June 24, 2005

A Second Lieutenant's Grim Commentary From Iraq, Part II

For the second round of our “interview,” my 2nd Lieutenant friend and I had the benefit of an “audience.” He’d copied his entire address book onto his initial responses, so all his friends, family- everyone he was in contact with while stationed in Iraq- got to see our conversation. He explained:

“I find it funny- the reaction I received from my first batch of responses to your questions. People have apparently been wondering these same things (and probably more) but have been unable or unwilling to ask for clarification. This baffles me. One of the good things about being here is that I can shed some light on an otherwise murky situation. So if anyone has any more questions (anything, seriously I am not in a delicate mental state or anything) go ahead and ask.”
It felt good to know that many more people besides me didn’t want to feel manipulated by events any more than we probably already had been. Here's Part 2:
Thanks again for illuminating me. Funny that I should get some serious details about Iraq from you on the same day that figurative shit blows up all over the place back in the States. Namely a thing that’s been absolutely frustrating to me is the inference that so many people make here at home- that any dissent about anything war-related hurts or demoralizes you guys. Help me out with this since I don’t get it- I’m concerned that you’re stuck in an untenable situation, and it’s my fault for saying something about it?

Being labeled a traitor for showing anti-war sentiment, that is absolute garbage. As a real American (meaning someone who actually has read the entire Constitution and someone who takes its defense deadly serious) I support any form of discourse which furthers the public’s enlightenment of any situation. Whether it be abortion, stem cell research, flag buring, the war in Iraq...whatever. I love the fact that I am fighting for a country that allows and encourages that sort of FREEDOM. 3 years ago, in the very place I sit at this moment, people would dissappear for private dissent, let alone public. I relish the fact that people I totally disagree with have the right to speak their minds and disagree with me. That we as citizens have not only the right but the responsibility to question our leaders about the direction they are taking us.

What worries me is that if our best-trained troops are having a hard time (other than, of course, whatever kind of hard time you all may have expected), then it’s gotta be worse than an extremely dangerous situation, like you just said. What I guess I’m not getting is if that’s in any way harmful to you guys. I know this is a 30-year-old (and older) argument too, so I guess no one’s figured it out yet. I figure you’ll tell me if I cross a line, or say “Dammit Keir, what the hell did I tell you about that casual disregard for bullshit?” I know dude, I know. It’s just really, really been smelling bad for a while now, though, you know?

I can’t give my true opinion of what is going on over here because I am an Army Officer which precludes me from enjoying many of the freedoms I defend, however let me make one thing clear...Anti-war sentiment does not derail my morale nor do war hawks bolster my morale or that of my men. When you are where we are, “knee-deep in the shit” as we say, the only thing that matters is accomplishing the mission and getting you and your people home alive. And, sorry to say, when it comes to a lot of the missions that we do here, getting home alive actually becomes number one pretty quick. As the character in Black Hawk Down says, “I think it don’t really matter what I think...when that first bullet flies by your head all that politics goes right out the window.”

That is about as true as it gets. All that really matters in combat is the guy next to you...you’re fighting for him and not much else. If that bursts anyone’s bubble...sorry but it is the truth. So, for those of you who don’t understand what we are doing over here (you aren’t alone, trust me) or who think this whole thing was a blunder... go ahead and say so. It doesn’t bother us as long as you don’t start criticizing us soldiers along with everyone else. The important thing to remember is that a soldier doesn’t get to choose his wars. He simply goes where he’s told and tries to make the best of it. So keep supporting those of us over here doing the hard thing because our elected representatives told us to. But maybe those representatives need a wake up call if they are failing to represent you accurately...that’s the beauty of democracy.

I just read a report that a company called KBR is providing poor quality food to certain units in the field in Iraq. It seems to be the umpteenth example of someone’s poor decision to fight this war on the cheap. Actually, speaking of that, how often have you or your men run into serious problems with equipment- as in not having what you’re supposed to or if any supply issues are a legit gripe or much ado about nothing?

