Archive | November 2006

Hold on a sec…

I’ve started a separate journal for noting little moments for future writing. It’s not anything overly sappy, but I started holding onto ideas when I think, “Wow, that’d be a good scene for a book.” So, now and again, when I see or am hit with something, I write it down.

I only have a couple of entries so far, but they’re good ones. When I remember them, a flood of other feelings comes with it. It’ll be a good flint and tinder for future literary fires.

I bring it up because I noticed how much I can get out of noticing beauty in small things…you know, the way the sun looks on a certain afternoon, or how a leaf looks alone in a puddle. Isn’t it amazing that I’d have to stop and write down little moments like that? If not, I’d forget them as soon as I saw them, like the Scripture verse that talks about the man who looks in a mirror and then immediately forgets what he looks like when he steps away. I’m not plugged into the crazy-hidden meaning of that little tidbit, but it seems like it’s talking about a person who’s hardly present in life.

The fact that we’re rarely present seems to be the basis for so much hardship in life. By barely present I mean hardly paying attention, waiting for the next bit of entertainment to distract us. “Oh, what’s on at eight?” “They’re playing when? I have to see them.” “C’mon jackass, speed up or get out of the way.”

If I can’t sit with myself for a few hours or an evening now and again, I’m too wrapped up in things. If I can’t just “be” then I’m too addicted to stuff pushing me to be something else–stronger, more handsome, more exciting…be it physically with clothes or cologne or vicariously through a movie or video game.

So the journal thing will help with that, I think. I could push and push to get a few dozen entries out in a day or so, but I’m going to just write down one at a time. I’ll wait a few days and then start to look for another one. It may be a few days more before I notice something, but I want each entry to have some bite.


Reaching new levels

People are being burned alive.

On Thanksgiving, Sunnis killed 215 Shiites in one neighborhood. So Friday, a few Shiites went and set six people on fire. Elsewhere some Shiite mosques were set ablaze, killing 19.

This year, thousands and thousands of bodies have been found throughout the capital. Many are foundĀ  beheaded, most have been tortured–electric drills and the like; before they are killed. Average, every day people. Shopkeepers, students, policemen, interpreters.

Can you imagine living in a city like that? Where kidnapping, torture and bombs are normal? Baghdad is a city of several million people. It has civil entities like any other city–administration buildings, courthouses, markets, parks, water plants, electric plants. People get up and go to work everyday, just like here. They get in their cars and head down the street, listening to the radio.

Except in Baghdad, you don’t know if the men next to you will blow you up, or shoot you. A band of police may stop you, ask for your identification and, if they are Sunni and your are Shiite, or vice versa, they may kill you.

As a father, going to work, trying to feed your family, probably very underemployed, you don’t know if your children will make it though the day. You might try to sign up to be a policeman…one of the few stable jobs left…but who knows if you’ll make it through the recruitment line.

Instead of “Did you do your homework?” and “Remember to look both ways to cross the street,” what do you tell your kids? I’m sure hugs are a little tighter, a little longer, maybe. What sort of values does this violence teach the young Iraq? What sort of anger is being seeded in the hearts of the children as their friends and family are picked off around them?

College students fear for their lives. Dorms are attacked. Professors fear giving bad grades to students, who might go and rustle up a rival militia and have them killed. Many have fled the country, and hundreds who have stayed have been kidnapped or killed.

How do you function in a city like that? Power only works some hours per day. Usually city blocks have generators and you pay the owner for a little bit of power. Clean water is scarce. Trash lines every street. Sewers are a joke. A trip to the market for a day’s food might get you bombed. It’s not like you can stock up for a month’s worth of groceries…no power to keep the food cold.

How does a city function at all? There are curfews at night–no one is allowed on the streets. On Fridays there is no pedestrian or car traffic allowed at all–you can’t even walk anywhere! In light of the recent surge in attacks, even the airport has been shut down until further notice.

How do you function as an Iraqi who wants to stay and make things better? There are all manner of people trying exploit the situation, but there are the men and women who won’t flee, who can’t, maybe, too poor; but who want to rebuild their homeland.

How do you run a business when you can’t get to work? How do you do business at all when people get killed on your street? How many times do you run outside to witness the burned out husks of car bombs and screams of the wounded before you cry out?

All of this, despite all America’s extension of of the troops to “secure the capital.” Now it’s time for all those extra boys to go home. And things will what? Get better?

