For Whom the Bell Tolls, pt. 2

sullen soldiers

Yeah, it was good.

Just good.

In their steel helmets, riding in the trucks in the dark toward something that they only knew was an attack, their faces were drawn with each man’s own problem in the dark and the light revealed them as they would not have looked in day, from shame to show it to each other, until the bombardment and the attack would commence, and no man would think about his face.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls, pt. 1

book at funeral for whom the bell tolls cyberpunk

Believe it or not, it took me decades to get to this novel.

I thought it was, good.

Maybe I missed something, but it was just good.

I enjoyed it, but it didn’t do much for me.

Maybe I’m jaded.

Here’s a line that hit, though:

In him, too, was despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers.

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So Kill Them Back!

brown tree in desert

One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is the Bulaq podcast.

We look at new writing from Syria and about the experiences of Syrian refugees, including Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, a book he categorizes not as poetry or prose but as “pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag.”

So Kill Them Back!

The below excerpt from the book Ever Since I Did Not Die struck me, and I’ve added it to my list.

Going back kills you.

A child running from his innocent features kills you, to become a hero.

But heroism ends up killing him.

It kills whatever can grow in a child who is planning to grow up.

There is no hero on that land sown with injustice and war.

There is no hero there except for death, standing victorious as it awaits your flesh.

The spreadout dirt of worms and intermittent wailing fades to silence.

Eventually, you fade too.

No one says your name anymore.

A child sinking in the drowning sea of death kills you.

A child born to be killed kills you.

A child born to kill kills you.

Yearning, love, family, light, age, god, homeland, and sea, kill you.

Earth, paradise, memories of old photos, mourning’s enterouage, happiness as waste, and exile, kill you.

Revolution, women of death, and grandmother’s stories, kill you.

Return kills you.

Going back kills you.

So kill them back.

It’s really worth listening to. The passage starts at about the ~15:00 mark.

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Arabic literature and beyond: Bulaq | بولاق

old photograph of cairo bulaq

I’ve been listening to the Bulaq podcast since episode one. I’m not exactly sure how I found it, although it was probably from the Arabist or Jaddaliya.

Bulaq has become one of my favorite podcasts, despite the fact that I read very little Arabic literature. And most of the Arabic literature I have read came based off of recommendations from the podcast or ArabLit.

While the episodes mostly focus on works of Arabic literature – in Arabic and in translation – I specifically enjoy the commentary and cultural criticism from the episode’s two hosts, Ursula Lindsey and M Lynx Qualey.

In their latest episode (Women in Love and Lust), they discuss the topic of sex in Arabic fiction and poetry over the past 1500 years with editor Selma Dabbagh.

Here, Ursula raises how troublesome it can be just having these converations.

“The topic of Arab women’s sexuality is a kind of cultural minefield in which there is a long history of Western attention to the status of women in the Arab world, and specifically of their sexual freedom which is loaded with all sorts of stereotypes, and really is self-interested and sometimes malicious agendas.”

Women In Love and In Lust | Sowt

Yes. Afghanistan being the most palpable recent example.

The conversation goes on and is related to the topic of imperial feminism. That is, the idea that the defense of women can be (and often is) used as justification for empire or empire-building. It’s an important topic and one that can be shocking if you’ve never heard it before.

We’re all in our own unique information bubbles. It’s good to have things in your information diet that challenges the status quo and might even make you feel a little uncomfortable.

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The Shadow Commander

Young qassem soleimani at an event
The life of the Shadow Commander.

Just finished this after hearing about it on the Angry Planet podcast.

In this gripping account, Arash Azizi examines Soleimani’s life, regional influence and future ambitions. He breaks new ground through interviews with Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who knew Soleimani for years, including his personal driver, the aides who accompanied him to his Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, and his brother. Through Soleimani, Azizi reveals the true nature of Iran’s global ambitions, providing a rare insight into a country whose actions are much talked about but seldom understood.

The Shadow Commander

I listened to the audiobook version. It was a great narrative, telling the story of Soleimani’s life and the military-political machinations of the Middle East over the forty years. The mini-Cold War in the Middle East is such a deep and fascinating subject. There’s so much more we need to know.

