I write this as I sit at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, waiting for my family to pick me up. It’s interesting to see all the people from all over the country and all over the world here, speaking different languages sometimes but wearing what has become the standard American uniform for traveling: blue jeans and sneakers, along with an occasional pair of cowboy boots or sandals here or there. Freedom of expression, going home for the holidays.
We spent yesterday training pretty intensively, somewhat unusual so close to the base shutting down for the holiday season. The day before that, we were firing machine guns from moving vehicles during daytime and nighttime. It’s been a busy week.
Yesterday’s training involved a scenario where trainers put Soldiers in an Afghan “village” setting, acting like Afghan soldiers and Afghan citizens. We rolled up in our HUMMWV’s, set up perimeter defense while our Commander visited with the local Afghan “mayor” and the Afghan commander. (The mayor and commander were played by actual Afghans, who are at Ft Riley to help train us.) There was an interpreter for our commander, who actually interpreted (at least, as much as he could - the Afghans were both talking at each other, very fast, and the interpreter could only get part of the conversation across to our commander). It was pretty close to the real world we will be living in shortly.
For our part of this exercise, we guarded our vehicles. At first, the local “Afghans” (Soldiers who wore Afghan garb to play their part) looked on from a distance, then they came up close. After a bit, one of the “locals” darted into a vehicle and stole a pair of binoculars, running away. One of our Soldiers shot him (using blanks, of course). Another Afghan “local” managed to take a pistol from one of our officers, sneaking up behind him and taking it from his holster.
After every exercise, we have an “After Action Review,” where we discuss the scenario - what went right, what went wrong, what we learned, and how we could improve. One of the problems we had is that we were supposed to have been trained in understanding our Rules of Engagement and Escalation of Force before we went through the scenario. Because of this, we made mistakes.
Rules of Engagement are basic rules about what we should do when someone who we don’t know exhibits certain behavior. It’s to prevent our enemy from taking advantage of our lack of knowledge, as well as for self-protection. For example, stealing a pair of binoculars may seem harmless, but for all we knew, the person could have set a bomb in our vehicle. A Soldier’s weapon can be used against him. In a potentially hostile environment, nothing can be taken for granted or at face value.
I have learned from our training so far that I need a lot of practice, and that our methods will vary quite a bit from day to day. It’s almost impossible to adequately prepare for this mission, because there will be so many variables - one would have to be a language expert, a weapons expert, an expert on human behavior, an expert on Afghan culture and history, as well as be proficient at general skills such as setting up radios, driving vehicles (in all types of environments with all types of obstacles at any possible moment), and training personnel. No one can do it all.
On Wednesday, I really got down on myself, because I shot horribly with the machine gun. I didn’t come close to the target (partly due to problems seeing with the night scope), and felt like a failure. Some of my fellow Soldiers told me not to let it get to me; I’ll get more practice, and there will be others who will be backing me up. (I may not be the machine gunner at all; in fact, my primary responsibility is “commo,” short for communications - but if the time comes when I have to man the weapon, I want to be able to be effective with it!)
That was two days ago. Sitting here at the airport, it might as well have been two months ago, it seems so distant. Time goes so quickly when you’re busy and focused.
One impression remains, though, from our recent training: this mission may be the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I pray regularly that I will be up to the tasks ahead.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.