My heart breaks to think of what it must be like to be a normal citizen there. Friends, cousins, bosses, imams, TV personalities, government officials, all are being gunned down around you. You see teams of men moving down the side streets in the black of night and you hold your breath, hoping they’re not breaking down your door, coming for your family. The Americans are around, but not to help. They just sweep the main roads to keep them clear for convoys. They don’t stop the death squads.

What do we expect the average citizens there to do? How should we expect them to feel? A lot of countries came in, made a lot of money, and all have left Iraq. How do you think that makes the average Iraqi feel? Can we really blame them for being so angry? We keep claiming liberation and democracy, freedom and a better world…and this is it? We say it “takes time,” but does it also take getting much, much worse without any hint of progress? Then it will, what, magically get better, like a fever breaking?

The oil is not flowing, the lights are not on, the government is not working, the killings not only have not stopped, but have escalated to the point where hundreds are killed every day…what’s next? Oh that’s right, I remember: stay the course.

Easily said in a speech, but harder to swallow, I imagine, as you hold what’s left of your son after a bombing.


Welcome to the Army! Get in line and no talking…

I never thought I’d see anyone with the cajones to suggest bringing back the draft, but our future chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has the desire to do just that.

And I say he’s got a point.

If America wants to continue the occupation of our current colonies–I mean, “liberated countries,” with the added possibility of occupying Syria, Iran, North Korea and a number of African countries (you know, if we smell WMDs or something), then you’re going to have to do something, friends. Ol’ Salmons can’t fight all the wars for you.

The story also lists the strong opposition of the American public to the draft. Seven in 10 oppose conscription. Well, no sh*t! It isn’t so bad when it’s some other person’s kid or friend out there, but when it might be yours or you, that changes everything, doesn’t it?

Not that seven in 10 would refuse to go if conscripted, but it’s just interesting to see how many yellow ribbon magnets are on cars, but how many want it to be someone they don’t know.

But Lord help us if there was a draft. We can barely discipline our troops as it is now. No physical contact, no “unnecessary” verbal abuse, no strong language, “sensing sessions” to hear soldier complaints. Ladies often play the harassment card, so male must take extra care reprimanding females–always have a witness, always in the open. The racial card gets thrown out too. “Don’t correct him too much, he might think you’re racist. Find someone else to correct too, so that it doesn’t look as bad.” Basic trainees can’t be treated too rough, lest it hurt their feelings…*shudder*

But the representative’s idea is a good one, I think. He mentioned service wouldn’t just be in the armed forces, but would include seaports, airports, hospitals…that sort of thing. If it were more compatible with the American palate, I think it would do young people a lot of good to have to serve for a few years. Lots of countries have mandatory service: Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Korea. It definitely would make people more appreciative of the whole democratic process.

Then again, I just see this as a precursor to a few hundred thousand more government jobs that will have to be created to manage the whole enterprise.

Ack! Never mind, just let us fight until we’re deaf, crippled and drooling in the corner. I’ll wave whoever’s flag ends up winning.


A chilling effect

It’s finally cooling down. For a straight few days there Texas was warmer than Baghdad, my weather widgets on my Apple dashboard thing told me so.

Now, though, it’s cooler–cold, even. The air conditioning is off and the room stays a comfortable spell without the exercise of electrical climate control.

Last night I stood out on the porch and watched the embers of the day smolder, highlighting streaks of clouds with warm reds and whites amid the chilling air. I stood without any sort of jacket–every once in a while I think it’s necessary to let the elements hit me. It’s a sort of “welcome to the season” ritual I go through. I guess it’s the start of my autumns, winters and summers.

My body shivered. I hadn’t felt that in quite a while, apart from the near-heat exhaustion, where you break into a cold sweat from nausea. I remember feeling that and remembering autumn. Weird, isn’t it?

I think autumn is my favorite time–not too cold, and freshly culled from searing summer, so that the novelty of cooler weather hasn’t passed away entirely.

There are the mornings to contend with–the dark, pre-dawn hours that finds me standing in measured ranks, awaiting the command to exercise. I could do without those. I remember telling my boss one morning that I would hardly miss those little times after I was done with the Army. In fact, I intended never to see anything pre-six A.M. again, if I could vouch for the preference.


