Friday, June 27, 2008
If you think, please think of us. If you pray, please pray for us. The second half of our deployment will be just as challenging and dangerous as the first half.
Thank you for caring. Agree or disagree with the war, if you’re reading this, you are engaged and aware. As long as that is still occurring in a free society, there is something worth the fighting for.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I guess they forgot, and instead focused on matters of competency. Cue outright offer.
Cue LT G “thanks but no thanks” response.
Cue illogical backlash from higher, acting like a spurned teenage blonde whose dreamboat crush tells her point-blank that he prefers brunettes.
Q finding myself on the literal and metaphorical carpet of multiple field-grades, sometimes explaining, sometimes listening.
Yes, Sir. I’m getting out. No, I’m sure. Definitely sure. Surer than sure. What am I going to do? Don’t tell him Option A, he’ll scoff at Option A. He believes dreams are only for children. Option B will suffice. Well Sir, I’m going to go back to school, somewhere on the East Coast. Haven’t decided if I’ll focus on the Spanish Civil War or Irish History yet, though. I think I’d be a pretty good wacky professor. I already like to ramble and I look good in banana yellow clip-on ties. Sir.
No, Sir. I’m not saying that at all. I would absolutely bust my ass as an XO, and perform the job to the best of my ability. I’m just saying I’d be screwing a peer of mine, who is staying in, and could use this professional development, benefiting both him and the big Army in the long run. Uncle Sam agrees with me.
No Sir, I don’t think I’m selling myself short. Recognizing one’s own weaknesses isn’t a weakness in and of itself. Crushing balls is only my thing with people who aren’t wearing an American uniform.
If I throw enough clutter in the way, something will stick.
This is the Army, son. Your opinion doesn't matter.
Roger. Acknowledged. I'd figure I'd proffer it, just in case.
You need to start thinking big picture, Lieutenant. That’s what officers do.
I roll out of the wire everyday to bask in a third-world cesspool craving my attention for nothing more than the most basic human need - hope. Is there a bigger picture than that, or just different vantage points from safer distances?
Yes Sir, I will remember to think things out more rationally next time. (Pause long enough to make the point that this was already a well-thought out decision.) Of course. Sir.
No Sir, this isn’t just because I want to stay with my platoon. (Maintain eye contact so he doesn’t think you’re lying, for the love of God, maintain eye contact!) I won’t lie though, Sir – it was a factor. Just not my motivation.
Nice work, liar.
Another reason? Well, Sir, two of my best friends in the world are LT Virginia Slim and LT Demolition. If I were to become their XO, I would be extremely uncomfortable with possibly having to order them and their men to their deaths. As their peer, I should be right there next to them. Hell, I probably would insist on it.
Yes, I know that was a good point. Don’t say that out loud. Don’t say that out loud. Phew. That was a close one. I almost out-louded rather than in-loaded.
Yes Sir, I have full confidence in my platoon to be able to succeed without me. SFC Big Country would be more than capable of performing the job of a platoon leader. But he’s an NCO. He shouldn’t have to deal with lieutenant bullshit. That’s my bullshit to deal with. I’m the soldier’s buffer. (Cough. From you. Cough.) If a butterbar were here, I’d understand. That’s the natural order of things. But since an opening occurred without a backlog, I really strongly really definitely really definitively believe that it should go to a LT who wants it. Hell, there are some of them out there who NEED it. Aren’t I being a team player here?
The ballad of a thin man walking a thin rope. Moonwalking a thinly-veiled rejection of his superiors’ life decisions. Wondering why they are taking it personally. People are different. They want different things out of existence. Let’s not act like I’m a ring of Saturn stating the case that Pluto’s planethood should be reconfirmed.
Don’t fall on your sword, Lieutenant. No one likes a martyr.
Can’t help it, I’m Irish. And. Yes. They do.
Fine, I’m not going to make you do it. (Even though I spent three days trying to do so.) But you are now on my shit-list, and I want to fuck you over for daring to defy and defying to dare. A bullshit tasking will eventually come down the pipeline, and I got a rubber stamp with your name on it. And yes, I know your performance has been outstanding, and we have consistently rated you above your peers, at the top echelon. Doesn’t matter now.
You’re right. It doesn’t. Doesn’t matter at all. Even if I’ve only haggled a few more months with the Gravediggers, it was worth it; I came here to fight a war, not to build a resume. My men need me. And. I need them. It would have been worth it for a few more days.
Mustangs don’t blink.
You know where we learned how not to?
It wasn’t behind a desk.
Every day of free-roaming makes it worth it.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Most dogs over here bear no resemblance to their domesticated cousins in the western world; instead, they are as feral as coyotes, as scrawny as hyenas, and as ugly as the Duke University student population. ("And I always remember that whatever I have done in the past, or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible one way or the other." - Richard Milhous Nixon.) It’s not a true dismounted night patrol unless there’s a close encounter of the canine kind with a frothing, demented, “rabies is the most benign thing my bite brings” beast-mutant. (We’re back to Iraq now, in case you were confused.) Luckily, these third-world abominations usually recognize what getting too close is and what ignoring the green laser of God means – a bullet through the skull. Still though, it’s all too evident that my too sweet and too stupid golden retriever from back home would last seven minutes - tops - in the back-alleys and alley-backs of Anu al-Verona. There’s not much to wag your tail about in Iraq, and there is no retrieving that occurs when playing fetch with exploding ordinance instead of tennis balls.
And yes America, while I care about said golden retriever far too much, she’s as good an analogy as any for the current state of the nation.
Anyhow, while settling into our security rotations at the combat outpost in Little Anu al-Verona, we heard PFC Van Wilder yelling from inside the center-most building in the billets area. SFC Big Country and I exchanged shrugs, and wandered over to see what the ruckus was all about.
“There’s a fucking giant rat in there!” PFC Van Wilder said as he came back outside. “It lives underneath a bed, and scared the shit out of me.”
“Hah hah hah.” PFC Das Boot’s hearty chuckle resonated from inside the building. “Hah hah hah.”
“What are you laughing about?” asked PFC Van Wilder. “You find that rat?”
PFC Das Boot, in all his gangly awkwardness, stepped outside with a grin to match his length. “There is no rat in there. It is a puppy-dog.” Sure enough, he was cradling a very tiny yellow dog, who was barking down at us playfully from its perch in our young soldier’s arms. It had a slim rodent-like tail, with no feathers, an undersized runt-frame and an outsized tongue flopping out of its mouth.
The platoon burst in laughter, mainly at the expense of PFC Van Wilder. Usually the instigator of the jokes rather than the culmination of them, he couldn’t help but shake his head at this dalliance with fair play. He wasn’t about to let the subject go so easily, though. “It must be a Russian dog. That’s why it likes Das Boot.”
PFC Das Boot set the dog back down on the ground. “I do not understand,” he said. “The dog is Iraqi and I am German. What does Russia have to do with this?”
“Shut up Ivan Drago!” PFC Van Wilder had resumed control of the situation all too easily. “Get your gear and get your KGB-ass up to the towers with me. We’re first on shift.”
While SSG Bulldog traipsed off with the first batch of soldiers on watch in his stead, the rest of the platoon took turns greeting our new friend and temporary housemate. “It must be Apache Platoon’s mascot,” SFC Big Country stated. “I guess it lives here with them.” We subsequently found the dog’s food and water dishes – Frisbees turned upside down.
The dog didn’t have a nametag, and we as visitors didn’t feel it was right to give it one, so “the dog” sufficed for the duration of our stay. It was unlike any other animal we had come in contact with thus far in our deployment. It barked, not out of fear, but because it demanded and craved attention from humans. Fascinated with everything we did, it followed around our most mundane movements like we were discovering the edge of the flat world. If ignored for even a few minutes, the consequences would usually be a string of military 550-cord wrapped around your ankles. Simply put, the dog enjoyed existing in a way most of us haven’t been around since we left home. Being fed regularly and being treated with kindness tends to have that effect on all of God’s creatures, I guess. It was happy with itself and happy with life, and wanted to share such with us.
Truth be told, it was a fucking weird experience at first. I hadn’t prepared myself adequately for such a return to the ordinary. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to it if and when Apache Platoon departed this place. Five months and some change into this thing, and cynicism splatters every thought of mine like a Jackson Pollock work.
My Joes loved it, though, and by the end of the night, the dog was exhausted. SPC Doc passed out with it in bed, and finally, the canine-terrorist was down for the count. Most of us moving around that night still compulsively tested our ankles for freedom of movement, however, and kept any sudden movements to a minimum. The dog was definitely more familiar with this terrain, putting us two-leggers at a distinct disadvantage.
I woke up before the sun the next morning. It has been a few months since I’ve been able to sleep for more than three hours at a time, something that – for better or for worse - seems to match our daily schedule. I grabbed a book out of my assault pack, found a group of ammo cans and old sandbags that served as a makeshift chair in this bizarro paradise, and fled the land of action for the land of words. Dawn’s light soon replaced my flashlight, and shortly after that, the unmistakable sound of a pup’s growl interrupted me. I looked up. Across the way, trotting down an empty ditch, the dog had discovered that it was not alone this morning.
