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. 

EscapeFromBaghdad-CoverPromo2[1]A bell at the door then, the Ghazaliya bell, they called it, the knock of rifle butts against splintered wood, the three second grace time before boots and flashlights, lasers and automatic rifle barrels. Better than the Mahdi Army, who didn’t bother to knock, and who had never heard of the three-second rule. Dagr surged towards the front of the house, already sweating, thrusting Kinza back. It was his job to face the American door to doors, because he still looked like a professor, soft jawed, harmless, by some chance the exact composite of the innocent Iraqi these farm boys from Minnesota had come to liberate. And Kinza…with his hollow eyed stare, Kinza would never survive these conversations.

No Man's War_FINALCurrahee

 Three months before my disoriented search for my other green Croc in the middle of the night, my front door has another reason to open in the wee hours. Each time Jack and I plan the good-bye scenario for a deployment, we think we’ve come up with a magical way to make the process of good-bye anything less than brutal and horrific. Even if we keep the brutal and horrific under the guise of a scripted scene, with firm hugs and confident words, the wailing agony is right under the surface. Every single time. This time he needs to be at the brigade headquarters in the middle of the night to manifest and draw his weapon, so he arranges for someone to pick him up from the house, sparing me a drive in the middle of the night. He has considered driving his Jeep and just leaving it in his office parking lot for me to pick up later, but we are so new to Fort Campbell, and my unfamiliarity with the straggly and spindly layout of this post takes that option off the table. Navigating my way to his office seems overwhelming; it’s the small things that overwhelm at these times, so Jack knows arranging a pickup is best. This plan will be a piece of cake. He can tuck the kids into bed, then sleep a few hours before he has to go. His rucksack waits packed by the door. His uniform is draped over the closet door.


Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves. A machine gunner three years out of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion, he’d tried to kill himself, four or five times, but he was interrupted each time—once by his dead buddy Kip Jacoby; once by his girlfriend Krissy, whom he met at a strip club; once on a lake by his house in his canoe when the rain stopped and he saw the moon; and once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah and said, “I will kill you if you proceed,” and Caleb said, “No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.”

(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.)

Bayji Blues

Word comes down that Charlie Company got hit. Charlie is stationed at the Bayji Oil Refinery, located north of Tikrit. On one of their patrols through the city, an RKG-3 struck an MRAP, wounding three soldiers. The driver’s status is urgent surgical, though no one was killed. Charlie’s commander wants a show of force in the city to illustrate to the populace that we’re not playing around. He’s asked for our platoon specifically, so we get the order to spin up and head to Bayji.

We leave Speicher around four in the morning and travel north on MSR Tampa in the dark. The mission means another day off down the toilet, and we’re bound to be out for a while, but the mood is reasonably upbeat. This is a legitimate infantry patrol and not another bodyguard detail. The likelihood of enemy contact is increased, and it seems almost everyone is just itching for the chance to kill.

It’s light out by the time we reach the refinery, a few wrong turns and switchbacks behind us. We pull the trucks in to Charlie’s small outpost and immediately refuel. Everyone dismounts for a quick briefing, and then we load up again and roll out.

No doubt there are insurgents watching us as we descend upon the city. I’m not sure if we look like a juicy target, or the reckoning: four combat platoons and a pair of Apache gunships overhead. The patrol splits in two after we pass the first major intersection. Charlie continues on toward the city center while we turn off into one of the main market streets. Normally, this place would be crawling, but it’s Ramadan. The only people on the street are a couple dudes picking up trash. We drop our dismount squads and begin to move through the market, stopping frequently as the Lieutenant and the interpreter talk to the few locals around about the attack. I stop the truck in front of a small alleyway to allow Specialist Pressley to cover it with his M240. First Squad is spread out on both sides of the street in front of us. Staff Sergeant Moore searches the trunk of a beat-up Corolla and finds an empty US ammo can.

It takes us an hour or so to cover the length of the market. Nobody attacks us. Nobody offers any useful information about the attack on Charlie Company. The dismounts climb back in the trucks and we turn around to head out. Once back on the main road, our air escort comes up on the radio.

“Blue One, Brimstone Zero Three.”

“This is Blue One.”

“Just an FYI, as you were leaving the market, a guy stepped out of one of the buildings and gave your convoy the finger.”

We all chuckle. The Apaches must be a thousand meters up.

Someone in the back of the truck suggests we should go grab up the offending Iraqi. A few years ago, that might have happened. He’d have been questioned, maybe even tuned up a little. But it’s a different war now. We keep on driving.

After chow, we’re sitting out at the trucks, waiting to hear whether we will conduct another patrol in Bayji after the sun goes down or return to COB Speicher. The fumes from the refinery are giving me a dull ache in my right temple. I don’t want to contemplate the amount of toxins that must be in the air. There are two smokestacks just outside the wall of the compound, burning perpetually and giving off a thick black smoke.

Eggleston, Craddick and Mies are relaxing on the rear ramp of Three-Two. Egg and Craddick are sitting on the top step, each with a leg propped up on one of Mies’ shoulders.

“This is teamwork,” Craddick says.

“Not only am I helping you guys,” say Mies, “but I’m also working my core.”

“Do some air squats,” I say.

Mies does a few labored squats with their legs on his shoulders, and then sits down again. “That hurts,” he says.

I light a cigarette.

“You’re an oil guy, right?” I ask Egg. “Maybe you can tell me what the boobs are for.”

“The what?”

“The boobs.” I point out at the series of spherical structures in the refinery to our south. There are six of them, in three pairs. To me, they resemble the reactors at the old San Onofre nuclear plant.

“To be honest, I have no idea. I worked in natural gas, and I never worked on a refinery.”

“Well, if you wanted another job, you could always go AWOL and hire on here.”

“Nah,” says Egg. “They’d find me. They couldn’t find Kenny Brown when he went AWOL in Texas, even though he was living two blocks off base. But with my luck, they’d find me.”

“I don’t think it was so much that they couldn’t find him as it was that they didn’t give a shit.”

“Still, they’d find me.”

