Was it really that bad?

Fuck off.


Y’know, being a dad…wife in the war, Middle East, etc.

It was a fairly constant struggle for me: The fact that it wasn’t that bad at all. In fact, many times—a lot of the time—it was quite excellent. I can’t really adequately describe what it’s like to get rip-roaring drunk by yourself, as the bats fly overhead, wife in Baghdad, with the sound of the call to prayer ringing out over Istanbul, the moon coming up, and you light an illicit cigarette and the hum of the earth is loud and…A grilled fish lunch at an old cantina in a secluded cove north of Beirut, with the table literally in the water, catching up with an old friend from Riyadh, the waves licking up over the table cloth, sea froth kissing the food with salt water, cold bottles of beer…Or to have Christmas in Erbil, in northern Iraq, the odd situation of your wife agreeing to watch the kid while you put on a suit that doesn’t quite fit, so you can get in a taxi and try to track down Christians who fled Baghdad, in the wake of a bombing at a church that killed dozens, to find a woman who will speak to you, in the middle of the street, on Christmas day, with the taxi idling, getting a good enough quote to go back to the house, so you can file a story, so you can sing “Jingle Bells” and squint in the sun of northern Iraq, and later that night, toast it all with a bottle of duty-free scotch.


Friday was the bombOn our leafy terrace in Lebanon, beside the civil war in Syria, my wife Kelly and I were entertaining an old friend, the new Beirut bureau chief for a major news organization. This woman was moving to town to cover the battle and was scouting houses before she brought her husband and young children. I swirled a large glass of wine, a father myself, and recounted how just a few weeks earlier, a massive, seven-hour shootout had raged just below our balcony, shell-casings bouncing off the asphalt. How I had cowered in our bedroom, checking periodically to ensure our three-year-old daughter was still asleep, listening as thousands of additional rounds of machine gun fire bounced off the walls outside. How Lebanese soldiers arrived in camouflaged armored personnel carriers, and how seven or eight grenades exploded when the bad guys down the block determined that they would fight to the death. How, instead of cowering beside me, my wife Kelly had put down her wine glass, grabbed a notebook and a flak jacket, and walked off into the night.


Girls’ Generation – Known Nazi Fanatics – Invade America

In the mid-1990s, a massive seismic shift took place under the cultural landscape of South Korea, almost immediately causing a phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave”, or Hallyu (한류).

The Wave – believed by some (Korean) experts to be the most powerful force on earth – has swept outwards from the peninsula, engulfing whole nations, and sparing nobody… Nobody but you, America.

That is, until now.

Everyone was talking on their cell phones while walking around Oslo, taking photos of the shattered glass panes outside shoe and clothing stores downtown. Though the explosion had taken place only forty minutes earlier, the only signs that something was wrong were the long lines of police tape around the parliament building and the sound of sirens and burglar alarms. Everyone was strangely calm just after the accident. No one knew enough to be worried. At four in the afternoon, news online was hard to come by. The official report was that some kind of explosion, maybe a bomb though maybe not, had gone off downtown.

When I was a 25-year-old law student in New York, I applied for an internship at the Israeli consulate and was surprised to instead be offered a full-time job as a speechwriter for the Israeli Mission to the UN. A bit later, despite not even being Israeli, I was asked to move to Israel to be an English speechwriter for prime minister Ariel Sharon.

By the time I left Israel after two and a half years of writing speeches, I had had more than enough of the whole situation. I flew back to America, ready to forget the whole thing. But it wasn’t as easy to escape as I had hoped.

For starters, I seemed to have unwittingly developed an area of expertise. I don’t mean to suggest that I was anything like an actual expert on Israel–my Hebrew was still shaky and I never could figure out why Israelis drank chocolate milk out of a bag instead of a carton –but I’d gained some firsthand knowledge of how the Middle East functioned, or didn’t.

As a result, when I decided to get into journalism and started to pitch articles, everyone wanted me to write about the Middle East. So soon I was interviewing former colleagues in the Israeli government and analyzing the always horrible situation for various newspapers and magazines.

The analysis was usually simple:

1. People are killing each other.

2. That is nothing compared to the threat of violence on the horizon.

3. There is a glimmer of hope that things will be worked out for the best.

4. But they probably won’t.

It didn’t take a Ph. D. in Middle East Studies to put together this incisive analysis. I made frequent phone calls to interview people in Israel, but because I was now back in North America, many of the experts I was contacting were in the United States. I spoke with American politicians and their aides, lobbyists, Middle East activists of various stripes, military folks and fund-raisers. And as I published more articles, I was approached by more and more laypeople. Laypeople whose convictions were firmer and more entrenched than any I had encountered in the Middle East itself.

