Lejla Kalamujic is the author of the novel-in-stories Call Me Esteban, available from Sandorf Passage. Translated by Jennifer Zoble.


Kalamujic is an award-winning queer writer from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Call Me Esteban received the Edo Budisa literary award in 2016 and it was the Bosnian-Herzegovinian nominee for the European Union Prize for Literature in the same year.

Jennifer Zoble translates Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian- and Spanish-language literature. Her translation of Mars by Asja Bakic (Feminist Press, 2019) was selected by Publishers Weekly for the fiction list in its “Best Books 2019” issue. She contributed to the Belgrade Noir anthology (Akashic Books, 2020), and her work has been published in McSweeney’s, Lit Hub, Words Without Borders, Washington Square, The Iowa Review, and The Baffler, among others. She’s a clinical associate professor in the interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program at NYU.


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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.”

“A river bends because it has no choice. This is how it is for brothers at war.” –excerpt, J.A. Tyler’s Variations of a Brother War

Variations of a Brother War is a multifaceted tale about the irreparable damage battlefield atrocities have on two brothers who return to the home front only to find themselves warring over the same woman. Similar to the conflict outlined in Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, J.A. Tyler has engineered a stunning formula for conflict, presenting the tragic breakdown of familial and romantic relationships amidst the raw chaos of war.

My husband wanted to see Civil War battlefields.

I said, not exactly my idea of a good time, but I only said it inside of my head, because to state such a thing out loud was only asking for a fight.

He said, you don’t have to go.

No, no, I said. I’ll see battlefields. If that’s what you want to do.

From a Nigerian-American on Memorial Day to my father, veteran officer, Biafran Infantry and my father-in-law, veteran, U.S. Navy (served in Vietnam). They and others like them, then and now, are the reason I have myself never had to experience the horrors of war.

There are no voices over ordered rows of stone,
Visitors silent over silent hosts,
And, dotted nationwide at work or recreation,
The quiet few who lend voice to comrade ghosts.
No more than honest pride at our acclaim
That they went to serve when we called their name.

I bought a book!

It happens sometimes. What are we calling physical books now? Book-books as opposed to e-books. I don’t feel a need to call them anything other than books, unless the distinction needs to be made. In this case, it does; I bought a paperbook.

Sometimes people buy them for me — people who know me well, who consider the content as well as the cover design and age. Pulp sci-fi collections are my favourite; recently I was given a 1963 Penguin science fiction compilation edited by Brian Aldiss, the classic orange-and-white cover overlaid with a scribble of something that might be a robot, or a satellite, or a bucket of spatulas. It includes stories by Isaac Asimov, Walter M. Miller, Clifford D. Simak, Aldiss himself, “up-and-coming British author Jim Ballard”…and John Steinbeck.

Olaf Olafsson, an Icelandic author living in New York, is the author of three previous novels: The Journey Home, Absolution, and Walking Into the Night, as well as a story collection, Valentines. He is also the Executive Vice President of Time Warner, and he lives in New York City with his wife and three children.


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.

DeWitt Henry is the author of the novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel), and a mid-life memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations.  Both are sequels to his latest memoir, Sweet Dreams, about growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line.  The founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, he is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston.  (For more details, please visit www.dewitthenry.com.)

Congress is the 1 percent.

If I’m off here, I’m not off by much. Two-thirds of our senators, and over 40 percent of our congressional representatives are millionaires. The family of the average member of the House of (Non-) Representatives has about five-and-a-half times the wealth of the average American family. 

It is from that exalted perch that laws are handed down which tend to benefit. . . the 1 percent.

Surprise? Not really.

Politics has always been a rich man’s game. And I’m not being gender-neutral here, because for the most part what I’m writing about isn’t gender-neutral. Money as an access point to politics—and wealth as a consequence of wielding power—is nothing new or different: see Washington, George; real estate deals.

Nor should we reflexively smear anyone and everyone simply on the basis of income or origin:

Roosevelt in 2012!

But this severe economic skew in the makeup of our leadership class has serious consequences in terms of what our representatives think of as baseline normal. I am less concerned about the pernicious effects of “the Washington Bubble” and more concerned about the effects of “the Money Bubble.”

Congress decidedly does not feel our pain.

And they need to, if they are to properly diagnose and understand what ails us as a society.

We tinker with the Constitution at our peril. It has long been true that the Bill of Rights could not survive a popular vote: Americans are strongly in favor of free speech and freedom of religion, for example. . . except when people say things we don’t like, and excluding—you know—those weird UnAmerican religions. The Founders couldn’t possibly have really meant to permit them.

Having acknowledged the dangers, I would still propose three constitutional amendments to put the U.S. House and Senate back in touch with the day-to-day realities of “we the people.”

1. The mandatory medical plan for members of Congress and their families shall be Medicaid.

They think funding for Medicaid is adequate? Then they should get perfectly good care there.

2. Anyone serving in any public office—national, state, or local—shall have their children enrolled in public school.

We’re defunding kids? Fine. We’re defunding your kids, too.

3. There shall be created a Congressional Battalion, made up of the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of every person elected to Congress (no substitutions please; spouses or exes not accepted). In any American military action, the Congressional Battalion shall be the first unit put into service.

Congress seems indifferent to its constitutional responsibilities regarding declarations of war; presidents more or less get to do what they want.  One suspects that substituting their own for the children of other people would make them a little less blithe about the exercise of U.S. power abroad.

I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to a Cadillac and a vacation condo; I do believe everyone is entitled to healthcare and education. That’s not just soft altruism: you build a strong society, a strong economy, on the foundation of a healthy and well educated population.

While I am often skeptical about military action, I’m not a pacifist. But I am disturbed by how freely our politicians spend the lives of other people’s children on causes to which they would be loathe to sacrifice their own.

We get the word “society” from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” We get “companion” from the Latin com and panis, “with bread,” meaning people with whom we break bread.

And when our leaders eat cake and the people get crusts. . . ?

That bodes well neither for the fate of our society nor for the fate of our leaders. 


(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.


Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”


What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.


In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”