Mies makes some remark about Leavenworth and anal rape that I don’t quite hear. My attention is drawn to the damaged MRAP parked in the far corner of the yard with a baseball-sized hole punched through the windshield. The last we’ve heard, the driver may lose his foot. All of the recent RKG-3 attacks have been to the windshield or passenger side, and the soldiers getting wounded or killed are always the TC and driver, which is my primary job. I think about losing a foot. I suppose it’s better than losing the whole leg, or a hand or arm. Better than having the contents of my skull sprayed across the interior of the crew cabin.

Egg is telling me about a job he had with the oil company in Colorado, where they had blown a drill underground and tried over and over again for days to fix the pipe or retrieve the drill bit or something. The technical details are lost on me.

“As shitty as that was,” he says, “the pay was worth it. Here, the pay is shit. And I have to work with a bunch of people that I hate. I hate you all.”

“You should avoid using the word hate,” I say. “What happens if you meet someone that you really really hate? You won’t have an adequate word to describe it.”

“I loathe you all.”

This is just Egg being Egg. It’s his standard demeanor. I’d be more concerned if he said he was happy about something.

“But here,” I make a sweeping gesture with my arms, “you get to serve your country.”

“It would be worth it if I got to shoot somebody. Even if it’s a little kid that I splatter across a wall with the fifty cal. That would make it all worthwhile.”

After a bit, I walk back to my truck and climb in the back to try and cool off in the AC. We wait around for another couple hours, until we get the word we’re going back to Speicher. We won’t have to do another patrol today.

It’s a few days after our trip to Bayji, and we’re back in Tikrit.

The three prisoners are shuffled into the building in single file. They are blindfolded with what look like strips of bed linens and their hands are bound behind their backs. There are no visible bruises or signs of mistreatment, but I’m sure their hosts haven’t handled them gently. They all look weak and docile, not the image of fierce insurgents I had in my head. The IPs put each of the prisoners in a separate corner of the room, facing the wall.

These are the men suspected of the RKG-3 attack on Charlie Company in Bayji. The Iraqi Police SWAT Team apprehended them a couple days ago and transported them to the provincial headquarters in Tikrit. We’re here today to collect their biometric and biographical data for our intelligence database. One by one, we take the prisoners into a back room so I can scan their fingerprints and irises. The Lieutenant asks questions while the interpreter translates. They all claim to be honest stiffs from Bayji, refinery and power plant workers. None of them resists or refuses to cooperate with the questioning or fingerprint collection. None of them seem to know why they were arrested.

I can’t tell if it’s the prisoner’s act, or if they actually might be innocent. The IPs have not been able to tell us what evidence led them to these men. And the Iraqi justice system cannot be described as precise.

One of the prisoners tells me his birthday is the thirty-first of November. I do some quick math in my head.

“Tell this dude there are only thirty days in November,” I say to the interpreter.

They chatter back and forth in Arabic for a moment.

“He says then his birthday is the thirtieth of November,” says the interpreter.

The Lieutenant shakes his head. “Just go with that,” he says.

I enter his DOB as thirty November. Either this guy truly doesn’t know what day he was born—a possibility, since the Iraqis do not seem to attribute the same significance to dates as we do in the States—or we have to question all the information these men have given us. We are not trained in interrogation or human intelligence gathering. That’s what MI does.

We finish up and the prisoners are taken back to the jail facility. As we head back to the trucks, I say to the Lieutenant, “Sir, I’m pretty sure everything they just told us was bullshit.”

“Yup,” he says.

(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.
“Why’s that?”
“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.”
“Almost 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.
“That’s awesome.”
“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.”
“American 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.
“Would you?”
“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.
“Like what?”
“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.

(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.)




I’m staring out the windshield at a sea of dirt and trash and overgrown scrub. There are a few sickly palm trees scattered about, fronds mangled and sagging. I can see the banks of the Tigris off to our ten o’clock.

“Fuck my life,” Specialist Pressley grumbles his refrain over the intercom.

We’re waiting for our dismount troops to complete their engagement. The government building they are occupying looks like a half-assed Taj Mahal made out of brown brick. Most of the buildings around here look the same. This area used to be one of Saddam’s palatial compounds, and now it serves as an operating base for Tikrit’s law enforcement and military agencies.

“They need to pay some of these assholes to police up all this garbage,” I say. It looks as if a dump truck drove by with its back gate open. It looks like that everywhere in this country—years’ worth of discarded waste that’s been ignored and then redistributed by the desert wind. “There are enough people looking for work. Give them a couple bucks a day to walk around with a trash bag.”

“Yeah, that’ll never happen.”

“Probably not.”

“They don’t give a fuck. As soon as we leave, this country’s going down.”

“This place used to be the pinnacle of civilization a few thousand years ago. Now it’s a shithole,” I draw out the Oh sound for emphasis. “I call that regression.”

“Yup. I’m still saying we should’ve just took their oil and left them to fend for themselves.”

“I agree. What ever happened to good old-fashioned plunder? That’s how they financed warfare back in the old days.”


From there, our conversation evolves into a dialogue of potential world-conflict scenarios. What would happen if Iran attacked us, if someone tried to nuke us, how would we respond, who would be on our side, what would be our strategy? By the end of it, we’ve hypothetically destroyed about ninety percent of the planet.

We do this every day.

Countless hours waiting in the truck, trying not to fall asleep. Sometimes we talk about future plans, sometimes we gripe. Sometimes we repeat conversations we’ve already had. Once we had a lengthy metaphysical discussion about the nature of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets. Sometimes we don’t say anything at all. Failing all that, we debate which female celebrities are the most desirable and why. Anything to kill the time and staunch the tide of crushing boredom.



It’s hot here. Not California-summer-heat-wave hot, but genuine cartoon-slide-whistle-thermometer-popping hot. Every molecule of dirt and air radiates heat. I have burns on my hands just from grabbing the door handle on the MRAP. One hundred and fifteen is a good day. One hundred and ten is a really good day. Within a month, it will be one thirty and above. The only grace is that there is no humidity. And the body adjusts. But the true master of this country is the dust. We are saturated by it—our clothes, skin and hair. Every structure and surface is shrouded by a layer of dust that never seems to recede. The wind carries it in immense coughing waves. When civilization finally succumbs, it will not take long for the desert to swallow this place and reclaim it to the sand.



Doc Blandino tells me I smoke too much. I give him my standard response: you’ve got to die of something. I do smoke too much. I’m almost at a pack a day. I’ve quit and relapsed so many times over the past ten years it’s hard to keep track. This whole cockamamie idea to join the army may all have been a ploy by my subconscious to resume the habit without feeling guilty. I need to quit, but it’s part of my routine.

