Dispatches from the Wasteland, Part TwoBy Kevin Groh
November 07, 2011
(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.)
Don’t Think Twice
McElroy looks like he’s about to tip over in his CVC and headset, like a Tootsie Pop trying to stand on end. Specialist Pressley says he reminds him of Dark Helmet from the movie Spaceballs.
“There are two sides to every Schwartz,” I say.
We try to get McElroy to do the Rick Moranis voice, but he doesn’t want to play along. We’re all choking on dust, and it’s a hundred and fuck you degrees out again. We’re spending one of our few days off patrol at the range to zero the main guns on our Bradleys. Everyone agrees this is almost entirely pointless, as we won’t likely ever take the Brads off the FOB. And if we do, we will never fire the Bushmaster chain gun due to the inevitability of extreme collateral damage. We’ve been told it will require division-level authorization to engage anything with the 25mm cannon. Given that our division headquarters is currently located in Afghanistan, the enemy would have enough time to drive home, praise Allah, and drink a glass of chai before we could get permission to kill him.
It’s my first time driving the M2A3, and the control panel reminds me of the old Star Wars arcade game. Driving a track vehicle is a bit different than a 5-speed, but I get the hang of it pretty quickly. I stall the engine three times, but succeed in not crushing anything or anyone. My job on the range is pretty simple: drive the track up to the firing line, then sit there and perspire while Specialist Pressley and the Lieutenant fire the 25mm and the machinegun and attempt to accurately adjust the sights.
Mercifully, it’s a short day. Once our rounds are complete, we’re told to drive back to the line. On the way off the range, another sandstorm kicks up and my visibility drops to about ten meters. I’m plodding along blindly for a minute or two until Sergeant Cote emerges from the dust cloud to guide us towards the other tracks. We make it back intact, though with the hatch open I manage to swallow about a pound of sand.
Monday, and I’m sitting in the back of the truck, just sweating and waiting for the mechanics to arrive for daily maintenance. Egg climbs up the back ramp and plops onto one of the seats.
“I’m going to hang out in here today since I’m not allowed to talk to my driver anymore,” he says in his signature monotone.
“Apparently my attitude is bringing down the team. Do you feel brought down?”
“Sure, but it’s mostly me that’s bringing me down. What’s McElroy poopy about now?”
“He’s upset because I told him I hate him.”
“You hate everybody.”
“I tell him I hate him every day, first thing when I wake up and last thing before I go to sleep.” he says, shifting in the seat.
“But I’m not supposed to do that anymore.”
I nod. Egg stares at the floor.
“I can’t stop thinking about that money,” I say.
The day before, while we were out on mission, we witnessed a rather distressing event. Our VIPs were conducting a meeting with an ISF colonel while we stood guard in the hallway. Some workers began to unload these large nylon sacks from a pickup truck outside. The sacks were about the size of a large bag of cement, maybe twenty gallons or so. Nobody paid much attention at first, but as one of the workers walked past me, I noticed the corner of his bag was torn open. Inside were bundles of cash—U.S. currency—twenty-dollar bills banded together in stacks. I watched for another minute or so as they kept bringing in more and more bags. Then I stood up and walked across the hall to where some of the NCOs were standing.
“Are they fucking serious?” I said.
“Those bags are filled with cash.”
Soon we were all murmuring. The Iraqis kept bringing in the bags. There must have been twenty or thirty at least. I tried to estimate how much it must have been. Millions. And here were twenty armed infantrymen in the hallway who make about two thousand dollars a month to languish in the desert. It was obscene. Looks were exchanged. We were all thinking the same thing: how easy it would be to murder these dudes and take all that money. Of course we didn’t. The meeting concluded, we walked to the trucks and drove back to the FOB. But the incident was the universal topic of conversation for most of the day. On the drive back, Specialist Pressley and I pieced together a hypothetical strategy for taking the money and transporting it out of the country. It became quite elaborate.
“Yeah,” Egg says now, staring wistfully at the floor of the MRAP.
“That was casino-heist money,” I say.
“Fuck yeah, I would.”
The number one question I am asked is why I didn’t become an officer instead of a grunt. I am usually informed how much more money I could be making if I had. I try to explain that if I had cared about money, I would never have joined the army in the first place. Sometimes I try to describe my reasoning in more detail, but that soon becomes exhausting, so I shrug and let them shake their heads at me as if I am a fool.
The second most frequent question is why I joined at all. The answer changes depending on my mood. Boredom is my customary reply. I got tired of the yuppie lifestyle. I wanted to do something other than sit in an office and get fatter. I needed to experience a different way of life and challenge myself.
All of that rationale is bullshit. I was thirty years old, unemployed despite my best efforts to excel at the bland profession I had landed upon, youthful dreams of success and “happiness” all but abandoned, and self-evicted from the house I had felt compelled to purchase. My friends were all becoming securely domesticated; I had lost count of the endless deluge of wedding and baby announcements. I was sleeping on the couch in an upstairs room of my mother’s house, trying hard not to lapse into self pity, and no closer to finding romantic companionship than I was at seventeen, due no doubt to my inclination toward grumpiness, and shyness, and a self-diagnosed intimacy disorder that I am convinced stems back to somewhere in childhood.