On the rocks

Saturday I was invited over to a coworker’s house for a little Veteran’s Day barbecue. He’s an older cat, three kids, the whole deal. He and one of the other sergeants in our unit are both former drill sergeants, airborne and all that, so they’re pretty close. I’m just the guy who keeps ’em all in stitches, so I’m always included, even though I’m just a dirty leg (i.e. not airborne).

I came around dinner time. The sun was still around, behind the nearby houses. It had taken to autumn in the past couple of days, breaking from the high 80s we had at the end of the week and actually getting into jacket weather.

On the menu were fajitas, rice and beans–home cooked, mind you, none of that store-bought crap. I helped my host with the meat while we waited for our admin friend to show up.

Both guys were having tricky times with their families. My host started explaining his story to me as we let in the evening. Basically there were some cheating episodes by him in the past and old hurts were were finally starting to break things apart. You could tell things were tense in the house, among the wife and kids. Still, everybody was polite and courteous, no outright fights or anything.

We had been trying to call our missing party member, but no luck with his phone. He arrived alone after we had finished eating, talking about how his wife had snapped is cell phone in half, and how he barely escaped a bludgeoning from a furniture leg by the woman.

He was having quite a time with his family too. This one was on him, as he was openly pursuing an old flame, and was working to ship his current wife back to Germany. He told us the stories, laughing it up, and gave a few chuckles myself…

…But it still floors me how flippant most soldiers are about the fidelity thing. Officers, enlisted, civilians–everybody is always getting with everybody, married, single, with kids, whatever. It’s a sexual free-for-all.

I was having another conversation with that cat I met at our laundry building a few days ago, talking about using personal sites to try to meet people outside of the military ring.

“It’s just so toxic around here,” he said. “My first wife was a crazy bitch and was just looking to get someone to knock her up so she’d have some money coming in. She just had twins with the guy she has now. That poor bastard doesn’t know what he has on his hands.”

And it’s true, it’s a big joke when someone talks about how their current interest is from some obscure town, “Had to get one that wasn’t poisoned!” people say. Even the towns near military posts are notorious for gold diggers, clingers, and overall damaged and crazy relationships–men and women, now, I’m not singling out any one gender, I just have more experience with looking for lady-types.

“Everyone’s having marriage problems,” my Veteran’s Day host said as we drank some Crown on the porch after dinner. He rattled seven or eight names of people we worked with who were getting divorced. “I’m going to stick with mine, though–see what happens.”

“F*ck that,” our admin friend said. “I’ve got mine a flight already. She’s out in January.”

I just hope he fares better than my old drill sergeant did. He was having trouble too and three weeks after I graduated basic training, his wife shot him.

Makes you want to become a monk.


Someone said “Happy Veterans Day”…wtf?

Time is faster here in the states.

Every day seems like a Friday, like the end of another week. It’s there, it’s gone. October, now November. Thanksgiving will arrive, then the cold. And then Christmas.

And it’ll be gone.

I ran into a guy at our laundry building, started talking. He’s with a military police unit, on his second marriage, and preparing for his third Iraq deployment in a few months. We talked about time and how fast it goes.

“You won’t be seeing me after this month. My wife and I just got a house–nice place, three bedrooms, one and a half acres. Living here was just supposed to be temporary. That was 2003. Then came the deployments. It just goes so fast when you get back, there was never any time.”

I can see what he means. You kind of walk around in this dazed state. They say that goes away, but it’s still going strong. I’ve been back two months? Eight weeks? Wow.

I guess it’s the dreading of the next go’round that fuels the quickening. It’s like waking up twenty minutes before your alarm, tired as hell, trying to squeeze as much sleep before th–and there’s the alarm. Too fast.

I’m sure this whole next however-many-weeks will go by just as quick. Then will come the field problems, the training, and all the other trappings that goes along with preparing for deployment to a combat zone.

The thoughts about time over there are always flying through our heads. Can we ever get the war out of our minds? Will I ever have a day or so without wondering what I should be doing to prepare, or where I’ll be next time, or what I’ll be doing?

The first waves of divorces are tricking through our unit. It’s normal, people say, as spouses find their husbands aren’t the same anymore. Not in any sort of psycho way–ok, maybe for a few; but people complain that we aren’t the same as when we left.

Well, neither are you, neither is this place. Neither is going to Walmart or smelling the Fall. Alright, I guess I can see where those spouses are coming from. I can feel the change too.