Routine sustains us.

We get up early to prep the trucks, then stand around smoking while we complete radio checks and rehearse our procedures for reaction to contact and escalation of force. Our platoon’s job is to provide security for less-expendable officers from our battalion headquarters who liaise with local Iraqi police and military leaders. Essentially, we are glorified chauffeurs and bodyguards. We roll out the wire, sit in the trucks for a few hours, and then roll back. We grab chow and perform maintenance on the vehicles. Most days we get a few hours off in the afternoon, during which I normally fall asleep. I wake up around seventeen or eighteen hundred and then read or mess around on the internet until about nineteen hundred, when our team gathers to brief on the next day’s mission. I’m usually not hungry enough to walk to dinner chow. Maybe I’ll eat a Clif Bar or something. Around twenty hundred, Egg and I go to the gym and I do about forty-five minutes on the treadmill or elliptical machine. Then I head back to the CHU, shower, and lay down on my bunk. I think about walking over to the MWR center to call my family, but I realize I have nothing interesting to say. Maybe I’ll read some more or watch a movie on my laptop. After a while, I switch off the light and think about home as I try to get to sleep. I think about my dog, and about the strangers living in my house. I think about lost loves and bad decisions.

Around zero five thirty in the morning, I wake up to a series of carefully staggered alarms. I get dressed in the dark, shave and brush my teeth. Then I grab my rifle and my gear, and we do it all over again.



There is no fear, in a tangible sense. Not one of us seems truly afraid of being killed on patrol, though it may happen. In all likelihood, you might have a greater statistical probability of getting killed on your way to work in L.A. than a soldier does on any given day outside the wire in Iraq. Nowadays, anyway. After all, we have armor and a lot of very big guns. Though in the States, presumably, there are not throngs of angry young men proactively planning the violent demise of your average commuter.

Currently, the insurgents’ favorite thing to do is toss RKG-3 rounds at our convoys from the side of the road and then run like hell. The RKG-3 is a Russian anti-tank grenade that resembles an old-school German potato masher, only it has much more explosive yield and is designed to penetrate armored vehicles. About a month after we arrived in theater, two soldiers from our brigade were killed when an RKG-3 struck the passenger-side window of their MRAP.

This could happen to us at any time. Any corner in the city could be the one at which they decide to attack us. Any person out there might be the one with an RKG behind their back. Any car on the street could be packing a VBIED. But every day we roll out and nothing happens.

So far.



It’s another day, and I’m riding in the back of Three-Two as we bump south on Tampa, fourth in the order of march. There’s nothing remarkable about the desert scrolling by outside the narrow window slats, but I scan all the same. We’ve driven this route a hundred times and nothing much changes. A convoy of cargo trucks about two miles long is clogging the southbound lane, so we cut across the median and travel counter-flow. I’ve tuned out the conversation over the intercom, but words like “tits” and “snatch” pop out at me. They’re either talking about porn or previous lays, both frequent yet somehow inexhaustible topics of discussion. I’m starting to zone out when our driver, gunner and TC all shout “Whoa!” in unison.

“What happened?”

The radio crackles to life.

“All units, Punisher One. Everyone push past.”

“Anyone see any casualties?”

“This is Punisher Five, there’s at least one casualty.”

“That dude is fucked up.”

Up ahead, the other trucks in our convoy are starting to turn around.

“What the fuck happened?”

“A vehicle just hit Three-Six,” Sergeant Cote says,” let the Major know we’re turning the convoy around to assess the crash site.”


I lean towards the Major so he can hear me over the noise of the vehicle.

“Sir, our lead truck had a collision with an Iraqi vehicle.”

“He didn’t have a collision, that dude straight ran into Three-Six,” Sergeant Tamayo says over the intercom.

“We’re turning around now to check out the crash,” I finish. The Major nods his understanding.

“Groh, I’m gonna need you to swap out with me so I can get on the ground,” says Sergeant Tamayo. He starts to climb out of the turret as we’re pulling to a stop on the perimeter of the crash. The ramp drops as I wiggle my way up into the gunner’s position.

I catch a brief glimpse of the scene as I traverse the turret to our six o’clock: dismounts pouring out of MRAPs, onlookers beginning to converge. There’s a man sprawled on the pavement with what looks like a nasty head wound. His arms and legs are twitching violently. And then I’m facing south towards all the northbound traffic beginning to stack up behind us. We are vulnerable here. If any of those cars gets too close or attempts to drive through our security perimeter, I will have to shoot them. I pull the charging handle back on the M2 and level the barrel towards our audience. And I wait.

About twenty minutes later, we’re wrapping up and headed back to the FOB. The platoon is excited because we’re done early today.

Later on, I will piece together the scenario from various accounts. The man on the ground was driving his dilapidated bongo truck west on a small crossroad to the highway. Instead of waiting for our convoy to pass, he decided to pull out in front of a fourteen-ton armored vehicle that was moving in excess of fifty miles per hour. Force equals mass times acceleration. And we do not slow down. This man’s cousin was driving a second bongo truck and following directly behind, so when Three-Six struck the passenger side of the first truck, it sent him spinning around to collide with the second. There were two small children in the cousin’s vehicle.

Fortunately, everyone survived. The kids were a little worse for wear, bloody mouths and noses, but they walked away from it. The twitching man suffered what appeared to be serious brain trauma. He was treated by our medic and evacuated by an Iraqi ambulance.

Six years in the auto insurance claims business, and I can tell you definitively that the Iraqi driver was one hundred percent at fault for failure to yield. But that will not stop them, and every other Iraqi who was there, from hating us a little bit more. Nor will they be grateful that we failed to do our job properly. If we had done the right thing, if we’d been paying better attention, if our convoluted rules of engagement didn’t have us so hesitant to pull the trigger, then those vehicles would not have gotten anywhere near us. Both trucks would have been riddled with several hundred rounds of 7.62mm ammunition the instant they tried to cut across us. And all four of those people, children included, would be very dead.



