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, April 28, 2004

A Day in the Life

Sitting in a metal box mounted atop a ragged Humvee, sipping Saudi Arabian bottled water, I check my email for the first time in a long time and realize it’s been about as long since I’ve entered a blog posting.

Our internet service has been spotty, to put it positively, of late— it’s got a lot to do with the fact that my team’s network is a part of a larger network that’s actually a component of an altogether different Signal unit; with the fact that routers, even moreso than every other type of equipment, are sensitive to sand and wind and time and human bungling; with a host of other facts, some of which are simply not known (“known unkowns,” as FLOG might call them— or the SecDef before him, or Carl Sandburg yet before him).

We get windstorms: giant, belligerent rushes of warm air that change direction unpredictably, spewing a fine mist of sand wherever they go. We have camouflage netting over our site which, along with the shade that we tie to its underside, keeps us a few degrees cooler than we would be otherwise. The camo is staked down and then raised using metal poles that link together along with three-armed plastic “spreaders”; the poles are placed strategically along the ground or on the sides of the vehicles. The concept is to erect the camo so that it resembles a bubble; this obscures our operation from the eyes of any air surveillance (not too much of a concern here) and maximizes the camo’s resistance to wind perturbations. The reality hardly resembles the concept: for whatever reason, our camo looks more an obese stumbling giraffe than a bubble.

So when the wind really gets going, I’ll be peacefully sitting inside my shelter slapping my logbook against the countertop and yelling at the uncooperative internet when suddenly I hear a loud “thump” overhead. A couple stakes have been loosed from the ground and one of the camo poles has fallen onto the vehicle. To get to the scene of the crime, I’m walking through netting— it feels a little bit like walking through a spider web that happens to be spun out of gortex. I climb on top of the vehicle, re-spread the spreaders and position them against the fabric of the camo, cut tiny holes in the shade through which I run string to tie the spreaders to the netting, pit my weight against the wind, and manage to secure the pole against something solid. Then I can descend, pound a few stakes into the earth, and wait to do it all again whenever the wind changes.

At this point I’m a whole new type of filthy that I don’t know how to describe. I’m not covered in sand the way you get covered in sand if you roll around on the beach. This is not a visible thing. It’s not a mist that covers me— that would be far too pleasant. I notice it most in the fingertips: returning to the shelter, I sit in front of the computer and try to move the cursor, and the touchpad won’t respond to my commands.


So, then, the good thing about the sand and the wind: As I walk back to my trailer after work, cursing myself under my breath for not getting a blog posted in the alotted time, I notice some sand starting to pick up and sort of eddy in a large cirular pattern, literally, right around me. Loud noise. I look up: An Apache helicopter, then another behind it, flying close to the ground with the setting sun behind them. Large swaths of orange and reddish pink across the sky, with little purple ribbons. The Apaches are flying in a circular pattern, so I turn around to watch them. There are two more. As the first two land, these others are taking off. How close are they? I could throw a rock and hit them. The second of the two departing helicopters nearly grazes a tree. I have sand on my teeth. It’s an excellent day.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

You know that there is a lot going on right now in Iraq. The death count for the month of April, 2004, is the highest since we started this thing, and we’re hardly halfway through the month. I’m still fortunate enough not to have lost any acquaintances, but my camp lost another one the other day.

My friend Levi is really in the thick of things in a combat unit elsewhere in Baghdad; he just lost a friend with whom he was sipping Coronas on a Mexican beach mere months ago. In my unit things are more relaxed; a popular nighttime activity is to stand outside the trailers and watch the arc of tracer rounds as our artillery pummels one distant location or another. I’ve seen guys standing on top of the concrete bunkers catching footage with their digicams.

Not everyone finds this amusing. My friend Pongratz (about whom I’ve written before— the one with Clerks on his computer) walked past a group of firework enthusiasts without saying hello and slammed his trailer door. When I asked him what was wrong, he almost spat at me: “Apparently these guys don’t realize— there’s people on the receiving end of all this artillery. Houses… cars… dead people.”

