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.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Fighting Errorism

Reece and I arrived at our worksite and learned that our team had been *volunteered* for a detail: one of us would have to go to the CP trailer (whatever those letters stand for, they refer to the company’s headquarters/ office) in a few hours to participate in a “sweep”. My first thought was a mental image of a squad of despondent privates walking in a row across the desert, brooms in hands, pushing sand through a thick cloud of dust that would resettle behind them. A jovial hand-clap on Reece’s shoulder. “Have fun with that, buddy.”

A couple hours later, I took the Humvee to the *DFAC* while Reece sat in my shelter (mine is the shelter that must be manned at all times; Reece’s is the one with all the radio equipment that’s so radioactive it’s a scandal anyone is expected to spend any time in there at all). When I returned with a to-go plate for Reece, I realized I’d taken longer than intended— if I were to make Reece go on the detail, he wouldn’t have time to eat first. So, I went, prepared for pointless exertion.

The “sweep” had nothing to do with brooms and everything to do with flashlights: we were to fan out across an area adjacent to the road leading into our brigade’s sector of the camp, visually ensuring that no unauthorized people or vehicles remained in the area after the local workers had been cleared out for the day.

This struck me as a duty best left to the *combat arms* soldiers, if only because this is what they were trained to do well, but at the same time it seemed a welcome change of pace, a minor adventure— and a way to ease my mind about the possibility that someone else’s negligence might lead to my own endangerment. This way, if our camp suffered another attack, at least I could rest easy in the knowledge that it had been my own ineptitude, and not someone else’s, that allowed our enemies their window of opportunity.

I was surprised by the number of little hiding spots a resourceful would-be terrorist might find. Sure, it’s unlikely that anyone would be willing to lurk inside a reeking dumpster for several hours awaiting the opportunity to wreak havoc upon his employers, but not too much more so than the possibility that anyone would remain inside the camp surreptitiously after hours in the first place— the very possibility upon which this “sweep” was predicated.

I may have been more thorough than expected; I was still near the roadside waving my flashlight’s meager beam across a discarded brake disk when I heard the whistle of the sweep commander. The whole crew had congregated at the *rally point*; they’d apparently been standing there for a little while counting heads before they figured out which person they were missing.

Let them stare at me impatiently, I thought to myself as I walked back in their direction. They probably just walked the distance as fast as possible making cursory sweeps with their flashlights, their minds on their paused Madden games— I’m accomplishing something here. Immediately I mentally mocked myself with the echo of something my friend Castner used to say back at Fort Hood, itself the echo of one of our First Sergeant’s catch-phrases. If Castner saw someone doing something dutiful— raking leaves, mopping a floor, or just picking up a piece of trash while walking up the stairs— he’d smirk and adopt the First Sergeant’s phony-authoritative voice, half shouting: “Hey soldier, keep it up— you’re fighting terrorism!”

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Irregularities at Work

I’m at work right now, with only a few minutes left to my shift. It’s both a blessing and a curse, but my worksite is where I get my internet access, and my work schedule is irregular to say the least. Basically my team has somewhat covertly adopted a plan to mazimize everyone’s down-time; after working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, ever since arriving in Baghdad, we figured we owed it to ourselves. So I work an eight-hour solo shift, followed by 32 hours off, and then another shift. You don’t need to know too much about the number of hours in a day to realize this pretty much precludes the adoption of a regular sleep pattern.

Anyway: tonight’s has been a difficult shift. I’ve been troubleshooting signal problems way above my level (which isn’t to say that the problems themselves are too difficult, but rather that the problems should have been caught by others at higher levels in the network, and that solving them was mostly a matter of calling people I don’t usually speak with and asking “Have you checked this? Have you checked that? Why is it news to you that this is occurring? Why are you asking me for the third time who I am? Who are you? Are you… oh no… you’re not even American are you? You’re some kind of spy aren’t you?! Pop quiz: who was the thirteenth President of the United States? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Who put the bop in the bop-shoo-wop-shoo-wop?”… followed by the realization that this barrage of inquiry is indeed ludicrous, and then the realization that I’m not even sure whether I’ve vocalized it or hallucinated the entire episode. Yeah… some sleep might be in order.

It’s enough of a truism that I guess we forget it was true in the first place: in wartime, expect the unexpected. You set aside some time to accomplish x, then in that time you find yourself hopelessly occupied with a task y that is both tedious and unrelenting; you finish that task and find that for reasons at once inconsequential and insurmountable, you are now consigned to a protracted period of relative inactivity.

