In the early light, he stood on the mountain with the buoyant and
spirited Northern Alliance soldiers behind him in their mud huts, bickering and
laughing around their fires and their pots of boiling water, but he scarcely
heard their noise. He stood frozen in wonder, looking down and out over the sea
of mist and drizzle and settled dust, the vapid landscape of Afghanistan. What
would become of him here? What would he prove to be?
He had never been the kind of man who struck other men as powerful. His
tremendous shoulders did not sit high but sloped downward and so looked smaller.
His eyes were clear and untroubled. He was not tall and did not seem to be; he
slouched a bit and laughed often, and when he smiled, his padded cheeks would
double out and catch the light, the soft skin ungrizzled like a boy's. He was
twenty-seven years old, with nine years in the service, but time had been
sparing to his generation. The service had been sparing. It had not yet asked
for his blood. That was a truth he hated to admit: He had never seen combat.
And now, facing the frontier of it, Matt was ecstatic and jittery and
terrified all at once. He looked down the valley and through it, and he studied
the mountains around it. The bend of the hills folding into the basin resembled
to him a crumpled canvas sheet. He saw things there that other men did not. He
saw aircraft that were not there, and he imagined how to play them, how to move
them, where to align the fighter strikes, how the bomb patterns might decline.
The men behind him, looking at the same thing, would see only soil and slope,
trails winding across emptiness. They could see only sameness and war, the same
war they had been fighting for so many years, the same approaches, advances,
retreats. He saw the promise of victory. He saw the battle for control of this
valley and the drive across it to the mouth of the Dar-i-Suf Canyon. He saw the
push through that canyon, beating back the enemy, and he saw the long, embattled
march up the Balkh Valley to Mazar-i-Sharif. He saw the Northern Alliance
storming the city, seizing that Taliban stronghold. He saw the first major step
toward American victory, saw it as he was trained to see it. But was it only
training? Would it work? Would he?
The Afghans at least had been tested on the battlefield. In that, they had
something he could only imagine: the knowledge of themselves within. Many of
them had been in this valley and on these mountains since the days when his
mother packed his lunch and fixed his dinner in a little town in Missouri. While
he had fished the river for trout, these men had been fighting and killing.
There was wind at the corners of their eyes, and they wore rubber sandals made
of old tires. They banged cookware out of tin cans, camped on the battlefield,
and slept soundly under the shriek of war. They did not rely on training to
refine their skills; they lived the skills, lived with them and because of them,
and by living so, they knew their limitations. They knew the depths of their own
courage, while he could only guess his own.
He had felt fear already in this place, and it shamed him privately. He hated
fear in all men, but most of all in himself. And yet he had been afraid the
night before, coming up to this mountaintop on horseback in freezing darkness,
winding up the narrow trails in a shoddy wooden saddle, his horse toeing the
edge of the cliff. He had left his night-vision goggles dangling around his
neck, but the moon had been good and he could see all too clearly as the
drop-offs grew steeper and the horse beneath him hesitated, trembled. He
imagined himself tumbling off the side of the cliff, trapped on the back of the
animal, crushed under its weight, and he shook his head to clear the image. It
was only his fourth day in Afghanistan, and already he realized that training
and war were more different than he had ever understood. Here, death hovered
Just getting from the staging base to the battle zone had been treacherous.
Five days of trying and failing and trying again to pierce enemy lines. On the
first night, Matt had sat in the back of an open helicopter charging at 150
miles per hour through sniper fire, the frozen wind blasting his face and
billowing under his shirt, the flares popping away from the chopper to distract
gunmen below, the spatter of ice beating down from the sky, and he had felt a
rush of adrenaline surging in him. But when the helo crashed down hard in the
blizzarding wind, barreling forward and leaning right, the blades nearly
shattering on the ground, when the pilots had to return to the staging base with
him still on board, alone and shivering, his anxiety swelled. And when the helo
couldn't bear the weather for another three consecutive nights, when he spent
the days in between those nights at the base planning, configuring and
reconfiguring his rucksack to make it lighter, tighter, smarter, more efficient,
trying desperately to keep his mind focused on the mission ahead, gearing
himself for the insertion, believing it would come each time, only to be
canceled at the last minute, he felt that crumbling sensation grow. By the fifth
night, he was warped on anxiety. He boarded the giant bird without any
confidence that he would make it. Just another night of the same, he figured,
gazing blankly through his night-vision goggles as he sped through the spikes
and needles of mountain that erupted from below. He saw men rushing from their
homes as the helo passed, heard his gunners returning fire with .50-caliber
machine guns, but he did nothing, felt less than nothing, until the helo finally
slowed and sank. He looked down and saw a campfire, the signal for his landing
zone. Only then did he believe that his mission would begin.
