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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004


If you’re new to this blog, you’re probably going to scroll around as the whim strikes you— but if you’ve been keeping track you’ve probably noticed that instead of posting new entries every day, I’ve been posting several entries at a time, on a sporadic basis. This is because I now get internet access infrequently, and for short little time-blocks even then. Just the same, the posts appear in reverse-chronological order, more or less: I post them in the order that I write them, so that the most recent entry appears at the top of the page.

So if you want the blog to make any sense, you’ll want to scroll down to the last post you haven’t yet read, and scroll up from there.

Some of the entries might seem sort of lenghty… well don’t feel obligated to read it all in one sitting. Shave a blog off the end, savor the flavor, then come back tomorrow for another taste of wartime dread and mischeif. It’s like that cake you’re hoarding in the pantry.

Armageddon It

Then on Sunday night we got what we’d been waiting for. I had just exited my shelter and was standing at my team-mate’s door to tell him something job-related when we heard a loud clap that seemed to make the earth shudder. Over my shoulder, a bright yellow flash momentarily illuminated a hill in the distance. Four more of these explosions followed. Reece and I— Michael Reece is the name of my team-mate who shares a shift with me— just sort of stood there agog for a moment.

It wasn’t long before we were all joking about the whole thing— “Hey! Some firework show, huh?”— but at the time we were a little spooked. Robert, my team chief (a.k.a. Sgt. Rod, Robert Rodriguez— not to be mistaken for the Austin auteur behind the El Mariachi and Spy Kids trilogies), called a few minutes later to ask in an ashen voice if we were alright, then hung up.

The next day he informed us that the majority of the company, back in the sleeping area, had darted beneath a concrete barrier and cowered there together. (I think I’m blurring two narratives into one here, those of Sgt. Rod and of Sgt. Morgan, but whatever.) Julia Villanueva, a mechanic who everyone calls V and whose appearance invites the occasional Jennifer Lopez comparison, was dripping tears. The First Sergeant got a call from the company commander: “Top! Where are ya?” “We’re all hunkered down together underneath the concrete— where the hell are you?”

My roommate Preyor and a large group of others were on shift on top of the hill when the first mortar hit. They saw it land and explode, forming a crater right next to one of their trucks. There wasn’t much they could do. They didn’t have anything other than their communications shelters to hide behind or inside— even if they had, Preyor would have been hard-pressed to really crouch behind anything, suffering as he is from a broken clavicle after slipping in some tenaciously thick mud and falling onto his SAW.

At my site we’ve got important people working nearby, so we had to go along with their superfluous precautions. I sent Reece back to the sleeping area to grab our pro masks, and then we had to wear them for about an hour. To put one of these masks to your face is to be assaulted by the residual odor of CS gas from previous uses— so that the less you need the mask, which is to say the clearer the air really is from any toxins, the better you’re going to smell the CS, thereby subconsciously reinforcing the notion that the mask is necessary. I don’t know what those officers across the street were thinking, exactly, but this is my best guess as to why they waited so long to give the “all clear” signal after learning that no one at the site of impact had been impacted and that, furthermore, they’d never bothered to don their masks and were all breathing perfectly fine.

So everyone’s okay. A learning experience for all concerned; brush the dirt off the knees and move on.

What concerns me about the whole ordeal is the dubious bit of intel that has trickled down the pipes about the detailed maps those captured would-be terrorists were carrying, which depicted the entire camp including the functionality of different buildings. On the one hand, it’s only something someone said, not necessarily true or false. One of the first things I learned about the enlisted military life was that chief among its occupational hazards is the endless barrage of received ideas, the litany of imagined events and misinterpreted policies which present themselves as fact.