Well, yeah. Of course there’s no way for him, or for me, to determine what exactly gets hit by a given artillery round. Always one to play devil’s advocate, I pointed out: “Well theoretically those being targeted are the same as those who are targeting us…”

Obviously. But then, an uncomfortable reality: the notion that American forces are now targeting Iraqi civilians has become a popular one among Iraqi civilians. Anyone keeping track of the news knows the gist of things: four civilian employees of American contractors were shot in their SUV’s in Fallujah; their bodies were pulvarized and mangled and paraded by a crowd of gleeful Iraqis and the whole thing was caught on film; Americans and Iraqis alike recoiled in horror; American troops moved in to secure the city in order to punish those responsible; al-Sadr’s al-Mehdi army mobilized and put up fierce resistance; the resistance was so fierce that the ensuing battle has claimed the lives of many noncombatants; Iraqis who used to think we were alright have now decided they hate us; suddenly we’re experiencing difficulty in other places than Fallujah; all sorts of random people are getting kidnapped left and right; at this point we’ve achieved a standstill outside the city.

Is that it? Somehow I suspect that many of you reading from your homes in America may have a better handle on the succession of events than I do. Certainly those here in Iraq, who’ve had to interact with Iraqis in the last several days, or who’ve been on the receiving end of weapon fire, have some perspective. Reading this account of a British civilian who’s attempting to aid the wounded in Fallujah(CAUTION: identical template), I was suddenly brought back to Brando’s line in Apocalypse Now: “I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

My mind goes a thousand directions at once; to stay focused on one thing I have to watch
DVD’s. I’ve seen the entire first season of The Sopranos and the fifth season of MASH in the last few days. It’s easy to tune the reality out. This morning as I walked to work I listened to the rat-tat-tat of M16 fire answered by the thud-thud-thud of AK-47’s a couple miles away; the whole time I was thinking about the look on Christopher Montissori’s face as he riddles Mike’s convulsing body with bullets in Sopranos Episode 13. Over and over again: I just don’t know about that scene. It doesn’t seem like he’s getting any satisfaction out of his revenge.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Looking at the Way They Look at Us

Al-Aram is the Cairo-based Arab newspaper for which Edward Said, the late former president of the Modern Language Association, used to write. Said’s oft-contentious columns for the paper were very much against the American build-up to war in Iraq— but this article (not by Said, obviously) presents a picture in which the responsibility for the continued conflict lays moreso on the head of al-Sadr than on ours. They’re not exactly pro-American, but they’re a little more friendly than Al-Jazeera.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

December 14, 2003
Every Good War Memoir Deserves Its Touchstone Flashback Sequence: “We Got ’Im”

Sunday morning, awaken to the chirping of birds. Sunlight streaming in through Venetian blinds paints yellow lines across the cowboy hat that sits atop a bust of Elvis Presley in the corner. I’m on a recliner and under an Afghan in the next corner, and as I gaze up there are black-and-white photos of Austin street scenes lining the wall. The snapshot on the end table features Kristy and her grandfather, he wearing a straw hat, overalls, and the wizened expression of a man who might have just as soon had a career in Hollywood westerns as one on a southern farm. On the coffee table sits a half-full handle of Jim Beam Black and three shot glasses. I wince and look at Levi, still asleep on the sofa. He comes alive immediately, with an odd demand: “Dude! We gotta turn on CNN.”


We’re in the living room of Kristy’s apartment in a forested nook of South Austin. We haven’t known her long, so there’s a clear boundary issue involved in the blaring of the television set when she’s asleep in the next room after being kind enough to invite us to crash. It’s a known thing that she needs a few hours of down-time; she has to pull a long shift as a server in an all-night diner late this afternoon.

I point and click the power button, hoping that the volume is set low. Murphy’s Law: it’s on full blast, and it takes me a second to locate the mute toggle. A second later it hardly matters: Saddam Hussein has been captured. Saddam Hussein has been captured?! There he stands with a Ted Kaczinski beard, his eyes wide yet oddly expressionless as a man in a white smock swabs his inner cheeks for DNA.

Cut to a conference room with Paul Bremer at a podium. There’s still no sound but we can read Bremer’s lips as he exults: “We got ’im!”