I thought this quote from Ryan Crocker that comes towards the end of the book nailed it pretty well:

Over the last several years, it seems that General Suleimani allowed his ego to overcome his judgment. The shadow commander came out of the shadows, holding news conferences and conducting media tours. This time we were waiting. 

Opinion | The Long Battle With Iran – The New York Times

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Today is September 12, 2001

general hayden hands folded

I recently finished General (Ret) Michael Hayden’s book, Playing to the EdgeHe has also been making the rounds on television as well promoting the book and offering his thoughts on the current presidential campaign, so I’ve gotten a lot of Michael Hayden lately. I’ve come to really appreciate what seems to me a very reasonable approach to security, policy, and politics from him. He comes off as extremely thoughtful and a true critical thinker.

Anyway, the book takes the reader through Hayden’s career, the bulk of it during his time as the director of the NSA and CIA. There was a passage where he describes a sign in one of the headquarters buildings (I don’t remember if it was NSA or CIA) that read, simply:

“Today is September 12, 2001.”

It was simple, but striking. If you were an adult on 9/12/2001, it’s hard to overstate how that felt. The sign is designed to stoke the fire that burned in those days and months directly after the September 11th attacks.

I found myself feeling ambivalent about the sign. On one hand, I can see the utility of stoking that fire, especially long after the event when complacency sets in. On the other, is there not some value in moving away from that fire over time? Is an action we may have taken on 9/12/2001 as appropriate as on 9/12/2016?

It’s just one of those things that gets me thinking.

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Taliban Selfie: Taliban Commanders have to send up storyboards, too

taliban iPhone video games suicide

I recently finished reading No Good Men Among the Living, which is a good read for anyone trying to get a better understanding of what the war in Afghanistan looks like through Afghan eyes.

I have no intention of doing a full-on review/reaction. Incidentally, there is a review of the book by Rory Stewart in the latest New York Review of Books. Most of it is behind a paywall, so I didn’t get to it all, but you can see where it is going.

I did pull a couple of quotes though, towards the end of the book, that I thought were interesting.

One Talib explaining to another the motivations behind the American invasion:

The Americans, he explained, invaded because they hated the Afghan way of life.

Sound familiar?

A Talib’s description of American soldiers on patrol:

The soldiers were swaddled in gear – helmets, vests, wires poking out of various pockets. They walked uncomfortably, as if in great pain.

This is my favorite, about a low-level Taliban commander snapping photos of himself after a successful mission with captured gear to send to his superiors in Pakistan. Photos of his exploits will result in being given more money and resources for future operations. This transaction will be instantly recognizable to modern American commanders who routinely send “storyboards” to their higher headquarters of their missions and training. As the modern saying goes, pics or it didn’t happen:

Using his cell phone, Akbar Gul snapped a photo of himself standing triumphantly amid the weapons and sent it Mufti Latif. This was how Taliban commanders now proved their worth; the movement that had once shunned moving images and photography could no longer operate without them. The photographs wound up in the possession of Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and Akbar Gul was soon rewarded with a few thousand dollars.

Somewhat related, there’s a really great article making the rounds by Jen Percy on “Commander Pigeon,” the only known female warlord in Afghanistan.

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“We will never win in Afghanistan…”

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

Major Jim Gant
“American Spartan”

Currently reading “American Spartan.”

Related: The Rains of Castamereand How to Win in Afghanistan.

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Book Review: Plenty of Time When We Get Home

Find the latest information on the book here.
Click here for an NPR story on the book.

I’m taking a quick break from the End of War Reading List to review Kayla William’s new book, Plenty of Time When We Get Home.

I just finished it. I read it in two sittings, the first was 200 straight pages, interrupted only because my flight landed and I had to stop to get off the plane. I’m not the type of person that will slog through 200 pages if it’s boring, so it is to Kayla’s credit for writing a book that flows well and keeps the attention of a picky reader.

I’ve earmarked much of the book and will start going through it below, but I want to say upfront that what makes this book special is its honesty. This book stings. The back jacket says memoir, but to me, this is a love story. A brutally honest, real-life, painful, painful love story.

