The first of three parts on the circumstances of Pat Tillman’s death.
In 1979, after a break in my Army service and having recouped my sergeant’s stripes as a mechanized cavalry scout in Fort Carson, I volunteered for the Rangers. Off to Ranger School I went, and upon completion I was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Company A (Alpha Company), 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. Each of the three rifle platoons (organizations of around 40 light infantrymen) had nicknames, in this case, First to Fight, the Blacksheep, and Third Herd. A Company, known for its iron discipline, was called the Alpha-bots. When I left there in 1981 to become a tactics instructor at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama, I never had a notion that I might somehow be entangled with Alpha Company again … two-and-a-half decades later.
Brothers Pat and Kevin Tillman were Alpha-bots, assigned to the Blacksheep (2nd Platoon), when Pat was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004 near a tiny village called Manah in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. When I was a member of the adjacent platoon in the same building, Pat was a baby.
Neither those who knew baby Pat then, nor I, slogging away in the wilds of Fort Lewis, had crystal balls. They did not know that this precocious child would someday play professional football. Even when he did, so many years later, they never reduced this young man to his identity as an athlete. He was a kid, a whole person, with two brothers, Mom, and Dad, living in the Central California mountains near a old mercury mine, a river, and a state forest.
I wrote a short reflection-piece on the friendly fire incident in April 2006, two years after Pat was killed. Someone read it online and forwarded it to Mary (Dannie) Tillman, Pat’s mom. She found something in it of which she approved, and she contacted me. We talked on the phone, many times, and I went to San Jose to spend a few days with her after I started writing a series about the whole episode. Eventually, the family would allow me to accompany them to the briefing they were given this year by the US Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID). Army representatives lied directly to the family’s face… again.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is personal for me now. Dannie Tillman is my friend. So is Kevin, who was close enough to hear the shots that took his brother’s life on April 22, 2004. I am angry as I write this.
Pat Tillman was a lot more than a football player, and in all the right ways also a lot less — humble when he needed to be, unassuming, tender with loved ones. He joined the Army because he didn’t trust fame. He was afraid it might keep him from growing up and being honest and being responsible. He saw a lot of other young people — and the generations before him — going through this grunt-thing in the military, and had this idea that having a physical gift shouldn’t be some kind of exemption.
Anyone might argue with that for a host of reasons; I would.
But it is something essential about Pat Tillman that needs to be out there … that sense of ethics that will not substitute words for deeds. And he hated idealizations.
He was 26 when he fell. Pretty thoughtful for 26, in this culture especially.
The Congressional Committee investigating Pat’s death, a committee that fawned all over Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Meyers, and John Abizaid on August 1 needs to take note. I’m angry, so I’m saying it. Sometimes invective is appropriate.
Most members of that Committee haven’t the ethical sense to qualify for wiping Pat’s ass. Instead they kissed Donald Rumsfeld’s, Richard Meyers’, and John Abizaid’s. I’ll be coming back to this shameful display. It’s emblematic of not just Congress, but in particular of Democrats who continue to tip-toe around anything to do with the war as if they’re walking through a rattlesnake pit.
Pat was right to be suspicious of fame.
This craven display by Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike was just the last entry in a growing archive of opportunism that circles around fame like a vulture over a corpse.
Fame in the wrong circumstances can throw up a carrion scent like a thick fog. The scavengers of American political life — elected officials and candidates, crackpot polemicists, and the profit-press — chase the smell along the shifting winds.
That same press that has blood all over its hands for the war in Iraq today was on exhibition again with the recent, and irresponsible, reporting — excised from context — on a few lines from thousands of pages of documents, igniting the imaginations of every conspiracy-buff in the nation. I’m talking about the Associated Press story in late July that suggested Pat was “fragged.”
The subsequent orgy of rumors and ill-informed speculation, the utter failure of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and the maddening impunity of the War Troika lies that went unchallenged there, compel me to write this.
