War Without End
Pfc. Paul Landenberger, a soldier in Viper Company, on patrol in the Korengal Valley in April 2009.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Second Platoon did not hide its dark mood as its soldiers waded across the Korengal River in the bright light of afternoon. It was early in April 2009 and early in the Pentagon’s resumption in earnest of the Afghan war. The platoon’s mission was to ascend a mountain slope and try to ambush the Taliban at night. They were about 30 men in all, riflemen and machine-gunners reinforced with scouts, a mix of original platoon members and replacements who filled gaps left by the wounded and the dead. Many of them considered their plan foolish, a draining and dangerous waste of time, another example of a frustrated Army unit’s trying to show activity for the brass in a war low on focus and hope. They muttered foul words as they moved.
Specialist Robert Soto had been haunted by dread as the soldiers left their base, the Korengal Outpost. His platoon was part of an infantry unit that called itself Viper, the radio call sign for Bravo Company, First Battalion of the 26th Infantry. Viper had occupied the outpost for nine months, a period in which its soldiers were confined to a small stretch of lower valley and impoverished villages clinging to hillsides beneath towering peaks. Second Platoon had started its deployment with three squads but suffered so many casualties that on this day even with replacements it mustered at about two-thirds strength. With attrition came knowledge. Soto knew firsthand that the war did not resemble the carefully considered national project the generals discussed in the news. He had enlisted in the Army from the Bronx less than two years before, motivated by a desire to protect the United States from another terrorist attack. But his idealism had turned swiftly into realism, and the war had become a matter of him and his friends surviving each day as days cohered into a tour. He was doubtful about the rest, from the competence of the war’s organizers down to the merits of this ambush patrol. There’s no way this works, he thought. The valley felt like a network of watchers who set up American platoons, relaying word to those laying traps.
Soto sensed eyes following the patrol. Everybody can see us.
He was 19, but at 160 pounds and barely needing to shave, he could pass for two years younger. He was nobody’s archetype of a fighter. A high school drama student, he joined the Army at 17 and planned to become an actor if he survived the war. Often he went about his duties with an enormous smile, singing no matter what anyone else thought — R. & B., rap, rock, hip-hop, the blues. All of this made him popular in the platoon, even as he had become tenser than his former self and older than his years; even as his friends and sergeants he admired were killed, leaving him a burden of ghosts.
He faced the steep uphill climb, physically ready, emotionally spent. We’re just trying to get out of here in two months, he thought. He and his fellow soldiers had been in the valley long enough that they moved in the sinewy, late-deployment fitness of infantry squads seasoned by war. Sweat soaked his back. His quadriceps and calves drove him on, pushing him like a pack animal for the soldier beside him, Specialist Arturo Molano, who carried an M240 machine gun. The two fell into a rhythm. One soldier would get over a hard patch, turn around and extend a hand to the other. “Hey, man, you good?” Soto would ask. Molano would say he was fine. “You want me to carry the gun?” Soto would offer. Molano declined every time. Soto considered Molano to be selfless and tough, someone who routinely carried more than men of much larger size. He liked being partnered with someone like this.
After a few hours, Second Platoon reached the crest, high above the valley. The soldiers inhaled deeply, taking in the thin air. Away from the outpost’s burning trash, the air tasted clean.
Sgt. First Class Thomas Wright, Specialist Robert Soto and Second Lt. Justin Smith in April 2009.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
A few soldiers went forward to check the trail before the rest of the platoon moved to the ambush site. With little more than whispers, the soldiers arranged themselves in a triangle astride a mountain footpath. Second Lt. Justin Smith, their platoon leader, put Molano at one corner and a second man with an M240 at another, with their machine guns angled back toward each other so their fire could create an interlocking zone of flying lead. Other soldiers set claymore mines on small stands.
Everything was ready before dark. The air was chilly and the ridge raked by gusts. Soto was shivering. He pulled a dry undershirt and socks from his pack, changed clothes, ate a protein bar and washed it down with water. He saw his company’s outpost below, across the open space, and realized this must be what it looked like to militants when they attacked. A distant call to prayer floated on the mountain air.
In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old, a milestone that has loomed with grim inevitability as the fighting has continued without a clear exit strategy across three presidential administrations. With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist. And Afghanistan is not the sole enduring American campaign. The war in Iraq, which started in 2003, has resumed and continues in a different form over the border in Syria, where the American military also has settled into a string of ground outposts without articulating a plan or schedule for a way out. The United States has at various times declared success in its many campaigns — in late 2001; in the spring of 2003; in 2008; in the short-lived withdrawal from Iraq late in 2011; and in its allies’ recapture more recently of the ruins of Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State, a terrorist organization, formed in the crucible of occupied Iraq, that did not even exist when the wars to defeat terrorism started. And still the wars grind on, with the conflict in Afghanistan on track to be a destination for American soldiers born after it began.
More than three million Americans have served in uniform in these wars. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. More are killed or wounded each year, in smaller numbers but often in dreary circumstances, including the fatal attack in July on Cpl. Joseph Maciel by an Afghan soldier — a member of the very forces that the United States has underwritten, trained and equipped, and yet as a matter of necessity and practice now guards itself against.
On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command. Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.
As the costs have grown — whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost or blood shed — the wars’ architects and the commentators supporting them have often been ready with optimistic or airbrushed predictions, each pitched to the latest project or newly appointed general’s plan. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns abroad would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.
Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. Corruption and lawlessness remain endemic. An uncountable tally of civilians — many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — were killed. Others were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces American action helped unleash.
The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many are husks, looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an innumerable quantity are on markets or in the hands of Washington’s enemies. Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.
Almost two decades after the White House cast American troops as liberators to be welcomed, large swaths of territory where the Pentagon deployed combat forces are under stubborn insurgent influence. Areas once touted as markers of counterinsurgency progress have become no-go zones, regions in which almost no Americans dare tread, save a few journalists and aid workers, or private military contractors or American military and C.I.A. teams.
Across these years, hundreds of thousands of young men and women signed on in good faith and served in the lower and middle ranks. They did not make policy. They lived within it.
A soldier on patrol in the valley.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Robert Soto was 10 on Sept. 11, 2001, when his teacher at Middle School 118 said that an aircraft had hit the World Trade Center. His morning became a slow-motion evacuation in a rising nervous pitch. Name by name, Soto’s classmates were announced over the intercom. Soto’s turn came after most of the others had left. His father stood in the corridor and explained that the United States had been attacked. Soto sensed fear, something he had never detected in the man before.
