Gadhafi’s Killer Mercenaries

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Libyan refugees and opposition groups say the most feared presence on the streets of Tripoli are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa who drive around in tan-colored military jeeps and shoot anything that moves.

The country remains a swirl of rumors, but a constant theme is trigger-happy, non-Arabic-speaking foreigners who try to spread fear and persuade protesters to return to their homes. “We don’t know where they’re coming from,” one man told a Reuters TV crew after fleeing across the Egyptian border. “They’re African mercenaries. They’re shooting people randomly.”

Big Questions Online

Can you win the Medal of Honor for jumping on a mango?

The Medal of Honor is the highest award the United States bestows on members of its armed forces. It tells you something about the nature of the decoration that of the 246 Medals of Honor given during the Vietnam War, 154 of them had to be pinned to body bags. The citations of the 92 survivors make clear that what spared them was little more than dumb luck: bullets that barely missed their livers and hearts; feet that somehow danced around landmines and booby-traps; and on one occasion, a North Vietnamese grenade that just fizzled out harmlessly, while one extremely fortunate sailor lay on top of it, waiting for it to blow up, and hoping that his body would shield the others.

Bravery and luck are uneasy partners. A “good” person, according to our mothers, is one who makes the right decisions, even when they are hard ones. Being brave feels like it should be the same as being good:  in a garden of forking paths, the trail that looks dark or deadly is often the morally correct one. Brave people take the right path, and what makes them brave is their mental state when they choose it. To say that luck is involved seems to violate the spirit of bravery. Indeed, the intuitive view is that the only thing that really determines whether an act is brave is whether you think the right path is the treacherous one, and take it anyway.

The exalted status of the Medal of Honor serves as a curious test case for our collective intuitions about bravery. And it turns out the intuition above is a confused one. The view that the Medal is something you get by being a brave soldier, and that bravery is a state of mind, has led veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq war to wonder why they have won only seven Medals—one every year and a half, compared to one every few weeks in Vietnam and one every few days in the Second World War. There will soon be an eighth: last week, the White House announced a forthcoming Medal of Honor for Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, who ran through enemy fire to rescue a wounded comrade. Giunta will be the first living Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam.

Combat bravery is not exactly rare, so why is it so difficult to merit the Medal of Honor? In practice, to earn the Medal you have two methods at your disposal: the hard way and, well, the other hard way.  Call them Hard Way #1 and Hard Way #2.

Hard Way #1 is to commit a multi-part act of near comic-book-style heroism (see here or here, or Giunta’s case) and, more often than not, die. Pentagon committees then convene to determine whether your valor merits an award traditionally given for acts so brave that no one would have even thought to complain if the soldier had neglected to do them.

Hard Way #2 is a faster and surer method of winning the Medal: smother a grenade with your body and save the lives of your fellow servicemen. This method nearly always wins the Medal—some 70 times in Vietnam, and three times since September 11—but the catch is that you almost always die.

Almost. In May 1968, Donald E. Ballard was serving in Vietnam as a Navy medical corpsman. His job meant that he had to run into extreme danger constantly, since casualties were often too badly wounded to come to him. In Quang Tri province, after a North Vietnamese Army ambush, Ballard leapt on what he thought was a live grenade. The grenade did not go off. According to his citation, he lay on the weapon for a few instants, then “calmly arose from his dangerous position” and kept on treating casualties. Ballard went on to a commission in the Army and distinguished service in the Kansas National Guard, retiring last year as colonel.

The standard intuition about Ballard’s situation is that he deserves the Medal as much as the seventy-odd men who smothered grenades that detonated and killed them. Ballard didn’t even get scratched. But how could Ballard know the grenade was a dud?  If the mental act of jumping on a grenade is bravery, then his actions do qualify.

The case gets trickier when you pose a few hypotheticals. What if the North Vietnamese soldier had thrown not a grenade but a bar of soap carved realistically to look like one? Would the nation have decorated Ballard for jumping on a bar of soap? What if it was not a grenade at all, but a piece of fruit that fell from a tree, and that in the heat of combat Ballard mistook for a grenade? The alternate-universe Ballard who jumped on a bar of soap or a piece of fruit had the same mental state as the Ballard who threw himself upon a dud grenade. Can you get the Medal of Honor for jumping on a mango?

