a heartbreaking work of stagnating geniality, e-rocky-confidential chronicles the experiences of a young man playing a small role in america's ongoing military undertaking in the mideast.

Monday, February 21, 2005

I Wish I Was a Hunter

I stood in an outside line for thirty minutes baring teeth to the fiercest sandstorm I've seen in this deployment, and as I stood and blinked my eyes I thought long and hard about what e-rocky confidential's last post from the Middle East would entail.

The post will wait. Hunter S. Thompson has gone the way of Ernest Hemingway.

The yahoo! headline informs me that the sixty-seven year-old wunderkind self-administered a gunshot wound to the head and died at home in Colorado sometime yesterday.

What the... oh my... wow.

There isn't any way to summarize Hunter's stature in my life. I never met the man, of course-- but he was a reference point in first encounters and a rubric according to whom countless facets of American life were to be interpreted. Among people who love 20th Century American literature and among people who celebrate the mythology of the American outlaw, the man was a living saint, an icon.

Five months ago I sat in the kitchen of an apartment in Munich, Germany, drinking coffee with two new friends and discussing America. I was on R&R Leave and fortunate to be in town at the time of Oktoberfest. Kristin and George had lived in Germany their entire young lives and they were worried-- brow-furrowing, hand-wringing, etc.-- about a certain cowboy hat-wearing, go-getting American, and the direction world events were heading under the scope of his influence.

"Well the thing you have to understand about George W. Bush," I told them, "is that he doesn't represent every American. About forty-five percent of the country's people love him dearly, and yes, they will follow him anywhere. Another forty-five percent are basically agitating for the opportunity to spit on his grave. Then there are about ten percent-- those are the people who aren't quite sure. They're still weighing the available information. So the two parties are now trying to figure out, well, what does this ten percent care about, and how can we make it seem like the other party doesn't care about these things? It comes down to this small group of populous states in which one party doesn't have a decisive lead over the other. Those are the states in which you'll hear Bush and Kerry seeking to define one another according to the idioms and prejudices of the people who live there-- Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio. Both are pretty much going for the 'I'm headstrong and fearless; the other guy is weak and phony' tack, which in a way... that's an argument geared toward the attitudes of voters who are already probably leaning toward Bush, so he's got the upper hand there. Also, Florida's a lock for the Republicans regardless of what anyone says, just because the world is round. Pennsylvania and Ohio, though-- they've lost a lot of jobs there under Bush, a lot of blue-collar union member types who are apparently fairly exasperated at this point. If Kerry wins those two states, and I think he will, you're going to be looking at an altogether new and different Leader of the Free World here in a few months, one who spreches die Deutsch and wears no cowboy hat. So if that's what you want, keep your fingers crossed."

If I was pleasantly surprised that they'd gotten the gist of my ad-libbed lecture, I was stunned to see Kristin frown and walk away from the table. A moment later she returned and set two books between our three cups for group consideration: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72.

"Bryan," she asked me seriously, "is Las Vegas the brutal heart of the American dream?"

What do you say to a European who asks you a question like that?

"Well, uh, a lot of people go there, and, uh, not everyone has a great time... I've never been, but-- well, I doubt you would say that as a European your greatest dream is to win and lose fortunes with high-rollers in Monaco, is it?"

"Ah... it would be nice, as a vacation, but you know I'm not really rich like that, and there are more important things in life than money..."

"See, there you go. In America it is the same. Many people are attracted to many things-- some, to the allure of bright lights or money that's quickly and easily attained. It's a great dream, a fantasy, good for a lark. They indulge for a weekend, they get it over with, they go home early having spent their vacation money or they make a few bucks and come back next year. It's no big deal. There's a poetic truth to that statement about the American dream-- because the American dream is a nebulous notion, it can be about almost anything. Americans are all about self-invention and the ability to re-invent in the future. We love the idea that we can make our lives what we want them to be. Las Vegas is a distillation of that, I guess-- this quasi-magical place that was willed into being in the middle of the desert. But a lot of Americans couldn't care less. Who knows? Maybe forty-five percent."

"Not the same forty-five percent who are agitating to spit on the grave..."

"No, no, no, I'm kidding; I don't know. See the thing about Hunter S. Thompson is that he writes satire. He exaggerates to where the things he says aren't really true, but then because of that they have a truth of their own."

"Exaggerate. Satire."

"Yeah, you know. Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift."

"Hunter S. Thompson, he is also a cowboy."