Cut to Paula Zahn and some guy offering commentary. They don’t know whether to seem nonchalant or triumphant or inquisitive, or maybe I just don’t know how to interpret the event. If this felt any more surreal I’d be hovering over the balcony, looking in through the sliding-glass door at my body as it watched the TV screen.

For the next several hours it will occur to me repeatedly that perhaps the situation in Iraq, a situation that within a month will be my own, is not the quagmire so feared by so many but rather a momentous step in the long march toward freedom— freedom for us, for Iraq, for the world…

We’re trying to be quiet but we’re beside ourselves. I find the volume-down button and hit it several times, so that after a short burst of sound we can hear, just barely, what’s being said. There’s a general stating that because Saddam surrendured, he’s obviously a coward. Levi and I are beginning to discuss this when Kristy walks into the room wrapped in a blanket and rubbing her eyes. “What’s going on?”

“Not much… 4th ID just caught Saddam Hussein.”

“Oh get out— you guys got Saddam?”

“Yeah it’s us, but it’s the other division from Fort Hood— they’re never gonna let the 1st Cav live it down.”

She doesn’t believe us at first; CNN has either gone to commercial or they’re briefly covering some tangential issue, so we begin to give her what meager details we’ve gleaned before they revert to the clip of Saddam with the doctor. She’s excited for us: “Does this mean it’s all over? You guys have won now, right? They’ll stop fighting? You guys don’t have to go anywhere?” We have no idea whether the fighting will stop or diminish or escalate or what, but Levi begins explaining the way Army deployment rotations work while I head out for breakfast tacos.

This part of Austin is a cluster of mid-priced apartments, art shops, coffee bars, and tacquerias, but I have to do a little driving to find a place that’s open this early on the weekend. I’m flipping through the radio stations; nobody seems to have a clue. NPR is playing some Latin folk music and I’m singing along to what I don’t understand, rolling down the windows and letting loose with intermittent yelps and arribas. By the time I pull up to the only open tacqueria I’ve got inexplicable tears streaming down my face.

I return some time later with the breakfast tacos, horchata, queso, chips and salsa. I don’t know how I’ll live without this food over the course of the coming year. After feasting we say our goodbyes; there’s the need for some sort of profound intimation just hanging in the air but we let it go with, “Well I hope you guys will be safe over there— I mean I know you will but I hope that things will tone down and you guys can come back soon…”

“Oh yeah, well thanks— we’ll see you in about a year… or more…”

“Or less… take care of the city for us; we’ll be expecting it back.”

Levi and I drive to the University District, park behind the Dobie Theater and walk down Guadalupe Street, waxing dubious/optimistic about the significance of the capture. Lately we’ve been obsessed with Kill Bill and Lost in Translation, seeing both movies as many times as possible while they’re still on the big screen; we’re going to see the latter film this afternoon and we’re now killing time until it begins.

“Isn’t it strange? Sixty years ago America hated no enemy more vehemently than Japan, yet today our favorite movies deal with the love affair that’s been cultivated between that culture and our own.”

“Totally. When Uma goes to Okinawa to get the samuri sword from Sonny Cheeba, there’s that whole flirty ritual they go through where she pretends to be this cutesy tourist who doesn’t know the language, but in the end it’s all about honor— he reneges against his covenant not to make another instrument of death because his warrior ethic demands that he help contain the rogue he himself empowered— but you know it has more to do with his infatuation with the cute American, and her infatuation with him.”

“Hmm. The rogue he himself empowered?”

“Well okay so I’m distracted… unintential analogy.”

“Convoluted one at that.”

“Yeah, well… onward & upward…”

“I get it though… But Lost in Translation: both Scarlett Johansen and Bill Murray are American. Their mutual infatuation is palpable, but the very basis of their attraction is their shared revulsion from Japanese culture— the theory seems not to apply.”

“Yeah in a sense that’s true. But you know this is Sophia Coppola’s story. With every shot she’s laboring over the beauty of Tokyo’s lights, the beauty of the pagodas, etc., the beauty of alienation, of there being a time in your life when everything seems uncertain, and self-realization improbable— the two characters seem out of place, for sure, and dissociated, but that’s their common bond. If the movie’s about anything it’s about the gorgeous, peculiar environment a person has to find oneself in to get into this headspace— the headspace that allows them to make their connection to one another. For Sophia Coppola, for the characters in this movie, the environment happens to be Tokyo… so there’s an intercultural attraction between America and Japan, just as there’s an intergenerational attraction between Murray and Johansen… that is if I get what you’re saying.”

