Small Wars Journal

A Grunt at Work

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 6:18am

A Grunt at Work

Keith Nightingale


The position was quite small and indiscernible between the grey brown boulders, scattered tumulus and raw decomposed granite staring blankly back at the casual observer. This was an intentionally opaque position at the base of the Hindu Kush Mountains just above the Dar’yoi Pomir River. The Grunt, not yet twenty five, was as still as the surrounding rocks, observing the terrain to his front. He had a small but powerful telescope on a short tripod resting against his eye. The position was under a digital camouflage wrap under a large boulder and invisible to any naked eye opposite. He and his rotating companion had been here for more than three days and had finally found what they had sought.

With careful and almost motionless scanning, he had spotted the slightest scurry tailing of small pebbles and a wisp of dirt almost instantly dissolving into the cobalt-bright sky. He focused on its point of disappearance and began to see the small signs of his prey. The tiniest of trails began to emerge in his vision and it led to a barely discernible dark shadow next to the sparse green pine that shadowed the ground and deftly hid the cave entrance it guarded.

Despite the enervating cold at this altitude combined with the high UV exposure, he had remembered his discipline and spotting survival skills and remained near-motionless. He had wrapped himself in an issued lap warmer but it barely overcame the chill and invariably ran out of power before he would be relieved. He was dressed in the fullest layered clothing that could be provided as he had to lay motionless for several hours at a time. On occasion, he would ever so subtly and lizard-like, back out of his position and recede behind the large boulder shadowing his position. He would quickly add or discard layers as the situation required, relieve himself into a black plastic jug or trash bag-situationally dependent, quickly ingest a portion of an MRE that he had kept warm on his stomach and then equally stealthily return to his vigilance.

The few portions of his skin that were exposed had long since been leatherized by the environment. His lips were perpetually blistered despite liberal application of balm and his nostrils were either filled with slowly running mucous or dry to the point of irritation. His eyes were itchy and sensitive to the pervasive combination of sun and wind. Like the ground, he was covered in a thin uniform layer of grey brown dust. He was at his place of work. Baths and pizza were a dream. He was dealing with reality.

Some time ago, he had made an internal compromise between himself and organizational discipline. Shaving for him was a mild form of torture in this environment. It exposed fresh skin which immediately began to itch and scab. Often, the water was barely warm which only multiplied the agony. In his mind, the fresh exposure also made his face shine which was not a good thing considering his occupation. Accordingly, he would not shave until he returned to his Forward Operating Base (FOB), covering the obvious with a light coat of various camouflage colors. Upon return to base, he would quickly get in the shower before any of his officer’s saw him. He began to think the Afghan males uniformity of beard growing could easily become part of his personal religious mores-such that they were.

A constant distraction and threat was the varied wild life he had to endure and manage without causing attention to his position. Long ago, he had mentally steeled himself against chigger bites and conditioned himself not to respond. There was just too much to allow a reaction. On the occasions he slipped behind the rock, he would daub an analgesic cream on the many bites which provided only limited relief. More threatening and less manageable were the scorpions. These abounded in the rocks and took constant issue with his presence. Try as he might, they often stung him while seeking his warmth. The stinger was like a cattle prod and it took all his composure and self-discipline not to react. Once stung, he would slide out the rear of his position and crush the interloper.

The medics had provided a vial of opaque liquid which he hastily ingested. It tasted like transmission fluid but dulled the pain and absorbed and counteracted the effect of the poison. He usually carried at least five vials as these seemed the average need for his shift. This was not a fun place to be but he had a job to do and took pride in doing it though no one saw him at work. He was a spotter tasked to find the elusive enemy in a very difficult environment and many friendly elements responded to his successes.

The enemy, like he and his unit, were human. They required food, water and very basic sustenance. While they might hide in terrain that his unit could not follow, eventually, they had to appear to give battle. They, like him, required some form of infrastructure and support to sustain their capability. This was what the Grunt was tasked to find. It took infinite patience, great forbearance and iron personal discipline but he had found the prize. The small dust wisp led to a crack in the ground which further hid the entrance to a cave. Here, the enemy coalesced in hoped for obscurity to gain sustenance for that moment when they would emerge to do damage.

The Grunt had several tools of his trade. One was a laser rangefinder built into his telescope. By aligning a small dot on his target and pushing a button, he received an instant readout as to the distance from him. With a second device, he plugged in that distance and azimuth to a Global Positioning System mapping device marking the location within one meter of accuracy. Another press and the data was enroute to his unit or to several lethal delivery platforms. Through a process of selection, the small crack he discerned at the price of a great deal of personal pain and patience, is serviced with either a missile or bomb-never seen or heard by the cave occupants until it is terminally lethal. One of the most ancient of skills is serviced with the newest forms of hyperbaric technology.

