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.

Friday, January 30, 2004


1) Well I figured out the thing about double-posting. First I thought I had discovered gold when I realized I could edit previously posted blogs; then I thought that I had stepped in poo when I realized that the edited blog gets posted as a new blog, with a new date; finally I found that I just have to delete one of the posts, depending on whether I'm more concerned with grammatical/syntactical- or date/time- integrity. Just in case you wondering.

2) Also I'm still in Kuwait. I have not yet done the really dangerous stuff. I may have sponsored some confusion earlier when I informed you that I was going to the port-- that was just to pick up the unit's vehicles and equipment and bring it here to Camp Udairi, the whole operation thus far being one of preparation for the real mission.

3) It's really sinking in that the convoy to Baghdad is not going to be a picnic. One of the reasons I haven't posted much lately is that our unit's been away (here within Kuwait on Army-dominated terrain) training up for this event. There are a lot of anecdotes I'd like to share with you, but the sad fact is that I've got to hold my tongue (my typing fingers?) to some extent due to the sensitive nature of the information. I'm trying not to become one of these characters who builds his military experience into something it isn't, speaks in pompous vaguaries, and strives to give the impression that he's being secretive about all the secret stuff he's done. It isn't like that. I'm just a little spooked right now, and if anything unthinkable happens I'd sure hate to learn in the afterlife that it was due to some terrorist operative reading my site and learning where I was going to be and when and with what set of weaknesses and strengths. I'll elaborate later, I promise.

4) I've gathered that my use of the term hajji, in my previous post, was probably in poor judgment. It's not that anyone pointed this out to me, and I didn't have one of those embarrassing incidents where you use the offending term in conversation with someone it's supposed to refer to, as in some kind of Mideastern version of the jokes about race relations in America ("what kind of music do hajji like, Tariq?"), but I've heard it used in some other contexts. I'm not sure, but it seems to be an epithet, a grossly imprecise one at that. So if you're a person who, I dunno, respects people in general, you might want not to employ the term.

5) Regarding my rant about American radio over here: Salam Pax, an Iraqi who's surprisingly knowing of our Western ways, has his own humorous take on the issue. Read it here:

6) FAQ section:

Q1) What does blog mean? Is it short for bryan's log?
A1) It can mean whatever you want it to mean-- but all the people who also post blogs but who are not named Bryan may have other opinions. The word came into use as shorthand for "web log", and I think it's already been incorporated into the new OED-- that's Oxford English Dictionary, just in case you're not a logophile.

Q2) What were the CD's that you lost? Can I replace them for you?
A2) Well I'll be happy to tell you about that-- once I get to Baghdad. I'll post the name of each disc, giving each its own line, to make it like a sort of memorial. The reasons I'm waiting until I go north are twofold: my internet will be free up there, so I won't mind spending the time putting all those names down; and I won't have a mailing address until I get there anyway. But anyway: burning copies of CD's you already possess is one thing, a very great thing indeed. But anything else is something else entirely.

7) It may be a little while before I post again. How long, I can't say. Once I get situated up there, I'll be able to post pretty regularly. Do whatever you do-- pray, hope, wish, think, astronomically project-- for my safety and that of those around me, and I'll catch up with you on the other end of this gauntlet.

Monday, January 26, 2004


So we stood in formation for about an hour, staring straight ahead at the buses that awaited our boarding, waiting for one person who was nowhere to be found and would receive no reprimand due to his rank. This, after our First Sergeant started yelling excitedly for everyone to rush out with their gear to get on the buses the minute they arrived, a full forty minutes before we'd been told to be present. Okay. I'm over it. Then we continued to stand in formation as another unit that had just formed up-- and was significantly smaller than our company-- mobbed the one large comfy bus... at which point we promptly boarded the three super-tiny buses that had no leg room, squeezing and scooting and ouching as our arms and legs and heads collided with the muzzles of weapons of people next to us. Okay. I'm over that too.

The ride itself was interesting. I guess the workers and various service providers around here, whether Arab or of more distant extraction, are referred to with I'm-not-sure-what degree of disdain/ affection as Hajji. So instead of saying "the bus driver" or "the cafeteria guy" or "the guy who sewed the patches on my uniform" or "Abdul" or "Mohammed", one says "the hajji". Well, alright.

So the hajji driving the bus played this radio station which I guess was supposed to be representative of American radio. You know, with the quasi-snyde female disc jocky who has a vague American West Coast accent telling you about the weather and the traffic every couple songs or so, and a musical selection that's supposed to be representative of the popular genres currently on our cultural plate. Only it heavily favored this house/ techno monstrosity that I envision the Merovingian, the evil French guy from the Matrix 2 and 3, blasting away in his pit of leather-clad depravity. The predictable synth horns, with the ineluctable bass-drum kicker that gets faster and faster, then some moron yelling "Iiii'm your diaboli-call dee-jay jee-zuss!" and then more drums and synth-horns before the song shifts into ambient keyboards and the girl with the voice that wants to seem angelic whining about finding the light, then back to the synth horns. And all these songs have precisely the same structure with lyrics that are scarcely different from one song to the next. I've heard some terrible music in my time, but I never heard anything this derivative, this insipid, in the States-- not even at an actual rave. So as I sat there I wondered if the hajji wasn't probably directed by his Department of Defense employers to play the American station. And I concluded that if I were him, and this radio station was my primary reference point for understanding the American character, I would most likely hate America a great deal-- and I wondered if that's the way he secretly felt.