His urge to understand what happened was irresistible. A few months later, Soto sneaked away from the Bronx with an 11-year-old friend. The two rode the 4 train to Lower Manhattan and walked to the rubble at Ground Zero, where the towers had been. Soto made up his mind standing there. He would protect the United States. When he was old enough, he would enlist.
The neighborhood outside his home was rough, and Soto was already carving out his place on the street — since age 8, he had been selling AA batteries on the curb. As his childhood passed, he watched friends drift into crime. Some joined Dominicans Don’t Play, a Latino gang in a violent rivalry with another, the Trinitarios. His father, who worked as a doorman in Manhattan, had custody of him and his brother. The family shared an apartment with Soto’s grandmother, Haydee Madera-Soto, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1962 and lived in the same building on Morris Avenue for decades. She watched from her second-story window as if hovering above him, calling him inside when she sensed trouble. When he tried evading her, she learned his routes over rooftops and down staircases into other buildings on the block, and knew which staircases to charge up to intercept him and lead him home. Soto did not want to disappoint her. In eighth grade, he played Iago in a school production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The role helped him enroll at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan in September 2003, not long after the United States invaded Iraq.
Soto never quite fit in. Most of his classmates were neither skirting gang involvement nor inclined toward military service. They were almost all bound for college and seemed to be able to dissociate themselves from the memory of New York being attacked. Soto felt as if he were from another world and moving in a different direction. He graduated in 2007 and enrolled in summer classes at Lehman College, but something did not feel right. America was fighting two wars. Each was going badly. What was he doing sitting around? He walked out of math class and into an Army recruiting office, where he told the first soldier he saw that he wanted to sign up. He volunteered for the infantry — his sense of the hardest, most dangerous job. His grandmother was visiting her village in Puerto Rico when he took his oath. She was despondent when she heard. “If I had been here, I wouldn’t have let him go,” she said.
In August, when Soto arrived at Fort Benning, Ga., for One Station Unit Training, a pipeline to combat divisions, he was given as simple a label as a human being can have: Roster No. 242, written on tape on his plain green helmet. Several sergeants who trained him had been to Iraq and Afghanistan; he regarded them as the most impressive people he had ever met. Soto returned home for the holidays with orders to report in January 2008 to Fort Hood, Tex., and join the First Infantry Division, which was bound for a rotation in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq had entered a less violent phase. The Pentagon was shifting attention to defeating the Taliban, which had reasserted itself after being forced from Kabul in 2001. It had cut off remote outposts and was challenging the American-backed government across much of the country.
At Fort Hood, Soto was greeted by a Viper Company squad leader, Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox. At 32, Cox was older than is typical for his rank. He had a deeply furrowed brow, a hint of graying hair, a college education and an aura of confidence rooted in previous tours in Bosnia and Iraq. He welcomed Soto in a straightforward manner, with a politeness that reflected his Catholic-school years in Iowa. Soto immediately liked him. Cox was a tattooed bookworm with a pensive side. After working under the tutelage of drill sergeants, with their outsize personas, Soto was drawn to his quieter, more composed and reflective demeanor. The platoon sergeant, Sgt. First Class Thomas Wright, assigned Soto as an ammunition bearer in a machine-gun team, a position for an F.N.G. — “fucking new guy” — on a fast track to war.
The company was busy readying for Afghanistan and spent weeks in the field, conditioning with long marches under heavy rucksacks and training with weapons. The more Soto came to know Sergeant Cox, the more fortunate he felt to work for him. Cox served in the Army in the ’90s, then returned to civilian life and studied for his bachelor’s degree. Like Soto, he was deeply affected by the terrorist attacks in 2001, and he began talking of serving again. But he was raising two stepchildren and an infant daughter with his wife-to-be, Annie, and did not want to disrupt their family while they had teenage children in school. He waited until 2005, as his stepdaughter was graduating from high school, to take his oath for a second time, returning, like Soto, to the Army as an infantry volunteer. Cox did a tour in Iraq before reporting to Fort Hood with Annie and their toddler, where he became a squad leader. In this role, he was expected to shape a new batch of soldiers into a fighting team. Like Soto, he was also an artist. Soto sang. Cox drew. Sometimes he sketched officers as they gave briefings, filling pages of his tactical notebooks with renderings in real time.
By spring, rumors circulated that Viper Company was being sent to the Korengal Outpost. It was in one of the most violent spots on the Afghan map, nicknamed the Valley of Death. Soto tried to keep others’ anxiety from gripping him. The company assumed a harsher edge. Warnings to pay attention were constant. I’m already paying attention, he thought. His attitude and seriousness were noticed; the company sent him to a course that trained backup medics, leading to an increase in his duties and role. Cox continued to impress him. As other sergeants showed signs of stress, there was no drama around the man. He projected a clear message: “This is what we’re doing, we know what we are doing and we are going to keep doing it.” He’s not clouding anything with that Korengal legend talk, Soto thought.
Late that spring, Cox hosted several young soldiers at the home on Fort Hood he shared with his family. It was one-half of an Army-managed duplex, a place in such poor condition that Annie and he referred to it as a government slum, the ’hood of Fort Hood. The battalion’s soldiers were being granted leave before flying away for a year, and the party, on a concrete patio outside their back door, was a chance to gather away from work and relax. Annie prepared food and welcomed her husband’s charges into her life. Cox grilled meat and served drinks and offered his out-of-uniform human side, impressing on his squad that each soldier was part of a team, and that he needed them, and that soon they would all need one another in profound ways.
There were things he did not share. Although few of his fellow soldiers knew it, Cox did not have to deploy to Afghanistan; he had been recruited to serve as a PsyOps soldier, and there was a position for him in the PsyOps field. He turned down the opportunity, confiding in Annie that he could not let his squad go to Afghanistan without him. He had been telling his soldiers they had to be there for one another. He intended to live by his words.
On the flight from the United States in July, Cox got his soldiers seated, then tried to relax. He ate and read part of a book but felt his wartime self settling over him, that blend of exhaustion and intensity, as he headed into his third war. “Saying goodbye was hard, took it out of me emotionally,” he wrote in his journal. “Flight gives way to deployment mind-set + compressed brain.”
A soldier working his way along the rocky terrain of the Korengal.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
The helicopter pounded up the Kunar River Valley, wide and green among forested slopes. When the aircraft turned up the Pech Valley, the world narrowed among peaks. At the turn into Korengal, as the helicopter roared up the canyon in which aircraft often came under fire, Soto’s heart beat fast. The aircraft touched down inside a perimeter of bunkers around plywood shacks. The soldiers charged out to a barrier wall. Soto reached it, noticed the grim faces of his sergeants and went down to one knee, rifle in hand, brow beading sweat. The grunts from Battle Company, who were rotating out as Viper Company rotated in, laughed.