“We should attack Iran,” an audience member at one of my speaking events would say, leaving it entirely unclear who she meant by “we” or if she herself was willing to join in the fighting.

“I prefer to think of Hezbollah as political activists, not terrorists,” someone else would write in an email, which to me sounded like arguing that Italy was not really a country, but more like a pizza party.

It was all a bit overwhelming. Before I’d found myself entangled with the Israeli government, I hadn’t known all that much about the Middle East situation. By the time I finished my stint abroad, my eyes had been opened wide to the dysfunctional way the region often worked. But I still had the vague idea that if the situation were being handled by the people I’d grown up with — by those from New York or Los Angeles or Toronto — then everything could have been solved by now.

It turned out that I was horribly wrong. As soon as I started to work as a journalist, I was blown away by the fervency and emotion that discussions of the Middle East elicited in North America. Everyone I encountered — whether they fell on the right among the hawks or on the left among the doves, whether they were Jew, non-Jew, or Arab — seemed sure that if they were just given six months and the authority, they could solve the Middle East conflict once and for all. Probably without leaving their armchairs, or taking a break from yelling at CNN.

Even in Israel, where I’d interacted with Israelis from all over the political spectrum, or at the UN, where I had met various Arab officials, I had encountered very few true Fundamentalists. The majority of those who actually lived in the region dealt with the issue of peace in a practical way, and they seemed to have a firmer grasp of the realities of the situation. For the most part, they seemed to realize that very little could be cast in black-and-white terms, and that the only way to achieve anything in the peace process was to be pragmatic rather than strictly ideological.

Not so in the West, where there was no room for nuance when discussing the Middle East. People I encountered here were set in their opinions. Something as trivial as reality was never going to change their minds.

Shortly after I returned from Israel and started writing about my experiences in the Middle East, I began to get requests to appear as a guest on radio and television shows. The invitations came in from right-wing shows, left-wing shows, shows aimed at Jewish listeners and even from Al Jazeera. It was at one of the first of these — a show that was broadcast on national television in Canada — that I realized just how nasty and unproductive these discussions could get.

I had received a phone call from a producer asking me if I would be a part of a panel discussion. The panel, along with a studio audience and the audience at home, would watch a documentary about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. After that, we could discuss it and field questions from the audience.

Sure, I thought. Why not? Well, soon I would find out exactly why not. On the day of the show, I arrived at the studio and met the producer in the lobby, along with Harris, a political activist from Washington, and Oded, the Israeli who had made the film.

“You three are the moderates on the panel,” the producer told us, and we looked at one another as if trying to discern signs of ideological affinity.

There were a fair number of people involved, the producer explained, among them far-left activists, far-right, pro-Israel activists, former Palestinian prisoners and Norman Finkelstein, a controversial professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

I was peripherally aware that, at the time, Finkelstein was in the midst of a battle to get academic tenure. The child of Holocaust survivors, he was a vocal and acerbic critic of Israel, and his tenure application process had turned highly political.

He and Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor and ardent supporter of Israel, were engaged in what amounted to verbal warfare. A few years earlier, Finkelstein had published a book devoted to attacking Dershowitz’s Middle East stance and accusing him of plagiarism. Dershowitz had reportedly tried to stop the book from being published — apparently asking Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to intervene, since the book was published by the University of California Press. The two academics were now involved in an ongoing personal conflict. Some were even saying that Dershowitz had tried to dissuade DePaul from granting Finkelstein tenure.

Oded disappeared with one of the producers, and Harris and I were led into one of the green rooms, where assorted people were waiting for the show to start. I couldn’t identify some of them, but one group was clearly the former Palestinian prisoners. Looking at them, I thought of my stint in the Israeli government. I had begun it with a reflexive support for Israel and its policies; by the time I had finished, I still only wished the country the best, but had begun to see more complexity in the issues than before.

Still, while I knew that Israel often locked up Palestinians for what might seem to an outsider like mild offences — throwing stones at heavily armoured tanks, for example — I also thought that a solid portion of jailed Palestinians were there for good reason. So I couldn’t help but wonder who exactly I was sharing the stage with.

Eventually, we were called to the studio. There, scattered among the bright lights and camera equipment, were about a hundred audience members. Our chairs were labeled with our names and set up in a circle. The audience sat around us in a bigger circle.

One of the Palestinian former prisoners was seated directly beside me, and we greeted each other and shook hands. We made small talk and I wondered what he would think once he found out that I had been a mouthpiece of the government that imprisoned him. I didn’t know if he had tried to blow up Israelis or if he had just sworn at the wrong border guard, but I did know that he had recently been in an Israeli jail and I had recently been in the Israeli government, and we were chatting just like two strangers seated beside each other at a wedding — one from the groom’s side and the other from the bride’s.