Luckily I had my CD booklet and player with me. I put Built To Spill on for background and watched the scenery. Most of the vehicles I saw in Kuwait were well-equipped SUV's (on the return trip I saw a particularly nice Pathfinder with tinted windows and a picture of Saddam in the rear window). There are a lot of signs that boast "Happiness in Islam" or "Islam: Fastest Growing Religion in the World." There is a highway named after the king, who has about fifteen names. It's the big highway-- their version of I-5 or I-80 or whatever-- so I wonder how Kuwaitis refer to it in conversation. Do they make an acronym out of the first initials of his names, or do they just call it King Highway?

Before we got to the big cities, like Kuwait City and Ahmadi, which are similar to American cities with their skyscrapers and lights, we saw a number of... towns, I guess, or maybe they were like corporate campuses or something: a multitude of unpainted buildings the color of American Southwestern adobe structures, several having mosque-like domes, each with several un-glassed and un-curtained windows on every floor, all clustered together with scarcely a walkway between them, sort of adjacent to the many oil refineries that are pretty much everywhere aside the highway. Also: huge towers breathing steady giant flames, burning off whatever it is that gets burned off in the oil business.

Anyway, when we got to the port, and we pulled into the Naval Base, the hajji had to get off the buses and wait at the gate. One of the soldiers on each bus drove us to the convoy site, then after we exited the buses they were returned to the hajji at the gate. So just for kicks the guy who got up to drive popped the hajji's tape into the deck. It was really good, interesting music. Not guitar or sitar, but some stringed instrument like that, with some sufi wailing going on. I could have listened to it the whole way down there. But when we exited the bus it became a bit of a madhouse, everyone with their need to get off quickly and sort of grabbing their things and pushing. I had fallen asleep at one point and my book had fallen to the floor, then somehow slid to underneath the seat in front of me. So as I collected my many things-- my weapon, my ammo can, my CD player, my CD book, my flak vest-- I placed the items that couldn't be worn or carried during my underseat-grab on my seat, walked forward to the seat in front of me, and waited for the traffic behind me to pass before dropping to the floor right there in the aisle. And this guy-- okay, he outranks me, but he's one of those people who uses his position to shield himself from work of any sort but who also makes a big deal out of pointing out what others are doing wrong for the ostensible purpose of *sqauring away* soldiers-- started to pick up my weapon as he walked past: "Hey, Roberts, you're leaving your weapon..." As though it isn't obvious that I'm not going anywhere, as I stand there looking impatiently toward the back of the bus. And so as I told him not to touch my weapon he moved it one seat and placed it beside me, actually precluding me somewhat from finding my book. Which was no big deal. But it was somewhat of a high-intensity situation (everybodyoffthebusnowgogogogogo!) and I was mentally compartmentalizing my tasks, and I knew that after finding my book I had retrieve a set of items from one place, namely the seat I had been sitting in, but now my items were all separated... so that when I departed the bus I grabbed my weapon, looked around on the seat it was sitting on and saw nothing, then left shaking my head, thinking I must have left something.

This is the part I'm not over.

Because I had left something, that something being my CD booklet, which I realized pretty much as the bus was rolling away... I went and told the Platoon Sergeant immediately, to which he sort of rocked back on his hauches and gave a good heft to his ammo pouches before saying to me out of the side of his mouth in an almost conspiratorial tone, "Well I guess that makes you S.O.L., now don't it?" Sergeant Rambo: the guy is a story unto himself. Sylvester Stallone is the last thing he'll remind you of. He's one of those people who seems to believe that his superior rank entitles him to relate to you as though he's your pappy and aw-shucks-we're-out-huntin-in-the-woods.

Which is fine, whatever. The part that bothers me is that another soldier left his ammo can with two-hundred rounds on the bus (read: Very. Big. Deal), so SFC Rambo hunts down the number for the hajji, requests that they immediately search the buses to procure that can of ammo to be turned over to the appropriate liaison immediately, but does not bother to mention my CD booklet. Granted: I'm the one who lost my property, and it was personal rather than government-owned. But: is it unreasonable of me to think he wouldn't have been going that far out of his way to have allowed me some recourse? I was volunteering to run the mile to the gate to retrieve both my CD's and the other fella's ammo. To rally this tale toward a conclusion: he got his ammo, and I got to be S.O.L.

Which hurts, really. I mean, okay: I know a lot of people who've had their entire CD collections stolen right out from under them, and although I always shook my head and said, "wow, that's terrible," I never really considered how terrible it might be. At least I only lost twenty CDs. But this is all I've got to listen to over here. And okay: bad things happen to everybody. So here's my bad thing, or one of them. Twenty casualties of war.

