Dreams are haunting things in Afghanistan. Aside from the stress and strange impulses that unwound themselves in our minds while we slept, most of us were on a strict regimen of doxycycline to prevent malaria. Nevermind that there were only a few cases of malaria per year in Afghanistan, and they were all in the south or southeast and not the mountains of Parwan province where Bagram Air Base was located. The military loved uniformity, so when it said “Take your fucking doxy,” we saluted and took our fucking doxy.

Doxycycline is a powerful antibiotic with some odd side-effects, the strangest being vivid dreams. It sounds kind of fun until you try it and wake up in the morning after six hours of tossing and turning, convinced that camel spiders were sharing the bed with you. Then maybe you consider dumping the rest of your pills in the trash.

The Minnesota of my dreams was filled with forests and lakes and forests that grew in lakes and fishermen that stood in trees with their lines tangled in branches, pulling bass from the leaves. It wasn’t a bad dream, just strange, and I probably wouldn’t have woken in a cold, panicked sweat at the end.

The knock came before that could happen. The tiny room’s other bed creaked as my roommate rose to answer the door, and I did my best to ignore his mumbled conversation with whoever had decided to interrupt our sleep schedule.

No dice. “Hey, Joe, it’s for you bud,” Rafael said. I heard the squeak of his bedsprings as he crawled back under the covers.

Fuck. I groped for my watch and wished I hadn’t when I saw the time. One in the damn morning. Why did shit always go wrong at one in the morning?

A young specialist was waiting outside when I opened the door. “Major Martin?” he asked.

“Yeah.” I realized, belatedly, that I was standing in my boxers. Not exactly the uniform of the day, but I was too groggy to care. “What’s up?”

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but the Chief of Staff wants to see you.”

“Now?”

“Yes sir.”

No more sleep tonight, then. Fuck. “Okay, thanks. Tell him I’ll be right in.”

Rafael grumbled and pulled the covers over his head while I got dressed, but I didn’t much care. He still got a full night’s sleep, after all.



The JOC buzzed with mumbled conversations and keyboards when I walked in ten minutes later. Task Force Typhoon did most of its work at night, which meant our compound was a relative ghost town during the day. Easy for daywalkers like me to forget just how many people worked here, sometimes.

The chief’s office was on the second floor, just a few doors down from the giant control room where dozens of large screens displayed video feeds from aircraft around the country. The chatter of a hundred analysts, programmers, targeteers, computer technicians, linguists and a dozen other specialties filled the amphitheater-like room. I walked down the rows feeling, as always, like a bit of an imposter. These were dedicated professionals, men and women who’d worked their way up the ranks of the special operations community, and they had to share their compound with me, an outsider whose sole relevant virtue was a bachelor’s degree in South Asian cultures, earned years before the war started and anybody thought this distant shithole might actually matter to America. I could barely remember the names of half the courses I took, but that was still enough to be branded an expert, and with that shaky credential I found myself in Afghanistan, at war with the very people I’d spent years studying.

Odd how life works, sometimes.

The colonel was at his desk when I knocked. He looked up from the computer and motioned me into the office.

“Hey Joe, have a seat.” He pushed around a few of the dozens of folders spilling over the sides of his desk and finally selected a plain blue one. He flipped it open, scanned the contents, then passed it across the desk toward me.

“We had an accident last night,” he said. “Kinetic strike went off target and struck a compound. Doesn’t look like anyone was hurt, but we still need an investigation. You ever done one of these?”

Ah, damn it. I took the folder and opened it to the first page, a memorandum with my name on top appointing me as an investigating officer. “Yeah, for lost property and COMSEC. Never something like this.”

“Don’t worry, it’s an easy one. Should only take a day or so.” The colonel took a sip from his World’s Best Boss mug while I glanced over the folder’s contents. “It’s more a formality than anything else, but we still need a report.”

“Any deadlines?”

He shook his head. “Take as long as you need. The pilots will probably want you to finish soon, though, so they can get back to flying.”

“Yeah, don’t want them to lose their flight pay.” I fished my pen out and signed the bottom of the memorandum, along with the date. “Anywhere in particular I should start?”

