Monday, April 30, 2007

The War Hits Home

Garrett Knoll is dead.

Pfc. Garrett C. Knoll, a combat medic, died outside of Baghdad a week ago, after a truck bomb detonated inside the perimeter of his patrol base. He was 23 years old. He was two months into his first deployment.

I sat behind him in high-school Algebra.

I remember reading the headline in Stripes last week, and I ignored it. Death here is a part of life, and everyone accepts it eventually. Though gruesome, the latest news of death came to me as a non-event. I read through the Opinions section of the paper, and then discarded it along with the remains of my dinner.

A few days later, my mother emailed me, asking if I knew a Garrett Knoll. I was busy that week, and didn't have time to respond. The following day, my friend Ackerman emails me with news of a dead soldier in our list of alumni. I put two and two together. Though shocked, I again was removed from the news. Like it or not, I barely knew Garrett Knoll, and to ostentatiously mourn someone whom one has not spoken with in seven years seemed disrespectful of the dead.
Again, I processed the information, albeit with sadness, and filed it away.

Then, while talking on the phone with my mother yesterday, I finally asked her about Garrett. I asked where he'd been based, and what he had been doing. I asked how he had died. My mother then proceeded to tell me of a truck, loaded with explosives, crashing into the abandoned farmhouse where Garrett's unit had set up residence. She told me how it had taken his life, along with those of 8 of his squadmates.

And with these two seemingly separate events, suddenly crashing together, that the war finally hit home for me.

Garrett Knoll, the cross-country runner; Garrett Knoll the golf fanatic; Garrett Knoll the kid I had bitterly envied for his superior grades in Geometry is dead. He died in one of the most brutal attacks on U.S. forces to occurr throughout the history of this war.

Yesterday I tossed it aside like so much old newsprint. Today I am compelled to speak.

I hardly knew Garrett Knoll in school. He was a year behind me. He seemed like a nice kid, though I'll admit we rarely spoke. I do know, however, that he was well-liked by his classmates and he seemed to excel in everything he attempted. For his dedication, I admired him, but beyond that, I can only conjecture.

Who WAS Garrett Knoll? Firstly, he was a medic, which tells me he was more committed to saving life than to taking it. That says much in this line of work. Garrett Knoll, a medic, a healer, a practicioner of Compassion, is dead, and thus have his gifts been denied the wounded on both sides who could have used him. Herein lies tragic irony. A medic, an instrument of life, protected under the Geneva Conventions, has been felled by the indiscriminate efficiency of expanding gases. The concussion of an explosion cares nothing for such edicts. It cut him down like so many other stalks of wheat before the thresher, and now those who survive him--friends, family, perhaps lovers--comb the ashes of his life for what precious scraps of memory they can salvage.

My heart goes out to these people. I regret that I cannot share in their grief.

Not long ago, Barack Obama said that he felt that the lives lost in the name of this war were lives wasted. I understand the context behind those words, and can picture his noble intentions, but nevertheless, it was an ill-considered remark, and perhaps one better left unsaid. Only the dead can judge a life wasted or fulfilled. The path can only truly be judged who he who has walked. Garrett Knoll walked the path, and now in Death, only he can decide if the path was true.

Which leads me to a final question: What WOULD Garrett Knoll say? If he could still speak, would he tell us that his life had been lived in vain? I don't believe that he would. Regardless of however one feels about this war, we who have walked the path can all agree that the road has been well-chosen. We may not choose to walk it again; we may not even consider ourselves to be on the RIGHT road. But all the same, we are all grateful, on some level, for the steps which have brought us here.

And it is because of this, that I offer a response: Garrett Knoll's life was not wasted.

Garrett Knoll's life was not a waste; regardless of whether he believed in the cause or not. Like so many of us, Garrett Knoll no doubt found something of himself within our ranks. We all do. For this, I say that Garrett Knoll's life was a life lived well. My heart goes out to those he leaves behind, and to the memory of Garrett Knoll himself, I offer nine bows.

May the Compassion he showed in life be remembered by those who come afterward.

Friday, April 27, 2007


The time between mortar attacks used to be measured in days, even weeks. Now it's measured in hours.

The days have been hot, and long. I've worked 12 to 14 hours a day, at least, for several weeks now. Only recently have I begun to enjoy some downtime, and had time to think about anything but cleaning my weapon or calling my wife.

