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Nick Mills

Nick Mills

Posted: May 25, 2010 08:26 AM

The View From the Maine Woods

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On a fishing trip in the Maine woods one has the time and space, the solitude and quietude, to contemplate the world "as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden). Away from the daily clamor of modern life, with its non-stop full frontal assault of emails, messages, ring tones, tweets, thunderous breaking waves of misinformation and disinformation rolling in on a sea of TV "news" broadcasts, shouting-heads shows, radio talk shows, newspaper headlines and gossip, one has a chance to see the world as if from a distant planet. From a distance, what had seemed monumental now seems trifling; the honk and roar of life is muted.

One may not, in those circumstances, be derailed by a mosquito's wing, but a swarm of Maine blackflies can be disconcerting. I have found that a cheap cigar is an effective repellent - not only to blackflies but also human companionship.

My days in the Maine woods are not spent in the forest primeval that Thoreau trudged through in 1846. And I confess to dipping a toe into the information stream now and again. At the highest point of the four-mile dirt road that leads to my fishing camp at Upper Dam, I can get a cellphone signal and see if I have received any interesting emails. And at the general store in Oquossoc, a thirty-four-mile round trip, I can buy a New York Times, which I did one day last week and in which I encountered another brilliant piece of war reporting by C.J. Chivers, who has been embedded with the Marines in Marja, the Afghan town which U.S. and Afghan forces supposedly cleared of Taliban fighters in a major offensive some weeks ago. Chivers, a former Marine officer who left the Corps to become a journalist, is accompanied by photographer Tyler Hicks, a distinguished alumnus of Boston University, my employer. They are providing Times readers with a raw unvarnished close-up of the war in Afghanistan and it's not pretty.

A couple of things stood out in the May 20 article, things that Chivers, as a veteran, is sensitive to. One was cynicism in the ranks about the mission. The following took place after the Marines had been fired on from three sides by Taliban fighters:

The Marines passed around water and cigarettes. A few men swore. "There is no Taliban in Afghanistan, dude," said Cpl. Ian E. Bradley, 24, crouched against an entryway.
He had been at the back of the squad. Assault-rifle and machine-gun rounds had whipped past him all around, but somehow missed. "Just give us a couple of weeks and we'll win their hearts and minds," he said, and shook his head.

In the Vietnam war, such cynicism was endemic. The inadvertent killing of civilians ("collateral damage") or the wanton destruction of homes and property was kissed off with the all-purpose "Sorry 'bout that." Later, the "sorry" was dropped and the expression became simply, "There it is." When the soldiers lose faith in the mission it does not bode well.

Although the new strategy in Afghanistan, the strategy made possible by the surge of 30,000 more U.S. troops, was supposed to be "clear, hold and build," the only thing that is clear is that holding territory in Afghanistan is, to understate the case, excruciatingly difficult.

Other events in Afghanistan over the past few days have been also sobering. The Taliban attacked the two biggest U.S./NATO military bases, Bagram air base, about 30 miles north of Kabul, and the allied base in Kandahar, which is where the surge offensive is now focused. It is no small irony that Bagram was also the power base of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s, and under U.S. management had become notorious as a "black hole" for Afghan detainees.

There are now more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and the American death toll in Afghanistan has surpassed the 1,000 mark. The Times provided another echo of Vietnam by running a two-page spread of photos of all the Afghanistan war dead; Life magazine shocked the nation in 1969 by printing the photos of one week's American death toll in Vietnam. Putting human faces - young, smiling faces - on the statistics makes the loss much more personal and real.

And here was President Hamid Karzai, smiling his way around Washington, D.C., saying, in effect, We have you over a barrel, America. There's no way you can leave us now.

Well, from my extra-planetary perch in the Maine woods, taking the long and the broad view, it was ever more clear that Afghanistan is unwinnable by military means and the U.S. should leave, the sooner the better. The alternative has been summed up in the title of a book about Iraq by another cracking good war correspondent, Dexter Filkins: The Forever War.