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Chapter no 73

Spare

MY JOB AT DELHI WAS similar to the one I’d had at Dwyer. Only the hours were different. Constant. At Delhi I was on call, day and

night.

The ops room was a former classroom. Like seemingly everything else in Afghanistan, the school that housed Delhi had been bombed—dangling wood beams, tipped-over desks, floors scattered with spilled papers and books—but the ops room looked as if it had been ground zero. A disaster area. On the plus side, during night shifts, the many holes in the walls gave a stunning view of the stars.

I recall one shift, around one A.M. I asked a pilot overhead for his code, so I could key it into my Rover and see his feed.

The pilot answered sourly that I was doing it wrong.

Doing what wrong?

It’s not the Rover, it’s the Longhorn. The Long what?

You’re new, huh?

He described the Longhorn, a machine no one had bothered to tell me about. I looked around, found it. Big black briefcase covered with dust. I brushed it off, turned it on. The pilot talked me through getting it

operational. I didn’t know why the Longhorn was required for him instead of the Rover, but I wasn’t about to ask and irritate him even more.

Especially since the experience had been bonding. Thereafter he and I were mates.

His call sign was Magic.

I’d often pass an entire night chatting to Magic. He and his crew liked to talk, to laugh, eat. (I dimly recall them feasting one night on fresh crabs.) Above all they loved practical jokes. After one sortie, Magic zoomed out his camera, told me to look. I leaned into my screen. From twenty thousand feet his view of the curvature of Earth was astonishing.

Slowly, he turned his camera. My screen filled with breasts. Porn magazine.

Ah, you got me, Magic.

Some pilots were women. Exchanges with them went very differently. One night I found myself speaking to a British pilot who mentioned how gorgeous the moon was.

It’s full, she said. You should see it, Widow Six Seven. I see it. Through one of the holes in my wall. Lovely.

Suddenly the radio burst to life: a shrill chorus. The guys back at Dwyer told us to “get a room.” I felt myself blushing. I hoped the pilot hadn’t thought I was flirting. I hoped she wouldn’t think so now. Above all, I hoped she, and all other pilots, wouldn’t work out who I was, and tell the British press that I was using the war as a way to meet women. I hoped the press wouldn’t then treat her as they’d treated every other girl I’d ever had anything to do with.

Before that shift ended, however, the pilot and I overcame this brief awkwardness and did some solid work together. She helped me monitor a Taliban bunker, right in the heart of no-man’s-land, not far beyond Delhi’s walls. There were thermals around the bunker…human forms. A dozen, I guessed. Maybe fifteen.

Taliban, for sure, we said. Who else would be moving in those trenches?

I went through the Checklist to make sure. Pattern of life, the Army called it. Can you see women? Can you see children? Can you see dogs? Cats? Is there anything to indicate that this target might be next door to a hospital? A school?

Any civvies (civilians) whatsoever? No. All no.

It added up to Taliban, and nothing but Taliban.

I planned a strike for the next day. I was assigned to work it out with two American pilots. Dude Zero One and Dude Zero Two. I briefed them on the target, told them I wanted a 2,000-pound JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition). I wondered why we used that clunky name. Why not just call it a bomb? Maybe because this was no ordinary bomb; it had radar-controlled guidance systems. And it was heavy. It weighed as much as a black rhino.

Typically, with a smattering of Taliban fighters, the standard request would be a 500-pounder. But I didn’t think that would be enough force to penetrate the fortified bunkers I was seeing on my screen.

Granted, FACs never thought 500 pounds was enough. We always wanted 2,000-pounders. Go big or go home, we always said. But in this case I felt strongly that only big would do the job. The bunker system would withstand anything less. Not only did I want a 2,000-pound JDAM on top of the bunker, I wanted the second aircraft to follow up with a 20-mm, strafe the trenches running from the bunker, pick off guys as they “ex-filled.”

Negative, said Dude Zero One.

The Americans saw no need for a 2,000-pound bomb.

We prefer to drop two 500-pound bombs, Widow Six Seven.

How very un-American.

I felt strongly that I was right, and I wanted to argue, but I was new and lacked self-confidence. This was my first airstrike. So I just said:

Roger that.

New Year’s Eve. I held the F-15s at bay, about eight kilometers, so the noise of their engines wouldn’t spook the targets. When conditions looked to be just right, all calm, I summoned them.

Widow Six Seven, we’re in hot.

Dude Zero One, Dude Zero Two, you’re cleared hot. Cleared hot.

They went streaking towards the target.

On my screen I watched the pilot’s crosshair settle over the bunker. One second.

Two.

White flash. Loud bang. The wall of the ops room shuddered. Dust and pieces of stone rained down from the ceiling.

I heard Dude Zero One’s voice: Delta Hotel (direct hit). Stand by for BDA (battle damage assessment).

Plumes of smoke rose from the desert.

Moments later…just as I’d feared, Taliban came running out of the trench. I groaned at my Rover, then stomped outside.

The air was cold, the sky pulsing blue. I could hear Dude Zero One and Dude Zero Two way above, tailing off. I could hear the echo of their bombs. Then all was silent.

Not all of them got away, I consoled myself. Ten, at least, didn’t make it out of that trench.

Still—a bigger bomb would’ve really done the trick. Next time, I told myself. Next time, I’ll trust my gut.

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