Urgency and Exigency
“Weapons compound man’s power to achieve; they amplify the capabilities of both the good man and the bad, and to exactly the same degree, having no will of their own. Thus we must regard them as servants, not masters—and good servants to good men. Without them, man is diminished, and his opportunities to fulfill his destiny are lessened. An unarmed man can only flee from evil, and evil is not overcome by fleeing from it.”
—Col. Jeff Cooper
FOB Wolverine, Task Force Duke, Zabul Province, Afghanistan
October, the First Year
Andy was awoken by the sound of mortars. His many months in Afghanistan had taught him the difference in sound between outgoing and incoming mortars and various artillery. These were distant mortars, so he knew that it wasn’t friendly fire. Andy already had Operation Enduring Freedom camouflage pattern (OCP) pants and interceptor body armor (IBA) on, and was snatching up his M4 carbine and helmet when the take-shelter warning siren sounded. He popped out the door of his containerized housing unit (CHU) and jumped down into the entrance of the heavily sandbagged shelter, just a few steps away. Moments later the two lieutenants from the CHU next door piled in behind him. One of them took the precaution of scanning with a flashlight the floor and walls of the shelter for scorpions. He found just one and stomped it without comment.
The mortar rounds started to come in, with a succession of sharp blasts that shook the ground. There were about twenty impacts, arriving in a span of ten seconds. They could see the flashes of the explosions reflected on the wall opposite the doorway. The closest round impacted about one hundred feet away—close enough that shock waves could be felt.
As the rounds came in, Andy Laine said a silent prayer. He knew that only a direct hit would endanger him, but it was still unnerving, since he had less than a month left in-country.
“That may be all she wrote, sir,” said one of the lieutenants dryly.
Laine agreed. “You’re probably right. Just another shoot-’n’-scoot deal.”
At the far side of the forward operating base (FOB), they could hear the echoed commands from the Arty boys, and then the deep-throated crumps of outgoing mortars. They sounded like big 4.2-inch mortars, just three rounds. Andy marveled at how quickly the counter-battery radar team could pinpoint the insurgents’ firing location and direct return fire. Less than a minute after the enemy rounds impacted, the reply was sent, no doubt with considerable precision. It was no wonder that the mortar duels with the jihadis had become less frequent in recent months.
As they waited for the all-clear horn, Andy leaned against the sandbag wall and stretched his calf muscles, more out of habit than because of any stiffness. At six feet two inches, with a runner’s physique, he weighed just 180 pounds, and prided himself on his flexibility. When doing physical training (PT) with his units in garrison, he was always among the most limber.
The next morning, along with dozens of his fellow Fobbits, Laine did a bit of gawking at the damage done by the mortars. It actually wasn’t much. One round had shredded the corner of a CHU and another perforated a tent with dozens of small holes—the largest about three inches across. All the rest of the mortar impacts had no effect, leaving only black marks on the ground and some scattered shrapnel. A couple of the newbies to the FOB posed for pictures in front of the damaged CHU. “So what? Big deal,” Andy muttered to himself as he walked to the company headquarters.
At thirty-one years old, Andrew Laine was the typical lean and fit U.S. Army captain. He was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. His first had been to Iraq. On this new deployment, his assignment was “branch immaterial.” Although he was branched Ordnance Corps, he was assigned as a staff officer in a Stryker battalion, an infantry unit equipped with sixteen-ton wheeled armored personnel carriers (APCs). With the heavy manpower requirements of ongoing deployments to Afghanistan, it was not unusual for officers to get assignments outside of their usual career path. “The needs of the Army” was the reason often cited when making these assignments.
Andy and his older brother Lars had grown up in the shadow of their late father, Robie Laine, a Finnish-born Army officer who retired as a full colonel. Their father earned his U.S. citizenship by joining the U.S. Army, and eventually retired to a small horse ranch near Bloomfield, New Mexico. Robie had been raised on a farm and was convinced that he should retire on a farm. Their late mother was an American of mostly Swedish ancestry. She had died of breast cancer when the boys were in high school.
