Sunday, June 22, 2008

Classic Moments in Soldiering: Hey, Try This!

This exchange came as we scarfed down the goodies out of a care package that had been handed to us as we sat around the chaplain's tent today. We found a bag of peanut butter M&Ms that was already torn open, spilling some into the box, which I snatched and tossed into my mouth.

Me (chewing): Uh, this bag wasn't sealed and these kinda taste like diesel exhaust.
Sgt D (eating): Yeah, definitely diesel exhaust.
Me: So, uh, you gonna stop eating them?
Sgt D (still eating): Hmmmmm, thinkin' about it.

So we stopped eating, but we definitely didn't throw them away, because we had to offer them to anyone who came into the tent. And it wasn't like we were tricking anyone:

Us: Hey, try one of these. They taste like diesel.
Them: Awesome. (tries one). Gross.
Us: Yeah, ain't it?

It's the little things.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Soundtrack to My Life

Oh, it was getting about time to participate in another silly meme. So here we go, courtesy of IndianaJane.

Here's how it works:

1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...
7. Include commentary

Opening Credits: Zak and Sara, Ben Folds Five.
Pretty good start, to a quirky romantic comedy. Which is not at all what I imagine my life to be.

Waking Up: I Can't Help It, Johnny Cash.
Starting the day with unrequited longing? At least the dragging beat fits my typical morning mood.

First Day at School: Wolverine, Sufjan Stevens.
Fitting: hesitant, understated. "Take it in stride, take it in stride, take it in stride. It's not your fault, it's not your fault, it's not your fault". I wish someone had told me that then!

Falling in Love: It's Been So Very Long, Plankeye.
Pop-punk's a strange genre for love, but the lyrics are perfect: "It's been so very long, since I've been man enough, to be the kind of man, if I'm'onna hold your hand."

Fight Song: La redecouverte. Yann Piersen (Amelie soundtrack).
The fight occurs in surreal silence behind a lilting waltz of an accordion, a glockenspiel, maybe, what is that, a klavinette? Is that the right name for that? Anyways: Awesome.

Breaking Up: Pancho and Lefty, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
I throw my banged-up guitar into my rusted musclecar and tear off down a dusty country road. Cue montage of me drinking my sorrows away in a series of increasingly shady roadhouses, finding myself down and out in a gutter, pulling out that picture of my girl that I just couldn't let go of, throwing away my fifth of cheap whiskey in disgust (which shatters, because in movies even cheap booze still comes in glass) and climbing onto a bus headed for home.

Prom: Oh, Fugazi.
This soundtrack rather optimistically imagines my high school to have been much hipper to the indie scene than is plausible for rural east-central Wisconsin. Also, you can't dance to this, but it'd be amusing to see someone try.

Life's Ok: This Is Not a Love Song, The Juliana Theory.
This would make for a very bittersweet sort of "Life's Ok" moment. Maybe this is fitting for a Dark Lutheran? "and you're so far away, and I'm sitting right here. It's ten o'clock your time, and it's one by mine".

Mental Breakdown: Take the "A" Train, Duke Ellington.
Hahahahaha. I love it. My soundtrack is so very appropriately surreal.

Driving: Janine, Soul Coughing. This is more than just a trip, this a journey. A journey of self-discovery. Contemplative, mournful, dirty acoustic guitar scratching, and the gonzo touch of a lo-fi answering-machine recording of a woman singing "The Lemon Tree" (tune-and-rhythmlessly) playing in the background through the length of the song.

Flashback: It's a Scientific Fact, Tom Glazer & Dottie Evans (the Singing Science records). Definitely a flashback, but not exactly what we were going for. "It's a scientific fact that there are belts of radiation in outer space that are a hazard for future space travelers to overcome."

Getting Back Together: Lady Eboshi, (Princess Mononoke soundtrack).
Haunting orchestral melody, pizzicato strings opening to an oboe solo, brimming with mournful hope. The past cannot be forgotten or overcome, but the pain strengthens our love.

Wedding: The Colony Room, The Sea and Cake.
Now is the time for something understated and light-hearted. We don't want to overdo anything.

Birth of Child: Amazon, M.I.A.
What better to commemorate the birth of a child than underground Lankan-British trip hop self-produced on a 4-track mixer in a London basement?

Final Battle: The Gash, The Flaming Lips.
The song is about not quitting, as much as any Flaming Lips song is about anything. I suppose that works. I just wish it had been "Fight Test". That'd have been perfect. Oh well.

Death Scene: Narcolepsy, Ben Folds Five.
I guess that works. It's sort of epic-tragic anyway. I'd like to think of my life as more the former than the latter, but you take what you get.

Funeral Song: Cinders and Smoke, Iron and Wine.
"Give me your hand, take what you will tonight. I'll give it as fast, and high as the flame will rise. Cinder and smoke, you ask me to pray for rain, with ash in your mouth, you ask it to burn again." Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

End Credits: Brazil, Grant Green.
(from the Brazil soundtrack, which is something like 17 different versions of the same tune).
A nice electric jazz guitar version of the old standard. A fitting end to the strange movie of my life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Face Of Hope

Meet Sheikh Ahmad Fatah Khan al-Rishawi. He and his late brother Sheikh Sittar (assassinated by al-Qaeda last fall) have been architects of the "Awakening" movement that since summer of 2007 has seen Sunni tribes in Anbar province join with each other and with coalition forces to rid their lands of al-Qaeda, and which has become the archetype for American counterinsurgency efforts throughout Iraq. Now he's offered to send his tribesmen as advisors to Afghanistan.