So the surprising thing is that I've got echoes of certain songs playing upstairs, alarmingly clearly at times. There's a song toward the end of At the Drive In's album In/Casino/Out boasting the plaintive lyric, "I'm all alone so far up here, and my oxygen's all gone," which it seems to me fits rather beautifully into that sub-genre of rock songs I like to call Farcical Science Fiction Tales of Astronauts Stranded in Space, Which Serve as Metaphors for Loneliness/ Alienation of Rock Star in Question... a sub-genre which began with David Bowie's "Space Oddity", was canonized as sub-genre with Elton John's "Rocket Man", and which thrives in our time in any number of songs by The Flaming Lips or Spacehog, to give only a couple examples. Anyway: the thing that makes the sub-genre such a prescient one is that these songs serve as such fine metaphors for the loneliness/ alienation of others as well, specifically soldiers on deployment, and more specifically still soldiers on deployment who have lost their lifeline to their culture, to their own identities even perhaps.

Their own identities? We're only talking about music recorded to disc, marketed to youngsters by behemoth corporations as something more but really only so much hype, right?

Well on the flyleaf for a book of essays by the influential music critic Lester Bangs, another music critic named Greil Marcus attests something to the effect that Lester's criticism illuminates the possibility for rock-n-roll to be not merely noise or cultural backdrop or distraction but "an arena of moral choices." Which is not to say that Bangs was an adherent to the William Bennet school of moralizing-- very far from it indeed (he didn't even gamble!). His writing was about the notion that you could define yourself by the choices you made-- that in an age in which drivel is persistently presented to us as gold, in a culture in which the meanings of things are transient and malleable by the forces of the market or whatever else, you can create your own set of meanings, which reference other meanings-- you can argue, as Lester so ludicrously did, that Question Mark and the Mysterians was the greatest band ever, and you can make a good case for it and create a sort of community centered around that argument-- and sure enough, if you go to a vinyl store in the hip part of town, you'll find that record there, still in print though the band had only one hit over thirty years ago, on the strength of Lester Bangs' moral choices alone.

So that choice selection of twenty CDs, a host to names of bands that have likely never crossed your ears (Gogol Bordello, anyone?), was a conduit through which I made known to myself who I was-- who I no longer get to be? Well of course that's a little drastic-- everyone knows the old platitude, stated so emphatically by Brad Pitt in Fight Club, that YOU ARE NOT YOUR POSSESSIONS. So what does it come down to then? We're opening a whole new metaphysical can of worms, perhaps, if you'll pardon the indulgent misappropriation of a line from a Charlie Kaufman film.

It's an overblown expression of sheer unwarranted ludicrous grief here, my friends family and fans, and maybe that's about all. There's one other lyric from my gone-forever collection that continues to reverberate through my skull, this one of Nick Cave, crooning in his mournful cracking baritone, "I've traveled this world 'round, searching for an answer that refused to be found-- I don't know why and I don't know how, but she's nobody's baby now." That seems apt-- because no matter whose lucky hands that booklet falls into, no one is going to love it the way I did.

Monday, January 19, 2004

...And another thing...

Very soon we'll be retrieving our vehicles from the port (yes they finally arrived!), and when we do that we'll be away from here, and thus I'll have no access to the internet. I'd love to give you a better picture of things, but it goes back to the whole edict regarding the release of information about troop movements.


Expect a hiatus of indeterminate length.

Sunday, January 18, 2004


A sigificant portion of my day is consumed by standing in a variety of lines. First there's the line to the chow hall: it moves amazingly quick, with the third nationals asking you what you want in pristine American English and pumping their arms to put food on your plate and rush you through, yet with all the people here the line can extend to about an eighth of a mile right around noon. Then there's the line to the showers: if you're too sleepy to get to the trailer before 5:45 you'll stand in that crowded space rubbing the sleep from your eyes for up to fifteen minutes; then once you get inside you'll find that the cyclic water heater only pumps the H2O for two minutes before stalling for another two, so that you get to shiver and lather up real nice before getting wet again. One might even count the lines associated with morning formations: after we've stood in rank and file for a few minutes listening to the First Sergeant speak and straining under the weight of our various items of obligatory gear, we often get to line up outside the operations tent, each of us taking a turn reading the serial numbers off our weapons and NVG's (night vision goggles, also called "nods") to the Platoon Sergeant or Unit Armorer to certify that they're the same serial numbers we read off the day before.