Viper. The name sounded impressive. They were F.N.G.s now.
At the moment Soto and his fellow soldiers arrived in the valley, the United States had been in Afghanistan almost seven years — longer than America’s Civil War and involvement in World War I combined. The war’s objectives and the military’s roles had shifted across the years. The rush into the country to punish the perpetrators of the 2001 attacks had evolved into something else: an open-ended occupation. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader, were at large, and elite counterterrorism units remained in the country, fighting a shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies. But larger conventional American units were engaged in a war that swapped urgency for a mesh of military, development and political aims. Combat tours to Afghanistan now blended military and civil assignments, including holding down remote outposts, organizing infrastructure projects, helping Afghan ministries with tasks like registering voters and training and outfitting Afghan soldiers and police officers, to whom the Pentagon insisted security would one day be entrusted.
No one had a firm idea of when that day might be, and hope for decisive momentum on any of these propositions had been undercut by the campaign in Iraq, which began diverting Pentagon attention soon after Bin Laden escaped over the mountain passes near Tora Bora in late 2001. In mid-2008, as Cox’s squad arrived, the United States had more than 140,000 troops in Iraq and about 33,000 in Afghanistan. Many lived in an archipelago of small rural positions, around which the Taliban had long ago established ambush points and planted hidden bombs. This encirclement made ground patrols perilous and in some places rendered resupply by road impossible. These positions were kept alive by replenishments dropped with parachutes or carried by helicopters, themselves in short supply. All the while, the United States, pitted against enemies adept at terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare, was field-testing a reboot of Western counterinsurgency doctrine, with an emphasis on protecting civilians and providing services while tightening rules that dictated how troops could fight. A phrase from Vietnam was circulating anew — “winning hearts and minds” — even as units of hard-helmeted conventional troops spent large fractions of their time guarding their outposts and keeping themselves provisioned in distant, rugged terrain. A darker slang developed in the lower ranks. Afghanistan was the “welfare war.” Forlorn outposts, often built near villages resentful of foreign occupiers, were “bullet sponges.”
Americans occasionally ventured up the Korengal’s banks in the first years of the war, and they often met armed resistance. But the valley did not gain larger notoriety until 2005, when three Navy SEALs were killed in an ambush and a helicopter rushing to their aid was shot down, claiming 16 more lives. In 2006, an Army brigade situated the outpost on a low ridge with a gently sloping crest, beginning the phase of the American effort that Soto’s platoon was cycling through. On a tactical level, establishment of the outpost could seem to make sense. The place was defensible, in an officer-school way — a position overlooking the river and lower trails with enough space for helicopters to land. On a social level, it could not have been much worse. It was an unforced error of occupation, a set of foreign military bunkers built on the grounds of a sawmill and lumber yard formerly operated by Haji Mateen, a local timber baron. The American foothold put some of the valley’s toughest men out of work, the same Afghans who knew the mountain trails. Haji Mateen now commanded many of the valley’s fighters, under the banner of the Taliban.
Military minds had chosen the place. Standard military tactics would have to defend it. Troops built smaller posts so their occupants could watch over more of the riverbed and support one another with machine gun and mortar fire. NATO officials spoke of forging alliances between government and people. The American presence in the Korengal felt more crude fortress than diplomatic expedition, out of sync with ideas of protecting populations or courting hearts and minds.
At first Soto found the valley breathtaking. The riverbed formed a green stripe of cropland. Terraces of stacked stone climbed the lower hills. Villages clung to ledges. Farther up the mountains rose escarpments of stone, buffeted by wind. This was not the arid steppe or brown hills that dominate much of the Afghan landscape. It was ancient forest bisected by cascading mountain streams that fed a river with a haunting name, a place beyond the imagination of a teenager from the Bronx.
Soto soon saw the ground through another lens. Using aerial photographs, the Americans had charted every building in every village. The valley no longer seemed to him a land that time forgot. It was as intricately mapped as almost any place on earth. Hilltops, ridges, livestock sheds. Each was a precise spot that American weapons were ready to hit, a number on a targeting template overwritten on homes, ready for retaliation against any place from where an attack might emerge. Many attacks followed patterns. The outpost was reachable by a single dirt road from the Pech Valley. The Army had used this overland path for more than a year, sending cargo trucks accompanied by helicopters and armored Humvees. Often a route-clearance platoon led the slow drive, looking for bombs. These practices were well known by all sides and allowed the Taliban hours to prepare. Without irony, the Army had given its dirt track a name: Route Victory.
Soon after his arrival, Soto was in a Humvee turret on the road, looking over the river to a village called Donga when incoming fire struck the dirt beside his truck, smacking it with shrapnel and rocks. He shouted to the driver — “Move!” — and opened up, aiming .50-caliber bullets just below dust he spotted rising on the far side. He fired an entire can, then half of another. Sergeant Cox was beneath him in the truck. “Hey, man, you O.K.?” he asked Soto after, watching for his response. “I’m good,” he said; he was adjusting to the place.
More violence awaited them. Within weeks, an explosion killed a staff sergeant from another company and wounded two more soldiers as they tried to reach the outpost in a convoy up Route Victory. Then militants mounted the largest assault Viper had seen, on Combat Outpost Vegas, on the east side of the river. To repel the attackers, Viper Company fired barrages of artillery and mortar rounds, including white phosphorus. Thunderous explosions and incendiary chemicals set the hills ablaze. Two days later, a staff sergeant in Third Platoon collapsed on a foot patrol. Soto was on his own squad’s patrol when word circulated over the radio: The sergeant was dead. Soto’s patrol still had to walk back. Block, he thought. Shut down emotions. You can’t dwell. You can think about this now, or we can get back safe and you can think about it later. Soto chose later. He was 18 years old, switching part of himself off.
Life fell into an infantry routine. Days were a series of walks to villages, efforts to ambush militants on trails and long shifts on post, watching and waiting to be attacked. Both sides moved as if by choreography. The Taliban would fire from hiding. Soldiers faced the threat and fired back. Then the attackers withdrew as the Americans massed mortars and artillery, usually before aircraft strafed hills or dropped bombs. Interactions with the valley’s civilians had a similarly practiced feel. Many Korengalis were against the Americans. The indicators were everywhere — from cold looks to villages empty of fighting-age men. The Korengal could seem a valley of women, children and old men. Younger men were hiding in the mountains. Americans saw them reliably only on Fridays, when they set aside weapons to visit a mosque in Babeyal. Sometimes Viper’s soldiers stood outside and watched their foes file past — a ritual in a war that to Soto made less sense the more he knew. The Pentagon spoke of separating insurgents from the population. What if, Soto wondered, insurgents were the population? Then what was a soldier to do?
