Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage

I’d brushed aside the informal inquiries for months now. No, not me. Not interested. Keep me on the line. I want nothing to do with a lateral promotion to XO (Executive Officer) that involves becoming a logistical whipping boy and terminal scapegoat for all things NOTGOODENOUGH. I’ve been out here in the wilds too long, dealing with matters of life and death, to go back to Little America for PowerPoint pissing matches. Not me. I’m that too skinny, crazy-eyed mustang who drives a hippie van with a McGovern bumper sticker and keeps his hair long and actually read the counterinsurgency manual rather than pretending he did, even quoting it during meetings and out in sector in this era of recentralized warfare, remember? You aren't gonna break me, no matter how enticing the fires of the FOB are.

Semper Gumby.

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.

Mostly 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

The Happiest Dog in Iraq

Recently, our parent unit opened up another combat outpost in the hub of the outlying villages, earning the all too obvious nickname of Little Anu al-Verona. While one of our sister platoons operates out of here now, the Gravediggers recently covered down on their security operations for a day so they could get back to the FOB for a maintenance refit. It was here, surrounded by palm trees and an irrigation system that actually functions, that we discovered the happiest dog in Iraq.

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

The Night of Gun-Toting, Barrel-Blazing Ghost Pandas

Gunfire in Iraq is not a rare thing – especially at night. Most of the time, the scattered, random shots heard somewhere off in the distant shadows fade away with time, not warranting any American attention other than a brief radio report sent from the roof of the combat outpost. That’s most of the time. Occasionally though, the scattered, random shots do not fade – instead progressing into something military vernacular junkies describe as “direct” and “sustained;” i.e. a firefight. This kind of gunplay tends to require our own special brand of attentive intervention. The night of the ghost pandas was one of these times.

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?”

Double nope.

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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

Making the Kids Smile

PFC Das Boot attempts to fly a kite in the Iraqi breeze. Hilarity ensues. Narration - and tough NCO-style mentorship - by SSG Boondock.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Messing with the chAir Force

I know, I know. It’s not their fault. They don’t know any better. We’re all on the same team, we just have different specialties. Blah blah blah.

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.”