Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Will Mackin. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, GQThe Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere. His debut story collection, Bring Out the Dog, is available now from Random House.

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saad 2You’ve never been to Iraq. You ain’t Iraqi. What the hell is your problem?

Escape from Baghdad is not a travelogue. It’s not a factual account of the war from the eyes of the victor. It is, as the name suggests, escapism, a fantasy, a depiction of the ‘other’.

 

Sticking up for the losers, eh?

Well it’s very easy to tell heroic stories about winners. Those are things people want to hear, but it’s boring. It doesn’t cover anything new, it becomes formulaic. At the same time, I think a straight up tragedy has little value to a reader, especially if you already know the story. I mean I know that Napoleon lost at Waterloo. I don’t really want to rehash that. If I’m rooting for Napoleon, I want a victory at the end. 

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

 

Bagpipes

The sun is going down as Sergeant Valdez pulls up in the F150 and drops the gate. We offload the ammo and pack it in the back of the MRAP. Fifteen thousand rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for the Iraqis. I try to stack the boxes so they will have the least chance of toppling when the truck is in motion. Tomorrow we will drop off the ammo at the IA compound while out on patrol. I raise the back ramp, lock up the truck, and walk back to the CHU.

“Is everything okay?” Raneo asks as I drop my rifle in the corner.

“No, it isn’t.”

“What happened?”

“What happened? There is no purpose to life, and the Universe is an empty, meaningless wasteland. That’s what happened.”

I’m halfway through reading Cat’s Cradle for about the fourth or fifth time. This is more than likely the source of inspiration for my feigned tantrum, as opposed to any particular or immediate existential dilemma, along with my chronic compulsion to answer every question with a smart-assed remark or to befuddle people with my nonsensical grandiloquence.

“Where?” says Mies. They’re smiling now.

“Everywhere.”

* * *

The interior of Club Rodeo is a mixture of industrial warehouse and country barn. Sawdust on concrete slab, wood beams, murky lighting. A large dance floor takes up the majority of the room. In one corner, there is a small western-wear shop where one can purchase cowboy hats and boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and enormous belt buckles. This exact combination of attire, incidentally, is the uniform for roughly seventy-five percent of the clientele. Catherman hands me a Budweiser, and the two of us sit at the perimeter of the dance floor, behind a wood railing, and survey the crowd. I’m feeling distinctly out of place and underdressed in Oxford, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. The music alternates from country to pop country to vanilla hip-hop. I finish my beer altogether too quickly and step back to the bar.

The bartendress is clad in Daisy Dukes and a plaid shirt knotted above the belly button. She has never heard of Jameson. I order two more Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniels. I drink both shots myself and return to Catherman with the beers. In my absence, four more people have materialized at our table. Gardner is evidently another member of our company; I am still too new to recognize every soldier in the unit. The others are Gardner’s girlfriend and two of her tagalong pals.

Catherman is easy at conversation. He has no trouble moderating small talk around the table, despite the oppressive twangy din. I rely on him to entertain while I thoughtfully measure the precise interval between sips that is necessary to appear pleasant and carefree. Every ten to fifteen minutes I rotate to the bar or restroom. Catherman disappears somewhere, and I start to panic a little. I try to engage one of the girls in conversation.

“So do you live in Killeen?” I yell in her ear.

“No. I’m from Temple,” she looks at me for some sign of recognition.

“I have no idea where that is.”

She suddenly becomes very interested in her drink and turns away. I pretend to be fascinated by the spectacle on the dance floor. About two-dozen people have begun to dance in unison, some convulsive mutation of a square dance and a Broadway musical that is completely foreign to me.

Eventually, Catherman reappears with the third girl, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. He leans in.

“I just got a handjob in the bathroom,” he says.

“Seriously?”

He nods, glancing at girl number three.

Four or five beers later, I drive us back to the barracks and pass out.

It’s taking a considerable amount of effort to fight my natural anti-social impulses and go out drinking every week with the younger guys. My body does not recover as quickly as it did when I was in college. Hangovers are a two-day affair. I suspect I am not as much fun to be around. I feel boring, like I am sucking the cheer out of the room, radiating bad vibes. And any desire to chase women has abandoned me.

The next Saturday, I wake up hung over around thirteen hundred. This time, thankfully, I had the wherewithal to take a cab home. I throw on some clothes and shuffle down to Specialist Lindsey’s room. He comes to the door groggy and disheveled.

“Dude, I left my car at Ernie’s last night. Can you take me to go get it?”

“Yeah. Hang on a minute.” He can’t really turn me down, as I did him the same favor last week.

We’re in the car ten minutes later, on our way to Harker Heights. Lindsey is a chatterbox, so I let him talk and I stare out the window and try to suppress my migraine.

“You want to go to Houston tonight?” he says.

“I’m not sure I would survive. I’m still getting over last night.”

“Aw, come on. I’ll drive.”

“What’s in Houston?”

“These two girls.”

“Okay.”

“I’m trying to fuck one of them, and I need somebody to keep the other one busy.”

“Naturally.”

“They’re kind of big,” Lindsey says. “I’m not saying they’re fat, just curvy, you know?” He fumbles in his pocket and produces his phone, then, completely ignoring the road, scrolls through his photos.

“Here,” he says, handing me the phone. “That’s the one I’m trying to hook up with.”

A husky blonde is gazing up at me from Lindsey’s phone, smiling coyly. It’s a self-taken picture, probably captured for the sole purpose of luring Lindsey to Houston. I suppose she is pretty.

“Okay.”

Lindsey reaches over and taps a button on the phone. Another girl appears, this one with dark brown hair. Her pose, while not identical to the last, is definitely in the same vein. She is thick as well, though not unattractive.

“That’s her friend,” he says.

“I see.”

“She’ll definitely fuck you.”

“Okay.”

“She’s pretty cool, but you might have to put up with some drama.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know, man. She’s just drama sometimes. But she’s a lot of fun, when she’s not talking about her ex or whatever.”

“Okay.”

“So the plan is to get a hotel room and party. Maybe go out to some bars. You in?”

“I don’t know, dude.”

“Come on. I guarantee you get laid.”

“I’m just not feeling Houston tonight. I feel like shit.”

I can’t think of a good reason not to go. I’m racking my brain for a solid excuse, some previous commitment or obligation or something. But I’ve got nothing. I should say yes, but I’m filled with the urge to retreat to my room and order Chinese food.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Raincheck, though.”

“It’s cool. You think Catherman would want to roll?”

“Probably.”

Lindsey drops me off at Ernie’s Bar, and I drive back to the barracks with a guilty, nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something important. I dial Hunan Palace and fall asleep.

In August, my platoon sergeant informs me that I’ve been reassigned to headquarters. After seeing my test scores, the CO and First Sergeant have decided that I am needed in Supply. My protests are ignored. The XO assures me that it is a temporary situation, that I will only be there for a few months, and that I will continue to participate in training exercises. I do not believe him. I abandoned my home in California and my mind-numbing corporate existence to experience something out of the ordinary. I joined to become an elite paratrooper, and now I am a supply clerk in the armpit of Central Texas. If there is some mystical power at work in the cosmos, then it is surely having it’s way with me for cheap thrills.

I report to Sergeant Harris and try to make the best of things. There is a good deal of driving around post, from one warehouse or agency to another, picking up new equipment here, dropping off old equipment there. We fill out an infinite array of forms and collect signatures from various bigshots at battalion, brigade, and division headquarters. The upside to working in Supply is that there is a lot less pointless screaming and running around. The downside is that my soul is rapidly eroding into a festering ruin of dust and desiccation.

If I believed in a soul, that is.

It might be more accurate to say that all the pleasant chemicals at play in my nervous system are going sour, transforming into bile, while the unpleasant chemicals are experiencing a population boom.

Months go by. I continue to dismiss invitations to go out, to socialize, to interact with humanity, until eventually they stop coming. I withdraw. I spend my free time shut up in my room, making periodic food runs to Walmart, where I glare hate bullets at fat Texans and their gallon jugs of maple syrup.

