Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Robert Frost

Saturday, December 30, 2006


I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable, and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed,
and then I could not see to see.

~ Emily Dickinson

It's finally done. The body of Saddam Hussein swung from a rope early this morning. Proud to the last, he refused a hood. He went to the gallows clutching the Koran, and recited a Sunni prayer before his death- an odd end for a man who built one of the most secular nations in the middle east. I have no doubt that the Shia and the Kurds are ecstatic, but the Sunni are restless.

It's going to be a long day.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

New Picture Gallery

There's a picture gallery up at Acute Politics: Iraq.
I don't have many in there yet, since it takes so long to upload, but don't worry. There will be more to come.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

It's officially Christmas here in Iraq.

It doesn't really seem like Christmas. Sure, a lot of guys have some little token of the season in their rooms or spilling over into the hallways- there's little trees and some garlands. There's some stockings that someone in the states sent over for the soldiers lying undistributed in a box. Christmas spirit is sure trying to get into the air, but it's hard to get into it in the middle of a war. The fighting doesn't stop for us just because it happens to be Christmas. It never has. The Bible story about Jesus' birth says that the king's response to the news was to go and kill all the children of the appropriate age he could find to eliminate the threat to his crown. For all the elements of the holiday that are missed over here, the bloodshed angle sure managed to stick around. In this counterinsurgency that we are fighting, we try to accommodate Muslim holidays and traditions to the extent we can. Our enemy gives no such ground on Christmas or any other holiday, and we neither expect him to do so, nor do we relax and wait for him to attack. The missions and the gunfire and the explosions don't stop; we just have Christmas in the midst of them.

It sucks, yes. But it's still Christmas. I can tell by the tune I hear a Marine humming as he splashes through the mud. I can tell by the boxes spilling into the halls, filled with treats and gifts from people far away. I can tell it from the cards schoolchildren send to wish their heroes well.

I've had a couple people tell me they feel guilty for being at home with families over the holidays while so many people they know serve overseas. Here's what I want to say to you this Christmas:

Don't worry about us today. Relax in your fire-warmed homes. Cut the bows and tear open the packages. Call the grandparents. Shovel the driveway and then build a snowman. Dig into the potatoes and have an extra slice of ham. Share a kiss under the mistletoe. Drink up the eggnog, and don't forget to raise a toast for your soldier far away.

Make sure everything is well at home- we'll take care of things here.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

We Pump You Up!

It's generally about 2 hours before a mission when the music starts. There's a lot of ways that guys here pump themselves up to get ready for a mission. Some get mad- mad at the Iraqis, mad at the Army for "screwing" them, mad at whatever makes them ready for whatever might be out there. Some guys become very quiet and focus on making sure that all of their gear is in exactly the right places. Some perform pre-mission rituals that they have established over the last few months in theater. Most of the guys, though, play music.

There's a little bit of everything floating through the air. Some bands are favorites for their hardcore, often angry lyrics: Dope, Metallica, Drowning Pool, Rage Against the Machine (ironically enough), and so forth. There's country music going somewhere in the back. The LT is off listening to some classic rock- ACDC, or maybe Guns&Roses. Light rock forms a melodic counterpoint to the bass of the heavier music: Nickel Creek, Jack Johnson and Iron&Wine. In my own ears it's Project 86:
High noon cometh, not a moment too soon
There's gonna be a firefight tonight
A reckoning to confront the residents of this tomb
A gunpowder party and it feels just right
A few nights ago, we were out on the line with only thirty minutes or so left until the mission start time, when the Buffalo, our vehicle with a giant robotic arm we use to disarm IEDs, shudders and dies. The alternator has died, and we don't have a replacement. Everyone is pumped, as usual, and now it looks like we may not have a mission after all. If you've ever seen a kid with ADHD running around and bouncing off of walls, just imagine 30 full grown men doing that. Add some mud and a lot of testosterone, and you'll pretty much have the picture. We considered a number of options for our mission: simply canceling, rolling without the Buffalo, or having one of our equipment operators take out a backhoe instead. In the end, we scrubbed the mission and had the part trucked in later.

There's an old joke about grunts that tells of the sergeant that left his squad in the barracks with a pair of bowling balls. Half an hour later, he returns, and one bowling ball is missing- the other is split in half. All the soldiers maintain innocence: "But sarge, it was like that when I got here!". As with so many jokes, this one has an underlying truth. Fortunately, we managed to make it through our unexpected vacation without breaking anything (and only having a few people wrestle in the mud) and eventually everyone settled down enough to go to sleep.