“Okay I’ll buy that.”

“Buy it? I though you were selling it.”

“No, what I’m selling is this: in American history, we’ve made our fiercest enemies our dearest allies. Our first enemies were the British; today we wouldn’t do a thing without ’em. The German Nazis were our demons of the 20th Century, yet we spent the next half-century locking horns with Russia on their behalf. We hated the Japanese enough to drop nuclear bombs on them— now that’s hate— but today the movies we’re making are virtual national love-poems…

“In the blink of an eye you and I’ll both be in Iraq. It’s impossible to measure, but I think the fury in this war is greater than any we’ve known before, only this time it can’t focus in on any specific nation. Airplanes topple the World Trade Center, and now we’re storming through Baghdad with the *shock and awe*… it’s brutal now, but I’m tempted to think that before too long we’ll have a new ally, and the jihad wagers will have their Lost in Translation, too.”

“But isn’t that the very thing they’re fighting against? The pollution of their culture with our entertainment?”

“Is it? Maybe… I just want to believe there can be some kind of resolution. Otherwise… what’s the point? It’s scary, you know? Here I’m thinking that after a certain number of battles have been fought, the West and the Mideast are going to kiss and make up, and wind up sending filmic odes to one another across the Atlantic— that such an eventuality will be our indication that the conflict’s been resolved. But you’re saying that for them it’s this very fear— the fear that their culture and ours will interact somehow, let alone in any mutually appreciative way— upon which they predicate their hatred… that they’ve apprehended some self-fulfilling prophecy that they’ll be forced to like us against their will…”

“Is that what I’m saying? Could be… but if so it’s a catch-22: the more they like us, the more they’ll hate us, the more fervently they’ll fight…”

“I recommend we change the subject before the sheer logical contradictions involved cause us to spontaneously combust.”

“Dude that didn’t make any sense… but what does?”

We’re walking past the UT campus— green lawns, ivy-walled buildings, the infamous clock-tower, scattered statues of Confederate generals about which I’m still unsure whether they’re viewed by the student body as anachronistic— on our left. To our right stands a quasi-bohemian commercial strip: an indie record store; an assortment of pizzerias and Asian restaurants; a Church of Scientology with its own video arcade; a Tower Records; a gargantuan Barnes & Noble; an abundance of quirky coffee shops and vintage clothing stores; and an open market in which transient twenty-somethings with hemp-collared dogs sell necklaces, pipes, and impromptu portraits. As we walk we weave through the indifferent foot-traffic of students wearing backpacks— carefree, socializing, many wearing the burnt-orange of the Longhorns but many more too cool to care— we notice a few who look up suddenly, startled by our conversation as it veers back toward Saddam’s capture.

They probably don’t know about it yet, I think to myself, then
It’s probably considered unhip to talk about the war around here unless you’re going to the capitol to protest it, then
I guess it’s not hip to do that either— I was here last year before the campaign began and the protests I saw were less peopled than the ones in Portland, Oregon, then
Wow! It smarts to be so unhip, and to have to realize it… to know that if I had done just a couple things differently, I could be here right now. This would be my life; I’d be in grad school or something, and conversations like the one I’m having with Levi would be commonplace rather than anomolous, and and and and…
So what? I’ve got to leave behind the city that Neal Pollack calls “the most fabulous in the Western Hemisphere” (or something like that). At least I’ll always know I’ve been here. I’m gonna be in the birthplace of civilization! At possibly the most cataclysmic moment in its storied history!

This might be fun; it might be hell; in any event it’s sure to be more interesting than anything I’d wind up doing of my own paralytic free will.
Strange Days

Yes, things are a little bit crazy.

I’m hearing loud noises, and they seem to be outgoing artillery. A couple hours ago, someone rapped on my shelter door and announced, “Whateveryoudo…” (wheeze) “don’tlettheshot…” (big breath) “godownforanyreason…” (finally cathces breath) “because some helicopter just went down or something… so if anybody loses com’s [ability to talk on the phone] they’ll be looking for someone to hang.”

