War Without End

Carmen Gentile Print

By Carmen Gentile

Late last year I was on a reporting trip to Mosul, where Iraqi and Kurdish forces, along with various militias, were attempting to force the Islamic State from the country’s second-largest city.

What I saw was an all-too-familiar nightmare. Rows of homes pancaked by mortar fire. Along the road charred shells of vehicles used in suicide bombings and the bodies of insurgent fighters, left in the streets of Mosul to decompose.

The gruesome tableau in Mosul was an unfortunate continuation of the more than decade-long war US forces waged throughout Iraq. I covered that conflict periodically in the company of young soldiers tasked with not only fighting a largely invisible enemy, but trying to re-establish a military and police force that were dismantled and destroyed during the country’s invasion. Calling their task “no win” was an exercise in extreme optimism. Sisyphus has a better chance of getting his stone to remain at the top of the hill.

There is no shortage of “no-win” wars, flares ups and skirmishes to cover these days. Though statistically there is far less armed violence now then during the just about any period of the 20th century, the killing and maiming seems ever more confounding and less reasoned, a dark echo of the lessons not learned in Vietnam.

Since I started covering global conflict 13 years ago, I’ve seen the worst of humanity on display in the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

That first time was in Haiti was while covering the 2004 coup.

The country’s president was facing mounting pressure from an armed opposition force to step down. Clashed between the president’s loyalists and the rebels resulted in a daily dose of gruesome killings.

One morning, I came across a group of Haitians in the capital standing around the body of man who had been tortured and shot. His twisted corpse laid in a pool of his own blood. A group of curious children approached the body, looking it over with a mixture of tentativeness and fascination, then proceeded one at a time to jump over the mangled victim as if it were a game.

Days later the U.S. Marines landed in Haiti in an effort to restore some semblance of order and curtail the killing. Months later, U.N. peacekeepers led by Brazilian forces arrived to take over. They’ve been there ever since.

Years later, when I was in Haiti to covering the earthquake, I met young children that spoke reasonable Portuguese because they’d grown up in the shadow of armed foreigners.

As horrified as I was by the degradation of humanity in Haiti, no war has affected me more personally that Afghanistan. I’ve spent years chronicling NATO and Afghan force efforts to contain a persistent enemy with many named but the sake of simplicity I refer to under of the umbrella of “Taliban.”

I’ve ridden in convoys along IED-laced roads, heard the whizz and snap of Taliban gunshots, met young men injured in blasts and firefights robbing them of their youthful vigor and sometimes limbs.

It’s where I came closest to losing my own life. A few years ago I was shot in the head with an rocket-propelled grenade that fortunately failed to detonate, an injury that in the annals of warfare is considered one of the strangest on record.

Meanwhile it’s been nearly 16 years since the initial invasion of Afghanistan and the country is perpetually poised on the brink of full-scale collapse. The government propped up by Washington barely extends beyond the city limits of the capital Kabul. The rural hinterlands are largely lawless or under Taliban rule and other cities have been periodically taken over by the hardliners.

Reports are now circulating that the Russians helping the Taliban in its fight against US-led forces, a historical “F.U.” for America’s covert assistance to the mujahadeen that fought the Soviets whose sons and grandsons are today’s Taliban.

It could be considered a tragicomedy worth a chuckle if countless civilians haven’t been killed amid this cycle violence that seemingly grows faster and more ludicrous with every passing year.

Same story in Iraq, where I’ll be heading back soon to cover the continuing effort to retake Mosul, a fight whose progress is measured by each building seized from the Islamic State. As the generals congratulate themselves publicly for their progress, hundreds of thousands of innocents flee the city knowing that if they ever make it back they’ll finding little left of the life their were forced to leave behind amid the piles of rubble that were once their homes.

Reporter Carmen Gentile is the author of the upcoming book “Kissed by the Taliban,” a chronicle of his injury in Afghanistan. Coming spring 2018 by way of Skyhorse Publishing

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