I'm sitting on my bed the other night, in my T-shirt and underwear, inspecting my blistered feet. The boot socks they sell at the PX are terrible for moisture, and so since the start of my deployment I've suffered from a mild but tenacious case of athlete's foot. I've just gotten back from the phone bank, and am slowly beginning the process of preparing for bed. Brooks is on his bed a few feet away, playing Yu-Gi-Oh on his Gameboy. Oz is laying down at the far end of the room, absorbed in my bootleg copy of Heroes.

I'm depressed. I've been suffering from a deep malaise lately, related chiefly to my separation from Anne and my growing disgust with this war. We've been talking about re-enlisting, and to be honest I'm still not sure how I feel about the whole thing. I'm chewing on a few nagging thoughts, left over from my last conversation with my spouse, when I look up from my daily ministrations.

"Hey Brooks," I say. A pause.

Brooks' game music continues bleeping away. "Yeah." He pipes up in a rumbling drawl from the other side of my wall locker.

"Anyone ever tell you 'thanks for your sacrifice?'"

Another pause. "Sure. Why?"

"I dunno." I go back to peeling dead skin from my blisters. "What do you make of that? Does it actually do something for you? Or is it just more empty words?"

"Sometimes," says Brooks.

"What, the first part or the second?"

"The second."

"Gotcha." It's my turn to pause now. Brooks continues. The music stops abruptly.

"I dunno. I mean, it's nice and all, but it doesn't really change the situation."


"Makes 'em feel better, I guess."

I roll my eyes. "Like the yellow car magnets."

"Exactly." I hear Brooks sit up. A brief silence ensues. After a moment I speak up again.

"Wife and I are talking about our plans."

"Whaddaya mean?"

I shrug. "You know. Do I re-enlist? Do I get out? We've been arguing back and forth about it for a few weeks now, ever since I got back from leave. I'm still kind of on the fence about it. I don't really know what I want yet."

"Need to reclass."

I snort. "For real. I'm getting kind of fed up with all the bullshit, you know? Especially with all this talk of being extended."

"So get out."

I shake my head. "Not that simple, though. We're kinda talkin' about tryin' for a kid. Wife thinks it'd be better for us financially to have the kid in the Army, ya know?"


"Maybe not raise, but for the actual birth, shit--"

"Yeah, it makes sense."

"--And if I get out, that kinda throws a wrench into the kids thing."

"So don't have kids yet."

"Yeah, but she really wants kids, ya know? And honestly, so do I."

"How old's your wife, man?"

"Twenty-three. Couple months younger than me."

"Makes sense. That's about the age they start thinkin' that way."

"They? Dude, c'mon. You know Anne. She's not like that."

"They're all like that. It's not a bad thing, man, I'm just sayin'."

"I guess."

I trail off. I let both my feet rest on the floor. Brooks' game starts up again. I slip in one of my earbuds and put on some Terminal. I'm still not satisfied.

"I dunno, man" I say, speaking over my music. I turn down the volume a bit. "I'm just starting to feel like I can be a husband, or a soldier, but not both. At the same time, neither of us have our degrees yet, and it's like 'What is there for us on the outside,' ya know? Not like I can get the degree I want out here."


"I'm just tired of wearing the mask. I'm fuckin' tired of putting other people's agendas before my own. It's what got me thinking about that 'thank you for your sacrifice' bullshit. Who's gonna tell me when I've sacrificed enough?"

"Hey, you signed up for it."

"Yeah, I know, I know. But did I sign up for 15 months away? Mandatory? Did you? Shit."

"Fuck no."

"I rest my case."

"See," says Brooks finally. "I don't really care though. That's three extra grand a month in my pocket. Fuck, I mean it sucks for the married guys, but me, I say keep me down here as long as you want. Your money, ya know?"

"Yeah, but I am married, and anyway, you really think you're gonna notice three fuckin' grand at this point? Shit, if they're cutting away our benefits and our time at home, but the enlistment bonuses are fuckin' twenty grand like Oz's, what's that tell you?"

"Tells me we're fucked."

"Exactly." I shake my head. "Not exactly how I envisioned military spending. Plus, man, you know me. I've never been totally on line with this shit. And man, since I've been here?" I sigh.

