Thursday, May 29, 2008

Support the Troops, Indeed.

"You raised your right hand."

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard this phrase, I wouldn't need a regular job. In today's environment, servicemembers who speak out against the war are roundly shouted down with a similar response. Since we volunteered during a time of war, conservatives say, we have no right to complain about the abuses we endure: lengthening deployments, foreshortened dwell times, increased strains on family, substandard medical care. Personally, I think that the demand should be higher simply BECAUSE we volunteered, but many on the American Right don't seem to agree with me. Apparently placing patriotism over principle isn't enough to qualify as a "Real American."

And now, it seems that the statement applies to our education.

Here's a phrase: "Support the Troops." Anybody remember this? Look, I'm the last person one will ever hear demanding deferential treatment. If anything, the effusive shows of gratitude often creep me out. But it is galling to me, hearing the warmongers in our midst shriek about full backing for our Armed Services, only to then turn about and say that we don't deserve adequate benefits because, well, "we volunteered." These, by the way, are the same people who threatened me for speaking out.

This is your movement conservatism, America: a cabal of corporate-media shills and the well-funded interests who control them. There is no "conservative intelligentsia," only a group of tanned pundits, drowning in a sea of Aqua-Net, who say whatever they're paid to. They'll beat the drum of war as long as they can, and then abandon those who answer the call.

These are your gods, Joe Six-Pack. These are your priests, your patriots. These are your emperors, and they have no clothes.

More to the point, they have no souls.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


War is ugly.

I cannot stress this enough. War is cheap, and ugly, and there is not an ounce of beauty to it. Endless days of fear and loneliness, of missing one's family, one's friends. Every meal, the newspaper reflecting Truths you don't see. Every night as you go to sleep, the sound of distant gunfire. That explosion you heard this morning during PT? Car-bomb. BONGO packed with 155s. Drove into the North ECP and exploded. Killed five people.

I forget these things sometimes. I get caught up in the daily rhythms--going grocery shopping, barbecuing with friends, making love to my wife--and for a while, it's easy to forget it all happened. But then it's something--the smell of diesel fuel, the pop of a holiday firecracker. It's never a flashback, but it is a sense-memory: I know this thing, I've experienced it. Innocuous stimuli take on a weight of their own, become significant in ways that the Uninitiated can never know. And when I think about these things, I am right back there again: Hot, lonely, bored, scared. I'm back to missing my wife, and feeling like I've been abandoned by my leaders.

True story: I walked into a DFAC one morning in Iraq. FOX News was playing, showed Cheney calmly talking about first-strike military action against Iran. We haven't even finished the second war, now he wants a third, I think? Eurasia is the enemy. Eurasia has always been the enemy.

People I know are scarred for life. People I know are dead. Garrett Knoll is dead. People's marriages have crumbled, people like Oz have slipped into alcoholism and self-destruction. All around us, the toll of this ugliness, this shit, exerts itself. It goes on, even now, and you think that a parade and a four-day weekend is supposed to make it better? You are numb to war. You embrace it. We all are. People are dying as you go about your daily business, and not because they have to, but because you do nothing.

There is no room for beauty in war. There is no time alone, no inner peace. There is no Dharma that matters in that place. There is only ugliness, dull and neverending, and we make it pretty by dressing it in the flag. We dress it in the same colors we bury our fallen in, and all the while we can't even be bothered with ending this thing. No--we have to plan the next one.

You cannot honor the dead while their bodies cool in the dust across the ocean. You cannot pay homage to their sacrifice, whilst you send their brethren to their deaths tomorrow. To pretend that this is honor, that this is Memorial? No. I will tell you what it is. It is shit. It is empty promises on paper. It is defilement. It is sacrilege. I would not accept such requiem, were it I. And I will not insult my peers by helping you carry it out.

What does it mean, to memorialize the war dead, when you have no intent of ending war? When was the last time you--any of you--thought about the news not in terms of war, but of peace?

When I am out, I will turn away from all of this. I will turn that ugliness into something beautiful. I can. I have. The book was my first attempt at that, and it succeeded. When I am out, I will live a life of beauty with my wife, and whatever children we might bring forth. They will be loved, and happy, and will learn about a world that is theirs to explore. They will be taught to question, to think, and if that leads them to feel differently than I, then so be it. My job will be done. I will have lived a life of beauty, and in so doing I will have shown that this was unnecessary.

Do you understand? This war was unnecessary. The ones you memorialize, you who did not fight, their blood is on your hands--not on mine. In a month's time, I will devote my life to erasing this ugliness, and you will not be a part of that, because you have looked at the ugliness so long you no longer see it.

I will not help you glorify this. It is not yours to glorify.

Not anymore.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Looking Forward

It's over.

Just over a year ago, as I suffered away in the heat of Iraq, I turned to writing for comfort. Not this blog, which over time had come to serve as an echo for my own daily miseries. No, I began to write a book, a novel for young adults. It featured a young girl, the daughter of a poor woodworker, and it soon enveloped my life. It started off as a simple escape, and it grew into something so much greater.

It was this project that drew me away from the blog. Over time, the troubles of maintaining an account of war had become too taxing, and so it was to this world, much like the one of my youth, that I retreated. I bound my fate to the fate of this little girl. Like myself, this girl, too, suffered. Like myself, this girl felt trapped in a place she didn't belong. But unlike myself, this girl possessed the strength to endure, to survive. She not only endured in that place, but flourished. She became a hero to the people she loved, and it was in her journey that I, too, found salvation.