On the other hand, the DOD has employed an army of workers— most of them local Iraqis, it seems— to support the camp’s infrastructure in a variety of ways. So they’re walking around throughout the day cleaning bathrooms, collecting garbage, constructing a larger DFAC, etc. It’s commendable that the US government is employing these guys, doing what they can for the stunned economy… but I wonder if anyone’s taken into account what seems to be an insurmountable fact: an Iraqi’s potential reward for collaborating with the insurgent network can be bountiful, while his potential punishment for collaborating with the Americans can be very grave indeed. News reports of buses getting ambushed— buses carrying no one more relevant to the conflict than women on their way to work at the post laundry facility— are not uncommon. It’s disconcerting to realize that the smiling man who calls you “sir” as you dry your hands at the sink may also be the man committing to memory the distance between the mortar’s crater and its actual target, for the better future aim of someone who would sooner call you “infidel”.

I don’t know— perhaps there’s nothing to be done. Last night we all practically chewed our fingernails to the quick, thinking every minute that in the next minute our enemies might show us how much better shots they’d become in a day. Then nothing happened. Tonight we’ve practically forgotten the whole incident, or we’ve shoved it into the dusty corners of our minds’ filerooms, because we’ve still got to do our jobs. But also in the back of my mind there are images of mushroom clouds, speaking volumes of soundless fury against nothing more than that which does not make sense.
The Schadenfreude’s Red Glare

So as we stood there on Saturday night— my team-mate Reece; Criswell, a guy from another team; and I— wearing every protective item we’d been issued, our pro masks in their carriers strapped to our hips (the military neologism for this uniform is “full battle rattle”), not quite convinced yet that danger was imminent, feeling strangely ebullient in the face of absurdity, we conversed a little bit about the state of things in general (another military neologism: “jaw-jacking”):

“So you guys hear about this attack? What’s this all about?”

“No, I haven’t heard about it…why would I be wearing all of this if someone hadn’t come around and told me to?… I think they’re freaking out about something they misheard, personally— some kind of whispering in the bushes. It just seems so unlikely. Iraqis? Talking on our radios? How did they come across them? And then assuming they did come across them: why would they give away their mission by talking on the same freq’ the radios had been on when the radios were first confiscated? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to listen in to our conversations than for them to broadcast their conversations to us?”

“No, man, that’s not what happened, man— they caught some cell leader. That’s how they got the intel.”

“The intel? How do you come by this intel about the intel?”

“Just put it together, man.”


“So you guys gonna go out in a hail of bullets if the rockets start flying in?

“I dunno, man, don’t they say that the one that gets you is the one you don’t hear? If you hear it coming in— ‘piiiirrrrop!’— that one’s not even headed for you. It’s already landed, over there somewhere.”

“I’ll be singing the National Anthem— ‘…and the rockets’ red glaaaare’— just as I’m sendin’ bullets down-range. Bud-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dutt! Lightin’ those [terrorists] up.”

“I dunno, man, you gonna get positive ID on those targets first? You don’t even know where anything’s comin’ from, & you start poppin’ off rounds… could be a *negligent discharge*… you could be like Soap.”

“Hey, what happened with that, anyway?”

“You didn’t hear about that?”

“Yeah, I know the whole story and I’m asking you about it because I love the sound of your voice.”


“Dude was sitting in his room. Last night. Popped an M16 magazine into the 249— I guess just to see if it would really work… Rode the bolt forward and it fired a shot. Straight through the ceiling. I guess he didn’t know it would chamber the round—imagine that, the Unit Armorer. Well I guess he was trying to educate himself. Now it’s all about the UCMJ… supposedly they’re gonna ride the other guys who were in the room, too.”

“There’s other people caught up in this?”

“Oh, yeah, man. Green… all those guys. Soap was sort of puttin’ on a show, apparently. So they’re gonna get it for not being good *battle buddies*. You know: ‘Hey, battle buddy, don’t load that magazine— we haven’t been authorized.’ Whatever.”

“The Unit Armorer. Is that just about ironic, or what?”


“So what’s gonna happen to him?”


“I heard the firing squad.”


“Well, yeah, cause they don’t have time to build the gallows for a proper hanging.”

“Actually: these rockets coming in at us really are gas-equipped. They ordered ’em in. They didn’t have time to build a chamber— so they just took Soap’s mask away.”
You Heard It Hear First

The tense events of the past three nights have served as a sort of wake-up call. On Saturday night I was sitting in my communications shelter, enjoying life in general as I listened to “99 Red Balloons” or “Come On Eileen” from my team-mate’s “Monster 80’s Volume 2” disc, when a captain I didn’t know hurriedly approached my shelter door to ask me why I wasn’t wearing my flak vest yet. What was he talking about?

