by Chris Lyke
Along the dirt paths that connect and ring the villages of Gode and Kebri Dahar there are American built generators half buried in sand. These carcasses dot the region and stand as advertisements for a more altruistic time when Boomtown Rats raised money for starving Africans and not a damn soul was going to play Sun City. In the spring, during the Ogaden’s two weeks of rain, the generators sink into the mud and grass begins to grow around them. After the two weeks of rain, the Ogaden again becomes an East African lunar-scape and the grass dies and red sand again assaults the green monoliths sent there to provide diesel driven power to the Tigres, Amaras, and Somalis that all converge in that part of the world.
The Ogaden is a region that overlays the border between Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The border, even on modern maps, is a dashed line instead of a solid one. Even Sheba and her boys didn’t want to live there, and took another route to the sea, and Solomon, and the Ark. In the thirties the Italians slaughtered several thousand Ethiopians there near Jijiga. Decades later the Soviets armed the region and in the seventies there was an awful little war there between the sides. I heard tales of anti-aircraft gunners depressing their auto cannons to fire into on-coming infantry. This is a terrible tale told by the war-addled, elder men of Gode. Once our mission there was shut down, and we were confined to the outpost, the Ethiopians used the Ogaden like a cloak to mask their armored column that sped into Somalia, moved on Bedelweyne, and then Mogadishu.
As I said, our mission had been shut down. Most of what we tried in Africa was shut down; at least most of the operations I was on. Six months later, in Uganda, we were supposed to train the UPDF for operations in Somalia. Our proxy army didn’t yet want to fight who we pointed them at, maybe they were thinking more about chasing their own Bogey-man in the north, and so training operations ended and I spent a few glorious months getting paid to do pull ups and drink Club and Nile on the shore of Lake Victoria. We’d occasionally conduct rifle ranges or head to O’Learys in Kampala. It was certainly better than Gode, but the point is, I don’t think we were helping.
Back in Ethiopia, the Shebelle River turns to a stream in the middle of the summer as the heat and the red earth slowly win the battle of the elements. Still, the crocodiles remain and begin to interact with the people that live along the river. Despite having a pump station built that pulled water from the river and out of a spigot that ran along the wadi, the local villagers continued to send their children to the Shebelle shores to get water. We began to hear of children being gobbled up by crocodiles and despite reaffirming everyone that the pumping station would be a fix for that horrendous problem, the children were still sent to the river’s edge for water. The people asked us for more help. “You have rifles and grenades,” they said to our human intelligence guy, “can you come and kill the crocodiles?” The answer from Camp Lemonier, hours away, was no. We were accountable for every bullet in the Horn of Africa, this wasn’t Afghanistan after all, this wasn’t a shooting war, this was an effort of good will and we were there to bolster belief in the western powers amidst a very large area infested with Al-Qaeda affiliates like the AIAI. Blasting the wildlife to Kingdom Come was not on the agenda. In fact, when a couple of wayward, non-infantry types went out in land rovers and shot a local fowl they were snatched up and thrown in the slammer; a dirt-floored, East African, clay-oven of a slammer.
Our ally in this mission was the Ethiopian military. They enjoyed the liquor we’d buy at the whorehouse, and they certainly enjoyed our ability to ignore their campaign to root out members of the ONLF. The ONLF was a rebel group with whom they would engage from time to time. The ONLF wasn’t tied to the AIAI but with all of these acronyms rolling around I think they’d take help from anyone in their quest to retake the Ogaden. Apparently the townsfolk were invested to some degree with the rebels and it was the two AM gunshots we’d hear on guard duty that marked the Ethiopians attempts to arrest them. People would be missing for days. We heard about the beatings and worse. I’m not shocked by this at all. Cynically, I don’t even really care, but if we’re there to help, there to convince the masses of our righteous cause, then I’m not sure what the fuck was really being accomplished. Other soldiers from our company were training other Ethiopians at a camp in Addis to invade Somalia and destroy Al-Shabab. The twenty-five or so of us, living in a sandbagged, malarial compound, two hours from rescue weren’t about to kick the apple cart.
It’s the nature of the help that seems to be the issue. The people that we interact with: the villagers, the poor, the rebels, the soldiers, the prostitutes, and the gangsters are not those in real power. But if our big-picture attempts to help are off the mark then those people are exactly who will be conducting the surveillance, pot shots, ambushes, and filling the ranks of whomever it is we’re trying to counter in that part of the world. The question that keeps bothering me is “does any of this really serve our interests?” Later, in Afghanistan it got even muddier, but one was in danger and aggressively patrolling and the act of preserving yourself and your comrades could push the big picture questions out of the picture in all but the most boring moments. But in the Horn, where it was only the hint of violence that reigned, one had plenty of time to mull these things over. This is even more poignant when your mission gets shut down and you’re watching the clock.