“What do you want?” I asked.
My rhetorical question was all too obvious, and received an all too obvious answer. The dog perked up its ears and tilted its head to the side, and barked at me as if to say, “you know exactly what I want, you clown. I’ve been sent from the golden retriever gods to make you stop thinking for a few minutes. Grab a stick and let’s make this happen.” I threw the dog a stick for some minutes, and then I returned to my book. When I did, it curled up at my feet for an early morning nap. The sum result of the experience refreshed me mentally the way clean water can refresh physically - for a few minutes, I escaped the madness, the deadlines, the wars within the war. I escaped it all. I didn’t have to embrace the Suck, or wait around for it to embrace me first. I embraced the normal. My normal. There was nothing more normal in my reality than a book and a dog, and that still seemed be the case.
It all ended, of course. But not before I remembered a few things.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
In vintage Gravedigger fashion, my platoon was set in a late-night OP, bantering back and forth on our internal net as a means of staying awake. Being the dedicated whYkids that we are, movie quotes flooded our verbal exchanges like a bursting dam of Americana. Pop culture keeps us connected to home in ways even the brain voodoos can’t explain.
SPC Cold-Nuts’ voice snapped across the net first. “Ron, are you paying attention?”
“Nope,” I responded, finishing the line from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. I bit my lip and racked my brain. “Looks like you've been missing a lot of work lately."
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob,” (Office Space) completed SFC Big Country, with the sensational timing of someone who has seen that film way too many times.
“I saw this saucy little thang the other day on dismount patrol.” It was PFC Van Wilder, operating on full jester throttle. “I had to ask her, ‘what are the chances of a guy like me and a girl like you ending up together?'"
“And she told you, ‘not good,’” drawled SPC Big Ern.
"You mean, not good, like one out of a hundred?"
"And then she said, 'more like one out of a million.'" The hetero-lifemates complimentary pacing, as always, was outstanding.
“So you’re saying there’s a chance!” (Dumb and Dumber). The platoon roared approvingly at PFC Van Wilder’s spot-on Jim Carrey impression, and the very obvious truth that he would have hit on a pretty Iraqi female, if allowed the opportunity to do so, in just that straightforward of a manner.
A single gunshot echoed to the east, towards the town center of Anu al-Verona. A few seconds passed by, and then a small burst of rounds erupted in the empty still. Silence followed.
Showing how much we cared about such a commonplace occurrence, PFC Boomhauer returned to the metaphorical well of comedic awesomeness that is Anchorman. “Panda watch!” he cracked, using one of my personal favorite lines and something I’ve been known to utter in meetings when fellow officers are droning on and on about unimportant, trivial, and altogether asinine matters. Time is never wasted when you’re wasted all the time – unfortunately, the Iraq War is a depressingly sober excursion. Anyways, my soldiers caught wind of my use and abuse of the Panda Watch phrase, and have thus been known to use it themselves when something happens that no one really cares about.
Honest to Allah, sixty percent of the time, the Panda Watch phrase works every time. This was not one of those times. A barrage of AK-47 output erupted just to the north of the original volley of gunfire, succeeded by the unrestrained chattering of automatic weapons. Sporadic bursts of both continued, and the black swirl of the sky lit up with tracer rounds. Our Strykers were already moving in that direction by the time CPT Whiteback told us to head that way over the radio.
The firefight continued as we got closer. Be ready to dismount. Everyone better be red direct, locked cocked and ready to rock. Gunners, let us know what you see. Ensure your night vision devices are on, and for Christ’s sake. Listen to the NCOs.
As soon as our Strykers came within sight of the main artery in town though – also known as Route Sabers to those of us not born under the Crescent Moon - all of the gunfire so prevalent moments before crashed off with the alacrity of a cliff-jumping lemming.
“White 2, does your gunner have contact with anything? Either audio or visual?”
“Negative. Neither of ‘dem got anything.”
“What about the dismounts in the rear air-guard hatches?”
“Negative. Neither do ‘dey.”
“Roger. Same here. 3, 4, you all got anything different?”“Nope.” And. “That's a negative, Ghost rider. The pattern is full.” (Top Gun).
What. The. Fuck. Over.
We kept creeping forward, machine guns scanning for any sign of movement, until we reached the northern reach of Route Sabers. In theory, this was a Sons of Iraq checkpoint, although none were currently manning their posts. Subsequently, PFC Cold-Nuts spotted a group of crouching silhouettes off the street and in the adjacent field, all oriented southwards. With the arrival of our Ghost Tanks, the Sawha rediscovered some gumption, and scurried over to us, where we met up with them on the ground. Sonic provided the translation, although most of it wasn’t necessary. Frantic, panicked pointing transcends most known language barriers.
“Ali Baba shoot us! From down there!”
“Yes! Yes! Ali Baba! Shoot! We shoot back!”
“We shoot back lots!”
“Okay … did you actually see who was firing at you?”
“Okay … did any of their bullets actually hit anything around here? Like damage or something?”
“Okay … did any of you do anything but fire indiscriminately in the general vicinity that you heard gun shots come from?”
With this triple negative complete – thus rewriting any and all known grammatical rulebooks – I told the Sons of Iraq to resume their posts on the street, while we pressed south on Route Sabers. Slim as it may be (and I’m talking LT G in Iraq sweating into a skeleton slim here), there’s always the chance that somewhere in this hellhole, someone is actually stupid enough to present themselves as a known enemy and as a viable target.
Not a soul stirred as we pressed south – like most settlements mired in a war zone, Anu al-Verona can disintegrate into a ghost town instantaneously when the breeze brings in trouble. We eventually made our way to the very southern intersection of Route Sabers, finding a near-identical reflection of the scene we had just left in the north. Here though, a group of Iraqi Police and Sawha huddled in doorways instead of lying in a field. They ran up to us, and frantic, panicked pointing followed.
“Ali Baba shoot us! From up there!”
“Yes! Yes! Ali Baba! Shoot! We shoot back!”
“We shoot back lots!”
Before I could reconfirm the validity of the triple negative rule, the unmistakable tread-churning of T-72 tanks rolled in from the west. The Iraqi Army had responded to the scene too, and as per their standard operating procedure, were taking a sledgehammer to a fly. They were clearing every house within a three-block radius, filling the streets with irritated families while producing zero insurgents.
Ten minutes later – after the arrival of the IP command – damn near every security element in Anu al-Verona was perched somewhere along Route Sabers. After a rather heated discussion with the IA Lieutenant and Sawha commanders, the IP Colonel and I were able to convince them that the majority of rounds exchanged had been friendly fire (that ultimate of oxymorons.) While I was open to the possibility of an enemy combatant firing a few rounds at the southern checkpoint initially, it was evident from the piles of brass collected and the various stories of those present that they had fired in one another’s directions wildly, without anyone getting anything resembling positive identification. The IPs thus returned to their normal patrolling, and I instructed the Sons of Iraq to go back to their checkpoints. Then I asked the IA LT, a chubby man with an obnoxiously immaculate moustache, what his plan was for the duration of the night.
“I … I cannot say in front of my men.” Having worked with this guy before, I knew that choosing between paper and plastic would be an overwhelming decision for him. Still though, I at least expected a half-hearted lie on his part. SSG Chico and PFC Boomhauer turned around from their security positions, bemused as I was by this secret plan of no plan.
“What do you mean you can’t say? If you have actionable intelligence, action on it. Do you need our help? I seriously doubt clearing every house is going to do anything but piss off the locals. Why don’t we go back to the combat outpost, make some calls to informants, and -”
Is this motherfucker seriously walking away from me? Wrong dude to ignore, chief. I got more brashness in my right nut than you have in your entire being. You wanna play these petty Arab caveman manhood games, okay, I’ll play.
The red clarity seized me. We’re old friends, the red and me.
“HEY!” My voice echoed across the side street we had huddled on, startling everyone but we three Americans. Standing my ground and waving the IA LT back to me with my index finger, I tried to make my lecture as constructive as possible while still lacing it with a few verbal powerbombs. “If I’m gonna risk the lives of my men by coming here tonight, we’re going to work fucking together or I will fucking skull-drag you back to the unemployment line myself.” I paused, letting Sonic translate my words while he attempted to match my anger. The IA LT was staring back at me dully, but when I looked at him in the eyes and glared, he dropped his glance to the ground. I hate these petty games, I thought. They offend my idealistic liberal sensibilities. Oh well. So it is.
“I know your Major insists that we work together, so you better drop this bullshit attitude of yours and realize that smashing things isn’t always the correct course of action.” I contemplated using my favorite “square peg, round hole” quip, but decided it wouldn’t survive the transition into Arabic. A favorite local analogy would, though. “A tiger needs a tail. Now,” I said, taking a deep breath – “this is your mission, your town, and your country. We are willing to help. Do you need it? Yes or no. Either way, brief me on your plan.”
He looked back at me, with his eyes darting back and forth. “I … I do not know who shot at the checkpoint. Perhaps it was a ghost.”