What I’m getting at:
1)Sorry about the lack of postings on this site.
2)More soon.
3)Don’t worry: things are both endurable and sort of interesting, as you will soon learn in more colorful detail.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Shoot First, Ask Questions Forever After

Yesterday, several hours before the explosions and their attendant hysteria, my C.O. (commanding officer, company commander) stopped by my worksite. As captains go, he’s a really likeable guy— the sort of person who calls everybody “buddy” and makes self-deprecating redneck jokes. He asked me if I’d heard from home. “Yeah, sir— been getting lots of packages.”

“Oh yeah?” he responded in a voice that sounded surprised. “Anything you can share with me? Liquor? Porn?” Ha, ha. (Don’t get any altruistic notions about those kinds of mailings, folks at home, unless you want terrible things to happen to me.)

This led to a discussion of the two men from a South Carolina National Guard unit who recently brought their military careers to abrupt halts when a first sergeant mailed a 9mm handgun to his company commander while said captain was home on mid-tour leave, and both of them made sworn statements that it was not, in fact, a handgun. It’s just sort of dumbfounding: if someone’s asking you to sign a sworn statement about the contents of the package you’re receiving, maybe that’s an indication they know something’s “rotten in Denmark”.

Anyway: this led my C.O. to let me in on an open secret of his. I say “open” secret because he’s not making any secret of it; I just hadn’t heard because I find ways of avoiding formations, and therefore often have my ear well away from the company grapevine— which is usually just as well. This is what happened: about a month ago he was arriving or departing from some sort of official function in a vehicle with our company’s first sergeant, when he passed a sign that instructed him to clear his weapon. He was carrying both an M4 semiautomatic machine gun and an M9 handgun. After clearing the M4, he hurriedly moved on to the M9, rushed the process and wound up firing a bullet. The 2nd Brigade commander and sergeant major were in the vehicle directly in front of him, so he was quickly determined to be the erring party.

Basically, his career in the army is up in the air right now. It’s a shame. I’m not going to try to claim that his offense is no big deal, because on one hand it really is. But on the other hand, this is wartime— there’s a lot going on, mistakes get made left and right, and no one was hurt. But of course it’s all going to be dealt with, or forgotten about, on some level well removed from the one in which I operate.

Specialist Soap, who made the same mistake under different cirumstances, looks like he’ll be alright— and I’m glad. He’s one of the few true individuals I’ve met in the army; I went to a Deathcab For Cutie show in Austin with him in November.

The most troubling thing about seeing two people from my company get into trouble for the same offense is that it sets a precedent— and when the paperwork-filers and the regulation-researchers start throwing punishments around at will, they become like sharks circling the same spot after a hint of blood, searching out the next offense. Regardless of how well you think you've been swimming, you don’t want to be treading water in that same spot.
Like a Modern-Day Corporal Clinger

The Oregon Commentator posted this link to The 213 Things Skippy is No Longer Allowed to Do in the U.S. Army. Here’s a soldier who copes with a deployment by living entirely within his own imagination, making the occasional foray into reality only to amuse himself with the fact that others seem not to get it. The catch is that other people do get it—otherwise we wouldn’t be reading this on his unit’s website.
Pretty Much the Indispensable Recap of the WMD Saga Thus Far

This is sort of long, and it’s also a book review (indicating that perhaps to get the full concept one would have to read the book), but the article brings together the various turning points in this ongoing story, illuminating what might be lost if we were merely glancing at the passing headlines.

So if you’ve got a few minutes, check this out— and pay special attention to the language of Lord Hutton’s exoneration of Prime Minister Blair.
Tangential Pedantic Note: *Fun With Asterisks*

I’m not sure how it started, but people seem to be using asterisks as the *new quotation marks*— not to set off dialogue, but moreso to identify certain quasi-cliche terms as being dubious— not necessarily to be sarcastic, but moreso just to put a sort of arm’s length between the term and the writer employing it, or to indicate that possibly there’s a received idea hidden in the usage thereof. At least that’s my interpretation.

(Picture someone who stabs the air with double fingers to indicate quotation marks when he speaks, then picture Willem Dafoe’s character Agent Schmecker’s mannerisms in Boondock Saints as he lampoons the credulity of the Boston police officers whose impression of the title character vigilantes is that “They’re *angels*”— that’s an approximate equivalent of the asterisk’s new significance in our punctuational lexicon, as I see it.)