Within the camp perimeter here in Iraq, our uniform includes the flak vest and the Kevlar helmet when outdoors between 1800 (6 p.m.) and 0700 hrs. (7 a.m.), or just the “boonie” hat during the day. It was well after 1800, but I was indoors.

He informed me that some Iraqis had been heard speaking over our radios, that somehow or other there were plenty of them within the perimeter, and that we had “at least a hundred rockets” coming our way in a matter of minutes.

I’m well aware of my low position on the intel-chain: when something new occurs or some new item of information is gained, the first people to be notified are men with icy stares and stars on their collars, and it all trickles down from there, underling to underling, and the message often undergoes personal embellishments and revisions along the way— just as in that childhood game “telephone”, where you whisper into your buddy’s ear that the store will close at nine, and by the time it gets to the other side of the room, the long-legged bird that brings the babies wears no clothes at night.

So I also know enough to be wary of that kind of information coming from a captain who walks around by himself at night— outrank me though he does. Something was going on; I just didn’t know what. Of course it was understood that I needed to be wearing any protective equipment I had at my disposal. Not too much later, my team chief was on the scene. I was supposed to travel the half-mile back to my sleeping area, along with the guy manning our team’s other shelter, so that we could retrieve our “pro masks” (protective masks, also called NBC ((nuclear/ biological/ chemical)) masks).

Back in the States, we train with these masks all the time. On a given field operation, someone will get an epiphany that the moment was made for a CS grenade; they’ll start flying and whirring and popping milky clouds of smoke; and if you don’t get your mask on quickly you’re going to wish you had. It’s a non-lethal nerve agent that causes the eyes to swell and tear, the mucous glands to go into overdrive, and the lungs to sort of spasm benignly. At NTC (the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, California) in July, some of this stuff went off while I was sleeping. By the time I woke up to reach for my mask I was already blind, and then I had trouble breathing for hours after the thing was over. Apparently I’m more susceptible than most.

Anyway: nothing happened on Saturday night. We were all instructed to sleep in our vests and helmets— which is pretty difficult, when it comes down to it— with our masks, weapons, etc., at the ready. The thing about the masks is that it was understood that they wouldn’t be coming into play out here. Zero caches of “weapons of mass destruction” have been found, and we’ve all but concluded that the time has come and gone for any nefarious band of terrorists to engulf us in the stockpile of mustard gas they’ve somehow shielded from detection. But at some point the story was that these 100-plus rockets were cyanide-tipped (kind of improbable if you know a couple things about cyanide and wind), so there we were. Helicopters flew overhead throughout the night, and I went to sleep to the sound of guards popping off rounds in the distance.

As I stretched the stiffness out of my neck and back the following morning I was acquainted with the final revision of the event precipitating the hysteria: an IED-laden vehicle (v-bed!) had come crashing through the gate and exploded, followed by a second vehicle. The driver of this second vehicle was shot; the passengers all ran for it; only one escaped; those who were caught were carrying rockets and, presumably, provided their interrogators with the *intelligence* that instigated our heightened vigilance. The accuracy of the report is a moot question at this point, as the incident is unlikely to make the news.
It’s Not Easy Being Green

Aside from the Stars and Stripes, news is rather hard to come by. Scanning the magazine section at the PX, a person can’t help noticing that they’re all old. Anyone who’s ever had a subscription to a monthly publication knows that a given issue will arrive in mailboxes and on magazine racks at least a couple weeks before the date on the cover— so I found it sort of disappointing that in the second half of the month, the only issue of Rolling Stone (to give just one example) available was dated February 5. The man has already dropped out of the race, yet there stands Howard Dean on the cover with his New England Yankee grimace/ grin, ready to tell you why he’ll be the next President of the United States, just before he eats you alive.