First thing’s first. The book is good, and I’d recommend it to anyone who read Love My Rifle More Than You, is curious about what it’s like to come home from war and try to build a life, or fans of human drama.

The way I like to do book reviews is provide a brief synopsis, and then go through some of the parts that stuck out to me.

Kayla starts off the book just about where her first book left off, and from page one I felt like I was jumping into the sequel. Her first book examined what it was like to be “young and female” in the United States Army, mostly through the lens of a combat deployment to Iraq in 2003. This book links back to that one through the opening chapter, where her future husband, Brian, is injured in an IED explosion on the ride back to his unit after returning to Iraq after mid-tour leave.

From there, the book follows Kayla home and chronicles her journey through bars and post-deployment checklists during the honeymoon phase of redeployment. Brian and Kayla begin dating and start figuring out what it means to be war veterans in an Army getting ready for the next deployment and a nation at war but not really paying attention. Kayla leaves the Army and Brian is medically retired. The book follows them as they try to establish a life on the outside, discussing in parts; the release of Kayla’s first book and her involvement in the veteran community at large, going back to school, trying to find work and a place to live, her own struggles with adjusting to the civilian world, and starting a family.

The crux of the book, however, is Kayla and Brian’s relationship. Brian’s injury – which she brilliantly describes in calculating detail a lá one of my favorite parts in The Short Timers – significantly affects his ability to transition smoothly to civilian life.

Where Love My Rifle was raw and angry, Plenty of Time is reflective. There is still plenty of ‘shock and awe’ in the book, but written in such a way as not to be gratuitous for its own sake.  Kayla’s writing style feels similar, but not as fiery as Love My Rifle, which I think is a good thing for this book.

Both Brian and Kayla can be terribly frustrating. Brian for his outbursts and Kayla for both dealing with it and sometimes not fully understanding it. Through it all, their love for one another is clear.

If there are any faults in the book, it is in the repetition of a few key lines or ideas almost word-for-word that felt like heavy-handed ways to get a point across. For example, on more than one occasion Kayla discusses war news scrolling on the “little ticker at the bottom of the screen” as a way of demonstrating how divorced from the war the general population is.

Also, I feel like it is worth mentioning that Kayla writes unapologetically about her political leanings in the book. She’s never been one to hide them, and is very up front with her advocacy. Still, the last 1/3 of the book discusses in some detail her and Brian’s work with various political organizations. I mention it only because I know there are some readers who can’t help but get worked up about those types of things.

That out of the way, below are the things that I found particularly interesting. These are just reactions to interesting things in the book, so my apologies if one paragraph doesn’t seem to flow fluidly into the next:

Kayla does a fantastic job capturing how funny Brian can be, as he provides much needed comic relief throughout the book. For all of the faults and setbacks in their relationship and his recovery, he comes across as the guy that you really hope would be your friend. Some examples:

-The first thing he says after having a thick piece of metal shrapnel lodged in his head is “Give me a cigarette.”
-When he kept getting falsely accused of sleeping with another guy’s wife, he decided that if he was going to get accused of it and have to take so much shit for it, he might as well do the deed. So he did.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Brian and Kayla have while they are still in their flirting stage in Iraq. It is a nice, genuine moment, albeit foreboding since the reader knows where the book is headed. When my eyes passed over the words “…plenty of time when we get home” I felt something deeply sad.

Kayla’s great at capturing how little things matter. She often opines at length on the importance of a good commute, being a thrifty spender, and how hard it can be to get in a good workout. She describes the way their crazy dog Kelby wreaks havoc on their attempts to get their lives under control. How can they get their shit together when they have this maniac dog costing them tons of money and making life miserable?

Through the book, it seems incredibly irresponsible to read some of the lines from doctors and military officials in giving advice on how Brian should proceed after receiving his injury. From “just avoid activities that seem dangerous” to “you should just feel lucky to be alive.” It serves as a reminder that in those early years after the wars began, we (as a nation) didn’t really know what we were doing. Things have gotten significantly better since then, but it should serve as a reminder that things progress, and we should be humble in all of our so-called certainties.

