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, May 19, 2004

A Week of Living Dangerously, Part 1

Almost midnight, Saturday, April 24: I am crouched in the shelter and reading the rave write-up of some weapons-capture in the Stars & Stripes when the phone rings. It’s a staff sergeant in my company, telling me that I’m on the *red team* for the week that begins the following day. I’ll be the rear gunner for any convoys that our company performs over a seven-day period. Details forthcoming. Okay.

She says that I’ll receive a 24-hour notice before any convoy’s departure, but I know better. My roommate, my teammate, and others have been called up for these things with as little as half an hour for preparation— so although I’m ordinarily no stickler for weapon maintenance, I start cleaning my SAW immediately. No one that I’ve spoken with has actually had to fire a shot, or even been shot at, during one of our company’s convoys— I don’t know if it’s luck or speed or anything else that we’ve got on our side— but I’ve got faith enough in Murphy’s law to suspect that riding out with a dirty weapon might be the one thing that tips the scales against us.

(While typically more accurate than their Soviet-made counterparts, American small-arms tend to be very delicate in the sense that if there’s dust or grime anywhere inside, they’ll jam up and fail to fire.)

I wake up early on Sunday morning despite having worked until midnight, which gives me the whole day to sit around and chew my fingernails. When four o’clock rolls around I arrive on site for my shift with a new confidence: maybe this week there won’t be any convoys.

Around 6:30 on Tuesday morning I get the knock: be up at the CP as soon as you can get there (right away), where you will receive your *convoy briefing* and go on your convoy.

(I don’t know why the CP goes by that name, but the initials refer to the company office. Most units our size on this encampment are headquartered in little white trailers much like our sleeping units; for some reason we’re fortunate enough to get a structure that was already standing when we got here, onto which we’ve built a nice little wooden sundeck. Beyond the sundeck, we’ve got a horseshoe-throwing area, and in the CP’s back room there are couches and a dartboard and a TV offering a few different channels from the Armed Forces Network— we’re not as cool as the units living out of buildings on the lakefront, but we’re definitely doing better than expected.)

Our convoy’s purpose is to escort a tractor/ trailer to another of our encampments, this one in Tajji. My role is to mount an M249 to a pole on the back of the Humvee that provides *rear security*; from there I’ll stand facing backward and scan for threats. “Gun trucks,” as they’re called, are curious creatures, and they exhibit surprising variety. This one has a home-made flavor: the sides are wooden walls filled in with sandbags, and every wall has some near-senseless slogan tattooed across its length by some bored soldier waiting for his convoy to leave.

The mounting bracket for my weapon is broken, so I fasten the gun to the turret with *550 cord* (basically really thick dark-green shoe-lace stuff, a fix-everything material as ubiquitous as *hunnerd-mile-an-hour tape*, which is dark-green duct tape). This turret has a yellow smiley-face sticker placed just beneath the broken mounting bracket, captioned in black magic marker: Kick Some Ass!

We have a detachment from a Pennsylvania National Guard signal unit attached to our company here in Iraq, sort of like an extra platoon; a female mechanic from this unit is driving the rear vehicle. Another female mechanic from my company is in the *TC position* (passenger seat).

(Not that it’s any kind of big deal, but in my company the ratio of females to males is about 1:5. Among the mechanics it’s maybe 2:5, while the *combat arms* units— infantry, artillery, etc.— are completely out of luck, y-chromosome-wise. It’s probably coincidence— and, all things considered, not really consequential one way or the other— that this week our *red team* is stacked heavily with females. To me it’s not an issue, but I’ll answer your questions pre-emptively: Yes, we really do most commonly use the professional term “female” rather than “girl” or “woman” or “bonnie lass”, and Yes, there really is resentment on the part of many males about the female “infiltration” of the forces. It isn’t vocalized much, because no one wants to be identified with their misogyny— but in the anonymous domain of port-a-john graffiti, “ARMY WOMEN ARE TRYING TO BE MEN” is a popular and unchallenged theme.)

I’m standing in the back— it’s like standing in the bed of a pickup truck, basically— with a big cloth belt that straps around my body as well as the gun turret. When the vehicle starts moving, I’ll use this to swivel, and it will be the thing that keeps me from pitching overboard whenever we swerve. The idea is for me to scan the 180 degrees to the rear of our convoy, pointing my weapon cursorily at everything we’ve just passed. If some guy pops out from behind a building with an RPG launcher on his shoulder and last-chance visions of Valhalla on his mind, I’m responsible for getting him there while denying him the opportunity to take any of us along. Now that’s responsibility. From where I stand I’ve got my back to the driver and TC, but I can hear them and they can hear me, so I think about joking: I’m hardly responsible enough to feed the dog— are you sure you’ve got the right guy for this?