I read it anyway. He’s an interesting character. I wonder if he might have actually had a shot with all those mainstream/ swing voters, if he had gotten the nomination and a chance to debate GWB on prime-time television. He seems to have no compunction whatsoever about saying precisely what he thinks on any given topic, which people might find refreshing. Of course this forget-the-spin strategy, if that’s what it is, has the drawback that it lays bare certain incongruities in the man’s thinking. At one point he states that he’s thought it all through like a good doctor, and all drugs are bad including the legal ones, so no we won’t be legalizing anything, but then he says two of his favorite writers are Rimbaud and Ken Kesey. Hmm. Well at least he reads, right?

Somehow my workplace managed to acquire the September 2003 issue of National Geographic (my team chief said he *found* it somewhere). So I got to read that during last night’s shift, when I wasn’t helping my subscribers with their phones and their internet, gnashing my teeth over the fact that they have internet and I still don’t. I’ve always loved Nat G, but this was a stand-out. There was a powerful photo-essay on human slavery in the 21st Century, and in the back there was a profile of Forest Park, Portland, Oregon. Something about the article struck me as a little goofy, but still it made me homesick. Not homesick: home-proud.

Tonight as I was exiting the dining facitlity— also called a dee-fack, also called a “chow hall” (pity the man whose appetite is stirred by the mention of a word most commonly employed as a brand-name for pet food), never called a cafeteria— I was distracted by a newly-mounted television set in the building’s far corner. CNN was on, and Ralph Nader was announcing his candidacy for President.

I had to stand there and wonder for a moment: wonder why he’s running as an Independent this time, minus the aegis of the Green Party; wonder whether he waited for Howard Dean to drop out before he chose to drop in (going along with the notion that maybe there’s only enough media coverage to go around for one railing-against-the-Washington-machinery type of candidate— and that Dean, by circumventing traditional Party channels of fundraising, had sort of nearly bucked the system in a manner Nader probably admired); wonder why he seems lifeless and resigned compared to the Nader of four years ago, if perhaps it’s just a matter of perception on my part.

Don’t you worry: I’ll not use this forum to champion any candidate or political stance.
Just a little idle pondering, here, is all.
“They Can Kill You, But the Legalities of Eating You Are Quite a Bit Dicier”

Reading, perhaps not surprisingly, is a major focal point of my energies over here. About a week ago I finished Infinite Jest— an astoundingly good book, at once a hysterical and merciless satire and a somberly compassionate encyclopedia of the compulsions that consume us— and since arriving at that novel’s finite conclusion I’ve avoided really delving into another one, choosing instead to plow through various random periodicals.

Stars and Stripes is a newspaper I’ve never seen available in the United States, but here they’re delivered to us daily, for free. It’s an interesting paper: it offers a heap of stories from *the front*, a pageful of Associated Press short pieces regarding world events, another page of quirky isn’t-that-weird shorts from around the States, a daily update of coalition casualties, a sampling of American editorials and cartoons, and a bulky sports section that seems to obsessively follow German high school basketball. What’s really curious is the “Messages of Support” section that runs throughout the paper. Usually they’re just the predictable “Dear-Jim-Bob-we’re-so-proud-of-you-come-home-safely-love-Auntie-Emm” sort of affair, but there are some variations on the theme. Consider this one from February 22:

    What’s up? My name is C. O’Parrieskiovachimentero and I am 10 years old. I live in Shawnee, Kansas. Iraq sucks. Saddam Hussein is a loser. Thanks for what you are doin. Thanks for reading this, i needed to get that out. My father was in the army but he died. I am so upset and i am planning a jump from the top of my barn with a rope around my neck. Thank you for listening hopefully i see you in heaven. Good day.