Following the mortar barrage, Andy spent a frustrating ten-hour day of pushing paper for the battalion, which was greatly complicated by the process of the unit’s upcoming redeployment to Germany. That afternoon, Andy chatted with Larry Echanis, the battalion S-1, the staff officer in charge of personnel. Echanis had been Laine’s martial arts sparring partner for the past several months. He had taught Andy some Hwa Rang Do katas, and Andy reciprocated, teaching Larry his mixed martial arts moves.
Their battalion (or “squadron,” in Stryker parlance) was a forward deployed part of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, headquartered in Vilseck, Germany. The incoming squadron was a sister unit in the same regiment, and also part of Task Force Duke. But Andy’s squadron was headed back to Germany, in a regularly scheduled unit rotation.
Laine and Echanis had been discussing events back home. Lately, the war effort had been taking a backseat to tumultuous economic events emanating from New York City and the world’s other financial centers. Larry Echanis seemed worried but was trying to be upbeat. He asked, “You think that this’ll blow over, right?”
Laine put on a glum face. “At this point, there’s no way. The whole system is breaking down. The global credit market is frozen, the sovereign debt problems have blown up past the GDP levels for most countries, and the derivatives have totally imploded. We’re in a world of hurt. I think there’ll be some major riots and looting soon.”
Echanis bit his lip. “Well, that won’t be a big deal for my family. Most of them live in eastern Oregon. Have you ever been through Ontario, Oregon? It’s out in the middle of nowhere. The disruption will be in the big cities. Our town is three hundred miles from Portland, and more than three hundred and fifty from Seattle as the crow flies.”
Laine shook his head. “I wish it was that simple. Sure, the riots will be in the big cities. The metro areas will be death traps. The suburbs will be only marginally safer. But you got to realize that these days even the small towns are dependent on long chains of supply. When the eighteen-wheelers stop rolling, everyone is gonna be hurting. It will definitely be safer out in the boonies. But you should tell your family to stock up on every scrap of food they can find. They need to get out of dollars and into canned goods right away.”
“You really think it’ll get that bad?”
Laine answered soberly, “I’m afraid it will. Does your family live in town or out on a ranch?”
“Used to be ranchers. All in town now, but we’re Basques, so we still know how to live the old-fashioned way. My mom used to cook a lot of our meals in a dutch oven. I didn’t even know how fast food tasted until I went off to college. There’s no comparison to my mom’s cooking.”
“Well, with those skills, and living where they do, they’ll probably ride the storm out pretty safely.”
The conversation left Andy feeling uneasy about his plans for leaving active duty. Strapping on his MOLLE vest to leave his desk at the battalion headquarters, Andy turned to Echanis to say, “Well, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. I’m going to stop by my CHU and grab a duffel bag and then I’m off to the Haji-mart.”
It was 90 degrees but felt even hotter, since Andy was wearing IBA and had the weight of an M4 carbine slung across his back, a PRC-148 radio, and numerous MOLLE magazine pouches. The only concession to being in a relatively safe area was that he was wearing a boonie hat instead of a MICH helmet.
As Captain Laine walked past the guards manning the HESCO barriers at the FOB’s main gate, he read the signs on the Haji market windows just across the road. They proclaimed: “Very Best PriceS,” “DVD,” and “Custtom TailoreR.” As he walked in the door, the smell of the market hit Andy like a hammer. It was an odd mix of Turkish tobacco smoke, incense, kerosene, sweat, and overcooked lamb. It certainly didn’t smell like the exchange store back at the FOB. Aside from the hint of JP8 jet fuel, which was a presence everywhere in the FOB, the exchange smelled just like any retail store in America: hardly any smell at all—almost antiseptic. In contrast, Ali’s store reeked. An aging Italian-made air conditioner was roaring above the door but not keeping up. It was perhaps 10 degrees cooler inside than outside.
Nabil Jassim Ali gave his usual “Salaam, salaam, Mr. Colonel” greeting. The portly and balding Pashtuni flashed his yellowed, crooked teeth. He called all the American soldiers “Colonel,” even the privates. It still made Andy laugh every time he heard it.
Eyeing the empty duffel bag slung over Laine’s shoulder, Ali chortled. “Perhaps you are wanting to buy plentiful numbers of thingings, Mr. Colonel?” Laine nodded. Ali waved him in and added, “The store I am closing in a few minutes, but for you, Colonel, I am willing to be late.”
