In summer 2006, Slate's partners at Doonesbury.com, Doonesbury creator G.B. Trudeau and editor David Stanford, launched a milblog called the Sandbox. Publishing dispatches from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning troops, and home-front wives and parents, the Sandbox very quickly became a home for some of the best war writing on the Web, or anywhere else. This week, we are publishing excerpts from a new collection, Doonesbury.com's The Sandbox: Dispatches From Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by David Stanford.
Today's excerpt begins with G.B. Trudeau's introduction to the book, which is followed by two entries: "Decency and Honor," by Capt. Benjamin Tupper, and "February 27," by "American Soldier."
By G.B. Trudeau
For six years now, the country has had a common story: the tragedy of 9/11—a shared experience of immense narrative power.
At first it was too big, too overwhelming, to process; veteran news anchors were struck dumb on the air. What had happened was quite literally the unspeakable. But it didn't take long for journalists to rejoin their instincts and race to tell the story of a lifetime, and in so doing help the rest of us begin the long, painful process of making sense of a calamity beyond imagination.
Bearing witness has always been vital to society's well-being. Without the healing spell of stories, we would live in chaos. Ever since our miserable species huddled together in small groups on the savannah, there's been a storyteller around the fire, the one who reminded all the others of who they were and where they came from. Ancient bards were indispensable in ameliorating the unceasing struggle for survival by making it seem less arbitrary.
Not much has changed since then. The Sandbox isn't all that different from a warrior's campfire, albeit one that welcomes thousands to pull up a log. Five days a week for the last year, our contributors have logged in with fresh, intimate reports of life downrange. The military calls these contemporaneous debriefings "hot wash," a kind of actionable nonfiction. From an unsettling catalog of the various sounds of incoming projectiles, to an accounting of conscience following a raid on a civilian home, to an aching meditation on the night sky above a desert outpost—these highly personal narratives get at the soldier's reality in gritty, granular detail—and with an insightfulness that often eludes even the most skilled media embeds.
These are stories told from the inside out—and as such, each bears the particular emotional coloration of its author at a particular moment in time. There is no mistaking the fear or the boredom or the irony in the voices here assembled—not much flat, detached milspeak in evidence. Sometimes posting within hours of a hostile action, sometimes writing during a soul-deadening stretch of inactivity, the Sandbox posters reach out to us in a way that combatants never have before—in real time, and often before the raw feelings behind the posts have been pinned down and smoothed out.
When PBS' remarkable series on the Civil War debuted some years back, many viewers commented on the uncommon beauty of the letters written by soldiers in the field. Could today's warriors possibly be that eloquent? Well, yes. As this book confirms, each era has its singular chroniclers, men and women trapped in extraordinarily stressful circumstances who somehow discover within themselves the need and capacity to make art from it. Thanks to David Stanford's tireless scouting sorties to the hundreds of milblogs that have sprung up in the last four years, The Sandbox has managed to bring together and showcase some of the very best of these young writers. We are deeply grateful for their participation, and it is our hope that readers new to them will be as moved, informed, and, yes, entertained, by their work as we have been.
"Decency and Honor"
By Capt. Benjamin Tupper
Stationed in: Ghazni, Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, N.Y.
Unfortunately, I was sick with whatever it is that has caused me to lose 25 pounds in less than two months and was unable to go out on our planned mission to our most contested district. But my teammate, Ski, still had to go, so I wished him well.
When he returned that evening, I went over to get debriefed on how things went. As I got close to him, I immediately noticed his uniform was covered in blood, dirt, and gore. His normal upbeat and sunny vulgar disposition was absent, and I knew some heavy stuff had gone down. I made him a quick dinner while he told me about the mission. He was in no mood to cook and could barely manage to light his cigarette. The "thousand-yard stare" was in full effect—he was clearly still out on the battlefield, reliving the various "what ifs" that had played themselves out earlier in the day.
The story started predictably: Taliban ambush, returned fire, RPGs, near misses, etc. As the engagement developed, Ski and the ETT [Embedded Training Team] soldiers riding in his Humvee were firing on, and receiving AK and RPG fire from, Taliban soldiers in a small village. The ETTs and ANA [Afghan National Army]soldiers maneuvered into the village and immediately came across a handful of wounded and dead Taliban. Some were dead where they fell, others had crawled into shallow ditches and lay there dying. The fire from the ETT and ANA forces had been so fierce that the Taliban had abandoned their wounded, which is uncommon. We normally find blood trails and no wounded after we engage them.