Well first of all as you may know “KBR” stands for Kellog, Brown and Root which is the longest running logistics supplier for our nation’s military in existence. I believe they were supplying troops in WWII. The other interesting thing is that KBR is a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton, which as we all know was led by VP Cheney in the years prior to him taking office. Another interesting thing about KBR is that it recieved a “no bid” contract to provide chow hall services and other logistical support to the Americans in Iraq. The whole thing stinks of old boy, insider shit. However, to answer your real question, the food is pretty damn good here. Decent quality and selection and tastes pretty good too. Overall, the food situation is way better than if the Army was doing the cooking...trust me. Everyone here is glad that they have private contractors providing chow.

You mentioned last time that the nature of the media there is a necessary evil. I don’t want to misinterpret anything so could you elaborate on that a bit? It seems to me that that the embedding process destroys objectivity.

The big thing that the Army controls is the media’s movement within Iraq because it is too dangerous for them to operate outside the green zone without us escorting them. Other than that, we don’t have all that much control but we do shape what they see and subsequently what they report. As for bad news, there is so much of it that it is hard to paint a positive picture of this “quagmire” as Rumsfeld calls it. I really don’t know what you all are getting back home as far as news is concerned but the real answer as far as I see is diversification. Read as much as you can, from reputable news sources with either liberal or conservative bent, independent stuff, blogs, watch documentaries, talk to people who are deployed and you might scratch the surface. Shit, I’m here and I still don’t fully know what is happening.

Well, that is my soapbox rant for the day. When you get on a roll you really lay down some interesting shit, man. Hope all is well and that your band continues to rock. Feel free to use the name I thought up the other day, “Jam Nut Actuator and the Tubeless Regroover.” Those are all things on tanks that make a good name for a funk band. Anyway, take care and have fun at the reunion.

June 22, 2005

A Second Lieutenant's Grim Commentary From Iraq, Part I

An old friend of mine from high school is a 2nd Lieutenant commanding a tank north of Baghdad right now. Back in 12th grade civics class, he took random devils-advocate stances just for the hell of it, arguing for positions totally opposite his own just for the sake of open discourse and to either a) show his opponent how much they hadn’t done their homework (literally or figuratively) or b) educate himself about a viewpoint opposite to his own. Debate vs argument. Discourse vs flameouts.

In regular e-mails to family and friends back home, he solicited questions about anything to do with Iraq. I hadn’t asked him much initially, but I soon became more curious about his opinions on some specific issues, though, because even as someone who thinks he knows things, I still am obviously ignorant about details of a culture and place I’ve never experienced. Plus I knew he would give me the direct approach and tell me I’m full of shit if I said anything stupid—he never failed to do that back in high school.

Many servicemen & women had been writing or emailing from Iraq with their own (often widely varying) thoughts and firsthand experiences ever since the invasion. They also obviously speak to their friends or family when they rotate back home, and those people would then speak with their friends, and on and on. Some had been posting weblogs, too- some liberal, some conservative, some whatever- it ran the gamut like everything else. My “interview” took place over the course of two or three mammoth e-mails, and he had a lot to say.

Every gripe here about the media is either that it’s not reporting “the good things” happening in Iraq and it’s only focusing on the violence, or that it reports exactly what the military tells it to, truth be damned. Either way, people believe we’re getting an incomplete story. How true is that from where you sit?

There isn’t all that much good stuff to report and as you know “if it bleeds it leads,” so go figure. There are some positive stories that we see but compared to body parts raining down on school children they sometimes fail to really take hold. The media is lazy and fairly inaccurate most of the time. We have had some reporters with us and they have screwed up most every story they filed, and not just little stuff but serious misquotes and slanted journalism. Most of us see the media here as a hindrance but understand the necessary evil...we just don’t want to deal with them. Let the bigwigs get their time in the sun.

Is it dangerous everywhere outside the green zone? I know you’re not exactly in Baghdad but any of the urban areas appear hazardous.