"No, no, he's more like a--"

"Yes, he is a cowboy. He wears the big hat and he shoots the big gun and he builds his life around the big exaggeration, just like your Leader of the Free World, your mister George... Double You Boosh."

So long, Doctor Thompson. We studied you well, but we never knew ya.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Greetings From Kuwait-- Wish You Were Here

This is more of a quick update than anything else:

Along with the majority of my company, I flew from Baghdad International Airport to Kuwait on a C130 two days ago. It's a mix of emotions among our group right now: regarding our impending return to our former lives we are a spectrum from ecstatic to apprehensive; regarding our present tight schedule of vehicle deep-cleanings and customs inspections we have retreated to our formal patterns of multiple formations and energetic bursts of work or avoidance thereof, with frequent moments of irritability.

As I walked to the *CyberZone* (yeah, that again!) where I type this post, I was delayed by a Humvee that skidded to a halt in front of me, spewing a cloud of sand into my breathing space, and then interrogated by someone who was positive I was avoiding work. It was the same individual who moved my belongings around eventuating in the loss of my CD's thirteen months ago.

In actuality I spent the morning wetting rags and running them across mud-crusted cables, then strapping those cables down in our shelter, and wedging phone boxes into crevices for safe shipping. It's a task that involves a lot of bumping of body parts against sharp metal edges in tight spaces. Tonight I'll be with one of our shelters at the wash rack in a dance of will power and water hoses that will last from sunset to sunrise-- so if anybody is slacking, the first place to look might be those who elect to joy-ride around the camp in our company's only available Humvee under the pretense of rounding up truant soldiers.

Sorry, am I venting? I'm venting. Ten seconds. Breathe. Okay.

In a few months I will say to myself that I have seen these people for the last time.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Escape From Baghdad

This will be e-r-c's last post from the city that has been the focal point of the world's attention for the past two years-- but this will not be e-r-c's last post.

I want to think that I've learned some things over the course of the past year that will be of use to me in the future, that have made me a better person or writer, or that might even be of use to others. I want to think I've qualified myself in some way to approach some of the questions that surround this adventure in nation-building, and that when I've taken off this uniform I'll find a way to do that. I want to think that my experiences here, and the experiences of other soldiers and Americans acting in various capacities on behalf of their country, and the experiences of the Iraqis I've had the pleasure to meet as well as those I haven't, will ultimately prove a benefit to all of us-- that for all the effort and heartbreak and horror we will finally come to understand each other better and be stronger on our own feet.

Three nights ago I flew from a desolate camp in the middle of the desert back into the city that has been my home for more than a year; before this site's next post I will leave this nation to never return as a soldier. The Blackhawk ride was incredible: such a smooth, swift hurtle low over the trees and rooftops of this country, a powerful and transitory presence in the sky. As I stood in line waiting to board the bird I was overcome with awe: at night the whirring overhead blade is about the only visible part of the craft, even as the headlights project another orb of light onto the ground. It felt like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Radiohead, again: I wish that the aliens'd come down to meet me, & all my friends would think that I'd lost it completely, & they'd take me onboard their beautiful ship, & they'd show me the world as I'd love to see it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

I was in my thoughts, mostly about how much I would enjoy my steak, when I fell into the sewage pit.

KBR doesn't make it out to these parts, so for the past month we've been eating army food. Instead of some giant dining facility, which KBR builds wherever it establishes service, we've got the tent set-up with soldiers serving basic fare two times a day. It's often pretty lackluster, but today they put everything into it: grilled steak, good mashed potatoes, and mixed summer vegetables. Oh, I was glad to be alive.

I got my paper tray with my dinner, walked into the second tent to grab sodas and power bars, and upon exiting the back side took a path between the two tents to walk back to my team's cinder-block cube-house. Usually I would walk the far side of the second tent on a short path of dark nothingness, flashlight in hand to illuminate any obstacles-- but because it's always been an event-less route and because I didn't locate my flashlight, I was walking unaided by any beam; and because the path between the tents was newly cleared and lit and I'd seen some people walk that way, I changed up the routine. The army cooks have been moving a lot of things around, so after passing the tent-entrance area I had to walk around some pallets here and there, zig-zagging through a maze that I couldn't really see. I made it around a couple of these pallets and a 2 1/2-ton truck parked next to a CONEX (metallic storage thingamajig), and into what looked like a clearing when I stepped into the pit. Usually when there's a pit somewhere, even when there's no light, a person can discern the change in elevation, or at least sense it when the foot lands upon the softer sand at its edges-- this was just a sudden drop.

