OUTTAKES FROM THE FRONT
All the cool lizards are doing it.
The nature of war certainly does not let us see at all times where we are going.
-Carl von Clausewitz
Clearing the Deck
The time is nearly upon us when I must bid adieu to fair Iraq: her rollicking hills and lush green forests, her spring gardens and clear blue lakes of… okay, so I’m full of it. You want to know the real reason why I believe so strongly in American victory in Iraq? So that I never have to come back here -- ever. No offense to the locals, but if it wasn’t for the Western ingenuity to harness petroleum, after Allah handed out real estate they would have found themselves with the dog slobber end of the chew toy.
The following consists of my unreleased b-sides from over the previous year; the black sheep of my unfinished work that otherwise would have been doomed to the Seventh Circle of Hell otherwise known as the bowels of my computer hard drive. In a few cases, perhaps there it should have remained. But I made the time to write it; the least you can do is read it -- I don’t think that’s asking a lot. It is in this vein that I submit to you the
Best of the Rest of American Citizen Soldier:
When a Stranger Calls
Several months after posting Zen and the Art of Marital Maintenance, I received the following in the comments section:
My boyfriend of nearly 2 years has been away as much as he has been home and I have been searching for any advice on anything, because as I girlfriend I am often left out of the communication loop. That you for investing the time to post and would love any advice for how to act when a soldier returns home, as that is my biggest fear.With that in mind, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for a follow-up entry. The previous one found your humble milblogger freely dispensing advice for “successfully navigating your marriage through the minefield of deployed expectations.” This time I will address what the Army calls the “reintegration process.” This may appear at first glance to be common sense, yet there are several different factors at work that may often get overlooked.
First among them is the anxiety of expectations. Has he changed? Have I changed? What should I do or not do? What a deployed soldier craves more than anything is a return to normalcy; to the routine of daily life that he left behind. However, he typically arrives home to find that the “routine” he knew has changed in his absence. If he has kids, they have become accustomed to Mom’s new role as the first and last word on everything that transpires. Suddenly you’re back like an absentee father who thinks he can disappear for a year and then reclaim his position of authority overnight. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work like that. They will require as much time to readjust to your daily presence as they initially needed to adapt to your absence.
This goes for couples as well. You may have experienced tremendous growth and personal development in the time he has been away, yet he is returning from a male-dominated environment to a now alien world where he can wear his own clothes again even though they’re probably out of style; where he can no longer bark out orders and expect immediate compliance; one in which every day is no longer exactly the same as the one that preceded it. His life has essentially been on hold for the previous twelve months. He’s going to need time to reorient to his surroundings, recalibrate his behavior and manners, and rebalance the learned give and take -- the natural rhythms and patterns that develop within the context of every relationship.
If you’re worried that your husband sounds like a stranger over the phone when he calls from overseas, do not be discouraged. He is a stranger while he is away. He has to be. A combat deployment is a marathon, not a sprint. You learn early on that counting days is the surest way to prolong the misery of being far from home. You have to sublimate the life you knew for the one you currently know: that of doing your job every day to the best of your ability without regard to what tomorrow brings or what is going across the world in your absence; because with a few exceptions there is very little you can do about it anyway.
Your deployed soldier has now worn his “game face” for so long that he may find it permanently etched on his visage. You will still notice it lingering for some time after he has returned, but with a good dose of patience and forbearance it will gradually fade away at approximately the same rate as will his nervous habit of reaching for his weapon that is no longer required to be an extension of his person. In its stead, you are once again the constant companion that he can and must rely on. For his part, he must apply to your relationship the same level of attention to detail, basic maintenance, and proper care of equipment as he did the instruments that he depended on in the desert. Those are terms and conditions he’ll understand.
Ultimately, what should you expect? Expect to be patient. Expect for things to be the same, only different. And expect to embrace these changes for what they truly are: opportunities to chart a different course, though with the same eventual destination in sight. Because you can rarely recapture what once was, but you can always reclaim what now is.