“That’s cool man, I don’t know who shot at the checkpoint, either. It wasn’t a ghost, though.” I looked at my IA counterpart, and couldn’t help but feel a little bad for him. Men who can’t admit that they don’t know something or refuse to admit that they were wrong about something always fail as leaders, be them American or Iraqi. I’m no Dick Winters, but I know enough to understand that people respond to authenticity, and soldiers are no different in this regard. This poor bastard never stood a chance. He worried too much about what people thought about what he was doing rather than just doing it in the first place.
The IA LT finally said that he’d meet me back at the combat outpost, and we’d plan from there. He left some of his men at the Sawha checkpoints, beefing up their security temporarily. We exchanged forced pleasantries and a too-hearty handshake. As we walked back to our Strykers, SSG Chico and PFC Boomhauer were laughing about having watched their normally goofy lieutenant turn into Conan the Barbarian.
“You should’ve punched him,” SSG Chico said. “We had your back.”
“You know whatcha shoulda said, Sir?” PFC Boomhauer offered.
“You shoulda said, ‘Panda Watch!’ That woulda really confused him.”
I laughed, which helped filter out the remaining bits of rage still left. Once again, this young soldier displayed his natural Southern keenness. This whole situation was ridiculously stupid and an absolute waste of time; as worthy of the Panda Watch title as any other event. “He was so desperate for answers, he would’ve jumped all over that,” I said. “Ghost pandas! Of course! It was ghost pandas that fired at the checkpoints!”
After mounting back up on our vehicles, I briefed the rest of the platoon on what had happened. The reaction was universal: let's make a break for it and escape the madness. "You boys like Mex-i-cooooo?" crooned SSG Boondock, offering an all-too tempting alternative to the now. (by way of Super Troopers.)
We rolled back to the combat outpost, and made some telephone calls to various informants. They all said the same thing - there was no one on that street except for the Sawha and the IPs manning their checkpoints. They must’ve been firing at each other. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.
What a boring theory. I’m partial to the gun-toting, barrel-blazing ghost pandas, myself. Since when does this war have to make sense, anyways?
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Saturday, May 3, 2008
I don’t care if this comes off as short-sighted or harsh, funny is funny. And during a routine escort mission for a unit of Air Force civil engineers, funny happened. Since the Secretary of Defense thinks they aren’t pulling their weight right now, and I’m irreconcilably jealous of their six-month deployments, I don’t feel bad piling on the chAir Force like this.
Air Force Captain, obviously mesmerized by my gear rack and combat undershirt: “Wow … is that a different kind of material?”
LT G: “It’s just flame-retardant, Sir.”
Air Force Captain: “What? Why would you need that?”
LT G: “I guess they were having a problem with the normal cloth catching on fire after IED explosions.”
Air Force Captain, eyes wide open: “Oh … okay.” He then walks away from me, rather hastily, like I’m a man on fire at that very moment.
Air Force NCO, obviously mesmerized by SSG Bulldog’s M4 Carbine: “What’s all that on your rifle?”
SSG Bulldog: “Lasers.”
Air Force NCO: “What the hell are they for?”
SSG Bulldog, obviously disgusted at the nature of the question: “Well, theyz for lasering.”
Air Force Major 1: “Now, take care of them. They’ve never left the wire before.”
LT G: “We will, Sir. We can mess with them a little bit, if you want.”
Air Force Major 2: “Hah hah hah.”
Air Force Major 1: “Hah hah hah.”
Air Force Major 2: “Oh God … you’re not serious, are you?”
Air Force Major 1: “Hah hah hah.”
LT G: “Uhh, no, no Sir. Well. Actually, yes. Your call.”
Air Force Major 1: “Hah hah hah.”
SFC Big Country, pointing to one of the Air Force engineers deltoid wings, which are designed to wrap tightly around the deltoid to protect the arm from shrapnel. Instead, all of the engineers have their deltoid wings hanging loosely, flapping in the wind like actual wings: “Hey turbo, you want some help with those wings?”
Air Force engineer: “I got them on right. Sergeant.”
SFC Big Country: “You sure about that?”
Air Force engineer: “Yep. Sure am.”
SFC Big Country: “They’re for your arms. Not your nipples.”
Biggie Smalls: “LT, who are these men we pick up?”
LT G: “They are Air Force guys. They build stuff.”
Biggie Smalls: “Why are they all fat-bodies?”
(My crew breaks out into hysterics.)
SGT Cheech: “Too much FOB food, Biggie. They don’t sweat out the pounds all day and night like we do.”
PFC Boomhauer: “Yeah, and I bet even in the rear, they never did PT (physical training.) It sure don’t look like it.”
Biggie Smalls: “That is not fair! They must work hard like us and become slim like us!”
LT G: “Biggie, where did you learn the word ‘fat-body?’
Biggie Smalls: “One of the Big Sergeant’s (SFC Big Country) tough talks with platoon. He say ‘don’t be a fat-body!’ He is very good at yelling.”
SSG Bulldog, upon arriving at our combat outpost: “We’re here.”
Air Force engineer: “Phew. I can’t believe we made it here safe. Where were all the terrorists?”
SSG Bulldog, not a man known for his patience or understanding: “Get the hell out my Stryker.”
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
And then there are the other times.
Headquarters NCO: “Hey Sir, you busy?”
LT G: “Umm. Just perusing Facebook, seeing what drugs people I went to high school with are addicted to now, and who from my college class has sold out in the name of financial stability. So that would be a big, fat negative. What’s up?”
Headquarters NCO: “The two Sheiks from East Bumfuq Village are downstairs, screaming at each other again. And CPT Whiteback is back at the FOB. You’re the only LT around right now.”
LT G: “Fuck.”
Headquarters NCO: “I know. Sorry about that, Sir. Biggie is already downstairs waiting for you.”
LT G: “You set me up!”
Headquarters NCO: “Would you have gone otherwise?”
LT G: “Nope. I would have hid in my room until they killed each other or left. Those bastards are worse than two teenage gypsies cat-fighting over the same man.”
Headquarters NCO: “Thanks, Sir.”
LT G: “Grumble, grumble, grumble. And grumble.”
(Five minutes later, after multiple shots of coffee and a rather tasty Honey Bun snack, I saunter downstairs, seeing the two Sheiks still yelling at one another with all the traditional Arabic melodrama and pomp, complete with finger-wagging. One is pathetically fat, the other comically thin, and both are dressed in traditional Arabic wear, complete with white dishdashas [better known to U.S. soldiers as man-dresses] and red-and-white checkered headdresses. Biggie is sitting down in a chair across from them, still dressed in his old man silk pajamas, smoking a cigarette, smiling openly while he watches them fight.)
Biggie: “LT! Good morning!”
LT G: “What up, Biggie Smalls. What’s the deal with these two? Have they gone crazy?”
Biggie: “Crazy! Yes!”
LT G: “Alright, Sheiks. Follow me to the meeting room.”
(They follow me to the meeting room. Only after I give them the international hand-and-arm signal for “Shut the Fuck Up” do they stop speaking. Instead, they sit and opposite ends of the conference table, arms crossed, and glare at one another. At the beginning of the deployment, I found it odd to lecture men twice my age and supposed leaders of men about matters concerning their own people. I was overly concerned with phrases like “cultural awareness,” and other academic argot. [Argot is academic for bullshit.] I certainly feel no such internal pangs any longer.)
LT G: “I feel like a principal who has to settle a hide-and-go-seek dispute between two third-graders.”
LT G: “Nevermind. Okay, tell me what happened.” I raise both hands to the ceiling, evoking some higher deity to bless us with sanity, before the conversation devolves into rapid-fire tongue chaos again. “One at a time. You first, then you.”
Fat Sheik (through Biggie, as are all of their statements): “Our area must have one leader! Just one! This man is a terrorist! He work with al-Qaeda!”
Skinny Sheik: “You are the terrorist! I drive away all of the al-Qaedas from our village! You want to bring them back!”
LT G: “We had lunch in your village just two days ago. With both of you. Everything was peaceful then, and you both told me that you enjoyed working together. What happened?”
Fat Sheik: “We are two villages. Two tribes, two villages.”
Skinny Sheik: “My people are separate from his people.”
LT G: “Alright, alright. We’ve told you this before: your villages are the same, as far as Sawha contracts are concerned. I realize you are the heads of two different tribes, and that you think that a dried-up creek bed separates your villages. I’m telling you that if you both still want to get paid, and have your men get paid, then it doesn’t matter. You run East Bumfuq. Together.”
Skinny Sheik: “Yes. I understand that. He does not.”
Fat Sheik: “Yes I do! You are the scum who does not!”
(Cue tongue chaos, finger wagging, and uproarious behavior on both sides of the table. Biggie laughs and whips out another cigarette.)
LT G: “Hey! Hey! Calm the fuck down and listen. You are Sawha leaders and Sheiks, not warlords. If you ever want to see another payment from us, shut the fuck up and start listening!”(Aforementioned tongue chaos, finger wagging, and uproarious behavior comes to a screeching halt as soon as Biggie completes his translation. Money talks. Even through a terp.)
LT G: “Let me make this very clear: CPT Whiteback will gladly fire both of you if you can’t learn to work together. He will find someone who can control his emotions and remember that the security of the people is the most important part of being a Sawha leader. Not pride or ego.”