Looking around I observed that I was in a pit more deep than I am tall, and that there was some nice sludgy wetness sharing the pit with me, up just past my waistline.

Thinking back upon it now, the best course might have been to simply turn around and quietly climb out, but I was stunned and livid. Even my weapon was dirty, the water was cold, and I'd already sent all my clothes to our next camp thinking we'd be there by now. So I dropped my tray and thrashed around for a second while I waited for my eyes to adjust to the pit's greater darkness, and I swore and swore and swore at the full extent of my lungs.

Just as I was one last handgrab from exiting the pit, a soldier ran up and offered me his hand. The guy was trying to help, sure, but if I offered him my hand, with my weighty M249's sling having fallen from my shoulder to my elbows, I'd be certain to fall on my back into the sludge, so I growled at him to get the f#@! back. After I'd gotten to my feet, I asked him what the pit was. I'd never seen it before. "Sewage," he answered matter-of-factly. I was trying to inquire just what it was doing here and why it wasn't marked when a crowd of his fellow food-service soldiers materialized about ten paces away, one of them yelling out, "Oh, ha ha, anudder one fell in da sewage pit, hoo!" Followed by the familiar loud chortle of someone laughing unnaturally harder than his amusement really impels him, trying to rally a chorus of laughter, which it does.

This is what people are talking about when they refer to the phenomenon of the lowest common denominator: soldiers or others in certain mass situations dumbing down to meet everyone in the group on a level field. Strength in numbers, and often a formidable mendacity. Yeah: livid. I could feel myself dumbing down to meet them all as I stood in the cold, my only pair of clothes covered in sewage water, my hip radiating an alarming new piercing pain, and barked at him to shut the hell up and maybe get to work covering or marking the pit. My favorite part: his response was quit your cryin'.

quit your crying: (directive phrase, informal) expression most common in the American vernacular as a directive from a parent to a child who is unnecessarily weeping, but also quite commonly employed in the armed forces as a retort to any sort of grievance, valid or invalid, regardless of the tone or manner in which that grievance is raised-- in such context, the intended affect of directive is to invoke shame, thus reducing likelihood that grievance will be pursued.

I walked the two-hundred yards to the shower tent in my underwear. Amazingly, no one said a word, possibly because it was dark and no one saw me. I got some quizical looks when I entered the shower tent, and again when I exited, but I maintained a "don't talk to me" facial expression and I guess it worked. I then realized that I still had a dirty laundry bag under my cot, from which I fished out a crumpled set of DCU's (desert combat uniform) before heading to work in my sandals. I found a pair of someone else's boots up here and I put them on, though they're big enough to be clown shoes. I found a little detergent and spread it between three orange water coolers we weren't using anyway, in which I put my clothes and boots and a full case of bottled water.

I really shouldn't be sitting here sucking on packets of strawberry jelly right now-- not that the strawberry jelly isn't good, but there are other things we're supposed to be doing, and since they're not happening according to plan I have the privilege to wait in the shelter watching little lights blink.

So, then, it's a good time to catch up on blogs. There are more blogs I need to write something about than just those that I am listing here-- blogs whose writers have written to me or paid me compliments on their own site-- but there are complicating factors, such as time, that force me to save those for later.

Now then:

My good friend WWB-- my erstwhile editor, and the man who introduced me to bloglife-- is giving me favorable mention on his own site, an excellent chronicle of his life in America's capital city called Washington Canard.

(I just discovered something about linking that I'm sure is old-hat to most readers: you can link to a specific posting instead of the blog's homepage by clicking on the date-time counter at the bottom of a given post... so just for testing purposes I linked to WWB's first recent mention of this blog, even though he references me at greater length in his next posting. In his site's case a reader can then scroll up from the linked article to view more recent posts, but on other blogs ((such as some of the following)) you'd have to click on the blog's title at the top of the screen to access more recent posts. But you knew that.)

A very, very long time ago-- okay, several months-- Sgt. Sean, aka moja vera, mentioned me favorably on his blog and wrote me with some kind advice. He's out of the army now, but when he was in Iraq he maintained a sylishly written, stream-of-consciousness account of his time here called turningtables. It sort of set the standard for war blogs to follow. Nobody really tried to copy his style, but I think a lot of us strove for that same sense of honest immediacy. Some of us liked his green-and-orange blogger template so much that we didn't bother finding a new one when we realized he had it first. His site is still up; here's his entry about the day he flew home.