This is me reacting poorly to adverse circumstances.

October arrives. My cousin is getting married in Avalon, New Jersey. Both parents have separately sent emails insisting I wear my Class A uniform to the ceremony. Reluctantly, I pack my uniform into a cheap garment bag and fly to Philadelphia. From there we drive to the shore. The morning of the wedding, I am standing in front of a hotel mirror, trying with difficulty to squeeze into my greens. I suck in the gut I’ve acquired over the last three months of neglect and manage to get the buttons fastened. I have to sit very straight in the pew to avoid discomfort, and I am all too conscious of the looks from other guests. Overt attention makes me uneasy. I am a fraud. I have done little to earn this uniform.

After the wedding, I change into my suit, which is unadorned and much looser in the waist. The reception is festive. I don’t dance. I linger on the patio, smoking, drinking, politely brushing off the mechanical admiration of family acquaintances. I haven’t done anything, I tell them. They express concern for my impending deployment. I tell them there is no danger, unless I am crushed by a pile of cardboard boxes. I drink more.

A small contingent of friends and family proceeds from the reception to a lounge bar down the shore. My father has pizza delivered to the bar, a feat of unmatched brilliance. I endure further awkward gratitude and continue to drown my fraudulence in Jameson. The crowd dwindles. I am swaying as I stand at the bar and sign my tab. The bartender is a weathered woman in her mid to late forties, a divorcee, I surmise, slender, dirty-blonde hair showing streaks of grey. In an embarrassing fit of delusion, I persuade myself that she is attempting to seduce me by intentionally withholding my credit card. I play along, waiting patiently at the bar and smiling moronically every time she looks my way, until we are the only two left in the bar.

“Something I can do for you, hon?” she finally asks.

“I believe you still have my card,” I say stupidly.

“No, I gave it back to you already.”

I reach in my front pocket and feel the slim sheet of plastic.

“Ah,” I say.

I stagger outside and across the street, berating myself unmercifully, a vile and abusive monologue exploding in my head, stumbling up the steps, and expire face down on the floral-patterned sofa in my father’s hotel room.

Back at Hood, I return to my comfortable rut. I drink whiskey alone in a half-assed attempt at self-indulgent martyrdom. But I fail to make a habit of it. I can’t even summon the discipline required to be an alcoholic. I begin to wonder if I might be experiencing depression—not bummed-out, sorry-for-myself depression, but actual medically legitimate, Prozac depression. The Internet tells me the symptoms include fatigue, sleep and appetite problems, loss of joy or interest in social or entertainment activities, and so on. I conclude that I am suffering from Dysthymia, an idea that persists for about an hour or two, until I throw it aside. This is not genuine. This is a sideshow concocted by my chemicals to distract me.

This is merely self pity.

* * *

Funerals have always made me uncomfortable. It is not the whispers or somber tone. Nor is it the tangible proximity of death. It may be the religion. All the talk of faith and transcendence sets me on edge. I am an atheist. I believe that consciousness, what some might perceive as the soul, is nothing more than a complex pattern of electrical signals exchanged between synapses in our brain. When our meat machinery ceases to function, those signals stop firing, and the lights go out. I wish I could believe in a higher form of existence, but there has never been anything to convince me of this. I suppose that is the essence of faith, to trust in something without the need for validation, but it is a quality I lack.

Apart from two grandparents and my father’s eldest sister, I have never lost any family members or close friends, though I’ve seen my share of funerals. There is something disingenuous about the whole procession. Though maybe this is simply my own cynical filter at work. Are we there for the departed? They are gone. They have no further concerns or suffering. Or are we there to quiet the fear in ourselves? To say, look at this: when you are gone, you will be remembered. People will say nice things about you and drop roses on the ground. When I die, I want no talk of God, or for friends or family to sanctify my behavior with idle praise. I hope they will say I tried my best and leave it at that. Have a drink, tell a story, and toss my ashes in the sea.

The memorial service for Sergeant Altamirano is held on September Twentieth at the COB Speicher MWR. Members of Delta Company and Green Platoon speak fondly of their fallen brother, and the chaplain gives a benediction. We stand at attention as the final roll is called. The honor guard fires three volleys, and a solitary trumpet sounds Taps. It is an appropriate and dignified ceremony.

In twos and threes we march forward silently, the entire battalion, to the constant strains of Amazing Grace, and salute the altar where they have placed his rifle and boots and helmet.

There is one thing I do like about funerals, and that is bagpipes. The world needs more bagpipes. Few other sounds carry such bittersweet resonance.

It is twenty hundred, and I am reclining on my bunk, trapped in a curious limbo between agitation and inertia. I should go to the gym to work off all this annoying useless energy. At the same time, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I compromise and step outside the CHU for a smoke. Mies is burning assorted papers in an ammo can, staring at the fire with his arms crossed.

“Want to sing Kumbaya?” he says.

“No.”

“You never want to do anything fun.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” I say, leaning up against the Hesco. “And I don’t know the words.”

We watch the flames for a few minutes. Then I drop my butt in the ammo can and go back inside.

 

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

Memento Mori

Much to my chagrin, my roommates have renewed their fascination with Jersey Shore. Along with Rivera and Morales, they have been watching a string of successive episodes for the last couple of hours. I am not certain why this show evokes such a distinct sense of disgust. Perhaps it is because the cast is paid to do nothing but get drunk and engage in inane, operatic altercations. There is no message or value of any kind, and I am worried that this behavior is indicative of an entire generation. This must be the old man in me emerging. Soon I’ll be shaking my fist and yelling at teenagers to turn down their music and get off my lawn. If I had a lawn. Currently, two of the black-haired, big-breasted girls are sitting in a confessional and bitching about one of the other black-haired, big-breasted girls in their aggravating, nasal Long-Island accents.

“I want to chop both of their heads off,” I say.

“Why?” Rivera asks.

“Because they are annoying and serve no purpose.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want to chop their heads off with a machete. That would be too messy, take too long. I want to do it with a sword, like a katana.”

Rivera is smiling. Morales looks at me with a blank expression. Raneo and Mies aren’t paying attention; they are fixated on the television.

“And not just any katana, but like the best katana ever made,” I continue. “I’ll fly to Japan and meet with the Swordmaster. We’re dressed in those ceremonial robes, and while he’s pounding the steel over the forge, I am meditating with my legs crossed. He hands me the sword in a solemn, ritual manner. We bow to each other. Then I come from out of nowhere, like fall from the sky, and cut their heads off with one swift stroke.”

I pantomime swinging the sword and make a ninja battle noise.

“Shit,” Rivera says.

My dreams are lucid in the desert. Though I still can’t remember them. I have rarely been able to recall my dreams. Normally, I wake up with the awareness of a person or place, or with the sense of an emotional response. I read online that you have to consciously make an effort to remember the contents of your dreams. One website suggests vocalizing your intention to remember and keeping a journal nearby so that you can write everything down the instant you wake up. I try this without success.

I wake with the impression of a woman. I know her in the dream, but awake I am not sure who she is. There is no image, just the inkling of her.

I’ve slept until fourteen hundred. There is nothing going on today, but I still feel like a piece of shit. I start to tidy up my area, folding clothes, sorting dirty laundry. Raneo is packing his duffel bag and calling out each item for Mies to write down. We have until the twentieth to pack our B bags and turn them in to be loaded into the conex before it is sealed and shipped. Nobody is sure if it is going to Kuwait or back to Hood ahead of us. We’re only allowed to keep our ruck, assault pack, and one duffel.

“Boonie cap,” Raneo says.

“Check,” says Mies.

“Gore-Tex and wet weather gear.”

“You know, it might rain in Kuwait,” I say.

“So?”

“So you might need that.”

“We don’t wear wet weather gear.”

“I’m just saying.”

“You know why we don’t wear wet weather gear?” Mies says.

“Because you’re a punk-ass bitch if you do,” I say.

“Close enough. I was going to say because we’re hard.”

“Right. We’re fucking hard,” I say. “And we’re water resistant like mallards. Like angry, belligerent mallards.”

