By Jay Kirell
I had to learn to live with a lot of unusual things in Afghanistan. When I first arrived to my outpost in the Arghandab Valley part of Kandahar, the outpost consisted of a 6-room schoolhouse (built by the Japanese in the mid-90s; used by the Afghan Army in 2003; overtaken by the Taliban in the 2008; and re-taken by us in 2009), a wall of Hesco sand barriers, and a single primitive water well.
The unit I was with built defensive towers, a helicopter landing zone, filled tens of thousands of sandbags to reinforce the various defensive positions on the roof of the building and inside the towers.
It was 21-hour days for months on end working to secure our outpost. That was in addition to the occasional defensive firefight that would erupt from the Taliban attacking the outpost while it was still being completed. Fittingly, this would happen in the mornings, usually right when I had just come off guard duty and had only 3-hours to get sleep before I had to get ready to go back on guard.
It made for physically exhausting days. Psychologically, however, it paled in comparison to what happened when I crossed the gates and went on missions:
- Step on the wrong spot – an IED could go off.
- Roll into town and all the children run and hide instead of coming out to beg for candy and pens (Afghan children wanted pens more than anything) – something bad is about to happen.
- Hear a loud whistle out of nowhere – the Taliban just shot an RPG at you and you better get down.
- That noise that sounds like baby birds chirping – those are bullets passing feet from your head.
All of those examples makes for stresses the average person will thankfully never experience. Interestingly, however, what I found to be most stressful about my time in combat wasn’t the bullets or RPGs or IEDs, but the swiftness and suddenness and stealth that preceded it.
Speaking from my own experience, I could never identify a single Taliban fighter during any combat engagement I was involved with in Afghanistan, and I was involved in somewhere between 50 to 60 in the summer of 2010. They were obviously firing at me, and I was firing back at them. But I never saw them. I just had an idea of where the bullets were coming from and I fired back. If we did manage to hit any Taliban, or any Taliban managed to hit us – it was by pure accident and not as a result of any refined sharpshooting on either side.
That, and not the glorified charge-the-hill images of old John Wayne movies, is what combat is really like.
And that unseen enemy is why many older veterans have told those of us from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that they don’t envy the wars we fought in. Fighting phantoms and shadows. Never knowing where the enemy is or if the farmer you just passed 200-meters back was really a Taliban informant helping plot an ambush.
Not knowing and not being able to properly prepare yourself is one of the most psychologically damaging aspect of being in combat. You learn to deal with the sound of gunfire and artillery at distances way too close once the engagement begins. On a foot patrol, you watch every step you take as if you were searching for a dropped contact lens. Each footfall and the microseconds before and after are an endless cycle of dread and relief.
It is through the backdrop of the psychological aspect of combat that I would like to discuss, from the viewpoint of someone who has seen it in both a conventional (bullets and rockets) and unconventional (IEDs) sense – that certain weapons and certain methods of combat, while not deadlier — are actually worse than others.
Now, chemical weapons were never used in Afghanistan while I was there, neither by us or the Taliban. I was in a mortar unit and some of our mortar rounds were white phosphorous, but they were never used in combat. I’m not even entirely sure why we brought them.
But we did. And we also brought gas masks.
Even though chemical weapons haven’t been used in a war America has fought in since 1917, soldiers still carry those masks into hostilities. They still get trained on how to put on a gas mask, how to clear it, how to make sure the seal is properly in place. I thought it was odd when I went through what’s called “The Gas Chamber” in basic training.
I didn’t know what to expect the first time I went through it. I didn’t know the procedure. I had an idea the objective was to be put in an unventilated room, have some form of gas released, and see how you react with your mask on.
Which, in reality, is most of what the gas chamber consists of, with one small difference. You have to take your mask off at one point in the chamber training and say your name, social security number and blood type. You’re then allowed to put the mask back on.
When I went through it I was in a room with a dozen or so other recruits. We had our masks on and were standing with our backs against the walls, circling the room. The instructor lit the canister of CS (tear) gas and it quickly filled the room with white fumes.
Even with the mask on, I could taste the stinging in my eyes and mouth. I was certain my mask wasn’t sealed properly. I watched through the clouded eye holes of my mask as the drill sergeant went around to every recruit one by one and had them take their mask off.
Every recruit had the same instantaneous reaction – complete revulsion and physical pain. The task of reciting their personal information sans mask was blurted out like the disclaimer at the end of a erectile disfunction commercial.
“(deep breath) Johnsmith123456789bpositive!” Followed by them quickly throwing their mask back on, clearing out the gas, and shuffling towards the exit.
When it was my turn, I did as everyone else had done. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, removed my mask, and said what I had to say.
And it was at that moment I realized my mask had been sealed properly the entire time. What I experienced took me a while to come up with the words to describe. But now that I have, I can say without any question – the feeling of gas in your lungs is like nothing you’ll ever forget. It is like drowning and being set on fire at the same time.