So welcome that stranger home, and before you know it he’ll actually feel at home. Like he never left.
*And if all this sounds way too philosophical for your tastes, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Fix him his favorite meal, pour him his favorite brew, give him all the lovin’ you can muster, and don’t nag him -- about anything -- for at least three weeks. Boom: reunion accomplished.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. He easily could have been speaking to the state of mind of a soldier on a modern combat deployment. Because despite all the varying manners of distress he may undergo at one time or another, the one constant is the mind-numbing, soul-crushing boredom. No matter how busy your day-to-day routine, there is always an indeterminate number of hours in the duty day that you simply do not know how to cope with.
Different people seek relief from it in their own way. Some try to sleep as much as possible. (One of my compadres from our Afghanistan tour who’s also here in Iraq with me recalled how he tried to sleep up to twelve hours every day that he could get away with it over there. He figured it would render a yearlong deployment into a perceivable six months). Others become gym-rats, or buy up every last movie theater-pirated HVD (Haji Video Disc) of just released Hollywood blockbusters they can get their hands on. If the web access at your respective camp is decent, you’ll find many young, single joes whose mission in life becomes to add as many good-looking women to their MySpace profiles as humanly possible. (Quite prevalent in my own battalion, the 4th of the 23rd Infantry Regiment). Still, there are time and personnel limits to any FOB-provided internet, thus most opt to spend it emailing or IMing the wife or their families.
And of course, that leaves the old standby of yore, that bygone throwback to the Industrial Revolution when literate types of all stripes enjoyed nothing more than to sit down with a peculiar little object called a “book.” In that sense, I’m practically a dinosaur. In the course of my two Middle East deployments (OEF IV and OIF III) I have completed a combined total of 104 books, a total undoubtedly greater than I likely even attempted in my entire four years of college. (I’ve actually kept track of the titles read, and a complete listing will be provided in the comments section for any fellow bibliophiles out there. We few, we happy few, we band of bookworms).
Be that as it may, I still have a small bone to pick with an otherwise fine and much appreciated organizational drive called Operation Paperback: Recycled Reading for the Troops that collects used and donated books to send to us all across Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over the previous year I’ve stumbled across some stellar finds and classic works sent over by these patriotic-minded men and women. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. We Were Soldier’s Once…and Young. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The last three recent works of genius by Tom Wolfe. The unsung great American novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Numerous titles from Robert Heinlein. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the content of which I could comprehend for only a brief moment in time. But for every nugget or gem discovered among the stacks, there is an absolute mountain of elephant dung obscuring their existence. Here are a few of the lesser touted “classics” that I pulled at random for your assessment:
Killer Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh [Many will recall this celebrated author from high school English Lit. You know, Hawthorne… Twain… Hemingway… Ngaio Marsh…]
Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Zombie Vampires - Vol. 4 [Do they really expect me to skip all the way to Volume 4 and still know what the heck is going on with Galactic Hero Bill?]
In the Shelter of His Arms: A Heart to Heart Harlequin Romance [You know, I felt the plot development was weak and the character development thin; even more so the second time around].
Mightier Than the Lipstick: Stories by Women [I never could figure out what exactly was mightier than the titular lipstick. And yes, Beavis, I said “tit”].
Die Firma [What‘s this? A new novelized sequel to the Diehard films? Nein, apparently that got lost in translation. This was legal scribe John Grisham’s first best-seller -- only this time in GERMAN.]
Lives of the Monster Dogs: a Novel [Well I would sure hope so!]
Menopause: the Silent Passage [No comment necessary].
New Profits from the Monetary Crisis by Harry Browne
From the (quite dusty) dust jacket: “The New York Times best-selling author presents his new investment strategy for capitalizing on the chaos of this new economic era.” [Now this one actually sounds right up my alley. The only problem: It was last published in 1978! If it said to invest in a yet unheard of software company called “Microsoft” and came fully equipped with a time machine on the back flap, I would gladly remove it from the list.]