Maybe it started with someone setting off a word in bold using the asterisks as code for boldface in the Word format, then turning the document over to a publication whose processing system read the item in another format… it doesn’t matter. The asterisks in e-rocky-confidential are used primarily, but not entirely, to offset terms I like to call *armyisms*.
A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or How I Was Donald Rumsfelded Into Submission)

The other day as I exited the dining facility and climbed into my team’s Humvee, I noticed with idle curiosity a large group of Spanish soldiers eating together right there in the parking lot (we have both Spanish and Estonian troops at this camp; I haven’t noticed any other nationalities). It’s commonplace to see them eating together in the *DFAC* itself, but they usually do so in small groups, just as we do (all the tables inside seat four people). It’s also commonplace to see people getting their food in to-go trays, for the same reasons you might get to-go food back in the real world— you’re on shift at your workplace, you want to get back to the DVD that’s on pause in your room, etc.

But it’s a little bit odd to see nearly an entire company hovering around their vehicles, some of them languidly shoveling food from trays to mouths, some merely sitting and smoking, a couple people bantering excitedly, but most seeming withdrawn or preoccupied, neither relaxed nor hurried, and all inexplicably avoiding contact with non-Spaniards.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned what they must have all had on their minds: the train-bombing in Madrid.

Well, okay, it makes you sad, but that’s not why I bring it up. I’m a little vexed by the attitude among a class of pundits who I think I’ll term conserva-bloggers: the attitude that in their reaction to this tragedy, the Spanish are somehow failing as an ally in the *war on terrorism*. (Although I count a few conserva-bloggers among my friends, at least I haven’t noticed this argument coming from any of them.)

I guess all I’ve got to say is that there is more to the recent Spanish election, and more to the new prime minister's pronouncements, than some people seem to be willing to consider. Consider this and this.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Packed Like Palladines in a Crushed Tin Box

Moments ago as I sat in my shelter listening to Beck—
    Invite me to the Seventies, like some seasick man— you'll do whatever you please, and I'll do whatever I can. Titanic, fare thee well— my eyes are turning pink. Don't call us when the New Age gets old enough to drink. 'Cause Lord only knows it's getting late. Your senses are gone, so dontcha hesitay-ee-ay-ee-ate— just move on up the hill; there's nothing dead left to kill. Throw your two-bit cares down the drain—

while reading Spinoza—
    Since human bodies are capable of a great many activities, there is no doubt that they can be of such a nature as to be related to minds which have great knowledge of themselves and of God, and whose greatest or principal part is eternal, with the result that they scarcely fear death—

a noise I dare describe as thunderous rudely brought me back into the reality of the present. I mean I felt the reverberation in my chest. And as I threw my headphones to the floor to step outside and find out about the situation, another one went off.

Nobody knew what was going on; people were strapping on their Kevlar vests and helmets. Someone informed me that at 8 o'clock our time-- which would be about 9 a.m. back home on the West Coast— a car bomb had leveled a hotel in downtown Baghdad. That was only about 2 ½ hours ago. “Is that the same hotel where Sgt. Morgan was taking his *Freedom Rest* weekend only yesterday?” I asked. “No, this one was about a mile away,” someone replied. Well… wow.

Someone else informed me that at a nearby camp at which some members of our company are currently established, some insurgents bombed the gate the other night. Thereupon twenty of these militants rushed into the encampment; all who were not shot were captured. Why am I only hearing about this now?

In the past half-hour, the total number of explosions has reached eleven. And these are close. What am I supposed to be doing right now, other than tightening my body armor? Looking around, I see a flare descending slowly over a nearby hill. Directly in front of my site, a convoy of armored Humvees with mounted turrets and FBCB2 (don’t ask me what that stands for— it’s a glorified navigation system with a hefty computerized database) in the consoles waits with engines running in preparation for movement. A few soldiers stand around checking out the screen. They don’t seem agitated. I suspect I’m not authorized to learn details of their mission, so I don’t approach them. A tank rolls past.

Now there’s a knock at the door. It’s Sgt. Morgan, telling me that the explosions are howitzers (or palladines?… something that’s ours, is what’s key here) firing off test-rounds. Apparently, nobody else knew either. Back in our company area, people were huddled underneath the concrete barriers they insist on calling *bunkers*, feeling the same way I’d been feeling with the added benefit of hearing one another’s thoughts to heighten the fear, for some time before anyone came around to tell them not to worry about it.