“Talk with Intel. They’ve got the video and they know you’re coming. With any luck, you’ll be able to finish right there.”

He sounded hopeful. I guess to try and run this war, you had to be.

* * *

After I watched the strike, I got to watch it again. Except, this time, from the very beginning. Five hours earlier.

The greatest advantage of Unmanned Aerial Systems, or “drones” as everyone but their pilots called them, was that they could loiter unseen over their target for hours at a time. If you were really curious about a target, you could assign multiple drones to cover it in shifts, resulting in 24-hour coverage. In theory we could watch someone’s entire life from the air in Afghanistan, record it all in high-definition video, and broadcast it over the SIPRnet to every analyst in the Department of Defense.

This advantage was working to my disadvantage at the moment, in that I had dozens of hours of video to watch if I wanted. Every hour in Afghanistan, drones and other aircraft captured nearly a hundred hours of video. Analysts had to sleep, unlike drones, which meant it took three or four hundred humans just to watch all the video being created by this war.

Petty Officer Taylor, or Kristine as she insisted I call her, was one of those analysts. She had a bubbly personality and poofy blonde hair to match, just barely held within the bounds of military regulation by a dozen bobby pins. Lurking behind the smile and the hair was a razor-sharp mind that had already surprised me several times in our short time together. It seemed like there wasn’t a single aspect of Afghanistan, or at least Afghanistan as seen from her drones, that she couldn’t explain with expert insight. I didn’t even mention my degree in South Asian studies – it would have just been embarrassing.

“This is where Tangerine picked him up,” she said, using the drone’s name, as the video queued up. It was around noon on the day of the strike and showed a dust-washed cityscape. Mud walls co-existed with short concrete buildings, all pressed cheek-to-jowl in a disordered mess that reminded me of an ant’s nest. The walls formed a warren of paths and roads, casting sharp shadows that hid whoever walked within them.

The video panned around the city as the drone found its place. The city, Shin Kay, was about three miles across, beyond which extended another several miles of irrigated fields that shone like emeralds. Further out lay the endless expanse of the Afghan desert. In the distance, barely visible when the drone observed the horizon, were the tall peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains.

The camera settled on a large building near the edge of the city and began its slow orbit, providing us with a rotating view of the target. Two stories, with straight concrete walls, large windows, and a relatively open view of the compounds around it. It was also missing the compound wall that surrounded most of the other buildings in the city.

“Mosque?” I guessed.

“Yep. You can see the mihrab on the west side when the drone moves around, and it has those little minarets on the corners.”

I squinted at the screen, and it still took a moment to see what she was talking about. Afghan minarets weren’t the tall, slender spires of Arabia – Afghans preferred short little points on the corners of their mosques, more of a nod toward the idea of a minaret than an actual architectural feature. As the drone circled, the mosque’s mihrab came into view, a shallow bulge in the wall pointing toward Mecca.

“What’s the story with it?”

“We’ve been watching it for a few weeks. Rumor was that Aziq stayed there when he came across the border, but that never panned out. But it turned out one of his lieutenants is using the place for meetings and to store weapons.”

I scribbled a few bullets in my notebook. “We have evidence of that?”

“All kinds. In fact, it’s what led to yesterday’s strike.” Kristine flipped back through a few pages in her notes and set the video to a new time.

It was an hour or so later, judging by the shadows. A group of men stood outside the mosque’s entrance next to a small stand of motorbikes. They all had weapons, and not the little kind – several held PKMs, and one man held what could only be an RPG launcher. A quiver slung over his back held several more rockets, sticking over his shoulder like massively oversized arrows.

“The one in the black trads is Siraj Homayun, the shadow district commander. We’d love to kill him, but he never leaves the damn mosque.” Kristine crossed her arms, which had the unintended effect of emphasizing her sizable bust. I forced myself to stare at the screen. Five months in country, with only a few women around, sometimes made for distracting work environments.

“He’s the lieutenant?” I asked.

“Yeah, commands about fifteen fighters. We also suspect he’s involved in IEDs along the Kabul-Qalat highway, but that’s just a guess.”

