Taking its title from “The Face of Battle,” John Keegan’s canonical book on the nature of warfare, “The Other Face of Battle” illuminates the American experience of fighting in “irregular” and “intercultural” wars over the centuries. Sometimes known as “forgotten” wars, in part because they lacked triumphant clarity, they are the focus of the book. David Preston, David Silbey, and Anthony Carlson focus on, respectively, the Battle of Monongahela (1755), the Battle of Manila (1898), and the Battle of Makuan, Afghanistan (2010) — conflicts in which American soldiers were forced to engage in “irregular” warfare, confronting an enemy entirely alien to them. This enemy rejected the Western conventions of warfare and defined success and failure — victory and defeat — in entirely different ways. Symmetry of any kind is lost. Here was not ennobling engagement but atrocity, unanticipated insurgencies, and strategic stalemate.
War is always hell. These wars, however, profoundly undermined any sense of purpose or proportion. Nightmarish and existentially bewildering, they nonetheless characterize how Americans have experienced combat and what its effects have been. They are therefore worth comparing for what they hold in common as well as what they reveal about our attitude toward war itself. The Other Face of Battle reminds us that “irregular” or “asymmetrical” warfare is now not the exception but the rule. Understanding its roots seems more crucial than ever.
Lieutenant Williams’s Tough Box: Remembering and Forgetting the Other Face of Battle in Afghanistan
The Muslim call to prayer and the muffled sound of digging interrupted the night’s stillness, alerting Captain Brandon Prisock’s American soldiers of the famed 101st Airborne Division that Taliban insurgents were awake and busy planting mines around them. After the day-long fight on September 15, 2010, for control of the Afghan village of Makuan, strategically located in Kandahar province’s Zhari district, the American arsenal of tracked breaching vehicles, trucks, armored vehicles, bulldozers, helicopters, and A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft was now being matched by the enemy’s two most effective weapons: improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and darkness. To Staff Sergeant Joshua Reese, the sound of digging triggered “a really sickening feeling.”
Prisock, a 2004 West Point graduate from Louisiana, knew the sounds meant that the Taliban were reoccupying Makuan. He also knew that their dilapidated Soviet-era weapons and homemade bombs could neutralize his company’s firepower, even as his soldiers struggled under seventy pounds of gear in temperatures that topped 105 degrees Fahrenheit. More, the Taliban were fighting on familiar ground. The Americans weren’t. First Lieutenant Nicholas Williams, one of Prisock’s three rifle platoon leaders, summed up his feelings upon entering the alien, ominous world of Makuan: “We were strangers in a strange land fighting someone on their home turf. . . . The call to prayer was a constant reminder that this wasn’t our world.”
The battle for Makuan, which lasted for three days in mid-September 2010, was the opening thrust of Operation Dragon Strike, at the time the largest single U.S. Army operation of the decade-long war in Afghanistan. After trading blows with the Taliban for nearly nine years, U.S. commanders intended for Dragon Strike to finally deliver a knockout punch. The operation involved more than 8,000 American and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers fighting for control of the strategically-important Zhari district. Prisock’s Bravo Company, which consisted of 230 men, was given the campaign’s first mission: clearing insurgents from Makuan, a small village of some twenty acres, consisting of dirt streets and walled adobe compounds.
The Taliban welcomed the forthcoming offensive. “We are not scared of NATO, or of the Americans,” Taliban commander Mullawi Mohammadi boasted. “Whoever comes, we will kill them.” Taliban leaders dismissed the Americans as only “briefly emerg[ing] from the high walls behind which they barricaded themselves,” and unlike their old Russian opponents, as one Taliban fighter put it, “the Americans were afraid to fight on the ground and their bombing was indiscriminate.” In Makuan, Taliban fighters proved eager to pit their pressure-plate, trip-wire, and remote-control IED tactics against Bravo Company’s impressive assortment of firepower. As darkness settled in on the night of September 15, the Taliban sprang into action. Even as his soldiers heard the sound of digging in the distance, Prisock, who had only commanded the company for ten days, prepared to counter it.
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The Taliban’s resort to guerrilla tactics should not have surprised the U.S. Army. During its long war in Vietnam, the Army had struggled against exactly those techniques and exactly that blend of political and military actions. Like the Vietnamese, the Taliban, unable to match American firepower and control of the skies, attacked their opponents’ political will.