Staff Sgt. Antonio Quiroga, Sgt. Craig Tanner, Specialist Robert Soto, Specialist Robert Oxman, Pfc. Troy Pacini-Haravey, Sgt. Clayton HodgePhoto by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Several times at night, Soto looked across the valley at flashlights bobbing in forests. He was sure these were Taliban moving ammunition and weapons. He found it maddening. They could fight as they pleased, but American soldiers were bound by rules limiting their ability to enter homes, rules governing when they could use their weapons, rules governing whether and how firepower could be applied. Soldiers were drilled in manners and restraint. As Soto saw it, Viper was like a boxer forbidden to use fists, reasoning with a foe who was allowed to punch first. It was a death lottery, with medals for the losers and talking points on the news.
On Sept. 6, Second Squad walked across the river and up the steep hill to Donga, while other soldiers set up a position on the west side. Militants opened fire, trying to hit the soldiers on the west bank. When the gunfire stopped, Cox hunched over the radio with another sergeant. They shook heads and swore and told everyone to get ready for the return walk. Soto was a student of Cox’s body language. He knew something was wrong.
Helicopters circled overhead. After Second Squad crossed the river and climbed to the road, Soto was angry. There was a lot going on, and they weren’t hearing it. He thought he knew why. When the squad reached an Afghan Army position, his anger surged to fury. He confronted a sergeant. “Tell me,” he demanded. “Who got hit?”
“It was Knight,” the sergeant said.
Specialist Marques Knight was an experienced soldier, with a tour in Iraq. He was killed in a vehicle turret when a sniper’s bullet hit his head. Soldiers beneath him in the truck saw his legs go instantly limp.
The sky opened up, splattering the valley with rain and hail. Soto strode forcefully along the last leg of the walk to the outpost, soaked and cold, alternating between numbness and lucidity. Knight’s body lay in the mechanics’ bay, where soldiers paid last respects. Late that night, Viper gathered for a ceremony in the darkness. A mortar crew fired two illumination rounds. Each was a bright flare beneath a fluttering parachute. They ignited brilliantly and descended, whistling softly and casting shadows that spun and danced. They burned for about a minute. Then the valley was black again.
The idealism that propelled Soto to Afghanistan was being scoured away. In his journal, Cox recorded one of Soto’s questions. “Why is it,” Cox wrote, “that pieces of crap go on living lives that mean nothing and good men die in places like this?” Soto thought Cox agreed, but he was careful in his reply. He didn’t know that fatalism had seeped into his sergeant’s thinking, too. “Have a bit of humor with death,” Cox wrote. “At the funeral just say, ‘I guess I had it coming.’ ” His entry that night was littered with the titles of songs. “Seven Nation Army,” “Away From the Sun,” “Here Without You.”
He ended with a lyric from one more: “Love me when I’m gone.”
The escalating violence was part of a peculiar moment in the Afghan war — late in the administration of President George W. Bush, and at the height of the presidential race between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. American troop levels in Afghanistan had long lagged far behind those in Iraq, and public interest in the war had waned. But as Soto began his Afghan tour in July 2008, the political conversation was shifting. “Our enemies are on the offensive,” McCain warned from the campaign trail, even as Viper Company’s soldiers were rushing off helicopters in the outpost’s landing zone. Both candidates were vowing to lead nothing less than a rearrangement of military priorities, pledging to turn the war around with fresh thinking and more troops. But the timeline was unlikely to help Viper Company, whose soldiers were among the last dispatched to badlands under an older plan. Promises echoed from Washington. The political calendar meant reinforcements would not come soon.
After Knight was killed, Sergeant Wright, the platoon sergeant, told Soto that Third Squad was heading to an observation post and that Soto would leave Second Squad temporarily to join them there. Soto did not want to go. Cox’s 33rd birthday was at the end of the month, and Soto had ordered a gift — a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye.” He had noticed how much Cox read. Even when there was time for only a few hours of sleep, Cox would often spend part of it with a book. It was fiction as sanctuary. The two men had talked about reading, and Soto had learned that Cox had never read J.D. Salinger. He intended to fix that, just as he intended to remain with Second Squad for its next patrols. He sought out his squad leader and asked to stay in his job.
Cox told him he had already spoken with Wright and the brief reassignment would stand. The observation post needed a medic, a role Soto had trained to perform. Cox was occupied with leading the rest of his squad. Some of the soldiers were calling certain patrols suicide missions; one griped to him about taking what he considered unnecessary risks. Cox was incredulous. “What?” he wrote in his journal. “Everything we do is an unnecessary risk. It is our job!”
Soto moved with Third Squad to Observation Post Dallas, a small position above the valley, where soldiers took turns on radio watch and behind machine guns, defending their peers below. The place was primitive to an extreme, a set of sandbagged fighting holes cut into stone and sunbaked earth. Soldiers slept in folding cots on uneven ground, camping near a barrel of their own waste. The bunkers were infested with fleas, and the air was swarmed by flies, which moved between excrement and everything else. But some of the soldiers liked their days there. At Dallas they were unhassled by the rules and routines of the larger outpost, alone atop a ridge where bird song filled the air each dawn. Cox, on an earlier rotation, had seemed especially pleased. “My 1st command,” he wrote, “of a fort.”
Specialist Robert Oxman.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
On Sept. 20, Second Squad drove north on Route Victory toward the Pech Valley to sweep an area where patrols were attacked so frequently that troops called it Ambush Alley. Soto listened to their progress while on radio watch at Dallas. He heard gunfire chatter, then a rocket-propelled grenade boom and echo. Over the radio came the reassuring sound of Cox’s voice. The patrol radioed that it had crossed through the most dangerous stretch.
An explosion rocked the valley. Soto guessed what it meant. A Humvee had been hit by a bomb.
He waited anxiously, monitoring the back-and-forth transmissions between outpost and patrol. Multiple voices came on the radio. Cox’s was absent. Soto assumed Cox was busy at the blast site, assessing what had happened, helping any wounded, organizing the squad’s reaction. Other soldiers reached the crater and described what they saw. The I.E.D. had knocked the last Humvee off the road, scattering its armor, roof and doors downslope. Two soldiers had been wounded. Two more were dead. The gunner, Pvt. Joseph F. Gonzales, had been killed instantly. So had Sergeant Cox.