For a year, I worked at this. For a year, this was my true purpose, my true duty. Now flash forward. Two days ago, on a humid Thursday evening, I placed the final touches on a work that has sustained me for over 12 months. I have done it: I have finished my first book. It is my pride, my joy, and I am truly pleased with it, moreso than any of my other writings, even this blog. I cannot describe the rush of emotions I feel.

A part of me is thrilled. It is hard not giving into that sense of accomplishment. I have created a world, shaped it, breathed life into its characters, grown to love them. I laughed at their exploits, and cried over my desk at their sorrows. I literally wept as I described the death of Indigo. And just with that mourning, there is this too: grief. I am profoundly sad, empty in a way I did not expect. As Alina said, "it is over." It is over. My time in this world has come and passed. I can no longer be a part of their lives, and this pains me. What am I to do with this?

It is over. And yet, there remains yet much to be done. I didn't survive Iraq to let this part of me waste away in the shadows. No, this is my passion, my dream. Now I have to prepare. I have to cast my nets, search the waves for the promise of a bounty. I have to search for an agent. I have to comb my work, refine it. I have to search, have to keep looking even if it threatens to tear me apart. I have never been one to believe in Fate, or purpose, but if I have such a thing then this is truly it. This must be why I came back.

I am afraid: afraid of not succeeding, afraid of letting this thing I have created from love slip away into the darkness. I am afraid that I will look upon this thing, years from now, and have failed in what I intended. It scares me, indeed paralyzes me. But I cannot be deterred. This is what I must do, and there is no avoiding it. With Anne at my side, I will work at it forever, if necessary. And at the same time, in spite of that fear, I am also hopeful. It is hard to describe--fail or no, I did it. I put talk to action. I quote Edgar Allen Poe:

"Ride boldly, ride' the shade replied,
If ye seek for El Dorado."

Though the quest be long, and possibly fruitless, I have ridden where none dare. And in this, I am given hope for myself, for what I can do. This, more than any understanding of craft, is the most important lesson of all.

I cannot say what happens next. But I look forward eagerly.

Friday, May 09, 2008

I Cannot Follow

Colby Buzzell has been called back.

Colby Buzzell, author of "My War," was perhaps one of the first well-known milbloggers. His writing is on a par with authors like Anthony Swofford, and I've always admired him enormously. Compared to him, I'm just a child playing with blocks.

Three years after leaving active service, Colby has been called back for another tour. This development is made possible by his obligation to what is called the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). When a servicemember signs his enlistment contract, s/he is usually obligated to a tour of 3-4 years, minimum, to include an additional number of years in the IRR. Under this clause, the standard term of enlistment is pushed to eight years, and anyone who has served less time than that is subject to recall, pending "the needs of the Army." And so it is, another bright young man is forced to put his life on hold, all so he can put his life at risk again in a foreign land, in the name of a war that has accomplished absolutely nothing.

When I first read the article, I went and had a smoke, after which I poured myself a glass of wine. Though it wasn't me being called back, the revelation shook me. I felt myself in his place, felt the dread of seeing that letter in my mailbox, and had to remember that, even though I'm leaving, it will be years before I can stop looking over my shoulder.

No matter how much you give, no matter how much you endure, no matter how close to the breaking point you come, the Army always wants more. Never forget that.

I've wrestled with this ever since I decided to get out: I served my country with honor, served my time in a warzone, even though I was dubious about the morality of said service. I did my time, even tried to continue my service in a different MOS, and instead the Army gave me nothing. The Army wants nothing more from me, save a life of 24-hour operations, and lack of privacy, and no more brainpower than is required to hit a pin. Now, even as I prepare to leave this life, I'm haunted by the knowledge that, at any time, the Army might decide they want me back. In the end, by signing my name, I agreed that my life was not my own.

The Army was a life-changing experience for me. It gave me strength, and purpose, and memories galore. But it also strained me to my very wits' end. I endured days at a time with no sleep, with little food, wracked by the constant fear of a stray mortar shell, a buried IED, an incoming bullet. I endured loneliness, and fear, and forced my wife to endure more hardship than any spouse should have to accept. I served with honor, even as my countrymen back home left me to rot, and though I had lost all faith in the ability of war to secure peace, I served anyway. Now, my reward is to live the next four years in fear--fear that one day, I too will have to look into that mailbox; fear that I will have to deliver such news to Anne.

You can say I have no right to complain--after all, I signed the contract. Sure. Go ahead and say it. You'd be right. But you didn't live through it. You didn't see the tears on your wife's face. You didn't hear the the mortars and bullets, and see the starving people outside the fence. You didn't see the lines of Iraqi families being denied entry to the posts where their loved ones were being treated for injuries that we inflicted. You didn't see the kids' faces smeared with mud and streaked with flies, or the KBR contractors' shiny white SUVs. You didn't go seventy-odd hours without sleep. You didn't have to wait an hour in line for a phone, all to give your wife the good news that Hey, I won't be calling you for about a week. So when you tell me I have no right to complain, I will proudly tell you where to go--because I went where you refused, and therefore you have no right to tell me anything.

Do you understand? You have no right to tell me anything, again. Ever.

Colby, I pray for your safety. You don't know me, and you probably never will, but all the same you have my respect. I pray that you come back safe, and that your loved ones' suffer as little as possible. I admire you for having the courage to go back of your own free will. Still, I have to beg your forgiveness. You see, I'm afraid that I won't be joining you.

Where you are going, I cannot follow.