Once we get going we’re moving at a serious clip. I’m seeing little snapshots of Baghdad that I’ve never seen before, and it’s sort of a challenge to quickly shift focus between a range of particulars— who’s in that approaching vehicle, are those figures on the roadside holding anything, etc.— when I’m naturally inclined to stare in awe at all the domed buildings. I’m taking it in, but not in the way a tourist takes things in. It’s measured and frenetic at the same time.

We’re supposed to swerve from side to side to prevent anyone from passing on the left. We’re going fast enough that this shouldn’t be an issue, but if we have to slow down for some reason, we still can’t allow anyone to overtake us. The great thing about the swerving is that it facilitates my panning with my muzzle from left to right. It’s just a matter of crouching on one leg, then the other. After about twenty minutes it becomes an aerobic exercise; my calves will be sore the next day. A couple times I have to gesture a vehicle to stay back, and I remember that it’s considered impolite to gesture with the left hand. Is it odd that manners should come into play while speeding down a foreign interstate with a loaded weapon in plain view? I can’t decide.

We’re less than an hour out of Baghdad when we get to Tajji, which turns out to be an abandoned chemical plant. Everywhere the ground is stained with oil spills and… I really don’t know, but there are dark splotches of various hues throughout the place. The sand doesn’t feel like sand when I kick it; it balls into clumps. The stink in the air is artificial, the insolent stench of a fire at a plastic factory. I don’t see any life— no plants, no dogs, no rats, no insects. This place gets attacked regularly; we have to wear our flak vests even while eating inside the DFAC, perhaps for fear that some shrapnel will tear into us even as we’re tearing into a pita.

We hurry back to the vehicle after eating, only to wait there for an hour. (If I could count the number of times I’ve been told that “Hurry up and wait” is the unofficial motto of the Army, I’d… well I’d type that number here, and that would be impressive.) I hear the girls talking as I try to take a nap: apparently one of them has just seen the pictures of two soldiers who got mortared in their bunks here at Tajji a couple days ago, and this event has some bearing on the reason we were disallowed from removing our vests as we ate.

Thanks, I think I feel filled in now. I’ve had the Tajji experience. Can we go now? If only so I can loosen this vest sometime before the next round of mortars lands and/or some Godzilla-like spawn of hate and science awakens from one of these forgotten vats to devour us all? Just kidding. But can we go now?

Not two eternities later, we drive back the way we came. It’s a quick drive for us, lightened of our cargo, and we’re feeling pretty grand as we roll through the gate. I don’t know why I assume at first that we’re done. Now we have to perform an *AER*— an “after-action review”. (Yes, I realize that "action" does not begin with the letter "e"-- let's move on, shall we?) This amounts to a meeting in which everyone agrees that yes, we did in fact just go on a convoy. Our lieutenant, in league with an annoying redneck sergeant, tries to tell my driver that she was swerving too much and nearly threw me out of the vehicle. I never saw this girl before today, so maybe I’m just goofy at the sight of all that hair, but I tell them to can it, that she did a great job, and that’s pretty much the end of that. Who am I? No one terribly important, other than the rear gunner whose continued existence among the living is the subject under question. Still here? Uhhh… yeah. Feels like it.

Eventually we’re done, and it’s still late afternoon… just in time for me to pull shift at my site. It’s no big deal; under ordinary circumstances I like my job, and I’m not one to complain about working too much. But I don’t yet know about the pictures I’ll see on the news tomorrow, the chaos into which pretty much everything will subsequently plunge, or the debacle of a convoy I’ll still have to perform thereafter.


Saturday, May 08, 2004

A Letter From Baghdad

Hey ya hey ya,

I just re-read some recently sent messages, and realized that my last email to you wasn't really what you were asking for. Apologies. Honestly, there are times when I'm on shift and for whatever reason I'm struggling to remain awake and I'm in a whatever mood trying to take advantage of a window of internet connectivity, when I type things that make little sense to me later. Let's hope right now isn't one of those times... guess I'll find out when I re-read this in a couple days, assuming I can connect to the internet.

