This week marks the two-year anniversary of my ill-fated trip to Afghanistan in February of 2012.
I wrote about this trip on this blog before. I decided a few months ago to use the story as the opening to a book on my experiences working in mine-action from 1997 to present. The book is tentatively called “The Missing Peace: My Personal Journey Confronting the Explosive, Deadly Legacy of War from Vietnam to Afghanistan” .
To mark the anniversary of my trip and to make a public commitment to finishing it this year, I am posting the introduction and first chapter, here. Feedback and criticism welcome (as are advances). Please write your comments below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Missing Peace
My Personal Journey Confronting the Explosive, Deadly Legacy of War from Vietnam to Afghanistan
Introduction: From the Bottom of Lake Superior to the Mountains of Southeast Asia
Divers had no idea what might be in the 27 barrels they had been hired to recover from the cold, dark bottom of Minnesota’s Lake Superior. All anyone knew in the summer of 2012 was that the barrels had been there since the early 1960’s, they contained military-grade waste of some sort, and they were just a small percentage of the nearly 1,500 barrels that had been secretly dumped there with the permission of the U.S. Government. Records of exactly what was loaded into barrels and dumped in a lake with an average depth of nearly 500 feet had long been lost or destroyed. Fears of leaking toxic chemicals from the badly rusted containers were soon put to rest once hauled aboard the divers’ boat, but the crew found a different threat they did not expect and for which they were not prepared.
Filling twenty-two of the twenty-seven recovered barrels were explosive charges used in Vietnam War-era cluster bombs. The components, called ejector-cup assemblies, fire small charges to separate cluster bomblets when dropped over a target. In small numbers the ejector-cups are not terribly dangerous, but the diving crew had just found thousands of them and now the detonators were all on board their boat.
This was not the first time these kinds of barrels had been pulled out of Lake Superior. In the late 1990’s five barrels of the same origin, but holding only ash and common garbage were recovered from a nearby location. One of them contained a coffee mug imprinted with the logo of the Honeywell Corporation; the company that routinely shipped these barrels 120 miles from their factory in St. Louis Park, Minnesota to a dock in Duluth, loaded them onto barges and, in the dead of night, dumped them into the lake.
Honeywell’s cluster bomblets in the 60’s and 70’s were the size of baseballs and were gravity delivered to targets via canisters that carried hundreds of them at a time. The canisters, obscenely named “mother bombs” had fins on their tails that, when dropped from altitude, would force the canisters open like a giant clam, unleashing the “baby bombs” over their intended targets in large swathes at a time. When you hear the term “carpet bombing” in the context of the Vietnam War, Honeywell’s product was the carpet and our strategy was to lay that carpet wall-to-wall not just in Vietnam, but secretly, and illegally, in Laos and Cambodia as well.
In April of 2013, a month after the discovery in Lake Superior was made public, a family in Laos gathered for lunch. A two-year-old boy, thinking he had found a potato, threw a baseball-sized cluster submunition into a fire that had been built to prepare food for the afternoon. The boy squatted as close as he could to watch it cook. The ensuing explosion killed him immediately and injured five others, including a five-year-old girl. Only a few months earlier in Central Vietnam, three boys hunting for crabs encountered a similar device to the one that killed the two-year-old in neighboring Laos. Thinking it harmless, one of the boys threw it aside where it exploded on impact, spraying all three with shrapnel and killing 13-year old Le Van Thang where he stood.
The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago, but the explosive legacy of that war in the form of millions of unexploded bombs stretches from the bottom of Lake Superior to the mountains of Southeast Asia. This book will tell my personal journey in attempting to address this issue; a journey that has taken me from the former battlefields of Vietnam to the Killing Fields of Cambodia, into Peru’s Amazon Jungle, to Jordan’s border with Syria, and into downtown, war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan.
As for those recovered barrels, the crew on board the ship, just like many dealing with the legacy of cluster munitions, landmines and other unexploded ordnance around the world, lacked funding and the federal permits necessary to safely dispose of the decades-old explosives. The crew carefully unloaded the contents from the old, rusted containers and repacked them into new, bright orange barrels. Then, just as another crew had done a half-century before, they dumped the barrels overboard and the explosives, once again, sank silently to the bottom of Lake Superior.
