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Chapter no 114

Spare

THREE TIMES WE WERE called to this same forlorn place: a string of bunkers overlooking a busy highway. We had intel that Taliban fighters were routinely gathering there. They came in three cars, jalopies, carrying RPGs and machine guns, took up positions and waited for lorries

to come down the road.

Controllers had seen them blow up at least one convoy.

There were sometimes half a dozen men, sometimes as many as thirty.

Taliban, clear as day.

But three times we flew there to engage, and three times we failed to get permission to fire. We never knew why.

This time we were determined things would be different.

We got there fast, saw a lorry coming down the road, saw the men taking aim. Bad things were about to happen. That lorry’s doomed, we said, unless we do something.

We requested permission to engage. Permission denied.

We asked again. Ground Control, request permission to engage hostile target—!

Stand by…

Boom. A huge flash and an explosion on the road. We screamed for permission.

Stand by…waiting for ground commander clearance.

We went screaming in, saw the lorry blown to pieces, saw the men jumping into their jalopies and onto motorbikes. We followed two motorbikes. We begged for permission to fire. Now we were requesting a different kind of permission: not permission to stop an act, but permission to address an act just witnessed.

This kind of permission was called 429 Alpha. Do we have Four Two Nine Alpha to engage? Stand by…

We kept following the two motorbikes through several villages, while griping about the bureaucracy of war, the reluctance of higher-ups to let us do what we’d been trained to do. Maybe, in our griping, we were no different from soldiers in every war. We wanted to fight: we didn’t understand larger issues, underlying geopolitics. Big picture. Some commanders often said, publicly and privately, that they feared every Taliban killed would create three more, so they were extra cautious. At times we felt the commanders were right: we were creating more Taliban.

But there had to be a better answer than floating nearby while innocents got slaughtered.

Five minutes became ten became twenty. We never did get permission.

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