He had jumped to the soil as the chopper set down, falling into a sea of
faces that swarmed around him in the darkness. Arms, hands, all grabbing,
clutching at him, a jumble of men pushing and reaching for him, jabbering at him
in Dari with AK-47's slung over their shoulders and expressions that were almost
empty. But where were the Americans? He was supposed to join a small unit of
Green Berets here, the Army's Special Forces. He had instructions to help them
move through the Dar-i-Suf Canyon and up the Balkh Valley into Mazar-i-Sharif,
to fight alongside them and control the skies above them, but he couldn't see a
single one of them. And who were these men, these blank faces circling the
chopper, trying to scramble inside? He leaned into the bird and shouted, "I
can't see any Americans," and the door gunner shouted back, "I think we're in
the wrong place!"
Now it was three days later and he could see that it was all the wrong place,
no matter where you landed or who was there. His pilot had eventually found the
Green Berets a few miles away, and the soldiers had come to the helo to greet
him as he landed, but still he felt alien here, a stranger among other strangers
among thousands of Northern Alliance warriors. The Berets at least had known one
another and trained as a unit. They made jokes and laughed easily together and
eyed Matt warily. He was the odd man.
So now he stood alone on the mountaintop, gazing down on the unsuspecting men
waging war below, the men fighting as they had fought every day for two decades,
oblivious to the events of September 11 and the fact that he had arrived in
their country armed, the fact that within the hour everything about their war
would change forever. The battle for Mazar was about to begin, but the men below
could not yet fathom the way the war would be fought from this day forward. Matt
felt the butterflies rippling in his stomach at the thought of it. He lifted his
spotting scope and got a closer look. He could see through the fog and beyond
the tracers emerging from the friendly trenches, across the field of traded fire
and past the enemy trenches, up to the bunkers scattered on the hillsides and
the observation posts beyond them. He knew that American fighter jets and
bombers were not far from here, armed with cannon and satellite-guided and
laser-guided bombs. He could change this part of the world with those. He could
pummel the Taliban position all day and leave no survivors, just bodies strewn
from the trenches to the highest posts. He could show the Northern Alliance men
below, the friendlies who still didn't know he was here, a vision of death and
violence erupting from the skies that would look to them like the hand of God.
And he would. He knew he would. He could feel it in him, rising. He was not
hungry for it, just ready. Above all, he was no longer afraid.
For him, it was a matter of believing. Put simply, he believed in
America, but that didn't sound quite right. It wasn't that he thought America
was flawless. He wasn't blind or stupid. It was just that he believed in his
country, believed that America was good and that a good country stood for
things, which sometimes meant fighting for things, and he believed that when his
country stood and fought for things, he had a responsibility to stand and fight
with it. That, to him, was patriotism.
And so Matt had been eager to join the battle. He had spent his whole adult
life preparing for it. His unit trained two hundred days a year, sleeping in the
bush, eating wild vegetation, drinking from streams. In fact, he had been on a
training mission in Kansas when the planes hit the Twin Towers. He had been
eleven hundred miles from his base in Florida that day, conducting mock air
strikes in the field with three other men, and at the first news of the attack,
they had not hesitated. They rented a minivan on the spot, piling inside with
all their training gear, their lasers and infrared markers and beacons and
night-vision goggles and helmets, and they sped across the country in one
straight, twenty-hour shot, tuning in to the president on the radio, fuming at
the audacity of the enemy, hoping collectively in the late, quiet hours of the
night for a chance to destroy whoever had done it.
He had known from the moment it happened that he wanted revenge. He had
known, too, that he would get it, that he would be sent for it. Few men were as
trained as he. In the Air Force, there was no more specialized job. He was not
just any airman. His orders came from an elite branch of the military that
extended over all three services, the U.S. Special Operations Command. It was
the same command that oversaw the Navy SEALs, the Army Rangers, and the Army
Special Forces (or Green Berets, including the small team known as Delta Force).
