Issue September 9, 2009

Soldier

Coming home from Iraq

“Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice,

be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,

those who love each other shall become invincible,

they shall make Columbia victorious.” —Walt Whitman

 

While out with a group of friends this past Memorial Day weekend, I met a soldier from the 187th Infantry Regiment based out of Fort Campbell. He was on leave from what I think was his third tour in Iraq, and he was with a friend who was soon to enlist. The 187th Infantry is a regiment of the 101st Airborne. Among Army regulars they are known as “The Rakkasans.” The 187th adopted this peculiar nickname during WWII, when an Army translator forgot the word for parachute and used the term rakkasans (falling umbrellas) to explain to local Japanese how they arrived. The soldier I met — whom I will refer to as “Rocky” — was pleased to hear that I knew the story. I explained that an old high school friend was once in the regiment, and it was he who related the tale to me.

I was playing eight-ball with a friend when Rocky and his pal approached to see if we were interested in doubles. Curious to hear firsthand accounts of the war, I asked Rocky about his experiences and was taken with his candor. He answered all my questions with plenty of smiles and enthusiasm, often going out of his way to fill in certain intricacies, the reality of which still — as I clack away on my laptop — convinces me that my life of writing and the daily grind comprises so much make-believe.

The rest of my crew sort of drifted away from the conversation and headed to another table to start their own game. I couldn’t help but get the feeling they didn’t want to stick around, not so much out of disapproval, but because they — like many of us — don’t know how much of the war they should abide, as if at a certain point of indulgence they would become guilty by association.

Unfortunately it’s a growing tendency of those who know better to leave these veterans to themselves. Of course I could be misinterpreting things. Maybe the situation in Iraq is too brutal and complex to think about on a balmy Sunday night. Sure, that’s just as likely a cause as any. Still, it shames me personally to think — with all my supposed simpatico and writerly acumen — that I’ve become so detached from the war that I didn’t realize until days later the simple cause of Rocky’s candor and joy: The guy was giddy to be back safe at home. Even more so, he was thrilled to finally find a couple of guys who gave enough of a shit to ask.

 

Here I must confess I’ve always been against our invasion of Iraq. Yes, I was that guy at the bar who mocked our speedy dispatch of Saddam’s army within the first month of the war. I knew — and this is now no great point of distinction — that our initial success would devolve into a protracted military occupation that would end up looking more like Vietnam and less like George W’s smiling thumbs-up beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”

There is now an entire generation of Iraqis who have come of age in a war-torn chaos few in the outside world can comprehend. Perhaps the biggest problem that threatens the future stability of Iraq will be these young Muslim men who have spent the majority of a decade out of work or out of school. They’re coerced to fight not so much out of animus, but to get paid and finally feel like they belong to something. In reality, the younger among them — the adolescents — probably better resemble Huck Finn or the WWII London urchins of Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” than budding fundamentalist insurgents. After all, is it not every boy’s inalienable right to resist getting “civilised”? Especially when the supposed civilization that fostered them is so indisputably dysfunctional?

So the question comes: Why write about soldiers and soldiering if you’re so opposed to the war? Though I’ve never served, even I realized a long time ago that being a soldier comes down to more than the cliché of fighting for America’s freedom. It’s also the burden of accepting human error and absorbing the mortal blunders shot down the chain of command. Certainly, if called upon to contend for our freedom, entire regiments would fix bayonets and march into the jaws of calamity to guarantee that most precious human dignity. However, few things in this world are so black and white, and more often than not our soldiers are called on to perform less arduous and more morally ambiguous tasks. Sometimes these tasks are worthwhile, and sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s so worthwhile beneath all the political doubletalk and corporate scheming.

Absolutely speaking, no war is necessary. There are things we’re not willing to accept, so we fight, but that is not necessity. War comes down to choices: those of our people and elected officials, and then those day-to-day decisions each soldier makes, both out of duty and survival. Despite how easy it is to block it out and push it aside, there’s a soldier right now risking all that he has and everything he’s ever going to be in service to what the majority of us refrain. Like it or not our whole way of life is invested in this conflict. Whether you agree with the war or disagree, every day we hoist up our American flags and say carry on the good fight, or we acquiesce and tacitly condone the war as we go about our business. After so long, after so many hardships and frustrations, my words may taste like so much bad medicine. But that’s precisely how I know they’re worth putting down.

 

So we played pool, poorly. Nobody at our table could sink more than a ball or two at a time, and more games than not were determined by a sorry scratch on the eight ball. Rocky and his pal were already a drink ahead — but by no means wasted — and the closest I ever got to being any good was a midnight showing of “The Hustler.”