Make no mistake. Our job is to kill. All of our extensive training and indoctrination is designed to make us more precise and efficient killers. You may read about humanitarian efforts and winning hearts and minds, but an infantryman’s sole purpose is destruction. This task is not regarded solemnly. There is an ever-present bloodlust that is at the same time thrilling and deeply unsettling. “I can’t wait to shoot a motherfucker in the face,” is a remark I have heard on several occasions from more than one of my comrades. I may have even said it myself.

I’m thirty-two years old and I spent my life in the conservative, upper-middle-class suburbs of Southern California. I’ve never been hunting. I’ve never intentionally killed an animal, with the exception of a few squashed spiders and ants and a few fishing trips with my grandfathers when I was a kid. I once accidentally ran over a cottontail with my mustang and felt terrible about it for a couple of days. I am not sure what will happen if I have to kill a man. I do not have any doubts about my ability to do it. The training alone makes the action all but mechanical, and I’ve learned that I do not balk under stress. If anything, I become calmer. What sometimes worries me, though, is what will happen afterward. I may be tormented, or I may feel nothing at all. And both possibilities are disturbing.

My hope is that I’m never presented with the opportunity to find out. Some part of me may have wanted it, that fifteen-year-old boy in me that’s still chasing Hemingway’s ghost. But I know better now.


They come from bars and frat houses,
Chins sporting the last chug’s dregs;
They’ve shut down the POTUS block
Down lawn chairs! Time to tap the kegs!

“Na na na! Hey hey hey! Goodbye!”
Caught in the unstoppered ear—
Perspective fails the sloppy street
It’s just one terrorist’s career!

What giant wheels when Brezhnev sent
Red troops into Afghanistan;
House of Saud and CIA,
Tipped shots to Charlie Wilson’s plan.

river praying for strangers

Read one of River Jordan’s four novels, and her first memoir is no surprise. Spend a few minutes in her company, and it seems inevitable. She’s a person of depth and gentleness, a warm spirit who knows the power of words—spoken, written, or uttered in silence.

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit was a resolution before it was a book. At the end of 2008, she knew her two sons—her only children—would be deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that quiet way ideas come upon all of us at times, River received her resolution for 2009. She was to pray for a stranger every day. This would be her way to focus on matters other than fear and worry.

Encouraged by her husband to keep notes, River chronicled her encounters with strangers. She shares the stories of some of them, most who received her offer with gratitude. During that year, she learned about the connections we all share as human beings and what a gift it can be to one’s self to reach out.

The story in my debut novel, The French Revolution, takes place over thirty years, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2019. This put me in the unenviable position of envisioning the future. As I wrote the book from 2005 to 2008, I had to update several storylines—replacing DVDs with web video, adding the Obama campaign, reducing the influence of newspapers. And as much as I tried to keep the story timely, after the book went to press I knew my educated guesses would wind up making me look like a bozo. After all, the weather guy can’t tell you if it’s going to rain with the aid of the world’s most sophisticated technology; how the hell am I, a lazy, research-inhibited, professional liar, supposed to prognosticate anything past breakfast?

Riding south on Highway 8 out of Baghdad, I scanned the sprawling collection of one-level, sand colored buildings and their corrugated steel fences that cobbled together along the two lane asphalt highway. In another moment, I could have been driving down the streets in my hometown where the trailer parks and junkyards provide a similar backdrop for the hardscrabble scenery. Unlike in Lumberton, Texas, though, in Iraq rusted cars lay beside goats and donkeys, while women walked to the market draped in black robes from head to toe. Here and there smoke rose from the houses. Gray tendrils from burning trash and pungent compost mingled with household aromas of baking bread and freshly washed laundry. Caught by the breeze, the jumbled odor carried through the open window of the Humvee. It was not as unpleasant as it was striking.

It was May 2004. I had been in Iraq for two months. Transplanted from my sterile, sanitized life in the United States, I was still overwhelmed by the raw reality of daily life in Baghdad. I had grown accustomed to measuring the severity of my day by the amount of time I spent in traffic or the tone of my boss’s latest e-mail. Somehow I had let those banal experiences desensitize me to the magnitude of man’s daily struggle, where under sweat-soaked brows he labored strenuously simply to exist. The rising smoke represented a day’s work-a small, successful step forward for all to see. I inhaled the sweet, earthy smell and savored the charcoaled hopes and burning desires that had stoked it into existence. I glanced sideways at a woman and child struggling to carry an oversized burlap bag of produce to their flimsy roadside market stand. I admired their pride and sense of purpose, traits that had historically made Iraqis resistant to foreign occupation. I needed to find a way to give them hope and patience with the American soldiers and the fledging Iraqi government. If I could not give them a better opportunity to wait for, their determination and willingness to sacrifice would find a willing outlet in the insurgency that was eager to exploit their impatience.

Further down the road, Iraqi children of all ages played soccer with shiny new balls that American soldiers had recently handed out during one of our patrols.  Marked with professional teams’ logos from Europe and America, soccer balls were our most popular item.  Hundreds of children would routinely besiege the soldiers and ask for balls to replace the makeshift rolls of tape, plastic and laundry with which they were currently playing.  A cloud of dust enveloped the makeshift field as the nylon balls ricocheted erratically across the bare ground between the highway and an abandoned railroad track. The children had not adjusted to the new balls’ improved buoyancy. Occasionally the kids would pause long enough to allow the throngs of goats and their transient herders to pass by. The goats would scavenge over the trash caught along the rails and drink from the pools of raw sewage that stood along the roadside.  A flurry of young hands flailed in the air alternatively waving at us and shooting imaginary guns at us.  As we passed, the game stopped and the children took turns waving at us and giving us their middle finger, depending on whether or not they were screaming requests or insults. Between the insurgents and the soldiers, the children received so many conflicting messages, they did not know what to believe. At least they had soccer to provide a refuge. In those friendly games no one asked them at gunpoint who they were playing for or why they were playing. They could be kids without consequence, although like everything else, that would eventually change.

Within minutes our convoy of three Humvees passed beneath a huge pair of crossed swords, allegedly cast from a mold of Saddam’s own hands and enlarged to enormous size. The monument marked the southern city limit of Baghdad, and the row of Iraqi Police vehicles just beyond its shadow marked a police checkpoint.  The tightly packed traffic, crowded with freshly imported luxury sedans, worn-out passenger cars, and rusted freight trucks, aggressively jostled for position as each hoped to avoid a random stop and search by the police.