But the lines that really exemplify the Camp Udairi experience are those hour-long ones to be found in the PX area. A PX, or Post Exchange, is a curious beast that deserves a description. By definition it's any store on an Army Post or Camp operated by AAFES-- the Army/ Air Force Exchange Service (other branches of the service have near-identical operations with only slightly different appelations). On Fort Hood, back in Texas, there are two main PX's, which are a lot like Wal-Marts with mini-malls attached. In addition there are several satellite PX's, called Shopettes, which are like combination gas station/ convenience store/ food court/ video arcades. Here at Camp Udairi, there is one PX having only the size and functionality of a convenience store. The line to get in is approximately one hour at any time of day that it's open; the line for the cash registers is about thirty minutes. There are several trailers that surround this line to form a sort of courtyard; they include the *AT&T Cyber-Zone*, an alterations shop that sews patches, two Subways, a Burger King that still has not opened, and another food trailer more appropriate to our setting (there they proffer really great $1 chicken shawarma wraps and cute little undersized fifty-cent cans of Coke with tops that peel instead of pop open). The *Cyber-Zone* is open 24/7 and boasts no line in the middle of the night; during the day it's about a twenty-minute wait.

The goal is to avoid standing in the PX line-- and to be certain, upon deigning to endure the wait, to acquire in one visit every item one might need in the near future. But somehow there's always something. The other day the battery on my flashlight died, so I found myself standing in line yesterday afternoon with Sgt. Morgan, a guy on my team, so that I might procure another battery or another flashlight, whichever the good people of AAFES had to sell. Two trucks backed up to the storage shelter to the back of the PX and started unloading cases of Gatorade and Mountain Dew. Then, inexplicably to me-- perhaps there was only so much room in the storage shelter, perhaps some AAFES employees were feeling magnanimous or devious, perhaps perhaps perhaps-- after a small stack of these cases were set aside the remainder was made available to the first taker. Sgt. Morgan pointed out to me that crowds were swarming around the trucks and walking away full-handed, so while he held my place in line I rushed over to nab a case of Gatorade Fierce Melon-- my favorite aside from their Mexican line of flavors (try Mango sometime)-- and the very last case of Mountain Dew.

It was a serious exercise lugging all that beverage back to our tents, considering the other stuff we had swinging from our necks and slapping against our backs, but when we got back we split the two cases and retired to our respective tents triumphant. I don't even really care very much for Mountain Dew-- it was just the satisfaction of having scored something. First, I gave everyone who was then in the tent one Mountain Dew apiece... but there weren't many people in the tent. Then, having several left over, I decided to stay up late with my friend Tim Pongratz, gulping those caffeinated sugar-bombs down while watching Clerks, that hallmark indie film of the ponderous one-word chapter titles, which he had saved to his laptop.

I hadn't laughed so hard in a long time.
Train in Vain

Whoah, the trainin' we been doin'. Yesterday we went over the techniques for clearing a room-- you know, five guys with lots of gear and weapons held to their faces kick open a door and rush in yelling and shooting. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad they're training us on this stuff. But: if it ever comes down to a Signal unit performing this sort of task, we've already lost the war.

We did some other things as well, including an overblown 400-meter march across a dusty expanse to a building known as *EST 2000*. What the name signifies I've no idea, but the place was a giant combat simulator. Six people take up weapons in a large dark room with a screen that covers an entire wall; on the screen a scenario plays out in which enemy combatants rush from the bushes and start shooting at you. A computer tracks how many times you've shot and how many kills you've gotten. It's sort of a glorified version of that old Nintendo favorite, Duck Hunt.

Then today, we were sent out onto a field of sand to break up into teams and *go over* what we learned yesterday. So there was a lot of "Uh, I learned not to pick up the weapon in the first lane, cuz that one's always gonna be fubar." My team decided to perform a *patrol* over to the Finance trailer. The other people on my team weren't even holding their weapons at the ready, and we were talking the whole way-- we just wanted to get away from there and see whether we could draw out some money.

Anyway, this is what we look like while doing a patrol, or anytime we're walking anywhere here at Camp Udairi: DCU's (desert combat uniform-- khaki/ pea green/ light brown camouflage pants and top, plus tan canvas boots); jungle cammo Kevlar flak vest which includes *sappy plates* ("sappy" is probably an acronym; my guess is that it's CAPPE, for ceramic armor protective plate equipment); pouches hooked to flak vest that include empty ammo magazines, first aid bandages, and a one-quart plastic canteen inside a metal canteen cup; weapon slung over shoulder at *low ready* (muzzle pointed downward but with pistol grip in hand); Kevlar helmet; and ammunition (in my case a heavy, 200-round bucket in a cloth pouch slung over the opposite shoulder, but for the others just a 20-round magazine carried in the pants' cargo pocket). It gets pretty tiresome carrying all the stuff around. For the first few days here, any time I wasn't moving I would unsling my weapon to pop out the tripod and set it down; now I'm finally getting to the point where I can leave it strapped to my body while standing upright without feeling that my back is about to break.

Anyway, here's a *heads up* for you: between the time of this post and the time of my being fully set up in Baghdad, this blog may post a lot less frequently/ voluminously than it has been. The reason is that I'm paying to sit in front of this computer, and this ain't no internet cafe. This is AT&T taking advantage of the situation, making a pretty-- no, a gorgeous-- penny. It's breaking the bank, y'all. But when I get to Baghdad it will be free.

And yet another *head's up*: If I've already given you my Iraq mailing address, and you're just about to drop that letter in the mail, don't. It is the correct address-- for Baghdad. And if I'm not there when the mail gets there, according to what I've just learned, the mail will be returned.

