Trench Friend

I’ve been thumbing through Poetry of the Taliban and of all the poems I’ve read this one stuck with me the most. If you like it, go buy the book.

Trench Friend

May my head and property be sacrificed for you, friend,
O my trench friend.
May my heart’s flesh be sacrificed for you, friend,
O my trench friend.

May I be sacrificed for you – may I be sacrificed for your faith,
You are close in the trench, my faith in you grew stronger,
O my trench friend.

You take on tanks – you go with pride,
You don’t fear the artillery or tanks of the enemy,
O my trench friend.

On the storms of the time – on the floods of the time,
You don’t care about them, may you be as strong as mountains
against them,
O my trench friend.

In the bosom of red flames – in the bosom of storms,
You like them, you have the morals of the butterfly and the sea,
O my trench friend.

In the roar of earthquakes – in the roars of storms,
The echoes of your honor are spread all over,
O my trench friend.

O my brave friend – my dawn’s friend
May your turban not fall, my turban-owning friend,
O my trench friend.

-Bismillah Sahar
May 2000

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Training and the spartan/sybarite dichotomy

“Part of me wants to be hard as nails, the other part of me wants to chiiiiiiiillllllllllllll.”

In the days and weeks leading up to my now delayed Ranger School class, every moment, meal, and quiet nothing took on monumental significance. Driving somewhere on post with a couple of buddies, we discussed the two axes of thought regarding any impending military event, in this case, Ranger School. The spartan in us wanted to do nothing but read the Ranger Handbook, drink water, and train. The sybarite in us wanted to do nothing but go out, party, and soak up every vice allowed in the final moments before disappearing into the woods/mountains/swamps. These two opposing thought patterns exist simultaneously.

The thing that drew many of us to the military in the first place and the infantry specifically was the shot at adventure and the opportunity to be hard. In that hardening process, a deeper appreciation is gained for the simple things in life. An old Army buddy once marveled at the civilian’s freedom to sit down wherever and whenever he pleases, for example.

Imbibing and gorging before a sleep-away camp like Ranger School satisfies the craving to enjoy life now while it is still under control, but sabotages training for the same. Any time some great luxury sits in front of me, it’s hard to resist knowing that when I’m taking a knee on a mountaintop with a shrunken stomach in the near future, I’ll want to slip back in time and dropkick my old self for not eating the freaking pizza. But any thoughts in that food/sleep deprived state aren’t entirely rational and cannot be taken as absolute truth.

What are we training for? This is the question that anyone who trains has to ask. There is a tendency out there (myself included) to think that by virtue of tough training, we’ve bought our permission to enjoy the things that set us back (name your vice). In fairness, I know some people who seem to be able to train hard and party hard all the time. I don’t know how they do it, but I know that I can’t. If I want to achieve something difficult, I have to commit to be all in.

And that’s hard.

 “I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin’ to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That’s you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That’s you tryin’ to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee. You’re a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.”
-Bill, to the Bride (Kill Bill)

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Shaving in Baghdad

From “Old Spooks and Spies”

I’ve always hated shaving in the Army. Or rather, I’ve always hated shaving in the field. There are few things less motivating than waking up when it is 33 degrees out and pulling a cold razor over your face. One thing worse than that is having to follow up by applying thick, light green and loam camouflage to your exposed, raw skin. You thought you pushed out enough camo from the stick to start applying, but alas, you just scraped cold metal aggressively across your nose. Now you are bleeding. Time to ruck up.

Thankfully, we don’t seem to use facial camouflage on a regular basis anymore.

I’ve been shaving with a razor and shaving cream for the past couple of weeks to help get my face used to infantry life again. I normally use an electric razor for convenience. As my face has gotten used to the razor again, it reminded me of how much I can enjoy a good shave the old fashioned way.

