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By Andrew Klavan:

The Identity Man

City Journal

Andrew Klavan
Five Days at the End of the World
My visit to Afghanistan, and the War on Terror movie that Hollywood would never make
Autumn 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by Rob Longwood on 11-16-2008:

Just Read "Five Days at the End of the World." As a former Vietnam vet (three tours) I wish I could shake your hand! Well done!

Sent by B. S. Davis on 11-10-2008:

This has to be one of the best, if not the best, articles I've read on war, anywhere, at any time. If we didn't live in a place where the major media is controlled by Western culture-hating former yuppies without an ounce of military experience, this would be on the front page of a major newspaper and you would be doing daily pieces on prime time. Unfortunately, we are part of a society that is hell- bent on cultural suicide, a situation which this student of history has found to be without parallel. Do the French hate French culture? The Czechs? (do the Czechs have a culture?). Only in America do we have a vast, all- encompassing media machine that says "good" to everything anti-American, and "bad" to every expression of traditional American values.

In this context, it must be depressing to the nth degree for our men out there fighting for American and Western culture, to know that not only are they unappreciated, but their efforts are deprecated, ignored, or worse.

Under such circumstances, the only surprising thing is that there isn't a smoldering anger at those back home responsible for the media attitude toward this war and the soldiers fighting it. However, the feelings of the soldiers on the political and cultural situation at home is understandably not addressed in your article. Perhaps you could do a story on how these soldiers view our political and cultural leadership.

The wonder of the last few elections is that people weren't shooting at each other, and that there hasn't been a movement for parts of the country to leave the union. Who knows what the future will bring? And, should the social fabric truly start to fray, what will these worriors do?

Sent by Douglas Hardee on 11-10-2008:

As always, your piece was first rate, however, in the middle of your article, you threw every Vietnam- era "warrior" under the bus:

"So where are the dupes, the abusers, the kill-crazy crackpots who populate the armed forces in Hollywood’s ideology-driven depictions of the War on Terror?...These guys are the real guys. That Vietnam-era army of rueful, ill-educated draftees caught up in a conflict that they can’t comprehend is gone."

As a CAP Marine, I was proud to serve with mostly non-draftees, and I assure you, rueful was not a word I would use to describe them. They were as passionate, and compassionate, as the good men you so ably describe. It was if, to make your point about the inherent goodness of our contemporary soldiers, you had to the throw the Hollywood leftists a bone. But by doing so, you slandered a lot of great men.

Semper Fi

Andrew Klavan responds:
The writer has a point. Obviously that wasn't my intention at all. I should've made it clear that I wasn't referring to all those who served in Viet Nam, but to some who sometimes gave the service a tone that may have justified the accounts of filmmakers who were there, like Oliver Stone. To have been unclear on this point is especially galling to me, since I not only honor those who served there but feel they managed to accomplish a great deal of good even as the culture at home abandoned them and their mission.

I was standing at a military checkpoint outside Ali al-Saleem Air Base, about an hour from Kuwait City. I was hunkered in a three-walled cinderblock shelter with a canvas fluttering overhead. It was nearly 110 degrees. A dust storm was turning the daylight yellow-brown. I had sand in my teeth. I had grit in my eyelids. I was waiting for some Army media guy to cut my orders so I could get on base and catch a military transport to Afghanistan.

And I felt downcast, I confess. I felt bitter and a little self-righteous, too. I kept thinking how, right that minute, there was probably some other screenwriter sitting poolside at the Skybar in LA, pitching his new antiwar story to an eager producer: “Then, see, the GIs devour the Iraqi child’s body to hide the evidence, and we finally understand the dehumanizing consequences of Bush’s foreign policy. Forget box office! Think: prestige!”

I was on my way to Afghanistan because of the movies. Really. Movies like Brian De Palma’s Redacted; In the Valley of Elah, written by Paul Haggis; and Lions for Lambs, starring Robert Redford—movies about the War on Terror in which our soldiers are portrayed as rapists or post-traumatic murderers or naive fools roped in by warmongering neocons. I went because of the movies that didn’t get made, too—the movies that never get made—movies in which the heroic U.S. military defends our nation’s principles of liberty against a low, violent, Islamofascist miscreed. I wrote about these films in City Journal (see “The Lost Art of War,” Winter 2008) and in the Los Angeles Times. I attacked Hollywood for wallowing in outmoded European ideologies and for resurrecting imagery left over from movies about Vietnam.