Rocky’s friend looked a bit out of shape, not unlike myself, so I asked him jokingly if he had any worries about getting through basic training. He answered with an emphatic “Hell yes!,” but then I reminded him that he would probably come out looking like Rocky: Besides being shot with equal parts piss and vinegar, the soldier’s limbs were knotted to the bone with muscle, and I don’t mean bulky like a bodybuilder, but lean and Spartan in a way that made you sorry for anyone loopy enough to go against him.

One of the first major issues that Rocky carped about in Iraq was MySpace. Confused, I repeated it back to him blankly: “MySpace?”

“Yeah, soldiers blogging on Facebook and MySpace have caused as much harm as anything else. You see, these idiots chat to their girlfriends and moms and let slip that they’re leaving for such and such the next day and then they act surprised when there’s an ambush waiting for them. They’re so fucking stupid. You tell them and they know that Al Qaeda has guys just watching these profiles all day, scrounging for whatever intel they can find, and still some of these idiots get on MySpace and say whatever.”

Rocky later explained his primary function in Iraq, and how the 187th had all but traded in their parachutes for Humvees and IED patrol. It’s the kind of occupation that rent Joseph Heller’s brain in two: Go out and seek the very devices designed and strategically placed for the purpose of your demise. Rocky explained how the V-shaped hull of the Buffalo IED Hunter-Killer had saved his life on more than one occasion. He said he had been blown up and flipped over, and he had seen others in his unit shredded and killed while riding around in the lighter armored vehicles.

His unit patrols the Triangle of Death. If the name doesn’t tell you enough, the Triangle of Death lies between Baghdad and Al Hillah and is hugged in the southeast by the Euphrates River. It is occupied principally by Sunni yeomen and is a prime locale for roadside ambushes and IED attacks.

Besides manning the 50-caliber gun on his squad’s Humvee, Rocky explained that he is the highly trained operator of the Buffalo IED Hunter-Killer. The Buffalo is a 23-ton behemoth with 30-foot retractable claws long enough to safely disarm or detonate any roadside IED threats. Basically, his squad patrols the Triangle in Humvees until they come across something suspicious, then they call in the Buffalo.

“The fucked thing is,” Rocky said, “half the time it isn’t even the insurgents who plant the bombs. It’s usually some broke-ass farmer who they pay $500 to sit it down somewhere and leave. I watch them sometimes as they plant the charge and I know they don’t give a shit about us. They just need money ’cause they’re struggling. And I know this. But standing orders are to take them out, so …”

Aside from the fact that you’re just as likely to get killed by friendly fire or danger-close artillery attacks, I’ve always considered the biggest cerebral snafu of contemporary warfare to be this notion of “standing orders.” Sure, they’re necessary because a soldier can’t call in every little thing. They’ve neither the time nor opportunity to do so, especially under the duress of combat. The problem with standing orders is that they are not really orders at all — they’re imperatives without context. It’s the equivalent of saying, “go pick all the apples” and then sending someone to a pumpkin patch. Ultimately, each soldier must make independent decisions based on the situation.

Sometimes standing orders ensure a soldier’s survival because that yeoman toting a suspicious package really is a hostile insurgent. But other times, standing orders, if ill hatched and left to fester, can lead to the likes of Lynndie England and the atrocities of Abu Ghraib.

 

In the first of two major twists in the evening, my doubles partner and friend had just confided to me a few hours earlier that his father worked the federal prosecution against Pfc. Steven Green, the trial of whom concluded days before in Paducah. With the eyes of the world watching, Green, now a convicted war criminal, was on trial for the rape of a 14-year-old girl and the murder of her and her family in the town of Al-Mahmudiyah in southern Iraq. Green was a member of the 101st Airborne, just like Rocky. Of course we didn’t ask if he knew Green, so as not to spoil the good time, but the details of the case weighted much of what the young soldier confided.

Rocky explained that when they search houses, the standing order is to eliminate any armed threat on sight. Rocky, during these searches, is on shotgun, which makes him the first one through the door after they kick it in.

“Problem is that every household in the region is allowed one AK-47 by law,” Rocky added. Of course this means Rocky is almost guaranteed to come across trouble. Even worse, that trouble is sometimes a spooked mother or adolescent just protecting their home from what might be the next Steven Green. As Rocky went on, the flashbulb of my imagination popped, and for a second I had the terrible vision of looking down the barrel at a young boy posted with a rifle — almost as long as he is tall — and there’s no time to really decide, just to react; to shoot or be fired upon, to kill or talk your way out. He didn’t say so explicitly, but Rocky’s tone left no doubt that there’d been occasions when the worst scenarios unfolded.