High on the mountain to the south, Soto’s eyes welled with tears.
Knight had only just been killed, and now Cox and Gonzales were gone, too. Soto was no longer the teenager who enlisted to protect his city. Grief and rage and powerlessness brought with them the enlisted infantry soldier’s timeless realization: The best guys always seem to lose, he thought. The guys you think are equipped mentally and physically ready for war — the guys you think are going to come home — aren’t the guys to come home.
Soto usually sat directly behind Cox in the truck. If Wright had not sent him to Dallas, if Soto had won his argument over being reassigned, he would have been in his seat with his first-aid bag when the blast blew the truck apart.
In December, the Army sent Soto home on leave when his half sister died. The trip out was jarring. Soto flew to Jalalabad, then Bagram, absorbing sights and shaken by contrasts: dining halls heaped with food, military retail stores stocked with sundries, soldiers in lines at beverage shops but not at abundant showers. These dudes throw away food, he thought. In New York he felt even more out of place. He stayed with his grandmother, who cooked for him and doted on him but avoided asking questions, almost as if she did not want to know. He could not connect his life at the outpost to preventing a terrorist attack here.
Barack Obama was the president-elect. The Afghan war was soon to be new again. But political wheels turned slowly, and whatever changes were in store for the war would be unlikely to happen soon enough to matter to his platoon, which was still engaged in pitched firefights. Sitting at home, looked after by his grandmother, Soto felt guilty for being away. He was relieved when it was time to return to the valley.
He landed to more bad news. Three more soldiers in his platoon were shot while he was gone, and a helicopter was hit by a missile or rocket and crashed. Most of those inside scrambled out, but a sergeant was killed. The downing exposed another weakness in American plans for Afghanistan: the reluctance of the Afghan forces. After the helicopter slammed into the earth, Marines mentoring Afghan soldiers tried to rally them to the aid of passengers and crew. The Afghans refused. The patrol, they said, was not on their schedule.
Soto’s views of the war were hardening further, and he was unwilling to suppress what he knew. American soldiers were not going to win over Korengalis with counterinsurgency sweet talk or development projects, and they were not going to defeat militants by hanging around the outpost and trying to visit villages by day. In the news he read about the war, senior officers said what they needed to say — about Americans coaching Afghan forces, about winning over the Afghan population, about the Taliban losing ground. The brass didn’t mention what he saw: that most Afghans in the valley were not interested in getting along, that Afghanistan’s Army survived only under American protection and that units like his spent most of their time just trying to stay supplied and alive.
When a colonel visited the outpost for a short patrol, the company assembled soldiers to take him out for his tour. Soto heard he waited to leave until after attack helicopters arrived. He’s afraid, Soto thought. He saw his Army as a huge corporate organization, high on slogans while troops lived the unforgiving details of plans that wouldn’t work. We’re here because we’re here, he thought as winter gave way to spring. We’re here because another unit came here and set up, and we replaced them, and no one knows what else to do. He had become the type of grunt long wars make. His goal now was simple: to keep his friends alive.
Then came the order for the ambush patrol high on the ridge.
The light dimmed. A deepening blue gave way to black. Soto lowered his monocular night-vision device from his helmet so it rested in front of his shooting eye and turned on his aiming laser. A fine green line extended from his rifle’s muzzle — invisible to anyone without night-vision equipment, brilliantly bright to Second Platoon.
Stars appeared. Lieutenant Smith, the platoon leader, was new to the valley, freshly minted and straight from Ranger School. He emanated fitness, enthusiasm and a grasp of tactics. He was a former staff sergeant, the same rank held by Cox, which lent him a degree of credibility new lieutenants did not usually get. But he had not previously served in the infantry, and his platoon was not inclined to give him a pass. I get that you’re new, I get that you’ve got fresh legs, Soto thought. I don’t want to lose another friend, or lose my own life, because you’re trying to look cool.
Smith’s plan called for the scouts to find a position up the slope and watch the trail, ready to give warning if anyone approached. They departed in single file. Soto figured a night of boredom was ahead. Near the center of the patrol base, the radio operator sat with the handset, monitoring transmissions. He had spread a poncho liner and opened an M.R.E. ration, expecting an easy run of hours.
Smith rushed toward him, whispering fast. “Dudes are coming down the trail,” he said. The radio operator asked if the scouts were coming back.
“No,” Smith said. “The Taliban.” He dashed away.
Soto heard movement behind him. Smith crouched between him and Specialist Molano, practically hissing. Scouts had just reported gunmen walking this way, he said, 10 or 15 people in all.
Soto entered a peculiar mind-set that can settle over a combatant in the seconds before battle, a feeling of absolute, intoxicating clarity. Roles in the valley had been reversed. This time someone else was heading into a trap. He flipped his rifle’s selector lever off safe. His world shrank to what rehearsals had drilled him for: peering into his sector, ready to kill. His job now was to wait. Smith alone was to decide whether the people approaching were combatants. If he decided they were, then he decided when to begin shooting. Only he could initiate fire.
Soto’s eye was pressed close to his night-vision device. His heart thumped in his ears.
Into the dim green glow of his eyepiece stepped the shape of a man. He was carrying a rifle. Another man emerged behind him. He carried a rifle, too. Two more men stepped into view. They were about 35 yards away. The first man paused. He pointed a flashlight at the ground, switched it on and quickly switched it off.
Soto felt vindicated. The Taliban fighters were ghosts no more. He had been right all along when he saw flashlights and suspected the Taliban moved openly at night. Calm settled over Soto. The approaching men were about to die.
A fifth man stepped into view. A rocket-propelled grenade protruded above one man’s back. Another balanced a machine gun across his shoulders. Many of the fighters walked casually, side by side. They had grown too confident. Soto had never seen the Taliban so closely, at least not with their weapons. They did not look like the mujahedeen of legend. Emotions rushed through him: anger blended with disgust. You got me on the other side of the world, on this mountain, fighting these guys, and they don’t even know what they’re doing?
Specialist Robert Soto during a firefight in the Korengal Valley in April 2009.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
The lead man was perhaps 20 yards away.
Lasers had already settled on the first two men. A green line stopped on the forehead of the first; another traced a figure-eight pattern on his chest. The second man was similarly marked.
