Michael's Dispatches

Edvard Munch in the Marijuana Patch


2011-08-18-161959-Web-1000My heavily armed tent mates hours before the mission.

24 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan, 4-4Cav

We live in tents.  Nice tents with air conditioning.  But not now; the electricity and air conditioning are out again and I’m sweating in a boiling tent to write this quickly before the laptop battery dies.  Please excuse this dispatch if it’s rough.  Batteries only last so long.  The local mess hall is a tent.  There are washers and dryers in a tent.  There is the medical tent and comms tent, and supply.  Is their electricity out?  Headquarters has a wooden building.  There are tent showers with water so hot that the shower tents are like a sauna.  The water nearly burns you.   All of this sure beats what I often get in the Himalaya.  On base, the outhouses may seem rough to passersby, but they are like five-star accommodation compared to conditions during some of the missions, when troops are forced to use a collective corner in some compound that is already used by an Afghan family.  In one compound, the family used a scythe for toilet paper for their feet.  When the kids pooped in the corner, they came out with poop on their bare feet. They used the scythe to scrape off the people-puddy, and then the kids were ready to play the high-five game we taught them, slapping high-five with little hands whose only washing occurs accidentally while they collect water from the deep wells.

On the night of the latest mission, the Soldiers had checked their gear over and over, and they were prepared to head into combat.


The Soldiers gathered their combat gear and walked in the darkness to the helicopters waiting nearby.  Roll call was taken several times, and then the engines started and the helicopters were ready and we loaded up and flew away.


The helicopters flew in black out through the night.  Inside the cabin was dark.  The only light was an infrared firefly on someone’s helmet, and it was flashing invisibly, but apparently it was enough light for my full-spectrum camera.


The helicopters landed in a marijuana patch.  The light was very dim.  The dust from the rotors and movement of Soldiers along with the splash from the moon permitted moments for using the lens as a paintbrush.  The aperture and shutter and sensitivity are the brushstrokes, while the sensor is the canvas.  The uncommon moment changes everything with the camera.  In such opportunities, the camera should not be viewed as an objective recording device, but as a paintbrush to express what can never be objectively captured.  An enemy rocket into a helicopter would dramatically change the moment and that would be real.  A bullet in the chest.  A bomb underfoot.  Other than those realities, there were some moments for art.


We moved away from our helicopter which roared away, and then another helicopter roared away, its rotors sparkling with the Kopp-Etchells Effect, while its hot engines were captured on the tiny canvas inside the camera.


The Soldier points; there is a pistol on his side.  The helicopters disappear, and now only the sounds of breathing and the crunching of parched soil under boot can be heard.  There is also the pungent smell of growing marijuana, outlawed in America but as normal here as okra.  Alcohol is forbidden here, while marijuana and opium-poppy grow by the thousands of tons.  A sentence for alcohol here could be as severe as a sentence for heroin in the United States.  Bar tabs in America are paid with money that says “In God We Trust,” while Afghans are notorious drinkers and are normally barred from Kabul bars.  And here we were, in a marijuana patch, in Kandahar Province, hypocritically calling each other hypocrites.


Maybe that’s why so many people prefer the life of a Soldier.  Moments like this are simple.


For some people, war is a duty.  For others, a gateway.  For a few, war is a gateway drug.


Afghan troops often squat, while our troops typically kneel down for a short halt, or sit during long halts.  The intermittent trace is from an IR strobe.


Looking straight up, Soldiers kneel as an aircraft invisibly traces with its IR light.


Other elements had moved ahead, and now it was time to move.


The enemy plants bombs as easily as he plants corn.  The bombs have a tremendous impact on civilians.  Too many strikes here and there to track.  Some enemies are local, while others are not.  Often they are reluctant to move at night because the enemy, too, strikes the bombs.  Some hours after these images were made, an enemy was up to no good in the 4-4Cav battlespace.  Headquarters was watching him with an optic and he mounted a motorbike, rode away and detonated an IED.  The video was impressive.  Little could have been left of him or the motorbike.


When I write about enemy IEDs, the “OPSEC Police” (OPs) usually squirt from the cracks, as if primitive techniques that the enemy has been using for years should be secret to the enemy.  The OPs, scratching for relevance, fail to consider before tapping away at the keyboard that I live in an Army tent, with Soldiers, whose lives depend on OPSEC.  Many accusations have been made by OPs, but there has never been an official accusation toward me from the US or UK military (or anyone) for a single OPSEC violation.  One OP publicly accused me on a national radio program for being disembedded from Canadian forces for OPSEC violations.  That OP bills himself as a national security expert and a great Green Beret veteran, but he’s a fraud who has never seen combat, and has never stepped foot in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Importantly, I have never embedded with Canadian forces, and so the accusation of being disembedded for OPSEC violations is impossible.   Last year, elements defending two Generals (whom I exposed) tried to paint me as unhinged for writing that Brigadier General Daniel Menard and General Stanley McChrystal should be fired.  Both Generals subsequently were fired. Based on my work, Brigadier General Menard was relieved of command, criminally charged, convicted, and reduced in rank.  I wasn’t crazy; it just looked crazy.  Sometimes the raw truth looks crazy.  After the underhandedness from General McChrystal’s staff, and Menard’s slippery dealings, had not General Petraeus personally invited me back, I would not be out here tonight risking being blown to shreds.  OPSEC affects my own body.  I am on this mission because General Petraeus told me to get back in the action.

With those OPSEC caveats, in these early-morning hours on this mission we were primarily concerned with low-metal content triggers, and tripwires.  On the roads where vehicles drive (we were on foot), they might use systems such as Snappers.