Mies has no reply to this. Raneo keeps packing.

“A mallard is a duck.”

“I know.”

“I thought you would, because you probably shoot them.”

“Yeah.”

I walk to the gym to feel productive. Someone’s dog is running on the treadmill. Everyone seems very entertained. I put in forty-five minutes on the stationary bike, glancing over at the dog every now and then. Every time I see a dog over here, it reminds me of Baron, and I feel a twinge of guilt. The dog is clearly having a great time, but she’s panting heavily and her tongue is distended. I wave at the clerk sitting at the front desk, make a motion with my hand like drinking water, and point at the dog. The clerk just smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. I try again, holding up my water bottle. I point at the water bottle and then point at the dog. The clerk smiles again and nods his head, then goes back to his magazine. Asshole.

I finish up, head back to the CHU, and take a shower. I’m sitting on my bunk when the door flies open and Feakes barges into the room.

“What’s your stance on abortion?” he says.

For a beat, I’m unable to respond. This is not a question you expect to be thrown at you whilst casually checking your email.

“I don’t give a shit.”

“So . . . you’re pro choice?”

“I suppose so.”

Feakes stands motionless for several seconds, by all appearances deep in thought.

“Why do you ask?”

“My brother is doing a life walk and—” he trails off mid sentence, pursing his lips. He turns to go, turns back, then turns to go again, finally deciding on a direction.

* * *

We arrive at Fort Hood in late June 2010. There are six of us from Airborne Holdover, including Catherman, who was in my Basic Training company at Benning. A soldier from Reception Battalion picks us up at the Killeen Airport and drives us to the Copeland Soldier Center to sign in, then to the reception barracks. It’s Thursday evening before a four-day weekend, and we won’t begin in-processing until Tuesday. We drop our gear in our assigned rooms and walk together to the Burger King.

Some of the other guys have friends or relatives in central Texas that they link up with for the weekend, but I spend the four days cloistered in my barracks room. The only excursions I make outside are to the shopette and to the AT&T store in Killeen—a forty-dollar cab ride each way—to replace my phone that was destroyed during a thunderstorm at Benning. I play backgammon on my new phone, repeatedly watch the same eight or nine movies on my portable dvd player, and sleep. My diet consists of the healthiest food I can find at the shopette, primarily pop tarts, pretzels, and heat-lamp chicken sandwiches.

Tuesday morning we begin in-processing: a week-long series of finance and housing briefs, medical screenings, and a variety of mundane paperwork. The end of each day is punctuated by the First Sergeant’s safety brief. It is not brief. He has it honed down to a precise routine, revised and refined, no doubt, over several years of delivery. He puffs out his chest and strides up and down the aisle, pausing deliberately after each corny joke or one-liner. A typical safety brief involves a slew of warnings against bad behavior that most people would consider common sense, but with which many soldiers apparently have difficulty. Don’t drive under the influence. Don’t beat your spouse. Don’t beat your children. Don’t do drugs. Don’t have unprotected sex.

“Wear a vest,” First Sergeant says. “You don’t want that gonaherpesyphilaids.”

This is definitely one facet of the Army that I can do without: being treated like a mentally-retarded child. There is a balding and bespectacled Sergeant First Class who walks the reception barracks nightly, checking doors to make certain they are locked. He finds our door unlocked at least twice.

“What’s wrong with this picture, Specialist?” he snaps at me.

“I don’t know, Sergeant.”

“This door is unsecured. What’s to stop me from coming in here and raping you?”

“Umm.”

He proceeds to relate a disturbing and supposedly recent story about a soldier getting raped in his barracks room, not far from the exact spot on which we are currently standing. Evidently, male-on-male rape is a rampant concern at Fort Hood.

“You make sure this door is secure at all times.”

“Roger, Sergeant.”

Paperwork complete, we spend Friday waiting to be picked up by our respective units. A van arrives around fifteen hundred and shuttles us to Second Brigade headquarters, where we learn we are to be assigned to First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment. At Battalion, five of us are split between the two infantry companies. Catherman and I go to Bravo. The other guys go to Alpha. It’s nearly seventeen hundred before we are standing at parade rest outside the Bravo Company CP. The training room NCOs are not pleased. They were about to go home for the weekend, and now they have two new joes that need sorting out. I explain that we have been sitting around all day, and brigade did not come to get us until late afternoon. But somehow we are still blamed for our late arrival. They tell us we will both be joining second platoon, then drive us to barracks management to receive our housing assignments. First call on Monday, we are told, is zero one hundred hours. Bravo Company is going to the field for a week.

At zero one thirty on Monday morning, I am sorting through a pile of field equipment on loan from Staff Sergeant Dotson, one of the second platoon squad leaders. Due to the fact Catherman and I are newly arrived, we have not made it to the Central Issue Facility to sign for our basic load equipment. I stuff Sergeant Dotson’s gear into a borrowed ruck and line up at the armsroom to check out my weapon. Before long, we’re packing into school buses and bound for Owl Creek Assault Course, a training range on north Fort Hood Reservation.

We set up our hooches in the woods, tying off ponchos to tree limbs to create what limited overhead cover we can. The exercise consists of numerous iterations of team and squad assaults on a fixed fortification, in this case a sandbag bunker on top of a low hill. Our task is to move under cover to the objective and assault up the hill using successive bounding. This means half the team provides suppressive fire while the other half moves forward, leapfrogging towards the target. Our team does a satisfactory job, considering half of us are brand new. I’m struggling the entire time with my k-pot. Sergeant Dotson is one of the few men in the company bigger than I am, and his extra-large helmet keeps slipping forward on my head and blocking my field of vision.

Every night it rains mercilessly. Every morning we wake up in an ocean of mud. And by eleven it is one hundred and fifteen degrees. I change my socks each day, but can’t keep my boots dry.

The company packs up late on Thursday, and we bus back to the CP. Before we can leave for the holiday weekend, we need to clean weapons. Without warning, a handful of NCOs are screaming at us to hurry up. I clean for about fifteen minutes, then a sergeant inspects my weapon and declares its state of cleanliness as dogshit. Then I’m outside getting frantically smoked in the mud—flutter kicks, sandbag pushups, low crawling and rolling in the sludge. Then it’s hurry the fuck up and get back inside and clean your weapon, which becomes progressively more difficult the more mud you have on your hands. Then I’m outside again. This goes on for hours.

It is after one in the morning when I finally get back to my room, every inch of me caked in slime and dirt. I drop my gear in a heap in the corner of the room and strip off by boots. Both feet are bloated and wrinkled, painful to the touch. I am half expecting the skin to just peel off in a single slab. My soles look like the rotting flesh of a cadaver that has been floating in seawater for days. Swollen, corpse-white, nibbled-on by sardines. I take a picture with my phone for posterity.

* * *

September 18th, 2011. I wake abruptly a few minutes after nine. Pressley is standing in the room. He tells me to get dressed quickly and meet behind the TOC for a company formation. As we make our way over from the LSA, he informs me that a soldier died this morning. Once we are formed up, the CO calls us in to a huddle and confirms the report. No one knows the full details yet, but word is that his weapon might have discharged due to a cook-off.

He was a member of Green Platoon from Delta Company. Green Platoon is attached to Bravo for the duration of the deployment. I did not know him personally.

We are advised not to discuss the matter until the family has been notified through proper military channels. The ramp ceremony will be sometime later in the day, so we are on standby for the time being. The company falls back in, and First Sergeant releases us back to our CHUs.

There is nothing. No emotional response that I can detect, though I try to summon it. I tell myself it would be different had we known each other. All I know is this: it is a stupid and senseless waste, further proof of the random tragic folly of the universe. We are one month away from escaping this shithole forever. The insurgents can’t kill us despite their best efforts. And this soldier dies because of an arbitrary mishap. Why him? Why anybody? He had a wife and five children. Why does chance opt to take this man instead of the childless, wifeless, joyless misanthrope?