Chapter 1 – Draft
Kabul in Flames- High over the mountains of Kabul, Afghanistan- February 2012
My flight left Dubai, bound for Kabul at 3:30 am on a Safi Airlines 737. Despite the recent and dramatic rise in violence, it was a full flight. Most of the passengers were men flying alone; government contractors, some reporters, a couple of cameramen and probably some NGO (non-governmental organization) staff, like me.
I was traveling with Clear Path International (CPI), an organization I co-founded in 2000. CPI works with civilian victims of war, particularly those injured by landmine and bomb accidents, providing them with everything from medical care to prosthetics to vocational skills training. This was my first trip back with CPI after three years away and my first trip to Afghanistan, but I already had a personal history with the place.
Just before I boarded this flight, CPI’s Country Director for Afghanistan, Chris Fidler texted me while I waited out my six-hour layover at Dubai International:
I will meet you planeside. We are going to want to hustle back to the compound as soon as you land.
He then sent me his cell number; twice to be sure I had it. I was flying into a war-zone where he was the only person I knew. I wrote down his number and slipped it into my breast pocket. If, for some reason, Chris could not make it to the airport or my cell phone died or didn’t work at all in Afghanistan, that phone number would be my only link to anyone.
Having spent the last few years trying to return to CPI, it would be an embarrassing, not to mention dangerous start to be stranded in the capital of Afghanistan, especially now.
The sun came up over the mountains just as we were making our final approach into Kabul at 6:20 am local time. Looking out the window, I felt just as I did my first time flying into central Vietnam nearly 15 years before while on my way to visit a bomb-clearance site. The perfectly round ponds below me in the rice-paddies of Hue, Vietnam were not ponds at all, but decades-old bomb craters.
The craters, which enterprising Vietnamese often use to raise fish, were the first evidence of the purpose of my trip. Before I even touched the ground, smelled the air, or heard the sounds of Central Vietnam’s former DMZ, I could see from thousands of feet above the legacy of a war that ended decades earlier. While I reflected on the history below me, I wondered what my eventual place in it would be, or if I were to have a place in it at all
Now, many years later, I was doing the same thing over Kabul; looking out my small window and watching the morning break slowly over this sprawling, troubled, and dangerous city. But where the Vietnamese mountains reminded me of the green, rolling hills of my home in Vermont, the mountains surrounding Kabul were much less inviting; rugged and severe like broken teeth, some peaks were covered in snow, while others were either too steep, too windblown or both to hold any at all.
Flying into Vietnam in 1998 and into Kabul in 2012 carried another important difference: when I first arrived in Vietnam, the war had been over for 20 years. In Kabul, there was no end in sight.
Two days before I boarded this flight, U.S. soldiers guarding prisoners at Bagram Air Force Base in Northeastern Afghanistan discovered that captured, isolated Taliban, in violation of prison rules, had been communicating by writing notes in the pages of their shared Korans. Unwisely, U.S. soldiers after being told to dispose of the books, burned them with the trash. The ramifications were immediate and severe. When Afghans working at the base noticed the burned Korans had been treated like common garbage, riots broke out that would kill 30 by the time they had run their course. Violence spread to the cities the day before my flight. Newspapers in the Dubai Airport ran pictures on their front pages of Kabul in flames.
History was repeating itself.
Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense for both Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as well as the architect of the brutally excessive bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War, later recognized that part of our failure in Vietnam was our inability or unwillingness to understand the Vietnamese culture and their motivations. He would reflect later in his book In Retrospect:The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:
“Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area…”
The easily avoidable incident with the burned Korans, the ensuing riots and resulting deaths proved that we had yet to learn McNamara’s lesson and as a result found ourselves in another tragedy. We pay a heavy price for our willful ignorance. More so, though, does the rest of the world.
When The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara was released, producers of the film allowed for screenings to benefit Clear Path International’s work with present-day, Vietnamese survivors of unexploded ordnance accidents. McNamara’s bombs may have been dropped to slow the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, but the bombs, as he very well knew they would, fell mostly on farmers that had nothing to do with any of it; innocent men, women and children that happened to live in the War’s crossfire, which included the the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. For nearly ten years, bombs fell on Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian civilians everyday. Bombs fell on their weddings. Bombs fell while mothers were giving birth. Bombs fell on the funerals for their children. Bombs fell so often that entire villages, with nowhere left to run, were forced to dig tunnels and live underground. McNamara’s campaign dropped so much ordnance that today in 2013, 4 years after his death and 40 years after the last B-52 opened its bomb-bay doors over the battle-battered and Agent Orange denuded jungles of the DMZ, his bombs, our bombs, are still to this day killing the people of Southeast Asia.