Philosophers such as Bernard Williams have confronted this problem before, generally from the direction of vice rather than virtue. If two equally drunk drivers go home, and one kills a child, but the other arrives home safe because there was no child for him to hit, which driver is more culpable?  If we say that the killer has sinned more profoundly, we are admitting what we are loath to admit about bravery—that what makes us brave is not just our mental state, but facts about the world that are totally out of our control. In the case of Ballard, there was no way he could have known the grenade wouldn’t kill him. And so his act seems at once shockingly courageous, but also strangely tainted. If you believe in “moral luck” (which is what philosophers call the grace that the homicidal drunk driver had, and the other one lacked), then you might say that Ballard was lucky to be alive, but not morally lucky. A morally lucky person would have a brave mental state and be in a situation that required bravery.

I called Ballard and asked if anyone had complained about his having won the Medal for jumping on an object that, in retrospect, had the lethality of a piece of tropical fruit. He said an officer processing his recommendation called back to his unit and questioned whether a Medal could be given for an incident that did not even injure him. Ballard’s commanding officer responded with a threat to lodge his combat boot in the backside of anyone who whined about moral luck, or who dared to question the bravery of a young man who had risked his life for the lives of others, and whose mental state had been one of unalloyed bravery. Presumably the boot would have ended up lodged in Bernard Williams, if the great old philosopher had ever made it to the Officers Club in Danang.

(Ballard told me that the citation omitted a few other interesting details. Before he ever lunged for the grenade, he said, he had been playing hot potato with North Vietnamese grenades for some time while trying to tend to casualties. The grenades were close enough to be bouncing off his helmet, and to save himself and his casualties, he flung them back. When he covered the fateful grenade with his body, he realized after a split second that he might have a chance at survival after all.. When he threw it away, it finally detonated, harmlessly, in midair. No one was there to see it explode, he said, because they were too busy being shot at and blown up by the North Vietnamese. So the question doesn’t arise: the grenade was no dud, and it certainly wasn’t a bar of soap. Ballard’s act of heroism is whole and unblemished, any way you look at it.)

It’s rare that a matter of public policy requires thinking through a question as tricky as the nature of bravery. Indeed, outside the military, “bravery” is not a word often used in government, except to describe acts of pseudo-bravery, like casting a vote on principle during an election season. And it’s therefore striking to see how uncomfortable we are with the idea that our moral life is in some ways beyond our control, that time and chance happen even to our mental states, and that choosing the right path is not enough to earn medals. Best intentions are probably necessary. But having the mental state of bravery, as the many serving soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have, might not be enough to be brave in the morally lucky sense: to win the Medal of Honor, and to be in the most rarefied companies of heroes and angels.


Originally appeared at Big Questions Online.

Weekly Standard

Back to the Afghan Future

Anup Kaphle and I reported last year from Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.  We’ve published a piece on the British Army Gurkhas here, in The Weekly Standard.

Back to the Afghan Future

The return of the Gurkhas.

Anup Kaphle and Graeme Wood

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

Last summer, before the U.S. Marines moved into Marja and began doing what Marines do best, the NATO command center in nearby Lashkar Gah—capital of Helmand province—had a small black-and-white poster on its wall. It featured a grinning Asian man, wearing a hat with a chinstrap and carrying a small, cucumber-shaped sword. The caption read: “Gurkhas: Because a big guy with a little knife and a frown isn’t as scary as a little guy with a big knife and a smile.”

There are about 3,700 Gurkhas in the British army, and until a few months ago they were the dominant presence in Lashkar Gah. Thanks to a long history in the British army, these Nepalese soldiers have a reputation as fearsome warriors. It seems vaguely improbable when you first meet them. Where other soldiers are broad-backed and tall, the Gurkhas are skinny and short. Where others are loud and blustery, the Gurkhas are quiet and reserved. The assumption, which the Gurkhas and their British comrades seem pleased to cultivate, is that their silence is of the tightly wound, steel-nerved kind, and that in battle they strike with deadly precision. The enduring romantic totem of their violence is the kukri knife. When we asked a Gurkha why he would carry a knife to a gunfight, he looked surprised by the question and said “To chop the enemy,” as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about preparing dinner.

The Gurkhas’ reputation as unsentimental killers has shown no sign of dying down in recent decades. But during their six-month turn in Helmand last year, the signature virtue of the Gurkhas was less their bravery than their culture. NATO has struggled to field soldiers who can relate well with their Afghan counterparts. Nepal is only a few hundred miles from Afghanistan, and Gurkhas share linguistic and social kinships that should make them ideal trainers and partners to the Afghan army. The Gurkhas have a storied past in Afghanistan, too. Gurkha units fought for the British in the Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars (1878-80 and 1919).