Skinny Sheik: “I wish to work together. He does not. He wants there to only be one of us.”
Fat Sheik: “I wish for him to run his checkpoints, and me to run mine.”
LT G: “Fine. Good. That’s the way it was and the way it will stay. You don’t have to like one another to work together.”
Fat Sheik: “Okay.”
Skinny Sheik: “Fine.”
LT G: “And I know you’re both smart enough to know that anyone who works with AQI, or allows them into East Bumfuq, will be caught by us. We know all. We see all. Especially in East Bumfuq.”
(I see both Sheiks eyeing one another suspiciously. Biggie seems to believe another round of tongue chaos is about to occur, and he begins to chide them in Arabic. I let him ramble. He knows the American talking points as well as anyone, and unlike us, is genuinely angry – rather than annoyed and/or disgusted - with the Sheiks for their childish behavior.)
LT G: “Have we reached an understanding? Agree to disagree, then?”
(Both the Fat Sheik and the Skinny Sheik nod their heads, but they do not laugh. Apparently, quotes from the movie “Anchorman” are not yet all the rage in East Bumfuq, Iraq.)
Fat Sheik: “Thank you, LT Talib. You are wise beyond your years. We must be thinking leaders, not leaders of the heart.”
Skinny Sheik, not to be outdone: “Yes, LT. This Sheik is often wrong, but he is right that you are wise for one so young. Thank you. And when is pay day?”
Fat Sheik: “Yes, when is pay day?”
Biggie: “Hah hah, money bring them back together. These men are crazy, yes!”
I nod in agreement and walk back upstairs. I need a near-beer.
Monday, April 21, 2008
I was standing in the main room of the house with Sonic – a young terp with a propensity to spike his hair - explaining to the mother why we were there. Yes, of course you can pick up the crying baby. No, we are not here to talk about your eldest daughter being so sick that she’s in the hospital, although that is awful. Yes, I want everyone in the house outside. Now. No, you cannot talk to each other. I want to talk to each of you separately. Yeah, including you grandma.
The previous hour had passed in a blur any Zoloft addict could appreciate. There I was, chillaxing in Sheik Stack-On-Me’s living room, drinking chai and watching Suzanne Somers’ workout videos, on his very expensive and very golden Arabic couches. My soldiers pulling inner security – SGT Chico and PFC Boomhauer – were slightly confused at the sight, but I had keyed in on the Sheik’s dirty old man status months ago. Finding him in his pajamas at night learning about the wonders of the Thighmaster only confirmed my suspicions. To his credit though, he hadn’t appeared the least bit embarrassed when he found us on his front porch, checking up on him due to a recent assassination threat put out by an insurgent cell. He simply invited us in, and lectured me about the benefits of “a woman with experience who … still exercise. Heh heh heh.”
Sheik Stack-On-Me was in the process of bestowing upon me a brand new chai set when my dismount radio buzzed with want. “Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 4.” It was SFC Big Country, and he had the unmistakable “I am relaying a Frago from higher, would a plan every now and then seriously kill these fuckers?” crispness to his voice.
“This is 1.”
“But I’m getting my chai set! Can’t it wait?”
“Yeah … about that … we’re gonna have to ask you to come in to work tonight. There’s a raid the Gravediggers need to execute.”
“Raid? Fine. At least it’s not another market assessment. I’ll be there in two mikes.”
Two minutes and a chai set bequeathal later, I got the full run-down from Bounty Hunter X-Ray. Fadl, a local thug for a Mahdi Army splinter group and known spreader of mayhem, had been spotted at a local female shopowner’s house in the northern portion of town, with another unknown man. Our source said that Fadl routinely came to this house at night to pay the mother money to – cue locals’ broken Aranglish - freaky-freaky with her teenage daughter. A family without a man of the house being unable to financially sustain themselves is not a rarity in Anu al-Verona. Unfortunately, neither is the solution utilized by this particular family. After a quick radio rehearsal and confirmation of the house’s location, our Ghost Tanks raced off into the darkness, grateful for this unscheduled variation in the nightly patrol grind.
The vehicle cordon called set. The dismount teams were stacked. I gave SSG Boondock the shaka’, and in they swooped, a silent, efficient testament to hours spent training under the rigid specificity of my NCOs. The raid itself lasted no more than two minutes, yielding no Fadl and no unknown man, either. JAMnation. Time to tactically question. One at a time on the patio with me, everyone else in the main room, where you can watch and verify that I am not committing horrible infidel acts to your family members. No talking, though. My men are going to search your house. Don’t worry, they won’t break anything. You don’t have any weapons? Not even an AK? No banana-clip magazines? Okay. You first, grandma.
I found two chairs in the main room and pulled them out to the patio. I took off my helmet, set my rifle to the side, and instructed the elderly woman to sit down next to me. “Hello Ma’am,” I said, completely certain that the manners so carefully ingrained into me by my Southern mother would be lost in translation, “my name is Lieutenant Talib and I need your help.” (Quick aside: I’ve settled on going by Talib, another Sheik’s designation for me, with the locals. Iraqi tongues never got the hang of my actual Irish surname, and previous nicknames no longer apply. I don’t look like the “Happy LT” anymore, and I definitely don’t feel like the “Young LT” anymore. So Talib it is.)
“I know nothing,” she responded to Sonic’s translation, automatically. “I am an old woman. I am tired. Let me go back to bed.”
“I will,” I promised. “Just help me first. We’re trying to find bad men we know are causing harm to your family.”
“I know nothing.”
“We’ll see. Maybe you know something important that you do not know is important.”
Five minutes and many rebuffs later, I was still as stonewalled as Don Juan at a nunnery. Fine. You win, you snaggle-toothed wench. Ma’am. Wench-Ma’am. Go back to bed. Bring me the little girl. Damn it, I said no talking in there! Translate that as soothingly as possible, Sonic. Huh? What’s soothingly?
Nevermind. They got the point.
A young girl walked up shyly to me, taking Sonic’s hand, who guided her to the seat next to mine. She had big black eyes, and wore her hair in pigtails. Her mouth hadn’t closed since she had first seen the American Giant, PFC Das Boot himself, some minutes earlier.
“Hi,” I said. “My name is Talib. What’s yours?”
She gazed at Sonic for many seconds before answering. “Asma.”
“What’s her deal?” I asked my terp.
“She is surprised I speak Arabic,” he said. “Because I wear American uniform.”
“Ah. Okay, Asma. I was hoping you could help me out.”
“With what?” she whispered, avoiding any and all eye contact. Her eyes kept swinging back behind me, to the doorway where her mother and her older sister still were.
“Do any men live here?” I asked.
“Not since my father died.”
“When was that?”
“One year ago, I think.”
“Do any men come here now? Men who aren’t in your family?”
Her eyes betrayed her again. She tried glancing behind me again, and when I moved my body in between that vantage point, she suddenly became very interested in a piece of concrete below her.
“No,” she said. “The only men that ever come here come during the day to our shop.”
“Please don’t lie to me. I thought we were friends. Aren’t we friends?”
There was a slight pause before she answered. “No.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had been rejected by an eight-year old. “No? Why not?”
“Because you are American,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
Well, at least I’ll get one honest answer out of her, I thought. Sonic laughed, in spite of himself, and gave it a shot. “What about me?” he asked. “I am Iraqi. Can we be friends?”
She didn’t even bother to hesitate this time. “No. You are Iraqi, but you are American now. We cannot be friends. I’m sorry.”
I tried to ask her who had said we couldn’t be friends, but there are only so many questions you can ask an eight-year old before they go all oyster on you. Yeah, you know there are pearls of wisdom tucked away in there, but it’s for damn sure you aren’t unfurling them tonight. Go to bed, Asma, and bask in your friendless existence.
“Hey, Sir.” It was SSG Boondock, looming in the doorway. “House is clear. No weapons, no propaganda, not even an expensive TV. Nothing.”
“Any sign of a man being here recently? Clothes or something?”
He shook his head. “Nope. The only thing is … well … I think the story we got is right. There’s only one mattress in the entire house, and it’s in the older daughter’s room. Queen size. That don’t make any sense.”
“Okay.” I hadn’t been looking forward to this questioning. I’m awkward enough with girls, and that’s even when I’m not accusing them of being terrorist whores selling their body to Mahdi Army insurgents hellbent on my bloody destruction. “Might as well bring her out here, then.”
Out came an Iraqi girl so homely it was striking. She was built like a rectangle, hadn’t washed her hair for seemingly weeks, and wore way too much bright red blush. She claimed she was 23, but I wouldn’t have placed her a day over 16. The dynamics in this questioning had changed considerably from the last one. Now, my interviewee kept trying to stare at me, while I avoided any and all eye contact. (I wanted to use the term role reversal somewhere in that last sentence, but thought it was a little inappropriate, given the subject matter at hand. Oops.)
“I was hoping you could help us out by answering a few questions.”
“Sure. I’d love to help out the Americans.”
“Right. We know you know a man named Fadl. Tell us where he is now.”