Here’s hoping we never develop a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario here at this camp.
(Thursday, February 26, 2004)
Sleepy Eye-Dust and the Spiders From Mars

These Iraqi spiders are more huge than I could ever have imagined, then
One of them has bitten Preyor, and he himself has become a spider, then
Preyor’s broken clavicle seems to have healed nicely: this was the stream of thought as I awoke in a jolt from the depths of slumber to a rumble that shook our trailer— and the sight of my roommate’s arachnidian scramble across our floor to the door, where he donned his Kevlar and grabbed his weapon before I had even had the chance to rub the dust from my eyes.

The idea is that whenever an incoming round lands in our *AO*— area of operation, meaning basically wherever you are at a given time— we’re all supposed to throw our protective equipment on and run, with our weapons, to the shelter of the concrete *bunkers*— just big slabs of concrete set on end with another slab lain across the top— that are situated between the trailers. Once there, people in charge are supposed to get *100 percent accountability*— just an affirmation that every last person has congregated in the appointed place, and that those who haven’t are verifiably somewehere else and unscathed. It’s a little bit like a fire drill. There’s some kind of time-frame according to which these accountability reports are supposed to be sent upward in the *chain of command*, superior to superior, so that the guy who gets chauffered in a helicopter can know what kind of situation he’s got on his hands before he spins it to his bosses at Centcom or the Pentagon, or what-have-you.

The actuality is that whenever we hear harsh sounds, we really have no idea about its origin. Yes, it could be an incoming round, but it’s more likely to be an outgoing one, or just a nearby dumpster slapping back against the earth after being emptied, or even the guy in the adjoining room slamming his trailer door— it could be anything. So upon hearing such a noise, the common reaction (increasingly so as time goes by) is to look out the window to see if anyone else is rushing the bunkers. If people are running around like decapitated poultry, it’s probably an incoming round; if a lot of window blinds are flipping open and shut, you’re not the only one who’s unsure, but it’s probably no more than a dumpster; if there’s no movement whatsoever, then your neighbor probably slammed his door— go back to sleep.

So for all the things going bump in the night, this running-for-the-bunkers event has only occurred twice— the first time I was driving around in a Humvee looking for a phone, and the second time I was on shift at my worksite.

On at least one other occasion, our company had to prepare an *accountability report* after a round of some sort landed on the far other side of the encampment. We didn’t even hear it here. Imagine being on the University of Oregon campus one morning in May 1998, and upon learning on the TV news that Kip Kinkel had just opened fire on his classmates at Thurston High School way over in Springfield, calling everyone you know in Eugene just to make sure they weren’t hit by a stray bullet— that’s what this accountability report was like. Of course I’m glad that people in charge take an interest in the safety of every last person here— it just seems at times that their interest manifests itself in odd ways. Honestly, though: I’m both surprised and relieved that when a sergeant strolled over to inform me that he’d come to verify my whereabouts, his face wasn’t flushed and he wasn’t screaming: “Soldier! Why you ain’t coverin’ down to the bunkers in ya full battle rattle?!”

So back to the night on which I thought my roommate was a behemoth spider: we stood there at our window for a full minute, visually scanning the area for signs of disturbance. I couldn’t have heard anything further at that point over the throbbing of the blood-pulse in my temples. Boomp! Boomp! Boomp! Boomp! The look on Preyor’s face was one of a man who has just sat down for tea with Death Himself. But there was nothing. A minute later I was back in bed, and a minute after that there was another crash. “Come on, dawg,” Preyor said. “We gotta get out there.” I was already drifting back into sleep as I responded, “Totally, man. Be with you in a minute.”

Zippety Doo-Da

Well I just got reliable internet access a few days ago— so the good news is that
The not-so-good news is that in the rather-busy past three weeks, many of the experiences I intended to write about have not been written about. I’d been intending to follow the suggestion of Dan, over at Flog, that I at least date my blogs as I write them, even if I can’t post them the same day. It was a great suggestion, but the intention to honor it helped me fall into that familiar vortex of feeling so guilty for having not-yet written that I simply put it off with the delusion that I would mastermind some grander project at some soon forthcoming, more opportune, creative moment, and thereupon fudge the dates of the writing.

Pardonez mon francais, but screw that.

That said, I’ll be posting updates for the past three weeks alongside current updates, noting the appropriate dates insofar as I am capable.


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