Then, after a while, I started to ask myself, “Hey, wait a minute. How do you know what a movie about the War on Terror should look like? What would your movie look like, big mouth? What kind of story would you tell?”

My articles had attracted the attention of a Civil Affairs officer in the Army reserves, 46-year-old Major Rory Aylward. A tall, bespectacled man with mildly sardonic features, he was nicknamed Hawkeye because he looked a bit like, and talked exactly like, Alan Alda’s snarky Hawkeye Pierce from the television version of M*A*S*H. He was an unlikely mix of military and showbiz, a lifelong reservist but also a technical and creative advisor on military-themed movies like Courage Under Fire and Hallmark TV’s Silent Night. He was eligible for retirement but had volunteered instead to join a unit heading for Afghanistan. When I told him what I was thinking, he invited me to visit him there. First I would join his unit for battle training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (see “Braggistan in the America of the Imagination,” Summer 2008). Then I would be embedded with it for a couple of weeks in Nuristan, one of Afghanistan’s least developed provinces.

Now, there’s one thing I know for sure I’d try to put into a War on Terror movie, one thing I found out the moment I got through the Kuwaiti checkpoint and onto the air base: even at its best, military life in these parts is damned uncomfortable. The whole atmosphere of the place was depressing: the endless brown desert of tents and huts, the unsmiling bureaucrats demanding such-and-such an order bearing such-and-such a stamp, the latrines dense with disinfectant and pornographic graffiti, and the sleeping quarters with up to 12 men snoring and farting on the bare mattresses of bunk beds, their boots on, their packs for pillows. To be sure, there were a McDonald’s hut, a Subway, and a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation tent where you could watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 followed directly by Good Luck Chuck. But after two days stuck here on the bureaucratic treadmill, I was more than ready to hire a limo to drive me back to LA.

In my movie, the lead won’t have to get shot at to be a hero. Dude’ll get a medal just for showing up.

Oh, and by the way, I had no plans to get shot at. When Rory first arrived at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Kalagush in the Nuristan wilds, he e-mailed me, “I’m more likely to get hit by a bus in Santa Monica than get killed over here.” (“Well, then, stay the hell out of Santa Monica,” I e-mailed back.) Rory was a Civil Affairs and Rule of Law officer of a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). Its job was to oversee funding and construction of roads, electric plants, irrigation systems, and other projects in places where civilian agencies can’t safely go. That’s another thing that ought to be in a real movie about our soldiers: most of their time in theater is spent in the slow, frustrating, Sisyphean work of establishing goodwill, a viable government, and the rule of law so that the murderous bastards they chased out don’t come back.

Which is what made it kind of a nasty shock when—as I was finally waiting to board a C-17 for Bagram Air Base—my iPhone lit up with an e-mail from Rory, telling me that he and his guys had just been ambushed.

Rory and his men had set out from FOB Kalagush at about 9 am in six Humvees, carrying five men each. They positioned two of the Humvees along the way to stand watch and serve as a radio relay. The remaining four vehicles traveled on to the Pashagar Valley. Their mission was to do a quality-control inspection on a road being built by a suspect contractor and to see if it was possible to add a footbridge across the valley. Rory was the mission commander, but Lieutenant Brandon Baronner, as the platoon leader of the team’s Security Force (SECFOR), was in charge of the convoy.

At 25, Baronner was an intense, po-faced guy with a surprisingly goofy sense of humor. Though he was a longtime Pennsylvania National Guardsman, this was his first deployment in a war zone, and some people—maybe even Baronner himself—wondered if he was in over his head. There was no doubt that he was relying—that everyone was relying—on the battle wisdom of First Sergeant Willie Mitchell, the team’s 38-year-old top sergeant. A veteran of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, Mitchell was pretty much everything you could ask for in an American warrior, a powerfully built man whose quiet, watchful expression would make a good recruitment poster. His job was to make sure all these road-building reservists and guardsmen didn’t get themselves killed. It was a job that occupied his mind every hour he was awake, which sometimes seemed like all 24.

