Our war experiences are shaped by pop culture. Pop Culture tells us how war is supposed to be experienced. It tells us what should happen to us in war. It tells us how to prepare for war and how to return from war. It is also hopelessly, inevitably wrong.
Yesterday this fantastic article by Alex Horton was published in the Washington Post. As I’ve previously written, I am a Vonnegut fanatic. Slaughterhouse Five has served as a model of writing for the sake of your sanity. Vonnegut is a writer that I keep in mind when I sit down to the keyboard. His path to writing his famous Dresden story reminds me that writing is a long process. The seething anger over the futility of war, the disgust at the waste of life, and the persistent hope for humanity are themes that grab me by the collar and toss me from wall to wall, stirring up reactions that I didn’t realize were buried within.
So it goes.
Horton’s piece stayed on my mind all day. I thought about the old tropes of war. As Horton pointed out you’re supposed to have a great romance back home to match the great romance of being off at war. You’re also supposed to have books to distract you, anchor you to the real world. Some people have certain movies or music that serve the same purpose. Old hands talked about their Invasion Songs that they chose to blast as they invaded in 2003. There was also no shortage of bootleg DVDs in Iraq. Having a regular movie night with the people in your unit is one of the few escapes some had.
I thought of one of my high school teachers who’d been in Vietnam. Mr. Cook was one of our technology teachers and I took every class of his that I could. JW Cook spent a few tours in Vietnam, some of it with the 101st Airborne as a grunt and then he spent some time doing long range reconnaissance. No doubt he was in the shit in the dirtiest way. He was a great mentor and one of the few people who wrote to me while I was in Iraq. Cookie would always play music for us during class (this was the beginning of the Napster golden age). One day he put on The Who’s Teenage Wasteland. As it played Mr. Cook told us of the first time he heard that song. At night in a bunker it came on the radio, already old in the US. When it came on he and his buddy looked at each other bewildered, “it was like music from the gods.” I can still see the look on Mr. Cook’s face as he told us about that. Eyes somewhat in the classroom, but also in a far away land. Unstuck in time.
Nine years later I would be the one in a faraway land. Having my laptop meant I could binge on The Office at will. I could tailor my war songs however I wanted. The Dropkick Murphys played often, serving as a connection to the Gulf War. Books were a premium though. They’re heavy and take up lots of valuable space in your bags. I brought a few with me. Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle and Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson didn’t last me very long. The guy I replaced at Camp Savage left a couple books behind. One was Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, and the other was a copy of one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books… in Korean. So I read one of them, brought both home as souvenirs, and have since thrown one of them out (take a guess).
One book that I took comfort in during my deployment sticks out among all the others.
After a couple weeks in Kuwait my Border Transition Team meandered to Camp Taji, one fuck of a shithole in Baghdad. We had a couple more weeks of in-country training before we went to Basrah. Lots of Arabic classes, some more cultural awareness training, and other combat advisory type things that the Army wanted us to know. The facilities were absolute trash. Dank open bay barracks made of cinder blocks and cracked cement, a dining facility that couldn’t hold all of us at one time, and shipping containers for classrooms.
One small relief was the hookah cafe. As a way for us to gain extra cultural insight the Army set up a tiny hookah cafe and paid retired Iraqi military officers to hang out there. These guys taught some of our classes and basically got extra pay for sitting around hitting the hookah with us, if any dared. With no alcohol available I happily went to partake most nights. Soccer matches on the TV, plenty of strong chai, unlimited free tobaccos of varying flavors (thanks taxpayers!), and the Iraqis were happy to talk about anything. It was also a convenient way to get some space from the guys that I’d been cooped up with 24 hours a day for months. The memory of those nights that lingers is one evening when I asked one of the retired Iraqi officers what he thought of democracy in Iraq and if it would last. He paused to show fair consideration, but also looked sad as he said he hoped so but did not think it would work. So it goes.
The other bright spot was the MWR (Morale, Welfare, & Recreation) office. Pretty small compared to the MWR at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, and nothing compared to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) which served as one of the largest (the largest?) US bases in Iraq. Or rather, the bright spot was what I found in the MWR. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. In 1960 John Steinbeck set off on a spectacular road trip with his French poodle Charley. He chronicled America and Americana as only he could. A vagabond trekking and living with whomever he encountered. A few weeks of platonic one night stands, reflecting on what he saw and the isolation of being on the road with Charley.
What an odd book to have found at Camp Taji. It seemed out of place, a prisoner of Iraq as much as I was. There to serve a fruitless purpose and to be forgotten in time. The thought of reading the book and abandoning it seemed a terrible tragedy, so I liberated Travels with Charley. Steinbeck became a vagabond again and has remained with me. I still love the smell of the aged pages. Holding this book in my hands reminds me that the bizarre time of my life spent in a far off desert really did happen. The comforting feeling is there too. Reading a book about traveling across America while I was 6,000 miles away with nothing but uncertainty in front of me provided an anchor. Travels with Charley reminded me of what still existed back in my other life. It reminded me of the things worth fighting and sacrificing for. Maybe in a way it was the perfect book to find at Camp Taji.
Until we meet again.