It’s weird how that happens, the changes. I mean, I want to be the same guy, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to just accept these new moods and outlooks, or try to get back to who I was before I left. Seriously, though, who wants all this introspection, when Joke-boy Josh is lurking in there somewhere? I don’t either. I’m driving myself nuts just living with myself.

It’s Veterans Day and we’re supposed to look back and reflect. Clicking on to CNN and counting the dead this month doesn’t count. Body counts aren’t remembering. You have to feel the weight of it. You have to let it soak in.

Don’t dally on me, I’m here, time is flying for me. Pretty soon I’ll be 60, with two page views a day on this thing, griping about how OIF XXXIV was way harder than OIF XIX or OIF XXIII. It’ll be cake.

But seriously, go take 10 minutes and don’t say a thing. Just picture as uncomfortable you’ve ever been, add loud noises, and the immanent threat of death. Then pray for a veteran.


New motto

Our most popular slogan of the past 20 years has been “Be All You Can Be.”

The most recent attempt at recreating the “magic” of the above example was “An Army of One,” which no one seemed to get. I didn’t understand it either, really. Was I supposed to look out for only myself? Was I supposed to rely only on my strength? It was confusing. And we always got heckled by other services.

At least the Spanish translation made sense, “Yo soy el Army,” or “I Am the Army.” I liked that one.

Anyway, the millions of recruiting posters and billboards have to come down, there’s a new slogan in town.

I would have lost the period at the end, since it’s not a sentence, but that’s just me. Every time I see it, I think “Army Strong Period.”

And can I get some prayers for the brother or sister who had to edit that video? How many Pentagon officers stood over that poor bastard’s shoulder, eh?

“Add a flag!” “Say ‘Green Earth’ like ‘God’s Green Earth.’ Get it?” “No, put the Abrams first, those are my boys!” “Add the fishing clip.” “Where’s the ‘Hooah!’?” “Now that’s ‘Hooah!’!” “Can you put in a rabbit? My kid loves rabbits.” “Can I get a copy of what you have so far? I want to show my wife and see what she thinks.” “Wife says, ‘More pastels.'”

Reminds me of when Dustin Hoffman in “Wag the Dog” was steaming about the suggestions the president wanted in the refugee film. “Can there be a cat? The president wants cats,” said the assistant, on the phone with the pres.

“I hate it when they meddle. They aaaaaalways meddle.”

Indeed Dustin, indeed.

As a film editor myself, I just felt for whoever had to put that together, since the hopes of freedom and democracy itself was resting on the shoulders of that film. “Get ’em to sign up, son. That’s all we ask. Just get enough boys and girls to stand up so that all we love and hold dear isn’t pummeled to ruins by the evil, contemptible, maleficence of the terrorists. That’s all we ask. Good luck, my boy! I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Heh! Alright, enough procrastinating. I have a paper to write and it’s killing me.


I iz teh stoopid

I’m sure most have heard about the dubious comments made several days ago by former presidential candidate John Kerry involving a potential jab at military service members’ intellects.

While I’m not a big Kerry fan (couldn’t vote for him even against Bush), I looked in to things anyway. The official transcript of the speech lists the quote as:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do
your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well… If
you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Kerry said it was meant to be a joke about how the president is uneducated and how his ignorance leads to things like the current Iraq situation. I can see that.

Bush and every Republican breathing said it was an outright assault on the mental competencies of the uniformed men and women of the United States. While it doesn’t seem THAT strong stated, I can see how it could be construed that way too.

Who’s right? Both are.

Machiavelli teaches us in “The Prince” that in politics, it’s not what you mean but how you are perceived. The best intentions under heaven don’t mean squat if people take it the wrong way.

So, Kerry, even if he did mean it as a joke against the president, made an outright assault on the metal competencies of the uniformed men and women of the United States…because the president told America that’s what he did.

The issue touched off a nerve with soldiers, especially. I heard a lot of talk about the Kerry comments from troops, usually just shaking their heads and cursing “liberals” and how evil they are. I noticed it, mainly because the soldiers I’m around never read or listen to the news. It’s the big joke for troops to come up to me and say “Hey PAO! What’s the news?…*ha ha ha*!” and then walk off. They get a gold star for remembering what I do.

I had been looking at writing a blog about military minds for a bit–not necessarily because of the perceived Kerry insult, but from a few factors that had played out in recent weeks.

Firstly, was the perceived Kerry insult right? Are soldiers stupid?