Soto moved his weapon toward the man with the machine gun and rested his aiming laser between straps on his tactical harness.
The gunmen drew inside of 15 yards, then inside of 10. More fighters filled in behind them.
Where’s Smith? Soto thought. C’mon, dude. Do it. The machine-gunner was less than 15 feet away. Soto’s heart felt as if it might rupture.
The lead Taliban fighter stopped. Fighters behind him paused. Trembling green lasers rested on faces and chests. Soto wanted to scream. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, Smith, c’mon —
Smith pressed the switch on the claymore. An explosion shook the forest. Steel balls slammed into the Taliban patrol. His voice sounded in the dark. “Fire!” he said. “Fire! Fire!”
Soto fired several times into the chest of the man carrying the machine gun. The man dropped to his knees. Soto kept shooting as the man crumpled to the ground. He scanned a pandemonium made visible through his night-vision monocular. A few Taliban fighters had fallen in place. Others staggered and scattered. Tracers skipped off rocks, spinning over the ridge in hot arcs. Soto fired at the fleeing men. He thought he hit them but wasn’t sure.
The man Soto shot first rose. He was upright. Soto fired again. The man dove into brush. A grenade shook the forest. Soto heard familiar voices. He yelled that he was fine as he changed his rifle’s magazine. The shooting stopped. A voice called out. “Get ready for a counterattack!”
Sergeants moved through the patrol base, checking their soldiers. Someone said none of the Americans had been hurt. A sergeant led Soto and two other soldiers into the kill zone to search the dead. Soto found the body of the machine-gunner he had killed. Up close, under a flashlight, he looked 16 years old. More bodies were spread through the woods. The sergeant donned latex gloves and turned the dead men’s heads to photograph each face for an intelligence report. Second Platoon had killed more than 10 Taliban fighters. Now it had to get back to avoid suffering casualties of its own.
The platoon filed downhill with scouts in the lead. Gunfire broke out again. Soto was farther back; he and the soldiers near him slid downhill, grabbing brush to break their falls. They found the scouts standing over three more Taliban bodies.
The platoon shuffled on. Inside the column, Soto let his mind wander. He felt proud. He and his friends had killed men who had been killing them. Vengeance was satisfying, in a primal way. And this night, he thought, might have brought more than revenge. The Taliban’s losses could hurt its ability to fight.
Viper 2 waded back across the river before dawn and weaved uphill to the outpost’s gate. The waiting soldiers were cheering. Soto heard people say that what his platoon did was monumental. Cooks prepared a hot meal, and the soldiers, back within the relative safety to their base, talked hurriedly, loudly, surging with what they had done.
Soto drifted away. His legs quivered with cramps. He had been working in gore, searching the warm, bloodied bodies of Taliban fighters ripped apart by bullets and claymore mines. He washed himself by standing naked and dumping bottles of drinking water over his head. His adrenaline had ebbed, allowing him to reconsider what had happened. He realized he had been wrong about one thing. Smith was legit. He’d led them through the most successful operation of their tour. But now he doubted the killing would change the company’s circumstances. The valley did not work that way.
Soto woke to spectacle. Residents of the villages were walking to the ridge. Some carried makeshift litters, including one that looked like a bed. The Korengalis were retrieving their dead. The Americans watched with spotting scopes and binoculars. As hours passed, the Afghans descended slowly, bearing bodies wrapped in sheets.
Earlier, elders had appeared at the outpost’s gate and asked to speak with Viper’s commander, Capt. Jimmy Howell. In ordinary circumstances, their long faces might command others to hush. But the outpost was ebullient. Viper’s morale had been buoyed by the settling of a score. Soldiers grinned. An awkward meeting followed. Howell took a seat among his visitors, who said the Americans had made a mistake. A child had gone missing while gathering food on the mountain, they said, and villagers sent a search party to find her. These were the men, they said, that Viper killed.
Howell waited until the last elder had spoken. Then he replied. The elders’ tale, he said, was one of the most ridiculous lies he had ever heard.
After the ambush, Soto became Smith’s radio operator, and the platoon was assigned to visit Laneyal, across the river from Aliabad, a village that served as a de facto front line, beyond which was Taliban turf. Getting there involved multiple risks. The soldiers would walk along the western side of the river, which the Taliban often raked with gunfire, and where Knight was killed. Then they would pick their way downslope to a river fork. The path was narrow, and the river was swollen with snowmelt and rain. There the soldiers would cross on wooden footbridges. The first was perhaps two feet wide. The second was a timberlike plank. First Lt. John Rodriguez, Viper’s executive officer, walked with Smith, who was still learning the ground.
The platoon departed in drizzle. Sheets of mist drifted across the valley. The mud was slick like grease. The valley dropped before the soldiers like a gorge. On the way down, the soldiers met an elder, Zarin, coming up. Rodriguez knew him. The two men chatted in the rain. Zarin said the path would be safe.
After crossing the bridge over the western fork, the soldiers moved in single file to the plank. Laneyal loomed overhead as Soto crossed.
An explosion detonated before him, heaving a cone of dirt in the air, blowing him to the ground. In the moment after, all was still. Soto’s ears rang.
Bullets snapped down, part of a crescendo of fire. Soto pushed himself to his feet and dashed downstream, leaping over boulders. He saw a pile of logs ahead and headed there, his radio antenna swinging from his back. He reached the logs, knelt, aimed his M4 upward and fired.
“Stay there!” Smith shouted. “Stay! There!”
Soto couldn’t hear him. Rushing water and gunfire drowned out other sound. He thought Smith needed the radio. He ran down the bank and jumped into the cold water, feeling the weight of his pack and radio as his feet struck bottom. A stone building stood across the river, about 100 feet away. Gunfire tore through the air. Soto pushed himself across the stream, struggling to stay upright. He cleared the water, scrambled upright and ran to the soldiers at the building.
An Air Force bomb whooshed in and exploded, sending a mushroom cloud rising where another building had been. Smith told the soldiers under Laneyal to be ready to withdraw. Now was their chance. The soldiers threw smoke grenades and retraced their steps, contracting into Aliabad, where they clustered in alleys and went through the ritual of a head count. Squad and team leaders tallied ammunition. The mood lightened. They had survived another ambush and were exhilarated to be alive.
A voice called out. “Dewater?”
There was no answer. Pfc. Richard Dewater was not in Aliabad.
Nausea swept over Soto. He radioed to the outpost, in case Dewater had walked back. Dewater was not there. Nightfall was near. The soldiers moved across the bridges. The platoon spread through wheat fields to the blast hole.