Refreshingly, even after over ten years, Kayla hasn’t forgotten how wonderful some of the simple pleasures are upon redeployment. The first part of her book is peppered with references to “hot and unlimited” showers and other similar gems. As time and distance separates the veteran from war-time service, it gets easier and easier to forget those simple things.

Kayla writes an interesting story about repeatedly losing her shit at bars when no one would buy her or her friends drinks after getting back from Iraq because people assumed they weren’t combat veterans, because they were women. And then Kid Rock bought Kayla a beer.

She writes about a guy who should be everyone’s hero. The guy that says confidently that he or she is dealing with PTSD. I’ve met guys like him – the guy that is respected and a good soldier who is not afraid to say when he is hurting. The guy who drops the tough-guy facade and speaks the truth. We need so many more of them.

Kayla manages to capture a great scene depicting one of my favorite things: absurdity. Here, she is describing an accountability formation for soldiers who are assigned to a particular unit, but all in different situations which has them wearing different clothes. As stupid as this is, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read it. It reads like a scene out of Enlisted.

“One day when I went in with him, I was completely astonished at what the formation looked like. Soldiers who had assignments like Brian were there in suits. Others were in BDUs (battle dress uniform-camouflage). Still others were wearing PTs (physical fitness uniforms). Many were on crutches and clearly struggling to stand upright. Some were actually dragging IV stands with them. “What the hell?” I said. “Isn’t this excessive? Can’t they just send the squad leaders by their rooms or something?”

In a small, but very interesting anecdote, Kayla captures how selfish soldiers and veterans can be when she writes about an argument with her mom after she (mom) failed to pay a bill Kayla had trusted her with. When deployed, there’s this feeling that life should revolve around you and everyone should stop what they’re doing at once if you need something. Kayla repeatedly writes about how easy it is to do things when “someone’s not trying to kill you.” When Kayla yells at her mom for missing the bill, her mom turns the tables and tries to guilt Kayla out (which family members are very, very good at). Kayla argues back that it’s “her turn to be crazy” which goes back to the world revolving around the combat veteran. No one else should be allowed to be upset or tired or anything, so goes the thinking, because hey, at least YOU’RE not the one with someone out to kill you.

It’s an interesting area which I don’t think has been explored enough. I also got the feeling that for as honest as Kayla is in this book, there is more behind the relationship with her mother than is revealed here.

The two most powerful parts of the book describe Kayla breaking down, contemplating suicide, and a terrible, alcohol-fueled confrontation she has with Brian. It’s raw and honest. It’s terrifying. The confrontation will make you angry. Angry at both Kayla and Brian for letting things get to that point. But it’s real. And it is an amazing thing to read and it must have been a terribly painful thing to write.

Towards the end of the book, there is a telling scene where Kayla and some other female veterans get together to discuss another book by a female veteran (Hesitation Kills, by Jane Blair). It was interesting to read about a bunch of female vets hating (mostly) on someone else’s experience. They discussed at length, some of the things that annoyed them about Jane’s experiences, like choosing to forego drinking water to spare herself the embarrassment of having to stop and pee, or her belief that maybe as a female (and an officer) she might not have to go to war.

Admittedly, as I read this I started to think that maybe this was just a bunch of girls, hating on another girl, like girls (in popular media) tend to do. As I thought about it, I realized that this “hating” is essentially the same thing that male soldiers do when talking about other military people, especially those who put themselves out there and write a book. The military – male and female – is made up of a bunch of ambitious ‘type A’ personalities, and when one steps up front and says something, especially if he or she puts it down in a book, seemingly seeking recognition, it is very likely that that is going to be challenged, dissected, and attacked.

I enjoyed reading the book. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought getting through it might be a chore. It is very easy to get burned out on military books. Kayla masterfully paints a narrative that is accessible to anyone, who like I said earlier, is interested in human drama. It is incredibly brave to open your life up, warts and all, to a voyeuristic gazing public salivating for details about what goes on behind closed doors. Kayla lays it out and lets us look in and see, and I think anyone who reads this book will be better off for doing so.

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