The Grunt observes his work with mild satisfaction and knows he has to move on to his next discoveries. He doesn’t possess the detached view of his seniors nor the educational sophistication of many. He has a informal doctorate in assessment and detection but is bereft of thoughtful detachment. He knows what he knows and that has served him well albeit with some harsh personal local judgments.

During his tour, he has made endless moves and endless discoveries. He appreciates that he is part of a larger element and understands his role within that structure. A role he secretly enjoys but masks with a stoicism and harsh candor that only his closest friends can penetrate. His job is gathering intelligence and he goes about it in a thorough but unacademic way. He makes observations, talks about them with his friends and occasionally emails them to his family. Like Grunts through all generations, he tends to gather sharp, harsh and unforgiving comparisons of foreign lands and people unfamiliar to him but what he now calls home.

It is difficult for him to see this land as a country in a sense he understands. There is no visible infrastructure. The roads are either very rudimentary or just goat trails. The presence of a government is indiscernible or bad. What he knows is that all the populace he sees, both good and bad, have been warring for centuries and will after his departure.

In the few opportunities he gets to observe people, his impression is that if he lived here, his options would be very limited. He could join a warring faction or grow opium. There seems to be no middle ground. Illness, endemic disease and a short lifespan seem to be the village standard. Everywhere he looks, there is a spot of stained ground from a portion of an illness that someone’s body could no longer contain. On occasion, there is a human form found in the fields where it fell to be quickly covered and buried before the sun sets. Villagers, wrapped in their own shrouds, hasten to recover the body before the Grunts reach it.

He has passed through several tent cities of refugees, displaced by the shifting vicissitudes of the conflicts and local warlords. To his Western nose, the stench, indiscernible to the inhabitants, is overpowering. He makes an internal judgment that 18 hours a day in the sun scraping poppy bulbs would probably be a welcome relief.

His exposure to this society has also caused an evolution in personal discernment. He views the population, at least the males, as modern-day Huns. Born and bred to war. He knows he eventually can choose his life’s path where they cannot. They know no other way nor do they seem to wish to. Basic survival always seems to lurk just on the surface of gentility.

The one time he and his unit were invited to a village mansef, washed down with interminable quantities of highly sweet tea, as guests of honor at a polo match. The object to score was a dead calf that had just been slaughtered at the beginning of the match accompanied with much bawling by the mother. The village males, mounted on horses, raced back and forth across the open dusty field wresting the bloody carcass from each other and trying to spin the lifeless form into the designated goals.

The horses raised great gouts of fine powdered obscuring dust with images emerging in swatches of color, motion and noises. From his position on the edge of the field, the Grunt could occasionally glimpse the limp carcass being tossed from one rider to the next. The villagers would applaud and cheer with a level of local athletic sophistication he did not possess. To him, they seemed like barely human versions of nature’s savage and heartless beasts but armed with AK 47 automatic rifles and great preternatural cunning.

He couldn’t qualify them as smart in the sense he understood the term but they were as formidable as a pack of wolves in the deep forest. On the few occasions he was at an FOB that carried US media news, he always expressed in the most basic Grunt terms what he thought of a reporter that stated the Taliban were “smart.” He wished he could take the reporter with him for a week and demonstrate the difference between smart and cunning. He placed his adversaries in the same personal category as bed bugs and leeches. They knew how to find blood and were somewhat subtle about it in a deeply instinctual way.

Ultimately, he enjoyed the peace and quiet of his job and being alone with himself. He didn’t particularly like what he did but he appreciated the isolation and aloofness it provided that most of his unit could not experience.

Winter provides challenges to his field skill sets. Snow exposes movements and its erratic accumulation requires caution but also opportunities. By now, the Grunt has become extremely proficient at tracking and spotting in this world and has a quiet pride in the fact that his unit is often challenged to find his team new hills to work. He never indulges in analysis or rationalizations. That’s for people far above him in grade and responsibility. He understands he has a time to serve and has found a comfortable niche that builds on what he brought to the game.

His views and observations are personal, simple and quite visceral. They may be skewed, wrong, right or something in between. But one thing he does know and that is tomorrow, he will slowly climb a steep new hill in brilliant ice cold oxygen- deprived sunlight and spend a full day developing a hide site. And again, as always, he will look for that small wisp of dust or near-indiscernible small trace in a snowpack. In time, he will be rewarded and the slightest hint of a smile will cross his face.

He is a Grunt doing what he was sent to do and he does it very well for all of us.

Categories: infantry

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 7:32am

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Dave Maxwell

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 3:46pm

Reading this article reminded me of the words of Jagger and Richards in their song, "Salt of the Earth."


Let's drink to the hard working people

Let's drink to the lowly of birth

Raise your glass to the good and the evil

Let's drink to the salt of the earth


Say a prayer for the common foot soldier

Spare a thought for his back breaking work

Say a prayer for his wife and his children

Who burn the fires and who still till the earth