We watched the Taliban for a while. They seemed to be engaged in the great Afghan pastime – standing around staring at rocks. There was a constant flow of pedestrian traffic around them, all men, and none of whom seemed to be at all concerned by the heavy weapons the fighters casually brandished. A few even waved as they passed. 

At one point, a dark green Ranger pickup trundled by. The Afghan police officers sitting in the bed watched the Taliban, and the Taliban stood and stared back. But the pickup never stopped, and once it was gone everyone relaxed.

Guess they didn’t want to fight near a mosque. What a weird fucking war this was, sometimes.

It could have been a very long day, but fortunately whoever designed the Task Force’s video system figured we might need high-speed playback. At 16x speed it only took a few minutes to get to the next important part of the video.

A new motorbike pulled up to the mosque, ridden by a man in a tan kameez under a black vest. He dismounted and exchanged the traditional Afghan bro-hug with the other fighters, then joined them in standing there and not doing much else.

“That’s our guy, right?”

“Yup. Nothing particularly special, but he’s got a weapon and it’s the first time we’ve seen him. He leaves in a few minutes and we decided to follow him. Figured we might find a new beddown location.”

I frowned. “How do we know this dude’s a bad guy? All he did was walk up and hug them. Afghan men do that with everyone.” Hell, most American men did it too.

“He’s got a gun, he’s on a motorbike, and knowingly associated with militants.” She ticked the points off on her fingers as she spoke. “That’s enough to count him as an associate. Besides, do you really think he’s innocent?”

“Everyone in Afghanistan has a gun.” Not quite true, but it also wasn’t illegal to own a small weapon like an AK-47. Afghanistan: the only country in the world where an AK-47 was considered a small arm.

“Yeah, but they don’t all ride up to a known Taliban hideout and have a chat. This guy’s a fighter of some sort.”

I wanted to argue the point some more, but I didn’t have any ground to stand on. We’d killed people for worse reasons in the past, and this was a war. People died in wars.

“Alright,” I conceded. “Let’s keep going.”

Not long after, the drone followed our man out of Shin Kay into the desert. Soon enough we were back to the parts of the video I’d already seen. We watched the botched strike again, and I asked Kristine to replay it.

“What happened?” I asked.

“No idea. The drone had a good lock on the motorbike, and he wasn’t moving very fast. The pilots were probably worried about how close he was to the compound, but there were plenty of safe spaces to dump the missile that didn’t include someone’s house.”

“Best guess?”

She rewound the video to a few seconds before impact. “It’s just a guess, but I think the pilot saw the compound and panicked. He tried to slew into the field, realized he didn’t have authorization to shift the missile, and tried to put it back on target. He overcorrected and ended up right on top of the compound when the missile hit.”

“The missile can turn that fast?”

“Oh, yeah.” She let the video play again. The man on his motorbike slowed through the turn, and the compound came into the top of the frame. Almost immediately the camera swung south, then around to the side, briefly crossing back over the target before continuing north over the compound when the missile struck. “The missile was still a kilometer away when the camera started moving. Plenty of time for the seeker head to track the laser and maneuver.”

“What about our guy?” As I watched the target vanished off the edge of the screen.

“I assume he went home to change his pants. And now he’s got a great story. Probably get a promotion out of it, too. We’ll kill him later.”

Bloodthirsty. Though, to be fair, that was exactly the type of person Task Force Typhoon wanted. “What was the justification for the strike?”

“What do you mean?” She turned sharply away from the monitor, giving me her full attention.

“Who authorized it? What authority did they use?”

“Oh, not my job. I just find the bad guys, you know? The S3 decides what to do with them.”

I nodded. I already had made up my mind to speak with the director of operations. “Sorry, didn’t mean to imply you did. From an intel perspective, though, is there anything else I need to know?”

“Nah. It just happens, you know? Accidents, I mean. No one died.”

I glanced back at the video screen, which still showed the burning compound. “We’re sure about that?”

“Yeah, we watched the site for hours. Some men came out later to put out the fires, but there was no mass gathering like you’d expect after someone died. No funeral, either.”

