The World

When the New Guy Came to Afghanistan

A comedy of middle management in the endless war.

Five people, some in fatigues and some in civilian closes, sit at around a white plastic table in white plastic chairs.
U.S. Army officers at an on-base cafeteria on Sept. 14, 2012, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Tony Karumba/AFP/GettyImages

The New Guy seemed dazed as he toured the office with his predecessor. Tall and hunched, like a pro athlete five years into retirement, the New Guy looked too old to be a captain.

It was 2012. I was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed at Camp Phoenix, working with a small team assigned to build police stations throughout Kabul for the Afghan National Police. We worked with police commanders to determine what physical infrastructure they needed to get ready for the supposed 2014 withdrawal of U.S. forces. It was a unique vantage point on a war already 10 years old and largely feeding on itself, like a terrarium in Thunderdome.

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Our old boss, Luke, was an engineer in the Air Force. He would go out every day for meetings with Afghan police commanders, return to the office, and review blueprints and contracts for 12 hours. He spent his free time working on his Ph.D. When Luke introduced the New Guy, an Air Force reservist, as the new boss, we explained our jobs, dozens of projects. The New Guy had no questions; he just muttered “easy enough” or “that’s just some project management stuff,” with relaxed, breezy confidence.

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Luke, ever the professional, left so that the New Guy could take charge without the former boss lingering. The office was a small room with plywood walls and three cheap wooden desks side by side. I sat on one side. The other lieutenant, Mike, sat opposite, with the New Guy now in the middle. As soon as we sat down, he explained that a doctor told him that to avoid jet lag he needed to rest one day for every hour he flew. He figured that his flight had been 14 hours, so he would see us in two weeks. And with that, he left the office.

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“This is not going to go well,” Mike said.

For several days, Mike and I continued our work. We went on missions, designed projects, and wrote contracts. This new guy was actually going to try to sleep for 14 days. It was heroic, in a way, to be so self-contained. As if Melville had written Bartleby, the Napper instead.

We were just getting used to not having a boss when I bumped into the Operations Officer, Maj. Harrison. He was third in command and always harried. Some people begin to physically resemble their occupation. He was an armor officer and had the attributes of a tank—physically big, loud, and aggressive.

“Staron, where’s the New Guy?” he asked. “The boss hasn’t seen him around.”

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“Well, sir, about that.” I then explained the New Guy’s regimen for jet lag and that we hadn’t seen him for a couple days.

“He’s just been fucking sleeping?” Harrison turned to one of his captains and sent them to retrieve the New Guy. “Stand there until he actually leaves his fucking room.”

And so the New Guy started coming to work.

Mike was in the final weeks of his deployment. He had no patience left, so it fell to me to try to bring the New Guy up to speed. I took him around Kabul to show him our projects and introduce him to the Afghan police commanders and contractors who were working with us. As we drove through the city, he pointed out the window at a group of Afghan women.

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“LT, what’s the deal with the women in blue robes? Are they nuns?”

“No sir, they don’t have nuns here. They’re wearing the traditional burqa.”

When we returned to the base after these trips, the New Guy would generally disappear to nap for several hours, leaving us alone to do the administrative work. One day, I went back to the office to start working and found Mike as angry as I had ever seen him.

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“What’s up, man?”

“He left his fucking rifle in the office,” Mike said.

Afghan workers cleaned and did maintenance on the base. Mike had turned in his chair to find one of these workers holding the New Guy’s M4 rifle. For a split second, Mike had assumed that he was going to be the next victim of one of the insider attacks that had become all the rage lately across Afghanistan. Instead, the worker just needed to get to the A/C unit.

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Mike took the rifle to the New Guy’s boss and explained. The major said that he would keep it and see how long it took the New Guy to report it missing.

It took nearly a day. After that, the New Guy began to talk about “disloyalty” and “deceitfulness” in the office. It drove Mike crazy, but only for the few final days before he left for good.

Our commander, Col. Remigio, was an Army colonel from the infantry—short and intense, a yeller. His high-pitched voice would rise until it gave a pubescent crack, then he would return to normal as if all the air was out of the balloon. Each week, the New Guy had to brief Remigio, and every week, Remigio would be disappointed in the New Guy’s inability to answer questions. The New Guy didn’t know his own projects, and for the detail-oriented Remigio, that was a cardinal sin.

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After one such performance, Remigio took the New Guy to his office and screamed at him for 45 minutes. Just as Remigio was about to wind down, the New Guy leaned back in his chair and said, “Look, sir, what you need to understand about me is that I’m 90 percent civilian.”

According to a major who was in the office, Remigio was slightly stunned, but took a breath and went back to screaming, for another 45 minutes.

For the next few days, the New Guy asked me about it regularly. It was all he could talk about. “That was so unprofessional,” he said. “Is that how y’all do things in the Army?”

“Staron, this isn’t that serious,” the New Guy liked to say to me. “This isn’t a real war.” My brother was finding improvised explosive devices in Kandahar, one of my best friends had been nearly killed by a suicide bomber, and two guys I went to college with had been killed in Regional Command-East. The war seemed real to me. At the very least, I considered it not unserious.

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Every so many days, like clockwork, the New Guy’s mantra would unleash something in me. “Relax,” he’d say, one time too many, and I would explode. The New Guy would laugh and say that I needed Jesus. I would storm out of the office.

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Fortunately, our team’s civilian contractor, Dan, had inherited a humidor with about 400 cigars from another contractor. We would go to a patio and smoke while Dan talked about his ex-wife and I calmed down. The sessions usually ended with us looking at the Hindu Kush mountains in the distance with the sun fading and Dan wistfully saying that he would build a ski resort over there someday. I don’t think he has yet.