“Fadl? I do not know a Fadl.” I looked back up at her face, searching for signs of a wry grin, but found nothing but dreary eyes probing me like I was an alien freshly arrived from the rings of Saturn. Just like the slutty girls back in high school, I thought, an empty face with an empty gaze. She has seen too much of the primal desires of man already to have any sense of awe anymore. There’s no intrigue left in human relationships for her.
“There is no reason to lie to me. We know what is going on here. I don’t care about that. We need to talk with Fadl.”
“I do not know anyone by that name,” she said. I couldn’t decide if I had picked up a tinge of smugness in her voice, or if that had been my imagination. I asked her about her bed, and was told that the whole family slept on the mattress with her. That was about as far as I was willing to go with that subject matter. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.
Having now been rejected by a two-dinar prostitute (or whatever the going rate is these days in the doldrums of Anu al-Verona) in addition to an eight-year old turning down my friendship request, I asked the mother to come out to the patio. I could hear the frustration seeping into my own voice. We’re Cav scouts, not beat cops; certainly there was something better, and more kinetic in nature, for us to be doing with our time. My men were pacing anxiously, waiting on me to finish up this boondoggle. I went with the expedited version of tactical questioning.
“Do you know a man named Fadl?”
“Do bad men come here at night?”
“Are you lying to me?”
The mother stared back at me, just as stonily as her teenage daughter had minutes before, and then smiled. I lived with a single mother long enough to know that this woman was feigning deference. Behind this masquerade of feminine submission was a tartness as sharp as razorblades and a will as stanch as steel. Boyish charm or no, this woman wanted me out of her house as soon as possible – and that meant perpetuating the lies of her family members. I decided that her thinking was that the known horrors of Fadl were still better than the unknown horrors that could occur if it was learned she helped the Americans.
I tilted my head and looked back at her. “I understand why you’re lying to me. You are scared. I would be scared, too.” I pulled out my notepad, tore out a piece of blank paper, and handed that and a pen to Sonic. “Write down the number to the combat outpost,” I told him, before continuing my talk with the mother. “Call us if you get scared again. We can help you.” I took the paper from Sonic, and pressed it in the mother’s hands. “We want to help you.”
She bit her lip and whispered back at me. “I will.” She looked around her, absorbing the tall, broad-shouldered, straight backed, clean-shaven, stoic profiles of SFC Big Country, SSG Boondock, SGT Chico, and PFC Das Boot. For the briefest of moments, I thought she was going to collapse into one of their arms and begin weeping. Instead, she simply bit her lip again and stared down at the ground. It was the final, and surest, sign for us to depart.
On our way out though, I waved the teenage girl out of the house and to the front walkway. She brushed past her still motionless mother, and strolled up to us. “Tell Fadl,” I said as soon as she came within earshot, “that we’re going to capture him or kill him. It’s only a matter of time.” I turned around and meandered to our Strykers then, not bothering to listen to a fresh set of protests of ignorance.
A few days later – after receiving intel that Fadl had left town – we were conducting a mounted patrol in the same neighborhood as the house in question and decided to pay a visit. The dismounts hadn’t even knocked on the front door yet though, when the gunners radioed us, saying that they had stopped a car with two military-aged males, who had tried to break the cordon and make an escape.
Neither of them were Fadl. They were just two nobody punks, drunk on something, and high on something else. They eventually admitted though, that they had been visiting with the dreary eyes on the Queen-size mattress. For a price, of course.
I guess Fadl fleeing Anu al-Verona hadn’t solved all of the family’s problems. Certainly not the financial ones. We called the IP’s, who detained the two for being under the influence, and then we mounted back up in our Strykers. Perhaps there was something kinetic in nature out there for us to deal with.
If there was, we were going to find it.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
1- “But Sergeant … I do not mean to brag, but my dick. It will not fit into the hole.” Then PV2 Das Boot, who, after receiving a verbal class on pissing in an empty bottle while on mission from SSG Boondock, still did not grasp the concept of utilizing the air pocket rather than sticking his entire member into the hole. Only after a whiteboard class complete with sketch drawings, and much verbal harassment regarding the size of his dick hole, did PV2 Das Boot successfully urinate in a bottle.
2- “It would appear that da dogs be doin' something in Boss Johnson’s car. Oh wait … yep, it’s a fact. Da dogs be eatin’ what’s left of Boss Johnson.” SSG Bulldog, making a very vile post-carbomb scene okay for us to laugh about as a coping mechanism.
3- “I ain’t a redneck, I’m just country. Rednecks aren’t smart enough to go armadillo huntin.’” PV2 Hot Wheels, talking with PFC Boomhauer, and speaking a foreign language in the back of my Stryker.
4- “God damn it! There will be no ‘Weeees!’ or even any ‘WOWS!’ on this vehicle! Weeees and WOWS are reserved for firefights and IED strikes only!” LT G, losing my cool with my young privates. Over the course of a long OP mission, they decided to start poking one another in the ass with an antenna pole, leading to a reaction that startled me and unleashed my LT wrath. It was funny. In retrospect.
5- “I finally got my regulation-size balls. They came in the mail.” CPL Spot, referring to a care package that included baseballs for him to throw around. Testicle jokes are not a rare thing in this man’s Army, and almost always appropriate.
6- “Three deployments. Wow. Just think SGT Cheech, you’ve spent a tenth of your life in Iraq.”
“Ah, thanks for pointing that out. Next time, do me an actual favor and shoot me in the foot, okay?” SPC Flashback and SGT Cheech, pontificating on deployment cycles.
7- “Gah! I got dip in my skeeter bite! It burns!” SGT Axel, proving that poker isn’t all fun and games.
8- “What the fuck? It’s not like these god damn mother fuckers are the fucking Vietcong and tunneled the fuck out of here. Where the fuck did they fucking go?” SSG Boondock, the night of the (in)famous IED-emplacement. And yes, that was a transmission on the Troop radio.
9- “Food tastes better out of the garbage.” SPC Doc, trying to justify his propensity to rummage for scraps.
10- “Admit it, you missed me.”
“Naw, I didn’t.”
“Oh alright, come here and give me a man-hug. How was leave?”
“Wild. A crazy chick asked me to choke her out. It was awesome.”
“That sounds awesome. Can we stop hugging now?” PFC Van Wilder and SPC Big Ern. No commentary necessary.
11- “Prime, what are you reading up there? Playboy?”
“No, Sergeant. Popular Mechanics.” SFC Big Country and SPC Prime, after SFC Big Country heard muffled excitement coming from the driver’s hole of his Stryker.
12- “Wha ... huh? Last thing I remember I was awake. I promise. I thought my eyes were still open." SPC Cold-Nuts, upon finding himself in the gunner's cupola, drooling on himself, when his relief for guard duty woke him up.
13- "I think I hate the FOB more than I hate Iraq."
"No, you just don't understand the FOB. You hate the fobbits."
"Fine, I hate fobbits more than I hate Iraq." PV2 Stove Top and SSG Chico.
14- "This place is crazy! It's worse than the Superdome during New Orleans!" LT G looks over at the soldier who said this, shocked, and unable to respond. The soldier continues. "It's okay Sir, I'm black, I can say that!" SPC Haitian Sensation, as culturally sensitive as they come, commenting on the chaotic scene of a local Sheik's rice distribution near the combat outpost.
15- "I went to war and a garrison broke out." An Army-wide phrase gaining popularity amongst combat units, regarding the recentralized (as opposed to the decentralized concept espoused in counterinsurgency theory) war environment currently found in Iraq . The Gravediggers are no different in this regard.
Friday, April 11, 2008
With an IP station located within close proximity of our combat outpost, it is natural for us to come in contact with the Iraqi Police, both on and off duty. The Big Army buzz word of the year is “joint operations” – after all, the quicker these guys can do their jobs without our supervision, the quicker we can unwrap that shiny Mission Accomplished banner again, and pop open da’ Bubbly on our flights back home. With these thoughts river-dancing through my mind, I sat down with three of the local IPs – affectionately nicknamed Bulldozer, Shady McShaderson, and The Unibrow by the Joes – at their station to get their take on the current situation in Anu al-Verona. Keep in mind that unlike their IA comrades, the IPs tend to come from the area they patrol. Also keep in mind that I couldn’t find a terp while I conducted the interview, instead relying on my rudimentary Arabic and one of the IP’s broken English. Standard language disconnect hilarity ensued.
LT G: “Can I ask you guys a few questions about Anu al-Verona?”
Shady McShaderson: “IPs are on patrol. No sleep. Patrol.”
Bulldozer: “Yes. No sleep. We promise. IPs are on patrol.”
LT G: “Yes, yes, I understand. IP’s zien! (Arabic for good.) IP’s zien!” (Accompanied by obnoxious American thumbs up.)
Shady McShaderson: “Zien!” (Accompanied by awkward Iraqi thumbs up.)
LT G: “The questions are not for a report. They are for my blog.”
The Unibrow: “Eh?”
LT G: “(mumbling to myself about Biggie’s questionable whereabouts.) It’s a computer thing. For back in America.”
Shady McShaderson: “Ah! Very good! Like television?”
LT G: “Kind of.”
Bulldozer: “LT will make us famous! On the television!”
