I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams, night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor.
In Baghdad we were up against an enemy we often could not see and were obliged to get out there and find. And when we found him, we scarcely knew who he was—al Qaeda or Taliban, Shiite or Sunni, Iraqi or foreign, a freedom fighter for Saddam or an insurgent fighting for some kind of a different god from our own, a god who somehow sanctioned murder of innocent civilians, a god who’d effectively booted the Ten Commandments over the touchline and out of play.
In our view, the question of whether Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons was answered. Of course he did. He used them in Halabja, right?
I guess by now the issue in the minds of the American public was, Did he have a nuclear weapon, an atom bomb?
That situation might look simple in Washington, where the human rights of terrorists are often given high priority. And I am certain liberal politicians would defend their position to the death. Because everyone knows liberals have never been wrong about anything. You can ask them. Anytime.
Now, everyone in the area knew that Billy trained kids for the special forces. And when he had a group of us running down the street, cars driving by would blow their horns and cheer us on. He always ignored that, and he showed us no mercy.
They are a proud people who adhere to Islam and live by a strict code of honor and culture, observing rules and laws known as Pashunwalai, which has kept them straight for two thousand years. They are also the quintessential supporters of the Taliban. Their warriors form the backbone of the Taliban forces, and their families grant those forces shelter in high mountain villages, protecting them and providing refuge in places that would appear almost inaccessible to the Western eye.
I had in my rucksack a DVD player and a DVD of my favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas père. It's always an inspiration to me, always raises my spirits to watch one brave, innocent man's lonely fight against overpowering forces of evil in an unforgiving world.
"Marcus, the body can take damn near anything. It's the mind that needs training. The question that guy was being asked involved mental strength. Can you handle such injustice? Can you cope with that kind of unfairness, that much of a setback? And still come back with your jaw set, still determined, swearing to God you will never quit? That's what we're looking for."
We loved him, all of us, because we all sensed he truly wanted the best for us. There was not a shred of malice in the guy. Neither was there a shred of weakness.
I remember the pure indignation we all felt. Someone had just attacked the United States of America, the beloved country we were sworn to defend. We watched the television with mounting fury, the fury of young, inexperienced, but supremely fit and highly trained combat troops who could not wait to get at the enemy. We wished we could get at Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda mob in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or wherever the hell these lunatics lived.
The truth is, any government that thinks war is somehow fair and subject to rules like a baseball game probably should not get into one. Because nothing's fair in war, and occasionally the wrong people do get killed.
This was definitely a mistake. That helo crew was supposed to have taken the rope away with them. God knows what they thought we were going to do with it, and I was just glad Mikey found it. If he hadn’t and we'd left it lying on the ground, it might easily have been found by a wandering tribesman or farmer, especially if they had heard the helicopter come in. That rope might have rung our death knell, signifying, as it surely must, that the American eagle had landed.
If these Afghans blew the whistle on us, we might all be killed, right out here on this rocky, burning hot promontory, thousands and thousands of miles from home, light-years from help. The potential force against us was too great. To let these guys go on their way was military suicide.
Axe said firmly, "We're not murderers. No matter what we do. We're on active duty behind enemy lines, sent here by our senior commanders. We have a right to do everything we can to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong."
We tried to take the fight to them, concentrating on their strongest positions, pushing them to reinforce their line of battle. No three guys ever fought with higher courage than my buddies up there in those mountains. And damn near surrounded as we were, we still believed we would ultimately defeat our enemy.
I think at this point I may have been suffering from hallucinations, that very odd sensation when you cannot really tell reality from a dream. Like most SEALs, I’d experienced it before, at the back end of Hell Week.
To an American, especially one in such terrible shape as I was, the concept of helping out a wounded, possibly dying man is pretty routine. You do what you can. For these guys, the concept carried many onerous responsibilities. Lokhay means not only providing care and shelter, it means an unbreakable commitment to defend that wounded man to the death. And not just the death of the principal tribesman or family who made the original commitment for the giving of a pot. It means the whole damned village.
Often, deep within the communities, there are old family ties and young men who sympathize with the warlike mentality of the Taliban and al Qaeda chiefs. Kids barely out of grade school—joke, they don't have grade schools up here—are drawn toward the romantic cutthroats who have declared they'll fight the American army until there is no one left.
This armed gang of tribesmen, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish, and they would rapidly begin to lose recruits. Armies need food, cover, and cooperation, and the Taliban could only indulge in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.
Gulab walked down the hill to me and tried to explain Sharmak had handed him a note that said, Either you hand over the American—or every member of your family will be killed.
It was a grim smile, I admit, but these guys had chased me, tortured me, pursued me, tried to kill me about four hundred times, blown me up, nearly kidnapped me, threatened to execute me. And now my guys were sticking it right to 'em. Beautiful. I saw a report confirming thirty-two Taliban and al Qaeda died out there that night. Not enough.
That night, for the first time, I heard Mikey scream.
Mostly I remember the laughter. "Jesus, you look awful," said Morgan. "Mom'll have a nervous breakdown when she sees you." It reminded me of what I'd said to Axe when he'd been fatally wounded on the mountain—"Hey, man, you're all fucked up."