There was a point, in May and June of ‘06 that we were essentially stranded there in the Ogaden. The shooting war had kicked off in Somalia, and the reprisals against the ONLF increased there in Gode. We were told by Camp Lemonier (in Djibouti) to stop operations with the Civil Affairs team, stay within the borders of the fort, and reinforce the place with as many sandbags, Hescos, and firing positions as we could. So build we did. Everyone was bored so it wasn’t too terrible a proposition to obsess over the penetrating power of a 7.62×39 round, the thickness of the cheap brick used on the compound’s original wall, the depth of sandbags behind it, fields of fire for the machine guns and so and so on. It was all a mute point anyway as we’d only been allowed to bring the bare minimum of ammunition. This meant that they only gave us enough to last for twenty minutes or a half hour, while reinforcements were hours away. We didn’t even have a 60 mortar. Big Army, correctly, did not want a bunch of combat veterans traipsing around the Somali border with enough ammo to mix it up with people who looked at them sideways. While all of this was true, and in most of our opinions galling, we tried instead to focus on the “solvable” problem of building an Alamo in the Ogaden wasteland; solvable problems easily being the most preferable.
Eventually we ran out of wood. This was a bad thing as almost everything we used to stand or sit on, to hold up tripods, or bracket the main gate, was made by us, out of wood, there on the camp. We needed lumber and there was only one lumber store in Gode. The owners of the store were, and of course this was the case, of course, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The workers were the young toughs that populate the AIAI, AQs chief offshoot in the Ogaden. We weren’t to leave the compound with rifles and armor so we went to the lumber store with Boony caps and Berettas shoved in our belts like thugs, or gunfighters. The whole interaction was probably 30 minutes long. It felt like we were there all day. After entering the shop, really a hut, the AIAI boys, two or three of them in the front and Allah knows how many in the surrounding huts, stared at us with confusion on their mugs, not anger, and not fear. They stared at me and G and E and the navy petty officer who had the money as though we appeared out of the mist, out of the shimmering heat that came off of the ground in the African summer. Once they realized we weren’t there for them they sneered at us, sneered through the hazy, drugged eyes and mouths ringed with green spittle, flecked from the day’s Chat binge. The drug plane that comes to the little airstrip at the edge of town every day had arrived two hours prior to our foraging expedition. By this time most of the men in the village (and some boys and some women) were stoned to bejeesus on the Chat plant, and walked, like zombies, through their miserable afternoons, each carrying a bouquet of the leafy, green plant wrapped in a plastic bag.
So, the young, high, AIAI toughs sneered at the Americans: the ones there to help the Ogaden people with wells, and schools, inoculations, and water purification. We were there to help them get generators up and running to supply power to the village itself. Light the impossibly dark sky! They sneered and puffed out their skinny, hungry chests, and began to haggle for the plywood and two-by-fours we needed to load up in the little Hilux pickup. As the haggling neared its end another worker walked in from the back, another young man who stood, agog at the presence of Adan Shaitan standing in his store. He was wearing a black concert T-shirt. A lot of folks in Gode had them, bootleg concert Tees with Tupac, or Marley, or Hailie Selassie plastered on the front. But this character, struck dumb, staring at four Americans in his shop had a concert T-shirt with a giant picture of Osama bin Laden on his chest.
It was probably at that point when I realized the entire mission was likely a futile exercise. I agree that one has to try to improve the things around oneself. That goes for people as well as nation states: to stay fit, and to work, to keep learning, to “pitch in.” For us to function and continue to grow we need to protect our interests wherever they may be. In this case, however, we were not “creating a desert and calling it peace,” we were already in the desert, amongst the crocodiles and vipers, the orphaned little boys who we’d play with until they disappeared (We miss you, Thomas!), the malarial shower tent, the beautiful, damaged prostitutes in floral pattern dresses, the acronym-laden factions, and the army that alternately hunted and tolerated them.
The computer chip-laden generators sent during the time of Reagan and Geldoff and We are the World were now Western Obelisks joining the stone Ethiopian ones. Those folks could do anything with a combustion engine. I saw it. They were resourceful and as hard as Woodpecker lips. What they couldn’t do was run diagnostic checks with a computer. Were we, the West I mean, making only a gesture, one to make us feel better about ourselves?
American big business, western big business I should say, is what it is. A shark is a rose is a shark. But aside from that, we are a reluctant empire, and we, the people, the G.I. Joes and the Jarheads, are the ones that must protect and fight for its survival. Plans for real success, calculated, planned-for success, an end-state, that leave our national goals and human life protected, should be in place.
I don’t have a solution for all of this talk of impotent American policy and good intentions gone bad. The hearts and minds campaign didn’t work so well in either the Philippines, a hundred and ten years ago, or in the sixties in Vietnam. It perhaps met with more success in Central America a hundred years ago, and Iraq and Afghanistan recently, but the end results haven’t been extremely promising. Al Qaeda has occupied Fallujah once again and the valley me and mine fought for in Eastern Afghanistan had as much to do with Kabul as it did with Chicago. In fact, after chasing one particularly creepy man into a village not a kilometer from our Afghan outpost, the village elders came out and asked if we were the Russians and would we be so kind as to get out. How do we address that in a meaningful way? Can Americans here at home understand the implications that lurk within that total disconnect? Do they understand the competing and dissonant frequencies of our truth and of theirs? We returned to the same village with Human Assistance: radios, beans and the like, a few days later. I hope it helped them understand why the Taliban, who had a pretty spotless record of leaving collaborators cut to shreds on hilltops near their homes, should be spurned in favor of the foreigners in sunglasses, armored vehicles, and good teeth.
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