A Navy Corpsman (also named Sean! and with the same template!) who writes the soldier-blog Doc in the Box, has linked to me and written to me in the past-- and until now I failed to make mention of it on this site. I think he's now rotating back into Iraq, but here's a post from his recent time in Thailand. If you're into soldier-blogs check out his comprehensive blogroll-- I'm way down at the bottom under "Milblogers that fell off the edge of the world."

I've mentioned the soldier-blog My War before, although it's getting accolades all by itself, and I don't personally know its writer. He's back in the States now, and he's rehabilitated the blog. Don't be fooled by the typos in his battalion commander's open letter to (I guess) my generation-- it's pretty thought-provoking.

Another soldier-blog that has gained a lot of deserved attention is The Questing Cat. Here is my favorite of his recent posts, and here is his article in The Guardian.

The Questing Cat makes mention of an Iraqi blog called A Star in Mosul, written by a teenage girl. Because teenage girls can be so terribly charming, I checked it out, and I'm impressed-- it's sort of jarring in that in one paragraph she's writing about exams at school and cell phones, and not two paragraphs down she's writing about people getting killed. Look at her way-too-adorable niece at the bottom of this post.

She has a link to her uncle's blog, and it's golden. I'm sitting here waiting, waiting for so many things, and not insignificant among them is to know who won the elections-- this blog entry helps a person like me to make an informed prediction. He titles the post on a twist off of a Douglas Adams novel. How incredible is that? You have to love someone who loves to read.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Fire Works

I think I may have actually seen some fireworks tonight. Then again, they may have been tracer rounds sent up to illuminate the sky, but those usually accompany the loud boom of artillery. There isn't any fighting going on, though-- there's no one left around here to fight.

The situation is that the guys in this camp have been going out on raids throughout the surrounding area, finding massive weapons caches, rounding up those deemed responsible for said caches, and generally taking care of business. The idea was to sweep through the area in a month-long tour-de-force preceding the elections. It's been a resounding success, and the prevailing attitude is that the subsequent dearth in insurgent weaponry was key to the big day's calmer-than-feared environment. I've worked the night shift all month, so a number of the most crucial events have occurred without my being any the wiser. Apparently they located some obscene amount of explosive material, and a few days ago while I was sleeping they detonated everything and it was a bit of a news event. Here is Time's article about it.

Everyone's favorite super-journalist Geraldo Rivera was on the scene. My teammate Johnny Nguyen has a picture of the rose-lensed one on his livejournal.

Earlier today the unit we're supporting held an awards ceremony to celebrate. I've always hated these things despite the fact that they're designed to make us feel good about the job we're doing. Five of the six members of my team-- we had to leave McCormack to operate the communications shelter-- marched out in front of a batallion formation in single file so the lieutenant colonel could come around to shake our hands and present us each with a certificate. Some Air Force explosions experts, an entire platoon of Estonians, and exactly four Australians were also on hand to bask in the praise. It was sort of silly. The certificate proclaimed that I was *authorized to wear the spurs of the 1st Cavalry Division* because I had *bravely followed the guidon into battle with saber and colt*.This would be alright, I suppose, if in referring to me in the third person it hadn't rendered me a "she". It turned out that everyone's certificate had this same flaw, so the captain who'd printed them said that he'd get them all changed. "Mine's alright the way it is, sir," my teammated Brandi Lingo offered. "Oh, no," he shot back. "Yours definitely needs to say 'he'".

So, yes, the mood is pretty light around here. It seems people are feeling good all over the country. This, from today's email, was Levi's experience in Sadr City:

I gotta say man, the only thing i fought yesterday was tears. It was probably one of the best days of my life and the best day i've had here by far. Just going out there and helping the people. Waving back to all those blue fingers. I felt like i was in a parade. The sreets were closed and everyone was out enjoying the perfect weather...

The only blue fingers I saw were in pictures on the internet-- just the same, I felt pretty good about it myself. It almost doesn't feel right, having no complaints.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

All Together Now...

It isn't a collective sigh of relief; it isn't an ecstatic cry of elation; it isn't a grim assessment of the moment's frustrations-- it is all these things together at once and more; it is a whirlwind. But that's just the blogosphere. What's it like in the real Iraq?