* * *

It was almost noon by the time I left the intel shop. There were no windows in the Task Force’s compound, and no way of knowing what time of day it was unless you looked at one of the live video feeds. A picture of sunlight from Kandahar was the closest I got to the real thing some days.

Even in July, Bagram air base never got too hot. Too high in the mountains, nearly the same altitude as Denver. The north faces of some of the high peaks around us still bore white streaks of snow in their deeper ridges. Even at the height of summer, winter was never far away.

A hot gust shoved me back a step and pelted my face with sand. The summer winds were in full force already, turning the sky a dusty beige and filling our teeth with grit. The winds of 120 days, as the Afghans called them. A never-ending gale that stripped the earth, picking it up and scattering it across half of Asia. I had to close my eyes to keep from going blind.

I could faintly hear the airfield – jet engines wrestling with the wind’s howl. The larger prop planes would be fine, but smaller drone aircraft were probably grounded for the day. They were under-engined toys compared with the C-130s and would flip over if they weren’t tied down.

I pulled my hat down hard, checked the retaining strap on my holster, and set out into the wind-blown streets of Bagram to join the ghostly figures marching through the dust.

* * *

The 38th Reconnaissance Squadron flew most of Typhoon’s drones, though only a handful of pilots were actually in Afghanistan. The vast majority were back in the States, at bases like Creech or Holloman, where they worked 12-hour shifts in cramped metal trailers connected by satellite to their drones. When they finished killing people for the day, they picked up a Slurpee from Seven-Eleven and drove home. Not a bad way to fight a war, actually. With any luck by the time we invaded another country, the Army would figure out a way to do the same thing with civil affairs soldiers. I’d love to telecommute.

Tangerine, the drone involved in last night’s strike, was flown by a rotating cast of nearly a dozen pilots. The one who’d fired the missile was waiting for me on a television screen in the squadron’s briefing room, wearing the olive green flightsuit that Air Force pilots loved. He seemed calm enough, though the resolution wasn’t all that great, and the video feed stuttered every few seconds. More of a rapid slideshow than a film.

I took a seat at the briefing table, set out my notes, and smiled at the camera above the television. “Lieutenant Mark Francis?”

There was a pause of several seconds before he responded. Electrons moved at the speed of light, but there were a lot of signal bounces between Afghanistan and Nevada. “Yes sir.”

“I’m Joe Martin, the investigating officer for yesterday’s kinetic strike mishap. Before we get started I want to emphasize that this is not a criminal investigation. My only job is to determine the facts of what happened so the commander can make an informed decision. You’re not suspected of doing anything wrong, in other words. Understand?”

There was another delay, and Francis nodded. “Yes sir. Do you know how long that will take? I’m off flying status until this gets wrapped up.”

“Not too long,” I said. I scribbled a running list of our conversation in my notebook. It was all being recorded, of course, but the notes helped me organize my thoughts. “Hopefully just a day or so.”

A day or so, for me. Of course, depending on what I wrote in my report, it might last much longer for the young lieutenant. I didn’t tell him that.

The first hour of our conversation consisted of the minutia of his day. When he woke up, how much sleep he had the night before, how much food he ate, when was the last time he drank alcohol, etcetera, etcetera. All things that he’d already included in his after-action report, but would help get both of us comfortable with the topic.

Finally we reached the heart of the discussion. “Your shift began when Tangerine was already in place over Shin Kay, correct?”

“Yeah.” He had his flight notebook on the table in front of him. I had a scanned copy in my email, and I’d already read through it twice. “I took control from Captain Jameson at nine-hundred Zulu.”

“Was there anything unusual about the aircraft or the control station?”

“No sir. We did our usual change-over brief. We spent a little longer than normal on the weather conditions, but nothing that really stood out to me.”

Another note in my book. “And you followed the target for the rest of your shift?”

“Yes. Until the strike, I mean.”

I nodded and doodled in my notebook, buying some time. This was the delicate part. “And this was the first time you’ve employed munitions from an aircraft, correct?”

The pause was longer this time. “Yes sir.”

“You’ve done it in training, though.”

He nodded. “Hundreds of times. Back in the training squadron we did so many practice strikes I would dream about it. I could probably do it in my sleep.”