My intent is not to squelch the patriotic fervor at Operation Paperback. I realize that their donations most likely consist of the most unwanted and unread trash people are grateful for someone to take off their hands. I just wish they’d exercise a little more scrutiny in the titles they send us. They don’t all have to be Melville or Dostoevsky (although I did find a copy of Crime and Punishment among them.) But come now, Killer Dolphin? Less is more, people. Less is more.
‘Prepare to Copy’
The last thing you ever want to hear when you’re already heading back to the FOB following a long patrol or mission is, “3-2, this is Blackhawk Base…
…prepare to copy.”
In others words, get ready to write down the grid coordinates or details of a follow-on mission that will send you back outside the wire and likely make you miss your third consecutive meal of the day. Sure, not the worst thing in the world, but when transmitted in jest it’s a prime target for desk jockey jokesters who know just how to get a rise out of their comrades.
I’m not naming any names, but they know who they are.
The Good Idea Fairy
n. 1. mischievous and highly dangerous sprite; known for planting the seeds of faulty ideas within the brains of those around it: Good idea fairies feed upon the frustration and confusion created by the implementation and use of those ideas it suggests. Found most often around TOCs and other areas with high concentrations of fobbits or tocroaches. The feeble-minded, inexperienced, and easily confused are most often targeted by the good idea fairy. Causes the brains of those affected to become addled, unable to tell good idea from bad, and utterly incapable of hearing actual good advice.
From BOB on the FOB by Sgt. Albert J. Merrifield
Task Force Band of Brothers Public Affairs Office
101st Airborne Division, FOB Speicher, Tikrit, Iraq
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the infantry, this should ring true to your ears. It makes you wonder how many of these GI Fairies must be inhabiting the cavernous halls of the Pentagon. Dare I say, hundreds?
Dishonor Among Oxygen Thieves
For every one hundred men you send us, ten should not even be here. Eighty are nothing but targets. Nine of them are real fighters; we are lucky to have them, they the battle make. Ah, But one. One of them is a warrior. And he will bring the others back.
Every Army battalion has their fair share of douchebags -- those soldiers who, for whatever reason, simply cannot hack it on deployment and end up disgracing both themselves and their entire unit with their behavior and actions. Our company outed quite a few over the course of this year, but one in particular stood out among the rest. To keep myself from being sued, or more importantly, off of his “People to Kill” list, I’ll refer to the individual in question only as Specialist “Kidneystone.” This is a kid who started the tour off on the wrong foot and then proceeded to shoot himself in the other.
After barely a few weeks in Mosul, it came to pass that Kidneystone was removed from patrolling with his platoon any longer due to the fact that he was so keyed up when outside the wire that he was making his leadership nervous. Some expected to see him perform a “combat roll” if so much as a car backfired. Thus he was reassigned to a series of Iraqi Army outposts with a small contingent of American officers and senior NCOs to support and assist in their training (known as a MITT-Team). While there, Kidneystone’s only duties or responsibilities would be to share time monitoring the radios, and then doing whatever he wanted in his spare time. (Watching movies, emailing, cable TV, sleeping, etc.) Of course, the chow and living conditions there are slightly worse, so it was only a matter of time before he’s whining to our First Sergeant over the radio that he can’t take being there anymore either. By now, a few of the NCOs on the MITT-Team already have had just about enough of him and willingly send him back.
At this point he begins to claim PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) -- from what is anybody’s guess -- and warrants a psyche eval. Of course, they find nothing wrong with him, other than that he’s an idiot who’s trying to fake his way out of the deployment and be sent home. The situation regresses to the point where, back once again on the FOB, Kidneystone locks himself inside his room with his weapon and refuses to come out. On this particular evening I walk outside my door and notice several members of my company suiting up in full kit in preparation to storm his room loaded to bear. I suggested they simply toss a grenade through the window and call it a night, but alas, cooler heads prevailed. He emerged from his cocoon upon being told that he had mail waiting for him.