Before anyone on the panel was officially introduced, we watched the movie together. It was a portrayal of the culture and difficult conditions Palestinian prisoners had to weather in Israeli jails. I thought it was interesting but fairly innocuous — from what I knew about Israel, it wouldn’t have been particularly controversial there, where criticism of the state’s policies from a multitude of different angles was the norm.

But, as it turned out, the video was extremely controversial on this side of the world. Right after the movie ended, the host launched the discussion and it quickly grew heated. A few right-leaning panelists denounced the film for being too sympathetic to the Palestinians and not mentioning Israeli suffering. Some on the left criticized it for not showing what they believed to be the true extent of the plight of Palestinian prisoners. For a long while, the Palestinian former prisoners stayed quiet, but when the host asked the one beside me to speak about his impression of the movie, he said that his experiences had been much more gruelling than those portrayed in the film. This enraged the far-right activists, who started yelling. That, in turn, enraged the far-left activists, who started yelling louder. Things were not going well.

The host only introduced his guests after they jumped into the fray. And since I’d quickly realized that this was not an argument I wanted any part of, I was not opening my mouth. So I just sat up there–a silent, nameless figure on a violently heated panel.

Soon the argument had veered away from the movie itself and back toward the old hackneyed Middle East debate. Those on the far left talked about colonization, checkpoints and brutal Israeli soldiers. The panelists on the far right talked about terrorism, suicide bombing and biblical land claims. Those on the left seemed to believe that Israel was the cause of all of the Middle East’s problems, as well as the deficiencies in American foreign policy. To the right, Israel was always correct — even if its security measures were disproportionate or its settlement policies unproductive. The panelists on the left thought that any measures Israel took to protect its citizens’ lives were discriminatory, that its policies were designed to oppress the Palestinians, and although they didn’t say it explicitly, it sounded like their prescription was for Israel just to simply cease to exist. Those on the right thought that every waking thought of each Palestinian was to kill all the Jews on the planet. When they looked at a Palestinian, all they saw was Hitler. As they argued, in louder and louder voices, it was almost as if the two sides couldn’t even hear each other at all.

A few times Harris and a couple of the other relatively restrained people managed to push their way into the conversation, trying to strike some kind of middle ground before being yelled back into silence. It was during one of these exchanges that I noticed an interesting little aside.

In the front row of the audience, just behind my Palestinian neighbour and me, were a couple of his friends. Before the show had started, they had been chatting a bit in English, and had greeted me as well, unaware of my backstory. Now, as Harris and a few other nonfanatics tried — more or less vainly– to have their voices heard, one of these audience members leaned forward to speak to his friend, the Palestinian former prisoner beside me.

“It’s easier to deal with the extreme Zionists,” he whispered. “Much harder to deal with the moderates.”

The Palestinian nodded in agreement. With the panelists screaming tired cliches back and forth, it was the most interesting observation I’d heard so far.

Meanwhile, the shouting continued, and I remained quiet, increasingly aware that I was the only one who wasn’t getting involved, while a studio and television audience looked on, probably wondering why I’d been put on the panel in the first place. Self-conscious, I started staring downward to avoid the camera, which meant that I found myself looking directly at Norman Finkelstein’s socks.

Wow, I thought, Norman Finkelstein is wearing some pretty flamboyant socks.

They were a medley of col-ours in an intricate pattern, and as I continued to stare at them as a distraction, I wondered if he always wore socks like that or if he had just chosen to wear them because he was on TV. Anyone watching the show would have seen a group of people ferociously debating the Middle East, and one person staring at his copanelist’s feet.

Eventually, the host asked for members of the studio audience to comment, and a succession of them did, mostly spouting the same angry arguments aired by the panelists, only in far less lucid forms.

The final one, though, brought the emotional pitch up a notch. He was a teenager of Palestinian descent, but English was his native tongue, and it was clear that he was just as North American as me. Immediately after getting ahold of the microphone, he launched a barrage of angry insults at the right-wing pro-Israel crowd on the panel, berating them and accusing them of “stealing my country.”

One of the panelists took the bait and started yelling back.

“But it’s not your country!” he screamed. “It’s our country!”

The teenager’s eyes started to tear up, and he continued to scream until his microphone was taken away and everyone was quieted down.

It wasn’t really either of their countries, I thought. They both lived on the other side of the world, and enjoyed the kind of security and peace of mind that those living in the region — both Israeli and Palestinian — could only dream of. But they both believed they had the answer to the conflict, just like everyone else on the panel.

And that’s when I decided that I would be the one to finally make Middle East peace. If nothing else, I figured, it would shut everyone up.

SIX MONTHS OR LESS: Without Leaving Your Apartment by Gregory
Levey © 2010 by Gregory Levey.  Excerpted with permission by Free Press,
a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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.


I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.