Sunday, October 22, 2006

Morning In Balad

I'm in Iraq.

This is the first thought that greets me when I wake every morning.
Surprisingly, I'm content in the knowledge.

Stepping out of my trailer for a smoke this Sunday morning, I find myself
greeted with a cool breeze and the sounds of finches bickering. The sun has
yet to rise over the Jersey barriers, but the tops of the second-tier
trailers are already bathed in auburn light. To the north, a flight of
pigeons disembarks from a towering ficus. Their wingbeats compete with the
distant thumping of attack helicopters.

Our smoking area is a wooden gazebo, covered with brown camouflage netting,
halfway between our pod of trailers and the company HQ. To the east, past a
concrete guard towers, I can see The Wire, and beyond that a verdant expanse
of Iraqi farmland. Clumps of date palm break the flat expanse of horizon
periodically, and but for those distinctive trees I can almost imagine
myself back home, wandering around my parents' backyard. I light up and
take a drag.

I take a seat, exhaling and listening to the breeze through the palm fronds.
I like mornings. This is the one day a week when I'm not required to wake
up before six. It's 630 now, and from the looks of things I'm the only one
awake. I'm a bit hungry, but I have nobody to serve as a battle buddy for
chow. I shrug to myself. So be it, I think. I take another drag and sigh.

Right now, the leaves are turning, and the first snows are falling on Lake
Superior. The trees won't have fully lost their leaves, and so the woods of
the Hiawatha forest will be still and crisp with the amber tang of fall. I
miss the way the cold breeze chafes my ears, even the way it makes my nose
run a little bit. I miss walking about by myself through downtown Port
Austin with a cup of black coffee. I dreamt again of snowstorms and muffled
footsteps last night, and now once again, here I am, miles from home. I can
hear a flight of F-16's roaring off in the distance.

Am I homesick? A little, yes. But I'm happy. I have a mission coming up in
the near future, and I haven't talked to my wife in six days, but for now
I'm sitting, listening to the finches, enjoying my smoke and the rare
pleasure of being alone on an October morning. Such a pleasure is rare, I
have found, within the cramped and dysfunctional family of the military.

Six days more, and the tally will be one month down. Eleven to go. Those
figures are as good as any I can come up with.

I am, for what it's worth, content.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006


We came in on a two-hour flight, in full combat gear; crammed into the
narrow sling seats of a C-130 transport. The ride was uncomfortable, and
the landing was performed in a steep corkscrew drive, topping out at around
4 g's. I clutched the buttstock of my weapon and breathed deeply.

Stepping off the plane, I was amazed. We're stationed in north-central
Iraq, and this part of the country lies on the edge of the Fertile
Crescent--the fabled Garden of Eden. I was shocked to see how truly GREEN
everything was. Everywhere I look, I see swamps and dense groves of cyprus,
fig, and date palm. Outside the wire, mud huts stand out amongst the
fields, many with satellite dishes poking from their roofs. I must admit,
it was a strange sight. The air is hot, but the sky never gets truly blue
here; instead, the sun filters into a diffuse, milky haze. When I look up
in the evenings I see storm clouds brewing. It rained last night, sweet and
warm, and I took this as a blessing.

I live with another Specialist--Kanelos--in a two-man room. We're housed in
trailers, stacked double-high into small subdivisions, or pods, which are
sandbagged and surrounded by fifteen foot-high concrete barriers. The
protection here is good. Lots of bunkers; lots of reinforcement. Here and
there, one can see Phalanx automated gun batteries squatting with their
white domes and chain cannons behind yet more concrete. Only the infrared
sensor shows, scanning the sky for incoming mortar rounds.

Still getting settled in, but I feel good about things in general. It's a
beautiful area, in spite of the danger, and I really feel that I'm going to
grow and change in new ways over this next year. I won't always have time
to post, but rest assured there will be entries. Also, I have a little side
project in the works for devoted readers.

More later.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

No Bodhisattvas in Foxholes

Yesterday, I found an empty tent next to the one where I've been living.

I took a laundry bag for a prayer mat, and for an hour I sat, legs folded,
hands clasped in my lap, meditating in the Zen tradition.

I chanted from the Sutras and, kneeling, bowed three times with my weapon,
holding it ejection-port up as I prostrated myself toward that part of the
Universe we call "Buddha Nature."

I prayed for clarity and peace of mind.

By no means a proper zazen ceremony, but a warrior's prayer ceremony

I leave soon. I have a long few weeks ahead of me. I don't know when I'll
post next.


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Sunday, October 08, 2006

So Wrong

The Kuwaiti base on which I am temporarily stationed is rife with consumer distractions--a Taco Bell, a Pizza Hut, a Subway, and of course the requisite Post Exchange. Though all are technically run by AAFES--The Army/Air Force Exchange Service--all the employees who staff these institutions are predictably Middle Eastern.

They come from diverse backgrounds--Kuwaiti, Indian, Yemeni, Pakistani, Filipino, Kazakh--but I'm willing to bet that more than just a few are Muslim. Walking through the dining facility today, I observed a pair of young men who appeared, judging by their name tags, to be Pakistani. In keeping with their positions as food service workers, their faces were clean-shaven, and they wore the dour expressions typical of kitchen workers.

However, it wasn't until I got farther down the line that I saw the dark humor in this scene: They were serving up, among other things, fat slices of honey-cured ham. Though I soon decided that nothing in the main line appealed to me, the image somehow stuck with me. As I moved on into the short order line for a cheeseburger, I turned to my battle buddy, Private Jones.