You’re thinking this one just slipped by the editors, but the size of the star next to it dwarfs the stars next to all the other ones, so it’s obviously an editor’s selection or something. Apparently, after a reading of the comparatively normal entries, they don’t check for typos anyway. But is that name even possible? I’m thinking this is a joke on the part of someone on the Stars and Stripes staff, someone like Matthew Modine’s character Private Joker from Full Metal Jacket (you know you were waiting for another FMJ reference!)— if that’s any indication of the morbid twist this kind of existence can give a person’s sense of humor. And assuming it’s not, what’s a news-reader to do? Take out an ad in the Shawnee Sentinel: Dear C. O.— your dad was very brave, and it was brave of you to write. But you’ve got to stay off those rooftops, buddy. Life begins at age 11.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Hunting High and Low

The other night I went driving around looking for a phone. I work on the night shift, so I just had the other guy from my team on that shift cover down while I went exploring. One of the gate guards gave me some funky directions to some free phones— free in the sense that they’re DSN (acronym uncertain; accesses a worldwide network of military phones) so I just had to call Fort Hood, where they connected me to the phone company so that I could pay American calling card rates (as opposed to the AT&T calling stations which multiply the charge by twenty so that a 100-minute card lasts five minutes).

This camp occupies a VERY LARGE SPACE. I can tell you that. The bad guys know we’re here; they know we’ve occupied the airport; what they don’t know and what I won’t let slip is which units are where, different units’ functions, how we’re configured, relationships of command, etc.

But anyway: the airport area is posh. Many true and nasty things can be said about Saddam Hussien, but like a lot of dictators, the man had style— a cult of personality, journalists have called it, and I never realized how on-target they were. One of the things people used to say about him was that he reckoned himself a modern incarnation of certain regional rulers of historical legend, specifically Nebucadnezzar and Salah al-Din. While it’s impossible to measure the beauty of anything we’ll never see, like Nebucadnezzar’s hanging gardens, it’s also hard not to be reminded of that legacy while driving around this place. There’s basically a huge palace standing afront a giant pool or lake; then a series of various other buildings, all with architecture reminiscent of a romanticized past, surrounding the waterfront and reflecting into the glassy surface. There’s rubble too, telltale of the recent invasion, but somehow it doesn’t detract.

The great thing was seeing all this in the middle of the night: the lights from the various buildings all shimmering together on the water, causing it to sort of glow and thereby cast a sort of ethereal twilit haze back upon the buildings themselves.

The drive back to my work site was less of a pleasure cruise. A couple of variables thrown into the situation, added to the fact that I hadn’t driven out there before… I kept missing my turn, driving down these roads that led to the wrong places, growing anxious as my time of absence began to stretch. Then suddenly there were MP vehicles and medic trucks darting around frantically. Were they performing exercises or had something happened?

I returned to my place of duty to find that I had been missed. There had been some fireplay; a structure had gotten hit; units had verified the status of each individual; the story was that some combattants had gotten through our defenses and that people were out hunting them down. The next day the story changed: a tank outside the perimeter had gotten its azimuth wrong and fired 180 degrees off from its target area, right into the camp; all the other fire had been our own forces firing bullets at what we thought had been an RPG launcher.

I didn’t get to make all the phone calls I was hoping to make, and I’d still like to get to a phone that will call the States—but somehow now I’m a little less eager to go out on the prowl for one.
A Good LAN is Hard to Find

The internet situation is this: being that my job is in communications, given the right set of circumstances I’ve got pretty good access to the worldwide web whenever we’ve got our own network in place. However: people who are considerably more high-appointed than I am in this operation are working according to a schedule that does not consider my blog a priority.

I wrote a nice little post that explained the whole thing more coherently; then I realized that, despite the fact that it did not include any *sensitive* information, it might be seen as such by those same high-appointed people, should they happen across it.

So: I’m without the internet at this time. I’m writing this as a Word document, and I’ll copy it to my blog at my first opportunity. Today is Friday, February 13. Whoah. A day to be on one’s toes.

Anyway: I shouldn’t tell you a whole lot about this camp, or base or post or whatever it is, but I can tell you this: somewhere, in a part of this camp that was established long before the part that I am in, there is one of those *CyberZone* places I frequented at Camp Udairi. Later, there will be one nearby. Before that comes to pass, I expect to have access to free internet by virtue of my job.

In any case: tomorrow it is my personal mission to locate this *CyberZone*, so that I won’t have to wait another couple weeks before posting again. It’s like the Holy Grail, this *CyberZone*: many speak of it, but none have found it. I would type: wish me luck— but by the time you finally read this there won’t be much point.
Back in Black!