“And this didn’t feel any different?”

“No.” He looked like he wanted to say something else, and I let the silence stretch out. Finally, as I expected, he went on. “I mean, it was more exciting, you know? That’s what I spent two years training for. I was shooting a real missile at a real person and it was up to me to make sure everything went right.”

“So what happened?”

“You mean, during the strike?”

I tried not to roll my eyes. He wouldn’t be able to see it over the grainy video, anyway. “Yes, during the strike.”

Another pause, much too long for just the transmission delay. “There was an uncommanded input. The camera just shifted, and I tried to get it back on target. It ended up on the compound instead, and that’s when the missile hit.”

Uncommanded input. I scribbled that in my notebook and underlined it. “Does that happen often? The camera just moving on its own?”

“Sometimes. It happens in manned aircraft too, but the pilot’s always got his hand on the stick so it’s easier to correct. With an MQ-1 you’ve got no feedback from the aircraft and a delay of one or two seconds. It’s not as easy as it looks, you know? It just fucking happens, and now I’m getting investigated.”

“I’m not investigating you, lieutenant. I’m investigating the mishap.”

“Yeah, but…” He let out a long sigh and shook his head. “This doesn’t look good, you know? My first kinetic strike and this shit happens. I’ll be lucky if they don’t transfer me to supporting a conventional unit.”

I didn’t want to tell him, but that was almost certainly going to happen anyway. Lots of pilots wanted to fly in support of Typhoon, and there were plenty of lieutenants to choose from who hadn’t dropped a missile on someone’s house.

“That’s the commander’s decision. If you did everything right, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I said. “So, when you saw the compound come into the frame, you didn’t respond to it?”

“No sir. It’s the commander’s decision to shift off the target if he thinks we’re too close to a residence.”

“And, in your opinion, were you too close?”

“Uh…” He looked down at his notebook, but I could tell he was trying to remember the video. “Maybe? The road was about ten meters from the compound wall. That’s cutting it pretty thin.”

“But you didn’t shift the camera.”

He shook his head. “No sir. I wasn’t ordered to.”

“But could you have?”

“Yeah, if I had to. The pilot always has final say over when to shoot and where the missile goes. It’s our ass on the line, after all.”

Funny way of saying it, but yes. “Alright, lieutenant. I think that’s enough for my report. If you think of anything else that might be important, you know how to get ahold of me.”

“Thank you sir.” He stood and started to step out of the frame, but stopped. “Hey, sir?”

I paused with the camera’s remote in my hand. I’d been about to shut the link down. “Yes?”

“At least no one was hurt, right? That’s what matters?”

Was it? We’d been trying to hurt someone, after all. If we’d put that missile on our target, killed him, I wouldn’t be doing this investigation. I’d be at my desk, doing my normal work after a full night’s sleep.

“Sir?”

I shook myself out of my reverie. “Sorry, just thinking of something. Yeah, that’s what matters.”

I shut the television off. Outside, no longer hidden by the faint static of our long-distance connection, I could hear the long wind howling through the antennas on the roof.

* * *

Rafael was at his desk in the civil affairs office when I finally trudged in. He waved as I slapped at my uniform, shaking out what felt like a pound of dust, and adding to the growing layer on the otherwise clean floor.

“Hey, jefe,” he said. “What’d the chief want last night?”

“Just some paperwork.” I walked over to the Keurig in hopes of finding a leftover K-cup and was rewarded with the gold-standard, The Original Donut Shop. I popped it in before anyone else could wander by and snatch it.

“Awesome. Tell him to wait until morning next time, huh? I need my beauty sleep.”

“More than most of us.” I finally noticed the gear piled on the table next to him: an M-4 carrying case, body armor, advanced combat helmet, Kindle, night-vision goggles, and an assault pack. “Going somewhere?”

“Yeah, leaving for Zabul in a few hours. Had a kinetic strike down there last night that went wrong and hit someone’s house. You should see the video – it’s pretty sweet.”

“I’ll do that.” The Keurig pissed out my coffee, and I took a long sip. Delicious. I could taste the caffeine. “Why do they need civil affairs?”