I'm about to go take some pictures of this place, then I'll see if I can find a way to show them to you.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

International Deflations

Well the C.Q. was pretty much what I expected: sitting in a chair for a couple hours, making some minimal attempt to sit erect and thereby *look professional*. I got to finish Cacciato, and I've got to say I'm impressed. The author is Tim O'Brien, and the book won him a National Book Award in '78 or '79 or something like that. I was incorrect yesterday: in the chapter that I had read up to, Berlin's squad was in Tehran, not Kabul-- which offers a much better explanation as to why they were talking about the Shah than my sloppy assessment that Afghanistan was then under Iranian governance. I love it when mere entertainment turns into a geography lesson.

Anyway: that chapter offers a priceless bit of dialogue between the squad's medic, appropriately known as Doc, and the director of Tehran Internal Security, the gullible Captain Rhallon. The squad's been arrested for being American soldiers border-crossing without orders, transport of weaponry without permit, and possible desertion-- of which they are fully, blatantly guilty-- and they've convinced him that due to an arcane addendum to the Geneva Convention they are perfectly within their rights. He feels so stupid that
he's insisted on buying them drinks (remember these are pre-Ayatolla times), so at the local club, under the pretense of enforcing the curfew, the group is getting smashed and discussing the motivations of soldiers and the peculiarities of Vietnam, with Rhallon playing the role of the traditionally minded, duty-bound Kurd-killer-for-country who assumes his new companions adhere to his same set of virtues, enthusing that every soldier will have his own set of stories to tell and wouldn't-he-love-to-hear-theirs, when he is countered by Doc:

I'm not sure I buy it, but it's a good bit of dialogue. It stands as a sort of indictment, I guess, of some of my favorite films: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket (which keeps coming up... should I declare a moratorium on FMJ references, or should I work one into every post?)

Anyway, the sergeant with whom I pulled C.Q. duty, Sgt. Reyes, is an interesting character. He speaks with a nearly nasal Mexican accent that tempts you, at first, to assume he's uneducated, but in reality he knows a lot about a number of things and obtained a degree in electrical engineering in Mexico before coming to the States to join the service (something about needing the medical plan for his family-- too convoluted a story to go into here). He could have been an officer with his degree, but he joined the service before he even had his citizenship and he didn't yet know English well enough.

He's been arguing his theory that a number of the third-national employees on this camp are undoubtedly undercover Fedayeen gathering intelligence. I countered his argument by pointing out that these guys seem to like us and that, furthermore, they hail from nations that have relatively decent relationships with the U.S. (He didn't try to argue that they were Iraqis merely pretending to be from other countries, and so I decided not to split hairs by arguing that the term Fedayeen has been used specifically to refer to an elite faction of the Iraqi military loyal to Saddam.) His argument was that those nations, and many other nations around the world that we don't ordinarily consider hostile toward us, have seething resentments against the United States. Back in '98, for instance, or whenever it was that India and Pakistan both tested their nuclear abilities, the U.S. censured both countries. With that much of the story I guess any watcher of the news has a passing familiarity. But according to Sgt. Reyes, who I guess has his ear to different points on the ground than I have, this resulted in a total withdrawal of international aid funds directed at those two relatively poverty-stricken nations, which in turn devastated both their business sectors and their humanitarian efforts... and that therefore citizens of those countries are likely to identify with the international America-hatred, even if for them it isn't grounded in jihad.

I don't know whether he's got two legs to stand on with this line of argument or not. I'm inclined to be skeptical of it. I think I recall America recently throwing an armload of aid toward Pakistan in response to their *co-operation* with our post-Nine-Eleven endeavors. The other part of his argument was that a number of countries-- significantly in his estimation, Mexico-- were handled very discourteously immediately following the U.N. vote on the Iraq resolution. Apparently certain nations which had been expected to vote in favor of the resolution but did not, such as Mexico, were surprised to learn that when their ambassadors showed up to work the following day, their offices at the embassies had been packed out for them, their boxes waiting in the hallway, their plane tickets back home pre-arranged and waiting at the airport. And the course of the speculation continues that the fallout in Mexico was so severe that Bush himself had to visit Vincente Fox in Mexico, to smooth out relations with our southern neighbor-- that this was the true purpose of his recent visit.

Maybe Sgt. Reyes is just being dramatic. I'd like to think we aren't engendering a world more hatred for ourselves than we've already got in our attempt to respond to that which has already materialized. And I find it difficult to either verify or dismiss the factual claims to his argument.

This feeds into my curiosity, perhaps even my anxiety, regarding the Iraqi people's acceptance of our actions. In the past few days, I've read a few blogs that indicate relief over the disposal of their despot, and yet an annoyance at the arrogance and relentless omnipresence of their liberators. Soak up the angst from the January 14 post here: okay well I'm having trouble finding it. Surf around a little starting from the links to the right.