Remember hearing how Iraq's tribes were going to be such a stumbling block? We don't know anything about their relationships, it's a dangerous wildcard, we told ourselves. Seems nobody had the optimism to believe that a social institution that has provided a coherent framework for Iraqi life through millennia of upheaval just maybe could turn out to be a stabilizing force.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

And So The Luster Fades

In a few short months, my opinion of Senator Barack Obama has degraded considerably, to say the least. At the start, when I knew nothing of him but what he chose to present of himself, I was suitably impressed. I never thought much of his policies (or lack thereof), but I at least believed in his idealism. When his church was shown to be a hotbed of racial contempt and grievance-mongering I at least admired his willingness to stand by his associates, even while he artlessly dodged the implications of those associations. I lost the last of my personal respect for him when, so soon after defending his pastor of 20 years, he publicly sacrificed the Rev. Wright on the altar of political expedience. Call me old-fashioned, but loyalty still means something to this soldier.

Then came Mr. Obama's autohagiographic commencement speech this past Memorial Day weekend, with its strangely limited conception of service. For Obama, improving the lives of others apparently only counts as "service" when you're an underpaid left-wing rabble-rouser or organ of a maternalistic government bureaucracy. Referencing the economic challenge of India and China, Obama calls for graduates to become not engineers, scientists and tradesmen, but teachers and administrators. He quotes a young man who joined the Peace Corps “because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country.” This young man has seemingly never seen an Armed Forces recruitment ad anywhere, ever. And those men and women many of us think of first when we think of "service" -- firefighters, policemen, armed servicemen -- who daily protect Americans from those people and forces that would do them harm? Ironically for a speech on service, "the Service" earned not even a mention from Mr. Obama.

After all that, however, it was Senator Obama's victory speech last night in St. Paul that turned my ambivalence to disgust. There are a lot of things in this speech I could write pages about: Obama's disingenuous mischaracterizations of John McCain; his arrogant naivety in thinking that handing out international legitimacy like party favors counts as "tough, direct diplomacy"; his Obamessianic promise to retrochronically create the fields of health care and employment while channeling King Canute's promise to command the tides (and without the good King's pious intent); his fascistic sanctification of "change", as if we live in the worst of all possible worlds and any change must be for the better; or his adolescent whinging that McCain hasn't given him an attaboy for his (unsuccessful) campaign to get asbestos removed from some Chicago tenements at the same age McCain was having his bones broken in a North Vietnamese prison camp. But I'll leave all that aside for the one unforgivable quote of the speech:
[I]t's not change when [John McCain] promises to continue a policy in Iraq that asks everything of our brave men and women in uniform and nothing of Iraqi politicians.
Mr. Obama, before now I was thinking that you really need to visit Iraq, to understand the imminent victory from whose jaws you are so intent on snatching defeat. But after that remark, I truly wish you wouldn't visit Iraq -- though I know political expedience will force you to -- because you have no right to stand alongside the Iraqi politicians you sneer at. If you must go, however, I wish their examples might teach you what hope means when it's not just a pleasant buzzword. These men risk their lives daily to build a future for their country; many have had family members kidnapped and killed. We ask nothing?! They risk everything! They risk everything because they. have. hope. Hope for the future and faith in their countrymen. You would present yourself as an expert on hope, but your denial of the courage and determination of these brave men -- and your cynical reliance on the ignorance and indifference of your supporters to the undeniable political progress being made in Iraq -- has made me realize that whatever you mean by that word, it's something I don't even recognize.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Basrah, After

In March the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police, with limited support from American and British forces, took back control of the port city of Basrah from assorted bands of smugglers and puritanical thugs under the aeges of the Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) and Iranian-supported "special groups". While Prime Minister al-Maliki's new-found willingness to confront Shi'a extremist groups closely tied to his political base was a welcome development, at first the rather slapdash execution of the operation rightly made concerned observers a bit nervous. I stated back in April (a bit boldly, in hindsight) that the IA had proven the naysayers wrong, and it seems the center continues to hold as IA and government-aligned civilian militias keep the peace. Basrah joins the majority of Iraqi cities on the path toward a semblance of normalcy, something even the Washington Post can celebrate with a photoessay of life cautiously coming out of the shadows. At the start of the Basrah operation, I called these "dangerous but hopeful times for Iraq". The danger is most certainly not past, and any progress is reversible. But these pictures speak to the power of hope.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Looking ahead at some changes coming down the pipeline, I figure I should give my loyal readers the heads-up that I'll probably be taking a bit of a hiatus from blogging. Things are getting busy as we prepare for redeployment in a few months, and at some point we'll be moving into tents to make room for our replacements coming in. Long story short, since I don't know exactly when I'll suddenly find myself without internet access, I'm letting you know now so you don't worry if I stop posting for a month or so.

Camel Spider

I have now truly been to Iraq. I have seen the quasi-mythical camel spider. I say quasi-mythical because the creature soldiers tell stories about and the actual beast are pretty much two separate things. The one I saw was just scuttling alongside the path to the bathroom the other night. It was pretty creepy, but I managed to refrain from stomping it. And I'd still prefer that to a scorpion. Haven't seen any of them yet, surprisingly. I would have imagined this place to be crawling with them.

So let me let you in on a little secret, should you ever find yourself out here in the desert. I haven't actually needed this advice, due to the aforementioned lack of scorpions and seeming rarity of camel spiders in this area, but I figure I'll pass it along. Apparently some soldiers like to pull a fast one over on the new guy by taking bets on a staged battle between a camel spider and a scorpion. After all the horror stories he's heard about them, the new guy will always bet on the larger, more fearsome-looking camel spider. But here's the secret: scorpion always wins. There. I just saved you 5 very hypothetical bucks.