“I found him,” a voice said. Soto spun around. A sergeant was there. Dewater was not. “Look up,” the sergeant said, and swung a flashlight beam into the canopy of a tree. Dewater’s lifeless body hung from a branch. His helmet was on. He was missing a leg.
Another sergeant climbed the tree and pushed Dewater free. The soldiers placed him on a litter. Slowly they made their way across the river, panting, struggling to carry their friend.
On the staircase, Afghan soldiers watched. One raised a camera. Something in Soto snapped. He stepped before the lens. “What the fuck you doing, man?” he shouted. “What do you think you’re taking a picture of? We don’t take pictures of you. Put that camera down.” He shoved the man. The Afghan soldiers parted. The processional reached the road and turned north, walking in darkness and cold rain.
Pfc. Richard Dewater heading to Laneyal shortly before the ambush.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Dewater crossing the river by footbridge. Shortly after, he was killed by an I.E.D.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Soto sprinting for cover after an I.E.D. exploded on the trail to Laneyal.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Soldiers retreating up a hillside after the ambush, with smoke from smoke grenades billowing behind them.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Specialist Steven Halase dashing up a hillside.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Specialist Andrew Tenut taking cover behind a stone wall.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Exhausted soldiers regrouping in Aliabad following the attack.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Late the next month, a new crop of soldiers, from the Fourth Infantry Division, arrived at the outpost to replace Viper Company. They were neatly shaved and visibly fit, wore clean uniforms and carried new rucksacks and water bladders. They looked charged with an energy Viper Company faintly remembered about itself. We all want them to succeed, Soto thought. But there was so much to tell them and not enough time, and some of them, self-conscious about filling in behind a seasoned unit, bristled at instruction. The Korengal Outpost was changing hands again, even as the Army was reassessing the merits of being in the valley at all.
Unknown to most of the younger soldiers, officers in Viper Company and their battalion commander were advocating a different approach. One linchpin of American strategy had been to fight away from population centers, from outposts the military sometimes called blocking positions. The troops understood the assumptions in this thinking were weak. On May 1, Taliban fighters overwhelmed a mountaintop outpost overlooking the Kunar River, killing three Americans, two Latvians and three Afghan soldiers, and taking other Afghan soldiers prisoner. In the aftermath, Lieutenant Rodriguez talked with an intelligence sergeant who had concluded, as did others who were tracking the violence, that many Korengali fighters were fighting elsewhere, at least for now, including in the Kunar Valley. This challenged American thinking about blocking positions. Taliban fighters were not blocked. They had little trouble leaving the valley at will.
That month, Viper’s commander, Captain Howell, sent a letter via the elders to Nasrullah, the Taliban’s local leader, proposing measured withdrawal in exchange for a Taliban commitment to reconcile with the Afghan government and not to use the Korengal to stage attacks. A letter came back, saying perhaps the parties could work out a deal if the Americans would convert to Islam. Until then, Nasrullah said, New York and London would have to burn.
Soto, left, and Sgt. Joshua Trudell at a memorial for Private First Class Dewater.Photo by: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Soto felt anxious in his last weeks in the valley. A photograph of him seconds after Dewater was killed had appeared in The New York Times. Word rushed through his circles in the city. In her apartment in Morris Avenue in the Bronx, his grandmother stared at the photo and cried. Friends wrote him on Facebook and email, urging him to keep safe. The attention was jarring. Soto had shrunk his world to a grunt’s regimen and assumed a fatalistic view. Expecting to be killed had made his job easier. Now he felt pressure not to die.
By mid-June, all that was left was a helicopter ride to Bagram by darkness. He and a small group of troops sat on the landing zone, on gravel and dust, backs pressed against stuffed rucksacks. They were near the mechanics’ bay, where the remains of men they knew had waited in body bags for their own flights home. His tour was minutes from being over.
The first sergeant appeared. Dust swirled as the aircraft descended. He grabbed Soto and shouted. “Who’s this?”
“Soto!” he shouted back.
“Soto?” The first sergeant pressed a coin-shaped medallion with the company logo into his hand, a keepsake for having served his tour. “Man, you really deserve this.”
Soto cherished the words. Respect was worth more than medals. It was authentic, unlike many medals he had seen. He belted himself into his seat in the aircraft and switched on his iPod. He was jittery — this is where they shoot, he thought — but the helicopter cleared the danger area quickly and settled into even flight.
After Viper Company left Afghanistan, the new commanders responsible for the valley seconded the outgoing officers’ assessments and lobbied to close the Korengal Outpost. In a reassessment of the campaign in the northeastern Afghan valleys that circulated in mid-2009, they concluded that “resource constraints and enemy resurgence make some form of regional triage imperative.” Remote fortified positions, they added, tied down “limited U.S. forces in a grinding attrition battle in which the initiative rests with the insurgents.” Though laden with optimistic projections of its own, the document amounted to a ringing description of failure. It put to paper what Soto knew firsthand — without the roll call of lost lives. The new commanders proposed shifting forces downstream, closer to cities where more Afghans lived. The fate of the outpost was decided. It would be closed.
Back at Fort Hood, Soto was unaware of the deliberation. Two years remained on his enlistment, and he struggled to adjust to the slower life of a grunt on a stateside post. He asked for a return to action, via a transfer to the 82nd Airborne Division, which early in 2010 sent him to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for earthquake-relief duty. That April he was helping to issue food to survivors when he heard about the Korengal withdrawal. On one level he understood. On another he was crushed. Why did it take years to acknowledge mistakes? he wondered. All of a sudden, now, you’re realizing that maybe this isn’t working? But he was still in the Army, with supervisors watching and duties to perform. He followed the pattern he learned at age 18 when his friends and sergeants began to die. He blocked.
In 2011, his unit was sent to Iraq to help with another American withdrawal. Now he was a sergeant and team leader on a third deployment. He had gained muscle and experience, skepticism and tattoos. Soto’s time in Iraq was nothing like his Afghan tour. He and his team were part of a perimeter security force that guarded airfields as planes carried away whatever the Pentagon wanted to keep. The insurgents appeared to have decided to let them go. Soto saw no direct action; he spent more time in the gym than on patrol. But he had learned to doubt official military narratives. When he flew to Kuwait late that year, among the last Americans to leave (before the collapse of Iraqi forces in the face of an Islamic State offensive would draw the Pentagon back), he did not feel as if peace had been assured. The violent contest for Iraq was not over.