Millersmith joins me outside the CHU for a cigarette. I guess he wants to talk about it. Millersmith likes to talk. He’s from Arkansas or Missouri, I think. He has some college. His parents are missionaries. He’s going on about what details he has heard from Green Platoon, about how the .50 cal round supposedly went through his vest and traveled up his chest plate and entered his neck. There is no telling at this point what is fact and what is rumor.

“It just sucks, man,” he says.

“It’s a shitty way to die, especially when we’re so close to getting out of here.”

“Yeah. It’s like with the MRAPs, all those corners and points. You’ve seen the bars that stick out on the driver side? If the vehicle rolls over, your face could go right into that, and then you’re done. For a soldier, it’s not right. We’re supposed to—”

“We’re supposed to die in battle,” I finish for him. And he nods.

“After this, I’m going to the chow hall to grab some to-go plates for the mechanics. They’re stuck at the motor pool cleaning blood out of the MRAP. You want to come?” Millersmith says after a pause.

“I’m good.”

“I just went through all this while I was on leave. Did I tell you about my friend?”

“A little, I think. He died in a car crash, right?”

“Leaving my house. That’s one reason I’m not looking forward to going home, seeing all that family again.”

I stub out my cigarette and toss it in the top of the Hesco.

“I gotta shave,” I say.

At dusk, we are lining the rampway of the airfield. The pallbearers march slowly between us, supporting the coffin, as the men and women of First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment raise their arms in salute.

And we watch in silence as the bird carries him away.

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

Random

At fifteen hundred, joes are crowding around the mechanics as they emerge from the LSA and come walking towards the vehicle line. McElroy is already pulling Burks toward his truck. A few guys have got Duarte cornered. We’re all trying to get daily maintenance done quickly. The sooner a mechanic signs off on your MRAP, the sooner you can go back to sitting on your ass. I spot Jurek and hop down from my truck. Rivera and I get to him at the same time.

“I need you to do me a big favor.”

“What’s that?” Jurek has a wary look on his face.

“I’ve got to shit like nobody’s fucking business,” I say. “I need you to give me one of these so I can get out of here.” And I make an exaggerated sign of the cross in the air.

“You checked everything?”

“Fluids are good. My shit is smooth pimpin’.”

“It’s like this, son,” Rivera says, turning his patrol cap around backwards.

“No problems?”

“None.”

“Okay, you’re good.”

“You are a fantastic human being.”

I lock up the truck and head back to the CHU. In the room, Mies is playing Age of Empires with his gigantic headphones on. Raneo is on myyearbook.com, trolling for random chicks again. I swiftly drop my gear, change my shirt, and grab a pack of baby wipes.

“Gentlemen,” I say grandly, “‘Tis a far better poop that I poop than I have ever pooped. ‘Tis a far better latrine that I go to than I have ever known.”

In reality, our latrine is horrendous. The stalls are so cramped my knees butt up against the door. I’ve had digestive issues for the last few days, which is strange because I haven’t altered my diet. Probably some bug going around, or one of the cooks didn’t wash his hands properly.

Our operational tempo has been slowing down lately as we prepare to leave for Kuwait in a about a month and a half. People are starting to cycle through R&R, which has caused some grumbling as not everyone has been granted leave. Because I am childless and unmarried, I will not be getting leave. I could honestly care less. I imagine it would be harder to come back here after two weeks relaxing in California.

The Army screws everybody in equal proportion. And while being a soldier is akin to being an indentured servant, it liberates you from making pretty much any decision. With the right frame of mind, this can lead to a considerably Zen existence. You don’t have much to worry about because you have no control over where you go or what you do.

The grumbling is a bit greedy, in my opinion. We have no right to complain about anything. Soldiers and Marines in every previous war have had it far, far worse—the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, the First Marine Division at Guadalcanal, any of the fighting men humping through the jungles of Vietnam. We have air conditioning and hot chow. We have the goddamn Internet. But suffering is a relative experience, I suppose.

* * *

Failure is an unusual sensation. Today it feels like a hard bleacher seat and a knot in my stomach. It smells like a sticky-hot Georgia morning, looks like a charcoal thunderhead roiling on the horizon past those monolithic jump towers.

I look down and realize I’ve been rubbing my hands together compulsively. I sit on them to make myself stop. There are about fifty of us in the bleachers now. Most are staring at the ground or shaking their heads in disbelief. Sergeant Airborne strides up and barks at us.

“Hey, you know how many times I’ve fucked something up in the Army?” he says. “Plenty. There ain’t a soldier here who hasn’t fucked something up at some point in their career. Not one NCO. Not one officer. Get over it.”

His words aren’t comforting. We’re here because we were failed on our PT test, many would claim unjustly. Almost everyone in the stands is muttering some complaint, mainly that standard pushups and sit-ups were intentionally not counted. This is allegedly how the Black Hats trim the numbers in the class. We are all about to be dropped from Jump School.

“The CO is going to talk to you,” Sergeant Airborne says. “Stand fast.”

After a couple of minutes, the Battalion Commander arrives. He briefs us on how we will be out-processed, and he gives us a pep talk. There is a note of sympathy in his voice, but I wonder how many times he has given this speech. For him it is just another procedure: one more point on the Airborne School agenda to be crossed off. For many of us—for me—it’s the death of an ambition.

I won’t say dream. That would be melodramatic.

“How many of you think you were graded unfairly?” the Colonel asks. A few people raise their hands. “Does anyone want to appeal?” Only one guy has his hand up now. The Colonel instructs the soldier to see him afterwards, and then walks off to confer with some other cadre members. We are formed up and marched off the field.

The muttering continues. This will last for days. Sour grapes. Cries of foul play—this is, after all, how the Army screws you; who needs jump wings anyways?

I refuse to go to that place. I have never been a victim. To think along those lines makes the whole experience seem trivial and arbitrary. Crying about it solves nothing. I will not bitch. I will not moan. I will look inward for the problem and fix it. And I will come back for those wings. But for now I’m left with that knot in my stomach and too much time to think about it.

I wanted to step up to that door and jump out into nothing. I wanted to feel the rush of the slipstream and the snap-tug of the chute as it opens. I wanted to fall through the sky amidst that rain of canopies. I wanted to be a paratrooper.

For now, it is beyond my reach. So it goes.

It is early June 2010. Fort Benning. The enlisted Army personnel who are straight out of basic training, like me, are all reassigned to the Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Infantry Regiment, commonly referred to as Airborne Holdover. The Black Hats don’t waste any time. We are marched directly from the PT field to the barracks, where we are instructed to pack up all our gear, turn in our Airborne-issued equipment, and move out to the HHC barracks. I suppose they don’t want us hanging around the remaining jump school recruits. It might affect morale.

Holdover is half labor camp and half summer camp. We have formations every morning, where most of the soldiers are selected for various details: mowing lawns, trash cleanup, the occasional loan-out detail to a civilian-run Army program, and Jump detail. Those who aren’t on a detail, or who finish early, usually hang out in the dayroom, watching movies or playing foosball or ping-pong. As long as you show up for formation and don’t ditch out on details, you’re free to do whatever you want. It takes a little getting used to after four months confined to a high-stress training environment where you can barely use the latrine without permission. But I grow into it. I wind up spending most of my free time walking the mile or so to the movie theater and library.

Every week, they post the new list of assignments on the bulletin board in the dayroom—names and duty stations. My name isn’t on the list the first week, which means I’m stuck here for at least one more.

For the infantrymen, this is our first extended interaction with soldiers from the support MOSs—non-combat soldiers. We call them POGs, perhaps unfairly. We start hearing horror stories about the limbo that is Airborne Holdover. Some have been recycled repetitively. Others have been stranded en route to their new post. One guy I talk to, a supply clerk, has been here for over two months, just waiting for a duty assignment. I’ve been contenting myself with the thought that my original, pre-Airborne assignment orders would stand. Those have me headed for Germany, an acceptable consolation prize given the circumstances. But the information I am piecing together casts severe doubt on that possibility. We are “needs of the Army” now. We go where they tell us. I start to imagine a huge, ludicrously-complex computer system that extrapolates the myriad openings across the global military commands and fills those slots accordingly based on the available candidates. My future now relies on some incomprehensible mathematical algorithm, and sheer luck.