Iraqi Knickknacks

My platoon has a new ashtray: the remnants of an IED that someone tried to kill us with. The truck made it through a lot better than the IED did. It's the bottom half of a large shell, about six inches in diameter and maybe twelve or so high, with a jagged edge on top. The EOD (Explosives Ordinance Disposal - Army bomb squad) techs tell us that a lot of shells end up like this. Some of the shell will shatter into deadly shrapnel, and the rest will fly through the air as one large piece. It's no less deadly if it happens to hit you, but the odds of being hit by one large chunk instead of a thousand little ones are definitely favorable. The one that we have was picked up minutes after an IED attack. It was still smoking when we threw it in the truck. We figured it would be appropriate to keep the hunk of once-deadly junk smoking for a while longer.

Better luck next time, you murderous bastards.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Profile of a Soldier:

I'm back in Ramadi for a few days. This place still feels like home, even though I've spent far more time in Falluja lately. When I left Falluja early this morning, the light drizzle of the previous night had all but ceased, even though the sky was still grey and overcast. Here, the rain has been going pretty steady for two days now, and the pervading dust has turned to thick mud underfoot. Frankly, I preferred the dust, even though it was everywhere and got in everything- weapons, sleeping bags and eyes- the mud is just as omnipresent and much more reticent. The mud coats everything- my boots feel like a pair of stilts, my rug looks like a terrarium despite our best efforts, and mud still coats my coffee cup from a stumble on the dark walk back from chow. Except for brief forays to chow and the gym, I've spent as much time as possible in my room, doing what all people normally do on rainy days: curl up and read a good book, or chat with friends on the internet. This state of semi-seclusion has turned me into even more of a rambler than normal, which brings me, in a typical roundabout way, to the point of this post: telling a little about myself.

I am a typical American soldier.

I was in my third years of study in mechanical engineering at a respected private university when I decided to take a break from school and work for a little while to shrug off the pressures of upper-division math and physics. Shortly afterwards, I found myself walking into a recruiting office, determined to make something of my lifelong respect for the military. I am not uncommon in my level of education- despite the reputation of combat engineers as capable of little more than grunting, well over half of my platoon has either completed or is in the process of obtaining a college degree. These aren't your average party-boy degrees, either: we range in field of study from sociology to pre-law to English literature to engineering. That just puts the lie once more to certain Congressmen, doesn't it?

There were a lot of reasons I joined the Army. Some part of me considered that going to war would prove me a man- a childish notion that I long ago shed. Oh, I knew I was going to war before I joined. I didn't do it for the college money, or a quick route out of a deadbeat life. Part of it was a sense of tradition; many members of my family have served in the military in wars from the American Civil War onward. My great-uncle was decorated for heroism during the WWII landing in Sicily. My mother's side of the family also brought General Claire Chennault, the commander of the audacious Flying Tigers in Nationalist China. My family has always been as proud of its heroes as they have been closemouthed about their service. Part of me wanted to change that- to serve, and tell about it so others could know the terrors and triumphs of service. All of that said, there was one reason that far outstripped the others.

I believe above all in the basic rights of men and women, and that the most basic human right is the right to self-determination. I can't prove to you that a free society is the best way for a person to live. I can only say that I believe it wholly. I knew that I had a chance to try to provide that right to a nation. I knew that there was no way I could live with myself when someone looked me in the eyes and asked me why I didn't go and fight for what I believed so strongly. For me, this isn't about politics, or administrations, or whether Iraq had WMD. It's not about oil, spreading democracy, and only a little about nation building. It is about taking the opportunity to give 26000000 people the ability, for once, to find their own destiny among their brothers.

It's about karaameh.


Monday, December 11, 2006

The Road to Falluja

Route Mobile is a modern 6-lane highway that connects Anbar province to Baghdad.It runs past Ramadi, Falluja, and many smaller towns along its path. The infamous Abu Gahraib detention facility lies on Mobile, just past Falluja. The stretch of road between Ramadi and Falluja is bland, the road gently curving north and south. The concrete is pockmarked here and there with past IED explosions, and every so often the remains of a destroyed vehicle are scattered across the desert landscape. This is the road I often take on my way from Ramadi to Falluja, and back again. My permanent home is still in Ramadi, capital of the Anbar province, but lately I've spent a lot of time patroling the streets of Falluja and along the canals of the surrounding farmland. The city bears clear witness to the terrific battle fought here two years ago between the worst of the Anbar insurgency and the gathered soldiers and Marines. Shell and bullet holes scar the walls, and there is still rubble in the streets. However, unlike Ramadi, Falluja seems to be a fairly functional city now. The streets crowd with people, shops are open for business, and new construction dots the landscape in stark contrast to the desolate war zone that defines Ramadi.
Today, my platoon wound back and forth among the canal-cut farmland just outside the city. If there is a place I have seen in Iraq that I would describe as "nice", this was it. The shallow river valley that we crisscrossed was green with growth, despite the desert landscape predominate in the area. One of the first buildings we came across as we began our patrol early this morning was a mosque that did double duty as a children's school. We paused for a moment as several young Iraqi children were dropped off by the "schoolbus"- a semi tractor with a cluster of small faces standing on the trailer hitch. The boys walked across the road and waved, while the girls shyed away from the trucks (one brave one paused to wave).

