Pulling the strings of Narrative

Last night I finished reading Caleb Cage’s “War Narratives”. It was hard to get through at times, but for all the right reasons. Cage takes on a monumental task of breaking down the various narratives that drove us to invade Iraq and then the narrative metamorphosis which enabled continued occupation in the face of failure. This is done with great research and objective assessment while also maintaining a straight forward and plainly spoken prose. It’s scholarly in the best ways and also a book for the common man. No small feat.

I was starting senior year of high school on 9/11. I was in my freshman year at St. Bonaventure when we invaded Iraq. These two events are the foundation of my adulthood. Having lived through these days knowing they would set the trajectory for the rest of my life I fancied myself pretty knowledgable on the subject. Yet “War Narratives” brought new focus to this nightmare. I learned a great deal about the Bush Administration’s deeds in sowing the seeds of war, rallying the country to their corrupt cause (of which I bought into hard), and their bumbling attempts to create any plan to competently execute this war.

Many times I set this book down with trembling hands, having to find positive ways to cope with the rage rekindled. I resorted to writing poems after most chapters. Taking the chapter’s topic and funneling that anger into clumsy verse. If you think my writing here is awful then you should see what happens when I try my hand at poetry.

I am grateful for this book though. This is the sober reflection that America needs. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted in a chaotic frenzy of FRAGO after FRAGO, then American public life and society has moseyed onward in its own piecemeal way. Our microscopic attention spans and non-stop sensory barrage of modern media are the drumbeat to our daily lives. No time for reflection when the next crisis is just 12 hours away. I write this in the middle of a global pandemic which is being used to draw red and blue lines in the sand, where people believe whatever they feel like, and our self-centered culture is on full display in the form of spring breakers and Boomers at retirement communities having block parties.

The value of “War Narratives” is that it gives us the analytical string pulling of a serious historical work with the benefit of coming in near-real time rather than with 40 years of hindsight. This means we can actually process what Cage presents and act on it. This book gives us the tools needed to become more aware of our GWOT flaws and end them while there are still lives to be saved.

There’s much more to unpack from this book and it’s helped me to refocus on some of my writing. There are a couple other topics I will make full posts about. Right now I just want to dive into some simple stories from my deployment as they relate to the chapter ‘On Chickenshit’.

In these pages Cage uses quotes from Matt Gallagher, whose memoir “Kaboom” is one of the clearest portrayals of Iraq that I’ve read. In “Kaboom” Gallagher speaks of the chickenshit acts of sergeants major and field grade officers. These people rarely left the safety of FOBs (later COBs) and suffered from the greatest wartime malady – boredom. People with fancy ranks and no real purpose invariably create missions for themselves. That leads to senior leaders creating new rules, new regulations, new bullshit that must be followed, and they become the enforcers. Don’t have a purpose? No problem, just make up some nonsense that has nothing to do with winning the war and appoint yourself gatekeeper. Things like wearing reflective belts and eye protection at all times. Wearing full uniforms wherever you’re going. Grooming standards that are impractical for anyone actually involved in the main effort.

Do these things in abundance and you all of a sudden need help, and so you hire DA civilians to be brigade safety officers. Now you haven’t just make up a purpose for yourself, but you’ve also created a need for another contract and created jobs. Save that for your evaluation form bullets!

These dedicated servants of safety once pulled us over on COB Basrah. My team had a beat down pick up truck that we would use for running errands around the base. Mail pick up, resupply runs for our team’s needs like fatty cakes and RipIts, or just carpooling to the shops or PX. We’d have a couple guys in the truck and a few sitting in the bed. SSG Harvey, all 6’8” of him, was riding in the bed with me on one of these runs. Suddenly we were being pulled over by some dweebs in armbands and sashes identifying them as Brigade Safety. They wanted to write us a ticket because one of us was standing in the pick up bed. Harvey then stood up and truly towered over these guys. Instead of admitting they made an honest mistake, they tried to still chastise us with a stern warning and empty threat to fine us. As if we gave two fucks who they were. They went on their way and we went on with our business, happily returning to humble Camp Savage and life away from the COB.

