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 filed 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 up 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 though. 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 everyone else up for a Bronze Star when they redeployed just two months later. It didn’t bother me, 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.

War books

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.

On transitions

So glad you’re back. I’ve been reading a good bit and jotting down some thoughts since my last post. Today I intend to write a literal transition piece to link my previous post and the post to follow this one. One of the things I read that helped form this idea was a blog post by Marisa Mohi titled Transitions Are Hard.

Admittedly I do not read many other blogs. I prefer a book or magazine in my hands and right now as I write there is a stack of 14 books about a foot away from me that I am working through. Marisa was a great help for me kicking this effort off and this particular post of her’s hit home (she’s also kind enough to leave frequent comments here). It’s really a great piece that ties in with some themes that I am tackling here so I thought I’d use it as a jumping off point. Please take a few minutes to read Marisa’s post before continuing here.

The last line is absolutely perfect – “Have you ever jumped out of the trunk of a moving car?” I loved this for three reasons.

  1. It’s the perfect way to describe the transition from active duty back to civilian life. Something that is central to this blog’s theme.
  2. It references Bevis and Butthead Do America, a true cinematic masterpiece.
  3. I’ve jumped out of a moving car…. twice…. within a 1/4 mile stretch. (Tequila)

Let’s chat about that Bevis and Butthead clip. It’s a great (unintended) metaphor for transitioning. Starting with a jacking off joke and the taunting to stop being a pussy, to thinking all you need to do is run really fast to keep up with the fast moving road, and being pushed out by someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. We’ll take those things one at a time.

In leading up to leaving active duty peers will make lots of stupid jokes to play down the seriousness and difficulty of the task that lays ahead. We are told time and time again that since we performed complicated tasks in the most high stress environment imaginable for long periods of time, sometimes leading others in the process, that we can do anything. Don’t even question your abilities, it’s laughable to think that you can’t do anything that a civilian can do. You’ve done way more than your civilian counterparts, AND they’re pussies. Just be confident and you’ll have people falling over themselves to hire you, you hero you.

And politicians wonder why vets have such difficulties making it in civilian life.

Next up – in addition to overestimating your own value and abilities we are also guilty of underestimating how hard job searching is. I’m not talking about skimming online job boards. I mean building a professional network, selecting companies or industries that suit you, finding locations you want to live in, and finding a job that will hopefully provide a comparable standard of living to what you had in the military. A great book on this (that I wish I had in 2009) is CONUS Battle Drills. A necessary read for people about to make the transition and a neat insight for civilians who want to read something that dives into the details of successful military transitions. This whole idea of just running really fast, to just hustle, sets many vets up for failure. It glosses over the challenges of professional life transitions and completely ignores the personal life transition. In my opinion, the challenges to your personal life in this military-to-civilian transition is the tougher of the two. More to follow.

Lastly, getting the motivational push from a dope who is as full of shit as my colon. This is skewed by my own experience, but I’d wager it’s pretty common. In 2010 the Army required all personnel separating or retiring to go through ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program). A great political talking point is that military personnel need a ‘reverse bootcamp’ to prepare them for civilian life. Well, ACAP has been around a long time. The program exists, it just sucks. There are two required briefings, one on job searching skills and another about VA benefits, that take up one full duty day combined. That’s what all transitioning personnel get without question, ONE day of briefings. There are plenty of other classes offered, usually people sign up for them to get out of whatever shit detail their unit is pushing onto the guys getting out. For anyone who really gives a damn about the class the product is pretty lame and not worth the time. What it really comes down to is that in many cases the person teaching the transitioning personnel about civilian life, job searching, networking, etc. is likely a retired NCO who got out of the military and landed in a nice Federal job teaching these classes. They regurgitate material that was taught them. Rarely is there a person with real experiences and qualifications to teach these classes. It’s literally the dumb leading the blind. Butthead is pushing our collective Bevis out of the trunk while Bevis is still pondering his decision.

So that’s how I ended up unemployed for five months after my separation date, finally taking a job with M&T Bank in its collections department (Customer Asset Management – talk about a churched up name). Fortunately I had built up some G.I. Bill benefits and began a MBA program a few months earlier. School was my main focus but there were still bills to be paid. So I was a full time grad student, a MBA candidate with a BA in history and never a business class taken before, while working full time and commuting over an hour each way 5 days a week with class on Friday nights and Saturdays. Not exactly the image of a successful transition. Ironically, it was this same year that Bevis and Butthead began airing again. Wouldn’t you know it, there was an episode where our heroes stumble into a call center and start taking calls. It was exactly like my experience working for M&T, and I made sure to say “I understand your frustrations” as much as possible. Even got some of my co-workers in on the joke.

Even more difficult than the professional challenges was trying to find a fulfilling personal life again. I had not realized just how much the Army had provided the community that filled my life. There were always a few good friends around, there was a social circle that provided the support needed when life got stressful. There were people with shared experiences to bond with and to value. There were people who understood your troubles, there were mentors, there was a personal nexus that formed your life on duty and off duty. This was something that I just did not recognize, let alone value. It’s something I still miss and have not been able to replace. This is the lasting challenge for me right now. I love and cherish my family, but we all need friends and social interactions outside of the home as well. This is something that my wife has recognized and struggles with as well. Our lives were so dependent on the community that came with being in the Army but we failed to see that. It took many years for this fact to smack us upside the head. It’s still a challenge to work on, but knowing’s half the battle, right?