At the end of a winding dirt road, the team dismounted from their Humvees and surveyed the rocky valley. “Afghanistan’s in the thirteenth century, but this place was Paleozoic,” Rory told me later. “If a T. rex walked out from behind a hill and growled at us, it wouldn’t’ve fazed me at all.” They were there for about ten minutes when SECFOR Staff Sergeant Dwayne Koons spotted “dismounts”—Afghans on foot—watching them from some nearby rocks. Rory shrugged it off: “Watching Americans is like the Afghan national pastime.” But these guys bugged Koons and they bugged Mitchell, too. “It sparked our spider senses,” Mitchell said. Koons told Rory, “We have to go right now.”

The team was expecting air support on the way back because, as Mitchell told me, “the enemy is known to hit you on the exfil”—to attack a mission as it heads for home. But when they returned to their Humvees, the men received a message: the support choppers weren’t coming. Their sense of foreboding grew.

They headed back along the winding dirt road. A wall of mountains rose to the left of them. A sheer drop-off fell away to the right. Mitchell and Rory were in the second vehicle, separated from the lead Humvee by about 20 meters. They heard the first explosion go off right behind them.

“The cry went out over the radio,” Mitchell said, “ ‘We’re taking fire!’ ”

Rory couldn’t believe it. They’d been in theater 61 days without enemy contact. Even when the gunners on the Humvees opened fire, he thought that someone must have panicked and made a mistake. Then he looked out the windshield and saw what looked like a model rocket fly right at the Humvee up ahead. It struck beneath the right rear wheel and exploded. That convinced him: they were under attack.

What followed, he said, was like a chase scene from one of those 1930s movie serials that used to play before the main feature. The thump of mortars, the rattle of machine-gun fire, and the sizzling white smoke of RPGs came at the convoy from both the cliffs and the open gorge. As the gunners in the vehicles fired back, trying to pin the bad guys down, the drivers pushed through at speed, fighting to maneuver the sharp turns while keeping the Humvees from going over the side.

In the rear car, Specialist Nathan McMullen, a big Pennsylvania country boy, was in the turret, manning the .50 caliber. Almost as soon as the attack started, he heard “a big ting.” A bullet had slammed into his gun-shield, an inch away from him. Quickly, he ducked down into the car. His comrades scrambled over him, searching his body for wounds. There were none. His heart was still pounding as they helped him back up into the turret. Listening to the shouted directions in his headset, McMullen followed the RPGs’ smoke trails until he spotted three bad guys. Then he opened fire, laying down lead so quickly that even the “terp”—the native interpreter—in the Humvee had to help tear open ammo boxes and hand up fresh rounds.

The young Lieutenant Baronner was in the same Humvee. At his first taste of battle, he had felt an adrenaline rush go through him. But now, with McMullen firing away above him, he made the great discovery: he could do this, he was relatively calm. His radio had gone dead. At first, he thought the antenna had been shot off—but no, McMullen’s butt had hit the switch when he dropped. Baronner got the radio going again. Immediately, a shout came over the air, “We’re hit!”

Instinctively, the driver started to slow the Humvee. It was a natural reaction, but under the circumstances it would have gotten them all killed. Baronner shouted the order: “Push through!” and the Humvee sped up again.

“It was a good kill zone,” said Mitchell. “It seemed like it went on forever.” In fact, according to the official reports, they were through the worst of the gantlet in two to five minutes. By the narrowest of margins, everyone got out safely.

Storyboard by Brian Williamson.

What the hell happened to ‘I’m more likely to get hit by a bus in Santa Monica?’ ” I shouted at Rory over the phone.

“I am more likely to get hit by a bus in Santa Monica,” he answered in perfect Hawkeye fashion. “Unfortunately, I’m more likely to get hit by a rocket in Afghanistan.”