"You see that?" I pointed over to the main line. "Muslim kitchen workers serving up pork. Anything else about that seem wrong to you?"

Jones said nothing, only looked at me and glanced dubiously over at the main line.

"You know," I said, "I have to wonder what goes through these guys' heads.

"I mean, they're working on an American base, surrounded by men and women of a different cultural ideal from theirs. They sell us condoms and pictures of scantily-clad women--US, foreign soldiers tramping around on Arab land. We walk around like we own the place, oblivious to how offensive some of our customs may be to the locals, and then on top of all that, we accept from them heaping spoonfuls of meat from an animal that they don't even consider fit for human consumption.

"I mean, am I the only one who wonders about this?"

Jones laughs and shakes his head.

"Nah, dog, that shit be real shady."

At least someone else seems to notice it.

"Yeah," I say. "Shady."

A few minutes pass. The line moves up, and as I come up to get myself a burger, I hear Jones say,

"Yo, you know you can order bacon for that shit, right?"

I laugh. "Dude, that shit's fucked up."

Jones grins. "Do it, man. For real."

"I'm not ordering bacon on my fucking cheeseburger. Will you drop it?"

He does, thankfully. We both stifle laughter as we move through the line. I end up spooning bacon bits onto my lunch at the salad bar. I look over at Jones again as we move to a table, and we laugh again.

"So wrong," I say.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Howl

The past few days have been hot, predictably, and bright; marked by periodic
dust storms. Several evenings ago, while playing frisbee football with my
squadmates, one such storm kicked up. Most of the squad just laughed and
struggled to keep the disc from sailing violently out of bounds, but I had
to take a minute and examine my surroundings.

It was about 430, and the sky was fading toward an amber sunset. The tents
rattled and shook with the sudden gusts, and we had to take care not to look
directly into the intense blasts of powdery grit. The whole environment
changed in a second.

The storm was mild, but I can remember how the sky took on that hazy hue;
the way the dust devils whipped across the vacant lots. This desert is an
angry place, but not in the way that Superior is angry. Where Superior is
wrathful and capricious, this place exudes a measured, lonely seethe; the
only sound some days is a howl that moans above the blaring generators and
diesel water trucks. It sounds lonely, and at the same time deeply

It is said that the indigenous tribes of this place--those few unable or
disinclined to take part in the affluent, highly westernized rush of Kuwaiti
society--fear the high desert; not for its natural lethality, but rather for
the murderous spirit-entities which they believe stalk the dunes and sand
flats in search of wayward travelers. Standing outside this evening,
smoking a cigarette, I can finally say that I understand.

I'm not a superstitious man. But there are most certainly ghosts here.
There are things out there far worse than the bombs and mortars which await
us farther north, and if one watches the news, I think one can see how it
preys on the minds of the people who live in this region.

It is said in the Book of Genesis that Eden lies in the floodplain between
the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. It is also said that the Garden is
protected by a flaming blade.

But based on what I can see in Kuwait, I already know that there is no such
blade, nor any Archangels to vengefully guard it.

There is only The Howl.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

The Sand

From the air at night, Kuwait City looks like a carpet of topaz against the
black veil of the Persian Gulf. Looking closely, one can see palm trees
lining every street and highway, and with office towers spearing the
nighttime horizon with their light, it's clear to see that this is a
bustling city, home to many successful people.

The first thing that most people talk about when describing the Middle East
is the heat. Descriptions fail it. The air descends on a person like a
heavy blanket, from the moment one steps off of the tarmac. The wind smells
like scorched figs. From Kuwait City into the outlying areas, the terrain
is primarily sagebrush and low ficus, but a few hours west and the terrain
quickly shifts to barren desert hardpan. I've never been in the desert
before, and so the sheer quantity of NOTHING strikes me mute.

I've been in Kuwait for about a week, though where exactly I can't be sure.
I'm on a base somewhere remote, waiting to be sent into Iraq, but I'd prefer
not to disclose the name here. I've been busy. Replenishing supplies,
studying for promotion boards, training on weaponry and first-aid, cleaning
my rifle, and most of all drinking water. Jesus, I've been sweating a lot.
The afternoons are the worst; the time when we all pretty much hide out in
the air-conditioned tents. One learns quickly that, out here, the biggest
source of heat is not the dry air or proximity to the equator, but literally
the sheer amount of sunlight. Bouncing off the sand into your eyes, it
amplifies into a harsh, washed-out whiteness. Taking a walk without
sunglasses is literally a health risk.

On the high side,that same sand buffs my suede boots to a perfect nap--must
be all the grit. But man, it gets into my rifle, my clothing--everything.
Amenities like running water are spare, but things like fast food and cheap
souvenirs are sundry--local and foreign nationals have set up Burger Kings,
Subways, and even a Taco Bell here. I can get a Double Cheeseburger with
Bacon and a fake Rolex, but I can't take a fucking shower without the water
pressure cutting off. Amazing.

I'm doing okay. Safe for the moment, but bored. I'll be better off once
I'm in Iraq proper, working a stable week. I miss my wife, but I try to
contact her when I get the chance. Hearing her voice light up on the other
end when she recognizes me always manages to brighten my spirits. In the
meantime, I expect entries from here out will be spare, but keep checking
in. I'll send out dispatches whenever I'm able.


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