Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What We're Reading: The Nature of Modern Warfare


All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy
for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for
His Killer, by Brian Castner

Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows, one of the finest memoirs to come out of the war in Iraq (reviewed previously for this blog in 2012). Castner is a former EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officer and combat veteran. He later worked as a military contractor, training soldiers in ordnance disposal prior to their deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Long Walk was an intensely personal and moving account of Castner’s experience as commander of an EOD unit in Iraq. It also explored the post-deployment psychological toll that this experience had on Castner and how it affected his personal relationships and his family life.

It would be an injustice to describe The Long Walk as only a personal story. It was also meant to be, as such stories are, representative of the experiences of many other soldiers, something that characterized the nature of the war itself. All the Ways We Kill and Die, however, while also seeking to explore the experience of the modern soldier and the nature of contemporary warfare, takes a wider view. It employs the investigative tools and narrative structures of journalism. Castner uses the targeting of his friend in Afghanistan as a way to make us understand what he sees as the fundamentally defining characteristic of modern warfare in places like Iraq and Afghanistan:
“Everyone thinks war is dehumanizing, but they’re wrong. War is personal, deeply personal. Every soldier at some point realizes, ‘They’re trying to kill me.’ But in modern war, rather than kill any person, we kill that person. That particular person, but not another. War has always been personal, but now it is individual, specific to the associated alias and photo and fingerprint and DNA sample and dossier. The point is this: some people are worth killing more than others.”

As part of the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, U.S. and
NATO allies compiled biometric dossiers on the population, chiefly
fingerprints and, as seen here, iris scan records.
All the Ways We Kill and Die is a look at how that idea is expressed in military strategy and tactics. Castner’s story is framed around the search to find and kill one person worth killing more than others, the shadowy figure that he calls “The Engineer.” The Engineer is not the bomber who implants and detonates the bomb, the person who mixes the explosives, or even the person who assembles the IED (Improvised Explosive Device). He is the one with the engineering skills to design a device of ever increasing lethality, and the one who has the skills to redesign the device to defeat technologies that might detect it. He is the one who makes the device an effective tool of warfare and killing.

Castner imagines him as a single peripatetic individual, travelling from group to group dispensing the circuit boards he has designed, the essential hardware and schematic, instructing on the assembly and deployment of the device. If there is more than one person, if “The Engineer” is indeed a group of individuals, Castner believes that because of the skill level involved, that group constitutes a small club, one that is ultimately responsible for a tremendous number of casualties. This person(s) is the target most worth identifying and killing. How you attempt to identify, locate, and kill this person is what All the Ways We Kill and Die is about; it unfolds for us the landscape of modern warfare.

We learn about the job of EOD teams in the field, analyzing diffused and exploded devices, conducting the forensic investigation of the scene for finger print or DNA evidence, and signature physical evidence that might link the device to other devices with a common maker or place of assembly; the intelligence databases into which all this information goes and how those databases are used (or fail to be useful); the massive biometrics project that seeks to create a database of names and unique physical identifiers for the entire domestic population in a troubled area; the way surveillance equipment is used, including predator drones; and the role of military contractors and special forces units in tracking down, capturing, and killing individual “targets.” We are shown in one amazing sequence how a drone in Afghanistan, vital to a complex operation on the ground, is flown by a remote pilot at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

  Air Force pilots flying drones flying over Afghanistan from a remote location.
Many drones operating in Afghanistan were flown from Nellis Air Force base in Nevada.

An MQ-1 Predator drone
Woven throughout this operational narrative are the personal stories of contractors and soldiers engaged in the fight. The strategic and tactical nature of this kind of war comes with a new set of cognitive challenges, psychological damage, and kinds of physical injuries--most notably the many amputations and long physical rehabilitation that result from IED trauma. In the book’s perhaps most chilling moment, we are presented with the evidence that the enemy too is targeting individual soldiers, that this is an individual war on both sides. At the site of an IED that was exploded beneath an American convoy, investigators discover, just off the road, the remote trigger site. There is a drawing on stone, a rough petroglyph that shows a line of the various vehicles typically found in the convoy. The drawing marks as the specific object for destruction the JERRV, the vehicle used to safely transport EOD operators, supplies, and equipment, including remotely controlled robots. It is the vehicle Castner’s friend was riding in when he died.

In Afghanistan the Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams traveled in this
heavily armored vehicle, a JERRV (Joint EOD Rapid Response Vehicle.
This vehicle and its EOD team became the particular target of enemy bombers.

The nature of modern war has become a struggle in which we seek to kill a named enemy combatant. Is this something new? Yes, in modern warfare it is. And like the story of those ancient named enemies who sought each other out on the field of battle--Achilles and Hector--there seems something inglorious and troubling about it all, perhaps because it allows no refuge for our distancing and palliative fictions about what wars really are and what we ask of those who fight them.


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