“The family showed up at the governor’s house this morning, said their daughter was killed. They want money, like usual. Need me to see if it’s for real.”

Hm. I closed my eyes and took a long sip, replaying the drone strike video in my head. The central courtyard was fairly wide, maybe twenty meters across, and the missile hit almost dead center. The house had what looked like concrete walls, though there were several windows facing the courtyard. Anyone standing near them could have been hit by shrapnel.

But the strike occurred at 10 p.m. local time. There wasn’t much electricity in Zabul province, so people went to bed not long after sundown. Would a child really be standing in the window, right as a missile happened to land outside her house?

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Could be real. Missile hit right in the fucking middle of the compound. Worth checking out.”

That it was. I finished my coffee and tossed the styrofoam cup in the trash. “Yeah. Be careful out there, man. Zabul’s dangerous.”

* * *

The S3 was at his console in the JOC when I walked in. He worked the night shift, in theory, but at any hour the day he might be here, directing some operation or other. Perhaps a kill-capture, perhaps a kinetic strike. Maybe just a presence patrol. He never seemed to leave, which was probably why Typhoon rotated S3s back to the States after three months. Any more time out here and they’d go crazy.

He was on the phone, and I waited for him to hang up before speaking. We were the same rank, technically, but the director of operations was special. He deserved a certain respect. “Major Davis?”

He glanced up from his computer. “Oh, hey… Joe, right? How’s the investigation going?”

“Pretty good, sir. I think I’ve spoken with all the people I need. I was just hoping I could speak with you for a few minutes, get your take on the whole thing.”

“Absolutely, man. Absolutely.” He stood and grabbed his stainless steel thermos. “Hey, chops, take over for me. I’ll be in my office for a few minutes.”

The office in question was small, with barely enough room for his desk and two chairs. The theory was that the S3 shouldn’t spend too much time here – Typhoon needed him on the JOC floor. We squeezed past each other and settled into place with the door closed.

“So,” I started my spiel. “I’ve been appointed an investigating officer into last night’s kinetic strike—”

“Yeah, got it. Ask away.”

To call the S3 a “type-A” personality was a disservice. Like most Rangers he was a meat-eater, driven to succeed, never taking no for an answer, and all the other cliches I’d heard about special operations types but hadn’t really believed until I got to Typhoon. Not a guy who cared for long, philosophical talks. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t smart – absolutely no one, not even the cooks or gate guards, got a job on the Task Force if they were stupid. To be the S3 one had to be tireless, brilliant, and more than a little bloodthirsty.

So I cut right to the chase. “You authorized the strike on the target associated with Siraj Homayun, right?”

“Yup. Had good derrog on him. AK-47, associated with known militants. Easy decision.”

“Right.” I scribbled as fast as I could, but there was no way to keep up with his speaking pace. “And what was the justification for the strike?”

“Self-defense.”

I wrote that down, then stopped to try and process it. “Self-defense?”

“Yup. IDDP strike, perfectly legal under the rules of war.”

Self-defense. A kinetic strike with a Hellfire missile, fired from a drone ten thousand meters away, was self-defense against a man with an automatic rifle whose effective range was three hundred meters? I tried to fit those pieces together and drew a blank. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Just call me Eric, man. And it was an IDDP strike. In defense of something, I forget what it stands for. Ask the legal guys.”

“Uh, right. Eric.” I jotted down ‘legal’ in my notebook. “I’ll do that.”

“Great. Anything else?” He stood, making it clear that he did not, in fact, believe there was much else.

“Just one thing. Did you order the pilot to shift the missile?”

“No. The target wasn’t that close to the compound. If I’d known he was going to go down that path we’d have waited, but it was still safe to strike.”

“Okay.” I jotted that down, then stared at the notebook. We’d been in his office less than two minutes, and it felt like I should have more to ask. Nothing came to me, though, and being in close quarters with this man was like sharing a cage with a restless jaguar.

“I guess that’s it,” I said.

“Great. Can’t wait to read your report.” He squeezed past me to the door, and before I could even say goodbye he was gone, back to his eternal duty station in the JOC.

