Nov 16, 2009

What it’s like to be a soldier in Afghanistan

We hear about it, have heard about it for what seems a long time now – but it's hard to get a good picture of it in our minds: what it's like in Afghanistan. And how it would be like

W H Chong — Culture Mulcher

W H Chong

Culture Mulcher

We hear about it, have heard about it for what seems a long time now – but it’s hard to get a good picture of it in our minds: what it’s like in Afghanistan. And how it would be like to be a Coalition soldier there. To see the pictures below is to have something from which to imagine the fear in that work, and why post-traumatic stress disorder* is so prevalent.

The images here are taken from a photo essay published in the, where there are many more to look at. They are the remarkable work of David Guttenfelder, the chief Asia photographer for The Associated Press, who over the past seven years has documented the lives of American troops in Afghanistan.

See an excellent July 2009 NYT interview/article on Guttenfelder’s Afghanistan photojournalism here. He said: “Some people, especially print correspondents, are looking at the conflict from any number of levels and often from 30,000 feet. For photographers, there’s really no other way to tell the story but in the micro way, the intimate level. The closer you can get to the company or platoon or squad level, to a few individuals out in the field, the better the work will end up. They allow you in. That’s the only way for a photographer to get down and as close to the ground as possible.”

The captions below are Guttenfelder’s (my added comments in brackets).



A U.S. Marine from the 2nd MEB, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, checks behind a compound wall during a patrol near the town of Golestan in Afghanistan’s Farah province Friday, June 12, 2009. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder (What must it be like to creep around a blind corner, not knowing if you will meet a bullet?)



U.S Marines from the 2nd MEB, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines battle Taliban fighters inside a mud walled compound near Now Zad in Afghanistan’s Helmand province Saturday June 20, 2009. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

Guttenfelder on this photo from the NYT piece: ‘This series, from Now Zad, documents a Marine assault on a Taliban compound. “We blew a hole in the wall of the compound and went inside,” Mr. Guttenfelder said. “As we entered this alleyway, one of the marines saw three Talibans pop out from around the corner and open fire. This was certainly closer combat than I’d ever seen in Afghanistan. They were 15 to 20 feet away from one another.” The second picture [below] shows a marine throwing a hand grenade in the alley.’




Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry take an ambush position during an operation against the Taliban in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province on Wednesday May 13, 2009. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder



U.S Marines from the 2nd MEB, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines walk through a mud walled compound as they search for Taliban fighters near Now Zad in Afghanistan’s Helmand province Saturday June 20, 2009. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder (Searching for Taliban fighters half-blinded by dust – how frightening would that be?)



U.S. Marines from the 2nd MEB, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines stand guard along a wall in the village of Khwaja Jamal near their base near Now Zad in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Monday, June 22, 2009. Three years after its residents fled, the once bustling town of Now Zad is the scene of a stalemate between U.S. Marines and Taliban insurgents and an example of the challenges facing the U.S. administration even as it sends 21,000 extra Marines and soldiers to the south to try and turn around a bogged down, 8-year-long war. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder  (Blank and barren, except for the constant possibilty of an enemy soldier, or a hail of bullets.)



U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, one with the names of fallen colleagues tattooed on his back, bathe at a forward operating base in southern Afghanistan Saturday, April 26, 2008. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder (This picture says a lot to me about how soldiers feel about their job and the people they fight with and on whom their lives can depend.)



U.S. Marines from the 2nd MEB, 1st Battalion 5th Marines sleep in their fighting holes inside a compound where they stayed for the night, in the Nawa district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Wednesday July 8, 2009. AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

Guttenfelder’s in the NYT article on this photo: ‘These aren’t graves. They’re beds. “This is typical of the photos I like to shoot that just show the daily life of soldiers and marines,” Mr. Guttenfelder said. “After a long, hard, exhausting day, you’d pull out your little shovel and dig the hole in the ground where you’d sleep. We all did it, to protect ourselves from incoming mortars.” The photographer made a point of waking up early enough to catch the men still asleep, remembering that a picture like this can convey a lot of information to viewers looking on comfortably in the United States.’


*PS: On post-traumatic stress disorder – this amazing anecdote reported in the Boston Review (and picked up here via the Daily Dish) in an article titled ‘God, the Army and PTSD’:

[Paul] Sullivan was working as an analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington in early 2005 when he was called to a meeting with a top political appointee at the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs], Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon. McLendon, an intensely focused man in a neatly pressed suit, kept a Bible on his desk at the office. Sullivan explained to McLendon and the other attendees that the rise in benefits claims the VA was noticing was caused partly by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were suffering from PTSD. “That’s too many,” McLendon said, then hit his hand on the table. “They are too young” to be filing claims, and they are doing it “too soon.” He hit the table again. The claims, he said, are “costing us too much money,” and if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.”

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6 thoughts on “What it’s like to be a soldier in Afghanistan

  1. soldier

    To Friar Hilarius:

    I am a soldier in the U.S. Army. And I would like to thank you for your support and willingness to give up a lot of your freedoms to further your support. On the other hand though, I must tell you that the main reason I joined the military was to help preserve those same freedoms that you are telling everybody they should give up. It’s bad enough that the American people are forced to live with that constant little worry in the back of their minds that there could be another 9/11 right around the corner. The world would be a much sadder place if not only were people living with those worries, but if they had to give up the simple pleasures, like going to a movie, that make things a little more bearable. So again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support, but please realize that myself, and a great deal of other soldiers, joined to fight, to give up some of our freedoms, so that everyone else may keep theirs.

  2. Tweets that mention What it’s like to be a soldier in Afghanistan – Culture Mulcher --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Helping Veterans, Northwest Fire and Northwest Fire, martinigirl87. martinigirl87 said: These guys are no slouches. They are doing it. Great photos of the soldiers in Afghanistan. […]

  3. Stilgherrian

    The Boston Globe‘s glorious photoblog The Big Picture has been running monthly photos essay on the war in Afghanistan, which they say they’ll continue for “as long as necessary”. Some overlap with what you’ve shown here, but many more fine images.

  4. Friar Hilarius

    The real crime of the war is that those of us who are not involved are able to carry on with “normal” activities … pursuing normal lives while a few risk theirs

    In my view all forms of entertainment should be cancelled for the duration of the war and the people and resources so released should be employed providing support to those in the field for the duration.

    If on the other hand the war is unwinnable the sooner that is recognised the better

    I find it morally abhorrent that any form of entertainment continues while others risk their lives, especially when so much of the entertainment is so puerile and aimed at the lowest common denminator or lower

    Friar Hilarius

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