A truck filled with watermelons trundled beside a bus full of pilgrims traveling to the holy city of Najaf that the police had motioned pull over into a search queue. Curious passengers pulled back the black curtains on the bus, eying our passing trucks with suspicion. Although the Shi’a had welcomed the invasion initially, there had been significant changes to the relationship. Disenchantment with the pace of American progress and political flip-flopping in post-invasion power structures had allowed a charismatic rogue Shi’a cleric named Muqtada Al-Sadr to amass an army of disgruntled followers. One month ago, a battle between his followers and American soldiers in Najaf had angered most of the devout Shi’a, who saw the fighting as a religious transgression. Regardless of their personal feelings about the cleric, they blamed the United States and the American soldiers for bringing violence to a holy city. Although the Coalition powers in the Green Zone had made numerous overtures to the Shi’a leadership, the icy stares and tightly clutched fists on the bus showed me that the Iraqis had not regained their confidence in Americans.

As the traffic came to a standstill, I directed our convoy to the shoulder of the road, and we bypassed the checkpoint with a quick wave to the police and to the pilgrims. So far none of the coalition overtures had restored the confidence of the Shi’a, but if my plan succeeded today, the Shi’a in my neighborhood would have a reason to believe in American promises.

We were traveling a few miles further south of the checkpoint, beyond the edges of the sprawl created by legions of impoverished Shi’a who had arrived in the last few months to look for opportunity in Baghdad. We were going to a junkyard created by the initial American invasion force, which was nothing more than a mountainous collection of Iraqi Army vehicles abandoned and piled together as scrap. Many were tanks and armored personnel carriers destroyed by American air strikes in the invasion. Scavengers had begun devouring these piles of metal, cutting them and piling them onto trucks for export to Turkey, Iran, and Jordan—as far away as China. Made of high-quality alloy, these vehicles represented a sizable return on investment for the looters who were daring enough to orchestrate the pillaging. Although there was technically no law against this activity, many members of the local community had expressed outrage that they were not receiving a percentage of the proceeds, nor were they given a chance to work on the dumping sites. Their dissatisfaction came not from the idea that a potentially illegal activity was taking place but rather from the fact that the profits were not being shared locally. After they made their case at a recent neighborhood council meeting, I had vowed to intervene on their behalf, if only to bolster my standing as the new governance officer for the area.

The council comprised secular and religious leaders and was chaired by a senior tribal sheik named Said Mallek. I met with it every week to listen to its members’ grievances and offer them solutions.  At first, it seemed odd that I would be involved in a plan to extort money from a quasi-legal operation like this smuggling operation, but my credibility with the council lay in my ability to quickly and satisfactorily resolve its problems, not in my military authority. On the council’s behalf, I had agreed to investigate and, if possible, help the neighborhood derive some revenue from it.  Said Mallek had previously tried to get a piece of the action but had been outgunned and out-muscled by the smugglers.  He had appealed to me to restore the dignity of his tribe and authority of the council by returning to the councilmen a right to benefit from these “resources” located within their tribal boundary. At first, I had been skeptical of his true intentions.  Said Mallek’s chiseled, gray-bearded, olive face never betrayed his true emotions. The man was a survivor.  He had shown me his aged, tattered Communist Party membership card, but he had also told me that he was a Ba’ath Party believer.  His shifting allegiances were those of an opportunist who might become an ally if I could prove him to be a worthy partner.


Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad is published by Potomac Books, Inc. (available June 2011)

What does the title of your book even mean, how can an army officer be the “Father of Money”?

In March 2004, I was appointed the governance officer for Al Dora, one of Baghdad’s most violent districts. My job was to establish and oversee a council structure for Iraqis that would allow them to begin governing themselves.  The nature of persuading Iraqis to support the coalition quickly progressed from simply granting them privileges to a more complex system of bribing them to display some semblance of loyalty to various American initiatives.  Those Iraqis who worked successfully with the Army in this system made quite a bit of money from me, hence the nickname Father of Money.

So, you sat down and wrote a memoir. Thousands of soldiers have also gone to Iraq, some multiple times. Do you think your experience was somehow remarkable?

I admit, a memoir sounds presumptuous – at any age. In my case, the narrative is less about me, as a person, and more about the circumstances in Iraq, as they existed when I was there.  I actually do think my experience was quite typical, which is what makes the conclusions so jarring. In fact, if anything at all was remarkable, it was that I seemed to be one of the few people in my unit who acknowledged how disconnected our mission was from the political reality in the United States, yet it should have been obvious to everyone.

Do you consider yourself some type of hero or what?

I don’t even know what that word means anymore, hero. Look, society, at least American society, is saturated with labels.  For example, you asked me about heroes. Well, there are CNN heroes, there are people who think all soldiers are heroes, likewise with people who give to charity, fight cancer, single-moms, working dads, etc. All of them are called heroes and I just don’t think that is true. I admire those people, and they make me proud to be a human, but hero is a little much.  We often overstate our own importance so frequently and view the world so starkly that it makes us susceptible to being led into situation like Iraq and makes it almost impossible to get out. I am just a guy who wanted to describe what it was like to try and make peace in a world where there are literally no labels. Everything is some murky degree of right and wrong.

Did you have an adjustment period when you came back? What were some of your first impressions upon returning to the United States?

It seemed lonely. My first few weeks were a blur, but I remember being startled by the volume of cars on the road with one passenger, the number of single people walking around shopping malls and the general lack of meaningful interaction that Americans seemed to have with one and another.  The Iraqi lifestyle, filled with communal meals and families huddled together seemed more coherent to me, despite the lack of security.  I walked around annoyed every time someone drove by with a yellow-ribbon or congratulated me for my service. It was obvious that this would be a war that the public could easily forget about and I was not in the mood to indulge people’s sense of self-satisfaction by accepting their platitudes. I guess you could say I had an adjustment period.

Okay, fast forward. You are a lawyer now, living in London. Iraq is barely in the news these days. There is an increased emphasis on Afghanistan. Why is your story even relevant any more. Isn’t Iraq over?