SOCOM was the most elite command in the American military, and he had qualified
for it at the age of eighteen. But more than that. He had qualified for the most
selective, most competitive branch of Special Ops. He had joined the Special
Tactics squad of the Air Force. Most people didn't know the ST existed. A lot of
people in the Air Force didn't even know. Which was the way the ST Commandos
liked it. They set themselves apart. Their motto: First there. When Matt arrived
for basic training, he was told that only 1 percent of recruits make it through
Special Tactics selection. One. The rest fail. Some walk away; some collapse;
ST Commandos were different from all other Special Ops units. They were not
trained to operate in small groups of their own kind. They were trained to
integrate and cooperate with other units. They were trained to parachute alone
into war zones and join SEALs or Rangers or Green Berets encamped there, to
merge instantly and seamlessly with those teams. That meant they had to be
trained in the skills and operating procedures employed by those teams. They
were panic-proofed at the Army's combat dive school, forced to stay underwater
for an hour with instructors tearing off their masks and oxygen tanks. They were
crash-proofed by the Navy, trapped in a sinking aircraft and forced to break
free and swim to the surface. They got parachute training at the Airborne jump
school in Fort Benning, and when that was through, they went to the school the
Green Berets attend in Fort Bragg to learn advanced high-altitude, low-opening
techniques. They were taught to sharpshoot, to survive in the water with their
hands and legs hog-tied behind them, and to drive motorcycles at thirty miles an
hour through dense woods over rough terrain wearing night-vision goggles. And
that was just the basic skill set. Then there were the refined skills, the air
skills. They were trained to direct flight patterns and guide precision strikes
using a skyful of warplanes, bombers and fighters alike. They were trained to
secure landing sites with the use of demolitions. They learned the strengths and
speeds and weaponry and ammo loads of every aircraft in the U. S. arsenal, and
they learned air-traffic-control skills to keep those aircraft circling safely
above while they called on them, one by one, on cue, to fire.
From the eyes down, the battlefield would always belong to the Army and the
Navy, but the skies belonged to Matt. Other men carried machine guns, mortars,
rocket-propelled grenades. Some drove tanks. He carried an M-4 rifle, but his
radio was his weapon. With it, he controlled a fleet of F-14's and F/A-18's
armed with 20mm cannon and laser-guided bombs. With it, he controlled B-2's and
B-52's armed with thousand-pound MK-83 dumb bombs and two-thousand-pound JDAM
satellite-guided bombs. With it, he controlled a battalion's worth of firepower
in all. A Commando with a radio was the most dangerous man on the battlefield.
And yet they shunned celebration. They did not salute one another or anyone else
on the battlefield, they rarely spoke to the press, and they did not show their
faces in photographs. They merely trained, and waited for war.
War had come. In the glare of midday, the mud huts blended into the
soil and the bunkers that were dug into the mountains seemed to disappear, and
as he stood on the battlefield below the mountaintop, in a trench with his
radio, he understood more than ever why he was there. From the sky, the pilots
would see little of what he saw. They would see what he had seen from the
mountaintop the day before: the beige of the valley floor and the canyon snaking
through it and the rocky cliffs surrounding it. They might spot tracers of
gunfire spitting from AK-47's and PK machine guns on both sides of the battle,
but everything else about this place would dissolve in the glare and monotonous
brown. He was there to see and tell.
He sat low in the trench, studying the field. The tatter of automatic gunfire
echoed from all corners of the valley, but it sounded farther away than it was.
Everything about the battlefield felt a step removed to him. He felt himself
becoming more remote with each passing hour, and he knew the value of it and was
glad. It had been two days since he first stood on the mountaintop alone. Two
days since he had taken his first lives there, calling in air strikes through
the mist and fog and rain, peering through his scope and straining his eyes to
see the damage he had wrought.
Now, from the valley floor, he could see the enemy bunkers clearly. They were
carved into the sides of the hills and reinforced with rough and spindly pieces
of timber that had been dragged by mules out of the riverbed at the bottom of
the canyon. He watched the men inside one bunker in particular. They wore black
turbans and had beards and moved and gestured in the same manner as the Northern
Alliance soldiers beside him. The difference was which side of the valley they
were on. Maybe that was the only difference. It was enough. He pulled his
global-positioning device from his rucksack and marked his own coordinates. Then
he looked at the map and estimated the distance between himself and the bunker,
calculating the coordinates of the men. Clockwork. He got on his radio and
identified himself, asking the command for planes. Then he switched to a flight
frequency and waited for the bombs to come.
He had never been a patient man. It bothered him that he was there and the
planes were not. Waiting brought him a feeling of helplessness, the most
stifling feeling he knew. He had waited that morning while the Afghan soldiers
drank tea and ate fruit and nuts and jackjawed over an endless breakfast. He had
been as patient as he could, had tried to wait gracefully, but after several
hours he had broken down and interrupted them and insisted they get moving.
People were the same no matter where you went, he thought. Most needed
On the far side of the field, he could see the men dispersing from the bunker
he had marked, moving up the hills and down to the trenches. He was angry for a
flash. It was bad to lose these opportunities, bad to waste time like this. He
didn't want to be in these mountains for five or six months waiting for planes
and listening to men jabber in Dari over endless breakfasts. He wanted speed and
tangibles. He wanted things to work.
