“It was Knight,” the sergeant said.
Specialist Marques Knight was an experienced soldier, with a tour in Iraq. He was killed in a vehicle turret when a sniper’s bullet hit his head. Soldiers beneath him in the truck saw his legs go instantly limp.
The sky opened up, splattering the valley with rain and hail. Soto strode forcefully along the last leg of the walk to the outpost, soaked and cold, alternating between numbness and lucidity. Knight’s body lay in the mechanics’ bay, where soldiers paid last respects. Late that night, Viper gathered for a ceremony in the darkness. A mortar crew fired two illumination rounds. Each was a bright flare beneath a fluttering parachute. They ignited brilliantly and descended, whistling softly and casting shadows that spun and danced. They burned for about a minute. Then the valley was black again.
The idealism that propelled Soto to Afghanistan was being scoured away. In his journal, Cox recorded one of Soto’s questions. “Why is it,” Cox wrote, “that pieces of crap go on living lives that mean nothing and good men die in places like this?” Soto thought Cox agreed, but he was careful in his reply. He didn’t know that fatalism had seeped into his sergeant’s thinking, too. “Have a bit of humor with death,” Cox wrote. “At the funeral just say, ‘I guess I had it coming.’ ” His entry that night was littered with the titles of songs. “Seven Nation Army,” “Away From the Sun,” “Here Without You.”
He ended with a lyric from one more: “Love me when I’m gone.”
The escalating violence was part of a peculiar moment in the Afghan war — late in the administration of President George W. Bush, and at the height of the presidential race between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. American troop levels in Afghanistan had long lagged far behind those in Iraq, and public interest in the war had waned. But as Soto began his Afghan tour in July 2008, the political conversation was shifting. “Our enemies are on the offensive,” McCain warned from the campaign trail, even as Viper Company’s soldiers were rushing off helicopters in the outpost’s landing zone. Both candidates were vowing to lead nothing less than a rearrangement of military priorities, pledging to turn the war around with fresh thinking and more troops. But the timeline was unlikely to help Viper Company, whose soldiers were among the last dispatched to badlands under an older plan. Promises echoed from Washington. The political calendar meant reinforcements would not come soon.
After Knight was killed, Sergeant Wright, the platoon sergeant, told Soto that Third Squad was heading to an observation post and that Soto would leave Second Squad temporarily to join them there. Soto did not want to go. Cox’s 33rd birthday was at the end of the month, and Soto had ordered a gift — a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye.” He had noticed how much Cox read. Even when there was time for only a few hours of sleep, Cox would often spend part of it with a book. It was fiction as sanctuary. The two men had talked about reading, and Soto had learned that Cox had never read J.D. Salinger. He intended to fix that, just as he intended to remain with Second Squad for its next patrols. He sought out his squad leader and asked to stay in his job.
Cox told him he had already spoken with Wright and the brief reassignment would stand. The observation post needed a medic, a role Soto had trained to perform. Cox was occupied with leading the rest of his squad. Some of the soldiers were calling certain patrols suicide missions; one griped to him about taking what he considered unnecessary risks. Cox was incredulous. “What?” he wrote in his journal. “Everything we do is an unnecessary risk. It is our job!”
Soto moved with Third Squad to Observation Post Dallas, a small position above the valley, where soldiers took turns on radio watch and behind machine guns, defending their peers below. The place was primitive to an extreme, a set of sandbagged fighting holes cut into stone and sunbaked earth. Soldiers slept in folding cots on uneven ground, camping near a barrel of their own waste. The bunkers were infested with fleas, and the air was swarmed by flies, which moved between excrement and everything else. But some of the soldiers liked their days there. At Dallas they were unhassled by the rules and routines of the larger outpost, alone atop a ridge where bird song filled the air each dawn. Cox, on an earlier rotation, had seemed especially pleased. “My 1st command,” he wrote, “of a fort.”