By September of 2010, Zhari district was an insurgent hotbed. IED assembly points, ammunition caches, concrete bunkers, and tunnels were scattered throughout the villages and dense agricultural terrain. But the Taliban did more than build defenses and ambush military patrols and convoys. They were fighting to rule the country, and they systematically built shadow governing institutions. Exploiting the corruption and dysfunction of the Afghan government, they instituted sharia courts to adjudicate disputes and dispense justice. Insurgent leaders also collected zakat taxes from farmers and formed committees to investigate complaints of abuse and corruption against heavy-handed commanders.
Although in many ways the U.S. military had been unprepared for the shift to guerrilla war in Afghanistan, one key lesson from earlier conflicts, whether “insurgencies,” “proxy wars,” or imperial wars, was not forgotten: the indispensability of local allies. In military doctrine, virtually the whole point of a counterinsurgency strategy is to train indigenous military, paramilitary, or police forces so that they could assume combat responsibilities. It was in this context that more than 3,000 soldiers from the newly minted Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps, joined Operation Dragon Strike. The plan was to pair U.S. and ANA units to conduct combined operations— shohna ba shohna, “shoulder to shoulder.”
Afghanistan provided not only enemies and allies, it also presented a uniquely challenging physical environment. Zhari’s agricultural landscape was ideal for the Taliban’s tactics of drawing U.S. forces into belts of IEDs. Captain Luke Rella, Prisock’s executive officer, marveled at how the district’s eight- to ten-foot tall earthen grape rows, which were separated by narrow irrigation waterways, created their “own climate bubble” intensifying the heat of the summer. Each morning, soldiers observed a thick haze rising from the rows. The humidity triggered extreme perspiration on men already loaded down with combat gear, and the moisture often ruined night vision goggles, radios, and IED frequency jammers. Soaking wet combat uniforms frequently tore at the crotch; as a result, soldiers were forced to patrol “commando,” with exposed undergarments and genitals. Since the Taliban’s preferred tactic was to bury pressure-plate IEDs at choke points, the Americans were forced to crawl methodically up and over every mound rather than walk on the fixed paths at the base of the rows. The resulting physical exhaustion and mental fatigue constricted the pace of operations and dramatically reduced opportunities to kill or capture insurgents.
Captain Prisock’s men advanced into this environment at sunrise on September 15. At 7:15 a.m., he radioed for howitzers to rain down smoke rounds to obscure the initial route into Makuan. In short order, Prisock’s lead Assault Breacher Vehicle (ABV) moved into position and fired its first Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC)—a 100 meter “rope” of explosives designed to detonate unseen IEDs. The rope uncoiled and snapped onto the dirt, prompting two insurgents armed with AK- 47 assault rifles to dart out from the maze of grape rows and investigate it. After a hurried look, they ran toward Prisock’s men and unleashed a hail of bullets. Seconds later, the MICLIC detonated, kicking up a thick pall of dust, fire, and smoke as it shook the earth. The blast all but incinerated the insurgents, hurtling one detached torso two hundred yards into the air.
By 10:00 a.m., after a little over two and a half hours of work, the ABVs had breached a lane just under a kilometer long and Prisock’s soldiers stalled at a bridge spanning a canal north of Makuan. Rocked by the titanic explosions, the insurgents hastily retreated to prepared firing positions and defenses inside of the village. They had no answer for the MICLICs, but the battle was only beginning.
At the canal, the Americans were forced to destroy the bridge, which was riddled with IEDs. Moments later, the area began to flood and the Americans and their Afghan allies became easy targets of sporadic AK-47 fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). American wounded accumulated. Specialist Anthony Bower complained that Zhari insurgents were “ghosts on ‘banker’s hours,’ as they would attack us early in the morning, seemingly sleep in the heart of the day, and then hit us again just before darkness sat in.” He explained that in the daytime the insurgents typically cloaked their movements and hostile intent by using children as spotters, dressing as women, and “maneuvering with sheep.” Eventually, the Americans and Afghan compatriots secured two compounds on the northern edge of Makuan, setting up strongpoints from which to plan future operations. Nothing, however, got simpler.
At around 7:30 p.m on the assault’s second day, Prisock was ordered to complete the clearance of Makuan before noon the next day, September 17. Time was of the essence. The higher headquarters intended to pull critical assets that had supported Prisock’s initial attack. Resigned, Prisock prepared for the most daunting challenge of his young command: driving insurgents from a village littered with homemade bombs in the darkness.