Yeah... life here... well I see and hear a lot of helicopters. Occasionally, I hear outgoing rounds. Less frequently, I hear incoming rounds. Last night there was a really loud explosion; a lot of people I know are claiming that shrapnel from a mortar almost hit them and pierced their generator. They can't all be telling the truth (because there was only the one explosion and they were all in different places), and maybe none of them are.

I live in a trailer. Rather, a room in a trailer. It's so much better than I expected. Weren't guys in Vietnam living out of duffel bags, setting up little tents in different spots each night, haunted just as much by losing their private wars against the jungle rot overtaking their feet as they were about the VC overtaking yet another hill? This isn't anything like that. Sometimes a big rain will come (we even had a hail storm last week! with lightning!) and muddy up all the dirt in front of our trailer, and we'll have to worry about taking off our boots before we enter the room so we don't make a mess out of the place-- that's nothing, you know?

My roommate is a tall African American fellow from Brooklyn who says that he joined the army to escape retribution for shooting some guy at a party. I have no idea if he's telling the truth. He's a pretty nice guy; I don't need to worry that that if I say the wrong thing I'll join the ranks of the guy at that party. He's a rabid music fan, as I am, but we have utterly different tastes in music. He listens to a lot of rap and R&B. He's got a Jackson 5 CD, and that's a lot of fun. The (fairly) new Eryka Badu disc is pretty great. I also sorta like the new Ghostface disc (Ghostface Killa being his former moniker-- one of the guys from the Wu-Tang Clan, whose album 36 Chambers is a classic whether you like rap or not). But a lot of the time I have to find excuses to leave when he starts playing his music, and I get the impression he feels the same way about mine. He's fanatically devoted to the song "Idioteque" from my Radiohead Kid A CD, and that's our main point of agreement.

I picked up a new 21-inch TV from a bazaar set up near the airport last week, and we use his Playstation to watch DVD's. I'll generally watch whatever he brings in, and he'll generally watch whatever I bring in.
A lot of guys around here are amassing insane DVD collections-- ordering them from the States, or just buying up the drivel that they stock at the PX-- so he and I just go around borrowing discs from people.

There are also Iraqis hawking bootleg versions of movies that haven't been released on disc yet-- some guy takes a camcorder into the theater in Bangkok, and voila!: something to burn a few hundred copies of to be shipped to the cousin in Iraq for 50 cents a disc and then sold to the soldiers at a 1000 percent mark-up, which is still a deal for us aside from the poor quality. So I've gotten to see The Passion of the Christ and Kill Bill Vol. 2. Wow. Tarantino is a genius, and Gibson is... Tarantino is a film-making genius whereas Gibson is a film-marketing genius, and that's all I've got to say about that.

Periodically the work schedule on my team will shift around. My shelter has to be manned around the clock. It's quasi-tech-geek stuff; mostly just ensuring that everything is running smoothly, so that phone calls can take place and the internet works. Yeah, it's sort of odd that I complain so much about the internet, since I'm one of the people responsible for it.

Anyway right now I work from 8 pm to 8 am. I've got a deal worked out with the guy who shares my shift: every other night one of us gets to sneak off and do whatever we please for most of the shift, while the other one stays here. Tonight, I stay here. A few minutes ago I had to use the hand-held radio to call him back so we could mess around with our big antenna. He stood at the base of it and swung it a few degrees from one side to the other, while I yelled out the numbers that flashed around on a piece of monitoring equipment inside the shelter, before we decided to leave the antenna exactly where it was in the first place. He just left.

This means that I do most of my sleeping during the day. It's really starting to heat up here. Highs in the 90s are the norm, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was in the low 100s today. I guess during the summer it gets to about 140 farenheit. We've got air conditioners in our rooms, but the kooky thing is that the power always shuts down for a few hours during the hottest part of the day. Supposedly this is so that some electricians can work on the system to improve it-- that sounds hokey to me. My personal theory is that someone toward the top of things is saving some cash to be diverted elsewhere-- all the really powerful people are at work during the day; the crashing electricity only affects the sleeping trailers and, thus, not them; the fortune that's alotted to supply juice to the troops' living quarters can be skimmed off quite nicely if it's shut off when a) no one important will notice, and b) it's likely to be most in use, right? Call me a cynic.