By this time, for my sins, I was in Jalalabad, detoured to yet another broiling airfield between Bagram and Kalagush by yet another Army media guy. All in all, it was seven days of wearying travel—commercial jets, cargo planes, and choppers—before I was finally able to join the PRT. The choppers were the best, cinematography-wise. You get a good look at the country from a Chinook. Huge, fluid, colorless rock formations like the petrified remains of mythical beasts; goatherds chasing their flocks over desert plains; roadless wilderness in conifer-covered hills. In the stark, narrow mountain passes, the door gunners open fire to stave off any ambush. Over some of the broad green river valleys, the pilot fires chaff to misdirect any heat-seeking missiles. Mostly, though, there are just long stretches of sandy flatlands in which you see what look like archaeological digs but are, in fact, living villages that could have been there since the time of Christ. It’s poignantly easy to imagine Jesus walking the fallen world below while the United States Air Force patrols it from above.

My Chinook landed at FOB Kalagush only long enough to let some of the PRT and its SECFOR troops climb aboard. Then we lifted off again for a mission to the provincial capital of Parun. As we rose into the Hindu Kush, the air grew thin and the chopper’s ascent became groaningly slow. There was nothing out the window here but naked, forbidding peaks. We crested these and descended into a valley out of a Wordsworth poem, its roaring river surrounded by green foothills.

This is the former Kafiristan—“the land of the infidels”—where Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King took place. It’s just over 100 years since the Muslims conquered it and turned it into Nuristan—“the land of the enlightened.” There are few roads here, little electricity and running water, and no landline phones. It’s a world of tribes and tribal feuds where natives live in such isolation that some still mistake U.S. troops for the Soviet invaders of 20 years ago.

As the chopper settled on the ground, the rotor-wash sucked the river water into turbulent arcs of spray. The next moment, the soldiers were tramping down the rear ramp onto the muddy banks, spreading out in a semicircular security perimeter, M4s at the ready. I was standing behind them when Commander George Perez, the PRT’s leader, disembarked and approached me. “Welcome to Afghanistan!” he shouted over the rotors.

“It’s the end of the world!” I shouted back—which was not exactly what I meant.

Storyboard by Brian Williamson.

Or maybe it was. This so-called provincial capital was largely a figment of the Afghan government’s imagination. As we carried our packs along the lone mud road, we came upon the “town”: a collection of half-finished ramshackle buildings and wooden huts with idling native workers staring balefully from the porches. Rory, who had a habit of echoing my unspoken showbiz thoughts aloud, muttered to me, “Deadwood,” just as I was thinking, “Tombstone.”

Corruption’s the problem here. It’s endemic. Money—a lot of it our money—gets passed from contractor to contractor, with each one taking a taste until there’s little left for the actual work. Witness the police compound where we stayed, a three-sided rectangle of one-story barracks made of corrugated tin and concrete. Two hundred fifty grand was allocated for this dump—a quarter mil! By the time that money was passed from cousin to brother to friend and handed down to the contractor who finally slapped the structure up, there was only $40,000 left. The compound was built so shoddily that one side of it had collapsed under last winter’s snows and now lay in a tangle of lumber and tin. There was no running water, no electricity but what a portable generator provided. The toilets were Turkish-style—position your feet and squat over the hole—and equipped with what they call “John Wayne toilet paper” because it’s rough and tough and don’t take shit off nobody. We slept in the bare barracks shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete floor or on mattresses bought from the locals at extortionate prices.

Plus, the place was surrounded with wooded hills, perfect for snipers. Mitchell sent some guys up the steep slopes to check out the area, but I had to ask him how on earth he could possibly defend such a wide open place on such low ground. Deadpan, he told me: “If the Taliban attacks, we’d rely on American might and will to send them to their untimely demise.”

“So basically, it’s indefensible.”

“Completely.”

So what the hell were we doing here? The main mission was to break ground on a new FOB site. Moving the PRT close to the provincial government would make overseeing new projects much easier. The trouble was, the chosen site was owned by a little nearby village called Pashki. Four months ago, the Pashki elders had agreed to sell the land to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Now, though, they were worried that the U.S. presence would attract attacks from the Taliban. A shura—a decisive meeting—between Perez and the elders was scheduled. At the same time, U.S. engineers were already working on the new site with Mitchell and some SECFOR guys standing guard.