He had sprinted over from his own shelter; he would have just called me except for the fact that his own *com’s* (and thus those of some presumably agitated people) were down; he’d been told to make sure mine didn’t go down as well. There was some perfectly mundane reason for his *com’s* being down, of course— it had nothing to do with the hostilities themselves.

That’s probably the most comprehensive news report I’ll get on the event. I haven’t seen one bit of the fighting that people are talking about; I hear bits and pieces after the fact, but it’s all about things that take place outside my *AO*. I learn more from reading Intel Dump, written all the way back there in The States, than I do from talking to anyone here.

Yesterday I was walking my laundry to the drop-off point when I passed a trailer door on which hung a surprising sign.

This many days after the fact, this is how I learn what happened; this is the soldier from another unit that died on the same convoy I was supposed to take part in the following day. Today I found that the DOD posted news of the event on its website the very next day— yet access to yahoo! mail was administratively blocked for a full three days, ostensibly for the purpose of giving that’s-right-you-guessed-it the DOD enough time to notify the soldier’s family before word leaked back to the States through other channels. (So it's safe to assume that the appropriate people had been contacted within the first day, before the press release went up.)

It's the last thing I'd want to get bent out of shape about, a minor inconvenience in the face of someone else's tragedy-- but all the same I wonder who decided that a tragic event mandates a period of institutional stupidity. What about our tragedy? It just hit me like a cement-mixer when I saw the sign on that door: People knew this guy. They have to go on performing their jobs remembering that the day before he was working and struggling alongside them. Granted, I didn't know him. He wasn't in my unit. But he lived awfully close to me. Why should the entire free world know what's happening a few feet from me before I do?

But that's the nature of tragedy: it doesn't make sense.

Sunday, April 04, 2004


I've squandered another internet-session surfing from website to website in a zombie-like trance, soaking up everything from the *occupation*-weary dejection of Iraqi bloggers to the election-crazed hyperbole of American pundits... and now there's no time for a proper e-r-c update.

But I owe you this much: I am okay. The convoy never took place, although we wasted an entire day with the formalities of preparation, very similar to the exercises I told you about before our wonderful drive north from Kuwait a couple months ago. The walking slowly in single file, with someone standing to the side yelling, "Boom! Second vehicle!" and everyone scrambling to the appropriate position in response, then running through the exercise again. (I don't suggest that we do these things unnecessarily-- only that they're tedious.)

Something happened on one of the similar convoys, with a completely different unit-- apparently the details are not supposed to be public knowledge-- and the results of that event are
a) we didn't go on our convoy, and I'm presumably off the hook, and
b) email access is blocked, so I have no idea if I've gotten any mail, nor do I have any idea when I'll be able to check it again.

So: here's hoping that next time I'm on the web, I'll be able to
a) stop staring at other people's words long enough to plunk down my own, and
b) check my e-mail.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Curiosity Killed the Cat

About five hours ago, at a quarter ’til midnight, just before arriving on shift at the worksite from where I now write this blog post, I was informed that after manning my communications shelter overnight I’d be participating in a convoy this morning.

Convoys are very serious affairs. Other than the uber-serious convoy that brought the first wave of the First Cav into Baghdad, I haven’t had anything to do with them, and I don’t feel like I’ve been missing out. Due in part to the fact that my company is not entirely situated here in the same camp, and due in part to some other factors that for security reasons I’ll not broadcast here, there are other less significant convoys from camp to camp taking place on a pretty regular basis. The people organizing these little outings like to pick a few soldiers here and there to use as extra drivers and gunners; today’s my *lucky day*.

I guess the convoys have their own kind of excitement: various stories have made their way back, and there’s usually some animation in the telling. Wrong turns into unfriendly neighborhoods are par for the course.

Well, guess what: tedium takes its toll, but there’s a certain comfort in knowing what to expect. I don’t need this excitement. I’ve no desire to confront the age-old moral quandary: “What would you do if suddenly, as a result of some other person’s poor sense of direction, you found yourself encircled by an otherwise unarmed mob of angry people that decided to pelt you with rocks and not move aside for you to pass, and you happened to have your finger on the trigger of a loaded automatic weapon at that precise moment?”