The Army has insisted that Pat was killed in “the fog of war” by his own comrades; I am insisting that both Pat’s memory and the truth are being murdered in the fog of fame.
Had Pat not been famous, his death would be buried inside the lengthening list of sorrow from this obscenity in Southwest Asia. Had Pat not been famous, the Army might not have lied about the circumstances of his death to press and family.
On the other hand, many families have now discovered that the military covers up fratricides. From The Tillman Files:
Why were at least three other known fratricides reported falsely, and the families deceived, within a two month period of Pat’s death? Kenneth Ballard? Patrick McCaffrey? Jesse Buryj? There was a pattern of deception that corresponded to the toxic combination of April’s tactical debacle in Iraq, the release of the first Abu Ghraib photographs, and Seymour Hersh’s exposé of Donald Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone’s “Grab whom you must. Do what you want” program.
Kenneth Ballard was killed in Najaf by friendly fire from his own vehicle in May 2004, and the military told his family that he’d been killed by a sniper on a rooftop. Jesse Buryj, killed in May, had his family told that he died defending a checkpoint from an oncoming truck that crashed into him.
When they questioned the story months later, they were told that he had in fact been accidentally killed by a Polish soldier. A former member of his unit (66th Military Police Company, the same unit that “command rape” victim Suzanne Swift was assigned to at the time) visited the family and told them that Jesse was, in fact, shot by a platoon leader). Patrick McCaffrey was killed exactly two months after Pat Tillman, and his mother was told he died in an ambush. They neglected to say that the “ambush by insurgents” was in fact conducted against him and his fellow team members by the very Iraqi forces they were training, after having reported more than once to the chain of command that the “allies” had shot at them.
When Karen Meredith, Kenneth Ballard’s mother, asked the Army why it was deceiving people about these fratricidal incidents, she was told that there had only been six cases of this happening. She asked, how was it that she knew four of them?
Nadia McCaffrey and Mary Tillman have been told by military representatives that the concealment of fratricide is an act of compassion… that these reports, given too much publicity, might lower the morale of the troops.
But we know that Pat’s case was special to the administration, precisely because of his fame. Claims to the contrary now are disingenuous to the point of stupidity. They just don’t want to answer the questions.
This administration, like the powerful generally, has a sense of entitlement that resents having to answer questions; and when it does, it uses the legal system as a shield.
Unfortunately, for reasons I’ll explain below, Congress doesn’t want to ask the questions. When is anyone up there, from the Democratic Party, going to start a real fight? If Republicans had a case like this against the Democrats, you can bet they’d be sinking their teeth into a carotid artery right now. That’s why they know they can scare people to win elections; and they will again soon enough. We don’t need Dems on Capitol Hill to strategize around the next election cycle like lawyers. Pat’s case is emblematic of what the whole country is going through right now; and for this we don’t need any more lawyers.
We need junkyard dogs.
Now that I have that off my chest, and having read the documents accumulated around this case, often several times, and having stayed in constant contact with Dannie Tillman (who hates the limelight and stays at this as a furious act of love), it’s time to review again not just what we can prove happened, but also what likely happened.
There is a lot of information available to make reasonable assumptions on this case.
If Waxman’s Committee had listened to the family, instead of assuming (incorrectly) that they know what they’re doing better than the rest of us rubes, then why didn’t they carefully construct a prosecutorial hypothesis, (1) systematically take each aspect of that hypothesis and subpoena the documents and testimony necessary to rule out said hypothesis or support it, (2) swear in their witnesses, (3) encircle the witnesses with the facts at a distance, (4) hedge the witnesses in with direct questions that carry the threat of perjury charges, (5) offer to hold the witnesses in contempt if they equivocate (as all of those pricks did… and got away with it), and (6) state the obvious when these witnesses were ridiculously disingenuous or suffering selective amnesia.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ought to be renamed: The House Groveling and Gratitude Committee. Oh thank you thank you thank you Lord Rumsfeld for gracing us with your presence; we shall do what we might to give the appearance of interrogating you while we deflect these troublesome Tillman people.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) at least tried to get at one aspect of this case, but his time expired and he never got an answer nor the opportunity to follow up. The other members pretended he wasn’t there (just as the press mostly pretends he is not running in the Presidential primaries).
