Holding fire a tough but necessary pill to swallow

By 1st Lt. Matt Spartz
Posted8/10/2010 12:01 AM

Editor's Note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, was deployed to Afghanistan in May with the 101st Airborne Division. A 2008 journalism graduate of University of Illinois, he is submitting occasional reports for the Daily Herald.

On a recent "Meet the Press," host David Gregory seemed to try and pigeonhole Adm. Mike Mullen on the real objectives of the war in Afghanistan. Sparked by the recent striking picture on the cover of "Time" magazine, Adm. Mullen was not to be cajoled away from our mission of protecting the people, which is the central objective in counter insurgency.


But sometimes I think those who are on the outside looking in don't truly understand what it means to "protect the people."

There are very strict rules and guidance for shooting large-caliber weapons and ordnance at our enemies in Afghanistan. In this highly complex counter-insurgency campaign, our use of lethal force does need to be weighed very carefully. Being an artillery platoon leader, I deal with these issues daily.

I hoped this week would begin with an uneventful Sunday morning. The sun had barely risen into the swirling gray marble sky. Suddenly in the distance, began the sound of "popcorn" - bullets crackling around the outpost - followed by a low, vibrating explosion.

After experiencing more and more of these scenarios your sleeping subconscious seems to constantly monitor its surroundings, like a submarine silently scanning the dark ocean for enemy ships. This learned Pavlovian awareness makes falling asleep a hard balance for some. Every rock crunched under foot outside and every loud door slammed stands your hairs on end and briefly shuts your focus to fight-or-flight mode.

I grabbed my rifle and sprinted to the operations center. The popcorn subsided and we used our cameras to scan for mortar impacts. There was another low thud. The camera whirled around and spotted smoke rising from the small rock village outside our outpost. It seemed no one was injured and there was no major damage to the buildings. Our Afghan National Army brothers were already speeding in their pickup trucks to the impact site to take care of their people.

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There was some intelligence on where the mortar fire was coming from. Years ago, as my soldiers will tell you, our standard response would be to rain our high explosive howitzer rounds on every known enemy position around the post.

But there was possible civilian infrastructure in the area, and the handful of mortars hadn't hit the outpost. No more mortars were fired. We didn't shoot at one target.

Here we watch normal Afghans, hanging clothes lines in their yards and kids hitting cricket balls in their fields, no more phased by a mortar hitting their village than an American driving past a fender bender on the interstate. Not until a mortar actually hits in their courtyard can they be seen running for shelter in the nearby mountains.

A fight-or-flight response to danger has no cultural boundaries. Anyone presented in the face of danger will illicit an adrenal response, and it will most likely affect them when the event is over. Sleeping under the constant threat of explosions takes some getting used to.


But this is their reality. The women hanging clothes most likely grew up with the threat of stray bullets killing loved ones, and the kids playing cricket now represent a new generation that has to grow up unphased by mortar explosions.

We as members of the military have a certain readiness response that we train for, to protect ourselves and pursue the enemy. But our cohabiting Afghans have lived in the crossfire of extremism and senseless violence for decades.

It has been a hard pill to swallow for the military to voluntarily put harsh restrictions on its most powerful weapons. But in a war for the people, we need to keep the sheets hanging on the line so that Afghan kids can stop trading in their cricket balls for mortar rounds.