"I dunno. I'm getting so tired of this shit. I'm tired of of this fucking war. I'm tired of not seeing my wife. I'm tired of fuckin' watchin' people starve and beg us for food from outside that fence"--here I point sharply toward the far wall of the trailer--"while in here I see KBR's logo plastered over ever dumpster and shitter. Civilian motherfuckers rollin' around up in this bitch makin' 90 grand a year."

"They're not starving, dude."

"And how do you figure? You looked out that fence lately?"

"They're not fuckin' starvin, man, I'm telling ya. They're just like the TCN's here, man--comin' in here, playin' the pity card, preying on guys like you to scam what they want. It's just how it is."

"I don't believe that, dude. Not all of them."

"Enough of 'em." Brooks sits up again. "Don't get me wrong, dude, I'm not tryin' to harp on ya. Havin' a compassionate heart is not a weakness. I'm just sayin' people--and especially these people--are always gonna try to use that against you. Ya know?"

"I suppose." I think back to my exchange with Haider, and wonder how much of that was colored by my own eagerness to do Good. I don't really know what to say at first, and at times like this I find myself missing my wife more than ever. She would no doubt provide the sort of eloquent insight that I seem to have difficulty extracting from my more taciturn peers. I go back to picking at my feet.

"I wish I could believe you, man." I look up. Brooks just shrugs. I hear Oz pipe up from the far side of the room.

"I dunno, man," he says in his lazy West-Coast slur. "I think you're just dwelling on shit again. You always get like this. It's like you're never happy unless you're fuckin' miserable."

"I suppose." I put on dry socks and reach for my smokes. Oz almost never speaks up in the evenings--he's usually sucked into some black-market DVD made by the locals--and so I take his sudden input as a broad hint that Brooks and I need to shut the fuck up. I grab my weapon. Lately, I'm beginning to think that these guys are right. I do get too worked up about things. But it's part of my nature--isn't it? Aren't I supposed to care? Haven't I always prized passion as a virtue. Is it possible that I let my feelings--as capricious and volatile as they are--cloud my views?

I shrug. I stick a smoke between my lips and make for the door. I pass by Oz's bed, and I slap at his boot as I pass. He glances up briefly.

On the way out I say, "Maybe you're right."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Problem Of Perception

The problem of perception colors how people view this war.

This war, regardless of one's personal feelings, is a complex thing. Its history, people, and factions are as diverse as they are dangerous. There are no easy answers or clear-cut truths in this war, and yet people like to behave--especially on both ends of the media--as though there are. I find this disconcerting.

Every day, I read the blogs and see the same set of opposing arguments: either people assume that this place is a cakewalk or that it's a hellhole. No shades of gray; no middle ground. Everyone does it. Nobody outside of this war seems to have an accurate picture of what goes on here, and even then, it's so easy to let one's politics cloud one's observations. I can't begin to describe the difficulty I have in capturing this place fairly.

My own mother, bless her, sent me a care package a while back, as she is known to do. It contained the usual items--snacks, magazines, personal hygiene items--but what made it remarkable was the presence of a shopping bag filled with cans of Silly String. For those playing the home game, Silly String has been used in the past as a tool for detecting tripwires during house-to-house raids. When my mother mentioned this, I had to graciously explain to her that "you know, Mom, raiding houses isn't really part of my job."

And I suppose that's really where the problem lies, isn't it?

This war is unique, in that more than ever, we are able to receive real-time coverage on it's progress, not merely from embedded journalists, but also from those of us wearing the uniform. It's an interesting dynamic, and one in whose shaping I'm grateful to have a hand. But it's important to remember, also, that all conflict is inherently political, nowhere more obviously than here. Not only does the politics of a writer affect how said writer shapes the narrative, but indeed the experience that gives rise to the narrative can have a hand in shaping the writer's politics.

It seems to me that people back home--the pundits, the media, the activists, the wives and parents and children--get their information from what they see of us. Accordingly, what they see of us is divided into two extremes. People only see either the Grunts or the Pogues. The Grunts are the Infantrymen, raiding homes, staring at death daily, and going months at a time without so much as a phone call or a letter from home. The Pogues are the rest; the support or otherwise noncombat soldiers who may or may not even go out the wire. Now, everyone's experience of deployment is a little different, so it's unfair to cast all experiences in the same mold. People see stories of Infantry guys watching their squadmates die and murdering Iraqi civilians, and assume that I personally have seen levels of Hell of which I have had no taste. Conversely, people read the blogs of career soldiers and pogues, and perhaps get an image of this place that is a little sunnier than expected. People want to lump our stories into the either/or. All or none; one side of the story is true or none. And that's not really fair.