Kucinich — the only Democratic candidate worthy of my vote in the 2008 prez-elections — asked about the Rendon Group and the Lincoln Group. These are professional high-dollar propaganda outfits that the Department of Defense and Executive Branch pays for with tax money to pump sunshine up our collective ass. Their job with the Department of Defense is to sell the war.
Selling war with lies has become one of the most lucrative parasitic industries in Washington DC.
Anyone who has not seen the film Wag the Dog is encouraged to do so. The plot revolves around a manufactured crisis by a fictional administration to create a pretext for invading Albania. It is a dark comedy, but watching it now doesn’t elicit belly laughs so much as nervous chuckling at its alarming verisimilitude.
On February 19, 2002, more than a year before the American ground offensive launched out of Kuwait and into its greatest military mire since Vietnam, the New York Times ran a story about a Pentagon outfit called the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). The purpose of said office was “developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations… to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.”
Rumsfeld, in a fit of pique at reporters in November of the same year, railed at them:
There was the Office of Strategic Influence. You may recall that. And ‘Oh, my goodness gracious, isn’t that terrible; Henny Penny, the sky is going to fall.’ I went down that next day and said, ‘Fine, if you want to savage this thing, fine, I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done’ and I have…”
By 2003, the Pentagon propaganda program had been re-packaged, and a secret 74-page directive emanated from Rumsfeld’s office, now struggling with the catastrophic cascade developing in Iraq, where key advisers had assured the administration a year earlier of a “cake walk.” That directive was the “Information Operations Roadmap” (IOR). Using the almost painfully dissociative wordsmithing of good military bureaucrats, IOR was described thus:
The integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare [EW], computer network operations [CNO], psychological operations [PSYOP], military deception, and operations security [OPSEC], with specified supporting and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp adversarial human and automated decisionmaking while protecting our own.”
This is what Dennis Kucinich was trying to get at. So-called “psychological operations” are not merely employed to fool the “enemy.” They are directed at the US public.
The context for everything that happened after Pat’s death requires this Pentagon propaganda-emphasis be center stage. Some people already understand this. What is not well understood is that this propaganda-emphasis likely played a central role in creating the conditions for Pat’s death in the first place. Let me give that special emphasis, too:
The decision to split the Blacksheep Platoon on April 22 was forced on a platoon leader who stated to his superiors that splitting the platoon in this terrain would require a half-assed preparation cycle and potentially create a dangerous break in inter-platoon communications. This directive was designed with one purpose in mind: to be able to state that the platoon had reached their “target” on time. A timeline (a bureaucratic checklist) drove this decision — not the intelligence. The push to provide evidence of “progress” in Afghanistan — using the Rumsfeldian “metrics” of quantification — as a counterweight to the bad news from the Fallujah-Najaf rebellions and the breaking Abu Ghraib scandal, created the sense of urgency throughout military commands there to send reports confirming that X number of missions were completed in X amount of time.
Military and Executive Branch perception management consultants develop expensive, detailed programs, employing an army of public relations experts. Just as Rumsfeld hired more than 20,000 private mercenaries to fill in the gaps in Iraq and to conduct activities that escape Congressional oversight, the Bush administration (like the Clinton administration before it) hired private contractors whose sole purpose in life is to re-construct the war in Southwest Asia as a story – using story conventions with which the American public is familiar and comfortable – conventions that resonate emotionally and mythically with our entertainment-media “social imaginary.” That’s the connection between the Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch sagas.
Focusing only on what happened the day Pat was killed, and then only on the minutiae of the actual shooting, and then studying what happened afterward, obscures the deeper context and conceals the fact that there are soldiers and thousands of men, women, and children in other countries dying today for military public relations.