LT G: “Umm … sure. Famous. Most of my countrymen don’t like reading anything more substantive than about some Hollywood starlet’s latest meltdown, but you got as good a chance as any at getting famous through my blog.”
The Unibrow: “Eh?”
PFC Boomhauer, who has remained silent up to now, speaks from the other end of the table: “Sir, this shit is hilarious.”
LT G: “Sigh. Nevermind. Tell me, how long have you all lived in Anu al-Verona?”
Bulldozer: “Whole life.”
Shady McShaderson: “Yes, whole life.”
The Unibrow: “Eh?” (At this point, Shady McShaderson rattles off an Arabic lashing The Unibrow’s way, who responds in kind.)
Shady McShaderson: “He say he move here from Baghdad when he was 15.”
LT G: “And how old is he now? How old are all of you?”
Bulldozer: “I am 25.”
Shady McShaderson: “No you are not. You are same age as me. I am 20.”
Bulldozer: “I am 20.”
LT G, after deciding that finding out The Unibrow’s age is not vital to the continued fluidity of the conversation: “How has Anu al-Verona changed since you were a child?”
Shady McShaderson and Bulldozer begin laughing, which causes The Unibrow to laugh along with them.
LT G: “Umm … that wasn’t a joke. How. How has it changed. Not has it changed.”
Shady McShaderson: “You want to know what Anu al-Verona was like before war? Back with Saddam?”
LT G: “Yes.”
Shady McShaderson: “It was … very different. More people, more shops. A lot more girls.”
Bulldozer, nodding his head in agreement: “A lot more girls.”
Shady McShaderson: “But it was also bad. Saddam’s commandolos (he meant commandos) would take people away in middle of night, for no reason.”
Bulldozer: “Yes, very bad.”
LT G: “Was it like it is now? With the Shi’as living on one side of town, and the Sunnis living on the other?”
The Unibrow spits and shakes his head at the mention of the Sunni/Shi’a divide.
Bulldozer: “Yes. It has always been like this.”
Shady McShaderson: “Eh, it was a little different before. Some Sunnis lived in Shi’a neighborhoods before. The poor ones. Now they all live over there, and Shi’as live over here.”
LT G: “How about the police force? Did you want to be a policeman growing up?”
Bulldozer: “We could not be police then. The police then were rich Sunnis who had big (important) fathers.”
LT G: “And now you are almost all Shi’a, correct?”
Shady McShaderson: “Yes.”
LT G: “If you didn’t want to join the police as children, what did you want to do?”
Shady McShaderson: “Play football for Iraq.”
Bulldozer: “Yes, play football for Iraq.”
The Unibrow: “Football!”
LT G: “Why are you police now?”
Shady McShaderson: “I do not understand.”
The Unibrow: “Eh?”
LT G: “Why do you do this (pointing at their police uniforms) job? For Iraq? For your family?”
Shady McShaderson: “It is job. That is why we do it.”
Bulldozer: “Family, yes. And protect neighborhood. And good money.”
Shady McShaderson: “Yes, money is good.”
LT G: “And Iraq?”
Shady McShaderson: “Eh, sure, why not?” (Begins to laugh nervously.)
Bulldozer: “Iraq good! America good!”
LT G: “Yes, yes, Iraq is good, and so is America. Tell me, Shady, I know that you specifically have detained people that you know from off the job that worked for Jaish al-Mahdi and AQI. What was that like?”
Shady McShaderson: “Eh. They are bad guys. I do good taking them to jail.”
LT G: “Was it weird?”
Shady McShaderson shrugs his shoulders, either not understanding the question or not liking the topic of discussion. His English has been known to come and go in that manner.
LT G: “Are your families happy that you are IPs?”
Bulldozer: “My father yes, my mother no. She want me to join IA instead.”
LT G: “How come?”
Bulldozer: “So I would leave home.”
Shady McShaderson: “Yes, my family is happy. They like my pistol.”
LT G: “What about him?” (points to The Unibrow. Shady McShaderson repeats my question in Arabic. The Unibrow responds.)
Shady McShaderson: “He say that his family does not know he is IP. He say that bad men would kill his family if they know he is IP. They think he goes to Baghdad to work in market.”
LT G: “Ah, okay. Fair enough. That’s all the questions I have. Is there anything you’d like to tell the people of America?”
Bulldozer: “I like the rap music. Especially that song black sergeant Bulldog (SSG Bulldog) play in gym.” (Repeats off-tune beat of T.I.’s “What You Know.”)
LT G: “Anything else?”
Shady McShaderson: “I want to go to America someday. I save my money now so I can leave Iraq forever. These two (pointing to the other IPs) will stay for their families. Not me. I want to leave. There is no war in America.”
(I shake all of their hands and give them the half-leaning man hug accompanied with the overtly-heterosexual male pat on the back, thank them for their time, and walk back over to the combat outpost with PFC Boomhauer.)
LT G: “Well, what do you think?”
PFC Boomhauer: “Well … I can’t say that I blame him. I love Arkansas, but if Arkansas was like this, I’d want to leave, too.”
LT G: “So you gonna move back home after all of this?”
PFC Boomhauer: “Yes, Sir. Being here has made me miss home more than ever.” He takes a pause to spit out the remnants of his dip. “What about you, Sir? You miss home?”
LT G: “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” I pause, trying to think of a way to convey my complicated love-to-hate and hate-to-love relationship with suburbia to my young soldier, and eventually deciding against it. “And the other two?
Bulldozer and Unibrow. Stuck here because of family … poor bastards.”
PFC Boomhauer: “Home’s home, I guess. No matter where you’re from.”
Smart kid. Preach on, young Gravedigger, preach on.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Make it more true than true is. As muddled as war appears on paper, it still has to make some sort of sense to survive the transformation into language. That is why I write. It makes more sense here than it does out there. If I ever make sense of it all, there won’t be a reason for these words anymore. I’ll finally fade into that proud sand castle defying the sea for the sake of defiance, then. Alone, under the red hot moon. Doomed to fail, blessed to try. That’s all I’ve really ever wanted out of life. To be left alone, to fight impossible on my own terms.
The act of creation. Jimmy Rabbit on a bus. Pogues in a Port-a-John. Emily Dickinson locked away in an attic. God at a pub, liquored up in a dark corner, doodling on a napkin. Like pulling fangs off of a rabid baboon with pliers, as explainable as the board game Wall Street Land to a people who do not comprehend the concept of excess. Diversify those bonds, mistah. We all have our methods. Mine has always been somehow sitting still long enough to retch up a pile of brain vomit, followed by meticulously rigid editing and reediting ingrained by journalistic tendencies by way of poking said brain vomit with a sanity stick. Don’t analyze that too deeply. There was nothing phallic about that statement.
WhoWhatWhenWhereWhyandWhyagainandWhyoverandover. Save the Chief Wahoo greeting for the mathematicians and meterosexual drag queens. Invert that pyramid. It takes time to organize random musings into something worth sharing and even more time to make it readable. I used to write at night, beer in hand, and edit in the morning, water in hand. Cue General Order No. 1. Now I write mad and edit sad, whenever I can.
iWar. Fitting, in that succinct, catchy pop culture kind of way. Perfect for this Era of Irony. No LOL-erskates for the whYkids, but they’ll get over it. iWar. It’s not my phrase, though I appreciate it and am happy to Oscar Wilde it. I got it from an article about blogging in the Iraq War that quoted me in it. Bask in the shameless self-promotion. To be fair, I don’t think it was the reporter’s phrase either. It begins with “i,” so Apple Computers probably has a patent on it. Just like iPod, iTunes, and iRack.
I War. Subject. Verb. Where’s the object? We’re still looking for it, five years later. How’s that for iRony?
I get it. My suffering and soul-searching is not as deep or as angst-worthy as your suffering and soul-searching was. Were you in Fallujah, LT? How about Somalia? Now that was some fucked up shit. My war was SO much more trying than your war. Spare me the juvenile sensitivities; internalizing anything makes you soft. We didn’t have time for that bullshit in Desert Storm. How tough can it be? You have internet access, for Mohammed’s sake. And a mattress.
Fair enough. Counterinsurgencies are not nearly as cool or memorable as the apocalyptic offensives that spawn their existence in the first place. Following that logic though, we all owe the survivors of Antietam our first-born sons and a free rub-and-tug at the local Asian massage parlor.
But wait! They had a pen and a pad to write letters home! Some of them even owned socks. They aren’t nearly as legit as Alexander the Great’s epical Macedonian Marauders. They literally did nothing but kill things 25/8, which clearly elevates them beyond mere soldier status. Their rules of engagement were simply two words. Rape. Pillage. The “and” came later, inadvertently fucking everything up, leading to the point where the world’s lone superpower can’t make juice boxes out of the fruit of their enemy’s skulls anymore. Not directly, at least. Now we just hire them to squeeze their own juice while we provide the fruit and the pre-shaped cardboard and the plastic straw.