With his scope, he spotted another enemy bunker where some of the men were
reconvening, and he calculated new coordinates and waited for the planes again.
Finally, one came. He heard the crackle on his radio and spoke to the pilot, and
then he called out to the Green Beret team that a B-52 had arrived. It had
laser-guided bombs, not satellite, so the Berets prepped their laser marker. On
cue, a sergeant stood tall in the trench, holding it with both hands, shining
the laser beam through the front doors of the enemy bunker while the plane
passed overhead, and soon a streak of bomb came pouring through at five hundred
miles per hour, following the energy through the opening of the bunker, bursting
into a massive flash, booming echoes across the valley and sending billows of
black smoke and burned dirt into the sky.
He gritted his teeth in the mess of it. As the smoke began to clear, he could
see the concave impression left on the mountainside where the bunker had
collapsed. Fragments of blackened timber poked up from the crater, and enemy
soldiers poured in from the hillsides to dig their wounded from the wreckage. He
reached for his radio again. He was becoming a warrior fast. He called for a
second strike on the same location. He watched the new explosion atomize the men
digging for their friends.
That night, everyone retreated to the mud huts and built campfires and
ate rice and goat meat with their hands. He and the Berets were becoming
friendly now. War brought men together just as it split them apart. They played
spades in the huts and went outside and stood under the moon and tried to
communicate with the Afghans. They drew shapes in the soil and traded words. He
learned the Dari words for friend and enemy, airplane and goat.
He was content to rest like this, but he never would have chosen it. Night
was a natural ally, and he would have worked through it. He had night-vision
goggles, so he could move freely, as if it were day. He wanted to work in
two-day and three-day bursts, leaving no chance for the enemy to rest. Command
had given him six months to travel fifty miles up the enemy-fortified valley to
Mazar, but he knew he could do it faster than that. If only he could work at
night, and if command would send enough planes, he could battle his way through
this valley in just a couple months.
But it wasn't up to him. His instructions were to blend with the Northern
Alliance soldiers as he would blend with an American team. His orders were to
follow their orders. It was their battle. On one level, he understood this. On
another level, it bothered him. The Afghans had been in this war too long, long
enough to see it as a long war. They would have to drive themselves harder than
ever to push through this valley. He wondered if they knew that. He wondered if
they were ready to fight for land and hold it or if the whole thing had just
become a way of life for them. He dragged his sleeping bag away from the noise
and unrolled it and lay down.
TWO DAYS PASSED. Little changed. His stomach began to reject the goat meat,
and his bowels became sore. Stubble formed on his chin. He played a lot of
spades and sat in the trenches and watched the Afghans trade small-arms fire. He
hit targets sporadically, but he spent most of his time waiting for planes.
Sometimes he waited for hours.
And then on the third morning in the valley, just as he was waking up, he
heard aircraft that he wasn't expecting. He fiddled with his radio to hear what
was coming. It was a flight of Navy F-14's in search of a nearby Green Beret
team. The pilots sounded frustrated. They had orders to hit targets for the
team, but they couldn't find them. Did he have any targets? Matt smiled. Oh,
yeah, he said. Everywhere.
The sun was still creeping up, turning from red to white as it rose, and he
rattled off a list of target coordinates, then watched as a torrent of
thousand-pound MK-83 bombs made black plumes against the horizontal morning
light. Soon a flight of F/A-18's materialized and joined the F-14's in battering
his targets. Now, this was more like it, he thought. One pilot spotted a cluster
of Soviet tanks a few hills away, and a deep tearing sound echoed through the
valley as the armor blew apart. The Northern Alliance soldiers heard it and
danced. It was still only dawn, and they were just waking up, but enemy bunkers
were collapsing already, tanks exploding, trench lines filling with fallout.
They had never imagined war like this. With each strike, Matt was taking out
ten, twelve, twenty men. The Northern Alliance guys shouted and doubled over
with laughter as the bombs fell.
He wanted to shout with them and shake their hands, but he had to stay
focused. With each blast, the enemy reconfigured on the battlefield, and he had
to track their movements. There was one ridgeline about two thousand meters to
the west that caught his eye in particular. He had seen enemy soldiers running
there for cover. How many he didn't know. Some had climbed to the top of the
ridge and crouched in a bunker. Others hid in the trenches around it. He wanted
to strike the whole area and move his men over there. From there, he would be
able to spot a whole new set of targets and move closer to the mouth of the
But there was only a short window of time to make the move. He spoke with the
Green Beret team leader, who spoke with the Northern Alliance subcommander, and
the go-ahead was given: He landed a series of laser bombs on the bunker and the
ridgeline, watched them burst and burn and collapse, then he gathered his
equipment, threw it on the back of a horse, hopped in the saddle, and took off
across the valley with his men.