Let’s review the case:
April 22, 2004 — The Blacksheep Platoon was on a zone reconnaissance in Paktia. The “roads” there are little more than eroded wadis, leaving crater-like potholes and exposed boulders. Vehicles have to pick their way through these “roads” very slowly; and the damage to vehicles — even Hummers and Hiluxes (military field vehicles) — is enormous. One Hummer with the platoon was deadlined by this terrain as the platoon pulled into a village named Magarah. Heretofore, I will refer to this vehicle as the Albatross.
Serial communications and repair attempts on this vehicle, including flying out parts, failed to resuscitate the Albatross; and the process stranded the Blacksheep in Magarah for more than six hours. This is not a good security situation in a zone where significant numbers of adversaries are operating. Daylight. Town. Static position. Many highly curious villagers.
Based on accounts of the subsequent combat “contact,” three Afghan guerrillas (understand that these might be three teenagers) with an RPG and a couple of Kalashnikovs get wind of the scene in Magarah. The terrain is very steep; and one can observe the platoon from a mile away without difficulty. They sit on the high ground and watch the show.
Concerns about security are voiced within the platoon; and they request an aerial extraction of the vehicle. That request is denied.
Meanwhile, in Khowst, the larger town where the tactical operations center (TOC) is located, the TOC Commander, Major David Hodne was overseeing multiple missions. He tracked them on maps, reviewed situation reports, and maintained communications through a TOC staff — generally a dozen or so people jammed together with the maps, radios, and files inside a tent.
Major Hodne is between his bosses and the multiple platoons in the field. His bosses are not asking for details on every mission. They assess his progress with checklists.
This is how things work in the military. There is a fetish for quantification. “Accomplishments” are measured with extreme empiricism, presented in bullet-points that give numbers. This is true of performance evaluations and operational checklists.
The reason this is important in the story of Pat Tillman’s death by fratricide is that the majority of readers — even military veterans of a single enlistment — are not familiar with military culture. The have impressions formed primarily by entertainment media that are generally downright silly.
Descriptions of doctrine, regulations, policies and procedures tell about ten percent of the story of what the military is. The other ninety percent can only be understood culturally.
This numerical fetishism creates a mindset and a relation between supervisor and subordinate that is similar in many respects to standardized testing in public schools.
The numerical fetish in the structure of the test — ostensibly designed to “measure” learning — actually changes the definition of “learning.” The test-tail wags the learning-dog.
Teachers under pressure to show performance through these tests, with schools competing for perqs and funds based on the test scores, are forced to focus on “making the numbers” instead of teaching students to think (they are not the same thing by a long shot). Eventually, administrators, teachers, and students internalize this bass-ackward set of priorities, and the social sum of this internalization is a school culture: the norms of the system are reproduced in a recursive relationship between the internalized ideology of testing and the practice of teaching to the test. People may even play games and sing songs that assist students in learning to take the tests.
This is an analog to the military, with its empiricist performance evaluations and its battlefield “metrics.”
I tried to explain this on the phone to a lawyer with a Congressional office; and she responded the way a cat does when it sees a wristwatch. Lawyers are empiricists, and they have internalized the norms of empiricism (along with the ability to employ logical fallacies to their advantage in courtrooms) to the point where non-linear dynamics are opaque to them. They are — with some remarkable exceptions — great test-takers, and a testament to public schooling.
The Officer Personnel Management System (OPMS) is a series of highly competitive pyramids (one for each branch, converging branches near the top). Lots of 2nd Lieutenants at the bottom of the pyramid, and a few Generals at the top. When a 1st Lieutenant is “passed over” when s/he becomes eligible for Captain, that is not just a delay in promotion.
It is the death sentence of a military career.
Each officer is assessed periodically on an evaluation report, and any officer that receives below the absolute maximum (even by one point) will — with only very rare exceptions, like nepotism or blackmail — be “passed over.” Officer Evaluation Reports (OERs) list bullet-points with lots of numbers in each bullet.