Yeah, I heard, Mission Accomplished. Listen, Iraq has been ‘over’ at least a dozen times. ‘Iraq’ will never be over, because it represents more than a conflict or geography. ‘Iraq’ is the latest homage to the idea that a superior military force can remake a foreign population according to some drawing on a whiteboard.  Iraq is an American institution that will continue to exist as long as we continue to fight wars that do not demand our total commitment.  Just look at the news and you can see several new ‘Iraqs’ on the way in Korea, Iran, and Somalia.

If you could say one thing to people about your time in Iraq, what would it be?

I would encourage them to learn as much as they can about these types of conflicts.  It is a special type of hell for everyone, on all sides. Yes, soldiers sometimes kill the wrong people, and yes sometimes young people who could have done so much more are the victims of what seems like tragic fortune.  But, this is the indiscriminate nature of war. To make judgments about it, or to presume that it can somehow be done better, neater, or more cleanly, is both insulting and demoralizing. After all, if you can comfortably critique the methods of war from a sofa thousands of miles away, then maybe it is a war that your Army should not be fighting in the first place.

I have seen more of the Middle East than I ever expected a kid from a small town in Southeast Texas would see. I won’t pretend that my time there has been completely positive, but it has been eye opening. Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia… they all start to bleed together, a mixture of people in ghutras and thobes and burqas speaking a harsh language I have never managed to figure out. It’s not a slight to the region or its people, but it is the acknowledgment that it is not the magical land of the Aladdin and Scheherazade of our imaginations. The romanticized world of the Arabian Nights gets lost somewhere between the airport and your destination.

I took off from Washington DC this time with my usual sidekick, Sam, and another comic named Katsy, an upbeat, sassy black woman from Los Angeles. Katsy was on, always. I technically didn’t meet her until we got to Kuwait, but I quickly realized that the pressure was definitely not going to be on me to have to entertain people off stage. She couldn’t be turned off or unplugged. Her mouth was a machine of energy and stamina, her thoughts projectiles launched at anyone that passed. Questions, answers, ideas, laughter – her food had to turn sideways and tiptoe to get in around the words when she ate.

I don’t know that I ever found out exactly how old she was but it became the subject of discussion over the two weeks. Comedians tend to latch on to one thing and drive it into the ground, and with Katsy, that thing was her age.

Initially she couldn’t remember our names, changing our identities from Sam and Slade to Quincy and Slam Bam. Someone fired off an Alzheimer’s joke and it spiraled out of control from there.

“You can talk about my age if you want,” she said, “but it just means that I’ve seen things you haven’t.”

“Yeah. Like the 1800’s,” I said, rolling around in the back seat with laughter.

A day later the three of us, along with our security escorts and a Sergeant named White, climbed on board a boat – a heavily armed 30 foot Army SeaArk – and headed out into the Persian Gulf. Once we cleared the harbor and got out into open water, the pilot turned around toward us. “You want to drive?” he asked.

“I’m going first!” Katsy yelled and sprinted to the driver’s seat.

“You better hold on,” Sergeant White said, and we did.

Katsy hit the throttle and the bow of the boat shot ahead. Not content with simply going fast and straight, she hit a comfortable speed and then threw the boat into a hard turn, almost tossing our Marine escort in the Gulf. She pulled down on the lever and then hammered it forward again, cutting through the rolling wake left by the bow as it slid sideways through the water. Waves rushed onto the open deck in the back where we held on to the rails and roof and attempted to stay on board.

She spun the boat into another donut and then circled back through it again. The cameraman fell down. More water gushed on board, soaking us below the waist. Her yells echoed over the sound of the engine as White came crashing into me. We hung on.

“When is it my turn?” Sam tried to ask.

“Woooooohoooooo!” screamed Katsy from behind the wheel as she punched it again.

We held on longer until the call came that it was time to go back to port. “So wait, no one else gets to drive?” I asked.

“Sorry, we have to get you guys back for the show. You can bring it into the harbor if you want though. You just have to keep it under five knots.”

“Thrilling,” I replied.

I didn’t know it then, but I would soon long for that cool ocean spray. We were leaving for Iraq in the morning and as we sat around at dinner that night we had hopes of an uneventful travel day. Katsy, however, wasn’t ready to move on to the next day yet.

“You like how well I drove that boat!” she said, rubbing it in.

“If by ‘drove’ you mean ‘filled with liquid’, then yes. You’re a natural” I replied. “How about you go re-drive my coffee cup?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said, and I was a bit.

“It’s cool. Just wait.”

* * *

The room where we waited was a thousand degrees and it was constant. For thirty-six hours things had been tedious and stagnant in a way that only Iraq could be. We managed to get in one amazing show at the Kuwaiti Naval Base before our itinerary was lost in an avalanche of unscheduled detours. Manifested on the wrong flight into Iraq out of Kuwait, we ended up in Balad, a place we were not supposed to be until the end of the week. A quick nap later found us waiting for a flight into our original destination, Kirkuk. Two shows had already been cancelled, and after a quick unscheduled guerrilla show in the dining hall we got orders to fly again in the morning.

I remain baffled at why the country of Iraq is so hotly contested. I understand the oil argument now, but not the reason people ever managed to want to live here in the first place. It is alien and dry, with powdery brown dust settling on everything that isn’t perfectly vertical. The hazy air is translucent tan at best, opaque at its worst. And the heat – dear God, the heat – is incessant. It hit 130 degrees the day before we left. I’m pretty sure all those suicide bombers blow themselves up just to cool off.

So in Kirkuk that next morning, we waited. You fly at 0930 they told us. Everything is always military time, which means automatically translating it in my head. If it’s higher than noon, subtract twelve. It is awkward. 0930 is now cancelled they said. Just a few more hours. The air conditioner was broken. There might have been a small fan somewhere but it was defeated by the open door at the end of the room, as if the sun had banged away at the gates until the building simply gave up.

You’re new flight is at 1330 they said. The dust was too thick to fly in. Visibility was zero. They couldn’t get the rotaries in the air with the sky like that. Even bubbly Katsy was beaten at that point and lay motionless on a bench. In that heat your soul cooks to medium well. 1330 came and went. 1700 was now our next possible fly time but the air was so thick outside that you couldn’t see across the parking lot. We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be and another scheduled show was cancelled while we sat there. All we could do was wait, but the only thing that came was more sun.

