Thoughts on escape

(Veteran’s Day is Wednesday.

11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Perhaps it’s unfair of me, but the only part of the NY Times 5 part story of the escape of David Rohde and Tahir Luddin that I have bothered to read thus far is the last one. It’s the part that contains the information of most interest to me.

I already know that the Taliban are assholes. I already know that the lives of both local and American embedded/combat journalists have become cheaper in this war than any other, including World Wars I and II. Too, I already know that stories like this serve as tools for a continued propagandist agenda that the NY Times has seldom shown itself on the right side of for the entire duration of these Bush-borne abominations, to include the beginning.

What’s left for someone like me to glean from this story, therefore, are the details of the actual escape. There’s still good and valuable stuff there, for all that it might be tinged with the overbearing agenda – the fact that the guy heard someone loading “a Kalishnikov”, for example. One wonders how he knew it was a Kalishnikov – does that somehow sound different than someone loading another kind of assault rifle? This is the sort of detail that intelligence agents, detectives and lawyers focus on to get to the truth of matters; but it is also exactly the sort of detail that propagandists, preachers and salesmen will tweak in order to create their own version.

As surely sanitized and infused with an agenda as this public debriefing is, there are still select and valuable take-home lessons in it for any of us living in the looming shadow of our own police state.

Escape is the ultimate hack. The reward isn’t root on a system, free bandwidth, a cushy job from an impressed government or corporate executive, or ill gotten gains – it is your very life. This game is played for keeps, and there are seldom second chances given for failure.

As an IT professional and a veteran, of course I’m interested in this story. But in my case my interest runs as deep as the blood in my veins. My great-uncle, a US Army reconnaissance scout (what today would I guess be called a “forward observer”) was captured and held in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. Due to his appearance, his fluency in German and his “craftyness” (grin), he managed to convince the guards that he was actually German intelligence, and he was released into the Bundeswehr, where he continued to gather intelligence before escaping to the American side. Thus, by any measurement applied, my great-uncle effected his escape not once but twice from the Nazi regime. He reportedly had a harder time convincing the Americans of his legitimacy, but the intelligence he brought back was valid and eventually his firsthand knowledge of things only he would have known about proved his case.

Certain commonalities exist in a situation like this. The first is psychological attitude, and in the military this attitude was drilled into us during basic training and afterward. If captured, we were told, our top priority would always be to escape. As a prisoner of war, escape was our new mission and our duty.

This is one of the few and rare situations in life where the conditioning our military receives to separate the analytical part of their minds from their emotions can save one’s life. Adrenaline is pumping all the time. You can’t shut it off. It starts doing wacky things to your head, and as David Rohde’s memoir clearly shows, you have to deal with it to prevent what could be critical and fatal errors in judgement. His way of dealing with it was to turn the prayer given to him by a Taliban cultist and turn it into his own personal mantra of concentration and salvation. He quite correctly channeled all his fear into anger – not a rage of rash decisions but a calculated anger which helped him to focus on the task at hand.

Their captors were lying to them about the potential for their negotiated release. As they realized this, the rage these lies engendered goaded them into action – but wise and deceptive action.

More excellent qualities exhibited by David Rohde and Tahir Ludden were resourcefulness and improvisation. Hellbent on escape, David scoured the environment available to him and found and hid a rope. He also found a place he would be able to use it to effect an escape. Meanwhile, his Afghan comrade Tahir performed visual reconnaissance of the town they were being held in. Opportunistic actions like this are taken only when a person is constantly focused on escape 100% of their waking moments.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the plan was Tahir’s effort to keep the guards awake for a long time the night before by playing a variant of Parcheesi with them. This is an aspect of intelligence work that has been alluded to by various interrogation professionals who have testified against the use of torture as it was practiced under the Bush regime. Then as now, the best results are obtained by establishing a friendly rapport with the target(s).

The separation of clinical, rational thought from emotion was another test that both of these gentlemen passed as they made the fearsomely difficult decision to leave the driver of their vehicle behind. This individual had already betrayed them once and was moving into a “Stockholm syndrome” position of solidarity with his captors. In a situation like this one is forced to judge people not on past alliances or stated position, but strictly on actions and results. All indications were that this man would betray them again if let in on the new escape plan. They really had no other choice but to leave him behind. The harsh reality of war is that betrayal can come from any direction. It will bring any honorable person to heartsick tears to have to deal with a betrayal of this magnitude from someone perceived as a friend, a comrade-in-arms who has suffered under the same adverse conditions. The ability to put emotions like this aside and get the job done is both a peerless military skill, and the one that can cause the most psychological damage in the long run. Though by his proven actions the man himself left them no choice, the guilt of this decision will likely haunt them for years.

I do not know if either or both of these two journalists have a military background, but if not, the fact that they were able to do the things they did with no conditioning or training makes their escape all the more impressive.

Combat and similar traumatic situations lead to PTSD, and I know full well that David Rohde and Tahir Luddin will have their own. No one who overclocks on adrenaline like this ever forgets what it feels like. The sheer necessity of that otherwise unnatural state of being returns in flashbacks, trigger situations, in sudden rages or reactions of fear which one is unprepared to channel and release appropriately.

There are times when I am not proud of my military background. After I left the Air Force, I was so soured on all the corruption, sexism and injustice that I had seen during my enlistment that I vowed that never again would I take a job that required a security clearance because “I didn’t want to have to lie for a living”. I feel about the skill sets displayed here a curious mixture of pride and shame that I too am capable of using them, and thanks to both an accident of birth and my own life experience I can be very, very good at them.

War simultaneously brings out the best and the worst of the human condition, and all too often subjective values are placed on good and evil – they are two edges of the same sword in the end. Freyja Vanadis, to whom I trothed my life and service on the summit of the Holy Brocken Mountain, is that curious dichotomy of a Goddess of Love and War. Friedrich Nietzsche was kind of a screwed up guy sometimes but he did come out with a few sensible statements for all that, and the one that seems to make the most sense to me as I contemplate the events surrounding this escape and others with which I am familiar is:

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.


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  1. Whatever.

    • ANKOSS on October 22, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    It is just another adventure story that distracts the public from the mess that foreign invaders have made of Afghanistan. Because it is our boys and girls who are shooting up the country now, we seem entirely oblivious to the remarkably similar Russian attempt to bring “stability” to this unfortunate nation. Yes, the evil, godless Russians maintained a cruel occupation trying to subdue the righteous God-loving Islamic fighters. But it’s all different now. It’s the righteous, God-loving Americans who are trying to subdue the Satanic Islamo-fascists.


  2. You are exactly the type person we’re goin’ to need when the shit hits the fan.  

    Sounds like your great-uncle was one bad M-Fer (don’t be insulted by that, but you know what I mean), I would liked to have met him. I have nothing but respect for anyone who has been under fire, especially in that conflict. Here’s to you and here’s to him.

    • dkmich on October 31, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    one either rises to the occasion and survives, or one panics and perishes. I see it as basic character, and your Uncle certainly had it.  

  3. When I saw “Thoughts on Escape” I was focusing on potential safe world areas like this one.

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