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

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dead Eyes

It wasn't a good night to have a new LT on patrol. Our LT was was out with us, of course- the new guy would be leading the platoon coming to replace us. We were on a mission that could easily turn bad- as it happened, everyones night but ours was bad. We waited around at a Combat Outpost for hours for our Marine attachments to resolve some equiqment issues, cleared our route, and went home. One of our sister platoons ended up MEDIVACing two men on a helicopter after an IED strike, while another route clearance team out of Falluja was hit multiple times, and an EOD team hit a bomb that flipped a Cougar and sent two techs to the hospital.

The new LT asked "Is it always like this?". His eyes had the dawning realization that he was now at war- that he was about to begin a year of one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq. The "Oh shit" look, we call it. It's the moment when you realize that these heavy armored trucks are not the panacea that Senators and Army trainers make them appear, not when faced with a determined and ingenious enemy. It's what you get when you see something go wrong for the first time, and the guys around you accept it with a quiet prayer and stoic determination, rather than any outward signs of shock or fear. It's the moment that makes you stop and wonder "Oh shit... what did I get myself into?"

I remember when that moment first came for me- it was right after we got to Ramadi. The Transfer of Authority ceremony had just finished, officially putting my battalion in charge of route clearance operations across a broad swath of western Iraq. I saw an old friend from ROTC back in college, and went over to talk to him. He'd been a platoon leader for the last year, and he looked a hundred years old. The last time I saw him was two years prior, just before he left for his final training as an officer before going to his first command. Then, he'd been lively and vibrant and (dare I say it?) he was a little bit of a dork. Always clowning around, that sort of thing. Now, he looked dead, and I knew that the last year had taken something out of him that the years ahead would be hard pressed to put back in.

The circle has turned, now, as it always does. Now, we are the veterans- the calloused, dead-eyed men who just want to turn over the mission and go home. There's so many things that wear men down- the slow, slippery slope of progress, the questioning and lack of support in news from home, the steady churn replacing wounded (and God forbid, dead) men. The lack of sleep, the hectic stress of changing missions, the broken men, broken families, broken children.

I hope these new guys make it through all right, but for now, we just want to go home.

Walking in Dreams

I was looking through some of Idaho Journal writer Bill Schaefer's dispatches last night, trying to find the one he wrote about Badger 6 and me. Alongside the title list for his writing is a constantly changing slideshow. When I loaded the page, the image that came up was a picture of a hand holding a framed photograph- a picture of Clev and his fiancé. I've been thinking about him a lot lately, and unexpectedly seeing his picture was a bit of a shock.

Of the three guys we lost, I was closest to him. We'd talked during mobilization back in the states about opening up a coffee mini-bar when we got to Iraq; it was a series of conversations that revealed later how little we understood about the environment we would find ourselves in. We never got the room with an espresso machine that we'd talked about, nor did we really have much spare time to make coffee for people other than ourselves. He did it anyway, though- producing some decent brew on a tiny little machine in his room.

Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly

I've always had vivid dreams, and Clev has made his appearances in them as long as I've known him. Back before deployment, he showed up in dreams of crazy stunts and wild times back in Boise. Then, he turned up in dreams of a memorial service in the dusty future. I never told him about those- superstition aside, there's no point in worrying about something that's never going to happen. After it did happen, he kept showing up from time to time. Once, he told me the same thing he told me the last time I spoke to him- "Don't feel guilty, man... we all have a job to do". I'd told him not to stay safe, because I was supposed to be out on patrol until I drew guard duty instead, and I'd feel guilty if something happened out there.

Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow

The latest dream was earlier today, just before I got onto the internet to be surprised by his picture. The platoon was back home; a bunch of us were at the mall for some reason. Everyone has little quirks about them- in the dream, those quirks were exaggerated until each person was nothing more than a caricature of themselves. Anderson was off shopping for guns, while Kildow and Sgt Kelsch were having a no-holds-barred grappling match in the middle of the food court. Yaw was doing pull-ups on an overhanging railing, and LT was standing on a little stage telling stories. I was sitting and writing behind a pile of coffee cups. When I went back to the stand to get fresh coffee, Clev was standing behind the counter making coffee.

At least I know he's happy, somewhere.

*Poem is "Dreams", by Langston Hughes

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Little Saddam

Some of you may already know that I was one of several bloggers given the chance to guest blog at the incomparable Jules Crittenden's site this week. My first substantial entry is cross posted below.

Little Saddam

From a Michael Totten report:

"When you came and liberated this country,” he continued, “Iraq had 25 million Saddams. America is turning us back into human beings.

The quote makes me think, in rabbit-trail fashion, of an evening I enjoyed with a few Iraqi Army soldiers a few months ago. All three were officers- drawn from two different divisions to train new Iraqi soldiers to fight. I went up to Ali while he was smoking and said hello. He introduced himself, and invited me to join him and his friends for a movie. Partway through Apocalypto, he looked up from the scene of mass murder and brutality and exclaimed "See! It is like Saddam!"

Ali and one of the others laughed. The third soldier scowled, then laughed when Ali punched him in the arm. That was when I got introduced to the rest of the group. The other laughing soldier was Sayeed, the scowler, Saddam. Saddam was from Tikrit, and quite likely a relative of the "Big Saddam", although I didn't ask. His name is prominent among Sunnis- Saddam was a hero for a lot of years, after all. We talked for a while after the movie; Sayeed had been in the Iraqi Army for quite some time, Ali for a while as well. Saddam had joined more recently- he wanted to help Iraq become what it had been once. He told me that he wanted to try to help change Iraqis minds about Americans and the Iraqi Government, and give them something to do other than fight with each other.

When tribes stop fighting Americans and each other, when the citizens of two of the most strife-ridden cities in Iraq start to contemplate tomorrow, when a man from Tikrit named Saddam steps up to help Iraq...

