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Army Strong

10:51 AM, Dec 25, 2007 • By AARON MACLEAN
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The current issue of Vanity Fair carries a very fine piece by Sebastian Junger chronicling the efforts of the 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) to get some sort of control over the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. The story has some finely observed moments of infantry life:

Sure enough, daylight brought bursts of heavy-machine-gun fire that sent the men diving into the shallow trenches they had just dug. They fought until the shooting stopped and then they got back up and continued to work. There was no loose dirt up there to fill the sandbags, so they broke up the rock with pickaxes and then shoveled pieces into the bags, which they piled up to form crude bunkers. Someone pointed out that they were actually "rock bags," not sandbags, and so "rock bags" became a platoon joke that helped them get through the next several weeks. They worked in 100-degree heat in full body armor and took their breaks during firefights, when they got to lie down and return fire.

Junger also does well in the strategic mode, doing his best to explain clearly the tortured politics and economics which support the insurgency:

Insurgent operations in the valley are run by an Egyptian named Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, who married locally and has been fighting here since the jihad against the Soviets. Ikhlas is paid directly by al-Qaeda. He shares responsibility for the area with an Afghan named Ahmad Shah, whose forces in 2005 cornered the navy-seal team and shot down the Chinook helicopter. Competing with them for control of the area--and al-Qaeda financing--is an Arabist group called Jamiat-e Dawa el al Qurani Wasouna. The J.D.Q., as it is known by American intelligence, is suspected of having links to both the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments, as well as to Pakistan's infamous intelligence services. Both groups are thought to pay and train local Afghan fighters to attack coalition forces in the area.

There is no need to quote it here, but Junger also does a fine job of explaining how the valley's thriving and ancient timber industry plays a key role in the fighting. And the frank descriptions of furious violence should be enough to disabuse anyone still possessed of the notion that the war in Afghanistan is somehow Iraq-lite. Especially moving is the report, appended to the end of the piece, that Sergeant Larry Rougle, with whom Junger has a rare discussion about politics (most of the infantrymen avoid or seem uninterested in the topic; Rougle, a Utah Republican, intends to vote Obama) was killed in combat soon after Junger left the valley.