I’m a smoker. I had been a smoker for a dozen years before I joined the army. I figured going in maybe being used to inhaling smoke would prepare my lungs for the gas.
Not even close. It’s not like cigarette smoke. It’s not like marijuana smoke. It’s not like getting barbecue smoke into your eyes when the wind shifts. It is pain. Pain condensed and focused on the most sensitive parts of the human body.
I could see this on the faces of the recruits as they filled out of the gas chamber. Seemingly every orifice was leaking fluid – whether it be tears, snot, spittle. Red faced and waving their arms around like an uncoordinated seagull, my fellow soldiers and I tried to shake the gas from our clothes, hair and skin.
I was doubled over in pain. My eyes were burning. My mouth was burning. This was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life before or since – including fracturing my back and having the back-blast from an RPG propel me head over heels over a 5-foot mud grape wall.
The stinging and discomfort lasted about 45 minutes. Keep in mind the total time I was fully exposed to the CS gas was probably no more than 15 seconds.
The day after I awoke in my bunk and saw a small crowd gathered around one particular bed. My drill sergeant walked in and a few recruits had him come over the bunk where the crowd had gathered.
Laying in his bed was a young soldier who had gone through the chamber yesterday, but, with his mask not fully secured like the rest of us. He awoke this particular morning with half of his face paralyzed from the condensed exposure. He was medically separated from the Army before I was even halfway done with Basic Training. Last I heard he was living on 100% disability from the Veterans Administration.
Keep in mind, this expose was not to the type of chemical weapons being talked about in Syria, or the type used by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. This was “normal” tear gas, used by police departments as riot control.
Knowing that, and having lived through a year of absolute hell in Afghanistan, it speaks to the psychological power of gas exposure that I was more terrified of going through the gas chamber a second time, a few months after my re-deployment back to the States, than I was of being shot, blown up or killed while in in combat.
We were told two weeks before that another round in the gas chamber was coming up. I knew I would not die from this experience. I knew I would go home later that night, sleep in my bed, and wake up the next day like nothing had happened.
And it still terrified me every day until the time came I had to experience it a second time. And when this time came it was just as horrible as the last time. By the time the experience was over I was so blinded by the gas in my eyes I ran the wrong way coming out the exit and slammed face-first into a tree. The instructors had a good laugh at that.
Sprung from both my experiences in conventional combat – having witnessed the effects of bombs and bullets, and my experience having the mildest form of a chemical weapon in my lungs – is my belief in the just cause of intervention in Syria.
What opponents fail to understand is why chemical weapons are a line (red or otherwise) that cannot be crossed in warfare. What does it matter that 1400 people have been gassed to death when the world is content to sit back and watch millions die from bombs and bullets, I’ve been asked.
The answer is that chemical weapons were a uniquely cruel form of warfare. It is that wanton cruelty, both in the pain it inflicts before death, the indiscriminate nature with which its used, as well as the psychological terror it leaves the survivors – all make for a weapon that the world long ago said should never be used.
Before Assad, Hussein and Hitler, the last large-scale use of chemical weapons was used in World War I. The reason it wasn’t used in almost 60 years before Hussein was because it is a strikingly ineffective weapon to use on the battlefield. Only 4% of combat deaths in WWI were related to chemical weapons use.
Outside of being unreliable and subject to the literal shifting of the winds – chemical weapons became obsolete after gas masks became stand-issue for armies around the globe. It was no longer a weapon soldier used against soldier.
What chemical weapons evolved into, however, was a weapon for soldier to use against civilian. It was seen in Iraq in 1988. It has now been seen in Syria. This is, unquestionably, a troubling and dangerous path the world is walking down right now.
To not intervene, even if only to degrade the capacity of the Assad regime to deliver the chemical weapons in future attacks against rebels, would be giving the green light to future chemical weapons use by the leader of any failed-state or near-failed state trying to hold power.
Keep in mind, this is not the same argument used attacking Iran to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons, or the argument used to attack Iraq because of their potential to threaten America with secret stockpiles weapons of mass destruction.
This is an actual real-life case of chemical weapons use. The most painful, traumatic and indiscriminate of mankind’s inventions. The world must act to assure the use of those weapons will not be tolerated. Should the world be too cowed by flashbacks to the Iraq mistake or geopolitical gridlock – it is the obligation of the president of the United States as leader of the free world to use his awesome power for the world’s greater good.
It is his obligation because this issue in Syria goes well beyond Syria. The number of people who would be killed by any American response will undoubtedly be less than the 100,000+ killed by Assad’s regime, but more importantly, much less than the millions who are put at risk both in America and around the world, when silent, odor-less, color-less lethal gas is taken out of its Pandora’s Box and unleashed, once again, on a world that really doesn’t need this shit right now.
America is tired of war. The world is tired of war. I understand that. But so do the worst leaders in the world. Don’t let tyrants exploit that exhaustion by sneaking chemical weapons back into the list of acceptable warfare tools. There is never a good time for military intervention, but that doesn’t mean occasionally there isn’t a right time.