Like it or not, I am a Pogue. I still go outside the wire, yes, and I have indeed been mortared, rocketed and shot at. I have personally felt the hot whine of passing bullets singe my eardrums. But it's important to remember that I belong to a specialized field, and thus until my squadmates and I are actually needed, we spend most of our days battling boredom on the FOB. This may be difficult to understand for some people.

I have never fired my weapon at another human being. I have never watched a friend die. I have not lived through the detonation of an IED. I have never seen many of the things which will scar many of my counterparts for life. But that does not mean that those things aren't really happening. My words can only account for part of the picture, and simply ignoring narratives that don't jibe with our expectations is not the way to gain an accurate picture of this war.

I'll always believe that this war has been morally wrong; has been a mistake. But I can also acknowledge that good things have happened here; small moments of outreach and compassion have made small differences. I'm not here to tell you what to think of this war. People try to take our experiences of this war and use those experiences to judge the rightness or wrongness of this war. That's not the way to make an accurate judgement.

Soldiers are always going to die in combat; always going to see horrific things that damage their psyches. Every death or injury sustained in battle is going to be one too many. But instead of judging the rightness or wrongness or wars by body counts, why not judge the war by its impact on national moral standing?

Incidentally, does anyone remember John McCain's recent jaunt through that Baghdad market? The following day, 21 civilians from the same market were kidnapped, taken outside of the city, and murdered--shot execution-style.

The problem of perception is a motherfucker.

Friday, April 13, 2007


So it's my birthday today--I'm 24. Another year come and gone. Somehow, 24 is hitting me the way most people get hit by 30. I suppose it's the age when one can no longer pin one's indicretions upon the recklessness of youth. It's just a hair off of 25; the quarter-century mark. Needless to say, I didn't tell too many people about it at work--NCOs like to make you do extra PT for your birthday. Some celebration.

I broke my finger while out on mission two days ago. It was a Line mission, 2nd Platoon--I got attached because they didn't have enough people to do the job. I worked for thirty hours in the rain and mud, with no sleep and nothing substantial to eat beyond a few strips of jerky and part of an MRE. Ended up crushing my hand beneath an industrial-grade jack as I attempted to heft it into a storage unit. Spent most of today at the clinic, getting fitted for a splint. Can't feel the tip of my right middle finger, and the doctor says I may never regain sensation. On the upside, I don't have to do push-ups or lifting for two weeks, and I have a convenient excuse to give my chain of command the finger.

Tomorrow's our party to celebrate the halfway point in our deployment. Somehow, I'm less than enthused. Our First Sergeant loves him some unit functions--"mandatory fun," I call them. So we have some unit bullshit to do tomorrow--sports, obstacle courses, crap of that nature. Honestly, I don't really care. The only thing I really care about these days is just getting some time off, time alone. And on top of that, there's this.


Fifteen months now, is it? Honestly, I'm not sure how they're going to start implementing that--nothing here is official until we hear it straight from the mouth of our Captain. I'm not going to trip about it just yet; but should I hear anything from my commander, my readers can expect me to have a few choice words on the matter. Stay tuned.

So yeah. Turn 24 in a place where I have no reason to celebrate; break my finger, doing a job I hate, and get yelled at for my trouble; find out I'm staring down the barrel of an EXTRA three months without my wife; have a party to celebrate a milestone that likely no longer exists...

And now I'm coming down with a cold.

Shoot me in the face already.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

War and Faith

War and faith, it seems to me, must always have had a close relationship.

Ironic, since many mainline forms of religion would consider war antithetical to their charters. That being said, for those close to death, there are few more effective salves for the spirit than faith. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Pagan--the true diversity of our military is reflected in our expressions of faith.

Our Constitution refutes the assertion that America is an expressly Christian nation. And yet: Christians, particularly Evangelicals , dominate the American military. Not surprising, I suppose, given the way that faith and politics have intertwined in recent years. Faith gives people a story and a role; politics gives us the means to enact that role. Even our films and books portray the end of times arising from political auspices. When the lines between Church and State blur, what else is to be expected?