They're so proud to have money that doesn't boast Saddam's leer that, for the first time in anyone's memory, Iraqi money is the only currency anyone will accept... but now all the sudden there is something like a 40% inflation. You can read up on that at the Jan. 14 post here: http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/

In short, there is good and there is bad, as in all things, and the good and the bad are all in the eyes of the various beholders. I'm just trying to learn a little more about the beholders, and what kinds of good and bad they'll remember in the years to come.
The Eye of the Tigris

The rain has stopped, the sun's been shining, the puddles and lakes are evaporating/ being absorbed into the sand, and I'm now able to walk around without getting lost.

This is my first time posting during the day-- I guess it's about 5:20 a.m. back in the CST right now, but it's about 2:20 p.m. here in Kuwait (I haven't changed my watch yet, and I don't know if I will... I've just got to subtract three hours and switch the a.m./p.m., or add nine hours). There's a policy in effect here that no one is to walk anywhere without a *battle buddy*-- I'll not try to reproduce the logic behind that for you-- so I face a certain difficulty getting across camp in the wee hours of the morning (which still kind of feel like late afternoon to me). No one wants to be roused from his cot for anything like that, and I end up darting from shadow to shadow. It's sort of fun, but I'd hate to get caught.

Most of my company-- everyone who carries an M16 or an M4, which includes the First Sergeant and C.O. (commanding officer, i.e. the captain) although they also carry M9 pistols-- is at the qualifying range today. There was some kind of concept of assigning duty to all the M249 gunners who stayed back, and that devolved into each of us being assigned with two hours of C.Q. runner duty (C.Q. stands for "charge of quarters"-- in the States it refers to the sergeant at the front desk answering the phones, while his runner is the soldier who tells people they've got a phone call, sweeps the floor, etc.; in practice the two usually just trade off at the phone while the other person finds a place to nap or eat or do whatever-- I'm curious just what the purpose of C.Q. will be out here, with no company phone). My duty is 0300-0500. That's 3-5 a.m., for anyone resistant to military time, and it's also the time I like to post my blog.

I've been reading a book called Going After Cacciato. The person who recommended it to me described it as the Catch-22 of the Vietnam War. That's an apt description in a sense-- both books use absurdity as a narrative tool and both involve soldiers devising ways to escape their duty-- but the absurdity of Catch-22 is of a different brand than that of Going After Cacciato. The Cacciato story is very real for the most part; it may be the most accurately descriptive fictional work I've read concerning military life. There's also a rich lyricism, a repetition of key phrases and themes, underscoring the protagonist Paul Berlin's efforts to minimize his fright and homesickness. But then every other chapter is Berlin's mental adventure in which instead of shooting down his friend that was deserting battle, the squad instead opts to chase him, and gets involved in fantastical adventures all the way to Paris. So far I've kept up with them to Kabul, Afghanistan, which apparently was then administered by Iran. It's good fun. There's also some pretty perspicacious meditation on the nature of war, intersperced throughout the ludicrous dialogue-- I'll try to give you a sample in my next post, if I can remember to bring the book with me.

Beyond that, there's very little happening. There is to be a COMEX (communications exercise) sometime after the arrival of our equipment; that will involve just proving to ourselves (and to whoever our commander anwers to) that we can establish and maintain a communications network. After that we'll perform a *combat live-fire*: everyone driving down a road in a convoy, shooting at whatever targets might be provided. Then, once we've done all that, we'll be doing the real thing, heading for the eye of the hurricane that is Iraq.

Monday, January 12, 2004

School's Out For Ever

This place is a gargantuan construction zone. I'm at Camp Udairi (yoo-DAR-ee), pretty far inland within Kuwait. I'm not sure how long the U.S. has had a presence here at this camp, but from how much building is going on I'm guessing it's a fairly recent undertaking. Cranes, mounds of dirt, half-built towers: all over the place. Walking from my tent to the *chow hall*, I get disoriented on the way back because the landscape has changed that much in the twenty minutes I've been inside.

The construction is being performed, along with the food that is being prepared and served and the buses that are being driven, by "third nationals"-- Indians and Pakistanis, mostly, who are here and who seem really happy to have the jobs, since the rich people of Kuwait can't be bothered with manual labor. I did a double take when I stepped onto the bus at the Kuwait airport and heard music that reminded me of the raga jam at the end of the Beatles' "Within You and Without You". The lyrics were unintelligible, of course, but I thought I picked up something about Vishnu.

The food is better than expected-- I had heard horror stories about the awful food from people in my company who did a five-month Kuwait rotation in 2001-02, but then again they were set up at a different camp. One of the perks is the little cartons of flavored milk-- banana milk is really something-- and other dairy products such as yogurt and ice cream, all of come from the Bahrain Danish Dairy. Who knew? They also serve completely non-alcoholic beer in the chow hall, and sell it in the PX (Post Exchange). It tastes like cereal.

Kuwait is typically described as a desert nation, and indeed large expanses of sand are about all that meets the eye out here. But one thinks of the desert as being dry. I was told this country receives one inch of rainfall per year. Well I guess this is the rainy season then: it rained non-stop for the past two-and-a-half days. To get from my tent to the *AT&T Cyber-Zone* from which I post this blog, I waded through water that soaked me to my knees. One inch of rainfall per year, huh?

