I look at him. He looks at the grease gun. He calls out: “I NEVER LIKED YOU JOKER. I NEVER THOUGHT YOU WERE FUNNY–”
Bang. I sight down the short metal tube and I watch my bullet enter Cowboy’s left eye. My bullet passes through his eye socket, punches through fluid-filled sinus cavities, through membranes, nerves, arteries, muscle tissue, through the tiny blood vessels that feed three pounds of gray butter-soft high protein meat where brain cells arranged like jewels in a clock hold every thought and memory and dream of one adult male Homo sapiens.
My bullet exits through the occipital bone, knocks out hairy, brain-wet clods of jagged meat, then buries itself in the roots of a tree.
Week ending February 16, 2014
I didn’t bother doing a top search of the week last weekend. There was nothing that stuck out that was really worth posting about. It was mostly the usual suspects.
This week, the top search of the week was moby-dick oil painting. I wrote about the Painting at the Spouter Inn shortly after finishing Moby Dick. The book is a chore, but rewarding to someone willing to plow through it. It boggles me that many of my friends were assigned Moby Dick in middle school – I certainly would not have had the discipline to enjoy it then.
The painting in the Spouter Inn still sticks out to me as the best part of the book. Whoever was searching, I’m not sure if they were looking for more information on that painting or if they were looking for just some random oil painting of Moby Dick.
Here’s another post that’s been sitting on my hard drive that was supposed to get published somewhere else.
Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.
Violence in Iraq has steadily spiraled out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”
But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.
There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’
If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.
That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.
Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and lay out all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.
That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.
A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences – bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.
My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.
The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.
I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.
The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.
Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.
Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgot. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who were now young adults. I wondered if they remembered me, or if they were even still alive.
I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.
And now I’m done. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year long project is over. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.
It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag – a symbolic gesture – to wrestle the attention of a media saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.
I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.
This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth in the name of
God–Amen and so forth.
(One) That me and you will settle this matter together: i.e.,
to be Kings of Kafiristan.
(Two) That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled,
look at any Liquor, nor any Woman, black, white or brown, so
as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.
(Three) That we conduct ourselves with dignity and discretion, and
if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.
Signed by you and me this day.
Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.
Both Gentlemen at Large.
After reading ‘The Man Who Would Be King‘ as part of the End of War Reading List, it was recommended to me by a friend that I watch the 1975 version of the novel starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. I watched it over the weekend and I highly recommend it as both a good adjunct to the End of War Reading List and as a really good movie. It is a re-telling of the Kipling novella, with lots of details added in to fill out the film. Connery and Caine are terrific and there are so many good lessons that could easily be pulled from the movie and taught. It’s amazing how we are over a hundred years past the fictional events of the book/film, but the same prejudices and stereotypes persist.
“Different country, different customs. We musn’t be prejudiced, Peachey.”
What I found particularly interesting is the contract that the two adventurers drew up between them (posted above) and the way it sums up in a nutshell the same contract American soldiers adhere to when they go to Afghanistan as part of the infamous “General Order #1” which prohibits alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, the keeping of pets, and certain types of photography.
It is in fact, when the contract is broken, that Peachey and Daniel’s plan falls apart. So, there’s that.
This is a piece I wrote back in December for another outlet that never got published. It’s been sitting on my hard drive since then and since Iraq: Ten Years Ago ended (and training picked up) I haven’t been able to write as much. So, here it is.
“The Army is a uniformed service where discipline is judged, in part, by the manner in which a soldier wears a prescribed uniform, as well as by the individual’s personal appearance.” – Chapter 1, AR 670-1
The regulation covering things like haircuts, fingernails, and the way soldiers wear their uniforms is being updated for the first time in almost ten years. For the hundreds of Army regulations in circulation, few are referenced more frequently than Army Regulation 670-1: Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. It prescribes – in painstaking detail – exactly how each and every item is to be worn and the manner in which soldiers should present themselves in order to project a professional military appearance.
The regulation is thorough and exact. An example, from the section on male haircuts:
“The hair on top of the head must be neatly groomed. The length and bulk of the hair may not be excessive or present a ragged, unkempt, or extreme appearance. The hair must present a tapered appearance. A tapered appearance is one where…”
And it continues on for another 145 words.
The last revision came before the adoption of the much maligned grayish/greenish/blueish Advanced Combat Uniform which blends in well with your grandmother’s couch. The new revision will include the proper wear and appearance of the ACU as well as other pieces of clothing that have been issued since the last update, when the force was arguably busy fighting two wars. Currently, the wear and appearance of those items are buried in cryptic ALARACT (All Army Activity) messages which are hard to read and even harder to find.
The updated AR 670-1 will be welcomed by non-commissioned officers throughout the Army who have to answer the question daily, “Hey Sergeant, how am I supposed to wear this?”
Besides updating the wardrobe, hints at what to expect have leaked out, and all signs point to more restrictive regulations concerning grooming and behavior standards, which has raised the ire of some who lament the return of a “garrison” Army.