And so we are told that we are fighting a Culture War.

The running storyline: America, the last bastian of Christian democracy, is locked in a battle-to-the-death with wild-eyed heathens in a distant land. America, they tell us, is in grave danger of being wiped out by dark-skinned foes; foes who want to burn down our churches, bomb our urban centers, brainwash our children, and subjugate our women. They say that unless we take the war to their soil, the hordes will descend upon us like a plague of Old-Testament locusts. So to their soil we take it. And all the while, good men and women die as powerful old men, safe in air-conditioned offices, reap huge profits and tell us the economy has never been better.

The subplot: The Arab world, the cradle of civilization, is locked in a war with pale-skinned occupiers from a distant land. The Muslim world, they tell each other, is in grave danger of being crushed under the jackboots of latter-day Crusaders; sinners and unbelievers who want to tear down the mosques, ransack the local culture, brainwash children with dreams of materialistic excess, and befoul the purity of Muslim women. They say unless all Arabs take up the cause of jihad, the heart of everything Muslim will be gutted and sold to the highest Western bidder. And yet as people leap upon the sword of the American juggernaut, the clerics who sent them there only grow in power.

There, as here, some people believe the hype more than others. Reasoning minds rise above the bloodshed and call for peace. But for those with little or nothing but faith, the perceived Divine call for vengeance is tempting.

Christian. Muslim. Church. State. Theocrat. Theocrat. Are we really so different?

And where is there room in all of this for the Buddhist?

It's not easy being a Buddhist in the military. On my time off, should I want for spiritual counsel, can I count on the local Chaplaincy? Not likely. Try as they might, there are too few in this military who know anything about the Buddhist faith, let alone how to give solace to one. On my time off, the best I can hope for is to find a quiet spot for my altar and a few undisturbed minutes for meditation. Buddha, yes, Dharma, yes, but no Sangha. A faith supported on two pillars cannot stand.

The Buddhist prizes Detachment where others prize Purity; the Buddhist prizes Compassion where others prize Salvation. The Buddhist rejects Suffering where others try--always failing--to reject Sin. Buddhists may not be strangers to War, but we are particular about the wars we choose. So what happens when we find ourselves fighting other faiths' wars?

I cannot detach myself from this. I cannot be at peace amidst this. Christians die, Muslims die; good people on all sides of the fence die. And on both sides, the faithful are sent to slaughter by people in power, who ALWAYS claim to hold the Moral High Ground.

Power as Virtue. War as Faith. I'm standing in the middle of a stampede, motionless.

And the dust is only making it harder to see.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Our motor pool is a barren expanse of gravel and sand on the northern perimeter of our FOB. It borders the flightline of the local airbase, and is big enough to accomodate at least thirty football fields. It's easy to get lost amidst the rows of vehicles and equipment; especially if you work at it.

It's an unusual contrast: the motor pool and flightline themselves are desolate and sandy, marked only by patches of sage and scrub, while outside the wire, the lush fields and palm groves stretch northward to the horizon. There are times when, finding myself alone, I have difficulty accepting what I see. Were this place not such a miserable wasteland, gutted by violence and poverty, I can actually see it being quite a lovely place to live. This thought is especially frequent lately, as we balance precariously between the last of the winter monsoons and the sweltering summer dry season.

Today is one of those days that toes the line. It's a bright day, though mild, with a blue sky marbled by dark cumulus formations threatening rain. A faint breeze blows in from the north, and beyond the wire farmers are busy with the first of the sprouting crops. I'm out back in a remote corner of the motor pool, operating a forklift. We're supposed to be helping one of the Line platoons prepare for a future mission, but I've managed to abscond with one of the big front-end loaders. While Oz and Elder and Mik are busy slaving away with members of Second, I'm armed with a long list-of to-do's from SSG Mueller (currently on leave), and so I maneuver deftly amongst hulks of trashed equipment and neatly stacked lumber, grateful for the rare chance to get away and, even for a minute, just be alone.