I wake up early. Weekdays or weekends, workday or not, I like to get up early to start my day. I’ve always been that way. During my first deployment, I was usually the first one in the platoon to wake up on any given day. Squads would run missions throughout the day and guys were always going to the towers to pull security, but we still managed to keep somewhat of a predictable schedule in terms of going to sleep and waking up. There was no set wake up time unless you had a mission or duty. Given that freedom, most guys would roll out of bed between 0800-1000.

I couldn’t do it. I love to sleep, but I hate the idea of missing the beginning of the day. That time when few are awake and you have a complete blank slate.

I’d roll off of my cot around 0630. I’d put on my uniform and grab my hygiene kit and canteen cup and head over the company water buffalo. This was my favorite part of the day. The majority of the company was asleep. The air was warm but not yet Iraq-hot, and the city was only starting to come alive. From our compound, we could hear the passing traffic and the general buzz of the city.

I’d set my kit up on the water buffalo with a mirror and start to shave. My platoon leader was another early riser and he was usually there too. We’d nod and sometimes exchange a few words, but we mostly kept quiet and enjoyed the experience of enjoying a slow, uninterrupted shave.

After hygiene, I would walk over to the company CP and say good morning to the RTO (he always had the best rumors). Our company first sergeant was a coffee guy and had the XO do a run to the battalion compound every morning to get fresh (as can be) coffee from the cooks. Sometimes I would be lucky and get there just after the morning coffee run and the coffee would be fresh, but more often than not it was whatever was left over from the day before. Tepid, but strong enough to give a caffeine kick before a workout in the makeshift gym.

Short, intense workouts with the same songs for a year on a generation one iPod.

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The Junior Officer Reader – Hesitation Kills

I just finished Jane Blair’s book, Hesitation Kills. I ambitiously set a goal of finishing it within a week and surprisingly met my own goal (it took me about 3 months to finish Nate Fick’s One Bullet Away). This is a testament to aggressive reading on my part and a gripping book on Jane’s. The book is about Jane’s experience as a female marine officer during the initial invasion of Iraq. I always enjoy reading books about that period, because it was so unique. In terms of deployment experience, being there at the beginning of war is different to showing up during the war. It’s the pre-game show, the national anthem, the commentary, and the opening kick-off. And it rarely happens.

I’m not going to review the book, other than to say that it was great and it was especially interesting to read about a female experience in the hyper-masculine world of the marines.

Two things stuck out for me though and are worth mention. Unlike a lot of other books written by officers, Jane spends a lot of time talking about how it felt as a human at war and the agony of being separated from her husband (also a marine, who was serving in Iraq at the same time). Anyone who has deployed and left behind a loved one knows that feeling, and too often in war memoirs it gets left out or glossed over. The second thing that struck me was the authentic care Jane gave to examining her own relationship with the Middle East and the Iraqi people. Lots of authors who write about Iraq as soldiers may make mention of the things they saw and experienced and attempt to explain them. Jane does this without seeming like she had to research it. She knew a lot of this before deploying from her own studies and travel in the region. It was a refreshing and welcome change.

Oh yeah, there was this gem. A Sergeant Major is talking to Jane about how he now feels about men serving with women in combat:

“In the grunt unit I was in before, a lot of the men refused to get their [medical] shots. Many of them made a lot of fuss. It’s strange, but when we got out shots – with the females there right beside the males in line – not a single one of the men complained. It was amazing. It was as if they knew their manhood was at stake, as though the females made them braver. And then out here, I’ve noticed no difference with the females. There hasn’t been a problem. In fact, the females seem to give the men no excuse for backing out or being afraid. They make everything work better; they just balance things out.”

These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once and Eagle (Anton Myrer)

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Poetry of the Taliban: a book for your rucksack

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Poetry of the Taliban is a new book by fellow SOAS alum Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. It is a compilation of poems written by members of the Taliban and posted to their website. I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but if I do go, this will be going with me.

The fact that this book exists says more about the Taliban than you will probably learn from all the intelligence briefs your brain can handle.

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