A Firsthand Account of Finding Nature on a U.S. Military Base

War is unnatural. Or so I thought as I sat in a tactical operations center in northeastern Afghanistan while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014. As an American soldier with boots on the ground in Afghanistan, nothing felt natural, especially not the military base surrounding me. Removed from my home in Wisconsin, nature never felt more absent from my life than it did in Mazar-i-Sharif. I spent much of my deployment yearning to return to Wisconsin’s green landscapes of forests and farms, daydreaming about kayaking in the Apostle Islands and cross-country skiing across Lake Mendota. To me, nature was a pristine undisturbed environment of leisure far removed from crowded man-made environments like the front lines in Central Asia. But that is only one, idealized version of nature. I have since come to rethink what nature really means and my place within it. As environmental historian William Cronon claims, nature is “not nearly so natural as it seems. Instead, it is a profoundly human construction.”

a helicopter flies over a city arranged in a circular pattern and a grove of trees

A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter flies over the city of Balkh while conducting a mission in Balkh province, Afghanistan 2014. Photo by author, Kate Alfin.

Nature was everywhere in the American military environment in Afghanistan, even if I had initially failed to see it. This disconnect between my belief in my “unnatural” position in war and ideas of nature and the environment is problematic. The notion that soldiers and armies are not of the natural world has historically shaped how militaries engage with the environment.

Military actions affect human health, local landscapes, and global ecology.

Military leaders primarily interpret nature, landscapes, and the environment as obstacles to combat operations. Nature is something to be utilized, overcome, or conquered, not something to relate to and see oneself within.1 Such an ideology privileges short-term exploitation of the natural world over anticipating the long-term environmental consequences of conflicts. This precludes militaries from recognizing how their actions affect human health, local landscapes, and global ecology, and how these in turn influence military readiness and operations.

In the U.S. Army, the tactical operations center is the hub of a task force’s command post that coordinates, controls, and communicates operations.2 A commissioned officer, known as the “battle captain,” is responsible for the operation of the tactical operations center and its staff functions. I spent my tenure in Mazar-i-Sharif as a battle captain for an aviation task force, charged with coordinating aviation assets with ground units, conducting mission briefings, and tracking task force aircraft as they operated across northeastern Afghanistan. Made from imported cost-effective plywood, the tactical operations center’s structure implies expediency. Plywood structures require less time to construct and maintain than the local structures of mud and concrete that make up Afghanistan’s vernacular landscape. At first glance, the tactical operations center appears to be an environment of only human activity. But it is in fact part and parcel of the natural world.

a plywood building mid-construction with a pile of plywood next to it

U.S. Soldiers build a tactical operation center, Afghanistan, August 2013. Photo by Spc. Chenee Brooks/U.S. Army.

I encountered nature daily while working at my swivel chair in Afghanistan. Rocks and gravel are continuously dragged inside when caught between the treads of soldiers’ boots. Weeds also sprout around the building, taking advantage of the disturbed ground and moisture from the cooled air of the air conditioners and leaking latrines.

three men dressed in combat gear with a dog standing in front of them

Marines, Afghanistan, May 2011. Photo by Lance Cpl Keith R. Durao/U.S. Marine Corps.

Although not visible at first glance, wildlife inhabits the same space as soldiers. Small animals seek refuge from the extreme climates of northeast Afghanistan in the American-made climate-controlled headquarters building. Birds nest in the space between the plywood ceiling and the roof. Mice occupy the same space, as well as the area below the floorboards, and often breach the tactical operations center’s security in search of food. The soldiers who work in the tactical operations center live in symbiosis with these creatures, leaving food crumbs and Styrofoam bowls of water for them under the floor and in the rafters and returning fallen baby birds back to their nests. Feral dogs and cats that successfully infiltrated the military base also congregate in the task force headquarters building and its associated exterior structures, such as aircraft hangars, garages, and bunkers. Despite signs warning of rabies posted around the base, soldiers are all too eager to allow these animals, who perhaps remind them of pets waiting at home, to share their space.

If assigned to work the night shift, a soldier may never see the sun during their entire deployment.

Natural cycles, such as time, weather, lunar phases, and seasons also influence soldiers’ work. Lunar cycles influence the amount of ambient illumination available for conducting night missions. Twenty-four-hour operations require soldiers to work all hours of the day and night, disconnecting them from a typical diurnal routine. If assigned to work the night shift, a soldier may never see the sun during their entire deployment. Dust and haze during the hot and dry summer months, and ice and snowfall in the surrounding mountains during the winter, ground aircraft and cancel missions, creating lulls in activity. Seasons also impact the number of missions planned and executed from the tactical operations center. Natural and cultural elements, in particular poppy cultivation and improved weather, have combined to make spring Afghanistan’s “fighting season.”

A sand storm enveloping Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, May 2014. Photo by Cpl Daniel Wiepen,  ©Crown Copyright 2014.

