Bagpipes in Afghanistan

In one sitting this week I read Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants, a collection of stories by Canadian soldiers, doctors and aid workers about life at war. I cringed at the military rhetoric—hunting down enemies, cheering on the action (i.e. killing), thrilling over the power of weaponry—but I was moved by the sense of solidarity (and not simply fraternity), commitment to a cause, and the longing to return to Afghanistan (i.e. to war) after settling once again into the comforts (and dullness, as some admitted) of Canadian life.

I realized with some surprise as I read these very personal accounts, how easy it was for me to identify with these soldiers, despite my vehement opposition to war as a solution for anything. We hear poignant stories of Afghan children, of a growing love for the country and culture, and of heartwarming efforts by aid workers like Mike Frastacky, who established a school independent of any aid organization (and was killed for political reasons by an anti-government group). Mixed in with these stories, we read detailed accounts of various military operations, the deaths of “the enemy” mentioned casually, offhandedly. If we’re not looking for it, we may not even notice that anyone died in Afghanistan without purpose, without a great, incalculable, moral cause.

In one story bagpipes are brought out in the middle of a tense situation with Taliban fighters a kilometer away. U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers paused to listen and snap photos. In another, a female soldier writes to her family—in the weeks before her death—about how she negotiated cultural differences with the shocked Afghan elders encountering a married woman (without her husband!) in the army, and with the Afghan soldiers she astounded by hiking with the men for 10 km, up 2,000 feet, with 100 pounds of equipment on her back. We read this and smile, maybe remembering our own distant travels, as though we are reading a Lonely Planet guidebook about the adventures of backpackers everywhere.

Their moral certitude about their work, their pride in serving Canada (bestowed with a unified, monolithic identity that the rest of us may not see or care for), in the end persuades us all too easily. Ultimately, there is no discernible difference between the humanitarian workers, the doctors and the soldiers who are trained to kill. The seamlessness of these stories allows us to forget the humanity of the Afghan fighters—yes, even the Taliban are human (and let’s remember many are boys)—and to forget that there might be other ways to achieve this sense of solidarity and the adrenalin of battle. How easy to forget that killing is the goal.

Anyone who has ever been involved in a cause will recognize the solidarity and even euphoria it can inspire in the stories of soldiers longing to return to the life they had when they were at war. The intense desire for a purpose can pull us back into the most difficult, dangerous, even life-threatening situations.

Here is what Corporal Ryan Pagnacco (the bagpipe player) said at the end of his gripping tale of a near-death experience thanks to “friendly fire”: “Our brotherhood of warriors, the finest of men, has been forged in battle: baptized by fire and quenched in tears. We became, and will always be, a fraternity of blood with a bond stronger than death. I will remember always those few days when I truly lived and nearly died.” We should pay attention to the “stronger than death” bit. The thrill of war seems to arise there—in every triumph over death. This is why peacekeeping is considered to be quite boring to those who are trained to kill. And why there is a qualitative moral difference between a soldier’s story of life in Afghanistan, and a lonely aid worker’s.

2 thoughts on “Bagpipes in Afghanistan

  1. Ryan Pagnacco

    Dr. Enns,

    I just wanted to clear a few things up. Unfortunately, whilst writing an essay for a collection many of the finer details tend to be lost in the sensational aspects of stories.

    To clarify; the Taliban Fighters were about 1 km away from where I was playing my bagpipes (being bombarded by airstrikes and artillery). The Afghans who were taking pictures (if there were any) were part of the Afghan National Army (allied) who were leading the operation.

    As well, I believe you may have misinterpreted my comments on the bonding experience of battle. The “thrill of war” has little to do with the bonding effect of combat. No soldier ever wishes to go to war… if they do, then they have never actually been to war and don’t fully understand the meaning of it. When we are called upon to do our job, whether in Peace keeping or in Combat, all we have on the ground is each other. During training we form a friendship. After living with each other for months, we become family. The shared hardships become our bond. That bond is intensified when those hardships includes the loss of friends and the effects of combat on the nerves. So, when I say we became a fraternity of blood with a bond stronger than death; it is our blood to which I refer and our fallen who will forever be remembered as family. When soldiers long to return to the “life at war”, it isn’t (usually) the fighting, but this sense of family to which they wish to return.

    “There is no glory in war, yet from the blackness of its history, there emerge vivid colours of human character and courage. Those who risked their lives to help their friends.”
    – Silvia Cartwright

    Regarding your point that “killing is the goal”; for the soldier on the ground, surviving is the goal. We are in unfamiliar terrain with everything against us (including our allied air support sometimes). The goal of the Taliban is to inflict as many foreign casualties as possible, not to mention killing anyone who aids the foreigners or the government… or anyone they have a personal and/or tribal grudge with.

    The agendas for each of the players in this game vary greatly depending on the level of the player. Soldiers are governed by their orders, military law and their moral and ethical views. Unfortunately, some soldiers lose sight of these governing factors and the cost to both the mission and the people can be tremendous. But it’s hardly fair to assume that all soldiers yearn to kill or harbour some kind of blood-lust.

    Many of the people we fight are coerced into fighting through extremist religious fervour, a desire for retribution or good ‘ol fashion extortion. It’s too easy to paint them all as victims of some cruel circumstance, or even as henchmen of a dastardly evil genius; it is a complex tapestry of tribes, politics and centuries-old animosities. Regardless of this, the majority of them are as aware of the consequences of combat as we are.