The convoy from Camp Udairi, Kuwait, into Baghdad took three days.

After a great deal of fanfare— our company breaking down into teams to branch off and travel with the various units that we support; convoy commanders having everyone line up standing in the sand to walk around like ducklings following a mother duck; then breaking down further into serials, half the time setting our Kevlar helmets in the sand to represent our vehicles, as though we’re collectively too dimwitted to get the concept any other way— we finally got moving a little after noon on Saturday the 31st of January.

By the time we rolled onto our base at the perimeter of the Baghdad International Airport on Monday, February 2, feeling relieved, nerve-wracked, victorious, and exhausted, John Kerry and the New England Patriots had also declared victories in their respective contests for the New Hampshire Democratic Primaries and the Superbowl— and none of us had a clue.

Each vehicle was furnished with a map to outline our route. We were told that the map was *top secret*, that we could each land our personal selves in some serious hot water for compromising that map’s information even if only by carelessly allowing the map to flutter out the window to land in a roadside ditch. I’ll take the lesson from Geraldo Rivera’s bad example (recall the Pentagon’s insistence last spring that he be removed from the *theater of operations* immediately after he drew crude maps of troop movements in the dirt for the Fox News hawks watching from home) and not tell you the names of the camps where we slept in our vehicles along the way or the goofy names of the routes we took. For all I know the army is still using those same routes, although the hope is that they would change things up to keep the appropriate people guessing.

All that notwithstanding, here are a few (relatively) innocuous highlights from the trip:

1) A few days before departure we underwent a training operation known as the “Combat Live-Fire”. For this our company traveled and trained as an independent unit. Basically it involved an intensive tutorial on our respective weapons, then a class on *convoy operation procedures*, then a run-through in which we broke down into two “serials”— just smaller groupings within the convoy itself— to drive around, shoot at targets while driving, and practice our reaction formations for various contingencies. It was fun, but it put the fear into us.

When we arrived for the weapons tutorial, we were greeted by a grizzled man who never told us his name but who claimed, “I was in the Army for thirty years and six months—and for much of that time I never wore a uniform that would identify me as an American.” He was former Special Forces (they almost never refer to themselves as “Green Berets”; they prefer the moniker “SF” or plain old anonymity, and might tell you that a term that describes a hat is a term that describes a hat) and he was now working for MPRI—Military Professional Resources Incorporated, an organization of former military personnel who hire themselves out to the Department of Defense in a variety of roles— teaching army units to prepare themselves for the brutal realities of Iraq. He was impressive. My favorite of his statements:

’Nuff said.

2) Once we had lined up our vehicles in preparation for movement, and we’d all congregated at the front of the line for our briefing, we found an additional reason to congregate. Bo Jackson, eighties/ nineties Kansas City dual-sport athletic-gear-endorsement phenom nonpareil, on a “handshake tour.” His visit, sponsored by MWR, had been advertised on flyers for over a week. He was wearing a T-shirt that said “Run For the Border”; people to my left and right assured me it had something to do with our mission rather than some new job he might have had as a spokesman for Taco Bell. It was sort of a sad spectacle: he’d come all this way to wish us Good Luck and God Speed, yet only a handful of those present were interested in shaking his hand, getting their picture taken with him, or having his John Hancock scrawled across their helmet covers. He wasn’t exactly thronged. I’ll admit it: back in the day, I had the shoes. But on this day I stood at a safe distance, with the majority, waiting for him to leave so that we might receive our briefing in time to get one last meal from the DFAC (pronounced dee-fack, for dining facility) before plunging into uncertainty.

Just a few days before his visit, there appeared a flyer just outside the entrance to the *Cyber Zone* computer lab from where I used to post this blog. It was a parody of the flyers announcing Bo’s tour. Just for reference: military names are often preceded by a person’s rank abbreviated into three digits; CW2 refers to a grade-2 warrant officer; warrant officers are usually addressed as “Chief”. I can’t remember the Chief’s name, so I’ll just give him the name of my favorite television detective.