Most of the land is flood-irrigated crops of one sort or another. Shepherds move across the fields with the most docile flocks of sheep I have ever seen trailing them. Considering the importance Arabs place on family, I'm not suprised to see that farming is a family enterprise- most flocks of sheep or goats is accompanied by an older man or woman, along with several children. I tried to talk a little with an older man during a stop. My Arabic is somewhere between bad and terrible; I've spent a little bit of time working on the language, but the regional variation in dialects is almost as much of a handicap as my poor pronunciation.

As-salaam Alaykum -Peace be with you
Wa-alaykum Al-Salaam - and with you
In words I can (barely) say, but have no idea how to spell, I ask if he's seen any bombs.
He shrugs, and says something that sounds like inshallah - as Allah wills.
As the truck starts to move again, I call ma'a Salama - Goodbye

Translation: He either doesn't know of any bombs, or he won't say. On the other hand, he probably won't try to blow me up.

Not everything is peaceful here among the farmers- we find some IEDs. One is large; not the biggest we've found, by any means, but big enough. There's no way to tell if fighters from out of the area left them, or if one of the farmers means us harm.
As we head home, the sun is looming large over the horizon. The local mosque begins to sound the sunset ahdan, the call to prayer. The shepherds continue to watch their flocks, but off in the distance a woman spreads a mat on the ground and bows towards Mecca as the hypnotic chant floats through the air. I can only catch phrases here and there:

Allahu Akbar - God is great
Hayya 'alas-salat - Come to pray
La ilaha illallah - There is no god but Allah

As we leave the fertile farmland, the last thing I see is a farmer leaning up against a shovel. He watches us leave and doesn't move a muscle as we go, leaving the sun to set over the valley.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The First Bone

Last night I sat alone on the porch and studied the pieces of a puzzle. It had come in a care package from home, and consisted of six small pieces of wood, of equal dimensions, with differing types of slots cut across them. I have no idea what the puzzle is supposed to look like, but I'm still trying to assemble the wooden bones into some coherent whole. As the parts move in my hands, they occasionally form into larger shapes, only to collapse because I've failed to incorporate all the parts at my disposal. In some ways, I see the puzzle as an analogy to Iraq. Many pieces must grow and fit together, or the nation that grows on them will eventually tumble and fall. I continue to stare at the bones of the puzzle, and begin to associate them with the forces that strive together attempting to form Iraq. The Military, The Media, Government, Religion. Other pieces lie on the table unnamed, representing forces I remain unaware of.

Over the next week or two, I plan on taking a post here and there to explain my opinions on these. I don't have a thesis or much of a rational, convincing argument; just thoughts spewed out on paper. First, I'll tackle The Military.

First, a sidenote:
One of my biggest pet peeves is the attitude that says "Support the troops: Bring them home!". Last time I checked, the troops are all volunteers. Of course, that might change if Rep. Rangel gets his way and reinstates the draft, but for now, we've all chosen this life. If you claim to support the troops, listen to me: we do not want to be used as a political weapon. If we pull military forces out of Iraq before the Iraqis are fully capable of managing their own affairs, if we go home and leave Iraq in a downward spiral, if we fail in this task of nation building that we find ourselves at, then we doom the American military to a long period of even greater risks. It's your choice not to support the war; just don't pretend to support the troops while using them as a political tool.

Back on track:
My area of operations in Eastern Anbar is largely free of the sectarian violence that plagues Baghdad and other areas of Iraq. The large Sunni population trades religious violence for killings directed against coalition forces and fellow Sunnis judged to be too friendly with CF or Shia government officials in Baghdad. Even if the CF were to leave Iraq, violence would continue among the Sunnis, who have been historically marginalized by powerful Shia in the new government.

