Finding My Way
True stories of combat defy retelling. So I won’t tell you a war story here. But I will relate one conversation I had in Afghanistan early in the war.
It was in the desert outside Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital and final holdout after the American counterattack following 9/11. I was embedded with the Green Beret A Team that had joined Hamid Karzai and his militiamen to rout Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed leader, and liberate Kandahar. Mullah Omar was soon to take up hiding in Pakistan. Hamid Karzai was soon to become president of Afghanistan.
These Army Special Forces were the tip of the spear in lifting Taliban rule and ousting Al Qaeda from its safe haven. They are among the smartest, most creative, and improvisational warriors in the U.S. military. In fact, the offensive ended the war in a victory—even if that battlefield success was short-lived in the mess of nation-building that followed.
Operating from a primitive forward base, the Green Berets were a universe away from the polished corridors of the Pentagon where I had cut the unusual embed deal. At first, they were reluctant to take in a journalist. Fortunately, they warmed up over the course of a week, maybe after they saw I carried my own gear, wouldn’t freak out under fire, and, most importantly, could eat boiled Ramen noodles three times a day and not complain about the chow.
One night nearing the end of my embed, we were sitting around the campfire and I somehow felt the presumption to ask: “So. A New York Times reporter on a Special Forces embed. Not since the war in Vietnam has a reporter been allowed to live with, travel with, and go out on missions with you guys in combat. . . . It would be pretty bad for you if I got killed, wouldn’t it?”
“Nah,” one of the senior Green Beret sergeants said. “If you got killed, it would be because we were on a mission or came under attack. That’s the risk we accept, because we believe our work is important, and that’s the risk you accepted, because you believe your work is important.”
He paused, and added: “No, we don’t care if you got killed. But it would be very, very bad for us if you got lost.”
With those words tattooed in my brain, I returned to Washington and, with my two sons, went to our favorite camping store, where we picked out a small pocket compass for me to carry.
I carry it as a reminder: Don’t get lost—and not just in a war zone, where you put yourself in jeopardy and risk the lives of troops if they are ordered to mount a search-and-rescue mission.
But every day, I carry it as a reminder that there are things in life truly worse than death. It is a reminder that the opposite of life is not death. No, the antithesis of life—the negation of life—is a life wasted. So don’t get lost in things that don’t matter.
That conversation in the desert outside Kandahar was more than fifteen years ago. My final Special Operations embed in Afghanistan was in 2013, after which I buried my flak jacket deep in the closet and, nearing sixty, realized it was time to stop covering conflict with troops half, even a third, my age.
But the compass, and with it the lessons, are among the things I carry still today.
Thom Shanker, F82, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times from 2001 to 2014, is now an assistant Washington editor for the Times.