Nothing about the valley was remarkable to him. It was the most desolate
place he had ever seen. The mountains in the distance caught his eye briefly --
they rocketed to the sky in sheer vertical leaps -- but the valley floor itself
was a dry, brown dustscape without a trace of vegetation. And yet he knew it was
precious to the Afghans with him. It was the largest chunk of land they had
taken in months, and to them, that's what this war was about. Land. They would
never understand what it was to him, what he had felt in Kansas in September,
the shock of it. These men were numb to that kind of shock, as he was numbing
As he neared the ridgeline, he heard gunfire picking up. Dirt scattered
around him. He could see enemy troops to the south and west, all taking shots in
his direction. He had read somewhere that a hundred thousand shots were fired
for every man hit. He could believe it now. The bullets scattered wildly. He
tried to ignore them. You either adjusted or you lost yourself. He had heard
that, too. He climbed the ridge on his horse and settled into the trench. He
radioed for more air support, but planes would be a while coming; the F-14's had
flown off to resupply, and the F/A-18's were low on ammo. He wondered how long
they could hold this position with nothing but their rifles. He wondered what
was coming next in the sky. Maybe a bomber this time. Satellite munitions would
Then he saw the ZSU 23-2 moving across the far side of the battlefield. It
was a Soviet antiaircraft gun, fifteen feet long and double-barreled. It took
two men to operate. The shells were the size of knockwursts, and it could
squeeze off a thousand rounds per minute at a distance of seven thousand meters,
or a little more than four miles. The enemy had bolted it onto a truck bed and
pointed it at him. Fuck. He had a girlfriend back home. No, he couldn't think
about that. The bullets were coming like missiles, hard and loud, thudding the
soil around the trench. He had to stay focused. He was the only one who could
get rid of that thing. They couldn't shoot it away. Their bullets wouldn't even
carry that far. He needed some satellite-guided JDAMs, but all he had left was
an F/A-18 with one laser bomb. That meant somebody would have to stand in the
trench and brave the fire to direct the laser sight. Not a pretty option. But it
was that or nothing. He got on the radio with the F/A-18. Bring it in, he said,
and a Green Beret sergeant took the sight with both hands and stood in the
showering dirt and pointed it at the target. But just as the bomb screamed
overhead and down the energy beam, the ZSU 23-2 rolled behind a hill. The bomb
erupted beside it. Shit. Had it been close enough? Had they wiped it out? Or was
it about to veer around the other side of the hill and come out firing
There wasn't time to think about it. The small-arms fire had reached a
frenzy, and he could see the enemy standing in trenches on all sides, firing.
They were under full counterattack. He shouted into his radio, "American troops
in contact!" but even as he did, he saw the mass of men with machine guns to the
west rushing his position full tilt. They were still at least half a mile out,
maybe even a mile, but as they reached the top of each successive hill, they
paused and opened fire, then streaked to the next perch and fired again. They
looked like a swarm of locusts.
He heard the Northern Alliance subcommander shout behind him. He turned and
saw the subcommander pointing and jumping around. He wanted to retreat. The
Green Beret team leader was shouting back at him, waving his hands to show that
more aircraft were coming, but the subcommander wouldn't hear it. He threw his
AK-47 on the ground and picked it up and threw it down again, four or five times
in a row, until it was mangled. When he realized he had wrecked his weapon, he
paused, then tried to take the team leader's M-4, but the team leader yanked it
away, saying, "No way, hell no," which only upset the subcommander more.
Matt's radio crackled, and he turned his attention back to it. A B-52 was on
the way, calling to check in. He strained to hear the pilot's voice over the
shouting behind him. The bird was still ten minutes out. Could he wait? He
looked at the field. Enemy troops were closing fast. Ten minutes was pushing it.
He tried to brief the pilot on the situation, but he felt someone tugging his
shoulder, and when he turned around, the subcommander was in his face shouting,
spitting on his lips and nose, pointing at the enemy and stomping his feet. Matt
wished he spoke Dari. "Get the fuck out of my face!" he shouted in English,
shoving the subcommander away and turning back to the radio, trying to ignore
the frantic incoming fire. He sketched the layout of the battlefield in words
for the pilot. He tried to anticipate where the enemy would be when the plane
arrived. And when he finished, he looked up and saw that the subcommander and
his men had mounted their horses and were galloping away. He watched as the last
one disappeared over a hill.