With my level of schooling and solitary nature, people in my unit tend to mischaracterize me as being averse to an honest day's labor. I'm not. I just prefer to work alone. Truthfully, the best job I ever had was one I took during the summer after my freshman year of college. I worked as a groundskeeper for the local Water Authority back home. It was a lot of grunt labor--maintenance, equipment repair, landscaping--but it was good work, and I was given a long leash. I got some of my best thinking done while parked on the back of a John Deere lawn tractor. Like Recon, and unlike being part of The Line, that job afforded me some blessed solitude, all while getting my hands dirty in the outdoors. Such is the situation I find myself in today.

I start off by attempting to unstrap and offload some large flatracks, which need to be re-palletized for Second as part of their upcoming job. I have to move large pieces of construction material, as well as some tool crates, before I can pick up the flatracks themselves and move them down to where Second is staging their equipment. Considering that my forklift is classified to over 10,000 pounds, the work goes quickly. I unstrap the loads and them sort them out by component, all in the space of roughly an hour. By a little later in the afternoon, a few crates of spare lumber are all that remain, and this being my first time on this machine, I decide that this would be a perfect opportunity to attempt a little delicate work with the forks. I offload first one, then another crate with delicate precision, taking care not to let the uneven terrain risk me damaging my parcels. This whole process takes maybe ten minutes, after which a single box is all that remains for the last flatrack. It's a large crate, stacked high with spare wood, and with gentle care I maneuver my forks in under the box and then lift slowly. I'm growing more confident with this machine by the minute, and so I move quickly to drop off the crate and thus finish with this particular task.

Things go smoothly, until I round a sharp corner near the toolshed.

My leadership knows me for having a lead foot, and whether it's a Humvee, a Gator, or a 10,000 pound forklift, my tendency to punch the gas is the same. I yank the wheel into a hard left turn and, unaccustomed as I am to the center-pivot steering on my loader, find myself unprepared for the sudden jerking and bouncing that rattles my forks. I pull back to compensate, but it's too late. The crate jounces harshly, and a good two hundred pounds of lumber goes flying. I have no choice but to drive over most of it as I offload the now-empty crate. After that's done, I shut off the fork and look behind me--two-by-fours and four-by-fours all over. Nice work, I find myself thinking, and as I doff my Kevlar and climb weapon-in-hand down the ladder, I find my good mood marred ever so slightly by this turn of events.

"Fuck," I say, to nobody in particular.

My wife likes to chide me for letting minor annoyances get the better of my morale. She's right, of course. I don't know why I let myself get so irritated by trifling inconveniences. The task of hauling the lumber, piece by piece, to the appropriate stacks takes me only about ten minutes, and after getting the whole mess cleaned up, I decide to sit down on the now-empty flatrack and have a cigarette. I lay down my weapon beside me and take out a Camel from my pack, and after lighting up and taking my first drag, I stick my smoke between my lips and interlock my fingers, resting my arms upon my drawn-up knees. I roll my neck from side-to-side, savoring the relief of popping joints, and take a moment to take in my surroundings for a moment.

Several minutes pass. I find myself not so much smoking as simply puffing away idly at the cigarette, much as one might do with a pipe or fine cigar. Before I know it, a long stick of ash dangles uneasily from the end of my smoke, and I extinguish the butt and drop it into a cargo pocket on my ACU's. I let out a small sigh, and tilt my chin upward, taking a deep breath.

Here in this remote corner of the motor pool, I'm alone for almost a half-mile in every direction. The flight line is quiet, for the moment, and up above, the clouds are racing south across a perfect cerulean sky. A mild breeze caresses my neck, and on its currents come the smells of sweet grass and growing wheat. It's the sort of breeze that seems to mute out background noise, while simultaneously making no noise itself. I find myself quietly whispering the lyrics to a favorite song--"Spring Haze" by Tori Amos--and for a moment, I close my eyes and give in to bittersweet sentiment.

It's a beautiful day in an ugly, ugly place, and for a moment I miss the gentle peace of my days sitting out on the Port Austin breakwall. This day is at least comparable to any one of those in fairness, and yet no matter how much time passes, be it in Germany or Iraq, I never get over being landlocked.

And still, I breathe deeply anyway, savoring the rare moment. This is what my life boils down to, these days: Small moments of beauty, a thousand small Nirvanas, stolen wherever I can find them. And I am grateful for every one.

I have to be grateful. There is no other choice.