Nature influences the labor of soldiers, who in turn labor and influence nature. Beyond the tactical operations center, the American military environment in Afghanistan consists of a diversity of workscapes where soldiers labor. Environmental historian Thomas G. Andrews developed the notion of “workscapes” in order to break the binary of “man” and “nature” when studying labor history. He claims that by extending our analytical scope beyond the merely human we are able to see history in ecological terms. According to Andrews, “the workscape concept treats people as laboring beings who have changed and been changed in turn by a natural world that remains always under construction.” From offices, hospitals, motor pools, and airfields to convoy routes, foot patrols, air corridors, and the fields of battle, American soldiers’ workscapes extend across, interact with, and influence the entirety of Afghanistan’s environment.

Environmental consciousness is essential for addressing the transformations inflicted by armies around the globe.

Whether dropping crumbs from my lunch, coordinating and briefing missions, or tracking aircraft in flight, I was participating in natural processes. Sitting in my swivel chair in northeast Afghanistan, I was then oblivious to the nature around me and my relationship with it. Now, I think it is important to underscore what reinserting soldiers into the natural world can enable. First, connecting armies with the natural world in a reciprocal relationship might facilitate more environmental consciousness in military planning and execution. Throughout history, environments have influenced the order of battle and outcomes of wars. The ways in which militaries interact with these environments have in turn shaped the natural world. Use of the defoliant Agent Orange by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War is a prime example of this. The use of this chemical irrecoverably affected the health of the Vietnamese human and non-human environment, as well as that of American soldiers. Environmental foresight and consciousness is essential for recognizing and addressing the transformations inflicted by armies around the globe.

Secondly, reinserting soldiers into the natural world could help them to identify with and feel connected to their environment, no matter where it is. Deploying away from one’s home environment and enduring the seemingly unnatural experience and toll of war can have mental and emotional consequences. Repeated deployments exacerbate these even more so. Considering up to fifteen percent of veterans who deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and another ten percent with depression, what if we shifted our lens and sought nature and its therapeutic remedies underfoot? Even under our boots? Nature has long been extolled for its healing qualities. Historically, people have sought out the natural world in order to ease their physical and emotional ailments. During the late nineteenth century, the common association of hay fever with the heat, filth, and dust of rapidly industrializing cities led many wealthy Americans to seek refuge from the disease at resorts in the White Mountains, Adirondacks, and the shores of the Great Lakes. Finding and grounding themselves in the nature around them could potentially enable soldiers to better cope with what may be the most difficult time of their lives.

A soldier from the Wisconsin National Guard straightens out a Wisconsin state flag sent by family members at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2014. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal, courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Finally, placing soldiers back in the natural world enables writing a more complete history of the war in Afghanistan. For weeks, months, and, in some instances, years, soldiers have relentlessly lived and labored with their boots on the ground to complete the mission in this seemingly unnatural place. Their actions influence the local human and non-human environment of Afghanistan, which in turn influences soldiers. A history of the war in Afghanistan is not complete without attempting to understand how these soldiers interact with and are very much a part of the natural world.

Featured image: A bird sits on the Constantine wire surrounding Forward Operation Base Airborne, Afghanistan, October 2009. Photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade/Department of Defense.

Kate Alfin is a graduate student of African history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently working on her master’s thesis, which examines relations between Liberian women and American soldiers stationed in the African republic during the Second World War. Her minor field is transnational environmental history and she is particularly interested in the influence of militaries and conflict on the environment. Contact.

  1. This trend is evident when examining military treatise from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, through contemporary U.S. Army doctrine, including “Field Manuals” (FM) and “Army Technique Publications” (ATP) such as FM 3-06: Urban Operations, FM 90-3: Desert Operations, ATP 3-90.97: Mountain Warfare and Cold Weather Operations, and ATP 3-34.5: Environmental Considerations. See Lionel Giles, Sun Tzu on the Art of War (London: Luzac & Co, 1910); Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 3-06: Urban Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2006); Headquarters, Department of the Army, FM 90-3: Desert Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1993); Headquarters, Department of the Army, ATP 3-90.97: Mountain Warfare and Cold Weather Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2016); Headquarters, Department of the Army, ATP 3-34.5: Environmental Considerations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2015. 

  2. Department of the Army, FM 3-96 Brigade Combat Team (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2015), 3-24. 

14 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Hine says:

    Very interesting way to look at military interaction with nature. I liked it…especially the first hand accounts. Well done

  2. Mel Jenkins says:

    As a more and more dedicated participant in the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, this essay is an excellent way to extend communications and ideas.

    An attuned person in any environment sees, and of course, understands, more than most of us. As a Land Ethic Leader via the Aldo Leopold programs at Baraboo, I am reminded, in this, of the evolutions of Mr. Leopold’s life-long development of his understandings of the interactions of the biotic community.

    Thanks. I hope the writer will continue to add to the thinking of her fellow military associates and to those of us on other paths.

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