“You always have the best deals, Mr. Ali,” Andy said with a smile.
“Do you have afghanis? The American dollar not so good, today. It is slipping off another five percent.”
“Down five percent in one week?” Andy asked.
“In one day, Colonel,” Ali replied seriously. “Soon, I think, I take no more American money.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I have plenty of afghanis.” His front pocket indeed bulged with a huge wad of cash: a mix of afghanis, dollars, and a few euros. In the bottom of his pocket he also felt the weight of eighteen American Eagle one-ounce silver coins in plastic sleeves.
Ali’s store had the usual “Haji-mart” merchandise. There were cigarettes, pirated CDs and DVDs, imitation designer sunglasses, magazines (mostly in Arabic), cheap Chinese knives and ersatz Leatherman tools, candy, sunflower seeds, sodas and sports drinks, jerky, chewing gum, and assorted trinkets.
There were three young Stryker troops already in the store when Captain Laine arrived. When he passed them in the dimly lit narrow aisles, they each acknowledged him with a hushed “High speed, sir!” That was the newly arrived battalion’s unofficial motto. But Andy was accustomed to hearing it at a much higher volume inside the FOB.
Laine sorted through packets of jerky, settling mostly on the teriyaki flavor, piling up a large stack in the crook of his left arm. The three enlisted soldiers completed their purchases, buying the usual Fobbit food: energy bars, packets of salty chips, and Coca-Colas that came in cans with both English and Arabic markings.
After the three soldiers left the store, Laine stacked the packets of jerky on the counter. Then he walked back to the shelf to get a second armload. This, too, he stacked on the counter. Ali smiled. “Perhaps you are wanting to buy all of my jer-kee?” he asked. Laine chuckled, and replied, “Well, not all of it; just most of it.”
Next he went to stock up on batteries. He ignored the Egyptian bargain brand—of dubious quality—and selected a dozen four-packs of Energizer AA batteries, being careful to pick the ones with the latest expiration dates. While Laine was sorting battery packages, Ali locked the front door and turned the “OPEN” sign around.
Laine stacked the batteries in a couple of piles next to the jerky on the counter, then his gaze shifted to Ali’s permanent smile. After a pause, Laine asked, “I’ve heard that you sell some other, ah, unusual merchandise that you keep in back.” He pointed to the doorway to the back room, which among other things served as a kitchen and bedroom.
“Sir, I have none alcohol. It is forbidden.”
“No, no. That is not what I meant. I’ve heard that you have some more expensive merchandise, like watches, some good optics, and guns.”
Ali’s smile got bigger than usual and he nodded. “One moment, Mr. Colonel,” he said, then disappeared into the back room.
Ali returned lugging a large suitcase, and Laine knew that he’d struck pay dirt. This was where the rumor mill at the FOB said the shopkeeper reputedly kept “the good stuff.”
Ali gently slid the heavy suitcase onto the store counter, unfastened the latches, and spun it around. He opened it to display a large assortment of new and used wristwatches, digital cameras, film cameras, binoculars, assorted boxes of ammunition, and a few pistol holsters.
Laine and Ali spent the next five minutes haggling over the price of a pair of rubber-armored Nikon 7x30 compact binoculars. They finally settled on a figure that seemed high to Andy, but he assented, realizing the prices would surely be double that in less than a month, perhaps in just a few days.
Laine paid for the jerky, batteries, and binoculars, nearly depleting his wad of afghanis. Eyeing the boxes of ammo, he said: “I see you have some nine-millimeter ammunition here. Do you have any pistols in that caliber?”
Ali frowned. “Yes, Colonel, I do, but you are cannot be afford them. Prices are—what is it they say—‘escalating.’ For a pistol, a good one, we are conversing of $5,000, American.”
“What if I paid you in silver, uhh, lujain coins? Lujain?”
“Ahhh! Lujain! This works for me. In Kabul, silver closed today at eighty-three American dollars for one ounce. In London it was eighty-one dollars.” Andy nodded. The man certainly knew his markets.