I get picked for Jump detail one morning and sent to the flight line. The airfield at the Basic Airborne School consists of a wide runway and a few pre-fab aluminum buildings. The interior of one of these buildings is lined with big wooden benches where all the airborne recruits sit in their parachute rigs and wait to board the C-17. Our job is to wait outside this building, wearing reflective vests and earmuffs, and to offload the spent harnesses from the plane when it lands. We run up behind the plane as soon as it touches down and scoop all the lines into a big plastic bin, then run that bin over to the riggers’ shack so they can repack the chutes. This may be the closest I will ever get to jumping out of an airplane.

After lunch, one of the black hats stomps outside and looks hard at the four of us sitting along the edge of the tarmac.

“Give me one,” he says.

I follow him inside, and he hands me a cardboard box.

“I need you to hand these out,” he says.

Inside the box are several hundred sets of jump wings, black enamel still glossy, each wrapped in its own little plastic sleeve. I stifle my initial reflex, which is to throw the box in Sergeant Airborne’s face and tell him to go fuck himself. He mistakes the look of revulsion on my face for confusion.

“Just go up the line and hand one out to each person,” he says.

“Roger.”

As I work my way up the bench line, handing a set of wings to each soldier, I’m trying to remember a time when I’ve choked this hard on my own pride. This is a slap in the face after getting kicked in the balls.

When we get back to the barracks, the new assignment list is up. I wait until the few people crowding around the bulletin board have dispersed. Then I scan the list for my name. It’s there. I slide my finger over to the duty assignment column. It reads Fort Hood.

* * *

Raneo, Mies, and Craddick are all huddled around the laptop in our room. They’ve discovered a website that allows you to video chat with random girls around the world, so for the last week or so they have been online nonstop, attempting to see as many indiscriminate breasts as possible. This new hobby tends to draw a crowd, and on most nights there will be as many as six or seven guys from our platoon in the room, all swarming around the computer. It can get rowdy—cheering, raucous laughter, dudes shouting, “let me see them nips”—but I don’t mind. It has, for the time being, distracted my roommates from their previous pastimes, which have included watching marathons of Jersey Shore and pestering me to tell them ghost stories.

The ghost story thing started one night when, as we were going to sleep, Raneo and Mies began repeatedly saying goodnight like a couple of third graders at a slumber party. Curmudgeon that I am, I said, “Are we going to start telling ghost stories now?” with all the grumpy tone in my voice I thought necessary to convey the sarcasm behind this suggestion. I immediately realized my mistake.

“Yeah, that’s happening now,” said Mies.

I googled “ghost stories” and found a website containing such prosaic titles as “Axe Murder Hollow”, “Death Waltz”, and “Don’t Turn on the Light,” and for a week running I read them a story every night before bed, until they became obsessed with random video chat.

Tonight they’re hitting on an eighteen-year-old, quasi-goth girl from Australia. She’s got a lip ring, a tongue stud, and has dyed her hair black. She’s a bit on the heavy side and seems enamored of the attention she is receiving from this trio of American soldiers, as offensive as they are. They’re shouting every stereotypical catch phrase imaginable involving kangaroos, dingoes, shrimps and barbies in the most horrific imitation of an Australian accent I’ve ever heard. Every third or fourth question uttered is aimed at convincing her to take her top off or move the webcam around so they can see her butt.
To these requests she keeps replying, “calm your farm,” which sounds like “com ya fom” and which, from the context, I gather means chill out. Mies begins saying this back to her continually.

McElroy enters the CHU, and Raneo grabs him by the shoulders and positions him in front of the camera.

“This is Buford,” Raneo says. “He’s our platoon mascot.”

“No, it’s Gilbert,” says Mies.

“Isn’t he cute?”

The Aussie lets loose an extended, multi-tonal “awwww.” I assume this is because McElroy bears a striking resemblance to a ten year old. They push McElroy aside and resume their hooting.

My roommates, like the majority of the company, are over a decade younger than I am. The generation gap is obvious to me, if not to them. Raneo is twenty-two, the “pretty boy” of the platoon, perpetually shirtless. Mies is twenty, a Midwestern redneck, racist, obnoxious, yet somehow endearing.

“On a real note,” Mies says to the internet girl, “why don’t you take your shirt off?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“Calm your farm.”

“We could die tomorrow. You might be the last woman we ever see.”

I find it amazing that she hasn’t disconnected them yet. I’m sitting on my bed in the corner, out of camera shot, trying hard to contain my laughter and making fun of Mies whenever he says something idiotic.

“Don’t ruin this for me, Groh!” When he is not doing his appalling impersonation of an Australian accent, Mies is using an extra-heavy southern drawl.

“So you’re from Indiana, right Mies?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Then why do you have a giant Confederate flag?”

He sighs. “I don’t want to have that conversation right now.”

“Then you’re aware that Indiana was not a part of the Confederacy.”

“Northern raised, Southern ways. You ever heard that?”

“No, actually.”

They are on with her for hours, persistent in their attempts to get her naked. At one point, a Blackhawk flies directly overhead, causing the whole room to shake. Craddick and Raneo both jump up and grab their weapons, feigning some emergency for the Australian girl’s benefit. Apparently, she buys it.

I leave to go to the gym. When I get back an hour later, Mies is alone in the room.

“Want to see something?” he says. He proceeds to show me a series of still shots from the webcam of the Australian girl stripping and then masturbating, both manually and electrically assisted. Mies leans back in the chair and gives me a crooked grin. All I can do is shake my head.

The Internet is our lifeline. For most of us, growing up in the Information Age, it is as much a necessity as any other form of sustenance. I am developing an unhealthy Facebook habit. It is really my only connection to friends back home, as I am terrible at correspondence. I rarely pick up the phone to call a friend or family member just to see how they are doing, unless I have something specific to say. And I rarely have anything specific to say. I don’t even use Facebook to contact people directly. I usually just browse people’s status updates to find out what is going on in the real world. Every now and then I’ll post a random comment, normally a funny quote or some tongue-in-cheek nugget of information about what I’ve been up to.

These posts typically float without any comments from my friends list. This is a peculiar form of rejection I never imagined I would experience. Who knew my self-esteem was so reliant on digital validation? Receiving no response to a status update is like making a comment at a party that is completely ignored. Your audience looks away to avoid any awkwardness, takes a sip of wine to appear busy, and a nauseating surge of embarrassment rises up from your gut. You want to run out the door and shame-vomit in the bushes. This happens to me every time I feel inclined to update my Facebook status. I’ll post something I think is noteworthy or thought-provoking or just plain funny, and it’s virtual crickets. Meanwhile, some other guy gets fourteen unique comments on a post about a sandwich he ate.

The truth is it’s me. Facebook is a façade. It’s a showcase for smiles and congratulations and baby pictures. It’s a conduit for goodwill and happiness, or the semblance of it, or the outward display of it at least. Nobody likes a bummer. If you aren’t smiling and domesticated and tasting wine and attending engagement parties and dropping the odd liberal tidbit and smiling and running a 10k and posting compelling YouTube videos and photos of your trip to Costa Rica and the baked salmon you cooked for dinner . . . if you aren’t smiling smiling smiling, you are the pariah. There is no room for awkwardness or loneliness or sadness in the hip new age. To acknowledge the existence of these diseases is to allow the possibility of affliction.

The best thing to do, when you’re not having fun at the party, is to leave. Cancel the Facebook account. Put an effort into correspondence. Call your friends on the telephone. Fawn over their babies. Make sure to tell them how cute the babies are. Invite them over for board games and feed them cheese. Plan and execute elaborate weekend excursions, double dates, karaoke. Saturate yourself with their smiles and maybe it will catch.