3) After our first day of driving, we found ourselves at a camp where I had an opportunity to check the internet, but not enough time to post a blog. (That was about twelve days ago, the last time I’ve been online. I’m writing this now on Word, and I’ll just copy it over whenever I finally get a chance. I’ll explain that situation in another post.) Anyway, in glancing at the day’s news I noticed the story about all the people that had died amid some sort of confusion attendant to their pilgrimage to Mecca. The tragedy is bewildering, but it also jogged my mind to help me remember an earlier familiarity with the term hajji, which, as you might recall from previous posts, has been gnawing at me a little bit. This is a term I should have recalled from a History of the Middle East course I took some time ago; it refers simply to one who takes the pilgrimage, the hajj.

The hajj is one of the Five Pillars of the Muslim faith; it commemorates the “Night of Great Power” in which Muslims believe that Mohammed received his first revelation from Allah; basically anyone who is Muslim and isn’t altogether incapable is bound by faith to journey at least once in one’s lifetime to pray in Mecca; those making the journey are the hajji. Not to belabor a point or anything.

So anyway: I’m always hearing people refer to the shops in which locals proffer goods around this camp (risking their lives to do so, mind you) as “Hajji Shops”— and it strikes me as being a little bit off. If you were traveling in Southern Europe, would you refer to someone who sold you something as a “wafer-eater,” just because Italy is the seat of the Vatican and the Communion is a sacrament of Christianity? Anyone who overheard you might find the term just a little bit deprecative. Maybe I’m missing something.

4) On the second day we crossed the border into Iraq; almost immediately we were crossing the river. I don’t know whether it was the Tigris or the Euphrates— I’d love to just look up a map, but there’s no internet access right now. In any case the scene was truly lush: really huge muddy banks, startling green grass and palm trees, lots of structures that looked truly ancient. I felt like I was on a film set for some Biblical epic—The Ten Commandments or The Last Temptations of Christ or something. Then a few miles later we were in the absolute desert again.

Throughout this region of southern Iraq, kids lined up along the road: some waving and smiling, some rubbing their bellies and pointing at their mouths, some running into the road to see if we’d swerve and then running back to the roadside at the last minute, some giving us the thumbs up (which I’ve heard is an insulting signal in this culture, equivalent to a raised middle finger in America— but this I’ve been unable to substantiate). A couple teenage girls blew kisses. Eddie Hernandez, who was my roommate at Fort Hood, said that a five-year-old boy smiled at him while drawing a finger across his neck and throwing up the back of his hand— a pretty unmistakable gesture of disdain. All in all I think these kids were just having fun, feeling curious about the foreigners, testing their young bravado. Even the ones who were begging for food looked pretty healthy, and about as clean as you can expect someone standing in a cloud of dust to be. In any event, we’re strictly prohibited from giving them MRE’s (meals ready-to-eat, our on-the-go sustenance: vacuum-sealed non-perishable meals that heat up with the addition of water).

5) The final day was the tense one. There were so many reports of IED attacks on that part of the route (IED’s are explained in one of the earlier posts) that I think we were all surging on adrenaline for the entirety of the day’s journey. I could tell you about a couple measures we took to avoid the inevitable, but I’d hate to risk giving any edge to the cretins that put these things along the roadside and detonate them— so I’ve got to save a few details for the book.

Anyway: it was smooth sailing for the most part. I had an Infantry augmentee riding shotgun— pun intended — in my humvee. This guy had an M4 (which is an M16 semi-automatic rifle with a shortened butt-stock for easier handling) equipped with laser sighting scope, an M9 hand pistol, and a sniper rifle with which he claimed he could accurately shoot a chest target at 1150 meters. Since my M249 is a two-hands-required type of weapon, we swapped out whenever I was driving. During that last leg of the trip I had the butt-stock of his M4 wedged into the crux of my right elbow, with the muzzle pointed out the window, my right index finger on the trigger at all times, my left hand on the steering wheel, my foot accelerating whenever possible.

