At first glance I figured the Dutch Army Pzh-2000 howitzer was painted tan. Then I poked a finger an eighth of an inch through the “paint” that was actually fine dust that had adhered to the steel hull after being ground up and tossed into the air by the vehicle’s treads.
It’s a thankless job, being an artilleryman in a dirty, boring little war where artillery is only rarely needed. Every morning at Kamp Holland near Tarin Kowt, the Dutch gun crew vacuums the dust off their 60-ton machine then sit around and wait. If a patrol gets into trouble, and if the troops can positively identify the bad guys, they might call for a round or two of High Explosive. If they’re less certain, maybe they’ll ask for a smoke or illumination round just to show the potential bad guys that the gun is trained on them. It’s a rare day when the gunners fire anything at all, and even rarer when they shoot HE. And on the day I paid a visit, the vehicle commander Sergeant Daniel and his guys were deeply invested in a game of Risk.
Still, if you’re an infantrymen riding out into Taliban country, it’s reassuring to know that the gun is there if you need it. Within moments of your radio call, the crew will hop in their Pzh-2000, roar up a dusty slope to their firing position and rain explosive death on the heads of your enemies. Sergeant Daniel demonstrated how fast the gun can move. He and his driver sped up to the firing position trailing a choking dust cloud, turned a rapid pirouette and raced back down, averaging perhaps 35 miles per hour on rough terrain and nearly running over me in the process. I trudged back to my hooch coughing, caked in a sticky paste of sweat and pulverized Afghanistan.
As impressive as the gun is in its dusty little pen, the effort required to get it here was even more impressive. A U.S. Air Force C-17 hauled the behemoth to Kandahar and from there, the crew road-marched for the better part of a day — a big fat target crawling through the middle of a Taliban stronghold. “We were the jackpot,” Daniel says. No wonder the artillerymen deployed with a heavy recovery vehicle (pictured) with enough horsepower to tow the howitzer. Triple-A does not serve the Tarin Kowt area.