Things are starting to wind down, though we’ve only been in theater four months. We have fewer security missions each week. A few days ago, we drove to a hospital and an orphanage to hand out back-to-school supplies to kids. The focus now is on our removal to Kuwait. There is talk of being home by Christmas. People’s attention is now drawn to what comes next—new assignments, staying in or getting out. My reenlistment window is approaching. The NCOs recently passed around a spreadsheet on which we were required to list our top three choices for reassignment. I listed every possible airborne duty station. But I’ve pretty much decided that I’m done with the Army, though I’ve still got a year remaining after the deployment. I need to figure out what I’m going to do with myself and how I’m going to be able to reoccupy my house. I need to figure out how I’m going to reintegrate with society.

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

Gibberish

Tikrit looks about the same from space as it does on the ground: dirty and desolate. I’ve been staring at our little icon on the Blue Force Tracker. It hasn’t moved in an hour and a half. Yet another day spent idling in the truck while the transition team meets with their Iraqi counterparts.

The radio beeps:

“Blue four, Blue four golf.”

We’re not allowed “Hollywood call signs” any more, so we’ve been forced to use our platoon’s color designator instead of Punisher, even on our own frequency.

“Blue four, go ahead.”

“I’ve got a FIPR from Red’s platoon sergeant. He wants to know how long we’re going to be here.”

“Roger. Let him know approximately two, two and a half hours.”

I had been holding out hope that it might be an early day. I bend my microphone down to my mouth.

“Fuuuuuck.”

“Yeah,” Pressley says.

First platoon is at another Iraqi FOB just on the other side of Tampa. Their little blue icons have been equally stationary on the satellite map. The grayscale photo reminds me of those thermal camera feeds of smart-bomb explosions they use to play over and over again on CNN during the first Gulf War. I keep hoping to see a white-hot flash on the screen, if only to break up the monotony. But even if we did blow up a building, it wouldn’t show on the monitor. It’s a static photo, not a live feed.

I’m working on about two hours of sleep, and I’ve been on mission or at a range every day for the past two weeks. Exhaustion is beginning to catch up with me, but I push it aside. However rough you think you’ve got it, there’s somebody else who’s got it worse. I think maybe out of everyone in the company, the mechanics have pulled the shortest straw. With all the maintenance and repairs on our hand-me-down vehicles, they seem to be working nearly round the clock. We had to swap out one of the rear tires on my MRAP the other day. It took us almost three hours, and that is one out of two dozen vehicles.

My ass is sore bordering on numb. I’ve been shifting positions in the seat every twenty to thirty seconds, but it’s no good. Since we arrived, there has not been a time when some part or other of my body was not damaged. The skin on my hands is gradually being flayed away through various mishaps. I acquired two gaping stigmata sores—one on each hand—from the pull-up bars in our outdoor gym. These are just healing. A knuckle on my left hand was sliced open when I removed the air filter for maintenance, and another on my right hand lost all the skin when it was pinched between a three-hundred-pound tire and the wheel well of the MRAP. On my right elbow is a burn blister caused by a scalding machinegun shell that found its way down my sleeve. And there is some kind of mild rash on my calves that I am hoping does not turn out to be a staph infection.

At this point, I’ve abandoned whatever misgivings I had and I’m smoking inside the cab of the truck, ashing in a spare water bottle. As they didn’t have my brand at the PX, I’m down to ultra-lights, and there is not enough nicotine. So I’m smoking more. If Iraq weren’t a dry zone, I’d probably be drinking myself silly as well. The official word from Command is that alcohol is off limits because its consumption is offensive to Muslim beliefs, but I’m pretty sure the true motivation behind the policy is to prevent a great deal of stupidity. This level of tedium would send a Mormon on a bender.

That new Cee Lo song is stuck in my head on a continuous loop, but I don’t know the lyrics. So my brain has been inventing a stream of gibberish to fill out the tune. It’s agonizing, but it’s also the only thing preventing me from passing out. It’s been said that war, for a soldier, consists of interminable stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. I’m beginning to think the boredom may prove far more harmful to my mental health than any intense combat experience.

I shift around again, trying to prop my foot up on the center console, and light another cigarette.

* * *

The various components of the toilet tank are spread out around me on the tile. For months, a persistent high-pitched whine has issued from my downstairs bathroom, caused by some pinhole leak in the tank or bowl that I’ve been unable to locate. My stopgap solution was to simply shut off the water valve. But at last, whether compelled by impulse or restlessness, I have resolved to fix the problem.

Baron’s head appears around the edge of the doorframe. He croons one of his low, guttural phrases that sound like Chewbacca.

“What’s up, dude?”

He pads into the bathroom and sniffs around the toilet parts on the floor, then presses his nose against my leg. I give him a good scratch behind the ears. He will usually take this opportunity to roll over on his back, the signal that I am supposed to rub his belly, but instead he trots back out of the bathroom. I hear a flump from the living room as he settles into his spot on the couch.

I heard or read somewhere that dogs are sensitive to their owners’ emotional states, even more so than people in some cases. I am worried that he might be reacting to my lethargy. Normally, he is obnoxiously energetic. I make a mental note to take him for a run later.

It’s September 2009, and I’ve been unemployed for nearly five months, moping about the house listlessly. The year began promising. Things were going well at work, despite the recession. After a frustrating year of searching and haggling and lengthy paperwork preparation, I was finally in escrow on a house and scheduled to move in at the end of January. On New Year’s Eve, I met a beautiful and charming woman, a friend of a friend. We hit it off, and I summoned the fortitude to ask for her phone number. I had high hopes.

We went on a few dates, and I gave it my best effort. I can be charming when I want to be. It appeared she wasn’t convinced. I have always been fairly clumsy where romance is concerned. When it comes to hooking up with a complete stranger in a bar or club, I seem to have no reservations. But someone with whom I might actually forge a meaningful relationship, someone who I might actually care about . . . there is always this intangible barrier in front of me. The gulf between intimacy and resignation becomes insurmountable.

In any case, it ended. She called me up—I was sitting on the floor of my mother’s foyer, still not completely moved in to the new house, attempting to assemble a new vacuum cleaner—and she explained that, while I was perfectly nice and funny and so on, she was looking for a long-term thing and did not see it working out. I told her I was disappointed, but that I understood and appreciated her straightforwardness. I was disappointed, though mainly with myself and my apparent inability to connect with anyone. I had no particularly strong feelings toward her. But it felt like another failure, another opportunity I’d let slip away through inaction and ineptitude.

I settled into the house. Weekends were spent at Target and Home Depot, an endless list of homemaking equipment to purchase and install.

Sometime in February or March, I found myself having dinner with Jennifer, my college girlfriend. I don’t remember quite how it came about, but she had called me. She was in town and wanted to catch up. We met at a restaurant in Laguna Beach and chatted awkwardly over pretentious California cuisine. Jenn talked about graduate school at Wharton, about living and working in London. She talked about the man she had been engaged to marry until the wedding was called off. She was as cheerful and animated as ever. I talked about my house and my dog and my parents’ divorce. She asked about my love life, and I described the sporadic and half-hearted dating that had filled the years since we had last seen each other.

Sitting at the table, I was seized by a wave of depressive nostalgia. I began to wonder where all my joy and energy and enthusiasm for the future had gone. Somewhere along the way I had lost it, but I couldn’t figure out when or why. I was just the husk of my younger self. Our dialogue underlined the growing realization that my significance in the lives of the people I cared about was steadily dwindling. I was stuck on idle, somehow swallowed up by a discontent that came from I don’t know where.

We parted with a long hug in the street outside, and I got in my car feeling strangely detached. I took PCH to Broadway and headed north to the toll road. About five minutes into the canyon, my phone rang. It was Jenn.

“It’s illegal for me to talk to you right now,” I answered. I didn’t know where this sudden gust of rudeness came from, but I immediately regretted it.

“I’m sorry.”

“What’s up, Jenn?”

“I wanted you to know how much you mean to me, and how grateful I am that you were there with me . . .” she started to say.

I didn’t want to hear this now, driving through the canyon in the dark. It was something she meant to say to me in person but hadn’t.