By then the war in Afghanistan had absorbed the Obama administration’s campaign to turn it around. The American and NATO troop surge that followed Viper Company’s tour had crested, bringing more news of fighting in places few Americans had heard of before. An influx of money, equipment and advisers had swelled Afghan Army and police numbers and distributed fresh forces over the ground. The latest plan was for the Americans to secure the country, usher in government services and then hand over the countryside to Afghan troops.
Soto with his cousin Christopher Dejesus and his grandmother Haydee Madera-Soto at her apartment in the Bronx earlier this year.Photo by: Devin Yalkin for The New York Times
But ministries and armies are not remade in a few years, and many American units were dispatched into lightly populated areas and the same sort of hard-to-maintain positions that previous commanders decided were ineffective, risky and not worth their cost. It was as if one cycle of senior officers had not learned from the previous round. Moreover, several regions were also engines of opium-poppy production, where a foreign military presence threatened an established local economy and provoked armed interests with no intention of losing it. The thinking behind the offensive could sound good in the general officers’ suites. At the lower ranks, Marines and soldiers were fighting small, brutal and frustrating actions, protected from being overrun by air power while losing lives and legs on ground, like the Korengal Valley, that the Pentagon did not intend to keep and had few viable proxies to pass off to.
The Taliban showed no sign of folding. Its bombs grew more sophisticated, even as its spokesmen taunted the Americans and their proxies on Twitter. Many American soldiers and lower-level officers saw that the Afghan surge was not succeeding, and that the Taliban would wait for the drawdown. Some of them, after a decade of war, in command of an array of fire support unmatched by any military in the world, adopted cautious tempos and spoke to their troops in knowing euphemisms, including “tactical patience,” a concept at odds with the aggressive ethos of infantry units but in line with an understanding that the plan was flawed. Roughly translated, it meant: “Don’t let your people be the last soldiers killed in this war.”
Soto and his fellow veterans from the Korengal watched from afar, clustered on social media, memorializing their own list of dead: David Paquet, Michael Dinterman, Marques Knight, John Penich, Joseph Gonzales, Ezra Dawson, Richard Dewater, Nathan Cox. A list including the wounded showed that the cost was larger; after a Marine who worked with them committed suicide and a postwar motorcycle accident claimed a forward observer, some of them wondered if it was larger still.
And then it was someone else’s turn. Sgt. Robert Soto left the Army with an honorable discharge in 2012, driving home to New York in a U-haul truck towing a red Camaro he kept almost as clean as the rifle he left behind. War had come to his city when he was a child. Now he was ready to try peace. He moved in with his grandmother in the Bronx and used his G.I. Bill benefits to enroll at Monroe College. Except for occasional visits to the nearby V.A. center for treatment for anxiety and insomnia, he mostly kept his status as a veteran to himself.
Soto playing basketball at St. James Park in the Bronx.Photo by: Devin Yalkin for The New York Times
In 2014, he transferred to Columbia University, where he avoided the vocal veterans’ group on campus and rarely flashed the visual signals — the caps, T-shirts, bags and Velcro patches — that can convey recent service to the larger tribe. Sometimes to sleep he drank, enough that friends and his grandmother were concerned, but he was also making grades, working out, staying socially active. He landed a role in a musical and in 2017 performed at the war museum on the decommissioned U.S.S. Intrepid. That summer he graduated with a degree in political science. The Ivy League’s imprimatur had been bestowed upon him, but he did not want to wear it. Apprehensive about having his life taken over by a conventional career, he still had dreams of being an artist. He worked part time — in construction, installing and removing scaffolding, in child care — while trying to break into the music industry. He had grown up on the street and then at war. Writing and recording music was the resumption of his long dream of becoming a performer, and felt like the childhood he never had. Much of what he wrote was about life in New York, but he recorded other tracks, like one he called “Gala,” with a refrain that called back to the war:
No more pain for all my guys
Let’s taste the sky.
Time eases only so much doubt. Six years after leaving the Army, Soto still spent nights awake, trying to come to terms with his Korengal tour. It was not regret or the trauma of combat that drained him. It was the memories of lost soldiers, an indelible grief blended with a fuller understanding that could feel like a curse. Often when Soto reflected upon his service, he was caught between the conflicting urges of deference and candor. He tread as if a balance might exist between respecting the sacrifice and pain of others and speaking forthrightly about the fatal misjudgments of those who managed America’s wars. “I try to be respectful; I don’t want to say that people died for nothing,” he said. “I could never make the families who lost someone think their loved one died in vain.”
Still he wondered: Was there no accountability for the senior officer class? The war was turning 17, and the services and the Pentagon seemed to have been given passes on all the failures and the drift. Even if the Taliban were to sign a peace deal tomorrow, there would be no rousing sense of victory, no parade. In Iraq, the Islamic State metastasized in the wreckage of the war to spread terror around the world. The human costs were past counting, and the whitewash was both institutional and personal, extended to one general after another, including many of the same officers whose plans and orders had either fizzled or failed to create lasting success, and yet who kept rising. Soto watched some of them as they were revered and celebrated in Washington and by members of the press, even after past plans were discredited and enemies retrenched.
On that point Soto’s views were unsparing. Good people paid in blood and sorrow, sent to graves or subjected to suffering for which there was no reckoning. It fit a pattern he now could see. Viper’s war was the Korengal Outpost, for four years a showcase of American resolve only to become the subject of an Al Jazeera report of Taliban fighters strolling through its remains. Soto did not see himself as special. Many others served there, and he knew countless combat veterans could name emptied outposts across Afghanistan and Iraq that were also mostly forgotten, except among those who fought from them, told, in their time, that it mattered.
Some days he accepted it. Others he could not square what he heard with what he and his fellow veterans had lived. The dead were not replaceable, and they had been lost in a place the Army did not need them to be. Sometimes, when he was awake in the restless hours between midnight and dawn, his memories of lost friends orbiting his mind, Soto entertained the questions. What befell those who sent them? Did generals lose sleep, too? “They just failed as leaders,” he said. “They should know: They failed, as leaders. They let us down.”
Late this spring, before a recording session in a rented sound studio near Times Square, Soto visited his grandmother on Morris Avenue. He and his father looked through a closet that held old uniforms and keepsakes from his enlistment. In the collection was a small Amazon delivery box. Soto had received the package when a helicopter brought mail to the Korengal Outpost in 2008. Its tape had been torn open, but its contents remained undisturbed — a paperback book gift-wrapped in green. Its gold ribbon was pristine. It was the copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” he had ordered for Sergeant Cox’s 33rd birthday. It had arrived after Cox’s death.