That's when I start to feel just a little bit of hope for this place.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


I was planning on some lengthy posting after mission tonight, but I'm sitting here with a wicked headache. The trash fire in Karma started it, and the sewage ponds just south made it worse. The final cap was grade-2 diesel mist in the face while refueling. I'm not looking for sympathy (really!). I just won't miss a lot of aspects of this place much.

So I'm not doing a long post tonight. However, I've run across a few noteworthy tidbits lately that deserve your attention:

First: donate something to Bill Roggio's startup independent media company, Public Media International. He's thrown himself into a venture to bring all of us the kind of reporting we deserve. There are 6 PMI embeds either in Iraq or on the way, and PMI is looking to raise $20,000 to support them and their sucessors.

Second: for the Brits out there. Go to this site, and sign the petition for reduced/free parcel post to British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Royal Mail is granting for the holidays, this troop supporter would like to see it extended.

Third: Engineers rock (but there should be more of us). From a blogger roundtable with COL Simcock, the commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team-6 (our high-ups here in Falluja):

Question from Dave Dilegge (Small Wars Journal):

"Yeah, if I could just follow up on one quick thing here. If you
were, say, commandant for the day or CINC for the day, what one or two
capabilities that you may not have or need more of would top your

Answer from COL. Simcock:

"That's an easy question. And the commandant was just out here a couple weeks ago and I told him exactly what I wish I had more of. Engineers and route clearance. Those are the two capabilities. It's a lowdensity, high-demand type capability that we just -- we need more of out here. ... They do a great job for us, but I'm just -- I just don't have enough of them. "

I hear it's pretty much the same story everywhere. What's more (as you'll soon hear when I have the final details and time to write), my guys are some of the very best.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The End Times

We're living in them. No, not those end times... I don't know anything about those.
Our time here will soon be up, as I've mentioned. It doesn't seem that way; no matter how much gear I pack up and turn in, this desert still feels normal, still feels like home. A year doesn't seem that long- twelve months, less than five percent of my life to date- but I barely recall what "normal" life is like. It feels so distant to me now that it might as well be a second lifetime, an earlier incarnation of myself. Leave wasn't that long ago, of course, but that was only two weeks, lived under the specter of impending return.

Before I left for Iraq, before I even boarded the plane that would take me to my pre-deployment training, I worried that my friends would leave me behind. I thought it might be a little like excusing one's self from a party, coming back minutes later to find the party a year gone and the merrymakers scattered. That mind picture skirted the truth, but as usual, analogy is suspect. When I left, most of my friends were in college. Now, most have indeed graduated and scattered- they range in domicile from Austria to China and many places in between. The difference is the time- rather than a year for them and seeming minutes for me, a year has passed for my friends. A lifetime has passed for me.

It seems like it's been forever since I lived that "normal" life- the normalcy that I know I'll never quite grasp again. Paradoxically, the last year blends and runs together into one long, blurred day. It doesn't feel like a year- it feels longer and shorter all at the same time. I want to leave, to go home, to take things for granted again. I also can't stand the thought of leaving now, of turning my back on so many things left undone.


I've been a bit sick lately- the doc tells me it's probably a mild case of the flu. I've been manning the night shift at the little joke of a "tactical operations center" we have in Falluja. Our "Jump TOC" is little more than four plywood walls and a couple phones- we derisively call it "The Clubhouse".

There's good to come out of all the suck, though-
I've used some of my time in purgatory to finally put together the separate poetry page that I hinted at so long ago. There isn't that much there, yet, but some of you still might find it interesting.

Invisible Keepsakes

Choice of gold star or cookie for the first one to identify the origin of the title (without cheating!)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Beauty in the Dirt

Last night was beautiful.

Iraqi cities look something like others that I've seen, and the fertile stretches along the river are less impressive than green farmland back home. The desert, though- the desert is different. The sky was clear of dust and haze- we were far past the lights of the city, and the stars shone soft and brilliant. The Milky Way stretched out overhead like a band of cotton. I heard bats launch from their hiding places in the abandoned buildings, and shrill aloft on their hunt for food. Somewhere overhead and out of sight, an owl hooted and stooped for his own dinner.

There's a stark, harsh beauty in the desert. In the daytime, it seems more harsh than at night. The sun beats the dust bone dry, and the wind drives it with a force that occasionally threatens to rip the body into atoms. The night is more subtle- the sand cools, while both the sky and ground come alive with predators. The bats and owl I heard last night are not the only ones- once I saw what seemed to be a herd of scorpions moving blackly across the road, pinchers waving. Camel spiders emerge from holes, skittering impossibly fast in search of those same armored denzians. Scattered across the desert are the moving dirt bumps, the ones that turn into hedgehogs as you approach.

The parched soil rises and falls in abstract patterns laid down over years- the product of men with earthmovers equally as much as of the wind and winter rain. Here and there the lines of hills fall sharp where the dirt has collapsed away to form jagged cliffs; dust pools below the precipice, below the fox holes and lizard lairs.

Somehow, in the midst of the broad, bleak expanse, life continues. The harsh conditions strip away some of the layers of complexity common to other environments. It's a hot or cold, night or day, life or death duality of existence- the yin-yang of the world.

I find myself enthralled by it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Damn Internets

Time is growing short for us, and we're starting to pack and turn in gear in preparation for our return. (Don't worry- the blogging will continue long after our redeployment stateside. There are a lot of stories left to tell.)

As a result of some of the shuffling we've done, I've lost dependable internet acess while in Falluja. It's a frustrating situation for me, because I can write all I want and have time for, but getting the written stories onto the internet is difficult indeed.

For now- don't worry. I'm still around, and there will be more blogging to come. I just have to put up with terrible Iraqi internets.