My unit’s sector is one of the better areas in the northern part of Iraq. Southern Iraq is pretty squared away but once you get near Baghdad and to the immediate north is when shit gets hairy. We have been very lucky so far concerning casualties, however deadly shit happens multiple times a day. It is a bit like playing craps every time you roll out the gate. After a while you know you’re gonna roll a seven. But that is part of the game, and war so you just keep rolling and hope your streak holds up. To answer directly, everywhere here is dangerous for everyone. Troops, Iraqi army and police, public office holders, kids, shop owners...everyone. Bombs tend not to discriminate so lots of civilians get hurt.

Do you or your men have much experience with the new Iraqi Army? Are they as incompetent and detrimental as they seem? It appears that they’re the same guys Saddam hired- at least if all the torture stories are true.

We work with them all the time and they are coming along. Most were not in Saddam’s orginal Army and if they were they were not higher-ups. Our guys don’t cut and run like some of the stories you have probably read but they do have issues with discipline and basic soldier shit. You would think that with all the people getting killed around them you would not have to nag at them to wear their protective gear. That is not the case. They are getting better though and as their leadership continues to learn and develop the junior guys this Army will turn out OK. It will just take 15-20 years. You have to remember the the US Army was in shambles after Vietnam and took 15-25 years after the all volunteer force to truly be a complete force. We Americans just aren’t a patient bunch nor do we ever apply a historical perspective.

How big of a deal are private security contractors where you are? Do these people really get paid more than you guys, or get better armor or whatever? Are they as arrogant as they seem?

These guys are all right, most of them are pretty cool and they range from cooks to ex-Delta force security guys. They make ungodly sums of money and are outside of the realm of Military bullshit so the real answer is “If I had to come back here again, I would do it as a Contractor.” There are guys here that work with the Iraqi police (cops from home) and hardly do shit that make $120,000 a year. I am totally qualified for that job so it is difficult to see the pay and labor disparity. I don’t hold anything against these people though, because most are just using their skills to make enough money to help their families...also some adrenaline junkie/mercenary types too, but once this shit gets in your blood it is hard to just stop. Their equipment is not better than ours, but they get to choose whatever they want while we have to conform to Army issue.

Have you or your men noticed anything positive at all among Iraqi citizens? I don’t know how often you guys get to interact with them, but do they really have no water or electricity for most of the time? Did they really buy into those elections at all? Do they think anything good will happen?

Well, as for quality of life, this place is a shithole. I call it Tijuana without the booze. Actually it is worse. The water is filthy and in short supply. The electricity never stays on for more than an hour at a time (if you don’t have a generator you’re fucked) and the concept of waste disposal or trash pickup is totally foreign. Sewer systems are almost non-existent and human waste is everywhere. People just throw their trash out on the street and it too is omnipresent. This whole country is one big smelly landfill.

The soldiers all hate it here because the people don’t seem to care about making their own neighborhoods more livable. It is always what can WE give THEM. Personal responsibility is something that seems rare around here and that causes some rifts. I don’t mind helping someone help themselves but if I am the only one doing the heavy lifting then what the FUCK. They are starting to get better but it will be a slow process. You are a history guy...there is a reason that these people have been ruled by outsiders for centuries...they are ripe for colonization. We need to help them get over that and move into the modern world.

My interaction with the Iraqis- Overall, this has been positive when not totally frustrating. They are a friendly people once you engage them. They are generous and like to smile and bullshit. The kids are adorable and love Americans. They come out and chase after your trucks giving you thumbs up and waving...we try to share candy and toys and soccer balls as often as we can. The political system is plagued by corruption (just like ours except they are too young to survive it as easily) and patriotism and nationalism seem secondary to tribal and religious identities. This makes things pretty tough.

The final thing I always notice is FEAR. Everyone is afraid and not too many people are doing anything about it. In America if a car blew up on your street people would be outraged, would organize and fight anyone who jeopardized their kids. It doesn’t work like that here. People have been brutalized for so long that it seems as if they are just accustomed to the violence and feel powerless to stop it. Lastly, they are frustrated that the USA has been unable to solve their problems already. The way they see it, if we can put a man on the moon how come we can’t get the power working? A pretty reasonable question but not a simple one. This frustration undermines our relationships but we do our best to combat it.