Jenn and I met on a fraternity beer bus to the Rose Bowl for the UCLA/Cal game in 1999. I was sitting in the back, still hung over from the night before, and spotted her across the rows of vinyl seatbacks. She was gorgeous. I couldn’t stop staring. She noticed. At some point, she sat down near me and we wound up talking. We ran into each other again at half time. It turned out we had mutual friends, and those friends subsequently conspired to play matchmaker. We were together for the remainder of college, and I was deeply in love. We were both goofballs. I could spend hours just being silly with her. I remember coming home after a summer abroad in England and meeting her at the house she was rooming at for the term. I was so overcome with excitement that my hands were shaking. My pulse must have shot up by eighty. I can’t recall ever feeling anything that strongly since. I think I was happy.

The latter half of our time together was overshadowed by tragedy. Jenn’s father was dying of brain and lung cancer. It was gut wrenching to stand by and watch someone who was by nature so intensely and effortlessly happy endure such excruciating sadness. Hers was an irretrievable loss, and I had nothing to give her worth a damn. Now she was thanking me, merely for having been present to witness her sorrow.

It sounded like goodbye.

“I know,” I said.

In early May, I came to work one day to find the office crowded with team leaders and managers from several other branches in the Southern California area. Our regional manager and his boss were there, and they had set up shop in the conference room. At first, this didn’t faze me. Our branch was somewhat centrally located, and they were frequently holding meetings there. I set to work reviewing my team’s inventory and checking on the status of yesterday’s workload. But as the morning crept on, I began to notice the tense mood in the office. The biggest indicator was that Julie, my boss, who was normally bouncing off the walls with energy, was oddly subdued. She hadn’t said a word all morning. The other managers were being called discreetly one by one into the conference room.

At lunchtime, I drove home to let the dog out to piss. And the thought suddenly struck me that I was about to be laid off. When I returned to the office, they called me into the conference room. It was purely a financial decision, corporate opting to flatten out the management hierarchy, no reflection on work performance, they explained. The recession was affecting everybody. They outlined the severance package. With my vacation time, it added up to about ten grand. Plus, the company was paying for the services of a career-counseling firm. My official end date would be in two weeks, but I was allowed to take that time to begin the new job search.

I walked out of there feeling strangely bemused. I went back to my desk and kept working, not knowing what else to do. After a while, we gathered everyone in Julie’s office and broke the news. The shock and disappointment from my team was comforting. It was nice to know I wasn’t superfluous.

I went home and fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The next day, I slept in, watched TV, ate a horrendous amount of junk food, and fell asleep on the couch again. The rest of May followed the same pattern.

I knew I didn’t want to work in insurance anymore. Past that, I had no clue. I started tossing around ideas: grant writer, video-game designer, science-fiction novelist. In the back of my head, the idea of joining the military was lingering vaguely. It was something I had always wanted to try but that seemed unrealistic, especially now at age thirty.

In June, I finally got around to scheduling an appointment with the career counselor. He was helpful in getting the resume sharpened up and my networking skills polished. I started blanketing the market with my resume, but June and July slipped by and I didn’t receive a single reply. A bit humbled, I resorted to applying for insurance positions, but still failed to get any response. Admittedly, my attempts were less than enthusiastic. I wasn’t made for the corporate world, and the notion of dress shirts and cubicles, of struggling up the ladder again just to cling to a lifestyle that had lost appeal, was miserable.

I left for Australia in mid August, a trip I had booked and paid for prior to losing my job. I spent two weeks camping in the outback, then returned in early September to the full realization that if I did not find a job soon, I would lose my house. I became resolved to join the Army.

So I leave Baron with my mother, and I begin emptying the house of furniture and books and all the other unnecessary odds and ends. After a few weeks, I’ve collected about a dozen receipts from Goodwill. The only furniture I’ve decided to keep is the couch, which I deposit in my dad’s upstairs office, and my bed, which I cram above the rafters in my mother’s garage. I leave the refrigerator, washer, and dryer for the use of my prospective tenants. I hire a property management company and move into my mother’s empty bonus room with the few possessions I have left.

On November First, I call the Mission Viejo recruiting station and schedule an appointment with Sergeant Barnett. We meet the next morning in their cramped office space across the street from Saddleback College. I tell him I want Airborne Infantry.

* * *

In the early morning of August 15th, 2011, two men dressed in Iraqi Police uniforms and driving a red BMW bypass the main entry control point at FOB Danger, the largest Iraqi security installation in Tikrit. Both men wear suicide vests and are armed with small arms and grenades. They approach the headquarters of the IP counter-terrorism unit and succeed in penetrating through the security gate before one of the men is shot and killed by ISF. The other manages to throw a grenade inside the building, killing an Iraqi colonel and his personal security detail. Then he detonates his suicide vest. This is one of almost ninety coordinated attacks carried out by insurgents across the country.

A dozen klicks away on COB Speicher, Third Platoon is preparing for patrol when we are briefed on the incident. Our mission is scrubbed for the day. The building we were headed for this morning has been blown up.


JC:

Lorraine Adam’s The Room and the Chair, just published this week, is getting some well-deserved praise from all quarters for her ambitious novel of war, politics, and journalism. She was gracious enough to field a few of Dennis’s questions:

DH: Thanks very much, Lorraine, for taking my questions about The Room and the Chair. It’s one of the toughest-spirited stories I’ve read. I want to start with something at the heart of that toughness, the American military.

I was struck at one point when you pointed out that the armed forces have their own way of talking.

There’s a gap in mind-set between civilians and the military. In your novel, the sections set on bases and their environs are held separate from the parts of the narrative centering on civilian characters. If you wanted to say something to perpetual civilians like me about what soldiers are like, how they look at the world and how they handle their feelings, what would it be?

LA: First of all Dennis, thank you for your enthusiasm about The Room and the Chair. Your comments about the novel are smart and interesting.

To answer your question. Soldiers inhabit an environment where violent death in youth is nearer than it is for most of the rest of us. In that way they’re like cops, criminals, emergency room staff or the severely impoverished. Like those groups of people, they develop their own argot. It’s a logical outgrowth of their constant encounters with extremity. They need to invent words to get at what is rarely described by others living more commonly experienced lives. One of the singularities of the female soldier in my novel, a fighter pilot, is that because of recent changes in warfare, she is far more insulated from combat death than fighter pilots in previous wars. Yet she is at the nexus of one of the most serious moral dilemmas of today’s wars–civilian casualties from aerial attack. So her sense of her righteousness and bravery are under a peculiar and new pressure. For anyone raised in a military culture, as she was, (her father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam) this causes some serious emotional contortions.

DH: In your novel, there’s a classified report that gets leaked to the media. But it’s the sensational parts of the report, really not that significant, that get all the attention. The most salient facts in the voluminous report don’t get noticed, even though they are in plain sight. The public is always shocked when the dots are not connected. But it’s the public themselves who are the worst at connecting the dots. Aren’t the answers in plain sight sometimes but we are not seeing them? What role do you think literature can play in connecting the dots?

LA: Consider the Napoleonic wars. In the first decade afterwards, a reader will find state records, memoir and correspondence. Sometime after, historical accounts appear that try to synthesize those writings. Eventually historians take issue with those accounts, usually with conceptual narratives that make a story out of the claims and counterclaims of the histories themselves. But if you want to know what the Napoleonic wars felt like to the human beings caught up in them, you read War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma. Fiction gives us a grasp of seemingly vague or disparate phenomenon. It makes meaning. History and non-fiction, at least the intellectually honest practice of both, give us arguments about what is knowable. Somehow today it’s gotten fashionable to call what I call meaning-making “connecting the dots.” But only fiction can do that. Intelligence is the collection of data and making arguments about what that data portend. Our expectations about what intelligence gatherers can extrapolate speedily from data is way too high. First, these gatherers of data are evaluating things which are definitely not dots. And they’re not working with the traditional childhood numbered dots. The data is all around the globe and it sure doesn’t have any numbers. So what the data gatherers must do is more akin to a back-and-forth process of making judgments about meaning. It’s fantastically complex. When the narratives and facts are voluminous and time pressure is great, as they can be in terrorism or newspaper writing, judging what certain narratives or facts mean usually
becomes a race to generalize. I think novels, unlike film, television series or other narrative art forms, allow for an appreciation of everything I’ve just described.