The Gurkhas’ latest Afghan deployment began modestly, with a 45-soldier detachment that joined an initial force of about 380 British soldiers in Helmand. In 2006, they saw their first serious resistance from the Taliban. During a shura in Nawzad, Taliban ambushed 110 Gurkhas. In the six-hour battle, 20-year-old Gurkha rifleman Nabin Rai was hit first in the eye and then in his helmet but refused to be evacuated for treatment. The British papers fawned over a quote from Rai’s commander indicating that the Gurkha had played to character, sitting down for a cigarette to shake off the shock from the second hit before quickly returning to duty.

In Helmand the following year, hundreds of Gurkhas took part in Operation Palk Wahel (“Sledgehammer Hit”), where they were tasked with driving away the Taliban from the Upper Gereskh valley and into Musa Qala. The subsequent battle claimed the life of Yubraj Rai, the first Gurkha to die in Afghanistan for almost a century. Two more would be killed before the deployment ended.

But last summer the Gurkhas in Helmand moved from offensive missions to staffing mentoring teams tasked with training the Afghan police. NATO soldiers have so far failed miserably at training the Afghan security services and convincing them to do their job. Even with interpreters the two sides have rarely really understood each other. This is a natural and predictable effect of pairing a force that uses night-vision goggles with one that has never before worn footwear with laces.

A scene last summer at Lashkar Gah’s last checkpoint on the road to Kandahar was typical: The British soldiers were supposed to be overseeing the Afghan policemen manning this important post, but mostly they just traded dumb grins and fondled each other’s weapons (taking care to check twice to make sure the Afghans’ dime-store Kalashnikovs were clear). Trucks passed by, and British soldiers watched in dismay as the Afghans occasionally conducted strange and incompetent searches. One British soldier had a fresh tattoo in what he thought were Dari letters but were in fact pure gobbledygook. He slouched against a wall sullenly, hiding his arm from the eyes of the few literate Afghans, so they wouldn’t ridicule him.

But when the Gurkhas arrived, an unlikely communion began. The Nepalese soldiers and the Afghans have a common language—Hindi—because of their shared love of Bolly-wood. When they talk the affection seems real. A British platoon commander said that policemen would first come to the Gurkhas with intelligence on location of the Taliban or about a possible attack. “It’s easier for them to come to the boys because they can communicate with each other,” he said. Afghans who stand baffled and tightlipped when a British soldier asks questions will suddenly open up and spill vital details when the question comes from a Gurkha.

The Gurkhas are mostly Hindu, and the Afghans Sunni. But the religious gulf matters little. “Most of these Afghans believe in god. We also believe in god, but they believe in god more than we do,” says Shivendra Gurung.

The Gurkhas, whose name comes from a Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath, are generally very religious. Inside their massive tent at the base in Lashkar Gah, they have lined up idols and images of Hindu gods, and most Gurkhas worship before them before heading out on both routine patrols and major operations against the Taliban. Even those manning the computers and phones at the operations base wear tikas, the red forehead dots that mark blessings from the gods.

The Gurkhas, many of whom are in their early 20s, and the Afghan policemen have made easygoing friends. Before going out on operations, the Afghans often buy a goat from nearby villages—the animal is popular in a wide variety of Nepalese dishes—and the two groups slaughter it and share dinner. They smoke cigarettes, recite poems, and joke about which Bollywood actress they would like to marry. They know the same movies—and so the same pop songs, as well. Even the older Afghans, whose stern expressions seem so unmatchable with the cheery mincing of a Hindi-pop dance sequence, express enthusiasm.

“Sing a Hindi song for me,” a Gurkha asks.

“I can only sing before I go to bed,” the policeman replies, caressing his beard.

“Whose song do you usually sing?”

“The song where Ajay Devgan [a sort of Indian Kevin Bacon] sings about having his heart stolen,” answers the policeman, resting his machine gun, and shyly scratching his head.

This is likely among the first genuine interactions he has ever had with a NATO soldier, far different from painstakingly relayed advice to keep his weapon clean and his boots tied.

The Gurkhas’ ability to speak freely leads the Afghans to reveal intimate details that they assume will repulse Western soldiers. The Afghan police freely share dirty jokes and stories about their sexual conquests, generally among young Afghan boys. After hearing one unprintable exploit, a young Gurkha tells a policeman, “You are filthy, very filthy.”

The policeman eyes him coyly, responds, “And you are cute, very young and cute.”

“Truly filthy,” says the Gurkha.

If these interactions sound trivial, that may be because they are. Getting a man to joke with you about the hoary topic of pederasty does not mean he will fight well at your side. Asadullah Sherzad, the Helmand police chief, wasn’t sure the Gurkhas’ cultural knowledge had made them better mentors for his men. Useful information did pass from Gurkha to policeman and vice versa, but more often the interactions were of a very general type that may have built confidence but did little to increase the police units’ effectiveness or to materially weaken the Taliban.