* * *

Blackhawk helicopters are quite possibly the coolest pieces of machinery I’ve ever seen in my life. My last time through Iraq, I took them everywhere. They look like sharks, if sharks flew in pairs and had massive guns hanging from their skin. At night the insides glows green and if you look hard enough through the darkness you can just barely make out your companion helicopter as it hovers next to you in the black sky. The desert air, regardless of the time of day, slips hot through the open sides as you cut your way across the landscape. Occasionally, flares flash green and white as they break a target lock. It is intense.

As the rotors slice through the air they generate a massive current of air that circulates clockwise. It whips downward and blows directly into the open back window on the right side of the chopper. It blows hard there. Very hard.

* * *

We eventually made it out of Kirkuk and headed to a forward operating base called Warhorse. An hour after landing we hit the stage. Outside and under halogen lights, the bugs swarmed around us as we told our jokes. A sea of soldiers in fatigues and reflective belts laughed in front of us, making the dust and the waiting over the last few days worthwhile. I like these people, I thought to myself. Good, said Life. Get used to them.

Three days later found us still there. Another dust storm, another missed flight, another day in that godforsaken brown powder. The Muslims can pretend that they defend the region for religious reasons, but even they at some point would have to admit that no god, Allah or otherwise, has come anywhere close to caring about that hell hole for some time.

There was the dust and then there were the flies. Lots and lots of flies. They hovered and buzzed and landed on everything, their bodies stuck to traps in black masses, while thousands of others swarmed, still alive and hungry. I expected the river to turn to blood next, but there was no river. I sat there, hoping a flight would leave before the other eight plagues hit.

We arranged an additional show at the DFAC, the dining facility, on Warhorse. Sometimes you hear stories from other comics about the flawless shows where everything goes exactly like it should and you step off stage to roaring applause and a standing ovation.

This was not one of those.

The ambient roar of a thousand people conversing and the clanging rattle of contracted Iraqi nationals pushing metal carts of food swallowed our jokes as they limped out of a sound system that barely reached forty of the hundreds of sets of ears in the dining room. It was like screaming into a jet engine. Halfway through his set, Sam made the comment that he deserved a Purple Heart for surviving that show. He wasn’t kidding.

* * *

Eventually they managed to schedule a chopper out to Warhorse to pick us up. My new best friend, Sergeant Nethers, had arranged a nice little diversion in the event that we were unable to get out after all.

“If the sand doesn’t break, I’ve got you cleared to go out on an MRAP and shoot the .50 cals,” he said.

“Who’s shooting cows?” Katsy asked, wide eyed.

“We just met her yesterday,” Sam and I said simultaneously.

“I’m gonna get you, Slam Bam. Watch,” Katsy shot back, making us all laugh.

“I didn’t forget about the boat, you know. You have one coming.”

“Uh huh. Try it,” she said, and we laughed some more.

Thirty minutes before we were supposed to follow Nethers out to shoot the .50 caliber, word came that our bird was inbound. “Grab your gear,” someone said. “You have to go. Now.”

As I put on my vest, Katsy shot past me. She wants to be first on the chopper just like on the boat, I realized. Well, cool. How perfect, actually. I eased in behind her in the queue as the rest of the passengers lined up. They opened the door leading out top the helipad and we marched out in single file. Only as we approached the chopper did I move in beside her.

“Take the good seat!” I yelled over the wind and sand, and motioned with my hand toward the back right. “I’ll take the one facing backwards since I’ve flown before! You take the good view this trip!” I wasn’t completely sure that she’d heard me until she slipped over into the seat I had indicated. She gave me a quick thumbs up.

“You’re welcome!” I yelled.

We buckled our four point harnesses as Sam and a group of soldiers piled in after us with their gear. We were packed in tight as we levitated off the pad and into the baking desert sky. “Your turn to hang on!” I said, and winked at Katsy.

At 150 miles per hour the wind tore into the cabin like a rabid dog. She tried desperately, hopelessly, to cover her eyes. Her cheeks vibrated as the burning air clawed at her face. She squinted and turned her head, but it was everywhere. The gale pried her mouth open and ripped her gum from under her tongue, where it hovered for a brief moment before it bounced off a soldier’s helmet. She tried to bury her head in the corner but the wind found her. It rocked her back and forth and made her skin quiver and flap.

I cackled across from her, my camera snapping picture after picture while I tried not to hyperventilate with laughter. It was totally worth the wet blue jeans.

You Can See That Here

* * *

We ultimately made it back to Kuwait in one piece and on time after several unscheduled stops. We spent a day at a base dubbed “Mortaritaville”, so named for the relatively ineffective daily shots lobbed over the wall by insurgents. We marched up the ramp into C-130’s and fought the engines as they hummed and pushed blistering air at us across the tarmac. We sat huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear after a warning siren went off at another base. “Just wait for the boom,” we were told. “If you don’t hear the boom, it’s not good.”

“Wait, what’s it mean if I don’t hear it?’ I asked.

“That means it hit you.”

Climbing on board our flight back to DC, I was exhausted. As we drew close to the States, I watched the sun rise through the window somewhere over Newfoundland. At 40,000 feet, things fall into perspective. Staring down through the cobalt blue and orange tinted clouds you could make out the twinkle of city lights. As people shook themselves awake seven miles below me, I wondered what they were doing.

Somewhere down there, someone was rushing to get to an office so they could yell at people for not pumping out enough of some trivial product or another. People were neglecting their families to race after a paycheck that would only buy more things that probably wouldn’t make them as happy as time with their family would have. From the air, it was so easy to see how worthless a lot of our efforts are. I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window.

Then I thought of the soldiers that I had just performed for and just how tough the conditions can be, not only for them but for their families back here in the States. I was there for two weeks and was worn out from the heat and the early mornings and the cramped conditions. What our soldiers have chosen to do, for years on end, makes them nothing short of amazing to me. They’re heroes.

I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know if our presence in the Middle East is good or bad. I don’t know if it changes anything on a grand scale. The global aspect of our efforts over there aside, I know that I’ve met individuals that have made an impact on a personal level with the people of Iraq, and that’s where it counts.

A real impact, too; not one that seems insignificant when viewed from a distance. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m in the right place or if I’m not supposed to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else. The one thing I got while staring out that window was that it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m happy.

There’s a world where bombs go off and people carry guns and other people will blow themselves up because God told them to. It’s a world where life can end abruptly and without warning, and I don’t want to spend any more of mine than I have to chasing something unnecessary and useless.