It would be hard to capture the atmosphere of one of these shuras in a film. Their dramatic formal exchanges between soldiers of civilization and warriors of the outlands seem like something out of Tacitus, giving the scene an unnerving aura of imperial romance.

Perez himself was a man of Roman bearing: a smart, plainspoken former submariner; a natural leader. He was on his way to D.C. to accept a prestigious fellowship from the RAND Corporation when he was informed that, no, he was headed for Afghanistan instead. Now he found himself facing the unremitting problems of bringing technology and the rule of law to this intractably backward wilderness.

The elders assembled around a long table in the courtyard of the governor’s residence as police guards moved among us like waiters, handing round cups of tea and plates of almonds, raisins, and pistachios. The elders were canny, tough, largely illiterate men wearing wool vests and round Chitrali caps. Their weather-beaten, half-toothless faces were garnished with a decorative assortment of beards, some with the flaming red hair that once made Western observers believe Nuristanis to be descendants of Alexander the Great. Some of them fiddled with prayer beads as they rose to speak. Some spoke with fiery, white-eyed passion.

“We fought the Soviets because they had no God, they believed in nothing,” they said, as the terp translated. “They were your enemies, and they were our enemies. We respect you, especially Christians, because we have the same God. We know you’re here to help and we need your help because we are poor. The fighting of the mujahideen destroyed everything. Day by day, since you came, our lives have gotten better. But if you move your base here, the enemy will attack us. Stay far away. Stay in Kalagush. Send us your help from there.”

In the movie now, you’d cut to the FOB site about half a mile away—because there, suddenly, a mob of about 50 villagers stormed down the road and descended on our engineers. They were waving sticks and shouting, “Get out! We would rather die than have you dig on our land!” The Afghan police tried to hold them back, but the mob surged forward. It was up to Mitchell to make a nasty choice: retreat ignominiously or risk killing civilians.

Cut back to the governor’s residence. Rory passed news of the mob attack to Perez in a hastily scribbled note. As Perez glanced at it, he answered the elders with stately impromptu eloquence: “The people at this table right here at this time have the ability to impact all of Nu­ristan. Everyone will know that the Pashki people made a sacrifice for the greater good of the province. And yes, the enemy may come, but if they come, we’ll be ready for them.”

Cut back to the FOB site. The angry mob continued shouting and waving sticks. Mitchell faced off with them, protecting the engineers. But no, he wasn’t going to let anyone get hurt. He and his SECFOR men retreated, taking the engineers with them, avoiding civilian casualties.

Cut back to the governor’s residence. Perez quietly confronted the elders. “While we’re talking here, your villagers are threatening my engineers. Do you have control of your own people?”

Caught out, the elders responded with wild offers: “Let us give you a different piece of land. We’ll take you to the other side of the valley, and you can take any piece of land you want for free!”

All this while, dark clouds had been rolling in over the mountains. Now, cold rain began to lash the courtyard. Even though the Afghan Ministry of Defense had given him a legal lease to the FOB site, Perez nonetheless agreed to return tomorrow to look at another site on the other side of the valley. “If we were the conquering army some people say we are,” he told me wearily, “this would be a lot easier.”

Storyboard by Brian Williamson.

The nights and mornings in the compound were peaceful and companionable. We watched the moon rise over the Hindu Kush. We heard the muezzin greet sunrise and sunset with a call to prayer from the tin-roofed mosque next door. The SECFOR guys broke up the lumber from the collapsed section of the barracks and built a bonfire in the courtyard against the mountain cold. There was talking and joking around the fire.

They talked about the state of the struggle. Some said Afghanistan was the Forgotten War, deserted by media that reported trouble but never progress. Some worried that Americans would lose interest and let the mission fail. Some felt the Iraq War had left Afghanistan underfunded and undermanned. There were rueful jokes about the grinding frustrations of counterinsurgency. “In Iraq, they’d spend millions to kill one insurgent, but the only humanitarian aid you could find was what you could steal,” said the battle-hardened Sergeant Ray Hartman. “Here it’s all human aid, but you can’t kill anyone. I’m working outside my skill set!”

