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Hey Michael, What Did You Do Out There?

Once on a comment on Abu Muqawama, I made a reference to the costs of warfare. Another commenter said I shouldn't comment unless I was prepared to make the sacrifice myself. Someone else then pointed out that I was an infantry officer who had earned a CIB in Afghanistan.

Naturally, my experience in Afghanistan is a huge part of my exploration into Violence, and foreign and military affairs. That's what I would like to write about today, to clarify exactly what I did and did not do in Afghanistan. Also, I know that many of our civilian readers have a lot of questions about the daily life of our soldiers in Afghanistan.  

I joined my battalion six months into a fifteen month deployment. My late arrival as a mid-tour replacement was a double edged sword. The biggest benefit was that I spent all my time downrange as a platoon leader, the smallest unit of organization an officer can lead. Most officers say is the most fun they ever had, and that time has been the most rewarding experience of my short time in the Army. The bonds I formed with my men during deployment will last for the rest of our lives.

On the other hand, the biggest drawback to arriving mid-deployment is the never ending feeling like you aren’t quite a member of the team. You have to prove yourself, you have to earn your place. I never quite felt a part of my battalion until we returned from deployment; I only knew my company. Both companies I worked with were geographically removed from battalion headquarters so the battalion staff did not know me as Michael Cummings, they knew me as Destined 4-6: 4th Platoon Leader, Destined Company.

My battalion deployed to Konar Province, Afghanistan. At the time, it was one of the most dangerous areas of operation on the planet. The enemy favored small arms and indirect fire weapons to IEDs. When they attacked, they were vicious and tenacious. Our battalion’s story was told in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and on Nightline. Because of this media coverage, our battalion in many ways was the face of war in Afghanistan. (Currently, I would say the south of the country, Helmand Province, has taken that role.) 

When I first arrived, I spent a few weeks learning how to become the Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader. The initial plan was that I would learn how to operate the Battalion Mortars, then transfer to a rifle or weapons platoon. Like all of the best laid plans, this one changed. Before I could take the mortar platoon job, a job in Destined Company--our heavy weapons company--opened up. Before I knew it, I was on a plane flying to the Korengal valley.

As a heavy weapons platoon leader, I deployed to two different areas within Konar Province. In the first area of operations, the Korengal Valley, we were attached to Battle Company. The Korengal Vally had roughly eight kilometers of road. The area of operations spread out on either side by a few kilometers but very little was reachable by Coalition Forces. My platoon operated as a quick reaction force or a pre-positioned support-by-fire element. As a quick reaction force, we assisted a force in trouble by providing additional troops, heavy weapons fire or, if needed, ground based casualty evacuation. For the latter, we pre-positioned our trucks and provided overwhelming fire to units in contact.

Because we dominated the roads, by default the IED defeat mission fell to us. In my terms, we did not conduct counter-IED missions (trying to take down the cells) but anti-IED missions (trying to find the IEDs in the road). A few days before I took lead of the platoon, an IED had detonated and destroyed one of our trucks. One of our soldiers lost both legs as a result. The IED mission, therefore, occupied much of my mental and emotional energy.

After two months in this area, my platoon rejoined Destined Company, our parent company. Captain Rowe gave my platoon the districts of Serkani and Marawara. Instead of providing the specific mission support-by-fire we executed in the Korengal, we controlled an entire AO. This AO included over one hundred square kilometers, at least forty-thousand families, and twenty kilometers of road. Instead of a purely tactical mission focus as in the Korengal, I had to learn the skills of counter-insurgency and try to influence the local government.

In the former AO, I experienced glimpses of the intense fighting my men had endured before I arrived. Because of the tenacious fight, Battle Company and their commander earned many awards and adulation for what they endured. In our second area of operations, Serkani, we generally pushed out the Taliban with our presence. Before our presence patrols they had attacked Afghan police checkpoints and smuggled in goods. After a few weeks of patrolling, they shifted their smuggling routes and the attacks on Afghan security forces ceased.

In Serkani and Marawara my missions were as varied as the terrain. We conducted dismounted, mounted and aerial patrols. We conducted kinetic movement to contacts and support by fires. We conducted presence patrols like traffic control points and route clearances. We conducted soft-skill missions like humanitarian aid distributions, medical civil action projects and economic reconstruction with the local provincial reconstruction team. We also trained three separate Afghan security forces: the Army, the Police and the Border Police.

I was proud of my experience and performance in both the Korengal and Serkani. In the Korengal I saw the fighting and the headlines; in Serkani, I saw real people get real help. In many ways, I saw the different approaches an Army can take to war, both the high-intensity and the population-centric counter-insurgency. Both ways influenced how I think about warfare and nation building.

seven comments

I just wanted to mention the logical fallacy in the first paragraph: who a person is doesn’t change the accuracy of their statement.

It makes me especially sad that on all matters military, only soldiers have a say in it. I feel fortunate that Michael is a soldier, so that we can write about these topics, because if Michael weren’t, we’d be screwed.

I just want to second Eric’s comment. I believe that all of us can have a reasoned debate/conversation in regards to war whether we have served or not. Additionally I was one of the soldiers who CPT Cummings lead and I am glad to say that following him was an honor and a privilege. He always kept us, the enlisted members, informed and he sought our advice and experience of the time before he arrived. At the same time he helped us move from a sector where everyone of the locals was a threat to an area where fighting became our secondary mission. He provided a fresh view that we badly needed after our previous nine months.

I also know Eric and while he is not an active member of our Armed forces his input is just as valuable and he gives the perspective of a civilian, the vast majority of the world. I hope everyone continues to read “On Violence” and enjoy the thought provoking discussions it provides.

Michael hope all goes well in Italy. To Eric & Michael keep up the good work, I have shared this blog with everyone I know and find it to be the most balanced commentary with the most reasonable ideas I have found.

First, to Ben, thank you for your comments and support. As I said in the article, the bonds I made with fourth platoon will last a lifetime.

Second, as to Eric’s point about being a soldier, I too feel some regret that I have to rely on my position in debates. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. Of course, book learning can only go so far and actually being in a counter-insurgency is priceless experience. In that same vein, taking a two week trip to Afghanistan or Iraq is not the same as trying repeatedly day after day, week after week, to wage a counter-insurgency. Even living in a TOC doesn’t come close to on the ground experience.

Thanks for the kind words Ben.

I feel like you have a good grasp on the conflict and ideas on how we can improve the operations in Afghanistan. The trick is in getting the ideas to the attention of those with the ability to implement.

Bingo Matt

I to think its unfortunate that people feel because they have never wore a uniform they cannot comment on the war. Of course nothing can replace first hand experience, (and having heard about the 173rd´s last deployment I´m sure you have as much first hand experience as lot of people on their third combat deployment now) but just because you don´t have first hand experience doesn´t mean you are completely devoid of insight or incapable of forming an educated analysis. Attacking someone´s character or service instead of their point is an attempt to aviod debate in theory or policy. I think one of the most horrendous examples of it was the 2004 presidential election in which Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were formed to attack Kerry´s military service and his membership in Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Perhaps it is a bit hypocritical of me but I do expect people who are cheerleaders for war (such as the so called chickenhawks) to enlist or take a commission, preferably in a combat MOS. I am tired of the pedestrian interest in what is being done at no cost to most people except in the form of taxpayer dollars. If the war is really so important to people and they think it is vital to the defense of their families and their homeland than what are they doing on the sidelines? It sometimes seems like war has become to ingrained in American tradition and become a national past time in the same way as baseball.