Now Ski is an infantryman to the core. He chomps at the bit before each mission, hoping we will encounter the enemy. He is not one to wax humanistic. His normal response to most questions about the Taliban is to express a desire to destroy them in combat.
But Ski, upon seeing the wounded Taliban, immediately grabbed his combat lifesaver medical bag and moved to begin treating them. Doing this was at risk to his own life. The enemy was still in the area, and the wounded lay in ditches in an open road. Without hesitation, he used his limited medical supplies on the enemy, in an attempt to give them comfort and aid.
While he ate the food I'd prepared for him, he described how one of the injured Taliban was going into shock. His femoral artery had been hit, and he was bleeding out.
"This guy was looking at me with fear in his eyes, expecting me to finish him off.
When he realized I was trying to stop his bleeding, he relaxed and put his hand over his heart." In Afghanistan, it's customary among men to put their hands over their hearts as a sign of deep respect and thanks.
Here is a Taliban man dying, felled by our bullets, showing a final act of thanks for decent treatment. And there is Ski, the warrior, holding this man in his arms trying to make his final moments as comfortable and painless as possible.
That image of compassion from an unlikely source, in an unlikely place, is stuck in my head. As I sat there and listened to Ski, coated with the enemy's blood, I knew this day would stay with him for the rest of his life. It's a small but tangible example of decency and honor in an environment full of hate and pain.
By "American Soldier"
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog URL: Soldierlife.com
Most soldiers will tell you that the things they see during the war stay in the war. They experience it and deal with it at a later time. Well that time has come for me. February 27th.
Let me take you back to a year ago. An irrelevant city, a nameless street, and a small home where a little girl and her mother lived. I never did see the father during my many trips past this home. I often wondered where he was—dead, divorced, who knows. I'd have my gunner hand out extra candy whenever we'd pass. The child looked like my own daughter. Dark, wavy hair, charcoal eyes, and tan skin. She always had a smile and waved, while the boys tried to look tough. She would giggle and laugh at us. It brought a piece of home to me during the long nights on patrol or the early morning stroll.
We all had ways to deal with our tour. For me it came to be about seeing the future of Iraq. These children loved us, and we appreciated it. However, this was not meant to be a happy story. This is reality in a war. And for me reality came crashing down.
We were heading out for a patrol and were doing our morning checks in different parts of the city, always keeping on a different path and being random, to avoid any trouble. This doesn't always work because someone can just wait, and sooner or later they will hit you. We all get blown up. That is just the fact of war and patrolling outside the wire.
As we neared the house of the little girl, we saw a bleak front yard. A few pottery planters, a metal grate door, and a white stone fence, and, of course, dirt. There was a makeshift soccer field adjacent—not a soccer field by Western standards, but these local kids would kick balls on it and play tag. I looked across and saw the little girl running back to her house. I was in the lead vehicle and radioed back to my trail vehicle to look out for kids running across the road. Watching the side of the roads for IEDs is tough enough, let alone when you have children running, without warning, in front of you.
She was running and waving and had that beautiful smile. Just like any child happy in their own little world. A smile came across my rough face, and I blinked my eyes and looked forward again. Our vehicle is passing by. The sun reveals itself in my window, and I squint. The stinging of sweat in my eyes irritates them. I rub my eyes and look in my rearview mirror, and I lean forward.
The spiraling trail smoke from a rocket. It is flying toward where my vehicle has just passed. With a thunderous boom it explodes. My face, half-smile fading, goes into war mode. My trail vehicle takes evasive action, going around where the rocket had impacted. My driver speeds up, and we get ourselves in a better fighting posture. We drive around a corner to try and identify the culprit, but like most times, he fades into the shadows. We go back to check out the area and my heart stops. The smiling face, the peaceful bliss, and the innocent child, now on the ground.
Her mother had run to her and was now crouched down beside her. She lifted her up and was crying at us, damning us with a language I could not understand. As we approached the house, we came under small arms fire and had to move out of the area fast. We could not go back to check on her, but we found out the result later on. That area became empty to me. No more smiling face, no more innocence. It was taken away, and I was a part of that. A burden I live with to this day.
I look back at it, and it really hurts me inside. Something in my heart died that day. I can deal with seeing bad guys blown apart or hurt but not children. It breaks me and goes deeper than any other pain.
Later that day I was involved in a situation that earned me a Purple Heart. But the date is not seared into my brain due to the medal but due to the loss of a child. I look at the medal, and that is what I remember. The grind of battle wears on the toughest of men. The experience is stored away until various anniversary days come and go. February 27th is one of my dates.