They talked about Islam, especially about the sequestering of women. They said it forced the native men into prisonlike expedients. On night patrols, they said, they would bump into Afghans hooking up with animals. And they joked about “Man-Love Thursday,” when they’d spot Afghan men and boys together, grabbing a quick sin before the redemptive Sabbath.

They kidded one another endlessly. Rory caught some flak one morning about his affection for movie musicals. Hartman said he couldn’t stand the things because “people keep breaking into song in them.” Baronner clumsily mimicked some of the dance-fights from West Side Story. He had changed since the ambush, a few people told me. He’d grown into his rank and become a well-liked leader. When he started dancing, Mitchell cracked the soldiers up by grumbling, “Lieutenant, I must ask you never to do that again. Truly. I beg of you.”

So where are the dupes, the abusers, the kill-crazy crackpots who populate the armed forces in Hollywood’s ideology-driven depictions of the War on Terror? There are some somewhere, I’m sure. A small city’s worth of Americans are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some are bound to go bad. But to tell only their stories amounts to a despicable slander-by-omission. These guys are the real guys. That Vietnam-era army of rueful, ill-educated draftees caught up in a conflict that they can’t comprehend is gone. This is a force of professional warriors, every single one of whom enlisted or reenlisted after 9/11, fully aware of what he was signing up for. Each has his complaints about the military, the war, and American foreign policy—who wouldn’t? But I met none who doubted that they were the spearhead of a force for good, a nation striving to do what was right in the world.

Once again, Rory spoke my showbiz thought: You could watch the most sentimental patriotic war film from the forties or fifties, he said, and get a more accurate picture of who these soldiers are than you get from more “realistic” Hollywood movies today.

For the next two days, negotiating with the Pashki elders over a possible new FOB site, Perez was a model of restraint, flexibility, and command. The first day, the villagers tried to lead the soldiers as far away as possible. They kept saying, “The land we want to offer you is just around the next corner, just over the next rise.” In their loose smocks and trousers, they scrambled over the rocks and ledges like goats. The soldiers, in their heavy “battle rattle”—packs, vests, helmets, and weaponry—tramped wearily behind on the muddy road. The ever-worried Mitchell continually sent his SECFOR men ahead to scan the wooded foothills to the left and the green valley spreading to the right. I could practically see the ambush scenarios unfolding in his mind.

Finally, Perez had had enough. He stopped the farcical parade and demanded to see the proposed site. Seemingly at random, the elders pointed over the river to a beautiful stretch of valley, where goats grazed before two or three rude cottages of sticks and stones.

The next day, we came back and crossed the river to see the place. Which was no easy business. The water roared beneath us, and the crossing was a balancing act over flimsy, narrow footbridges. In battle rattle again, we climbed steep, rocky slopes and mounted the roof of a shepherd’s hut to view the site from above. Then the commander sat down with the villagers in the goatshit-littered mud. They argued over boundaries and prices as the cold, spitting rains swept in over the mountains again. All the while, Perez held the lease to the original site, the land he wanted, but he never used it.

If there was a way to work this out and keep the villagers’ goodwill, he was determined to find it.

The negotiations went on. I could see the SECFOR guys getting more and more nervous. They scanned the hills and muttered to one another, “We gotta go.”

With the PRT frustrated and the issue unresolved, we left Parun a day early. There was no point in staying, and every day “outside the wire” was more dangerous than the last. The Chinooks came for us down by the river. We gripped our pack straps and bowed our heads and pushed hard up the ramp against the searing rotor backwash.

Then we were up and groaning through the thin air again, over the mountains, and back toward FOB Kalagush. There, in a cluster of huts and tents nestled among stark, gray, featureless hills, the work of the PRT continued. Rory and his colleagues hunched over laptops in a messy room they called the Bullpen, shepherding the funding for projects through the massive military bureaucracy. Provincial officials, Afghan policemen and soldiers, elders, and mullahs all arrived at the base for shuras, trying to get money for an electric plant or work for a favored contractor or cargo space on a chopper. “It’s like Hollywood,” Rory said dryly. “Everyone’s got a project.”