    What you must realize is that many soldiers don’t fully understand, or in some cases agree with, the reasons for our involvement in Afghanistan (or any conflict). But we understand that it is not our place to take political sides, or debate our orders (unless they are unlawful). We volunteered to defend Canada and its interests, to uphold our obligations to NATO and the UN, and to provide aid to civil authority when needed. In the end, we are here to serve the country; it is up to the country to ensure we are employed correctly.

    And finally, with regards to Peace Support Operations; I firmly believe that peacekeeping, though less “exciting” than combat, is significantly more difficult and much more rewarding. It’s a lot easier to react to conflict with aggression than it is to diffuse the conflict with reason. It is also much easier to justify an act of self defence than it is to witness an atrocity knowing your only recourse is to make a note of it and pass it higher. Also, bear in mind, Canadian Peacekeepers have seen their fair share of combat as well (such as the Medak pocket and Korea).

    I apologize for the epic length of this comment; I am fairly passionate about my decision to serve my country and am always willing to engage in rational discussion about my experiences.


    Ryan Pagnacco

    1. Diane Enns Post author

      I’m grateful to you for pointing out my mistake (that it was the ANA and not the Taliban pausing to listen to the bagpipe playing), which I have corrected. I was thinking about all the other bizarre stories I have heard of soldiers on enemy sides pausing in the midst of battle to share a “human” moment. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the Taliban had stopped to listen to your bagpipes had they been closer. But I apologize for the error. (You do say in your essay, on p. 34, that you went to sleep that night with the enemy “only a few hundred feet away,” not a kilometer, but perhaps you moved after playing your bagpipes.)

      I thought I conveyed precisely what you allude to when you speak of the family bond created through shared hardships and the loss of your fellow soldiers. Chris Hedges (in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) and many others (soldiers, journalists, filmmakers) depict this tremendous sense of solidarity, and the longing to return to war to experience that bond once again. I didn’t say that it is spilling someone else’s blood that leads to this solidarity, but if killing is part of the hardships of war that make soldiers a family, we could certainly make this argument. As you said, survival is the goal, and if you are living in the context of a war that generally means your choice is to kill or be killed. Survival will probably mean killing, especially if that is what you are being ordered to do. You also write that your “brotherhood of warriors… has been forged in battle.” Do you mean to distinguish battle from killing? After watching Armadillo, (winner of the 2010 Grand Prix award at Cannes)—a documentary that follows a Danish military group stationed in Afghanistan for six months—it seems quite clear that the rush experienced after killing (so famously described by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman) plays a big part in fostering that solidarity “forged in battle.” This may not have been your experience.

      You say that “no soldier ever wishes to go to war” but I have read quite a few accounts by soldiers who say otherwise, whether children or adults. I have heard repeatedly that war is a “narcotic.” If it were just hardships, adventure or even danger that gave us this high, we could go live in the slums like Mother Teresa, or build schools in Afghanistan during a war, like your fellow contributor to Outside the Wire. If I may refer to your chapter once more, I have a hard time seeing your point that it is the family bond without the battle that soldiers want to return to. While waiting for an operation to begin, after being given “fairly liberal ‘open-fire’ orders,” you say: “We couldn’t wait to see the light show….We watched the battle on the CSAM. We might as well have been watching a war movie, with the explosions, fire and tracer rounds zipping all over the screen. We cheered on the action” (p. 30). And later you describe the U.S. Air Force A-10 Fairchild Thunderbolt II Warthog ground support aircraft as a “spectacular plane,” emitting the “sound of raw, awesome destruction. And we cheered it on.” (p. 32) (And if I read correctly, this was the very aircraft that nearly killed you). Is this not what the soldier wants to return to?

      When I said that the thrill of war comes from triumph over death, I meant the soldier’s triumph over his or her own possible, or probable, death. I doubt that in the context of war we can separate the triumph of living from the fact that another had to die instead—by our own hands. But I do not mean to imply that “all soldiers yearn to kill or harbour some kind of blood-lust.” I’m sure some do. Milosevic managed to recruit quite a few criminals for his war, and he is no exception. Presumably the Canadian military has higher standards. But soldiers do “learn” to kill, do they not?—and while there are probably many aspects of military training I know nothing about, it would be tough to argue against the fact that killing is one of the objectives. Most of us don’t like to think about this.

      Neither do I want to imply, as you mention, that the Taliban are all “victims of some cruel circumstance,” although no doubt some, or many of them, are. Even if they are victims, this doesn’t excuse the fact that, as you put it, they are “killing as many foreign casualties as possible.” By remembering their humanity, I did not suggest they are innocent victims, but that they deserve the dignity and respect we all do. (The treatment of dead Taliban in Armadillo should make us all shudder). I can only imagine what it is like to be in a situation where “everything is against us” as you described it, and what terrible things that can do to a human mind and heart. The irony is that the Taliban must feel the same, only we don’t care. They are the “enemy.”

      Finally, you made an excellent point in your last lines. You say “it is not our place to take political sides, or debate our orders (unless they are unlawful)” and that in the end “it is up to the country to ensure we are employed correctly.” Perhaps soldiers put too much faith in our government and not enough in their own power to “debate.” Thanks kindly for your thought-provoking comments.


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