Then the rocket hit. There was a whistling sound and a concussion that sent a
load of dust into his face and made the walls of the trench vibrate. He sat
stunned for long seconds. His head wouldn't clear. He heard the pilots on his
radio asking if he was still there. He tried to get awake, tried to move. Yeah,
he mumbled finally. Yeah, he was still there. Where were they? In position, they
said. The plane was stacked with twelve JDAMs.
Shit. Now that he needed laser bombs, they were finally giving him satellite.
Those were designed for static targets, big things that didn't move. He needed
to hit people. How do you draw coordinates for a gang of men running across a
valley? Even dumb bombs would have been more useful now. But fuck it. He gave
the pilot a rough set of coordinates and told him to spread the damage in that
general area. Then he told the Green Berets to get their heads into the trenches
because hell was coming.
He had never heard a sound like what he heard next. It was the sound of
sixteen thousand pounds of explosives detonating almost simultaneously less than
a half mile from where he sat. It didn't even sound like a noise. It had no
character or texture or tone, just volume. It was the sound of every noise all
at once, a sonic roar. And when he finally peeked over the edge of the trench,
all he could see was a dense wall of black smoke, several hundred meters long,
rising into the sky. The stench of explosives burned in his nostrils. He called
for the four remaining bombs to finish off any survivors, but just as he heard
the pilot call "Bombs away," he turned and saw another gang of men pouring
toward him from the south.
He had nothing left. The B-52 was out of bombs. No more planes were on the
way. The enemy soldiers to the south would be on his ridgeline in a matter of
minutes. He realized that they were going to capture his position whether he was
there or not. He looked at the Green Berets. Nobody had to say it. He raised the
radio and hailed the B-52. We're leaving position, he said. We'll be in touch as
Time was close. The Northern Alliance had ridden off with their horses, so
they threw together their things and put on their rucksacks and took off
running, skirting the top of the ridgeline. They didn't know how far they would
have to run or how much time the running would buy them. Running would not be
enough. On foot, they would be overtaken. That much was certain. The Taliban had
no rucksacks to carry, only AK-47's. They knew the terrain and could move
through it effortlessly. Soon their faces would pop over the ridgeline and they
would begin firing down. Then it would be over. It would be a massacre.
He kept his radio headpiece on, but he saved his breath to power his legs.
His boots were sticking in the sand and he was losing speed. There had to be
another way out, he thought. His eyes darted around for ideas. At the bottom of
the ridgeline, he spotted a small rocky outcropping. Bingo. They could take
cover there. But how could they get down that far? It was a long way, and the
slope of the hill was too steep to run. He dropped on his butt and slid. The
crush of rocks tore into his tailbone, but he pushed himself faster and faster
with his hands, and when he reached the bottom, he dove into the rocks. The
Berets joined him, and they crouched together, looking up the hill for the first
sign of the enemy.
Then he heard the crackle of his radio again. It was the B-52 pilot. There
was a flight of F-14's nearby; did he want them? It took him a minute to decide.
The F-14's were restricted to high altitude to avoid taking Taliban Stinger
missiles, but if the pilots wanted to help him now, they'd have to fly low to
see their targets. They would also have to use their cannon fire, which meant
thousands of 20mm rounds spraying the rocks around him. Not safe. He studied the
terrain again. He and the Berets were going to be outnumbered, and they held the
low ground. Their M-4's didn't have as much range as the AK-47's. They had no
chance. Okay, Matt said to the F-14 pilot. Bring it in, but be careful. He
recommended a flight path and ducked into the rocks while the F-14 swept low
over the ridge, strafing. All he could do was hold his breath and hope he wasn't
And then it was quiet. He could hear the fighter in the distance, dropping
dumb bombs on enemy troops farther afield. He waited, listening. Soon the pilot
checked in. That was it, he said. He had spent his load and the enemy was dead,
and he was heading back. It was over.
They found the Northern Alliance men back at the place they had started from
that morning. He threw off his rucksack and sat looking over the battlefield
without a word. He was furious and bitter and his chest was tight. In the
distance, he could see the enemy moving back onto the ridgeline. His ridgeline.
After all the men he had killed that day, he was back where he started, and now
he wondered if six months would even be enough time to seize the valley with men
like these, who couldn't hold a piece of ground for a single afternoon. The push
had seemed so strong that morning. If only they had been able to keep the
ridgeline, they would have controlled a whole new section of the valley, and
they could have continued their march into the Dar-i-Suf Canyon. Instead, they
had gotten nowhere.