Since mentoring of Afghan National Police and Army has been, up until now, a cornerstone of NATO’s policy, the Gurkha example offers a sobering perspective on how fruitless police training can be, even when the trainers have every cultural advantage, and indeed are from a force that was constituted for the express purpose of fighting wars in far-flung reaches of South Asia.

At the worst moments, the Afghan police seemed to view the Gurkhas not as comrades in war but as rich playmates willing to share their modern military toys. The most popular toy was a traffic flare, which the British army shoots in the air to scare off Afghan drivers when they get too close.

At the police station, one policeman asks a Gurkha signalman if he can have one. The Gurkha scolds him, “This is not a toy!”

“I promise not to misuse it,” the policeman says. “Anyway, it’s not like I’m asking for a grenade.” In the end, the Gurkha gives the man a bottle of water, his second of the morning. The policeman snatches it, slightly disappointed, but walks away with a grin.

What little safety the Gurkhas achieved in Lashkar Gah did not inkblot out into the hinterlands. The -Gurkhas, for all their virtues as mentors, have historically functioned as fighters. When the Gurkhas rotated out in October, the fight was left largely undone, and the U.S. Marines—a much larger and better equipped force—went on the offensive.

Part of the reason for this has been structural: The British military has time and again complained about lacking key resources, such as adequate serviceable aircraft to conduct large-scale autonomous attacks. But it is also a result of a different attitude toward the incorporation of Afghan forces into military operations.

In the Marja offensive, the Marines aimed to field an Afghan soldier for every Marine deployed—though they only managed a one-to-two ratio at the start of the operation—and they hardly ever stop aspiring to Afghanize the fight (and even moved quickly to Afghanize the peace, installing a readymade Afghan government for Helmand after the assault). What differs from the Gurkha model is that unlike the British, the Marines possess enough resources to both clear the area thoroughly first and then deploy for more culturally sensitive missions—which is the stage where the Gurkhas could prove most useful.

Firm footholds have softened and crumbled before, of course. But if the Marines’ Marja operations succeed, and Helmand is safe enough to try police training again, the Gurkhas will be back there soon. The British government is set to send 1,200 more of them to Afghanistan this year. Whether to swap Bollywood duets, to fight, or both is yet to be seen.

Graeme Wood and Anup Kaphle were South Asian Journalists Association reporting fellows in Afghanistan in 2009.


Barnes & Noble Review Salon

Canny Valley

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

Update: Reprinted in Salon.



Reviewed by Graeme Wood


In mid-April, the U.S. military executed what it called a “strategic withdrawal” from Korengal, a small valley in northeast Afghanistan that it had tried for four years to pacify. Dozens of U.S. soldiers and many more Afghans had died violently there. When the U.S. pulled out, the valley was still so dangerous that officers had to offer village elders six thousand gallons of fuel as a bribe not to attack the convoys during their drive to safety.


This is about as close to an acknowledgment of defeat as one is likely to see in this war. Sebastian Junger’s new book, War, is a depiction of one year in the life of the U.S. soldiers who tried to turn the occupation of Korengal around, and whose battle against a steady barrage of Taliban attacks was eventually judged to be not worth the trouble. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and a reporter for Vanity Fair, visited Korengal’s forts and outposts serially for one year, and his dispatches present a sometimes unbearably gritty look at the daily life of soldiers there. As a narrative of combat in Afghanistan from the U.S. ground perspective, the book has no rivals. It makes one wonder how any army could hold ground in Korengal, and indeed why it would even want to.


Joseph Kony’s Hike to, and from, Hell

The Lord’s Resistance Army has been kidnapping, brainwashing, and murdering unlucky adolescents in a remote corner of the Central African Republic.  The Ugandan military is trailing the LRA, sometimes killing them and sometimes not.

Click through to read my report for The National on the world’s most technologically outmatched insurgency.

Daily Beast

Hasan’s Yemen Connection

Today in The Daily Beast.

Atlantic Monthly

Bovine Intervention

An article on dairy training in Iraq.  September 2009 Atlantic.

SINCE MID-2009, Lockie Gary has lived part-time on a Marine base in Fallujah and led a series of seminars that aim to train insurgents’ widows to become milkmaids. On this hot June day, he is in a makeshift classroom in a rural technical school, addressing five quiet but curious students. Cows and humans have many of the same needs, Gary tells his students, and when cows are stressed, they give less milk. “The same things that cause you stress will stress your cows,” he says, and waits for an interpreter to translate. “What stresses you?”

Atlantic Monthly

The Lost World

I spent much of this summer with Canadian, Afghan, British, and US forces in southern Afghanistan. Here are some of the resulting dispatches.