Monday, July 30, 2007

Precious Little Glory

I'm in Tallil again, for the moment.

Been a while--still trying to lay low. Started working on a book--a children's story, actually. Things are quiet--haven't been attacked since last I was in Balad, when we took direct fire in our mortar pool, aimed at the guard tower across the road from us. After you hear it once, trust me, the sound of a passing bullet never fails to make your heart seize.

I've been thinking about this war, and about the events of the last couple of months. I was kind of put off by the flood of fanatics who suddenly began slandering and threatening me at every available opportunity, and now I see talk that they've done it again, to a blogger writing under the pen name of Scott Thomas.

The people who, in each case, have attacked us most ardently were those who would have presented themselves as being our country's most ardent supporters of "the Troops." And yet, nothing I can find in my old comments section really strikes me as having been all that supportive. Unless in that definition, you include death threats and threats of career repercussions (How Stasi).

I suppose the first thing with which I should take issue is this whole concept of "the Troops." Why does it never seem like "The Troops" as a phrase never refers to individual soldiers overseas, but rather some amorphous band of superheroes distinguished only by their respective service uniforms? Why do I hear endlessly about how much people support us, without hearing that people have any real understanding of what our jobs are like?

Supporting "The Troops" has become one of those examples of cultural conditioning. Too often, I find, it has nothing to do with actual "support."

It's easy to "support" us. We're your sons and daughters; your husbands and wives and children. Of course those of you with ties support us--you love us, and pray for our safety, and eagerly await our return. Believe me, that kind of support we appreciate.

And yet, the ones I hear trumpeting their support the loudest never actually know us. They've never seen us outside of a recruiting office, or a John Wayne movie. They're not supporting us as human beings. They're supporting us, it seems, more as warfighters, as resources to be allocated. They support us only insofar as we support their cultural agenda. They support us as cannon fodder. They cease to support us when we tire of not seeing our familes. They cease to support us when we try to differentiate between the moral high grounds of various wars. These people see us as tools, and idols, and whenever we do something that doesn't fit their highly narrow and simplified worldview, they attack us like rabid dogs.

These days, it seems, "supporting the troops" has become a Pavlovian response. You hear it brought up in conversation, and suddenly you have to trump up your own patriotism, lest you risk isolation from your friends. What is this? Imagine that, whenever someone mentioned the American flag in conversation, you were suddenly required to bow your head, plug your left nostril with one finger, and mimic a kazoo rendition of "Under the Big Top?" Imagine further, then, that people felt it necessary to embellish their personal renditions with ever-more-extravagant flourishes and interludes? Would this reaction seem any more silly to anyone? Would anyone notice any less that, ultimately, it's still the same damned song played on the nose-flute?

The people I find supporting us the most passionately--and attacking our dissenters the most venomously--all share common traits. They belong to a cross-section of America whose worldview and moral infrastructure is based on one similar to that held in 1950s America. It's a form of capitalist nationalism, and it's hallmarks rest on the assumption of American economic, military, and religious superiority at all cost. It also, simultaneously, assumes that America is under constant attack from entities who want to see its primacy on the world stage brought to an end. These enemies are supposedly both without and within, and so it's easy to accuse anyone who disagrees with your ideals of being one of them. In the world of psychology--an area where I am admittedly no expert--is this not called paranoia?

The people I find "supporting" us the most passionately, it seems are the same people who watch nothing but old war films, and read only Tom Clancy spin-offs, and read no periodicals save for Soldier of Fortune and Armchair General. Meanwhile, the people who really support me--my parents, my wife, my friends--are accused of "emboldening the enemy" if they question the idea that maybe their soldier's life is worth more than some fading president's legacy in the Middle East. Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong?

I once heard a young pro-war conservative pundit justify his own lack of service by saying this: "Just because I support the team doesn't mean I have to wear the uniform." That's true, I respond. But until you get up your privileged lily ass off that couch, and get out on the diamond, the actual significance of the game means nothing to you. You don't see the training, the struggle, the sacrifice. All you want is to share in the glory, without actually suffering the consequences.

Well guess what. There is precious little glory in this line of of work. There hasn't been a site recon for me in months. I am scrambling to help my leaders assemble critical MOS-specific equipment, much of which that remains in theater lies unserviceable. I am tired, I am hot, I am lonely. I feel less like a hero and more like so much grist for the mill; doomed to an endless cycle of 15 month troop rotations and doomed to spend more of my marriage in a misguided war than at home with Anne.