*Captain Nimrod, during this evaluation period, raised his company’s average score on the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) from 210 to 218.
*Captain Nimrod, during combat operations in Afghanistan during this evaluation period, was tasked with 14 missions. All 14 of those missions were completed on time and achieved the commander’s intent.
Understand, that if Captain Nimrod has a bullet that reads, “13 of the 14 missions were competed on time and achieved the commander’s intent,” then Captain Nimrod is in trouble. Some other Captain has a perfect batting average, and Nimrod stands to be passed over. Nimrod knows this, so when Nimrod is running missions, just like the school kid who is taking her standardized test, Nimrod will cut any qualitative corner that is necessary (like exercising prudent tactical judgment or following the lead of subordinate commanders on the ground) to achieve the quantitative results (like arriving on an objective early enough to say a timeline was met). There is not an enlisted person (those who are not commissioned officers) in the military who has not been on the wrong end of this system, when s/he is made to suffer some horrid, senseless goat-screw so an officer can get the numbers (getting the numbers is referred to as the officer punching his ticket. The briefings that are given under this hyper-empiricist regime are often called “dog and pony shows.”
Language reflects culture
When Cross-Functional Team Commander David Hodne was at the TOC in Khowst, he was a Major — normally a staff rank (as opposed to a command rank). This was his opportunity in a cannibalistic OPMS to shine … the shining demonstrated through bullet-points with numbers. The Blacksheep Platoon was due — according to the mission timeline — to conduct operations in Manah – not a high priority target — “no later than” April 22, 2004. Whether that made sense in the real world, after the unexpected delay of a busted Hummer, was irrelevant.
The threat of missing a mission time is a source of extreme anxiety for any military officer.
To this we must add that this is Rumsfeld’s military in 2004. A nuttier empiricist would be hard to find. Rumsfeld, who stole other people’s ideas, then bastardized them in his grandiose imagination, had taken this arithmetic fetish and renamed it as part of the “Rumsfeld doctrine”, which he called (with typical self-promoting grandiosity) “the Revolution in Military Affairs.”
Rumsfeld’s concept of Network-centric Warfare (NCW, a scalar bastardization of Coll John Boyd’s warfighting theories, which were originally applied to individual air combat) measures success with “metrics,” that is, with obsessive quantification. An interview with DoD Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs, Lawrence DeRita (one of Rumsfeld’s closest advisors), gives a good example of this “metrics approach” and how it translates from operations into propaganda. Notice the emphasis on numbers in this quote:
Since it began last week, Victory Bounty has netted nearly 70 former Fedayeen fighters, including several general and field grade officers. The daily raids and patrols that our troops conduct every day are steadily and deliberately building a more stable and secure Iraq. On average, coalition forces are conducting almost 2,000 patrols every day, hundreds of night patrols, and many of those are conducted jointly with the Iraqi police.
This is really just an extrapolation of MacNamaran “body counts,” but Rumsfeld thinks himself a military genius.
The point is — at Donald Rumsfeld’s level, where the war had to be justified to the American populace — the bullet-points showing “accomplishments” were in demand from the highest offices of the military for inclusion into press releases and briefings.
In the psychological operations being directed at the American populace, which enjoy elevated importance when public support for the war is waning, this show-me-the-metrics command emphasis cascades down through the chain of command like an avalanche. It is facilitated by bureaucratic overinterpretation of command guidance. The emphasis from the top does not diminish as it moves further from the source; it is amplified by the desire to please the boss at every level. This process was in turn amplified by the personality of Donald Rumsfeld: autocratic, vengeful, and micromanagerial.
War is seen by officers as a career opportunity. This essential context is not taken up by Congress or the press, because you get into trouble when you deviate from ritual displays of fealty to US militarism. Congress, the press, the entertainment media, and the public have all taken the de facto loyalty oath that says never speak ill of the military. Militarism is our culture, our religion, and our economy.