As curious a person as I am, there are certain questions which I’d like to see remain unanswered.
Thursday, February 26
A Pretty Good Group of Guises

Since my team was the company’s first to go *in system*— to situate our shelters, run our cables, erect our antennae, and maintain telephone “subscribers”— we were initially exempt from the various *details* that inevitably befall soldiers in America’s military. Now that everyone else has followed suit by going into system according to schedule, and things still need to get done, we’re as eligible as anyone else for duty. So it’s probably no accident that as our names start appearing at the top of one duty roster, they’re appearing at the top of yet another list the very next day.

Today my “number came up” for *KBR escort duty*. Kellog, Brown, and Root is the subsidiary of Halliburton that holds the much-scrutinized contract to provide a variety of services to the military throughout the mideast as it performs *Operation Iraqi Freedom*. Before deploying from the States, I read that their contract called for them to operate our dining facilities; in actuality they’re also overseeing those facilities’ construction, as well as that of the “pads”— rows of trailers that would be the envy of many a stateside trailer-park-dweller— in which we are housed, along with a host of other projects. The actual labor for these projects is subcontracted through a number of levels, and ultimately performed either by Iraqi locals or “third nationals” that are brought in from elsewhere. Before the attacks the other night, virtually all the work on this camp belonged to the Iraqis; now their presence has been scaled back dramatically, and a legion of Phillipino laborers seems to have materialized out of thin air.

My duty consisted of strapping on all of my protective gear and loading my M249, then riding in the back of an LMTV (large multi-troop vehicle?) to a spot just outside the gate where we searched 17 Iraqis and transported them to a lake inside the camp where they were to clear away brush and reeds. Once there, our ostensible function was to ensure that the workers remained in their designated area and that they brought no harm upon the American KBR foreman or anyone else.

The KBR foreman and I have a few things in common— chiefly, the same first name and the same home state. He spells his “Brian” with an “i” and he’s from Mosier, a small town along the Columbia River, but we had enough to go on to talk most of the day. He owns a heating and air conditioning company that operates in The Dalles/ Hood River area; KBR offered him an attractive contract to install units in the trailers over here. When the army informed KBR that it wanted only “third nationals” performing work in the camp’s occupied areas, he vouched for his crew and decided that he’d sooner supervise them in some more menial task out of everyone’s sight than allow them to lose their jobs. According to Brian, the guys on his crew have already undergone such harrassment from their neighbors and family members for collaborating with the “infidels” that they’d be virtually unemployable out “on the economy” if the Americans were to let them go. Who knows? They seem like a decent group of guys.

Brian has given nicknames to most of the crew:
The translator (Mahmoud) and his assistant are known as Tom and Jerry. Bossom likes to mention by way of introduction that he has one baby; thus he is known as “Baby-wan”. Another guy has six children; he goes by the moniker “Six-Pack”. They call me Good Bryan Number Two.

They love to share their cigarettes, their food, whatever they can share. I don’t know what they’d make of the information that I worked in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Portland— if they’d find it ironic that some Americans choose to eat foreign food in their home country, yet go to such lengths to have American cheeseburgers and pizza when they’re in the Middle East— but they didn’t seem surprised that I knew about falafel. Perhaps they assume it’s everywhere.

In any case: it’s a good scene, sitting with them as they take their breaks, learning their words, laughing at their jokes. There seems to be a great sense of relief, both for them and for me, to be able to experience firsthand the fact that people are human wherever you go.

Outside this gate there are bombs being made. Ambushes are planned; innocents are slaughtered; conspiracy theories are whispered and then broadcast as news; political maneuverings of staggering historical significance and complexity begin anew each day. I’m not naïve, and I don’t guess most of these Iraqis are either: we all can see that nefarious ends are often served by the guise of good intentions, and that the best intentions can lead through sheer accident to the worst catastrophes. I don’t know whether this group of workers, or the larger population they represent, is any better off now than one year ago, or whether their lives will seem improved upon a year from today. I get the impression that they might find such a question superfluous. In here we are getting to realize, a little bit at a time, the importance of more simple facts, such as that “friend” and “sa-dirhky” have roughly the same meaning.

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