I love my job, and I am determined to be the finest soldier in my section. But I am tired of war. I am tired of loneliness, and fear, and sand. I am tired of feeling like the American public looks at me for a soap-opera-and-horse-race. And I am especially tired of having my professionalism or patriotism questioned by people who will never serve, or be able to let go of the fact that they did.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


What is today, is almost never what was.

The last Honor Guards lie on the edge of a scrapyard, just off the perimeter road, near the north end of the compound. Their tails throw long shadows in the evening sun, and even after years of dust and neglect, the canopies still shine with the pride of an era forgotten.

Before America, before the war, before 9/11, my post was once a sprawling Iraqi airfield. Much of it's original infrastructure, spared by the initial offensive, remains standing. As a result, unlike places like Adder or Warhorse, which consist mainly of tent cities and crude shacks, Anaconda boasts tree-lined boulevards and an array of hardened facilities in the Arabic style of architecture. Some joke that Anaconda is just like garrison, and in many ways it is. Still, I find it interesting that with so many indicators of the past, so few would stop to consider the life of this place before our arrival. I wonder why so few pick up on the deeper lesson.

I first saw the Honor Guards, as I call them, one day several weeks ago, after helping operate a qualification range for the 240Bs. I was driving back to the trailers--I'd borrowed Elder's Humvee for the task, when I saw them. At first, I had to squint through the harsh glare of late evening sun. However, as we drew closer, I finally saw the shapes for what they were.


Mikoyan-Grevich MiG-23; NATO designation, "Flogger." Second-generation Russian multirole jet fighter; saw its heyday in the mid-1970s. Cheap and easy to maintain, the craft has seen heavy use across the Arab world since the early 1980s, and was a staple of the Iraqi Air Force under Saddam Hussein. The Flogger is a single-seat craft, marked by a Tomcat-style variable ("swing") wing and an oversized rear stabilizer. I remember seeing the Flogger in an old book my father gave me as a kid--"Modern Warplanes" by Douglas Richardson--but this incident marked the first time I'd ever seen a Mig--ANY Mig--up close and personal.

My dad worked on F/A-18s during his time in the Navy, so needless to say, I've had a love for military aviation since an early age. I had to struggle to stay on the road as we drove by--every nerve in my body screamed for a closer look. There were at least twelve of them, an entire squadron's worth, lined up nose-to-tail, facing east. They were smaller than I had imagined; each one had to be only a little longer than a Blackhawk chopper. Many of them were missing parts--a wing here, an intake cowling there--and on each one, the dappled green-and-beige paint schemes that once adorned their fuselages were defaced by vomitous Jackson Pollock displays of multicolored graffiti. I remember feeling a wave of sadness at this, along with sadness that I could get out of the vehicle and explore further. I've begged Oz to shotgun me over there in the Humvee several times since, but he never assents.

The whole period of exposure lasted maybe thirty seconds; thirty seconds which, I'm ashamed to admit, I spent more time looking out my window than actually keeping my eyes on the road. All the same though, the experience got me thinking. Technically, I understand that these machines are former technology of the enemy, unserviceable if not obsolete, and that their fate must be a long slow decay in the graveyard before eventual destruction. Still, it seems to me a tragedy. Such fine machines, and none to remember their legacy.

Who were the men who piloted these craft? What were they like? What did they feel as they rocketed across Mesopotamian sky? Did they jink their wings on takeoff as we do; rolling sharply to one side in salute, as they shrieked skyward for morning maneuvers? Did they die in combat? Did they even make it to their planes on those last fateful mornings? Are any of them still alive? These are the questions which surround me.

Just as I am connected to the events and places of my own past, so too am I compelled to seek out the past in this place; a place, indeed, with more of a past than any of us in the proud Empire can begin to imagine. Talk to me all you wish of the wickedness of Saddam Hussein. Talk to me of the madness of his sons, of the corruption that marked their reign. In evil places, and in evil times, there can always be found good, even among the warriors who serve such evil. Talk to me of these, and I will remember driving by those Floggers. I will remember them, and I will close my eyes, and imagine them as they must have been. I will imagine them, sitting proudly on the flight line, surrounded by throngs of crew chiefs and technicians. I will imagine their pilots, tall and resplendent in their flight coveralls, pointing out deficiences and listing requests for parts. I will imagine them, striding proudly around the tarmac in the late-afternoon sun, and I will wonder when the last day as that any of these these men, and their planes, ever truly knew peace.