At every shura, the PRT leaders pressured the locals to turn in the men who ambushed them in the Pashagar Valley. “When are you gonna arrest the guys who shot at me?” Rory asked the local police chief at one sit-down. “I came here to build bridges, not to get shot at.” The chief answered with vague promises of an investigation.

But meanwhile, according to U.S. intelligence officers in the valley where the attack took place, Taliban propagandists were hard at work, trying to turn the people against the PRT. They were spreading the tale that several PRT members had kidnapped and raped some local women and that the ambush had been the Taliban’s attempt to rescue the victims from our military’s evil clutches.

Rory looked absolutely stricken when he heard what they were saying about him and his men. I made a lame attempt to kid him out of it. “Listen, this is great for your Hollywood career,” I told him. “Now Brian De Palma will make a movie about you.”

But of course, if you’ve seen De Palma’s hate-filled Redacted—or any of these movies and the news coverage they echo—the joke wasn’t funny at all.

Here, then, is the movie I would make. It would be something like this, anyway. With maybe Ed Norton as Rory—Alda’s too old now. And Dennis Haysbert, President Palmer from 24, as Mitchell. Someone fresh like Jim Sturgess for Baronner. Perez? George Clooney doesn’t deserve to play him, but he could.

I would probably make the mission to build the bridge and the mission to buy the FOB site into one mission. A bridge is more visual, but the tensions with the natives over the site make good drama. I’d have the ambush happen at the end of the first act, with a likable gunner getting killed. Then maybe our guys wouldn’t be able to return to base because of the weather. They’d be stuck up in nowhere with some locals they couldn’t trust and the bad guys still in the woods. It would become a matter of life and death whether the PRT guys could count on the goodwill of the natives in order to smoke out the bad guys before getting smoked themselves.

That would be the theme, see: the frustrations of building goodwill in wartime. Because goodwill is the key to this multifront counterinsurgency. It’s the only way to win the locals away from the brutal scum who’ve enslaved them in the past and over to some semblance of liberty and the rule of law. That’s why Information Operations—what they used to call propaganda—is so important. That’s why the bad guys work so hard to spread lies about us.

And that’s why Hollywood should maybe try not to help them.

Leftist movies portraying our troops as reprobates and fools may not make it to the wilds of Nuristan. But you can bet they make it to the headquarters of our enemies and give them encouragement, not to mention ideas. They make our soldiers’ mission harder and increase the danger to their lives. And here’s a funny thing some people in LA may not understand about those lives: they’re real. Commander Perez and Rory and First Sergeant Mitchell and all the rest—they’re not characters played by actors. They’re real Americans who left real parents and wives and children at home and opted to fight our enemies in dangerous places far away. I don’t think De Palma and Robert Redford and Paul Haggis are bad men. They’re certainly entitled to believe what they want. But when they make these movies during wartime, when they endanger these soldiers and their mission, I think they’re doing something bad—something wicked, really. They are aiding and abetting the enemy’s Information Operations. And they ought to stop.

After five days in Nuristan, I began the trek home. A circuitous six-hour chopper ride returned me to Bagram, where I waited days to catch a C-17 back to Kuwait.

Bagram’s an enormous base, a slapdash city of thousands. I stayed there in a spartan but private cubicle in the “Hotel California,” the hut for journalists. I was lying on my cot one night when I heard an announcement over the loudspeakers outside: at midnight, there would be a Fallen Comrade Ceremony to honor a soldier recently killed in theater.

I wandered out into the muggy darkness and saw a ghostly sight. Soldiers wearing yellow-green reflector straps over their uniforms drifted out of the misty darkness from every direction. They began to line up beside the main road. Soon, they were standing along the curb as far as the eye could see.

At midnight, a Humvee pulled out of a driveway across the street. It carried a flag-draped coffin bound for transport home. Flanked by two trucks, it began its journey across the airfield. The soldiers saluted. I put my hand over my heart. The Humvee passed slowly by.

When it was gone, the soldiers silently dispersed, the glowing green stripes of their reflectors fading, and finally vanishing, into the mist.

Andrew Klavan is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of such best-selling novels as True Crime, Don’t Say a Word, and, most recently, Empire of Lies.

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