* * *

In Defense of Designated Persons. IDDP. I stared at the words in my notebook.

The legal office was helpful. They’d given me printouts of Task Force Typhoon’s rules of engagement, the laws of war, Department of Defense regulations, and bilateral agreements on the use of force with the Government of Afghanistan.

‘Self-Defense’ was clearly defined. All commanders, and all military members, possessed the inherent right to self-defense. Regardless of the circumstances, if you believed your life was in danger, you had the right to use force to defend yourself. It was one of the first things taught to new recruits in basic.

‘In Defense of Designated Persons’ was ill-defined. The closest reference I could find was in the standing Rules of Engagement for Afghanistan, which defined hostile intent as “the threat of imminent use of force against the United States, U.S. forces or other designated persons or property.”

‘Designated persons’ could be anyone. In fact, according to the Task Force, it was anyone. Literally any person on earth who might be threatened by a man with an AK-47, who’d associated with known militants, and was riding a motorbike across the deserts of Afghanistan, was a designated person. And we had the right to defend them, by killing anyone we saw who might, we thought, pose a threat.

One of my classes, now over a decade gone by, was on the culture of Islamic South Asian countries. The professor, a refugee from Afghanistan who’d fled to America during the Soviet invasion, hosted our entire seminar in his tiny off-campus apartment. It was cramped and hot and awkward, but we were college students, and we never turned down free food. So I went with my classmates, and we spent hours seated on the floor with him, sipping tea after a meal of rice and lamb. We talked about everything under the sun, about our families, our studies, our hopes for the future. And when we were done talking he told us about his old home.

He was from Logar province, just south of Kabul. He lived in Mohammad Agha district, until the Soviets and the mujahedeen turned it into an endless battlefield of tanks and land mines and graveyards. He lived with his brother, and ran a shop that sold carpets on the road to Pul-i-Alam. And one day, the Russians came and arrested his brother, claiming he was a spy for the mujahedeen.

The trial was short. An officer asked his brother a few questions, then shot him with a pistol in front of their shop.

Unidentified male associated with Siraj Homayun. That was all I knew about our target, aside from the fact that he wore a tan kameez and a black vest, and he drove a motorbike around Zabul province. Did he have a brother? Did he own a shop somewhere on the road to Shin Kay?

I shut off my computer and walked outside.

* * *

The wind had vanished, gone off to wherever it hides between the storms. A thick layer of dust settled down on the camp and puffed up in little clouds whenever I took a step.

The sun was still a few inches above the mountains to the west, colored a dark orange by the clotted sky. I could stare at it without discomfort, and did that for a while.

The bench shifted as someone sat down beside me. I turned to see Rafael, still wearing his body armor, M-4 and helmet held in his arms. His dark face was streaked with sweat and crusted with dust, the cost of flying in a Blackhawk during the summer in Afghanistan.

“Hey, man.”

“Hey, jefe.” He leaned back as best he could in his armor, eyes closed. “I’m beat.”

“You look it. How was Zabul?”

“Fucking hot, man.”

“Cool. I’ll get you a beer or something from the dining hall.” That was an old joke – there were no beers in Afghanistan, or if there were, the Afghans were hiding them pretty well. “So, was it true?”

“About the girl? Maybe.” He pulled a small field notebook out of his uniform’s shoulder pocket. “There was a dead girl, but they buried her before we arrived. Who knows how she died.”

That was traditional in Muslim societies. The dead were buried as quickly as possible. To my knowledge, no autopsy had ever been performed in the entire country. “So what’d you do?”

“Paid ‘em, man. Not worth arguing. Just three-thousand bucks, after all.” That was the standard price for a civilian life. No admission of guilt involved, just We’re sorry we accidentally killed your loved one, have some cash.

The crazy thing was, it worked. Blood money, the Afghans called it. It didn’t make everything right, but the family probably wouldn’t join the war against us over it. Probably.

“What about you, man?” Raphael asked. “You look pretty tired yourself.”

“Not much sleep.” I took a sip from my water bottle. “Paperwork, you know.”

“Fuck that shit, man. I’d rather be out there, not stuck behind a desk.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have gotten old, then.” I stood and tossed my empty bottle into the bin beside us. “Anyway, back to work.”

