It’s hard not to think that every conflict the United States enters has as much to do with trying out all the toys as it does about furthering American harmonization around the world. The Army has miles of motor pools full of tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces and whatever other vehicles the Army has managed to stick a gun to. The Air Force has hangars full of rippin’-cool jet fighters and bomb droppers. The Navy has missile launchers and torpedo shooters docked in harbors. Assuming the other services are like the Army, all of that equipment sits, doing nothing except being maintained, and few things bore a military mind like maintenance.
Back in garrison, Monday is maintenance day. We all report to the motor pool, get our Forms 5988 and perform Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services on everything with an engine. Of course, none of the gear has started, stopped or been used at all since the previous Monday, but we are supposed do the checks as if it had just returned from a trip to combat and back. For the most part, though, everyone’s bored out of their minds and so long as nothing’s terribly amiss, the Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services is nothing more than a walk-around and a peek under the hood.
The weekly ritual does serve a real purpose. When you really need your military vehicle to start, you need it to start on the first try, but when all the soldiers do to their equipment is make sure there’s no leaking fluids and the lights work, they get disinterested, and the boredom of continual, pointless maintenance works its way up the chain of command until everyone wants to gas up, load the magazines and see what all the machinery will do. And that’s where a place like Afghanistan comes in.
Our Army is set up for fighting formidable opponents, or at least ones who will build up defensive fortifications, deploy infantry and tanks and then stand and fight. That’s what was so great about Desert Storm. The Iraqi military set itself up and then waited for the U.S. military to come and destroy it. We got to see all of our cool weapons in action, and one must admit they did seem to work just as the Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed salesmen said they would. Ever since, though, there’s not too many armies lining up to be destroyed, and so we must make the best of the opportunities that present themselves.
It’s got to be frustrating for a lot of military men to be stuck in Afghanistan where the enemy is so small and disorganized that the United States military finds itself hilariously undermatched. Generals have budget requests to defend. They want the newest cool weapons American salesmen are having the engineers cook up, and so the Army’s men — from general to private — have a knack for taking relatively trivial dangers and massaging them into existential threats.
My team has been sent to a Forward Operating Base, or FOB, in eastern Afghanistan. One night, there’s a threat of enemy action. My soldiers each get a part of the building to guard. They borrow some night-vision gear from one of the other units and get outside to take up their positions. Things are tense on the FOB, but nothing really happens. No soldier on the FOB fires a single shot, nor are any of them fired upon. After an hour or so, the threat is judged to have passed, and we gather for an after-action review.
“We really need our own night-vision goggles,” one of them tells me. Those things are mission-essential equipment, he insists.
“Yeah,” another chimes in. “I don’t want to get shot by some guy I can’t even see. You need to tell the company that they need to send us night-vision gear.”
They were playing up the “danger” in hopes of getting more toys. The automatic rifle with 800 rounds of ammo wasn’t enough. I was disappointed in them; junior enlisted men acting as if they were a crew of three-star generals testifying before a congressional committee.
“Here, ser’nt. Check out the stars,” one told me as he handed over the scope so I could judge for myself the vital role it would play in defending freedom. I put it to my eye and looked up.
“Wow,” I thought, “that is pretty cool.” The sky lit up with stars the way it does high in the mountains on a moonless night. I considered the argument I’d have to make for the commander.
“Sir,” I’d begin, “apart from the astounding, mind-expanding astronomical observations we’d be making with the night-vision gear, don’t forget that we are at war out here against a sneaky and deadly enemy who will stop at nothing to kill American soldiers. Our ability to see in the dark could make the difference between victory and defeat.”
He was unconvinced. May he be promoted many, many times.
Ex-Colorado High Country resident Sgt. Mike wishes the Army could settle on a less-hostile playground. Meanwhile, he’s eating lots of carrots.