From my point of view here it seems like the war falls out of peoples’ consciousness unless there’s a particularly nasty attack. I mean, we had to deal with Michael fucking Jackson again for the last month, and before that it was Terry Schiavo and euthanasia. The only time anyone brings up the war is if they can make it suit whatever agenda they want.

This is a weird war. One unlike any we have fought before and it saddens me to hear that it is not in the forefront of public consciousness. People need to become more engaged and stop worrying about Michael Jackson’s trial. The important thing to remember is that your sons and daughters are being killed and maimed here everyday...the numbers are not waning and BILLIONS of your tax dollars are being spent. If these kinds of expenditures were being made nearby I guarantee you would pay closer attention. I hope that this helps and like I said, questions are good so if anything is bugging you or someone you know just ask. It might take me a bit to respond because my usual email spots have gone away so getting emails out is a lot harder now but I will do my best.

Part 2 is here.

June 21, 2005

Rilo Kiley & Wilco/Roots Double-Header!

Em and I had a great time at the Rilo Kiley show in LA on Sunday (more photos here). We'd never seen them live before and man, for a poppy-pop band those kids are LOUD. The Wiltern had fantastic sound when we saw Wilco there last November and the venue did not disappoint this time either.

It was kind of like an Imperial Rilo Kiley show in that they kept adding band members at every turn. Trumpet players, percussionists, opener Feist, and (I shit you not) Debbie Gibson. Yep, Rilo frontbabe Jenny Lewis announced at the encore that "our friend Deborah" was coming onstage to help them sing one of her songs. Emily recognized it. I'd imagine many girls of a certain age would. I didn't. I'd wager, though, that this is kind of like when Kiss were suddenly hip again in the early '90s, when all those grungy metalheads finally copped to being in the Kiss Army at age 14.

Anyway, the vibe of the show was great. The band clearly relished a homecoming gig in front of their families and friends, and at a banner local venue. They charged through a long set and ended with a ukelele-powered everyone-sing-along version of "Let My Love Open The Door" by some English guy named Townshend. I bought the latest Rilo album last summer but Emily stole it and played it to death. I came around to it once I figured out Lewis' writing cuts sharper than Elvis Costello has in years.

This was the second of a (kind of) double header, since last Tuesday we also went to the Greek to catch Wilco with the Roots opening. Philly's finest played a loose, jammy set that was more like one long song broken up by gratuitous individual solos. I like their songs, but man, the Roots' set was totally derailed by all that soloing. They weren't kidding by inserting bits of "Whole Lotta Love" into the set (Vernon Reid was the axeman)- for a great, um, rap band on record, the Roots veered dangerously close to dinosaur-rock territory. Now, I've never seen them anywhere else, so maybe they thought they should play to the white rock dudes in the audience (even though I thought WIlco fans were all yuppies like me these days). Still, if they had fun, screw what I think. Ahmir Thompson could tell me where to go and I'd still do it.

Wilco came off a multiple-night, DVD-filming stand in their hometown of Chicago just to play a few gigs with the Roots, something Jeff Tweedy claimed he's wanted to do since his days in Uncle Tupelo. Their self-described breezy, "pleasant" California-night set actually was pretty killer at the beginning- the gimmick seemed, for the first chunk of songs, to be alternating them in order from three separate albums: Being There, A Ghost Is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (wilcobase.com has the set).

Tweedy remained mellow throughout, perhaps coasting after the Chicago gigs, but more likely because his family was there. The singer jumped into the front rows during "I'm The Man Who Loves You" to hug his 5-year-old son after "going against every fatherly instinct" he had by using the noisy tune to wake up his sleeping boy. It looked genuine, and, who am I kidding, it probably was. Overall I liked the Wiltern show from November better- it was louder, harder, and (being indoors) had a great video/light show for a backdrop, but like I said, if they wanted to play an easy gig this time, they earned it. Oh, and Nels Kline remains a monstrously amazing guitarist.

I can't hear a damn thing. I know I will go deaf before age 35.