The evening light spread across the valley in the same shades of orange and
gold that he had enjoyed that morning when the F-14's arrived, but it was
different now. He couldn't let the day go. The Afghans were prepping dinner, but
he wasn't hungry. He took out his map. One of the Green Beret sergeants came
over and asked what he was doing.
Making coordinates, he mumbled. For the ridgeline.
The sergeant frowned. But don't you already have them on your GPS?
And suddenly a weight was gone and he lifted his head and laughed. He did
have them. He had them exactly. He knew the coordinates of the men on the
ridgeline because he had been on the ridgeline earlier that day and he had
marked the spot as a matter of protocol. Now all he had to do was pull those
coordinates off his GPS and he could stage a perfect strike. His mood lifted. He
raised his radio and hailed a B-52. Two JDAMs, he said. The first one set for
impact fusing, to burrow in as it blew, the second one set for proximity fusing,
to detonate in the air and rain shrapnel down on the heads of any survivors.
That'll teach the sons of bitches, he thought. He signed off with the pilot and
picked up his spotting scope. It would take one minute for the bombs to hit.
He could see several men at the top of the ridge. Some were talking to one
another, some were digging new fighting positions. One little guy was walking
toward his friends in a hurry to help clear debris from the trench line. Four,
three, two, one, and a ball of flame erupted around them. He watched the torch
for a minute, then put down the scope. He wondered if anything was left of those
men. Probably not. They had probably been vaporized in the blast. Good.
He turned to face the Northern Alliance subcommander, who had come forward to
watch the explosion. They nodded to each other. Matt shot a look at the Afghan
men, then nodded toward the ridgeline. Get your troops over there, he was
saying. Hold that piece overnight. We'll be moving through tomorrow.
And then the enemy was gone. He had never imagined it would happen so
quickly. At daybreak, he looked over the valley floor and it was deserted. The
Taliban had snaked up through the mouth of the canyon and headed back toward
Mazar, sixty miles away. So this is it, he thought. We're on the chase.
He ate breakfast and grabbed his rucksack and jumped on his horse and rode
across the valley with his men. Other Northern Alliance factions were flooding
in from the surrounding hills to move up the canyon together, thousands of them
in all. Gun battles flared up where they encountered pockets of enemy troops. He
wondered who the holdouts were. Were they too brave or too weak to run?
At the mouth of the Dar-i-Suf Canyon, he stopped by a collapsed bunker and
watched as thousands of Northern Alliance soldiers streamed by him in turbans
and tunics. He studied the bunker up close. There was blood splattered inside
it, and body parts were strewn in front. He saw a head and torso smushed into
the dirt, bleeding out of the eyes. He saw a piece of a foot with three toes
attached. He realized that there was a difference between feeling sick and
feeling sorry. The carnage was enough to turn his stomach, but he felt no
sympathy at all.
Another Green Beret unit stopped and spoke with him. They had seen his bombs
over the hills. He had done good work. He nodded. There were still many miles to
go, straight up the canyon and through the Balkh Valley. Somewhere along the
way, the enemy would appear. There was plenty of good work left to do.
Matt made his way into the canyon. The cliffs sprang from the riverbed, and
the road sliced up the narrow bank. There were burned-out vehicles and bodies
scattered by the trail. He rode next to a Green Beret from another unit who said
he had seen a dog pulling a torso that didn't have any head, arms, or legs. The
Beret said he had laughed when he saw it, and that one of the Northern Alliance
men had looked at him with hatred for laughing. Hearing that story, Matt
realized that he would have laughed, too. And if that was heartless--if it was
heartless to hate your enemies--he could live with being heartless. War was
heartless. September had been heartless.
He spent that night in a hut with pots and pans and children's books lying on
the floor. There was a copy of the Koran that had been left open. To be in that
place gave him a feeling he couldn't identify. It seemed too personal somehow.
The people who lived there had fled from him. Why? Were they Taliban? Or just
scared? He was eager to leave the next morning.
At noon the next day, his unit stopped at the town of Keshendeh, forty miles
south of Mazar. The Northern Alliance subcommander wanted to meet with another
commander, and everyone from both teams had to wait. Matt spent the afternoon on
a rickety wooden porch eating nuts and watching men roll by with guns slung over
their shoulders. They were loud and argued with one another. It reminded him of
Dodge City, from the westerns he watched as a kid. When a gunfight broke out
between two Northern Alliance factions, he went inside and sat by the window
with his rifle. Automatic fire echoed through the canyon for almost an hour.
When it was over, he went back outside and asked questions. The fight had been
over a goat or a horse; nobody was sure which. A young boy had started it. Later
he saw men escorting the boy to his execution.