When I close my eyes, I will wonder of the past that is now forever lost to us, and I will see it in those abandoned planes. I want to see something, anything, of what came before. I want to see this place as more than just the United States of Iraq.

Forgetting is a sin. Even worse is remaining ignorant.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Fourth

I apologize--I've let the guns fall silent for far too long. I received a bit more attention than I was ready for when Doonesbury linked me, and to be honest I felt the need for a break. Now that things have quieted down, one can expect a more regular posting cycle.

It's the Fourth of July--Independence Day. Being in Iraq, this day is of special significance for me. However, rather than revisit the usual themes so often discussed on this important date, I'd like to shift the focus to something more personal. For just a moment, I'd like to drop the soldier mask.

I miss the Independence Day celebrations of my youth.

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in Port Austin, a quiet harbor town along Michigan's Lake Huron shore. It was a simple place, and still is. Sunny and willow-shaded, it sits on a shoal of land that locals fondly refer to as "The Thumb," and it lacks many of the accoutrements that many suburbanites deem necessary for daily living. Still, it's a pleasant little village, brimming with cafes, diners and charming shops of wide array. It boasts a wealth of public beach space, and for this reason the place attracts a swarm of summer tourists; birdwatchers, biker gangs, and buxom young women clad in bikinis and multihued sarongs.

As with any such place, the locals look on these outsiders with mixed wonder and disdain. I, for one, love them. Growing up as I did upon the beaches, I felt as though I ruled over a sacred Elysium, and that these travelers were visitors to my garden. I was privileged enough to marvel in this beauty every day; why not share it, I reasoned? Besides, the shoreside pilgrims that my Huron attracted were what gave rise to one of our town's greatest celebrations: the ones for Fourth of July.

The Fourth. I remember every single celebration I ever witnessed.

Every year, the same lilac breeze, the same rush of birdsong and cicada. I used to get up early on these days, even though it was summer vacation. The rush of morning beachgoers, and of fishermen out to harbor, was usually in full bloom by about nine. I liked to be out by seven. Ever since childhood, I've found a certain beauty, a holiness even, in being up early enough to witness the waking of the world.

The throng of diners over at the Lighthouse Cafe: families stepping out for brunch, construction workers enjoying a rare break in summer labor; the same batch of old charter fishing captains, laughing coarsely and telling bold lies over endless jovial pots of coffee. Or the old-timers at Chuck and Jane's, joking and grousing to the strains of poorly-captured Glenn Miller. I even relished the sight of young tourist couples, walking their dogs along the beach at Bird Creek. Watching the quiet streets slowly fill with life continues to be a fond memory, one that on this day still manages to fill me with succor.

By ten, the lawn chairs started coming out. Arrayed in color guards of gunmetal and gauzy neon, they always posted watch along the same bucolic route; starting at the old Middle School, where M-53 became Lake Street, and continuing north until the Marina sloped down toward the water. Here the route swung left, turning onto West Spring, down along the residential avenues lined with beech and cottonwood. Glancing right as the street followed west, one could see the inviting green of Huron; feel her clean breezes coming in from just thirty feet downslope. By eleven-thirty, I found it prudent to have a spot staked out on the curb. The parade, which started at one, attracted revelers from as far as Ohio, and tended to accomodate standing room only. Though I made the first journeys with my parents, by the age of nine or ten I preferred to make such journeys alone. I was a lonely kid, but self-reliant, and as I grew older I came to prefer the comfort of solitude.

The parades themselves were always a spectacle. Throngs of cars and trucks, entered by local businesses; local beauty queens and civic groups. Gangs of war-painted go-carters swerved between the ranks of ambulances and neon-yellow firetrucks, tossing out candy to smiling kids as they whipped past. On several occasions, the cheers of bystanders were shattered by a trio of Air National Guard F-16s, shooting low over the shoreline to the shock, then later awe, of zinc-nosed resorters. Those of the more urbanized sections of America might not understand the simple joy I took in these small-town spectacles, but to me they were representative of a few things that I found were right in rural America: a sense of pride, of diversity, of shared hope . Call it shmaltzy, but I found that such displays held a sense of authenticity, of warmth, that I've since found lacking in the larger communities that I've since called home.

So many smiles, on so many strange faces, on what was almost always such a beautiful day. On those days, I found patriotism, not merely in ideals, in documents, or even in chintzy country-music songs, but rather in that simple display of people coming together. In those days, I felt blessed.