But wait -- there’s more.
So by now the fouled machinery of the Big Army had finally begun to turn and eject this “oxygen thief” and danger to everyone around him from our midst. (Ironically, precisely what he sought all along.) He gets put on a plane back to the rear with one of the company’s NCOs along as a military escort. While on a stopover in Germany, he is inexplicably allowed by those in charge to travel off post on his own recognizance where he proceeds to get drunk in public and put his head through a pane of glass, which he then attempts to blame on his NCO escort when the German authorities arrive. Why he was ever allowed out of his handcuffs, I will never understand.
Eventually he arrives back at our home station in Anchorage to begin the process of discharging him from the service. Pending this action, he was last seen at the Post Exchange attempting to purchase a shotgun and shells, wherein he threatened to “kill everybody there” upon being denied the sale and failing the instant background check. Last we’d heard, he had been permanently banned from post.
Somehow this pathetic individual and congenital liar scammed his way into the Army when it is clear he never even wanted to be here. The tragedy is not that such people slip through the cracks, but that it takes so long for the Army to correct their mistakes once they realize they’ve made them. True, some would use that excuse as an easy way out of their commitment, but that’s no reason to punish the rest of us who have to deal with them on a daily basis.
Consider this pitiful saga the next time you read an interview with a disgruntled ex-soldier who claims the Army “screwed him over” or that next article you read about the “Iraq veteran” who came home and hung himself in his parents’ basement. There may be more to the actual story than meets the eye. Not all who served were heroes. Not all were very good soldiers. And not all were even passable as human beings.
So I had this great idea for a new personal hygiene product…
Browsing through the FOB p/x I couldn’t help but notice that the military theme has been adopted to everything from baby wipes to energy bars, complete with camouflaged packaging and the word “Hooah” prefixed in the name of the product. Thus was born the idea for Ballistic Condomstm.
Perhaps these will only appeal at first to soldiers, though there are quite a few of us spread around the country. But having lived in both a college dorm and an enlisted barracks, I do believe I understand the unique needs of my target customer: the horny, young, testosterone-crazed American male. Every man who has ever put on a condom knows that the current two-size-only standard of “average joe” and “male porn star” is woefully inadequate. While the male ego would have us believe that we’re all giving Magnums a good stretching, the truth betrays us. (Though to be fair, who among us hasn’t been choked out by a run of the mill Trojan or Durex at some point?) What we need are custom fits, to adjust for the varying measurements dangling throughout the male locker room. Would women stand for only two bra sizes: “mosquito bite” and “cow udder”? That’s what I thought.
At the very minimum Ballistic Condomstm would offer four different fits to start with:
.22 Rimfire: “The Peashooter” (For the modest mice among us)
.357 Special: (The industry standard; crafted to fit the average American manhood)
.44 Magnum: “The Dirty Hairy” (For those immodest oaks of masculinity)
And last but certainly not least,
.50 cal. BFD: (If you even have to ask what that stands for, you haven’t been paying attention)
With optional features to include:
Rifled Barrel: Ribbed for her pleasure.
CLP: Lubricated for the smoothest action possible.
Barracks Strength: Double-wrapped to defend against “negligent discharges” during those “not-so-sober” moments.
I’ll allow you the privilege of voting on the best commercial tagline. (Kindly annotate your preference in the comments section. Or contribute your own!)
A. “We Gotcha Covered”
B. “Combat Action, Combat Proven”
C. “Go Ballistic in the Bedroom”
D. “Eye Pro for your One-Eyed Ranger”
E. “A Higher Caliber of Protection”
Deep Thoughts from the Crapper III
So here I am yet again in my favorite reading spot blazing through Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (a fantastic book -- if all you know of it is through that horrid film adaptation, you’re truly missing out). Although it was written in 1959, the story is set far into the future and revolves around a young man who volunteers for the army against his parents’ wishes in seek of adventure and a sense of purpose. Heinlein apparently views the experience of military life as timeless, as all the same themes and issues that soldiers today deal with are described to a tee.