The next day, his team rode farther north. Still no sign of the enemy, but he
did run into another ST Commando, a guy named Dennis he had known for five
years. At their base in Florida, Matt and Dennis rode motorcycles together and
went out to bars and clubs. Now they found themselves telling war stories in
Afghanistan. Only ten days had passed since they were on the staging base
together, with military meals and mirrors to shave with. So much had changed
since then. They had pierced enemy lines and killed men. They had beards and
dirty hands. They had each lost ten pounds. They had lost a lot of things.
Dennis shouted when Matt told him about the counterattack on the ridgeline.
"Man!" he said. "Did you get any trigger time?"
"Yeah, I was squeezing the trigger off."
"I would've stayed there and fought till the end," Dennis said.
"Nah," said Matt. "It wasn't worth it. They were going to get the hill either
way. The Northern Alliance guys took off."
"Why didn't they stay?"
"You know these guys. They're not gonna stay and fight."
They studied the ground for a minute, and just as they were about to say
goodbye, a Northern Alliance soldier came running over. It was time to move. The
enemy had surfaced at a place called the Gap that was thirty miles north, where
the mountains stopped and the valley spread open again. The Gap was the
Taliban's last stand, the gateway to Mazar. It was time to get there and engage.
Matt piled into the back of a Soviet flatbed truck with his unit and another
Beret team he didn't know. They arrived at midnight and huffed up a trail into
the mountains on horseback. It was four o'clock in the morning when they reached
the summit. Rain streaked diagonally across the sky, and clouds and fog obscured
the world. He wrapped himself in his poncho and shivered until daybreak.
When at last the dawn cut through the fog and lit up the canyon, he looked
down and saw enemy positions sprinkled across the hills, and he remembered
looking down from the other mountain, at the mouth of Dar-i-Suf, ten days
earlier. He thought about how different he had felt then. War came easily now.
It did not excite or disturb him. It did not scare or stimulate him. It just
He took an inventory of the enemy. They had bunkers and outposts at the
higher elevations and vehicles down by the river, and in the low-lying hills
they traded fire with the Northern Alliance men. This would be the last barrier
between the Northern Alliance and Mazar. This was the dam to stave off the
flood. It was his dam to break.
He did a radio check. There were F-14's and F-15's and F/A-18's and B-52's
above, more airpower than he could possibly use. He looked down the river and
saw a group of men walking slowly toward the battle. He watched them through his
scope. They wore black turbans and they were moving toward the Taliban lines.
Enemy. He hailed a B-52 and requested a strike of dumb bombs. He had counted
thirteen men. He called in eighteen 500-pound bombs.
Through his scope he could see the men bolt when they heard the plane sweep
above them, but by the time they broke into a run, the bombs were already coming
down, and he watched as the streaks landed on the men and turned them into black
smoke. Then he looked for something else to hit.
Up the riverbed, he saw a five-vehicle convoy approaching the battlefield. He
counted fifteen men inside. The Northern Alliance subcommander had seen the
convoy, too, and he was shouting and pointing at the vehicles, gnawing on a hunk
of goat meat that he held in his bare hands. Matt hailed a B-52 and landed a
volley of fifteen dumb bombs on the convoy. The subcommander jumped around,
tearing apart his piece of goat meat and trying to share it with the Green
Berets. Matt kept his scope high, scanning for targets.
He hit bunkers and trenches and outposts, directing fire with the cool
detachment of a practiced warrior. Soon the Gap was clear and the Northern
Alliance soldiers trickled down the hillsides and into the river valley, up
toward the city. But Matt didn't leave the mountain. By afternoon, a group of
ranking American commanders, including a Green Beret lieutenant colonel and
several Beret team leaders, had joined him on the observation point. There were
maybe ten Americans now. They were men of few words. They looked out over the
valley quietly. It was wet and misty and decimated. When an F-15 pilot checked
in on the radio to describe a convoy of two hundred vehicles fleeing from the
eastern side of the city, another ST Commando calmly gave the order to engage
the targets. Several minutes passed, then the pilot reported back. The two
hundred vehicles had been destroyed.
Matt breathed deeply. It was done now. The city was taken. The enemy was
destroyed. They had been given six months to get to Mazar, and it had taken just
over a week. The last few days of it seemed like a dream. They were a dream to
him. The mission had given him something that eight years of training never
could. He was different now, unconflicted. Now he knew what he was. He knew that
he could kill, and without hesitation, without losing a wink of sleep. He knew
he could handle the pressures and the vulgarities of war. He knew that he was a
soldier, and he smiled and was glad.