As the keyboard Marines of the blogosphere reminded me during the rules of engagement saga, this is war!!! How e-tuff. Thanks for the advice, it’s kind of hard to forget that when you live it and sleep it and breathe it on a daily basis. I play real-world Frogger with IEDs every time we roll out of the wire, Mesopotamian sand rests at the bottom of my lungs like spare change in a swimming pool, the Gravediggers are awaiting CABs for actioning into combat and whistling bullets without hesitation, and I’m still removing bits of Boss Johnson flesh grunge from my memory with a spatula – and the computer screen dares to lecture about what war is? Typing to kill and repeating asinine banalities found on World War II-era posters are clearly more profound and well-intentioned than ten pages of literary greatness devoted to five seconds of black-bursting clairvoyance written by someone who was actually fucking there. No thanks for the exclamation mark abuse.
To hell with it though, as skewed and as wrong as those individuals may be, at least they are interested. That’s about as rare nowadays as finding a polar bear that thinks global warming is a communist conspiracy.
Give the cute baby seals a hammer and sickle, and put them to work. For the Motherland, of course.
If You Ain’t Cav
You Ain’t Shit.
I know people care about the iWar. But not enough, given the circumstances. Not even close. Agree or disagree with the war, I don’t care - just give a fuck. Be able to find Basra on a map, know that the Tigris isn’t some sort of unholy crossbreed found at the San Diego Zoo, try to figure out the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’a even if it conplexes and perfuses your mind beyond repair. I wish I could issue some loud, righteous proclamation here about the repercussions of such continued resounding American apathy, but who are we kidding? The warrior caste is simply too small nowadays, and too proud. There will be no reckoning for all of this. We’ll fight the fights not because we necessarily want to, but because no one else will. We were bred to protect. Even if we’re protecting nothing more than an isolationistic yawn prefacing the continental slumber history demands occur after protracted warfare.
I used to dream of a life without consequences. Like that defiant sand castle though, it has been swallowed up by a crashing surf of memories, washed away, lost in the swirl of bleeding blue.
iWar. Mine, not yours. This war. My War. Our War. We War. I War.
You peace. Out.
Here’s a secret, though. I’ll let you in on it, if you promise not to tell the chickenhawks or Jody or the Spooks. Sand castles can be rebuilt. The surf can destroy the castles, but not the sand itself. No one and no thing can destroy the sand but myself. And that won’t happen anymore. I will rebuild my sand castle, someday, somewhere else, somewhere where I think the surf can’t find me. In a lagoon where peace is stillness and stillness is peace. Alone, under the red hot moon. Fighting to fight, finding a noble cause in an ignoble world. And tucked away in the deepest dungeon of the castle, where no one will be allowed to go, not even me, will be a piece of scrap paper with the address to this blog site written in smudged ink on it. My link to this iWar, where I finally stumbled into an adventure that I couldn’t sleep off. The last link to a life with consequences.
Rumble young man, rumble.
Friday, April 4, 2008
Sunday, March 30, 2008
As usual, Mojo was found near the combat outpost, on the front steps of the governance center. As the mayor’s son, he has the unofficial responsibility of hawking as much crap obtained by less than legal means as possible our way. Phone cards, cell phones, movies, iPods, and various forms of porn far more creative than necessary are always readily available through him – and that’s what he’s willing to try and sell in front of the LT. I’ve been informed there are even less refined aspects of the Mojo inventory. This isn’t exactly your friendly suburban neighborhood lemonade stand.
“LT,” he said, greeting me with a sly grin and green eyes that are far too dubious for one so young. “Maybe you want the phone cards today?”
I paused next to him, meeting the extended fist bump, and took off my Kevlar helmet. “I’m good on phone cards,” I told him, relishing the simple pleasure of running my hands through my cragged spikes of hair still drenched in sweat. “You got any Boom-Booms?” I asked, referencing the local brand of energy drink. The theories of what exactly makes up a Boom-Boom are many, but it certainly can keep a man awake hours beyond what the body is capable of. If it means anything, I haven’t failed a piss test yet.
“Why don’t you ever go to school?” It was the voice of SFC Big Country. My platoon sergeant has the rare gift of asking questions in the form of an order, no matter whom it is posed to. I’ve seen many young soldiers turn into deers caught in headlights because of this, and Mojo was no different.
“Because … well, because they would steal me or kill me if I went,” he responded eventually, kicking pebbles as he spoke. The green eyes swung back up at us from the concrete. “Mother fuckers. So I stay here, where the Americans are. And my father says getting my English better is better than school.”
SFC Big Country and I looked at each other, and exchanged conciliatory nods. “A fair point,” he said. “Although you probably should know soldier-English is a little different than regular English, Mojo. You can’t say ‘fuck’ every other word in America like we do here.”
A group of my Alpha section soldiers walked up at this time, bringing a bright smile to Mojo’s face. He momentarily shed the front of mischievous skeptic when SPC Haitian Sensation picked him up and twirled him around, and began to giggle - freely and easily and joyfully, just like any other child deserves to in this world.
“How old are you today?” SPC Haitian Sensation asked him, putting him back down on the ground, next to the broom closet that serves as Mojo’s shop.
“I’m still fifteen,” came the reply. It’s not as outrageous of a lie as it appeared, even though Mojo doesn’t look a day over a malnutritioned nine; the brutal reality is that most Anu al-Verona citizens do not know their exact age. Birth certificates aren’t exactly a traditional commodity over here. Most aren’t even sure what year it was when we invaded, even though that was only five years ago. Time is a lot more malleable in the third world.
We waited for the rest of the platoon, and started moving towards the combat outpost again. Mojo bartered quickly with a few of my soldiers, something I decided I was better off turning two blind eyes to. I had a patrol debrief to get to, anyways. I was halfway up the stairs when I heard a voice behind me.
“Hey LT!” It was Mojo, scurrying after me. He handed me a Boom-Boom, and winked. “On the house,” he says, repeating a phrase SSG Bulldog taught him. As he ran back over to his Gravedigger clientele, I shook my head in bemusement.
That kid is going to either end up very rich or very dead, I thought to myself. Local kingpin or bust. I cracked open my Boom-Boom, and decided that it will probably be the former. He has certainly had enough examples of the latter over the course of this war to study. Just another sort of education that can’t be learned in school.
Mojo is still at his lemonade stand as I type this. He hasn't gone home with the sunset for a few days, though. Call it a hunch, but it may be a couple more days until he does.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
After the General left, the Gravediggers charlie miked straight into an escort mission for an engineer unit tasked to fill potholes. A straight forward enough concept – surround the engineers in a Stryker diamond, and destroy any and all terrorists hordes that pour over the Anu al-Fulda Gap in the mean time. Translation: Rotate gunners and institute a much-needed and well-deserved rest plan for the platoon. Also, it gave us a chance to bring the three new Gravediggers – SPC Tunnel Rat, PVT Stove-Top, and PVT Hot Wheels – up to speed on the mechanics of our Strykers. Sounded like a great plan, at the time.
Then the war got in the way. Again.
45 minutes after we established our outer cordon security positions – right at the aforementioned hour 18 - SSG Boondock’s words boomeranged across the net, hiding the thrill in his voice as much as a teenage boy does while issuing instructions before a panty raid.
“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3 … we got some real shady mother fuckers low crawling onto the road, down from the canal. It looks like two of ‘em.”
I bolted straight up in the back of my Stryker, and started studying my map. The 3 vehicle was on the complete other side of the diamond from my vehicle, oriented due south, overwatching a well-traveled north-south thoroughfare.
“Keep watching him,” I said, stating the obvious while conflicting thoughts of violent chaos and escalation of force procedures pumped through my mind like a million competing race car pistons.
Are they sure they’re seeing two guys low crawling? It’s night. They still haven’t done anything wrong yet. Technically. Not yet. Are they sure? Why are they low-crawling? Did I leave my rules of engagement card in the laundry? Are they sure? I need to stay calm, that’s what Lieutenants do in the movies in situations like this, they stay calm and make good decisions or they freak the fuck out and fuck everything up. Why are they low-crawling? Why can’t we just shoot, again? It’s not just night, it’s midnight. He said they were shady. Are they sure? Can they be sure with night-vision? Can they ever be sure with night-vision? Just don’t be the guy who yells CHARGE and you’ll be alright. I need to ask if there’s another heat signature other than the bodies. That’s what I need to ask. Are they fucking sure?
“Heat signatures?” I finally sputtered out, hoping my question would be accepted as proper radio brevity, and not typical LT G brain vomit.
Five seconds that felt like a standard Pentagon deployment passed before SSG Boondock replied. “Roger! Roger! It looks like there’s a box and my gunner reports they have set it down 250 meters from our position.”
Cue brain retching.