Some of the expected changes include:
-Tattoos cannot be visible above the neck line or extend below the wrist line or hands while wearing Army uniforms
-No eating, drinking, or smoking while walking
-No talking on cell phones while walking
-No gold teeth or “grillz”
-Male soldiers will have to shave their faces, even on weekends when off duty
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fostered an environment where if a potential policy does not immediately impact the ability of the warfighter to do his or her job – win the nation’s wars – then it is dismissed as irrelevant and a distraction to the force. That seems to make sense, and it is a hard argument to counter, especially to the junior sergeants and officers who have shouldered the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those soldiers, by virtue of their wartime service, feel emboldened to decide what is relevant and what is nonsense in terms of “Big Army” policy and its effect on war-fighting.
Without question, training and preparing for the “unforgiving minute” should be the focus of policy and regulation. But to un-categorically dismiss anything that doesn’t have a direct relevance to the guy shooting the enemy presents an unrealistic burden on the force – one that can never be met.
Soldiering is a process, not an end. Discipline is developed – especially among young men and women – through tough standards that are rigidly enforced. Keeping a neat haircut or shaving on the weekends won’t make you shoot straighter. But general discipline over time inculcates pride in the profession of arms, which builds confidence that spills over to other areas, like training.
The popular narrative right now is that of a “wartime” Army that is fantastic at fighting, but is about to shift to a “garrison” Army akin to that of the 1990s that is more concerned with looking good. This narrative is fueled in small part by opinion pieces saying such, but is really getting around through military-themed internet memes and satire blogs that are insanely popular with troops.
This narrative has legs because it idolizes the soldier who has gone to war – which is one of the driving forces to join in the first place – while protecting the soldier from restrictive “garrison policies” when he or she returns home. The narrative assumes a zero sum environment, where a force that concerns itself with tattoos and haircuts cannot simultaneously train as well for war.
The fallacy is that going to war does not necessarily make you good at war. Tough, realistic training prepares you for war. Going to war provides experience. Showing up is good, but as the Army football team demonstrates yearly in the Army-Navy Game, showing up isn’t always good enough.
Interestingly, it was the Army that emerged from the 1990s that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and by many accounts, that Army performed those invasions exceptionally well. It is the following years of counterinsurgency and “surges” whose efficacy is being called into question, those years when we became a “wartime” Army, and those “garrison” standards were shed.
When I spoke with a friend and senior NCO about this, he offered some candid analysis, stating: “They (junior NCOs) aren’t as good as some say they are. They can’t maneuver over complex terrain. They can get in a vehicle, drive to an objective, do something, and then return to the forward operating base and hit the chow hall. The disciplines that made the invasion Army good spilled over into everything we did back then, and that’s why we were so successful.”
On the role of the Army, he continued “Moreover, the Army has a responsibility to think about things other than shooting bad guys. Our appearance and actions in America are how we garner trust from the public. Our persona as a force has to be palatable to most of America to continue to enjoy the relationship that we have now.”
Taking the long view, that “garrison” Army looks pretty darn good. And they could fight, too.
Monday’s post on Budweiser’s “Hero’s Welcome” Super Bowl ad attracted a lot of attention for the blog. If you’re a new reader, welcome.
The post struck a chord as some people found it offensive while others found it charming, and were in fact offended by other people being offended.
The blog was highlighted by Alex Wagner on MSNBC’s ‘Now with Alex‘ and friend of the blog Wes Moore gave me a shout out, which was pretty cool. The conversation quickly moved from the ad to veterans issues, as per veteran advocate SOP.
I also saw that the BBC linked to the blog as well.
Kind of like my infidel posts, this one is popular because it gets at something deeper than what we’re actually seeing. It’s a culture war. And nothing gets America more fired up than a good old fashioned culture war. The Budweiser ad and everything in its orbit fits into this or that person’s narrative of the world, and to challenge it is to challenge that narrative, which pisses people off.
For the thinkers, however, it’s an interesting spot.
I made a note to check out this book by Kipling while I was reading Into the Land of Bones. The plot, two British travelers attempting to be kings in a remote part of Afghanistan, was intriguing.
The book is short, but pretty dry. Work left me tired in the evenings and I could barely get through a couple of pages before falling asleep.
I’m adding it to the list, if only to serve as another reminder to be humble in graveyard of empires. All the guns and gold in the empire might add up to nil.
There is a movie version out there that I hope to see.
The End of War Reading List
Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
The Man Who Would Be King (started after reading about it in Into the Land of Bones) – done (Feb. 3, 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)
The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)
I’m just going to get right into it. I am not a fan of this ad. It makes me angry. I’ve written previously about the recent growth of exploitative, “homecoming” images used as entertainment. This is worse, because it’s not entertainment. It’s an advertisement. Fitting for Budweiser, the “King of Beers” to go bigger than the rest.
An empty airport, two separated souls embracing, an outpouring of joy. Stirring music accompaniment to bring you along if the images weren’t enough. Smiling faces and old people saluting.
