Starry Night, Heavy Artillery

Starry Night, Heavy Artillery

In a starry night, U.S. Army artillerymen on Forward Operating Base Boris sling 155 mm shells at enemy positions near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Paktika province, Afghanistan, 2007. Photo: Simon Klingert

The photo above shows U.S. Army artillerymen conducting a night fire mission from their base in eastern Afghanistan sometime in the summer of 2007. The starry night sky, combined with the blurry traces created by the soldier’s headlamps and the approaching thunderstorm in the background make for a surreal, almost eerie atmosphere that just works, even though the photo is too dark for print.

I still remember how dark the nights were in this place, a small town in the eastern province of Paktika, not far from the border to Pakistan.

There were no light sources around the base for miles, which made the milky way almost pop out of the sparkling sky in clear nights. But when there was a cloud cover it got dark, really dark. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, not in a figure-of-speech kind of way but in reality. If you found yourself without a flashlight after dusk, you were pretty much lost and entirely on your own. Moving around the base then felt like running a gauntlet inside a black box filled with potholes, armored trucks (some shredded by IED blasts), razor wire and other sharp-edged, pointy things you’d run into all too easily.

Taking quality photos at night is never easy. Most of the times you can’t rely on the auto focus of your camera, so you end up focusing manually as you peek through a tiny view finder. But the low light wasn’t the only problem in this case.

155 mm artillery pieces pack a mighty punch. They leave the ground shaking and they kick up quite some dust each time they are fired. That doesn’t exactly help if you set your camera on a tripod or on the ground for a long-time exposure. The frame above is one of the few shots that came out right that night. To enhance it I removed several hot pixels and applied a heavy dose of the noise reduction filter in Lightroom. I wasn’t even shooting RAW images at the time, which only left me a JPEG file to tinker with. Judging the photo it’s still evident that I pushed the 2004 camera model I was shooting with at the time to its limits.

So what exactly were they soldiers shooting at?

A grid on a map would be the most accurate way to describe it. Any spot outside the wire was considered enemy territory. Insurgents, most o them affiliated with the ruthless Haqqani network were freely roaming the area planting IEDs and laying ambushes; after all this was their home turf.

So immediately after a rocket or mortar attack, artillerymen would emerge from their bunkers near the firing line and start plastering the area they thought the enemy fire had come from with high explosive artillery rounds. POO site they called it, a term usually muttered with a scornful, defiant tone. Devilish grins made clear not everybody associated the acronym with the actual meaning of Point of Origin but something nastier.

Sometimes intelligence would be picked up from an obscure informant or was passed down from the higher-ups at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno or Orgun-E, bases many thought of as a far-away islands inhabited by people who were completely detached from reality on the ground. At some point the intelligence finally reached the artillerymen, who broke that information it into an angle, an azimuth and a grid on a map that lay within the range of their hulking artillery guns. And then they fired.

Sometimes you could see the rounds explode among the gentle slopes of the nearby mountain range that marked the border with Pakistan. In those moments you couldn’t help but secretly marvel at the awesomeness of so much firepower.

In 2007, when the new counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 put together by General Petraeus was still hot off the press, harassment and interdiction (H&I) fire missions were still frequently conducted to stem the flow of fighters and weapons from across the border in Pakistan.

Some officers at FOB Boris openly conceded the futility of those fire missions, but in those pre-surge times, personnel and other assets were spread too thin to conduct meaningful population-centric counterinsurgency operations. Yet most still valued the firepower those artillery guns gave them, which enabled them to offer covering fire for ground troops in the area, hit back at the insurgents after an attack or flatten other targets they wanted destroyed.

“H&I fire missions, it’s like we’re back in Vietnam” one of the Lieutenants said at the time, looking at the not-so-distant mountain range to the east. Six years later, the same rat lines are being used by the next generation of fighters who venture into Afghanistan to wage war.

I never liked treating death as a side note to any story. But I feel the story on this base isn’t told in its entirety without a hint on how it got its name. In the summer of 2007, the base was actually called FOB Bermel, named after the district where it was located. Only later it was re-named to honor Captain David A. Boris, who was a company commander with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based on FOB Bermel at the time.

He got killed in a roadside bombing along with a fellow soldier and an Afghan interpreter driving up to the mountain range east of his base about three months after I had left.

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