Take a Knee

This week I travel to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where I have been invited to speak about my experience as an advisor to the Afghan National Army.  I am honored and flattered by the offer, and hope not to bore anybody.  I’ll draw on many blog vignettes in my presentation, but will elaborate on them them and link them in ways my minimalist, compartmentalized style here doesn’t permit.

One cool thing will be that a photographer friend named Bill Putnam has allowed me to supplement my presentation with his pictures.  Bill and I served together in 2001-2002 on a deployment to Kosovo.  He is now out of the Army and employed as a professional photographer.  He arrived in eastern Afghanistan as an embedded photo-journalist shortly after I departed in fall 2009.   Though we did not meet in Afghanistan, I find his sense of things close to my own, only manifested in pictures rather than text.

One picture of Bill’s that I intend to use in the presentation is at the top of the post.  It is of 101st Infantry Division soldiers, probably a platoon or company headquarters element, huddled on a hilltop in Paktika province, in consultation about the next phase of their mission.  “What to do next,” writ large, is one of the themes that I will speak to at Fort Sill, so that is one way the picture works for me.  But it pleases me in many other ways, too. 

The prominence of helmets, weapons, and gear makes me think of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a story I have read many times.  The hilltop location, the compressed proximity of the soldiers, their bulbed helmeted heads, and the way the soldiers’ glances go off in different directions references the great Vietnam photo “South of the DMZ” by Larry Burrows. Bill’s picture is much calmer and saner than Burrows’, but a Burrows-like scene of chaos might be moments or the next ridgeline away.

So danger lurks, but the mood of the men does not betray much concern.  In fact, one soldier is smiling, and the others are more business-like than stressed.  One gets the sense that even with the wayward focus of their eyes, all are glad to be in each other’s company and doing what they are doing.  That is the right proper attitude of infantrymen everywhere–and it certainly was the case 99% of my time for us in Afghanistan, where even or especially outside the wire we experienced the combined giddiness and purposefulness that comes with individual and collective adventure.

Below are several more of Bill’s pictures.  He actually specializes in close-ups that register the wear-and-tear of war on its participants’ faces.  But for right now, I’m enjoying most the photos that encompass a wider expanse–Bill’s sense of how the horizon and sky contribute to the human story of the picture is quite compelling, I think.


5 Responses to “Take a Knee”

  1. Gary Says:

    Hello Peter, it has been a long time since last saw you at Clark. Hope you are well. I see you are back in AFG. Take care

    • petermolin Says:

      Gary–good to hear from you man; hope all is well. I’m not in Afghanistan, but am keeping the blog going as things occur to me. I’ll look you up on AKO and give you an email–I would love to catch up.

      • Kenton Green Says:

        I would be grateful to be able to view your presentation referred to in your post. Is it in powerpoint or pdf etc, and would it be possible to download from a site, or get an email copy?
        p.s. most of your posts are (if I may risk attempting to speak for more than myself) a reason for optimism for those of us who want to see our military show understanding of our foreign hosts’ concerns and issues, while at the same time maintaining our national resolve. Resolve at implementing the more universal aspects of our national interests– equality of humankind (both man and woman), fairness in governance regardless of religion, and the right of self-determination. Maybe you’re not thinking these things while ‘on the ground’, and I’m sorry if what i said comes across as too over-the-top or jingoistic. But it does help I think to once in awhile connect in one’s mind the larger strategic picture with specific, personal (or platoon, or team, etc) actions.

  2. Gary Says:

    Peter, look forward to catching up. I have glanced thru your blog and look to read it more in-depth. Looks good from what I have read so far. I changed my email above since AKO is blocking the link.

  3. petermolin Says:

    Kenton: Thanks for your kind and thoughtful words. Could you write me at petermolin@msn.com so we can discuss sending you my presentation?

    In regard to your “PS”–I am a serving member of the US military, so it would not do for me to criticize our tactics and strategies in public–not that I’m very critical of them in the first place. My interest is in describing what it was like to live through a pretty intense year while accomplishing the many, difficult missions assigned to me, while also suggesting both attitudes and ways of doing things that seemed to work well for me and might for others. And one point of clarification–I have been back in the States for well over a year now, so am definitely commenting from the perspective of having time to think about things. Over there, it was all a blur, with the pressure to act decisively, quickly, and smartly enormous.

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