DH: In your fictional newsroom, the clash of egos between journalists has a big impact on what gets reported. At one point, a prize winning journalist withholds vital information from his newspaper because he wants to include it in his forthcoming book instead. You’re a prize winning journalist. Does that ever happen? How big a role does career jockeying among journalists play in what the public gets to see?

LA: This most certainly happens. I witnessed it at The Washington Post, and many others have too at other publications. I also believe that books about political events, such as Game Change or Too Big To Fail, usually are composed by young men of great ambition who have far more to gain by sketchily sourced story telling than they do by the plodding piecemeal distribution of isolated facts, usually with a name attached, that is daily or periodical journalism’s hallmark. It is obvious to any serious practitioner of reporting that these books contain myriad guesses, assumptions and extrapolations, all of which assembled together make for a gloppy tissue of almost lies. Which is to say, they’re like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces–entertaining fiction masquerading as fact. I don’t necessarily condemn any of this, I just think it’s fascinating material for a novel.

DH: People believe what sounds plausible. Drone aircraft might really be piloted aircraft. But that would never have occurred to me because the use of drones sounds more plausible. When you write a novel, the safest strategy is to make the events and characters seem plausible. But do you think that novel writing has any role to play in helping us distinguish between what’s only plausible and what’s actually real?

LA: The use of drones sounds plausible because you’ve heard or read news accounts of them. Yet you also know but probably don’t focus on the fact that there are many military endeavors that are kept secret. The United States has made what is supposed to be a secret program–drone bombings within Pakistan’s sovereign borders–a well-known fact. Why? Possibly because it’s more palatable to Pakistani leaders? dignity and self-respect to be able to say, Look these are just machines, they aren’t Americans horning in on our homeland. The leaders look stronger to the Pakistani electorate. It may very well be that there are no American fighter pilots bombing Pakistan. But if there were, it wouldn’t be anyone’s interest, Pakistani or American, to acknowledge it, when they can just as easily call it a drone and get some political benefit.

I’m not entirely sure that novels taught me to think the way I’ve just outlined above. I do know that reading newspapers and history books taught me that after Vietnam there were many revelations about what really had gone on in Laos and Cambodia. I was trying in the novel to imagine what might be the secret actuality of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that way I think running secret piloted missions in Pakistan is plausible. Nonetheless, I do think novels remind us of reality’s changeability. They help us see how what seems to be a collection of rigid occurrences is much more fluid.

DH: Several of your key players, Mary the fighter pilot especially, seem to go into these disassociated fugue states, these very personal interior monologues. It’s as if when they want to be most themselves, they have to pull the plug on the outside world and enter into what’s almost a dream state. Giving your characters alternative, hidden identities supports this process. One character in R&C is passing for white, another has a dark family history under another name.

These sections are very effective but when you depict the real world, it’s rock solid and hard-boiled. There’s little space for subjectivity here.

There are such binary swings in your novel: civilian life/military life, interior feeling in free association combined with hard-boiled, we’re-taking no-prisoners toughness. Also, whole groups of your characters don’t meet each other. The story is in two halves that connect only at key points.

I’m sorry for the long question. But is there a sort-of schizoid split in your art. Did you adopt it as a canny writer’s strategy? Or did the novel just form itself that way? Do you think that’s what our time is like? That it’s split into compartments that rarely meet?

LA: What you observed is intentional on my part. My first thoughts about the novel, even before there were any characters, centered around how in Washington the warrior class and the writing class cannot exist without the other, and yet, they rarely if ever intersect. They were connected and disconnected at once. That kind of paradox, what you call a binary swing, is a preoccupation for me. I also think because of the complexity of contemporary life we are forced into compartmentalizations and generalizations. It helps us cope, but it doesn’t help us understand. Eventually, the segmentation and the formulation catches up with us, sometimes with comic, but more often tragic result.

DH: For me, the heart of your novel was a couple of brilliant chapters in the middle that take place at Bagram Air Force base. That sequence of chapters starts with a mission and concludes with an accident. You link the incidents by having the narrator of the mission suffer in the accident. I was fascinated by whether you meant to depict the mission and the accident as morally equivalent.

Let me approach the problem this way: How do questions of morality get into a novel? When your characters get subjective, they ponder about what they have done…or what others have done. Are questions of morality in the real world or just in people’s heads? Do you want readers to draw moral conclusions from your novel?

LA: The accident and the mission present themselves to the character Mary Goodwin as morally equivalent. But she is also aware that her pre-military personal history, one of extreme violence, suggests the equivalency. Mary is too multivalent to rest there, and she experiences an unraveling in a military hospital of the seemingly difficult, but actually easy assumptions of her life story.

Moral questions get into a novel because I’m interested in them. I chose to write about a fighter pilot who aims at enemy targets and has been trained to see civilian casualties as collateral damage. It starts there. But what doesn’t interest me is that starting point, the simplistic moral problem. I’m interested in the before and after of that problem. And I?m interested in it at the most microbial level–how it feels when she takes a piss after a run, how it feels when she’s in her bunk, what she does or doesn’t say about it to a casual acquaintance or her wingman, a close friend. Moral questions exist in our heads, and that is the real world. Just because it can’t be examined by casual observation doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t want readers to draw moral conclusions from my novel. I want them to be awake to the moral questions. To feel their texture and weight and smell.

DH: The conclusion of your novel blew me away. Novels end two ways: Either there’s a definitive denouement…the lovers get married or we find out who did it. Or…the novel ends because the writer has completed their exploration of the characters lives and the ancillary themes of the story…so the tale just stops.

In R&C, you have done both. In trying to evaluate the book, I found myself referring back to older literature. I ordered a collection of Kipling stories in a fine Everyman edition from Amazon.

We are not the first soldiers to tread Iran and Afghanistan. Alexander has been there before us…and the Russians and the Brits. That’s why I picked up Kipling.

What seemed remote and exotic to me before, late imperial Russia and Britain, now seems salient and their literature suddenly seems salient as well. So what do you think of me comparing you to Kipling? And thanks, Lorraine, for considering my questions. I went ape shit over your book. There…I’ve said it again.

LA: I think the only thing Kipling and I share is geographical. And even that is a tenuous connection. He was born in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan and at the time was India. My third novel, which I’ve been working on for a year now, is set in present day Lahore. I’ve traveled throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, crossing the Khyber Pass–a journey Kipling also took when he was a newspaper reporter for a Lahore newspaper. You can check out his essay on that journey in Kipling Abroad, a wonderful new collection of his travel writings. His only full length novel of any consequence is Kim, which is set in Lahore, and which Edward Said rightly called “a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless embarrassing novel.” It’s a masterwork of imperialism, but without a shred of irony or doubt. Also the bulk of Kipling’s literary output was short stories for boys. Kipling viewed women as extraneous or entrapping. He viewed non-Europeans largely as objects of fantasy, as beings who, like the Na?vi in Avatar, supply Europeans with adventure, redemption and escape from the strictures of the typical middle class existence of petty struggle. The Room and the Chair is definitely about empire, the American empire, but one that is more a state of mind than an institutionally administered construct. To the extent that we have an empire, it is through our military bases around the world. In our history we certainly have colonized the Philippines and other territories, but the current American project is not colonialism in the 19th century European sense. I think my book, peopled as it is with strong women who are never entrapping, and with an Iranian character outside the reach of the American military, is completely at odds with Kipling’s literature of imperial benevolence.


Before the ground war started, we hunkered behind berms, firing shots at targets built from crumb rubber, careful not to shoot the Bedouin and their camels when they appeared on the horizon. We stood in jeeps and flashed the Saudis on the highway, making lewd gestures with our tongues and fingers at the Saudi women sitting in the back of their husbands’ Mercedes, because only men can drive in that country. We fought the Gulf War for them, and for their fat white business partners in Texas. We were hired guns, sleeping in prefabricated bunkers built years before the Ba’ath party rumbled over the oil fields into Kuwait.