Armed men often sleep under the trees at night, and so it’s possible that some have moved into fighting positions such as in this kishmesh khana (raisin hut) below.


We passed by the kishmesh khana and into the adjacent vineyard.  In Dari, the vineyards are called qurda e angur, or field of grapes.  In some countries, the grapevines are trained on trestles but here they are trained on mud walls that amount to arduous speed bumps, often chest high.  If you take the easy way by walking down the rows, you risk being blown up.  If you climb over the grape walls at right angles, you risk being blown up less, but there is a 100% chance that even the fittest troops eventually will become exhausted.  Take your choice.  It’s the choice that ten million soldiers have faced in a thousand other wars in a thousand other ways.  Easy = Dangerous. Hard = Hard, and maybe more or less dangerous, but definitely hard.  The older Afghans say they used to hide in these vineyards while fighting the Russians.  They would blend under the leaves until the soldiers were right on them, and then blast them.


While those ahead of us scale obstacles, there are natural halts.


A pilot called down from the sky and told us to turn on our fireflies.  The fireflies are blinking IR lights on our helmets that allow people with night vision gear to see the flash, but they are invisible to the naked eye.  My full-spectrum Canon Mark II 5d can “see” the IR, and in the above image the Soldier is turning his head while the shutter is open.


Grasses to the left, sweet grapes to the right.


We arrive into a compound.


Though it’s dark still, the normal camera vacuums in the light.  Soldiers from 4-4Cav take a break while others clear ahead.


Bomb dog was worn out.


Soldiers pushed to the roof for security.  (My laptop battery is fading.)


4-4Cav Commander LTC Mike Katona, on his fifth combat tour, checks out a bike.  Afghans use these small bikes to go just about anywhere.  Some bikes come to Afghanistan in crates from China and are assembled in small shops.


Afghan leaders poring over a map before sunrise.


As we prepared to leave the first compound. Lieutenant Sarah Levy noticed “The Screamer” in the mud wall.  After LT Levy pointed it out, others saw it.  It was as if the ghost of Edvard Munch was alive here in depths of Afghanistan.

Michael Yon on Facebook.

Iraq: Inside the Inferno 2005-2008 (Order Now)

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    bman · 9 years ago
    A LTC with 5 combat tours leading a helicopter insertion. Things have changed since Nam.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randy Hensel · 9 years ago
    I am sending a check to Winter Haven for the amount of a pizza. I'm on it once each month for you. Hope this helps. Keep up the good work. I'll reread this post while at Burger King eating a double wopper and large fries, drinking an ice cold coke. Say "Hi" to Apache Troop for me. God Bless
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BV · 9 years ago
    Michael, thanks for the book. It is awesome! I've had many guests read it and looking to order copies.
    I suggest you look into an iPad. The 10+ hour battery life is well worth it.
    Be safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Phillip Kite · 9 years ago
    Love the Edvard Munch scream! Your images are amazing. Your work is important! Keep up the flow of truth! stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas Krivulka · 9 years ago
    Michael, keep up the good work. Your insight into the unfiltered realities of what is really happening day by day is invaluable for all of us back home. Your work will be remembered as the gold standard for front line journalism for future generations, there really is nothing else that comes close. Pass along our best wishes to all you are with, their service ( and yours ) is appreciated beyond words.

    Stay safe, we all are counting on you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wayne Philpot · 9 years ago
    Mr. Yon, once again you bring the day to day highs and lows of a bunch of folks doing their business a long way from home right to the desktops of us here at home. Great photography, and even more awesome attention to detail - i.e. "The Scream." Keep your head down and prayers lifted for you and the magnificent folks of the 4-4.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rick Reiss · 9 years ago
    These night time photographs are mesmerizing. Bravo Zulu!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark · 9 years ago
    Great photography and stories, love reading your articles. Recommend you let the whole Menard/McChrystal thing go though, makes you sound bitter and snarky, you ain't got time for that noise. Other than that, keep up the good work and stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    CC · 9 years ago
    ...to my son in Afghanistan.This online journal has provided me with the window I needed to peek into his world. We received your new book,thank you.Suggest it become required reading for all those holding public office. So much courage and love,as well as painful moments in such a strong tasteful format.Son is with another Troop at the moment(good guys),but I'm sure he'd want me to send his love to 4-4 CAV.So I am!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bryan Andrew · 9 years ago
    That camera is awesome! The pics that you take have a really.. weird but cool look to it! The one where they were in the compound I honestly thought it was day time!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Henry · 9 years ago
    I too feel a connection thru these posts with my SON-inlaw who is there now with 4-4CAV. Michael, your narrative is so vivid I can visualize what you describe without the photos, but the photos, as Mr. Rick Reiss said, are mesmerizing. I really enjoy your candor and you sharing your honest truthful thoughts and opinions. Thanks again for giving us here in the States a glimpse of what our brave men and women endure over there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 9 years ago
    Peace doesn't exist,only Moments of Peace.
    "Stay hungry,Stay foolish,Stay healthy"
    Don't be "bitter and and snarky"

    WE LOVE YA !!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 9 years ago
    What kind of camera do you use? The photos are amazing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    W.E. Henley · 9 years ago
    What is a "screamer", as in last dispatch, please?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 9 years ago
    is the most famous painting {crayon and tempera on paper,1893]by the Artist Edvard Munch,it is an symbolic icon of existential anguish.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg · 9 years ago
    Being a soft spoiled state sider and never close to combat, other than California gangs, your reports are my gateway drug.

    You are the only journalist I read.


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