Thursday, November 18, 2010

Convene Reads: War

Meetings and conferences have always played a key role in the world of warfare -- from planning battles to negotiating peace treaties -- but, still, it's a little jarring to see one pop up in the middle of Sebastian Junger's War. The book follows a U.S. Army platoon deployed in Afghanistan's harrowing Korengal Valley -- "too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off" -- and Junger's account is determinedly ground-level, following the soldiers through the thrill, boredom, relief, agony, triumph, and ultimate hell of near-endless combat.

Sometimes the fighting stops, at least for a little while. In one of those cases, the result is this riveting scene:
A few days after I arrive, [Captain Dan] Kearney puts together a shura of valley elders, and the provincial government flies in for it. The meeting starts in what must have been a rather incredible way for the locals: a young American women from USAID speaking in Pashto about plans for the valley. After that, the governor gives a passionate speech about what this area could be if the locals stopped fighting and accepted government authority. He's dressed in a suit and vest, and it's quite possibly the first suit and vest the locals have ever seen. When he's done a young man stands up, eyes bright with hate, and says that the Americans dropped a bomb on his brother's house in Kalaygal and killed thirteen people. "If the Americans can't bring security with their guns and bombs, then they should just leave the valley," he shouts. "Otherwise there will be jihad!"
The governor is having none of it. "We've all done jihad and lost family members," he says. "But the Taliban are shooting at Afghan soldiers. Why? They are Muslims too. If you're not man enough to keep the Taliban out of the valley, then I'm sorry, you're going to get bombed."
For a minute the young man is too stunned to respond. Then there's a sudden knocking of gunfire from downvalley and Kearney rushes out of the room to direct the mortars. Second Platoon has gotten hit on their way back from Loy Kalay, pinned down in the open stretch outside the base. They make it into the wire behind a curtain of high explosives and the shura lurches on to the rumble of explosions and A-10 gun runs.
Related reading: "Off the Grid," Barbara Palmer's excellent feature article about meeting professionals who work on events in places remote and/or dangerous.

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