Eavesdropping on the Taliban with the Angels of Death
An Air Force linguist’s moody memoir of listening in on the enemy—and crew mates—from the sky
Ian Fritz, fighting linguist, is wildly smart, smart enough to unearth complications the way hogs unearth truffles, smart enough to see any reality as an idea (his ringing ears, for instance) but most importantly, smart enough to test his way out of trailer-park nowhere in Lake City, Florida and into the Air Force as a student at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA.
In one year he learned to speak both Dari and Pashto. He then spent a couple of tours in Afghanistan, flying around in gunships eavesdropping on the radio traffic of the Taliban. He was credited with helping to kill 123 of them.
He ended up so depressed he found comfort in meditating with a pistol in his mouth—he comes from a family where mental health problems are “rife,” he says. With very few missions left in his tour, he refused to fly around in gunships anymore. He was accused of malingering.
After his discharge he got degrees from Columbia University, then medical school. He bailed out before residency but still thinks of himself as a physician, a saver rather than a taker of lives.
He moved to Maine and became a writer who can flash his smart at you with a single sentence that runs two pages for no other reason than he could write it that way. He notes that in Florida, his best friend’s mother once told him he was “the most insecure narcissist I’ve ever met.”
The title of his book, “What the Taliban Told Me,” is misleading. There’s no indication in the book that he ever met a Talib, but by listening to them on his headphones he came to know them as real live human beings, then real dead ones. The transition between these states persuaded Fritz that “to be on a gunship is to be a god.”
As in: “To use the 105, a gun that is loaded with 45-pound bullets, a gun that when fired causes the 155,000-pound plane it’s mounted on to buck so far to the right that the pilot must actively correct the flight path, is to be Zeus hurling Hephaestus’s bolts.”
Fritz’s part in this Zeus game was not as dramatic. It involved sitting in a huge airplane, wearing headphones and listening to the Taliban chatting in an esoteric language.
Haji Jaan, are you there? Haji Jaan?
Yes, yes, we are here. What is it?
Monsters are nearby, Haji Jaan. Stay safe and be prepared.
God willing, we will be prepared, brother. Stay safe.
On and on in the tedium of combat zones until there was a sign that the Talibs would make a move—bury one of the mines called IEDs, set up an ambush. At that point, Fritz would inform the gunship crew, who might prepare to hurl a Hephaestus bolt. His intelligence radiated from the gunship to American forces. Helicopters!
East, brother! They’re coming from the east! The dub-dubs are coming! At least two dub-dubs!
Brothers, we are winning. This is a glorious day.
God willing the monsters will all die today!
God is great, brother. God is great! Kill all the demons.
And indeed, they were winning. We assured ourselves that they were losing because we killed so many of them but this is the same metric that failed us in Vietnam, Iraq, everywhere in the cavalcade of American military catastrophe in the last 60 years. Body counts be damned, we lost in Vietnam and we lost in Ian Fritz’s Afghanistan. And kept on calling ourselves the most powerful nation on earth.
You might think: no wonder Fritz sank into a malingering, quasi-suicidal funk.
Interesting—in chronicles of the nervous-system chaos that our veterans have brought back from our losing wars, the one thing that is never blamed is the fact that we lost. Did the Viet Cong or Taliban brood over the wars they won the way we brooded when we lost? One thinks of the advice of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. “In war, you must win.” Giap didn’t know that loss for Americans could be eased by the anti-depressant pills that Fritz would be prescribed.
Fritz is careful to separate himself from the familiar anti-war positions of American protesters.
“Lest you think I am a traitorous peacenik hippie, FUCK the Taliban. Fuck those stone-aged, misogynistic, pederastic, tyrannical, extremist, violent, ignorant fucks.”Hard to live with losing a war to people of that sort. On the other hand, here is what the Taliban told him when he was 10,000 feet above them in his gunship.
“They told me what so many others refused to hear, but what I finally understood: Afghanistan is ours.”
Fritz can slice up reality like an egg on its way to an egg-salad sandwich. He includes a disquisition on the difference between the word “terrorist” and its translation into Dari, “fear thrower.” This goes on for three pages. He was a linguist and he is a writer. The world is words to him—getting along with gunship crews was a matter of learning their language, he says, and learning to like the song they played while hunting for Taliban—Miley Cyrus singing “Party in the USA.”
While Spitz despised the Taliban, it got harder for him to join in the adrenaline whoop-ups of his fellow airmen when they had done their work as memitim, or Angels of Death.
Then he flew what he calls his “Mission,” defined as “the flight that changes everything.”
Under watchful gunship eyes and ear, an American ground team went into a village to propose digging a well. Very hearts-and-minds. When a helicopter came in to take them out, the Talibs opened up. The last man trying to board the helicopter got shot.
Brother, you got one! Keep going! Keep shooting! We will kill them all!
Then a Griffin—a 3 ½ foot missile made by Raytheon—killed all the Talibs, turned them to vapor on camera, in dying color.
“I was upset that they’d had to be killed,” Fritz writes.
His morale declined. He argued with officers. He got bored.
“You can’t be a gunship guy and be tired of killing people,” he says. “But with the post-killgasmic clarity came more and more shame and unease,” he says.
He felt anger and fear. He worried that he’d accept his anger and fear, worried that he’d become a “monster, an evil thing spreading its corruption throughout the world.” He’d become a sort of memitim sans gunship, all by his enlisted airman self.
When he heard that SEALs in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden, he refused to celebrate. His reasoning veers into the metaphysics of nuance, something along the lines of saying that celebrating bin Laden’s death was equivalent to celebrating the deaths in Manhattan’s Twin Towers.
The problem with smart guys like Fritz is that they don’t lose arguments. They just keep talking.
He talks about going home, drinking, Air Force regulations, and his belief that everyone who had done his job in Afghanistan had “eventually gone a little, or a lot, crazy.”
He ended up both talking with Air Force shrinks and refusing to talk to them, and there was that pistol he kept putting in his mouth—unloaded, as it happened, more of an idea than a pistol.
An idea: Fritz ends up seeing the whole war as an idea. “We were at war with the idea that we weren’t all-powerful.”
There follows a long discussion of “moral injury” and “cognitive combat intimacy.” There’s also a section on the ringing in his ears, three pages of philosophizing.
“Does it somehow correlate to my state of mind, or is it truly stochastic?”
Hmmm, stochastic. What a smart guy.
Henry Allen, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2000 for his writings on photography for The Washington Post, served with the 1st Marines in South Vietnam in 1966.
What the Taliban Told Me, by Ian Fritz
Simon & Schuster $22.78
published November 7, 2023
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