Today, the average U.S. soldier — though grossly underpaid and ill equipped — is many times better trained to deal with the cultural intricacies of the Iraqis than his predecessors with the Vietnamese. The modern soldier knows how to distinguish among Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, and he is well prepared for the various aspects of culture shock he will encounter.

“It’s still only training,” Rocky said. “Nothing really prepares you for all you’re going to see. And I don’t mean combat either. I remember being bivouacked with some Iraqi soldiers. The funny thing is, they all go to the latrine and shit together. They stand in a circle, and one after one they squat, unbuckle their pants and drop a loaf right there, without a break to the conversation. They look right at each other as they do it, too, telling jokes and laughing their asses off. It’s the damnedest thing.” It goes without saying that the next three shots at our table were botched because we were laughing so hard.

As we wrapped up our final game — which again ended on a scratch — Rocky tossed his cue to his friend and thanked us for playing. He caught my eyes from across the table and said with unmistakable sincerity: “It’s because of guys like you that we’re able to get through it over there. Really, you have no idea how much your support means to us.” I have to admit my heart broke a little. No doubt the 101st’s morale was at an all-time low, especially with the disgrace of Steven Green and his cohorts, as well as all the bad publicity the trial solicited. Rocky said the mainstream media pretty much focus only on the negative and hardly ever report all the good the soldiers are doing. For the first time that night his face seemed to lose all charm and animation. It sunk like a ship into the baize.

“I’m afraid that history will blame us for doing wrong,” he said.

“It won’t be on you if they do,” I responded earnestly, but I don’t think he heard me. His friend led him back to the bar for another drink and my pool partner and I decided to rendezvous with the rest of our crew.

 

My concern in this article is not so much focused on Rocky and his fellow soldiers in Iraq — though that’s certainly awful and hazardous enough — but about their future reintegration back to an American public that has become jaded — at best — to their plights. What’s worse is that the danger doesn’t end in Iraq or Afghanistan. All these murky and mortal decisions that our soldiers are put upon to make perhaps can be rationalized in the midst of combat survival, but what happens when they return home and, a year from now, they can’t find a job and the bank is getting ready to foreclose on their house, and all they have is time to mull over the things they’ve done? Who’s going to be there for them then? You? Me?

Given how much money the federal government dumps into defense spending, more money and more resources should be invested into the health and future of the American soldier. Not only for better armor and technology while in service, but also to buffer each and every veteran’s reintegration into society. With so many soldiers serving their third and fourth tours, and so many more joining up because the economy is in the tank, it’s in our best interest to generate new policies and practices. And I don’t just mean job placement, more pay and better health care; I mean reformulated and enhanced psychiatric assistance for all who need it, for as long as they need it. No excessive forms and evaluation procedures — I mean guaranteed help without qualification.

 

When I went to pay my tab, the bartender informed me that there was a $10 minimum on all credit cards. I was $6 short. I thought I might as well treat my new friend Rocky to a drink of his choice. I explained my bar-tab situation to make him feel comfortable requesting one of the pricier mixed drinks. He kept it simple with a Crown and Coke. In a fortuitous final twist to the night, I came back to discover him at the end of the bar talking to who I guessed to be the only Iraqi national for 50 square city blocks. The man’s accent was thick, yet he was soft-spoken. He said something about Iraq, and then pronounced the name of a place I cannot recall. He asked Rocky if he had been there. Rocky nodded and leaned in to speak. The decibels of the music at the bar escalated with the night, so I couldn’t make out what they were saying exactly, but they looked to me just like two guys from the same city who bump into each other in some distant corner of the world and immediately start in about all the girls they know and their favorite shops in the neighborhood.

Not wanting to break their conversation, I put the drink down and silently slid it over. Rocky returned my nod as I headed out to join my friends, who were smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk as they waited for me to settle up. At the glass double-doors, I turned to see the Iraqi lift his right hand and place it warmly on Rocky’s shoulder. I watched in the doorway until the hand came off again and Rocky broke back to his friend, who was by then noticeably drunk.

It was a small, quick gesture, a snapshot in a montage that might air at the end of a CNN armistice special, only I was there and its interpretation was up to me. If glossed by rosier lenses the image could intimate hope and reconciliation for two sundered nations, but one could just as easily gouge out the smiles and fang it with the most bitter and haunting ironies. Sometimes I think the best we can hope for is that both perspectives grow to cancel each other out so we may start anew. After all, nobody’s ever really going to figure out this war.