As a cloak of darkness descended on the evening of September 16, Prisock ordered Lieutenant Williams to take fifteen Americans, six Afghans, and an Air Force bomb-sniffing German shepherd, named Blek, to search a series of compounds and grape huts (multi-storied, thick-walled buildings used for storing grapes). At the second compound, an American soldier waved his mine detector over a set of stairs, finding no metal signature. Blek’s handler directed him to walk up the staircase to sniff for IEDs in the upper story. The dog found nothing. With the staircase seemingly cleared, three ANA soldiers ascended it in a compact single-file line. The first two Afghans reached the top of the staircase just as the third triggered an IED buried in the fourth step. The gigantic blast punctuated Makuan’s unnerving silence, engulfing the ANA soldiers in a flash of flames and smoke. Temporarily blinded and deafened, Williams struggled to regain his bearings, composure, and vision. “As the blast hit me, [the Afghans] all disappeared in a wall of dust and smoke,” he recalled. “The ringing in my ears eventually gave way to the sound of my own voice repeating that nobody move. I would move to them.” Over the past months, Williams had learned the hard way that the enemy often grouped IEDs together: “Where there is one IED there is always another.” He feared that panicked, concussed soldiers would stumble onto other nearby IEDs.
Moving as best he could toward the blast site, Williams soon found a macabre, chaotic scene, demonstrating the devastating effectiveness of IEDs. Through his night vision goggles, he spotted a “crumpled heap of charred, bloody ANA uniforms and body armor a few meters from the stairs.” At that exact moment, the “crumpled heap”— a wounded ANA soldier— regained consciousness and in a desperate, shrieking tone called out for Allah. Moving closer, Williams discovered that the detonation had severed both of the Afghan’s legs above the knees; only eight- inch fragments of his fleshless, jagged femurs remained. Williams dragged him to a casualty collection point inside the compound his men had just searched, but they soon uncovered additional IEDs. He needed to find a new rally point.
As Williams dragged the ANA soldier’s scorched torso out of the first compound, the other Afghans’ poise and discipline vanished. They staggered toward the lieutenant, wildly pointing their M16s at him and each other. Williams attempted to restore order and assuage their fears, but his Afghan translator, wounded in the blast and frozen from fear or a concussion, had “forgotten every English word he knew.” Williams admonished the Afghans in broken Dari to remain calm and still, but they inched forward. When they were within feet of Williams and the heinously-wounded Afghan, they triggered another IED. The explosion mangled two more ANA soldiers and knocked the wind out of Williams. Struggling to regain his balance and gasping for air, he moved to the blast site, cut away the Afghans’ charred uniforms, and applied tourniquets. He now tallied eleven wounded.
Prisock, Williams, and the rest of Bravo Company would struggle on for hours more, evacuating the wounded, fending off Taliban attacks, enduring more casualties, and combating the confusion. They “held” the village, but could they keep it? And if they did, would it matter? At battalion headquarters, the commander and his staff, worried about the IED threat and the rapidly deteriorating situation, grappled with how to end the battle. After much deliberation, they reached the decision after midnight on September 17 to simply destroy much of the unpopulated village. At sunrise, a barrage of several dozen artillery rockets slammed into the village. In the words of one American sergeant, Makuan became a “parking lot.”
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Now a field-grade officer and a father, Nicholas Williams remains ambivalent about whether Makuan was worth the sacrifice. Tucked away in Williams’s basement is a tough box full of mementos and objects from Zhari: “I have a ‘tough box’ full of gear . . . that just smells like Afghanistan. Nine years later, Afghanistan feels like a lifetime ago, a story that happened to someone else, somewhere else, but that box always brings me back.”
That box in storage offers a metaphor for the experiences hauled home from war—the things that were carried. The box is there and it is real, whether it is opened or left untouched. That last choice—leaving it unopened—seems to dominate today’s military. Williams remembers. The institution he serves prefers not to. Retelling the story of Makuan, as well as the battles of Monongahela (1755) and Manila (1899) in our larger book, is to assemble a sort of tough box of experiences. And if we take the time to open the box and examine its contents, it may suggest some broader issues relevant to understanding our past and to dealing with the future of the U.S. military.
Our larger book examines three battles in American history: Monongahela, Manila, and Makuan. In each case we seek to explore the human experience of combat in fundamentally intercultural settings, in large part because the vast majority of American wars have in fact been against enemies from different cultures; enemies who often chose to fight in very different ways. Although each battle revealed experiences and issues specific to its historical context, we uncovered some general lessons that may help inform how our nation prepares for future wars.
