What the Taliban Told Me

  • By Ian Fritz
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 304 pp.

Eavesdropping on the enemy has a way of humanizing them.

What the Taliban Told Me

George Washington, shot at in a 1754 battle, wrote his brother that the “whistle” of the bullets was “charming.” Ian Fritz, a brave American airman in Afghanistan, found no such charm in shooting at the enemy, as he relates in his courageous, compelling, and candid What the Taliban Told Me.

Fritz, now a physician in Maine, grew up “poor, food and home insecure, with a long gone father and an ill-equipped mother.” He tells us he was “not socially skilled, did not get into college and joined the Air Force to become an ‘airborne cryptologic linguist’ as the only way [to escape] Lake City, Florida.” After lengthy, immersive Department of Defense language training, he became one of only two active-duty USAF personnel who “spoke both Dari and Pashto,” the languages of the Taliban.

Then, deployed twice to Afghanistan beginning in 2011, he flew 100 missions on turboprop airplanes (gun-toting or missile-carrying C-130s). These planes carried state-of-the-art electronic eavesdropping equipment and heat detectors so sensitive they could pick out a human body from 10,000 feet. Screens fed by the amazing video cameras presented high-definition images so clear that the crew could tell whether an object moving in the woods was a Taliban soldier or a snow leopard. For his service, Fritz was awarded three medals.

When flying, Fritz “listened to the Taliban as they were talking…I translated [what I heard] from Pashto to English, and relayed that information…often within seconds.” His role, he says, was “sometimes powerful beyond comprehension…If I was on a gunship, what I heard would be used to decide whether we killed those Talibs.”

And kill they did. “According to my official records,” he reports, “I have in fact killed…‘123 insurgents EKIA’ (EKIA = enemy killed in action, so not quite people, but definitely killed).” His reference to “not quite people” opens the door to a deep and balanced discussion of his complex experience in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, Fritz tells us, “I in no way support the Taliban, their stated goals, their practices, or really anything about them…Their movement and many of their beliefs are an affront to modernity…They are not the good guys.” On the other, he continues, “None of these things detract from the fact that they’re still human. They’re still people.”

In one “still human” conversation Fritz overhears, a Taliban commander orders a minion to install a hidden explosive device “down there at the bend [so the Americans] won’t see it”:

Minion: “It can wait till morning.”

Commander: “No it can’t. They could come early and we need it down there to kill as many [Americans] as we can.”

Minion: “I don’t want to.”

Commander: “Brother, why not? We must jihad.”

Minion: “Brother…it’s too cold to jihad.”

After many such listening missions, Fritz confesses, “I’d lost my distance. My headphones no longer kept me apart from the [Taliban] I was listening to, but instead took me that much closer to them…[They]…told me shit they wouldn’t tell their best (non-Talib) friends, their wives, their fathers…Knowing about their lives, however mundane and banal, eliminated the sense of remoteness that came from shooting from on high.”

In time, Fritz admits:

“I couldn’t understand why I felt…love for these [Taliban], and I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to kill them, once I knew that love existed.”

Sorting out the deep conflict between his military duty and his human empathy stressed Fritz to the point that the Air Force excused him from serving on additional flights. He finished his enlistment, in part, by teaching other USAF personnel and taking courses at a community college. He then enrolled at Columbia University and, later, in medical school. On his med-school application, Fritz wrote that he “relished the academic rigor I encountered at Columbia.” Readers will likewise relish the remarkable depth, breadth, and frankness of his eye-opening, unusually reflective memoir.

Stephen Case is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and serves as its treasurer.

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