One of the perks in this future world are full citizenship rights only for those who have previously served in the armed forces. It’s certainly an interesting thought. What would an America look like with the eligible voting populace consisting only of veterans?
--I’d venture that a larger cross-section of Americans would join up, if for no other reason than to obtain their full citizenship afterwards. (Although Heinlein makes clear that many instead begin to view citizenship in a cynical vein as “naïve patriotism” with no benefit or relevance to their lives whatsoever). It’s not impossible to picture that reality.
--I’d also be willing to bet that silly and counterproductive gun control laws would be unheard of. (Firearms cease to be “scary” when you’ve become as familiar with them as with your toothbrush and toted them 24/7 for months on end).
--Wars would likely still be waged when necessary, yet be free of political correctness in their execution. (The quickest and most efficient way to win friendly hearts and minds still being to place three-inch shot groups in enemy heads and torsos).
--Excessive sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco products would be unknown. (Self-explanatory, really).
--Military compensation would definitely be a sight better, especially if we could vote ourselves pay raises every few years like Congress is wont to do.
--Corpulent sea turtles like Ted Kennedy could no longer possibly win reelection through four consecutive decades in the Senate, Massachusetts liberals be damned.
--Public opinion polls would cease to be relevant. “I’m going to write my Congressman!” Knock yourself out, non-voting hippie. He could care less.
I do believe I’m beginning to like this idea a bit too much.
We’re Here Now; It No Longer Matters Why
*Author’s Note: The general substance of this last entry initially appeared in an off-the-cuff email interview with The Real Ugly American. My thoughts are reposted here in extended form.
Do you suppose the millions of small children in Afghanistan or Iraq really care why we went to war in their respective countries? Do you honestly believe they sit around cross-legged and cynically debate the existence of WMDs or the politics of why American soldiers are in their homelands? Or do they simply enjoy the fruits of our labor, enjoy their newfound freedoms, their chance to attend school, their chance for a real future?
The next generation of Iraqis and Afghans don’t reflexively despise us precisely because they don’t understand -- much less care about -- the underlying politics behind the endeavor. Because they bring no ingrained biases or prejudices to the table. Because their opinion of us is based strictly on their own powers of observation; judging purely on what they see us do and how we treat them. Our presence here benefits them and they know it.
I believe a majority of Iraqis understand why we’re here and are appreciative of the opportunity to begin anew. I also understand why many of them would be frustrated with the slow pace of progress when viewed in terms of the improvement of their individual lives. Iraq was a failed state long before we arrived, and it will take decades to get it back on its feet entirely. Antiwar critics have long asserted that the toppling of the former regime ipso facto caused the current divisions and instability, however, the resultant animosity and violence is precisely the brutal legacy of Baathist rule. Saddam exacerbated the latent sectarian tensions within his country and used them to hold and maintain power.
The truth of the matter is that sooner rather than later the Iraqis have to learn to start doing things for themselves. We didn’t come here to take Saddam Hussein’s place, we came here to allow the Iraqi people to take his place. “But it is simply impossible for the soldiers to be wholly liked,” writes Robert Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts. “There is no nice way to barge into people's houses, bristling with weapons, stomping your dusty boots on their Oriental rugs, and expect it to be a pleasant experience for them, even if you hand out candy to their kids and replace a lock you had to break with a new one.”
Even so, at the end of the day we are not the enemy -- we want Iraq to succeed, not fail. But if we leave right away as many claim to wish, the tenuous situation on the ground will get a lot worse before it gets better. Our job -- our underlying mission that overrides every other concern -- is to prepare Iraqis themselves to take our place as guardians of the peace. This can and will be done, but it will take time. It took a minimum of three years for the best military in the world to adequately train a sergeant such as myself to be able to fight this kind of counterinsurgency war and be successful at it. Why do we expect the Iraqis to be able to learn this in less time, with less education, less institutional history, less equipment, and with less manpower?
