"I am mindful of human weakness, and I reflect upon the might of Fortune and know that everything that we do is exposed to a thousand chances." - Scipio AfricanusThinking back on things, it does seem strange some of the things that went on. You walk around among, shake hands with, and eat and drink in homes of people you don’t really know and may not like you. But I never felt any fear in those situations, though I knew some of these people collaborated with insurgents. Pashtuns are hospitable people, and they'll take it to the point that they're equally hospitable to some of our enemies as well.
I’d say we returned the favor and were pretty darn hospitable to local people as well, however. On one occasion the local villagers brought men to the base with bullet and shrapnel wounds. They looked like Taliban, with their beards and stares, and my interpreter was absolutely convinced that they were. And how does an innocent get bullet and shrapnel wounds anyway? There was generally enough notice given before the battle commenced (often in the form of a single shot cracking off, followed some 5 seconds later by larger barrages) to allow most people to take cover before things really got crazy. Well, we patched those Taliban up, though they may have been detained for awhile since they had to be shipped away for better care. It’s all part of the game. Patch them up and send them back out to play.
I can recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation regarding a panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up...since the book on pandas stated that a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he does eat shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.
Sometimes it's shocking how little we really know about the people we're fighting, but my feeling is that for a lot of these guys we're fighting, especially out in the Korengal, the insurgency is a way of life. It's just what they do, and how they gain respect. Many certainly are ideologically driven - but not all.
The only time we really got a good look at our enemy was on Friday afternoon at the local mosque or occasionally out playing cricket. All those young men that were missing in the villages during our regular patrols would appear out of the woodwork to attend the mosque on Friday, kind of like Sunday morning church for Americans. Their age, body language, avoidance of eye contact, and lack of response to our greetings told us all we needed to know about the loyalties of those young men. But did being 90% sure that these guys were the ones shooting at us from the ridgelines a couple of times a week mean that we could arrest them and deal with them? No. Not at all. We let them go about their business, only to meet again in the near future on the ‘modern’ battlefield to play our dangerous little game of long-distance target practice.