Various talking heads stateside have been repeating the view that there is no military solution to the conflict in Iraq. In large part I agree: we can't simply kill all the insurgents, because in the process we create more insurgents. Even if we managed to kill them all, there are many factions who do not desire the same ends for Iraq. However, without some sort of partial military solution and a stable, violence-free environment, we cannot expect any lasting political solution. Iraqi forces are not ready to assume sole control of the country- the military is getting better, and in some areas operates outside of US control, but the police are plagued by widespread corruption. Something like 70% of police across the country have militia ties, according to the AP- not something you want if you're trying to enforce justice equally across all factions. Even the professionals in the military have reliability problems: in case you were wondering just how the best soldiers in the Iraqi army feel about the current political climate, The Times is there.

Obviously, "Stay the course" will lead us nowhere. Small wonder. It's a basic principle of counterinsurgency that no operation will succeed without the troops involved getting out among the local population, giving them a chance to associate and identify with their protectors. The current strategy tends more towards limiting "face time" with the locals because of the danger involved, preferring to spend more time behind berms and barb wire. Units that engage the local populace have enjoyed greater success in fighting the insurgency, as the British in the south have shown. If "Stay the course" isn't the answer, neither is "Set your course across the Atlantic". My chief fear now is that the military will not be allowed to pursue a course beneficial to Iraq, and will eventually be brought home with the job undone.

I never figured out how the puzzle went together.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Rocket Men

The first sound was a harsh, overpowering rumble, like a bomb exploding, but it was so much closer than normal. My brain was working overtime trying to comprehend why I was still breathing. A split second later, as the noise continued and began to fade, I thought for a second that perhaps it had only been a jet going supersonic. My mind mulled that idea over for a moment and then discarded it- there had been no "crack" as there always is when a plane breaks the sound barrier. It must have been a rocket- ours or theirs? I couldn't tell. The mystery was solved just four or five heartbeats beyond its beginning: one of the sergeants who was in the initial invasion of Iraq sat up in his bunk and said "I know that sound! It's been a long time since I've heard an MLRS fire."

MLRS. Multiple Launch Rocket System. The crown jewel of American artillery. Capable of firing a rocket well over twenty miles and dropping its destructive payload, it's nothing you want to be on the receiving end of.

I'd never had a chance to see one of these systems in action, and I've had a fascination since childhood of rockets and things that go "boom", so I headed out of the tent to see if I could spot another launch. I heard another rocket launch and rise as I walked to the door. Somehow, it seemed quieter now that I knew what it was. I stood outside and watched for awhile underneath the cool air and the moon shining through a patchwork of clouds. Off in the distance I see a bright pinpoint of amber light. For the briefest of moments, I pass it off as a parachute illumination flare. The fact that the flare is moving upwards, and fast, strikes me at the exact instant as the sound. The now-familiar roar surrounds me, and I watch as the pinpoint widens and darts into the sky, piercing through the clouds and leaving only a billowing trail in its wake.
I laugh a little to myself and remembered the first time I stood and watched one of my model rockets climb with dizzying speed into the sky. The thought that this one is no toy tempers my mood, and I realize that someones bad night just got a whole lot worse.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Badgers Foward

If you haven't heard of it yet, go check out Badger 6's blog The author is my company commander, so you'll have a chance to check out my war from a slightly higher level. He's definitely worth the read.

Edit: Fixed link. Thanks Max, whoever you are. :D

Ghosts of Winter

It feels bitterly cold tonight. It's really only about 45 degrees out, which is much warmer than it is at home right now, but the contrast to the 100+ days we had so recently adds to the chill. The breeze is kicking up the abundant dust and toying with it. If it's true, as they say, that every snowflake has a tiny speck of dust as the base upon which the rest of the crystal grows, then this barren waste is crying out for a blizzard. I think the thing I like least about the cold here is that it always makes me feel a little bit more fatalistic- as if I've died already and just don't know it yet.

I was in a similar frame of mind a winter ago, and ended up writing a poem. I'm putting it up here, and I'm not sure why. It's not the best one I've ever written, in technical terms, but I think it's the one I love best. I hope it means something to someone.

Ghosts of Winter

That I should die in winter
And be buried in the snow
'Neath all that's white and pure
To lull the ghosts below

Slip me beneath the whitened tufts
Of summer grass layed sleeping
Leave me there to rest, alone
A hero's silence keeping

No misery in winter wind
No grief on glittering snow
Yet, hallow all who life rescind
That freedom there may go

On the air a last note echoes
The crowds have gone away
Drifting through marble meadows
Like snowflakes through the sky

Do no come and weep for me
The world is, as it should be
Life above, the dead below
Lying there, beneath the snow