Sunday, March 22, 2009


"You only need enough light to take one more step forward into the dark" - paraphrased from Nelson DeMille's Wild Fire

Afghanistan, like any poor country, is a dark place. Darkness is really something you lose an appreciation for back home. In the States, I seem to spend more time and effort trying to acquire darkness to enhance my sleep than I do in overcoming it. Given the altitudes and lack of ambient light here in Afghanistan, maybe they'll build an observatory here in the near future...or maybe not. Down in the valley where I normally am, you'll see the occasional house with lights on in the night, but the vast majority of the area is completely the amount of moonlight and when the moon is rising/setting become pretty important things to know. The power the valley does have is produced my mini-hydroelectic generators; I suppose one might call them water mills. US forces have actually built more of the hydro plants in the area, but unfortunately they seem to keep mysteriously exploding... I'll add that the bad guys don't approve of us improving anyone's life around here, so no, it's not really a mystery what happens to our aid projects and why - the only mystery is the exact identity of the bombers. In other parts of the area we're putting in solar-powered street lights...with mixed success. Shortly after the lights were introduced I noticed a few missing. I don't think it's so much insurgents destroying them as it is people just taking them for their own use and profit. If no one cares and there's no law, then why not use your car to knock over a light post and then drive off with it? Free solar lighting for the home.

I can remember flying commercially over Iraq on my way to Kuwait some time ago, looking out the window and seeing complete darkness and thinking what a forbidding place I was going to. I think my anxiety may have been heightened a bit by the fact that I was flying alone and was told by my commander, after asking what I should do when I got to Kuwait, "I'm not sure...someone will find you." Thankfully, that worked out pretty well, though I'm pretty sure I overpaid for the local porter to help with my gear. While Iraq is pretty dark all over, a reasonably modern electrical power grid does exist. On the other hand, the telephone poles I've seen in Afghanistan are very thin and maybe 10 to 12 feet high, where they exist at all.

Given what we're doing, darkness is something you have to learn to deal with out here, and some of the tricks you learn really do make a big difference. Giving your eyes plenty of time to adjust to the darkness before moving around in it makes a huge difference...even on moonless nights, if it's clear, you'll still be able to see a little bit since starlight provides approximately 10% of the light of a quarter moon. Looking for the absence of 'something' rather than the 'something' itself or just looking a little off-center can help you detect what you're after since the center of your eyeball is not as good as the sides of your eyes at seeing in the dark.

The perception exists that we as the US military have a big advantage over our enemies in nighttime operations due to our technology, most specifically our thermal and ambient light intensifiers that can help us 'see' in the dark. While I have no doubt that our ability to see in the dark could make a big difference, I'm not so sure it actually does in many cases. This is a war where the enemy nearly always knows where we are, and the converse is rarely true. While our nighttime tech might help prevent the enemy from approaching our prepared positions in the dark since night vision devices work well from static positions with open fields of view, being able to find the enemy in the dark on an offensive operation is another matter. The enemy's intimate knowledge of the terrain, our inability to move around quietly due to the bulkiness of our gear or our use of motor assets, and our inadequate training in silent nighttime movement combine to ensure that we're hardly ever going to surprise him. The fact that the night optics we have are not ergonomically designed, take away your peripheral vision, and destroy what natural night vision you had built up also limit their applicability and effectiveness. And so our technology is most advantageous when used in a defensive capacity...and no one ever won a war playing defense all the time.

Darkness actually contributed to the only 'injury' I've sustained thus far, which ironically transpired as a result of transferring out of a volatile place, to someplace less so and thus being afforded the opportunity to take a shower for the first time in months. After spending my first three months without a shower, I flew to a larger base for a break and proceeded to take a shower forthwith. Once finished, I walked out the door into the dark in my shower shoes with no flashlight and proceeded to trip coming down the small staircase, resulting in the toenail on my big toe being torn off. Luckily, I didn't fall down in the mud though...wouldn't have wanted to have to get back in the shower after I'd exhausted the entire base's hot water supply.

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