Living remotely did not give us a free pass from chickenshit however, oh no. Chickenshit will follow you like a camouflage colored cloud. Military Transition Teams were a wild ride. In concept they were sound. We needed military advisors to help build the Iraqi security forces and allow us to return home without Iraq devolving into a giant bomb crater (LoLz). These teams were not coherent units though, they were individuals selected by branch managers, sometimes volunteers, who often had not deployed. It was a great way to find the cowards who’d been hiding out at non-deployable assignments and make them get in the game. This meant that many MTTs had team leaders who had never deployed. You’d be amazed at how many majors with fuzzy right shoulders existed in 2009.

These guys tended to be career-centered, risk adverse masters of doing nothing while making a grand show. In short, they were the living embodiment of chickenshit. They were also about the worst kind of person I could be stuck working with, even worse working for. And I reacted in typical dickheaded fashion. If we were instructed to do something trivial, I did it to the minimum. If we were having visitors who Rance, our team leader, wanted to impress then I would find my dirtiest uniform to wear. When he would be put on the spot by a higher ranking officer he would hesitate ever so slightly and you could see him trying to figure out the correct answer that would help his evaluation. Turning over every word and action for career advancing effectiveness was entertainment to our team. I began calling it the Rance Dance.

Deployments are long stretches of monotony with rare respite. That means we had to make up our own fun, just like the lonely sergeant major has to make up his purpose. During our first week in Kuwait SSG Harvey dared me to grow out my hair for 30 days so that he could see what it’d look like. He promised that if I made it 30 days then I could cut his hair to look like mine. Well, after a month I looked like Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, and Harv had a new haircut. Rance allowed it for a day so that we could all laugh and then made Harv shave the rest of his head. I maintained my untamed flow even as it began to curl at the ends, something I’d forgotten my hair would do if it grew beyond three inches.

My sudden follicle embrace and abandonment of head shaving bothered Rance, and caught the eye of the colonel who was the idiotic team leader of the head MTT in Basrah. While this guy technically wasn’t Rance’s boss, he kind of was. This COL always told us we needed to just get out on the roads of Iraq and tour the AO, see what the country was like, which completely defeated the purpose of living remotely with our Iraqi partners. If Rance was risk adverse this COL was just a galaxy-brained medal chaser. He even made a point to corner me at the hand washing station in Camp Savage’s DFAC to ask me when I planned to cut my hair. I told him after my R&R in a bald faced lie. My jihad on chickenshit persisted.

Things like this were why I didn’t wear a uniform from my hooch to the shower trailer. No, I wore a marvelous white robe. This minor rebellion wasn’t much on Camp Savage. The only military presence there was our MTT and a PRT who kept to themselves. Shortly after the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn we closed down Camp Savage and moved onto COB Basrah. We were suddenly back among big army and had lots of uniformed neighbors. While I was a captain and RHIP, there was no shiny insignia on my robe, just a large Hilton emblem and the satisfaction of a five-finger discount. Strutting around in that robe was salve for my malcontent soul. One of my greatest disappointments from all this was never being chased down by some busy body NCO with a hard on for uniform regulations and no clue that I was a captain. We all mourn fantasies unrealized.

There was plenty of more chickenshit that our MTT dealt with, but I think you probably get the picture. Everyone will have their share of stories. I laugh at them now, but I wasn’t laughing while getting a negative counseling statement for shit I didn’t do because  Rance thought I was an overly emotional bitch. And Rance was probably happy to see my deployment end short with a  compassionate reassignment. He made a sheepish apology about how he couldn’t write up a recommendation for a Bronze Star due to how little we’d done as a team to that point, and then wrote every officer on the team up for a Bronze Star when they redeployed just two months later. I found out years later that the NCOs gone boned in similar fashion and things got ugly during the last month. It didn’t bother me because honestly I don’t know if any of us did much while the war wound down, but it certainly confirmed for me that Rance was chickenshit to the bone.

There are more narratives to pick apart. More fuzzy truths and generalizations that miss the mark to explore. “War Narratives” is a book anyone interested in understanding how we ended up in Iraq at all, let alone for so long, needs to read. Pull those strings of reason, and you’ll go far.

Until we meet again.

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