Those Iraqis (read: Sunni Arabs) who were relatively sheltered from the horrors of the Baathists tend to be the only ones who remember the old days fondly. But you won’t get that view from a Kurd whose entire family tree was chopped down, or from generations of Shiite males who were drafted into ten years of bloody, pointless slaughter just to stroke a madman’s ego.
I believe to my very core that we are doing the right thing over here, and have been from the beginning. I know that may be hard to stomach based on what is commonly passed off as news from the frontlines, but as a savvy information consumer you have to be patient and retain some perspective. You have to step back and keep the historical picture in view and not lose your nerve as an American generation brought up in an era of get-rich-quick schemes and instant weight-loss dieting. This is not going to be a quick and tasty Happy Meal war -- and apart from the initial toppling of the regime, I can find no instance within any major administration address where it was ever billed as such. (If you can, please direct me to it).
Contrary to what the mainstream media and the punditocracy would like you to believe, ¾ of Iraq is presently secure, and as the months wear on more and more areas are being relinquished to local control. The Iraqi army and police forces aren’t yet strong enough to stand completely on their own in the worst provinces, namely al-Anbar and the outer reaches of Baghdad. But at this point in time the war is essentially won. Despite the daily body counts (didn’t the Vietnam-era media discredit body counts as a measure of military success? And now they point to them as a sign of impending military defeat?), there is no Iraqi civil war under way; though that prospect still looms if we follow through on the reckless calls for immediate withdrawal.
As things currently stand, we’ve given the Iraqi Security Forces their learner’s permit and they are now the ones driving the car. The coalition is now just along for the ride, to offer advice, and to assist if they find themselves in a tough spot. It is my reasoned opinion that by the time President Bush leaves office they will be ready to receive their license and go it alone for good. I think this is a workable timetable, and I think it has to be because whoever the next administration turns out to be will not have nearly the political backbone of current Commander-in-Chief. Say what you will about him (and trust me, it already has been), he is the very antithesis of the stereotypical poll-driven statesman. At times, almost maddeningly so. But I challenge you to name another leader in American history since Lincoln who has had more invective thrown his way, who has endured more abuse and yet never wavered from his course for even an instant. Some would call this intransient stubbornness. I would agree with them.
I had a similar conversation some months ago with one of our Iraqi interpreters, an Assyrian Christian who lives in the Iraqi Christian town of Qaraqosh on the outskirts of Mosul. I asked him how long he thought we (the U.S. military) needed to remain in Iraq, and he matter-of-factly stated “five to ten years, or there will be civil war in the streets.” I told him no, that his country has until January, 2009 -- the month President Bush leaves office -- to get their act together, because no other politician -- Republican or not -- will have the spine or the support to maintain the status quo any longer than that. He seemed to get it.
From my vantage point, the only way we can still lose the war at this point is if we as a nation turn on backs on the people we’ve committed to support. Congress hung the South Vietnamese out to dry after the last American soldier left Southwest Asia and millions were interned, “reeducated,” and ultimately slaughtered as a result. The antiwar movement purports to stand for peace, yet if successful, their aims will only lead to untold carnage of ordinary Iraqis we’ve sworn to protect.
If 9/11 proved anything, it is not that we were too engaged in the world, it is that we were not involved enough. The danger of allowing failed states to implode in this day and age is that there will always be consequences that reach far outside their own borders, and the applied fix only gets harder the longer we wait to address it.
But that is all water under the bridge now. There will be dire consequences if America walks away from this fight prematurely. They may not materialize overnight, but the enemies of our country will recognize it for exactly what it is: weakness. And they have shown that nothing emboldens them more.
For the record, I do think we will succeed, and Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually remake themselves into civilized societies; perhaps models for the entire Muslim world. But only if we don’t quit while we’re ahead.
We’re here now. It no longer matters why.
Next week will be Buck Sargent's final column from Iraq