Brogonzo, a former troop of mine, wrote a blog about all this as well. Soldiers definitely aren’t known for their sharp wits and refined tastes. The defining features of most military towns are strip joints and pawn shops. T-shirts with slogans like “Just do me” or “Rock out with your cock out” are commonplace.

I’m constantly disheartened toward the number of troops who “don’t know nothin’ about history,” who don’t read, or how “Who is the Vice President?” is considered a valid promotion board question. While I get along and have a good time with my uniformed brothers and sisters, I don’t have to exercise too many mental muscles. Although just an average college student, it’s always a good laugh whenever Salmons uses one of his “big words,” ha ha ha! Too bad, really.

But aside from intellect, are soldiers “stupid” for joining? Is the military perceived as for those without opportunity in life? Should we admonish our kids to study hard or else get stuck in the Army?

That’s definitely what happened just a few years ago during the Vietnam conflict. For a good span, college kids were exempt from being drafted, leaving only the uneducated and poor to serve in uniform. The notion of study or fight was definitely the rule of the day.

When the country turned on the war and, subsequently, turned on the troops; people spat on and threw bottles at the poor and uneducated soldiers themselves in a sort of indirect disdain against members of an inferior station. It was easy to demonize the troops along with the government. Soldiers weren’t educated like many of the protesters (or rich, but that’s another issue), they were just baby killers and sell-outs to the Man.

That’s probably why the nerve Kerry touched was so sensitive. Having volunteered for service, soldiers were still trying to break out of the stigma that they were desperate.

Lord knows I was, though! Having moved to Grand Rapids after graduation and being stuck in the economic slowdown that followed even a year after 9-11, I found myself applying to places like Best Buy and Borders, bachelor’s degree in hand, wondering what I was supposed to do next. A couple of months into the search, I decided to head in to the service after the recruiters there had promised I’d be at the White House within a couple of years or working for Stars and Stripes. Whoops, that’s for another post…

But what about education? Are soldiers less intelligent than the privileged students Kerry was addressing? Are we just mindless killers?

The brass and military leadership would say “hell no” of course. They’d say we were the most educated and highly-trained force for humanitarian assistance the world has ever seen. They’d say we were sons and daughters of liberty, selflessly sacrificing our freedoms by serving in war to liberate whole people and nations.

The most educated? Really? But even those officers look at enlisted as brutes and simpletons.

There’s no shortage of classes enlisted personnel are ordered to take on equal opportunity, sexual harassment, laws of war, and the like. Great efforts exist to keep us from using profanity (including a direct order from our unit’s commanding general in Iraq that all who cussed would be prosecuted under USMJ), from raping women, being racist, or wantonly killing innocents.

Every Friday we are required to receive a safety briefing from our commander, telling us not to drink and drive, not to hit our wives or beat our children. That way, when Pvt. Jones DOES end up in jail after his second DUI or domestic violence incident, the command can wash their hands of it and not be affected. There are promotions to be had and books to be written after all; can’t have some uneducated soldier messing up someone’s career.

I can remember two incidents in my time in the Army where I was snidely told to butt out or leave a conversation with officers because I somehow wasn’t a part of the “degree club”. It was a joke for them, but left a lasting impression on me.

Once recruited and in the military, retention officers use abasing tactics to keep soldiers in. I’ve been approached dozens of times by retention guys, asking me to “re-up” (I show up as a “no” on their reports, which never looks good to the higher ups…thus the heckling).

When I politely say “no thanks” they come at me with all sorts of pitches: So what job do you have lined up after you get out? With what company? You think it will pay as much as all your benefits while you’re in the Army? How many kids do you have? You think you can provide for them? You think you have what it takes to make it out there? You honestly think you’ll manage? Name me another job that lets you get a pension after 20 years?

A lot of soldiers cave at the pressure, especially ones with families. Many were snatched up fresh out of high school and never had to find a job. Many of them never were on their own. They went from living with their parents to living with the government. Water is paid for, electricity is paid for…life is safer in the service.

The Army system uses fear to keep us in and, honestly, that’s a little insulting. Do I think I can “actually” make it out there? Wow, thanks for the encouragement.

So all the implications of what Kerry supposedly said turn out to have shades of truth to them. As insulting as they supposedly were, I wonder how many soldiers, after raging against the “evil liberal,” secretly hope their kids can get an education and stay out of uniform to avoid being stuck in Iraq too.


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