This is where the next post will pick up. At the urging of a friend, I am going to dive deeper into the social challenges faced in transition, the difficulty in finding friendship and the emotional toll that takes.

My last thought on transition for today. Recently I finished Chris Bohjalian’s Trans-Sister Radio. Gender dysphoria and gender transition has long interested me. The lead signer of Against Me! (one of my favorite bands) is a trans woman and her last few albums laid bare all the pain, joy, and raw emotions of her struggles with gender dysphoria and transition. This book was fantastic, I’d recommend it for anyone with a similar interest (it is a novel). What strikes home for me is the unique challenges facing the trans community. Combining that with Marisa’s post about semester transitions it is clear that difficult transitions are something that all people go through. It’s not just a vet problem, it’s a problem of all people. We all face a different struggle, but we can find common ground here and we should. Rather than the basic vet who wants to turn every issue into a vet-centric issue, the veteran community should see this common ground as a way to talk about our struggles, exercise some empathy, check our egos, and talk to civilians about what similar challenges they’ve faced and how they overcame. Let’s use our unique transitions in life to bridge the civil/military divide. We’ll be more successful, and we’ll be better Americans for it.

Until we meet again.

Taking time for me

Some fun stuff happened yesterday, and while I want to write about two of those things in more detail later on, I think I’ll talk about what went on yesterday as a teaser and see where the flow takes us. This will be an experiment to see if a less structured writing style produces anything worthwhile for me.

Three things happened for me on Monday. I got the business cards I ordered for the blog, I got some more work done on a tattoo, and I was put on the spot to talk about this blog in front of a class at my alma mater. Opening up the cards was like opening a present. I was excited and nervous. Unsure of how the cards would actually look once I got them in my hands, I was pretty happy with how they turned out. The whole idea of shelling out for these cards was so that I could spread them around in a targeted manner to see if it helps drive some more traffic here (and eventually to a book), and also to help motivate me. The cards are basic, but under my name is the word “Author”. A bit presumptuous, but it’s part positive visualization and part accountability tool. Seeing that word under my name gave me a little chill, a small bit of reaffirmation that I am going down a path that I truly want to be on.

The tattoo was a solid 3 hours under the needle. I’m working on a wrap of my right thigh featuring my all time favorite Marvel character – Captain America. I got Cap done in spring of 2016 and once he was done I started to see a scene building out around him. It took over a year to find good samples of what I was picturing, but after two 3-hour sessions Bucky Barnes has been added and most of the fiery battle scene has been added. Some more finishing touches are needed, so when that happens and it heals I’ll write more and post a photo. So far this piece is up to ~13 hours of needle time, and only about 1/3 of the way through. More to come on that!

After I left the Underground I headed over to the St. Bonaventure campus to grab a coffee and a snack. I also wanted to leave one of my spankin’ new cards with my friend Jim, a finance professor who can make commodity option swaps seem exciting. He was in a class though, so I got my coffee and cookie, finished them up hoping that the class would wrap up soon. When it didn’t I just walked in and asked to sit in for a refresher. Afterwards I showed off the card and spent a few minutes catching up. Jim then asked me to stick around for his next class, which was starting in 15 minutes, so that I could tell all the young minds about my work. I wasn’t at all prepared for this, but it was certainly better than being put on the spot to discuss the Modigliani and Miller Theorem. So I stuck around and went on a horribly disjointed and rambling bit about the blog and what I’m trying to do. Again, this is something I want to write about a bit more at a later date. Suffice to say, I felt a bit awkward, had no clue what I really wanted to say, and on my 90 minute drive home I thought of so many things I should have said but didn’t. I swear sometimes I really am George Constanza, except I never get the chance to work in the jerk store.

So that was an eventful Monday. Also, I revealed a secret about the blog to the class. There’s some incentive to stop back to read the more detailed post about that experience (I most certainly did learn many things in Jim’s finance classes).

Another thing I wanted to mention was that I recently finished a new book called Americana. A 400 year history of American economics that was a wonderful read. The author is neither a professional historian or economist, which resulted in a narrative history unsullied by overly academic passages. The book flows well and the author does a remarkable job of showing the interconnectedness of the American economy through history while also explaining the major shifts and shocks that caused economic progression. I found the chapter on slavery to be the most interesting. To address the vile institution in stark economic terms is an approach not often seen. This view serves us all well by exposing the raw, cold greed of American slavery. It also shows in very clear monetary terms why so many would raise up arms to preserve slavery. Powerful, soul-crushing kind of stuff. It blows me away that this book is the author’s first. That also serves as inspiration to me.

That also sets up a question I have for you, True Believer. I’ve toyed around with the idea of puting another page on this site for book reviews or a ‘what I’m reading now’ kind of page. Anyone really interested in that? That’ll be a spot to put some other thoughts down that otherwise do not necessarily serve a purpose within the blog itself. Let me know in the comments section if you’d like to see that extra layer of Tim put out on display. Not like there aren’t already plenty of my layers out there from past Halloween costumes.

Thanks for stopping by for this slightly wandering post. I hope you look forward to hearing more details about the above stories, I’m looking forward to sharing them.