Volatile, the pitiable zeks?

The photograph below was in newspapers around the world yesterday, part of an AP article titled “Pace of Afghanistan withdrawal undecided” by Lolita C. Baldor and Pauline Jelinek.

In our local paper, the Sentinel-Record, the caption under the photograph reads “QUESTIONS: Food supplies for US Marines hanging off small parachutes are dropped from a plane Thursday outside Forward Operating Base Edi in the volatile Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan.”


Here’s another photo I found online today:

The caption on this one reads “Food supplies for US Marines hanging off small parachutes are dropped from a plane as a sandstorm is approaching outside Forward Operating Base Edi in the Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan, Saturday, June 4.”  (From http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/06/04/6785292-marines-receive-air-drop-as-sandstorm-approaches or http://on.msnbc.com/mbf4XX or http://tinyurl.com/3bynukm.)


All of which brings me to this question…  When you’re parachuting food to your troops on a regular basis, isn’t that tantamount to admitting your surface (land/sea) supply routes are cut off?  Or is this standard operating procedure in this decade-long war?  The Afghanistan photograph reminded me of these, from the Battle of the Bulge (1944/45):

It also reminded me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”  which begins with a mundane but instructive example:

He cited an article in the journal Nature, which informed its readers, in a strictly scientific fashion, about a group of fleeing, desperate men in Siberia who, starving, happened upon a subterranean ice lens that held a perfectly preserved prehistoric fauna.  “Flouting the higher claims of ichthyology,” narrated Solzhenitsyn, and “elbowing each other to be first,” they chipped away the ice, hurried the fish to a fire, cooked it, and bolted it down.  No doubt, said Solzhenitsyn, Nature impressed its readers with this account of how 10,000-year-old fish could be kept fresh over such a long period.  But only a narrower group of readers could decipher the true meaning of this “incautious” report.  That smaller club was the fellow gulag survivors — the “pitiable zeks,” as Solzhenitsyn called them.

From a 2008 obituary by Paul Kengor, http://foro.univision.com/t5/Noticias-y-Pol%C3%ADtica-en-Estados-Unidos/R-I-P-ALEXANDER-SOLZHENITSYN/m-p/274622834 or http://bit.ly/iODmrm or http://tinyurl.com/3gnob6r

So, is the innocuous photograph of a food drop in Afghanistan a similar case of instructive mundanity?  Are things as desperate now at FOB Edi as they were in Bastogne 67 years ago?  For more recent photos from the “volatile” Helmand Province:

http://blogs.sacbee.com/photos/2011/05/us-armys-task-force-lift-dust.html or http://bit.ly/lbrTq3 or http://tinyurl.com/4ytmxvf

Update — this is the large above-the-fold front page photo in today’s Washington Post (6/8/2011):

Small parachutes bearing food supplies for U.S. Marines are dropped from a plane outside Forward Operating Base Edi in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.


Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2011/06/04/volatile-the-pitiable-zeks/


  1. [Jacques],

    I wonder if deliveries to high elevations and heavy loads could be too much for US made cargo helicopters in some areas of Afghanistan. Add to elevation and heavy loan that horsepower and lift decreases as the higher temps of summer come on. One of the reasons the US purchased the huge old Soviet era helicopters was that ours did not have the lift capacity in those conditions.

    – Anonymous

    PS — My opinion is an unstudied response, and a trivial attempt in comparison to the largest question of whether or not we should be in Afghanistan at all. I do not feel that argument has been adaquately presented, with its pluses and minuses, either by Bush or Obama. My sense is that we would be better off pulling out of there and saving many lives, theirs and ours, and a ton of money we so badly need at home. Bush used to say we have to be there or thery will bring the fight to our shores. I am not so sure about that. Tribal wars will continue in Afghanistan for decades before they begin to swing their attention outside of their own country to other middle-eastern rivalries, then to Israel, then perhaps to Europe, then finally onto us again. Perhaps by then the Arab Islamic culture and economies will have improved enough to provide jobs and thereby some stabily in their country.

    Could part of the motive for being in Afghanistan be that we want to keep our own troops as close to Pakistan’s porous nuclear weapons program as possible, thereby having the military ability to quickly grab them if needed? The weapons and the technical knowledge, coupled with the graft and Islamic extremism so prevailent in Pakistan scares the hell out of me. Certainly if CEO’s and politicians are largely unguided by ethics and morality, and unfailingly do what is needed to max out their compensation plans/campaign contributions, how can we realistically expect warlords to respond to higher motives of economic progress and real national unification?

  2. Anonymous,

    You’re right about the larger question, regardless of whether the war in Afghanistan is going well (whatever that means) or not. I was just trying to figure out if the news we’re getting is fairly accurate or deliberately misleading propaganda (except for those inadvertent moments when the truth seeps out). Based on the fact that food is being parachuted into FOB Eli (rather than being trucked in over land routes), I suspect that latter. I also think the line “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” is classic jingoism. And I don’t think the Afghan tribes have ever turned their attention outwards, other than to sell opium – that should be the least of our worries.

    As for the bigger picture/strategy behind why we’re still there a decade later… I hope you’re very wrong. Any time I hear ideas like “having the military ability to quickly grab them,” I think that someone is overselling (1) the military’s capabilities and/or (2) the realities on the ground in Pakistan. That sounds too much like Donald Trump talking about just taking “our” oil and filling up tankers. That sounds too much like whoever it was that convinced Bush that the Iraq war was going to be a “cakewalk.” Either he knew better and disregarded reality, or someone lied to him. I really hope Obama knows better this time.

    My view (for what it’s worth)? Our adventure in Afghanistan is going to end more or less the same whether we get out now or 20 years from now. Have you read Sebastian Junger’s “War?” If you want something to worry about, worry about how we’re going to assimilate 1000s of adrenaline- and violence-junkies back into civilian life.

    – [Jacques]

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