As I grew older, I became more self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and self-destructive. I was prone to recurrent bouts of introspection, during which I came to the conclusion that every decision I had ever made was wrong. I deconstructed the entire framework of choices—conscious and unconscious, proactive and reactive—that had conveyed me to the present. It was laid out in front of me like some massive circulatory system of diverging pathways, each leading to undiscovered possibilities. I could pinpoint a specific node, a fork in the road, and find out where it all went to shit.
Retrospective self-awareness is worthless without a time machine.
There is an oft-repeated phrase in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.” It is a philosophical refrain instantly recognizable to any Vonnegut disciple—three words that encapsulate the resigned acceptance of life’s pitfalls and tragedies. It can bridge the gap between despair and hope. It has become my mantra.
I decided to let go. I chose the path that would carry me as far away as possible, and I surrendered myself to the chaotic rhythms of the universe. So it goes.
Third platoon gathers between the CHUs in as tidy a formation as we can muster in that amount of space. We’re here to promote Trieu, Raneo, and Eggleston from Private First Class to Specialist. The Lieutenant calls everyone to attention and reads the standard spiel. Then the team leaders step forward, strip off their old rank and replace it with the new. The “Sham Shield” we call it.
All the privates file forward to shake their hands, while the older specialists and NCOs hang back. One by one, they step forward and punch each of the new specialists hard in the chest. This is the true promotion ritual. As Sergeant Cote cocks his huge arm back, Raneo does a little jig and squeals like Michael Jackson, just before his back is sent reeling into the Hesco barrier.
I refrain from hitting. I merely shake their hands and congratulate them. They’ve gotten it bad enough from the NCOs.
“You put the special in specialist,” I say to Egg.
Somehow we’ve got on the subject of Lady Gaga as we’re rolling out the front gate. I’m trying to ease over the speed bumps. The leaf-spring suspension in the MRAP, combined with a high center of gravity, makes the vehicle buck and bounce like a mechanical bull with the slightest bump in the road.
“Got to have my Poker Face while I’m working out,” Specialist Pressley is saying.
“I was listening to Kesha this morning while getting dressed,” says the Lieutenant.
“You both need some new music,” I say.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Pressley says, “I love rock, like some eighties rock.”
“What, like The Cars or Talking Heads?”
“No, like Motley Crue.”
“Ah, hair metal.”
“Hell yeah. Have you heard Nikki Sixx’s new band? Sixx:A.M. They’ve got this song ‘Life is Beautiful.’ It’s amazing. I’m going to have them play that song at my funeral.”
“I think I’ll have them play ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ by Bob Dylan at my funeral,” I say. “Just to make people extra sad.”
“How many eighties rock songs do you have?”
“Not sure. Quite a bit, I think.”
“Like a hundred? A thousand?”
“Maybe a few hundred, at least. The majority of my hair metal collection was misplaced sometime around high school or college. I used to have everything.”
“You’ve got to let me download that shit.”
“If you can figure out how to get it off my iPod.”
The next hour of the patrol is spent discussing musical tastes and debating the most badass rock songs in history. My opinion: “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. After that topic has run its course, we lapse into another long silence.
We’re about a week into Ramadan at this point, which is historically a period of heightened attacks on the part of the insurgent population. We have been ordered to be sensitive to the native religious beliefs, and so we are not supposed to smoke or dip or eat in front of the ISF. Even water consumption is to be performed discreetly. Most of us have all but ignored this directive.
Iraqis are typically surly during Ramadan, as they are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. Today, though, they seem more bad-tempered than usual. Chatter over the radio net indicates that we are not to joke around today, that the IPs are upset about some sort of friendly-fire incident that occurred yesterday between US and Iraqi forces.
“You don’t think it was the pin flare?” says Pressley.
“I don’t know.”
Yesterday, as we were crossing the main intersection on the south side of Tikrit, a sedan cut off our vehicle. Specialist Pressley fired a pin flare at the car, which bounced off the asphalt and shot a few feet into the air, nearly missing an IA soldier who was directing traffic. It doesn’t seem likely that this would be enough to cause hostility, but who knows.
The meetings take a bit longer than usual, presumably because our officers are discussing the incident with the IP bigwigs. When the Lieutenant finally returns to the truck, he fills us in on the details as we prepare to move out. Apparently, some Iraqi civilians were killed during a raid targeted at capturing a High-Value Individual. Our information indicates that the raid was planned and executed by ISF, though there were allegedly some US Special Operations personnel present as observers. The Iraqis are blaming US Forces for the deaths and asked for compensation and an apology, which they were refused. The incident has produced a fair amount of anti-US sentiment in the area, and protests are being planned in Tikrit and some other nearby cities.
“You know what that means for us?” the Lieutenant asks.
“It means they’re going to try and light us up,” I say.
It’s always a relief to get this kind of perceptive take directly from the source, especially with regards to this war on which everyone, experience or not, has an opinion and the need for tidy encapsulation. And it’s not often one hears a soldier referencing the “chaotic rhythms of the universe.” Or maybe it’s more often than we all think. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff. Stay safe in the meantime.
thanks, nat. i’m glad you liked it.