An experiment in democracy

With our government shut down, I’m reminded of my promotion to Captain which happened in complete darkness inside the governor’s office in Marjah, AFG. The power was out because the local government didn’t have the diesel to keep the new generators we gave them in operation. It was dark because we got delayed chasing Taliban throughout the city. It was the perfect metaphor for the struggles my team faced as well as the struggles our entire military faced attempting to bring democracy to their country.

The infantry Battalion commander who I was attached to was going to promote me in the Governor’s Office which was less than 1km away (It seemed like a fitting locale given how much effort we had put into the local government). So he and I, along with the SgtMaj and a couple other infantry Marines left the wire expecting a 5 minute walk to link up with my Marines at the District Center.

That quickly turned into 17km of chasing Taliban after getting reports of shots fired from one of the schools my team was rebuilding. As soon as we got to the District Center the Governor met us at the gate, out of breath telling us the Taliban had taken over a school “down the road.” I immediately knew things were about to get really interesting for two reasons... First, the colonel was the last person in the world to put up with that type of thing, and second, there was no school “down the road.” There was, however, a school about 8km away in the direction he had pointed.

I told the Colonel as much but he still wasn’t going to look the other way, or let somebody else deal with this. He told his men to keep their gear on and get ready to head back out. He pulled me aside and told me I should stay at the DC with my Marines and wait for them to return. No sense getting killed on your promotion day, is what he meant. I respectfully declined his offer, winking at him as I put my Kevlar back on. He smiled, having known exactly how I would respond, but he had at least ensured his conscience would be clear if the worst did happen.

It was July in the Afghan desert, and everybody was out of water before we even reached the school. Scenes from the movie Black Hawk Down raced through my mind as I kicked myself for not topping off my camelback before stepping off. And for leaving my NVGs behind as it became more and more apparent we wouldn’t be back to base before sunset. I had gotten complacent, focused on the details of my promotion instead of my training and experience. We all know nothing ever goes to plan in combat.

We didn’t get the fight we were looking for as I’m sure the word that a handful of crazy Marines were literally running towards them in full battle rattle from 8km away traveled faster than we did. We did call a hasty shura with the local elders to express our disappointment that they were allowing the Taliban to operate in their own back yards. This burned another precious hour of daylight. 

The sun was setting just as we got back to the DC, and I was relieved to know that I had survived at least until I could be promoted to Captain. The day was far from over, however. The generator literally died in the middle of my ceremony which caused some brief confusion. The SgtMaj took out his flashlight without missing a beat and we completed it like the professionals we were. The governor was a little embarrassed but beaming with pride. He assured us that I was the first Marine to ever be promoted in a Governor’s office in Afghanistan.

The trek back to base was in the total darkness and I definitely wasn’t the only one without NVGs. I absolutely was the one in the rear of the formation, however, and I can assure you walking along sketchy canals in bad guy country in pitch darkness, knowing nobody has your back isn’t a very good feeling. I’ve never been so in tune with my surroundings in my life.

Democracy isn’t easy. It takes work from all sides and from all citizens. I’ve seen the alternative and I fear it’s where we could be headed. Many great civilizations have imploded, and its almost always because they turn their guns inboard. Our neighbors are not the enemy. Complacency is.