The parades passed, eventually, as they always do. The late afternoons in Port Austin belonged to the beachgoer, and so it was that I often found myself, strolling lazy and barefoot, along the boardwalks and coarse cinnamon sands. The shorelines, and particularly the breakwall, were always a jumbling blur of tanned bodies, cocky college guys and their cocoa-buttered quarries, whose long hair always glistened with sand, and whose bosoms peeked, taunting, from behind an impressive array of day-glo bikinis. Fishermen, bearded and suitcase-worn from too much sun, sat in their VFW hats and ratty T-shirts, sipping beers as they silently waiting, Buddha-like, for steelheads and perch. At the far end, near the harbor inlet, packs of teenagers laughed and splashed, shrieking as they leapt, arms and legs akimbo, into the cold emerald waters of Saginaw Bay. I remember, in my younger days, feeling envious of such coltish displays of friendship and budding sexuality. Now that I am older, however, I feel a sense of knowing amusement. Why, I don't fully understand, but nevertheless, in this image I find again a sense of hope. Hope for the world I live in, perhaps, hope that perhaps there will always be such places; places where lives need not be touched by evil.

The days always entered a sort of time-warp, as afternoon began to wane. I remember the southern skies, indigo-blue and piled high with massing thunderheads. The threat of hard, warm rain, borne on breezes that smelled of ozone and wheat, portents that turned the air electric, erotic. In the early evening, say around 6, the hair on my arms stood up, and the smell of grass and sand set on me edge, balanced me precarious and stiff on the verge of some unnamed and unfocused desire.

By seven or eight, my father would be at work, charming customers at the upper-class restaurant where he has long tended bar. At first with my mother and sister, and then later alone, I remember that twilight pilgrimage down to the harbor; down with a blanket and book to the broad expanse of grass where revelers congregated, in preparation for the evening's fireworks. By this time of night, the town's streets would be clogged; cars parked on stranger's lawns and occupants forced to walk. The crowds were enormous; swarms of people 10,000 strong, crammed into a tiny shoreside hamlet barely large enough for 700 year-round locals. The smell of sand and seaweed, drifting off the skin of a young woman's neck; a perfume that ever reminds me of those flustered days. I remember being 12, sitting on the cusp of puberty, seeing the couples, the coed trios and quartets of those just a few years older than me, and feeling a deep longing: not just for sex, for the initiation into adulthood, but for companionship. In a confession rare for boys that age, I found myself jealous not of the swell of breast or thigh, but for the clasp of hand. I sat at twilight, on the shores of Lake Huron, and watched the couples, and lamented that such budding desire should leave me forgotten. And yet, in retrospect, such hollow ache seems today to bring more comfort than pain.

There were moments of beauty, as well. I remember being fifteen, coming into my junior year of high school, and sitting on the lawns, shoulder-to-shoulder, with my friend Teresa, the first girl I can truly say I loved. We laughed together and watched the streaks of multicolored fire thunder skyward, and when we locked eyes in the flares of those tiny novas, she grinned, trying to hide her braces, and maybe nudged at me with her shoulder. In the waking sparks of fireflies, calling out in futile homage to those booming pyrotechnics, as though to elder insect gods, I felt the spark of something new as well. I felt awe, and kindred being. As the skies opening in shuddering finale, I felt the swell of a new part of the self, and in this too, I found hope. I felt the rush of emotions run high, of shared yearning in the height of summer. In those days, far from the reach of sorrow or hardship, became intertwined with the festival of God and country, and so did those early July days become a time of hope, of love, of searching for self. What emerged was the feeling of being a young man, living in the last undiscovered sanctuary, deep inside the last great Empire of our age. It was a heady feeling, and still is.

Later, after the fireworks died down, I remember picked up my book and wandered in silence, back through the departing headlights. A time-honored ritual, I felt, even in the blaring horns and swirls of shimmering glowsticks, an overwhelming silence. The traffic died away as I turned off onto my street, and as I fell again beneath the deep embrace of the maple boughs that shadowed my front yard, I remember how hard it felt, how beautiful, to turn back before opening the screen door to our porch, and savor the night air, and feel myself standing on the edge of something unseen; all at once serene, confused... breathless.

In those days, far from the reach of sorrow or hardship, the days of lovebecame intertwined with the festival of God and country, and so did those early July days become a time of something new. What emerged was the feeling of being a young man, living in the last undiscovered sanctuary, deep inside the last great Empire of our age.

It was a heady feeling, and I imagine it still is. I only hope that in that place tonight, some young man, much as myself at that age, walks home under the stars and the fading sounds of laughter, and understands.