Light ‘em up. A quick burst or two of 50-caliber rounds should suffice. I’ve never tasted bloodlust before, not the lethal brew anyhow, but it seeped into my soul this night. As I’ve written before, I didn’t come here to kill, and never felt to impulse or desire to truly end a man’s life. But here it was, arriving as quickly as the crawling terrorists had. Kill or be killed. Never has this war been so clear, so pure, so obvious, so clean. And yet …
The platoon leader in me knew we couldn’t shoot yet, and tugged at my brain like a giant anchor holding in place a battleship on full throttle. Escalation of force. Fuck. Rules of engagement. Double fuck. They haven’t technically dug anything yet, thus, haven’t begin emplacing anything. SGT Axel was ready, certainly, zeroing in on the two human silhouettes with a long-barreled machine gun of raw destruction, but the Iraq War has become so PC, so cluttered, so trigger-shy five years into the war, that any round fired – no matter how justified or understandable at the time of the incident – yields paperwork inquiries and scrutiny more fitting of a Senate Judiciary Committee report. Staff monkeys have found new purpose in this combat zone as Monday morning quarterbacks, conducting investigations with omnipotent spotlights to cut through the fog of war days after the storm passed. I’m not claiming that such retrospective studies are not healthy for a military unit, nor am I arguing that precision and restraint should not be fundamentals ingrained in every soldier fighting an insurgency. Part of what makes an American soldier an American soldier is that he fights with rules that sometimes hinder him, in an attempt to keep sight of the ideals and principles which led him to fight in the first place. That’s all gravy. I am stating, however, that the fact that these thoughts clouded my mind in a decisive moment of combat – and not just my mind, as it would turn out – proves that we are officially no longer on the offensive here. To repeat a new mantra of some of my NCOs, “Uncle Sam has gone soft.”
I didn’t want to spend the next decade at Fort Leavenworth cutting stone, and certainly didn’t want any of my men to do that, either. Maybe that’s what would have happened if I had ordered them to shoot then. Maybe not. Anything now is just surmising, reflecting back with the benefit of hindsight on decisions made in mere seconds during a black tempest of confusion. We employed proper rules of engagement, just like we’re taught to by the Army lawyers hired to teach us how to avoid jail-time and war crimes and sensationalized scandals reported by a clueless, leaching mass media to an equally clueless public addicted to shock and awe. For every Abu-Ghraib there are hundreds of stories like this; unreported acts of trepidation brought on by the castigation of our combat operations in the name of nation building.
I kicked out my Bravo section’s dismounts, one team led by SFC Big Country (whose 4 vehicle was closest to the 3), the other by SSG Boondock, with the hope of being able to detain our targets. They were standing by behind the cover of our vehicles for the time being. I told SGT Axel, the 3 vehicle’s gunner, to beam the targets with a bright naked eye laser, to let them know we were watching. Then I told him, “If they begin to run, open fire and engage the targets.” There. I had satiated the gods of what if, and found an avenue for my soldiers to still do their job.
“Roger, will comply!” SGT Axel responded.
I had given the order to kill. Haughty enough to condemn two individuals to The End because they had been stupid enough to be fucking seen in a war of shadows. Somewhere in the time-space continuum, the boy who cried after my first fistfight - not because I was hurt, but because I thought I had done something to upset the instigator and still didn't understand the concept of bullying - hung himself with a calendar rope. At least he succeeded. That’s something at least.
“X-Ray, this is Gravedigger 1.” It had been a few minutes since I had sent up a situation report to Troop; an instrumental part of any Lieutenant’s job is to serve as a connection between the front line and whatever is behind us. Remembering such at this precise moment would turn out to be my only lasting regret from this whole ordeal.
“We have a possible IED-emplacement happening time now, at our location. Grid to follow. (Grid follows.) We’re employing ROE, and will engage with fire if they run and detainment is no longer a viable option.”
“Negative Gravedigger 1, you will not engage!” It was CPT Whiteback now on the other end of the radio call. What the hell was he still doing up? “Attempt to detain the individuals. Do not open fire unless the individuals attempt to directly engage you.”
I could hear the frustration oozing out of CPT Whiteback’s voice like puss coming out of a popped zit; I’m sure he wanted us to kill these two as much as we did. He has no love lost for insurgents. And as he reminds us at least twice a day, he had been in Sadr City in 2004, and knew what it was like to be pulling triggers all day, every day. So this newfound act of hesitation wasn’t a result of inexperience or nerves. That didn’t stop me from seeking clarification, though.
“This is Gravedigger 1 … I copy the only way we can open fire, even after positive identification, is if these guys open fire at us with rifles they don’t have or try to actually detonate the IED on us?” There may have been a few F-bombs in there, as well. I can’t recall.
“Roger,” came my answer.
I sighed, disbelievingly, and switched back to the platoon net. “You monitor the CO’s traffic, 3-Golf?”
SGT Axel’s voice could have cut through steel. It was that sharp. “This is 3-Golf. Roger.”
The next few hours morphed into a blur. I unleashed a primal howl and ripped the hand mic out of our radio, throwing it into the back of the Stryker, waking up a confused Biggie. SGT Axel lasered the two shapes, who quickly darted back into the canal. The two dismount teams moved after them in hot pursuit, but with it 1) being night and 2) not being our native terrain, we were automatically at a huge disadvantage in this impromptu hunt. No one was surprised when the only thing that was found was sets of muddy footprints behind some broken reeds. No one was really surprised either, when SPC Tunnel Rat and newly-promoted PFC Das Boot stumbled upon a compact brick-like object covered in tumbleweeds; after PFC Das Boot gave it the scratch-and-sniff treatment and informed SSG Boondock (“You did what, you big German fuck? You scratched it and smelled your finger? Are you high?”), we cordoned off the area and called the Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Turns out the brick was a state of the art pressure plate IED designed specifically for attacks on armored vehicles. EOD then blew it up without incident. Too tired to care anymore, the Gravediggers returned to the combat outpost with nothing to say to anyone who hadn’t been there with us. We felt like neutered wolves.
48 hours later, an individual detained by another unit outside of our AO admitted to attempting to emplace an IED exactly where we found the pressure plate exactly when we had observed him attempt to do so. Just like all emplacers, he was just a punk teenager who knew next to nothing, got paid $20 to feed his family for a week for his act, and literally shit himself when he got detained. According to the intel geek rumor mill, he was also very curious as to why we hadn’t shot him up instead of tipping him off to our whereabouts with a green laser. No word yet as to the fate of his shadow buddy from the night in question.
SSG Boondock came up to me the morning after the initial event, as I brooded on the Crow’s Nest. I don’t let go of things easily, and while my platoon seemed to have shed the events of the previous night rather quickly with some sleep and Guitar Hero, I had not. He took a seat next to me and lit up a cigarette.
“Fucked up shit last night, Sir,” he said.
“Yeah.” SSG Boondock had killed before in this war, and would be ready to do so again. I could only imagine his thoughts on the matter, and quite frankly, was not sure I was ready to hear them.
He leaned back and chuckled. “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have given the fire command to open fire like you did. That took balls.”
I felt my eyes open wide with surprise. This was the last thing I expected this NCO to say. He had never hesitated to tell me how he felt about anything, even when it might hurt my feelings. I’ve always valued his candid voice, and simply could not believe he would have done anything but open fire if placed in my position.
“You’ve done it before,” I said. "A few times."
“Yeah … it was different then, though. Shit now … it’s just hard to explain how much things have changed here.” He patted me on the knee. “You did fine, LT. No one expects you to be Dick Winters. Fuck, no one wants you to be Dick Winters.”
I looked at him skeptically. “Did SFC Big Country put you up to this to cheer me up?”
Another cackle. “Naw, nothing like that. Three years ago, fuck yeah, those guys would be rotting corpses on the side of the road, and nobody would blink an eye. Things are just fucking different now. Everyone’s so scared to make a mistake, convinced they’ll end up on the cover of Time.” He paused, took a final drag, and continued. “Just get us home, LT. I’ll take care of the rest.” He cackled again, and walked back inside. I stayed on the Crow’s Nest to finish brooding.
Is one detained terrorist with some information better for the war effort than two dead terrorists? To hell if I know; it’s kind of one of those “is the glass half-full or half-empty” questions. I do know though, that the lesson I’ve retained from this sequence of events is simple and straightforward, and something that could be garnered from any Clint Eastwood film ever made: shoot first, ask questions later. The way out is through. Even if the only ones who understand that are the ones on the ground, living in the Suck every day and every night, placing themselves in harm’s way every time they roll out of the wire in a manner that their countrymen cannot, will not, and should not ever comprehend. That IED wouldn’t have hit the vehicle of the guy who tweaks the rules of engagement, or the guy who would’ve been appointed the investigating officer if we had shot, that’s for damn sure. They are tucked away safely and comfortably in some glass house on the Beltway and the FOB, respectively, casting stones. The IED would have cut through me, or my men, or some of my comrades in the other platoons, in an instantaneous fireball of death. Fuck it. I will not hesitate again, even for just a few seconds, nor will I call up an update until after the fact. There’s too much at stake now for me to not employ those lessons learned. The next time, we might not be able to find the damn thing until after it explodes and we’re separating scrap metal from human remains.
We’d be out looking for the other insurgent right now, but we can’t leave the combat outpost. Some jackass somewhere else had a negligent discharge and destroyed a clearing barrel, causing the entire Brigade to go on a safety stand-down. Beyond being Grade A Garrison Bullshit, I’m just hoping that the terrorists got the memo that the war’s on timeout for the next 40 hours. I’m certain that they did. The actual war part of this war may be carefully regulated now, but the paperwork machine still has free reign to terrorize.
It is what it is.