“Right, enjoy your paperwork. I’m gonna grab a shower. Cards tonight?”

“Sure, sure. I should be done by then.”

I didn’t head back to my office just yet. I watched the sun settle behind the mountains, and the heat slowly leeched out of the dry air. The wind picked back up, pulling up the dust and stinging my skin. Our little reprieve was over, it seemed.

Somewhere out there, far to the south, was a man with a tan kameez, who may or may not have been a Taliban fighter. Miles from him was a family whose daughter may or may not have been killed by an errant American missile, fired by a pilot who may or may not have panicked when his first real shot started to go wrong.

That was Afghanistan, a land of maybes and might-have-beens. The investigation was our way of trying to impose a bit of order on the chaos, an encapsulation of the very American desire to know everything about anything. To remove all doubt and view the world in digital terms, ones and zeroes, right and wrong, friend and enemy. If we could do that, we could win this war. We could win every war.

All we had to do was know the unknowable. I let out a long breath, gave the twilight sky a final long stare, and walked back to my office.

To try and to fail. And then to try again.

Comments ( 13 )
Noc

Good piece. Thanks for sharing it here.

Amazing. One thing briefly grabbed me out of it, though -

> Electrons moved at the speed of light

Electrons in copper wire move around 1% that fast. The signal goes faster than the electrons themselves, but still noticeably slower than fiber optic, which is around 0.7 times the speed of light. Half of light speed is typical, sometimes a bit more, sometimes substantially less.

5587739
Yep. It's actually less than that, even. It's on the order of inches per hour if I recall correctly, and if it's AC they're not moving anywhere in particular because they're just wiggling back and forth a tiny bit.

The signal is carried by virtual photons that do move at the speed of light, not the electrons, and once the circuit is completed the electrons which were already where they needed to be (such as inside the filament of the incandescent light bulb) begin to jiggle. Remember, electrons are already everywhere in matter.

5587739

Yeah, someone pointed that out when the original was published. Never got around to changing it.

5587788

The averaged velocity is that slow, but the individual electrons are moving that fast. Like how the wind is 5 mph while the air molecules are moving around the speed of sound.

Saying that the signal is carried by virtual photons stretches every word of that phrase beyond the breaking point. It is literally an electron density wave. Virtual photons would be static or evanescent electrical fields, and have zero electrical charge.

The casual ambiguity, maybe even outright lying, is palpable in this story.

The wind had vanished, gone off to wherever it hides between the storms.

In particular, I liked this personification.

Excellent story that shines a light on the ethical dimensions of war-by-remote, and some of the impacts on those involved in carrying it out. All while being neither hawkish nor sanctimonious. Is this maybe a glimpse of a future novel (or memoir) of your time in Afghanistan?

Emil #8 · Sep 27th, 2021 · · 1 ·

5587841
I sometimes wonder whether American actions in the Middle East will be looked at and analyzed in 50-100 years in a "banality of evil" fashion.

David Drake, of "Hammer's Slammers" fame, is a much better writer and a much cooler guy than you would think.

He wrote a particularly fine and evocative piece of war fiction based on his combat experience in Vietnam. He couldn't get it published for many years because the pro-military publishers thought it was too literary and the literary publishers were anti-military.

It starts with the line Ever see a Sheridan burn?

Thank you for sharing your writing and experience.

I remember reading this the first time around. It felt raw then, like you were scrubbing at an open wound to find something. I suppose enough time has passed that we get to see history repeat.

5587904

It starts with the line Ever see a Sheridan burn?

No, but I have seen a Sinclair explode.

5587890

you could bump up the beginning of that range by around 70 years (at least for some people). Do you mean it'd be generally considered in that light? We'd have to actually confront it to achieve that.

I remember the first time I read this. I wasn't a judge for the contest, but one of them brought me in for additional commentary.

I said to them, "Wait, I thought this was supposed to be fiction?" And then got distracted going down my own little rabbit hole of Hellfire flight profiles.

It was good to read this again, to go through another round of thought-provoking, particularly with the events of the last few months in the back of my mind.

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