Yesterday my roommate's fiance randomly showed up at our door at about 11 am. She's a sergeant in a Signal unit in Tajji; there was a convoy and she got to be on it. I threw on some PTs (the uniform for "physical training"-- black Army shorts and gray Army t-shirt), grabbed my weapon, and got out of their way. There's a gym set up in a large canvass tent about halfway between my trailer and my worksite; it's nothing impressive but it's alright. I think the majority of the equipment has been donated from places that have funding to buy what they need. I spent a little while with a machine that sort of simulates the experience of doing a push-up while sitting down; then I spent as long as possible riding an exercise bike that wasn't plugged in to anything and provided no resistance. I went to the dining facility and watched soundless CNN for a bit, then wandered around in the sun for a while and finally showed up at my worksite. My team chief, Robert, gave me his room key. His roommate is back at Fort Hood now awaiting back surgery, so I crashed out on his bed underneath a holiday card signed by George W. and Laura Bush: "Justin, thanks for helping to jump-start our campaign and for being a leader in Texas!"

I went on a couple convoys last week; I'll write about them soon on my blog. I don't intend to be esoteric about it, so the hope is that it won't be as hard to read as my rantings about weaponry and spelling and poetry have been.

The scenery varies according to where you are. It's at least as true in the States as it is here, you know? Find yourself in one of nature's gorgeous panoramas: pick a direction and go a few miles, and you'll soon run into a strip mall full of pawn shops, gun stores, junk yards, and topless bars, with trash flying around in the parking lots and snot-nosed shoeless kids running around in front of board-windowed shacks out back. Go another few miles, and there's a meticulously landscaped corporate campus nestled against a golf course.

The fact is that I've seen very little of Baghdad. I've seen the bombed out airport because I'm practically right next to it. I've seen some pieces of highway at high speeds, and it hasn't been much of a surprise: there are trash-strewn ghettos here, magnificent monuments there. Sounds like St. Louis, right?

Every place has its own unique character, but it's also true that there are commonalities. Every city has its gated communities and its slums. American cities all have their American-ness, but you also hear people say, "oh, such-and-such American city has such a European flavor," or that some far-flung place has an American flavor. Most of San Antonio feels like Mexico. Victoria, British Columbia, is said to be more English than any place in England. It's interesting for me to hear people say, "I can't believe what we saw on that convoy-- this country smells like shit!" Hey, guess what: there are places in America that smell like shit. Ever been to a landfill?

Everything is really flat where I'm situated. There are rows and rows of trailers, and straight wide dirt roads that were made when we got here, with tank tracks lain from ditch to ditch every few spaces that serve as supremely annoying speed bumps. Not far away (still on this encampment) there are narrow, well-paved roads that wind about and are lined with palm trees. The architecture here has its own kind of resonance. Even modest structures speak of forgotten times. In one direction, there's the huge man-made lake with the palace and all the administrative buildings reflecting onto its surface. In another direction, there's some sort of ill-conceived sewage facility that's somehow bled its stink into the surrounding swamp. I had to go out there yesterday evening to talk to some other Signal people who are in our network of wavelengths and data rates-- I would hate to be them. It's more scenic, but it smells terrible and the mosquitos are unbearable, even for a few minutes.

There are some people on other encampments who get to swim every day in one of Saddam's many magisterial swimming pools, or work out in one of his gyms. There are soldiers who get to sleep in his palaces. Everything I come into contact with on a consistent basis is ready-made for this deployment, from the place where I sleep to the place where I eat to the place where I buy my coffee grounds. There's little connection to the actual Baghdad-ness of Baghdad for me, unless I take a trip in a Humvee. It's a decent trade for the security I feel-- my life's not in nearly the same kind of danger as are those of a lot of soldiers out here, many of whom I spent time with every day back at Fort Hood, Texas.

In addition to the letters & packages I've gotten from you & my other friends and my mom & my sisters, I've gotten some unexpected things. A lady in Wisconsin who works for a VA hospital got ahold of my addresss, and she sent me three huge boxes of food. Little Debbies, cheddar goldfish, stuff like that. She included a letter with a picture of her horse. I got two letters on the same day from two school children in Houston, TX. One had a crazy little drawing-- I'm guessing from her writing that she's somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade, but her drawing resembles the ones I get from my niece Annie, who isn't in school yet. It was sweet, of course. The other day I got a letter from a retired Methodist minister, elsewhere in Texas. Our main company mail clerk is sort of a sweet girl from some small town near Seattle, and she told me she put my name on a list of soldiers who needed to get mail from the States. I find this amusing. I don't really know what to write to these people in response to their warm friendliness. "You assholes! You supported this thing, didn't you?! You're trying to get me killed, aren't you?!" Ha ha.