While I wondered what lessons we would learn, or most likely not learn in Afghanistan, we cleared the snow-covered mountains surrounding Kabul, made our final approach and touched down right on time at 6:30 am. Everyone grabbed their bags as soon as the fasten-seat-belt light turned off and stood silently waiting for the doors to open.
I waited in my seat for my chance to grab my canvas duffle from the overhead. I never check luggage, preferring to travel light after having too many instances of trying to recover lost or stolen bags in a foreign place. Out the window I could see the stairs being wheeled to the plane and not far behind a silver minivan was driving quickly and directly at our jet from far across the runway.
As we deplaned into the cold, winter air of Kabul , my fellow passengers were being ushered to the airport terminal about 75 yards away. I would not be joining them. The minivan was now parked at the side of jet and when I reached the bottom of the stairs the backdoor of the van slid open revealing a large, Afghan man in the backseat with an AK-47. Chris Fidler from CPI greeted me from the rolled down passenger side window of the van. A stocky, bald guy from Port Townshend, Washington, Chris reminded me of the Hank character from Breaking Bad with a slight beard. My kids and I were big fans of the show at home. Apparently his text message saying he would meet me “planeside” was literal. “Get in. We should get out of here.”
I threw in my duffle, climbed in the back next to my new friend with the Kalashnikov who slid over to accommodate me and was jolted into my seat as the driver barely gave me time to shut the door before accelerating across the tarmac, away from my fellow passengers and away from the main terminal to another part of the airport.
“Did you check any bags?” Chris, asked as he turned to face me from the front seat.
“No. I never check bags. Hardly ever.” I said while trying to figure out where we were going and, more importantly how Chris pulled this off. I can’t imagine what it would take to do this at Logan. What was Clear Path up to? I guess working for the State Department had advantages.
“Great. Did you remember the scotch?”
“Oban 14,” I said. I’d picked it up at his request at the Duty Free shop in Dubai.
“Even better.” Chris smiled and gave me a fist bump over the seat.
The official name of this country is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and alcohol is illegal. From what I have heard, customs will generally turn a blind eye to one bottle of alcohol per foreigner. It is technically smuggling. I am not sure if they are as forgiving of returning Afghans or of those carrying bacon.
We pulled off the tarmac and in front of a small building being sternly guarded by another large, heavily-armed Afghan also with an AK-47 and a pistol strapped to his right thigh. He stepped aside as we approached and nodded his head at me as we made eye contact.
The building looked like any other shack of many along the tarmac, but inside there were three or four people at computers, an airport-grade x-ray machine and except for a few officials and guards with automatic weapons, it was like any other small office. My duffle, briefcase and passport were taken from me once we entered. My bags were x-rayed and, for a moment, I had some anxiety over the bottle of scotch as they opened my duffle for a quick inspection.
One of the men looked over my passport and back up at me before stamping the page next to my visa.
I was suited up with a heavy and cumbersome bulletproof vest, a pawkul hat commonly worn by Afghan men, and a thin blanket the Afghans call a patu to hide the vest as we drove through town. It seemed like overkill. I was thinking that a lot of this from the van on the tarmac to the patu was theater to make me feel safer and impress me at the same time. Only a short time later would I be grateful and more understanding of Chris’ wise abundance of caution.
“Welcome to Afghanistan,” he said as we walked out of the building and to our white Landcruiser, the seemingly official car of aid workers everywhere, “I’m glad you’re here, but for all of the years you’ve been away from CPI, you sure picked a bad week to come back.”
“Still beats a cubicle at Orvis,” I replied, feeling more than a little ridiculous in my Afghan costume.
I had been working as the public relations guy for The Orvis Company; an outdoor retailer best known for fly-fishing gear. I’d left my job with them only a couple weeks before. I had just turned 42 and the thought crossed my mind that maybe I was in a mid-life crisis. If so, by coming to Afghanistan I was going to make the most of it, or maybe the worst of it.
“You might change your mind. We’ve had a crazy few days here,” Chris said as he climbed into the front, passenger seat of the CPI project truck. I got in the back behind him and, along with our security team we headed out of the parking lot and down the infamous Airport Road towards Kabul.