The first lesson is about leaning too heavily on assumptions about who the next enemy will be. Civilians and professional soldiers alike have almost always prepared for the next war based not on the last war (despite the popular adage) but on the assumption that the next war will involve someone like themselves. Techniques, tactics, training, weapons acquisition programs, and, most crucially, expectations have all been built on assumptions of cultural and tactical symmetry. In the 1980s, for example, instead of learning and institutionalizing what it meant to fight an insurgent enemy in Vietnam while propping up an unpopular government, the American military prepared to meet the Soviets on the plains of Germany. We tend to prepare for the expected enemy, and we are too often surprised.
Second, in all of the many examples of intercultural warfare in American history, it has been necessary to work with allies from that other culture. At Monongahela, despite the myth that the British commander ignored his Indian allies, he made a real effort to enlist them, and that pattern held for virtually every Anglo-Indian war in American history. The important role of Indian Scouts in the plains wars of the late nineteenth century was no doubt one reason behind the eventual creation of the Filipino Scouts and then the Filipino constabulary, both of which played key roles in the American effort to control the Philippines. The outcome of the fight at Makuan was profoundly shaped by ANA soldiers, who in that instance proved brittle and unreliable under fire. Despite this, American strategic goals could not (and cannot!) be achieved without them.
Third, despite this historical dependence, American soldiers and American planners have often dismissed the value of local allies, but even worse, they have been dismissive of the combat capabilities of enemies they did not understand. The Americans at Makuan had enough experience with the Taliban to know what to expect. But they couldn’t let go of conventional thinking about warfare. They continued to scorn the Taliban as “cowards” who failed to fight traditionally and who insisted on blending in with civilians. The tendency to misjudge the enemy’s capabilities in intercultural combat is not a problem unique to Americans. In one sense it is simply a variation of a nearly universal ethnocentrism in war. China’s ruling dynasties long saw themselves as the center of the world and considered all outsiders to be barbarians. Japan famously based its strategy in 1941 on an assumption of American “softness” and lack of will, and they clung to that belief for almost the duration of the war, structuring their tactics and political aims accordingly.
Lastly, “more” is not always more. At the outset of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, American planners depended heavily on local factions already opposed to the Taliban. Even so, the distinct and not unreasonable preference has always been to rely on one’s own forces. When the environment proves challenging or shifts, however, Americans have tended to seek solutions in technological superiority, believing that more is better: heavier guns, more rounds per minute, more precise targeting, thicker armor, helicopter insertion, and so on. Those are things that can be measured, produced, delivered, and deployed. Very often they can indeed be decisive, especially in conventional warfare. In our view, however, the record has been decidedly mixed.
The current U.S. Army’s singular focus on “Large Scale Combat Operations”—anticipating that contingency with “peer threats” such as Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran—has prompted a host of modernization efforts and organizational changes—many no doubt necessary and even long overdue. In 2017, the Army prioritized six new conventional capabilities: long- range precision fires, the “next- generation combat vehicle,” future vertical lift, the Army network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality. In short: “more.” The current Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General James C. McConville, tweeted on October 15, 2019, that “America’s Army will never be out-gunned, it will never be out-ranged, and it will never be over-matched.” This replicates precisely the spirit of Vietnam-era officers who claimed that the Americans had won all of the battles.
All of these developments suggest that today’s military, as in the past, may lack the introspective spirit necessary to study, apply, and codify its rich experiences with low-intensity, asymmetric, and all too often, intercultural conflict. Rather, it has aligned itself for a future of great power conflict that its own history suggests was the exception rather than the norm, and in which culture will somehow be less relevant. History suggests otherwise. The other face of battle will likely again be the face America sees.
“The Other Face of Battle: America’s Forgotten Wars and the Experience of Combat” is available for purchase.
Wayne E. Lee is the Bruce W. Carney Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army, was the 2015-16 Harold K. Johnson Chair of Military History at the U.S. Army War College, and is author of many books including most recently, “Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History.”
David Preston is General Mark Clark Distinguished Professor of History at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Braddock’s Defeat,” which won the Gilder-Lerhman Prize in Military History and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.
Anthony E. Carlson is an associate professor of history at the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Having previously served as an historian and analyst at the U.S. Army’s Combat Studies Institute, Carlson has interviewed hundreds of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan.
David Silbey is the associate director of the Cornell in Washington program and an adjunct associate professor in the Cornell History Department. He has written books on the British Army in World War I, the Philippine-American War, and the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.