I am grateful to those men and women that put themselves in that situation so that I don’t have to.


JC: Last week JR reviewed David Goodwillie’s new novel, American Subversive, saying that it picked up where Trance left off, and reminded him of Eat the Document, both of which are good enough to get my attention. Here he is again with a fine interview with the author himself.

Jason Rice: Where did the idea for American Subversive come from? Up to this point you’d written a memoir, Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.  The first novel, was it looming?

It was at least in part because of the memoir that I started writing about two characters completely different from myself (unless you’re David Sedaris, one memoir at a relatively young age is more than enough).  Paige Roderick is an idealistic young woman from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.  She’s from a military family, and when her older brother dies in Iraq, she turns to radicalism as a way to avenge his death.  The book’s other main character, Aidan Cole, is a failed journalist-turned-gossip-blogger, who starts investigating Paige’s group after a bomb goes off in New York.  I saw them as two sides of my generation—a woman who cares too much about the world, and a guy who’s apathetic and barely cares at all (at least in the beginning).  I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.  The book had been evolving in my mind for some time. I wanted to write about serious and often controversial themes—politics and media, apathy and activism, the way people should react to events in the larger world—and do so in a thriller-ish way.

The state of America right now seems perfect for these kinds of characters to spring forward and grab the spotlight.  Do you see someone like Paige or Aidan surfacing, or a Weatherman group forming?  With the past eight years — terrible at best — behind us, isn’t it ripe for something like you describe in American Subversive?

I’ve always been fascinated by American extremist movements—especially The Weather Underground.  Imagining something like that occurring today—an organized group of middle- and upper-middle class students (most of them liberal arts kids or Ivy Leaguers) using violent means in an attempt to stir revolt, and end a misguided war—might be hard to do.  But that’s exactly the problem.  We’ve been so conditioned as a nation—and this dates back to Joe McCarthy and the early rhetoric of the Cold War—to worship at the alter of untethered capitalism, that a dangerous close-mindedness—a bunker-like us-against-them mentality—has come to define our politics.  I’m reminded of a great line from the New Yorker writer, Ian Frazier:  “Capitalism, having defeated communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy.”  Well, I’m not saying there’s a better answer than capitalism—indeed I haven’t found one.  Certainly, The Weather Underground (misguided as they were) didn’t provide one.  But the seeds of their struggle, their idealistic conviction that taking some form of action could not just jumpstart wide reform but change the face of a nation…well, we could use a bit more of that these days.  You can look at what happens to the characters in American Subversive to understand that violent extremism is no cure for what ails us, but neither is burying our heads in the sand.  Collective apathy, silent terrorism (if you will), may be the deadliest form of all.

To achieve the “what happens next” quality of this book, you do two things: keep your action in one or two places, and never tell us anything we don’t need to know.  Do you think that’s accurate? And was that hard to achieve or involve great discipline?

Writing American Subversive was certainly a learning experience.  I was trying to toe that very thin line between literature and suspense (so many books, it seems, fall into one camp or the other).  I wanted to write the best book I could write in terms of language, but I was also quite aware of keeping the story moving, of building momentum.  It was hard at times, especially since the novel is told in (more or less) alternating voices and styles, and flips back and forth in time.  Once or twice I wrote myself into a corner, but I always got myself out (with an occasional assist from my editor).   Now, I think the plot may be the strongest part of the whole thing.

You said you did a lot of research to write this novel, but the book doesn’t seem “fact heavy,” you release details slowly, and make them grow organically.  Where did your research start for this book?

I’m a stickler for facts, even in fiction. It was important that American Subversive “feel” real, that the reader could envision these events actually occurring.  In researching the book, I read dozens of novels and memoirs, from political thrillers to extremist tell-alls–even bomb-making manuals.  I also ended up speaking with all kinds of experts, including an FBI ordnance specialist, and a former member of the Weather Underground.   I wanted, as much as possible, to understand what living underground was really like—not just the issues of movement, technology and assimilation, but the minute-to-minute pressures and anxieties.  Most were helpful, some were wary.  One former Weatherman told me, via email, to stop dredging up the past, and he actually got pretty angry.  When I told my agent, she laughed and asked me what, exactly, I’d expected.  These people blew up buildings for real.  Some of them might not be the most stable members of society.

You mention 9/11 in this book, and you really nail the mood in Manhattan after that awful day.  Do you think it was a watershed moment for our generation? (I’m 41.)  Can things ever be like they once were? There seems to be a level of paranoia in my own life that I just can’t shake, like the government got away with something in the last 10 years. Do you feel the same thing?

I didn’t want American Subversive to be a “9/11 book”—for one, it takes place in 2010—but of course it’s impossible to write about politics and terror without 9/11 looming over the story.  The events that precipitate the narrative—the Iraq war, the mood in New York City—can certainly be traced back to 9/11, and yet most New Yorkers I know feel pretty divorced—or at least separated from that awful day.  Many of us lived through it first or second hand, but we’ve moved on—or should I say pretended to.  We’re aware, of course, that we’re still target number one on most terrorist hit lists, but it’s not something you can think about too much without going a little crazy.

I like to ask writers I interview who they’re reading right now, and who shaped them as writers, asking something silly like what are your influences.  What’s on your nightstand?

I never took many writing classes—I thought being surrounded by so many other (no doubt better) writers would scare me off.  Instead I learned to write by reading voraciously—all kind of stuff, from serious literature to whodunits.   I write about books quite a lot now (for The Daily Beast and other places) so my reading is a mix of books I pick out and stuff that’s picked out for me.  A few recent favorites include Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, (absolutely hilarious), Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff (absolutely devastating), and—to throw in a little nonfiction—Ian Frazier’s On The Rez (absolutely perfect).

Are you working on another novel?

Yes.  And they don’t get any easier.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, David.

My pleasure, Jason.  Thanks so much.

I’ve decided to post this list after having kept it scrawled in notebooks over the years. The inspiration for it comes from one of my favorite people on this planet, Tom Rhodes. He has a list of over 1000 things he simply calls “Happiness”. I started keeping my own list a few years ago – which has been edited and updated and deleted from sporadically over time – but still serves as my own reminder that there are far more good things than bad on these little paths we all stumble down.