This is precisely why we had to witness that awful fawning over Rumsfeld, Meyers, and Abizaid by Congress; and it is why no one was going to follow up on Dennis Kucinich’s question about public relations firms working for the Department of Defense. He was trying to establish how important managing public perception at home is to the war effort, and how heavy the command emphasis was at this particular time to do two things simultaneously: (1) shift the focus off of Iraq’ serial disasters, and (2) show how glowingly good everything was going in Afghanistan.
On April 22, 2004 — the last day of Pat Tillman’s life — these were the multiply-related institutional pressures that led Major David Hodne, far from the scene with the Blacksheep and their Albatross, to overrule a ground commander and order the platoon split into two sections: one section to drag the Albatross with a hired Afghan truck to the paved highway where it would link up with an Army recovery vehicle, and the other section to arrive in Manah — a location on that mission checklist in the TOC — to get “boots on the ground by dusk” of the appointed day.
First Lieutenant David Uthlaut — the Platoon Leader — had strenuously objected to this plan because it endangered his command, control, and communications (C3). Hodne overruled him, saying that he was not going to let a busted vehicle make him miss a mission time. Uthlaut had mere minutes to organize this foolish, but now mandatory, ad hoc operation in the wake of a six-hour, exposed daylight delay, that would route some of his troops through a deep and highly constricted canyon at the risk of losing inter-platoon communications.
In order to ensure that each section (called a Serial) had a rough parity of weapons and vehicles, the organic chain of supervision in the platoon was broken up and “task organized” around weapons systems… leaving squad leaders and even team leaders in charge of people with whom they hadn’t normally worked.
The three Afghan guerrillas sat and watched from the high ground. The Americans were moving, lining up vehicles, behaving as if they were about to leave.
At a fork in the “road” just outside of Magarah, one section was to mount a steep road to the right, toward the highway, with the Albatross in tow behind a hired Afghan “jinga truck.” The other section was to turn left and go through the canyon — less than two kilometers — to accomplish the “boots on the ground” arrival outside Manah. Then they would radio back to Major Hodne, and Hodne could check off his bullet-point. Pat was assigned to the “boots on the ground” section.
The Boots Section left a few minutes in advance of the Albatross section, and steered into the canyon.
The Afghan guerrillas, it may be presumed, watched this and formed a hasty plan to climb up to the high ridges on either side of the canyon. By the time they got there, the Boots Section was already through the canyon.
Meanwhile, the Albatross Section had encountered an obstacle. The road leading to the main highway was not passable for the jinga truck dragging the Albatross.
Platoon Sergeant Eric Godec — now in charge of the Albatross Section — had to make a decision, and it was late in the day. The only alternative route to the highway was through the same canyon where the Boots Section had just passed. He then discovered — just as the Platoon Leader had feared — that they had lost radio contact with the Boots Section, now fifteen minutes ahead of them.
The three guerrillas on the ridge line had not reached the higher ground in time to hit the Boots Section with harassing fire — the most a small force might consider against heavily-armed US shock infantry. But then the Albatross Section was turning around and lining up to go through the canyon — yes, a target of opportunity after all.
The Rangers themselves were tired, filthy, soggy in their sweaty heavy battle gear, underslept, low on water, and pissed off after the all-day static security they’d pulled in Magarah for a busted Hummer. Change 10 in the all-day clusterfuck. Anyone who is a veteran of any infantry unit will identify. This is a set-stage for over-reaction.
The Albatross Section had to crawl into the canyon single file. The sun was very low, and the canyon getting dark. The walls of the canyon swept up and then steeply out over ridgelines that were 800-1,100 meters away. The “road” was yet another spine-torquing maze of potholes and scree. Clinging to the sides of their vehicles or to their mounted weapons, the weary passengers were agitated like popcorn, sometimes tucking in their elbows to prevent breaking them on the canyon stone.