Mr. Ali turned and again walked to the back room. Laine heard the sounds of boxes being shifted and restacked. Soon the store owner returned with another suitcase that looked even older than the first. He put it on the counter, flipped the latches, and swung it open. Captain Laine let out a slight gasp when he saw the contents. The suitcase was crammed full of pistols, revolvers, holsters, and magazines.
Andy sorted through the guns. He saw older Afghan Army–issue Tokarevs, a few ancient revolvers that looked either Belgian or German, and a couple of Egyptian Helwan pistols. One revolver immediately seemed suspect. It was a Pakistani copy of a Webley .38 revolver. Looking closely at the gun, he saw that it was peppered with fake proof mark stampings and was erroneously stamped “WELBEY.” That made Andy laugh.
Seeing Andy’s expression, the storekeeper noted: “The guns from Peshawar, they are not so good.”
Andy replied, “Now, that’s an understatement!” He didn’t trust their metallurgy and mechanical tolerances any more than he did their spelling.
Putting the revolver down, Andy noticed that there were several plastic Glock Model 19 magazines but no Glock pistols.
“Do you have any Glocks?”
“Sorry, Mr. Colonel, but none of those I have. Those guns of Glock sell very quick, when I am getting one.”
Then Andy spotted a pistol in a well-made holster that looked different from the others. Withdrawing it from the holster, Andy was pleased to see a SIG P228 9mm pistol in nearly new condition. It looked just like the U.S. Army–issue P228s that the CID agents carried, except that it wasn’t stamped “U.S. PROPERTY.”
“This is my most nice of my pistols. You are liking it?”
The moment that he saw the SIG, Andy knew that he was going to buy it. The moment felt portentous somehow. He nodded and said, “Yes, I do like it.” He knew that it was against regulations to bring any weapon home from the OEF theater of operations.
Andy rummaged through the suitcase and found six spare SIG P226 series magazines, including two thirteen-rounders, three fifteen-rounders, and just one scarce magazine of twenty-round capacity. He took a few minutes to closely inspect both the gun and the magazines. The pistol had no rust pitting and just a bit of finish wear at the muzzle. Locking back the slide, he examined the bore, holding a slip of paper behind the barrel to act as a reflector. Cupping his hand over the rear sight and holding the back end of the pistol nearly to his face, he could see the faint glow of tritium dots. He muttered to himself, “Eleven-point-two-year half-life.” The magazines were genuine SIG Sauer made—with the distinctive zigzag seam on the back—and they, too, looked nearly new.
Setting the holstered pistol and the four magazines next to his previous purchases, he said, “This will do.”
“I will sell you this ZIG with just of only one magazine for thirty ounces of silver, and one ounce more for each magazine more.”
Laine shook his head and answered: “No, no, no. That is too much. My offer is eight ounces, and I want you to include these magazines.”
“This is an insult to my family. Shall my children starve and beg in the street? I am not a fool. But for you, as good and honorable officer, I will make a price of twenty ounces, with those extra magazines including.”
“No, make it twelve.”
Ali shook his head. “Eighteen ounces.”
Andy countered, “Nope. Fifteen.”
“Sixteen,” Ali snapped back.
Andy replied firmly, “Done!” They shook hands. Andy counted out sixteen of the American eagles, all still packaged in two-coin “flip” plastic sleeves. Ali took the time to scrutinize the pairs of coins closely, removing several of them from their sleeves. He looked satisfied.
“You are needing of amma-unitions?”
“No, thanks, I’ve got plenty. Nine-mil is standard for the Army.”
Andy spent a few more minutes rummaging through the suitcases, selecting a pair of magazine pouches that had obviously been made for different double-column pistol magazines but fit the standard SIG magazines—a tight fit, but they would do. Each pouch held a pair of magazines. The two pouches cost $220 in the increasingly worthless greenbacks.
Starting with the holstered pistol at the bottom, Andy filled the duffel bag with his purchases and again shook hands with Ali.
It was nearing sunset, and the temperature outside was down to 80 degrees. Ali unbarred the door, and they exchanged “Salaamu alaikum” (Go in peace) good-byes. Andy wondered how peaceful things would be in the near future. “Not very,” he muttered to himself, as he shouldered the duffel bag.
© 2011 James Rawles