We've been afforded a lot of free time in the last few days, partly because we're all-- leadership included-- still adjusting to the new time zone, and partly because there isn't much to do. So we've been privileged with a couple of classes. The first one was about UXO's: unexploded ordinance. That was pretty engaging. IED's-- improvised explosive devices-- are now the greatest concern, but you've also got your RPG's-- rocket propelled grenades-- and a host of other variants. The hot new acronym is the V-bed: vehicle embedded improvised explosive devices. Pretty fun stuff to learn about until you think to yourself: oh wait... you mean I've got to be on the look-out for this stuff?

The other class was less of a production; it just involved the Warrant Officer from our battalion's Syscon (System Control) preaching to us about technical procedures. His knowledge is impressive, but unfortunately one gets the impression that the main thing driving him to speak is to his desire to out-class everyone. Nine times out of ten he's talking over your head.

I need to wrap this up before I run out of time... well to give you a sense of Camp Udairi: this is a waystation. Units cycle through here either on their way in or on their way out of Iraq. Someone said today that there are about 7,000 soldiers here, and that seems about right. I sleep in a huge tent that was erected months ago by the third-nationals. It sleeps fourteen people. It has wooden planks down for a floor underneath the tarp, so the flooding isn't too much of an issue. It's one of the middle tents in a row of six, which faces another row of six, and there are more of these rows than I've counted. Also here are the aforementioned chow hall, an MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) area that includes a gaming room and a free internet station (which is flooded today and which on any other day would entail a half-hour wait for twenty minutes maximum usage), a PX, a boxing ring, a gym, a Subway that hasn't been open since I've been here, and a Burger King that seems to keep the same hours. The MWR is sponsoring a visit from Tom Green, he of the dubious comedic romances with Drew Barrymore and Monica Lewinsky, later today. I'm curious as to whether he's come up with new material since rendering testicular cancer halfway funny.

At any hour of the day or night, just outside the tent where I sleep, one can hear CSM (Command Sergeant Major) Ciatolla, top enlisted man in the First Cavalry Division's Second Combat Team (military-ese: 2BCT, 1 Cav Div), briefing newly arrived units. He's an interesting speaker to experience, with a loud voice, a mood that is alternately jovial or caustic, and his own arsenal of idiosyncratic turns of phrase. The one that has gotten the most mileage: If you ain't Cav, you ain't shit. He likes to walk into a room, anounce the first half of this credo, and smile as everyone present bellows the second half. I've also seen this expression scrawled on countless bathroom walls. I find it curious. I have to restrain myself from scrawling directly underneath: So if you are Cav, what are you then? Shit?

Sunday, January 11, 2004

New Found Lands

After about seven hours of basically being held captive-- you know, no guns pointed at anyone's head, but it was implicit that we were not to go anywhere-- we finally boarded a plane around midnight (CST) on the morning of the 10th in Fort Hood, from whence we flew to Gander, Newfoundland (the pilot repeatedly called it New-Found-Land... perhaps he was amusing himself); Shannon, Ireland; Cyprus; and Kuwait. Total flight time was around 18 hours, but with the fuel stops it added up to about 21.

It's been made known in no uncertain terms that no information regarding troop movements is to be released back to the States. I don't think what I've just told you qualifies as a violation of that order-- I think they're mainly concerned with people letting information go before it becomes old news. For instance: I'm not supposed to tell you at what point we'll be heading into Iraq, what route we'll be taking to get there, etc. So then: that's for me to wonder about, and you to wonder about even after I find out about it.

That said, we won't be going right away, and here's why:
That ship onto which we loaded all our vehicles and equipment way back in December has broken down in the water. Yeah. And they didn't bring a tow rope. So we'll be waiting a while.

During that time, I guess we'll be going to some improvised weapons ranges. We can use the pracitice, even if-- and I'm really hoping this will be the case-- we never have to fire upon any actual human combatants. My weapon is an M249, also known as the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). It's that big, chain-fed machine gun that the big racist guy in Full Metal Jacket makes a big deal out of carrying in that scene in which the platoon is getting methodically picked off by the sniper who turns out to be a beautiful Vietnamese vixen.

As I was telling my captain as we stood there BS'ing outside our tent area a few minutes ago, last time I went to a range on Ft Hood, I didn't even get to zero the sights on my weapon. The people who were running the range instead insisted that we use *Kentucky windage*-- observing how far off the mark you were when you aimed for the target dead-on, and adjusting accordingly. They also got real upset if they caught us sharp-shooting the target-- they wanted us to pop off a five-to-seven-round burst every time we fired, and just sort of mow the target down. That's a valid tactic, of course-- but there's a certain comfort in knowing that, if you've got to conserve amo, you can just put the target in your sights and knock it down with one bullet.