All night I was surprised not to hear celebratory gunfire. After the Iraqi team's good showing in the Olympics, and on any number of other occasions over the past year, random bursts of ordinance were as common as the chirping of crickets. But then again, I was in Baghdad for most of the year. I'm in the desert now, miles from any place people might congregate. And neither of these places have really been the real Iraq.

There's been a lot of verbal crossfire in the American press since the beginning of the war alluding to the notion that the real stories aren't getting reported-- that the media is only interested in negative coverage, or that the administration is glossing over realities. I'd like to submit the proposition that everyone is trying very hard to make sense of this thing, and then to make the best of it. The reporters, the soldiers, the citizens of this burgeoning republic-- we're all under fire out here; we're all doing everything we can to stay in one piece even as we pursue our respective objectives with dogged determination. Even as we perceive that we're essentially allied in this, the situation creates often unbridgeable gulfs between us. I haven't spoken to an Iraqi in months; I have no idea what the average guy tending a shop has to say about the future of this country. I can read the blogs just like you can-- but the average Iraqi doesn't blog.

If you're an Oregon reader, you've likely already come across this article in the Willamette Week. It's honest and unassuming, and I think it's excellent. Harris has the decency to admit that there are serious limitations to what a Westerner can really ascertain about this place-- not just because security is next to nonexistent, not only because of cultural differences, but also because of something ineffable, some aspect of the situation with its many strains of history and culture and religion and... maybe... something... else... that makes this unique moment completely unknowable. Yes, I'm probably reading my own perspective into it. I do that. I think we all do that.

The Sunnis, the Shias, the Baathists, the Communists, the Wahabbis, the Kurds, the Turks, the Persians, the tribal defenders, the nationalists, the opportunists, the suckers, the doves, the hawks, the neoconservatives, the liberal idealists, the historians, the futurists, the religious conservatives, the secular humanists. The strivers for Pulitzer Prizes, Purple Hearts, Valhalla, a respectable currency, national pride, or another night at home with one's family. The sand storms, the deep hum of multiple overhead Apaches, explosions that don't concern you if they don't concern you, the long wait for a stream of water (cold in the winter, warm in the summer), the long wait for a few hours of electricity, the flushing faces of people in argument, the laughter of people joking because they have to. The good smell of the dirt after a hard rain, the stench of latrines being emptied or sewage that only flows backward. The decay of old things. Physical monuments older than history, political documents younger than your last email. Seeing the face of a photographed child who is learning his father will not come home and wondering what you have to do with it. Feeling that democracy may be just as much a question as an answer.

We are all wound up together in this thing and we don't know whether to wind ourselves tighter or to attempt an untangling. That is the past; that is the future. I'm not sure, but I think that's the real Iraq.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

What Would Hammurabi Do?

How about I forgo any attempt at a clever re-introduction and just start typing? Alright then.

Since I left you my computer's keypad has gone through bouts of intractability, its disk drive has died, and ultimately the machine stopped functioning altogether, resulting in the loss of a few different partial posts and an awful lot of photos. Blame it on sand and Hewlett Packard. In September I went on a two-week R&R vacation in Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and a few days after my return to Iraq in October my unit moved from one camp to another within the greater Baghdad militaropolis. We all lived in a big tent together and watched really bad movies the whole time and took cold showers and ate bad food. We spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years there. Then in the first week of January my team departed with a convoy heading south to the desert of central Iraq. We'll be here until the elections have taken place, and then, in a manner and according to a time schedule I will not post on this blog, we'll find our way back to Texas.

There's more writing to come in which the story will become more clear. Between my computer difficulties, the frustration of losing work, internet difficulties even when I had a computer at my disposal, anxiety that I might be shut down like so many others if I didn't lower my profile, the horror of so many derailed hopes regarding our mission here, and just the general fear of saying something stupid... five and a half months without a post. Is anyone still there to read this?

So the big news right now is the election. There are no shortage of predictions, but from what I can gather this thing is way up in the air. Nobody knows what's going to happen, exactly. Even if someone had a clue about who might win, nobody knows what will happen after that.
  • Healing Iraq
  • , dependably, has a fascinating inside track (scroll down to Jan. 21).

    To call this moment historical is to call the sun big and warm. This is the nation that invented the concept of governmental rule according to written law. The prospect of this resilient people finally gaining its due after its ancestral contribution to the civilized world is, quite literally, staggering.

    Cross your fingers.

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