I hope I've given you a better idea of what it's like for me to be here. No amount of writing can really paint the picture accurately, I guess-- but I'll keep working on that. I'm sorry if I seem detached, or anything otherwise less than both honest and cheerful. As I've told you, I'm in knots about the whole prisoner abuse scandal, and there are other things surrounding that whole ordeal that also incense me, and I don't know how to say anything about it without sounding very mean, because when I think about it mean is the way I feel. On one hand there's the desire to write something clever or goofy to indicate that I'm basically okay, then on the other hand there's the desire to write something with some sort of edge-- something that peels back the protective layers that exist between the mind of a deployed soldier and his environment and the interested parties back home. Tonight, for the purpose of this email, the edge is gone, neatly covered by protective layers-- but if you can't already tell, guess what: I'm going to place this on e-rocky confidential.

Hey it's great to be writing to you, but if I'm gonna post anything about those convoys to my blog then I better get started.

So then: more later.


Saturday, May 01, 2004

Let the Gratuitous Self-Flagellation Begin

One diligent reader was good enough to point out that, contrary to my earlier synopsis, when American troops encountered resistance in Fallujah, it wasn’t from al-Sadr’s forces— the Shiite al-Mehdi insurgence was emanating from Najaf, to the south, while the fighting in Fallujah has been a Sunni phenomenon.

It’s like walking into a minefield, if you’ll pardon a pun that sadly isn’t one, to approach the deep ideological currents that make Iraq what it is— but that’s what I’m here for, so I shouldn’t be a source of misinformation. Excuses are always lame, but here’s mine: my internet connection is often dead and almost invariably slow; the Stars & Stripes (the only print newspaper to be found) is now available only sporadically; if I’m lucky I see fifteen minutes of soundless CNN per day while in the dining facility. I’ve already told you about the reliability of information gleaned from my fellow soldiers, so perhaps you’ll understand: my access to information is limited. I had previously skimmed an item at Intel Dump about an American general maintaining that there was “only one front” in Iraq, and I misinterpreted the military spin to mean, ahem, that there was only one front.

Try not to hold it against me. I’ll work harder, from here on out. My pledge to you, faithful reader.

So I might as well come clean about some other factual inaccuracies. Remember when I told you that my weapon, the M249, is the weapon that Adam Baldwin’s character uses to the detriment of his squad in everybody’s favorite Stanley Kubrick Vietnam War movie? Not so, apparently. I’ve been told that the M249, in its current incarnation, was first put into use by the American military in 1983— four years before the release of Full Metal Jacket, but a few years after the conclusion of our engagement in Indochina. But he did refer to his machine gun as a “SAW”, and that’s what we often call the M249— an acronym for “squad automatic weapon.” It’s safe to speculate that in Vietnam, we might have employed some ancestor of the M249, and called it by the same moniker— but I thought I’d provide a clarification, just in case anyone’s getting all their facts straight in preparation for some War Nerd-style polemicizing.

There’s another one, insignificant or egregious, depending on your geography. Remember when I was all wound up about the appropriate usages of the term hajji? It’s still true that the hajj is the pilgrimage— but I tried to show off by throwing around knowledge of the Five Pillars of Islam, and I got mixed up. Yes, the hajj is one of the Pillars, but it doesn’t commemorate the “Night of Great Power”.

Okay: there are Five Pillars; pilgrimage is one of the five. Each of the pillars has its own significance; we’re not getting into that too much because a) I’m not an expert, and b) the purpose here is to correct old mistakes, not make new ones.The other four Pillars are
1) profession of faith,
2) prayer,
3) almsgiving, and
4) fasting. The most important fast is Ramadan, held for about a month in late fall/ early winter. It’s this fast (and the ensuing feast) that commemorates the “Night of Great Power” in which Allah reveals his will to Muhammed.
Don’t you feel more culturally aware? Let’s pat ourselves on the back. Nonetheless: “Hajji” is to Iraq as “Charlie” is to Vietnam, and there’s really nothing you or I can do about it.

But what’s with all these typos? I mean, come on. “Known unkowns” for “known unknowns”?! “Cirular pattern” for “circular pattern?! “Montisorri” for “Moltisanti”?! What are things coming to? I think I hear William Butler Yeats calling into the wind for his falcon.

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