This is not how homecomings happen. It is an anomaly. A staged event. A charade.
Mind you, this advertisement appeared in the midst of the biggest football game of the year. A sport whose identity has been interwoven with the military through the spectacle of pre-game military flyovers, salutes to troops, moments of silence, and images of soldiers watching from overseas. To watch American football is to support the military.
Also interwoven, but often brushed aside, is the tragic story of Pat Tillman, the player who left the NFL to enlist in the Army and tragically died when he was shot by members of his own unit. And the strange way that both NFL players and soldiers face traumatic brain injuries from their time spent on the gridiron or the battlefield, and then struggle to readjust to life outside and find good medical care.
Undoubtedly, as the commercial began, the room you were in got quiet and somber as you watched. If it wasn’t quiet, someone aggressively shouted down the room to pay attention – this was important. You watched. When it ended, someone quietly commented how nice that was of Budweiser.
Then the game came back on and no one gave it a second thought. If you happened to be drinking Budweiser, you felt good for doing your part to “support the troops.”
“Everybody supports the troops,” Dime woofs, “support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we’re so fucking PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we’re on everybody’s tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it.” – Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Don’t be fooled. What you saw last night was a beer advertisement. The ultimate aim was to sell more beer. The last thing you saw, after all, was a bright red screen with the Budweiser logo. The hope is that you link “supporting the troops,” a vague, meaningless statement, to drinking Budweiser beer.
Yes, the images we saw were nice. The homecoming that young 1LT Chuck Nadd received undoubtedly felt special to him and his family. And Budweiser and its parent company, Anheuser Busch, have donated millions of dollars to military charities. That is commendable.
That said, this homecoming wasn’t coordinated with pure altruism in mind. If it was, we wouldn’t know about it. It wouldn’t have been filmed and edited. And Budweiser certainly wouldn’t have bought some of the most expensive ad space known to man to showcase it for millions of beer drinking Americans.
What then, was the goal of running that ad last night? Was it to demonstrate how Budweiser beer cares about the military? Can a corporation care at all? Was it to increase awareness of the service and sacrifice of soldiers and their families? Or was the whole thing designed to sell more beer? There was no call to action in the ad, after all. Just a pithy hashtag to “#Salute a Hero.”
Maybe if I was younger or not so involved in this world I would be more forgiving and just accept what I saw as a nice way to honor our troops. As someone pointed out to me, at least it is better than the homecoming many Vietnam veterans received when they came home. Maybe I should lighten up, some might say. It was a nice gesture.
The problem is, it’s not about the homecoming or the images I saw on the screen. It’s about the way those images are being used. I’ve been seeing this same thing over and over since 2001. The image of US service members used for others’ gain. Packaged, edited, and put to music to make you “feel” something. Then the logo for whatever product is being sold.
And you’re not supposed to challenge it because to challenge it is to challenge the “troops.”
I’m not challenging the troops. I’m not challenging 1LT Nadd.
Welcome home, LT.
I’m challenging the way we simply accept anything linked to the troops as gospel. We must support whatever it is that we see on the screen because it was linked to the troops.
This is exploitation at its worse because so few will see it as so. I understand that my sentiment, though shared by many others who serve and have served, is in the extreme minority.
I’d be much more pleased if Budweiser left the military alone and stuck to “WAZZUP” and frogs. If you want to do something for the military, do it quietly, without plastering your logo on the end of it.
Week ending February 2, 2014
The top search of the week was ‘vietnam draftees.’ I actually have no idea which post this search term led to, as I’ve never really written about Vietnam draftees. I’ve written quite a few posts referencing Vietnam though – a war I become more and more interested in as time passes. Growing up, I knew quite a few Vietnam veterans who were friends with my dad. They were young and building their lives. Even then, as a child, I knew them as “my dad’s friend, the Vietnam veteran.” That’s how he was identified. That’s how I – as a child – identified those grown men.
Here are the posts I’ve written that I’ve tagged ‘vietnam’:
Lest there be any confusion, I’m not shutting down the blog. Last week I wrapped up ‘Iraq: Ten Years Ago‘ and I heard from a few people that they were sad that I was stopping the blog. That’s not the case, I’m just not recounting that experience anymore.
For the past year, that was the meat of the blog. The readership grew exponentially as a result and it gave people a reason to come back to the blog every couple of days or so.
To be honest, the Iraq posts really didn’t garner a lot of heavy traffic. My longer, reflective and analytic posts are the ones that make the most waves, and they are actually a lot more satisfying to write. With Iraq over (nothing is over!), I can focus more on those pieces. Going forward, I think I’ll average one or two posts a week. But they’ll be good.
Work has me pretty busy for the next few months, and likely the next year, but I will do my best to keep new stuff coming. I’ve been socking away article ideas for the past year that I just haven’t been able to get to.
Now, I will finally be able to get to that crazy article on how Cloud from Final Fantasy VII suffered from PTSD and committed Stolen Valor.