Well I was about to tell you about the food here, but that can wait for next time. I've been on this terminal for a while and people are staring at me expectantly.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The Flight of the Fumblebee

1) The flight date is getting changed once or twice a day. Who knows why. Something to do with there being flights leaving all the time, and it being up to the units that are leaving who'll be on which flight, and some unit commander who's really high on this thing they call *the food chain* keeps changing his mind, keeping his options open. Consulting his astrologist. Maybe. Or maybe the confusion is willfully generated, to smoke out *the terrorist threat*. Yeah. We'll go with that.

2) We're living out of our duffel bags already. Yesterday they had us *stand by* in our rooms in anticipation of the Sergeant Major, who was to make sure the rooms were sufficiently bare and clean. He never came by, but there were a couple staff sergeants who came by and lost their minds over the fact that there were still select articles of clothing in the wall lockers. So he's supposed to come by again today, and there's a lot of huffing and puffing over the notion that there'd better not be anything-- no food in the fridge, no soap in the shower, no hat on the shelf, no speck of dust in the corner-- in the room that isn't inside a duffel bag. Despite the fact that we're still living here.

3) We spent most of yesterday unpacking and repacking a mammoth metal storage crate that's referred to alternately as a CONEX or a MIL van (no I don't know what the acronyms stand for). The thing is packed from floor to ceiling with this in-theory-tightly-wound camouflage netting, bags of poles to support the netting (which makes a sort of camo-bubble over any type of encampment to reduce the possibility of being spotted by scouting aircraft... great concept, but how exactly is it going to help us when our side is the only one sending up scouting aircraft?), and huge lidless carboard boxes filled with such essential items as a random wheel to nobody-knows-what and stacks upon stacks of TMs (technical manuals-- reference materials to be kept on hand for equipment troubleshooting... they'll get a lot of use inside that van underneath that wound-up camo).

4) I'm turning in my cable modem to the good people of Time Warner Cable today, which means I won't be blogging much for a while. Between now and the time I leave, which could be whenever, I might catch a chance to throw up a quick update using someone else's setup (someone who isn't leaving with our unit). But once we get there, "there" is going to at first be not Iraq but Kuwait. I've heard everything from a couple weeks to a couple months, in terms of how much time we'll spend in Kuwait before we convoy to Baghdad. Supposedly there's a lot of training to be accomplished in the desert environment before we can throw ourselves into the thick of it. In any event: I have no idea whether I'll have access to the internet while in Kuwait. Once we're setup in Baghdad, I should have all the internet time I need.

5) It is colder than a (insert your favorite colorful witch/doorknob reference here) in Texas this week. Don't anybody point out to me that Oregon is north of Texas, and so I'm supposed to be used to it. In Oregon the landscape doesn't invite ferocious winds to sweep across you and chap your face like instant freezer burn. In Oregon people have the sense to stay inside when it's freezing, unless of course they're doing something other than standing completely still trying to prove they can take it, in which case you've at least got the body movement/body temperature thing going for you. In Oregon you don't have the heat shut off several days before vacating the premises. I've got to wear longjohn polypropylene underwear just to be in my room, people.

So anyway: maybe I'll post again today, before I turn in my modem, and maybe I won't.

You'll have to keep checking in to find out.

Monday, January 05, 2004


So I learned today that I'll be heading out three days sooner than projected... which leaves me with just over 48 hours left in the states, in which time I've got to drop off my car at my second cousin's house, write out I-don't-know-how-many checks, etc.

Last night I shaved my head. We're talking Full Metal Jacket boot camp bald. It fits my state of mind at this point.

All the great moments of departure that a person experiences in life-- first day at your first job, leaving for college, etc.-- don't really compare with this. The sense of it being an unknown thing is overwhe... I don't know that it's overwhelming, necessarily. There's a sort of numbness.

I've got a million things to do tonight, and all I want to do is go to bed.

There'll be no cogent military analysis tonight, y'all-- if ever there will be, and I hope there will. Also, no wistful ruminations on the arcana of our popular culture from which I am to be removed. Furthermore, no snarky intimations of the social habits of soldiers who know their time for free-form self-amusement is running short, nor any bellyaching about how much I'm going to miss you all.

All you get tonight is me writing about writing this blog, riding circles on my training wheels in this proverbial driveway, knowing as I go to sleep that three nights later I'll have pulled out onto the thoroughfare.

So it's day two of trying to be a blogger. I haven't seen yesterday's blog, haven't even seen the site itself... I understand that the server is having some difficulty right now with new posts, that the posts are being saved but not appearing. Whatever. We'll see what happens when I post this.

Sunday, January 04, 2004


So it's T-minus 7 days until lift-off, folks. On my last Sunday morning in the barracks, we had soldiers standing on the balcony in their slippers and bathrobes, ravenously sucking down cigarettes and forties of malt liquor as they phoned home or socialized, making the most of their freedom while they've got it.

And so today I introduced myself into the world of weblogging. This is it, folks: your window into my world as I embark on this adventure... or misadventure. More on that later.

Also, I played with my new digital camera. Soon I'll have pictures you can link to. Soon.

Okay well I'm still in the learning stage here. I'll go ahead and post this and see how it looks.

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