June 19, 2005

Tag- I'm It

In which Matt Welch makes up for being too old to haze my ass at the Nexus, and I lament again that I was too young to be there with he and Mr. Superstar Juror and all them other Legends Of Yore (not that my esteemed contemporaries were slouches- on the contrary). Disadvantages to me because (1) I failed to check Technorati, obviously, and (2) he must have figured out that these surveys are like kryptonite to me, even though I'm not so good at them anymore. Oh, not to mention (3) at this late date I have no one to pass this on to. Crap.


1. The total number of books I own
Uh, it's less than before. I must be the least well-read of anyone holding a BA in English.

2. The last book I bought
Well, technically it's a big coffee-table monster called "The Art Of Modern Rock" and it's all about gig posters. Before that I bought "Mapping Mars" by Oliver Morton, mostly, um, for the cool graphics of what Mars would look like if it had an ocean.

3. The last book I read
Re-read my brother's copy of "The Greco-Persian Wars" by Peter Green. Bryn likes that one slightly more than Green's "Alexander Of Macedon" which is the one I prefer. Green has a no-holds-barred way of writing about classical history that's refreshingly frank and un-stuffy, especially when he's eviscerating other scholars' sloppy assertions.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me
It's late and I'm lazy, so I think I'll make this the Dumbed-Down Deadly Nostalgia Of Youth version (since my 10 year high school reunion is nigh). In no special order:

My copy of "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" that blew my 16-year-old mind. Dogeared and highlighted to death. That was also the copy that Emily read before we went on our first date, to see the Gilliam film version with Depp/Del Toro. She liked it.

A similarly debased copy of Bill Flanagan's "U2 At The End Of The World" (Laugh all you want) in which the author manages to convey the supposed insanity of the Zoo TV tour and the general insanity of any rock tour. It nevertheless was one of my inspirations to write about music.

"Strike Two" by Ron Luciano. As a little-leaguer in 3rd grade I found this umpire's memoirs hilarious, especially his career-spanning feud with O's freakazoid manager Earl Weaver. Worth the price of admission alone for the chapter about baseball in Latin America, "The Dictator Is Always Right".

"Warrior Scarlet" by Rosemary Sutcliff. This might have been one of the historical fiction books I was read as a child that got me interested in actually studying history and geography at a relatively young age. It's fairly mundane stuff, now that I think about it, set in pre-Roman Britain, but that's not the reason it's here. What I remember about this is how it was read to me- during an unusually cold California wintertime in front of a roaring fireplace. My mom read it to my brother, sister, and I (this may have been close to the year my parents separated) after we'd decorated the Christmas tree- she read it to us by the lights on the tree and by the firelight. Hell of a way to engross a kid in a story about grubby peat-diggers who painted themselves blue.

...and finally...Unknown Title/Author: I had this tome about the conquistadors when I was a kid that had three sections- one for Cortes/Mexico, one for Pizarro/Peru, and an introduction explaining the leadup to Iberian craziness in the Americas. The idea was that the newly-Christian Spain had all these illiterate, religiously zealous, maniacally violent soldiers on its hands, and no more Muslims to kill on the peninsula, so off they went to the new world. Cortez is torn several new assholes, and so is the aged Pizarro, not to mention other contemporaneous swashbuckling jerks. The book also spares no niceties for the cannibalism, cultural appropriation, and oppression of the Aztecs, as well as indicating the sheer zonked docility (until it was too late) of the Inca in the face of the brutal Pizarro clan. Anyway, the book was hardcover and was missing its dust jacket, so I remember it as a red cover with a gold conquistador helmet in the center. I have no idea what it was called or who wrote it and it has been lost in the several moves that my mom and stepdad made in the past decade. The historical period it covers is one of my favorites, though, and I miss it greatly.

So there you have it. I may be a competent writer sometimes, but a Titan Of Letters I surely am not.

I feel like I should mention other Real Books that I've read, but people are still gonna snicker since they're things by Rushdie and Ellis and other well-known megalomaniacs. I think I should also be congratulated for eschewing the Thrown In Random Classic like Gatsby or Sound & Fury or whatever. I mean, I love lots of those too, but I couldn't write about them right now and not sound pompously fake (or at worst like a Nick Hornby geek-boy). Oh well. The chain ends here, folks...

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