A little while before we reached the city we were enveloped by the most tremendous fog I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t see the vehicle in front of me, but I COULD. NOT. SLOW. DOWN. Then, inexplicably and suddenly, we all stopped. As I exited the vehicle to find out what was going on, I saw a row of six small pick-up trucks progressing forward toward me on the left shoulder. This is it, I thought; it’s on. I trained the weapon on each vehicle as it passed, only to see nothing in each truck but white-knuckled, worried looking, forward-staring farmers taking loads of produce to the market. Lots of onions and some kind of dark leafy vegetable that reminded me of lettuce but wasn’t. I felt bad for having to scare them. (I can almost hear someone from the Oregon Commentator pointing out that if there’s one thing an American can understand in a foreign culture without translation, it’s the need to maintain livelihoods and the market despite the unpleasantness of the times, if any semblance of civil society is to survive those times.)

It turned out that our stopping had nothing to do with them, that no one in our convoy had encountered any trouble, but that we were turning around to take a different route for reasons that still haven’t been stated explicitly. Moments later we were weaving through morning rush-hour traffic in the oldest city in the world. There was something surreal about it. Moments after that we were driving past the airport and I was coming down from the longest-sustained adrenaline rush I’ve ever had, completely drained. I had put the fear into a number of innocent Iraqi motorists by indicating that I was prepared to shoot them, just as they had all put the fear into me merely by driving past. Parking my truck in the gooey mud, dropping the magaziane from a weapon that hadn’t had to fire a single bullet, it was almost the best feeling I’ve ever felt.

I’ve never really been a war-games type of person. I’ve never played a game of laser-tag or paint-ball. I’ve never gone hunting. I tend to find Tom Clancy novels more annoying than engaging, driven by a sensibility that fails to resonate. Before joining the army I hadn’t worn anything camouflage since the fifth grade. It’s true that I collected G.I. Joes as a child, but I usually had them rocking out to the songs on my A-ha tape, racing their speedboats and Air Wolf helicopter and A-Team van, building elaborate homes in my bookshelves, and plotting to steal Lady Jaye from whichever Joe was sharing her bookshelf-space. I liked to send them on scuba dives on which they’d get hopelessly lost by tossing them into the pool, letting the pool’s circulation pull them into the deep-end over the course of a week, then diving in to scoop them off the pool-floor and rushing them to the ER, presided over by Life Line, that medic with the red suit and white boots.

The enthusiasm for battle that seems to define so many good-ol’ red-blooded American males: somehow it’s always baffled me. I sense that we’re all driven by conflict; I can perceive conflict in my own life; yet I see it as irrational and tiresome; the tendency for me has been to see more potential points of agreement than points of conflict between other nations/ cultures and my own. Still, since joining the army, I’ve caught on somewhat. As much as I didn’t want to endanger myself by making this trip, there was a part of me that wouldn’t have missed it. I’ve seen the truth in the expression: you’re never so alive as you are when you know you could die at any second.

1) Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2) Johnny Cash: Unchained
3) Dandy Warhols: 13 Tales of Urban Bohemia
4) Pixies: Doolittle
5) Electric Six: Fire
6) Gogol Bordello: Multi Contra Kulti vs. Irony
7) The Clash: London Calling
8) Operation Ivy: Operation Ivy
9) Faith No More: Angel Dust
10) System of a Down: Toxicity
11) Beck: Odelay
12) Beck: Midnight Vultures
13) Radiohead: OK Computer
14) Radiohead: Kid A
15) Nirvana: Incesticide
16) Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights
17) Nick Cave: The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
18) Built to Spill: Perfect From Now On
19) Death Cab For Cutie: Transatlanticism
20) Tom Waits: Beautiful Maladies
21) Pavement: Slanted & Enchanted Luxe & Reduxe, vol. 1
22) Stephen Malkmus: Stephen Malkmus
23) White Stripes: De Stijl
24) Modest Mouse: Lonesome Crowded West
26) At the Drive-In: In/Casino/Out
27) …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead: Source Tags and Codes

I’m safe, alive and kicking in Baghdad. Thank you for all your prayers, wishes, hopes, thoughts, astral projections, etc. No one in my convoy serial was hurt in any way; many have not been so fortunate. It’s going to take me several posts to fill in the gaps, so without further ado…

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