Kevin Tillman’s mounted 40-mm weapon (MK19) would be torn up by the canyon wall.
One guerrilla shouldered his RPG — a weapon with a maximum effective range of around 250 meters — and elevated it to get a good throw at the channelized Albatross Section more than 800 meters away. He fired. The round arced up and out then wobbled into the opposite canyon wall, where it exploded.
The explosion stopped the crawling Albatross Section. The standard operating procedure for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) — which the Rangers mistakenly believed the explosion was — is to dismount the vehicles. The RPG round had exploded harmlessly, showering a few Rangers far below with gravel and dirt. But the noise inside the canyon was terrific; and it is always followed by people shouting orders and questions back and forth.
I wrote in another venue …
The military has tried to suggest that this was a mortar, because a mortar is a more dangerous and sophisticated weapon than an RPG.
Here is why I disagree.
The explosive rounds that initiated the ambush (1) splashed off the canyon wall and (2) did NOT pepper the convoy with shrapnel.
This strongly suggests that these rounds came from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
A mortar is an indirect fire weapon that sends the round up, so that it may achieve vertical penetration of a target (not horizontal penetration into a wall). Even when used as a direct fire weapon, a method called “direct lay,” a mortar requires support from a baseplate. A mortar can not therefore be aimed below ground level, i.e., at a point below the crew. The firing pin is in the bottom of the mortar tube. It cannot, therefore, be angled down. One cannot get the mortar round to drop upwards. It’s a gravity-thing.
A standard mortar high-explosive (HE) round has an omni-directional explosion, sending its secondary missiles (shrapnel) in all directions. This is called a bursting radius, because the weapon is designed to “burst.”
And RPG is a “shape charge,” which is a uni-directional charge, designed to concentrate the explosion in a frontal “jet” that penetrates vehicles, bunkers, and light armor. It is not designed to burst, but to penetrate. An RPG can be fired downward, because it is shoulder fired. It does not require gravity to drop the round onto the firing pin like a mortar.
The lateral flight of the explosive rounds fired at 2nd Platoon, combined with the lack of either damage to equipment or casualties due to shrapnel, as well as the testimony of the most experienced person there (who stated that it was an RPG, not a mortar), suggest that the three ambushers had an RPG, not a mortar.
A mortar is a more dangerous weapon. It has greater range. It is crew-served, requiring more people. It requires training. An RPG has a maximum effective range of around two football fields, and can be easily operated by one 13-year-old after a 5-minutes orientation.
The ambush was ineffectual, but the Ranger response to this light, harassing, and ineffectual ambush was highly-channeled aggression. Into this channel, the Rangers poured great streams of tracer-lighted lead and explosives — with a cataclysmic roar inside the canyon. The streams of ordnance leaped up over the canyon walls and scattered like rain across the distant countryside. So much ammunition was fired that many Rangers exhausted their basic loads and had to break into the reserve ammunition to re-load.
Fire control and fire discipline were completely lost.
The canyon was like a funnel, a megaphone. Uthlaut’s Boots Section (Pat included), now on the outskirts of Manah at the far mouth of the canyon — having missed their last turn — were the recipients of a highly-amplified, and highly-alarming acoustics-and-light show. The canyon sounded as if it had erupted into Armageddon. Inter-platoon communications had been lost; so the Boots Section could only deploy into positions hear the mouth of the canyon and wait to see what was going on. Most of the Boots Section remained in a tiny hamlet looking almost directly into the canyon mouth. The sun had set minutes earlier; but in the open the light was good. Staff Sergeant Matthew Weeks took another detachment, which included Pat, and moved onto a topographical finger overlooking the mouth of the canyon. Weeks kept one team on higher ground, and sent Pat, PFC Bryan O’Neal, and an allied Afghan militiaman named Thani to a position closer to the “road.”
To be continued.
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000), “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and “Sex & War” which will be released approximately December, 2005. He is retired from the United States Army. His blog is at www.stangoff.com.
Goff can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org