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The New Guy was still taking his post-mission naps in the afternoon but would return to the office in the evening to do online shopping until late into the night. He had an affinity for leather goods. We began to avoid the office after dinner.

And as Col. Remigio became more critical of him, the New Guy’s attitude began to shift. He wasn’t as breezy as before. He became arbitrary. He demanded the plans for a multimillion-dollar project in two or three days, even though such an undertaking would require weeks of work.

He would sink into long periods of silence in the office, increasing the unease. He didn’t do any work, just continued appraising leather coats online. Then, apropos of nothing, he would assign me a deadline to complete online training on emotional intelligence.

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The New Guy once shared that his career manager told him that he wouldn’t be promoted to major without a deployment, so he had to come to Afghanistan. It had only taken him 10 years.

For him, the war in Afghanistan was something to be endured in order to get to a better tomorrow. At least he was honest about what he was trying to accomplish by being there. As opposed to those who felt disappointed and cheated that this was their war. I heard this sentiment countless times. “We need to get back to real fighting. No more of this insurgency bullshit.” As if we had a choice on whether an insurgency would break out, existentially speaking. (As opposed to through policy, which almost ensured an insurgency.) Every time I heard officers say they wanted a real war with real fighting, I wanted to give them a hug and apologize for the lack of battles of the Bulge.

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To these guys, the war in Afghanistan was also something to be endured in order to get to a better tomorrow. A tomorrow with a lot of tanks fighting tanks, hopefully.

When I first arrived to Afghanistan, someone passed along a word of comfort: “Don’t worry. You can’t fuck it up. It’s Afghanistan. It’s already fucked.”

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In this kernel lay the closest approximation of a strategic vision for the day-to-day administration of America’s war in Afghanistan, which had assumed its own reality, its own internal logic.

For instance, before even coming to Afghanistan, the New Guy had been required to attend adviser training at Fort Polk. He spent his training paying bills and online shopping, which was a tough habit to break, it seemed. Many of my colleagues had completed this course and remained in touch with trainers there. Through that grapevine we heard that the New Guy’s instructor, appalled by his indifference to training, had sought to have him removed from the deployment. The instructor reported the New Guy to different bosses, including attempting to shame the New Guy’s unit for sending him in the first place. The response: There was no one else who would be ready to deploy in time. The instructor said, “It would be better if no one went than to send this guy.” The New Guy was sent.

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It didn’t matter which direction the ball was moving, so long as 11 players were on the field.

I was never quite sure that the New Guy understood where he was. It was as if he had been hit in the head on Sept. 10, 2001, and been in a coma until mid-2012, at which point he was awakened and informed that he was going to Afghanistan. He existed outside of history, except his own. In the past lay only slights and insults that he continuously referenced, like Mike’s handling of the rifle. In the future lay promotion to major.

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He had a habit of reflexively agreeing to whatever an Afghan commander asked for, regardless of feasibility. I asked him why he said yes when the clear answer was no.

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“You hear about these green-on-blue shootings?” the New Guy said. “I’m not getting shot.”

Somehow, the only Afghan-related notion that he had learned was “green-on-blue.” He asked Afghans if the meat they served was pork. He tried to give bottles of wine as gifts to Afghan commanders. Nothing had permeated his disinterest except the fact that Afghan soldiers were shooting Americans. And his solution was to tell the Afghans what they wanted to hear.

After he went home, I spent a lot of time informing Afghans that we had to break promises that never should have been made. No one ever got angry about it. They were used to the disappointment, maybe even relieved that someone was actually acknowledging that we were going back on our word.

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One morning, after the New Guy and I almost came to blows, I reported him to the head of engineering. “Kyle, we’re going to sit on these allegations,” the head of engineering told me. “Other stuff has come to light and he’s fucked himself.” Sure enough, a few days later, the New Guy announced that his deployment was being cut short.

It seems that he had sensed that Col. Remigio was going to fire him. So, as an insurance policy, the New Guy went to an Army National Guard unit on our base and asked if they wanted an engineer to work on police stations for them. The unit did want to do more for the police, but they had no money to spend on construction.

The New Guy explained that he would bring our $25 million budget with him if they found a place for him. He truly believed he had control of a $25 million line item in the U.S. defense budget and could carry that money around with him. Even more embarrassingly, the staff of the National Guard unit believed him.

When the proposal for this transfer reached the National Guard unit’s chief of staff, he understood it was nonsense. He contacted Remigio, and the New Guy was kicked out of Afghanistan by the military in January 2013.

He returned in April 2013 as a civilian with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He just needed more time to find the right leather jacket, I guess.

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By then, I was about to leave. I landed in the United States on April 14. The plan was to drive back to Texas and reintegrate into my old unit, lounge around for a couple of days, then enjoy a month’s worth of post-deployment leave.

I got back to my unit headquarters building and made the rounds, talking to friends I hadn’t seen and figuring out what my job would be once I came back for good. As I was talking to someone, the new operations officer, Maj. Johnson, came up to me.

“Are you Lt. Staron?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Welcome to the unit. The battalion commander wants to have a family day. I want you to plan the food. Do you think you can manage getting that?”

“I think I can manage ordering food, sir. But I’m going on leave this weekend, so I won’t be around for a while.”

“How long are you going on leave for?”

“A month, sir.”

“A month? Why are you taking that long of a vacation?”

“Well, I just got back, sir.”

“Back from where?”

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