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.

Hello again, let’s talk about loneliness

It’s been a while. If you’re a returning reader, thank you for being patient. If you’re new, you’re in for a wild one. 

I want to write about what influences my writing. I’ve extolled the virtues of Bob Ross before and today I’ll talk about Kurt Vonnegut. But first I need to address the long spell between blogs. I’ve made it a point to commit to more regular posts, to keeping a regular schedule, but I haven’t followed through. Life gets in the way for everyone, that’s no excuse. The last few months have been difficult and I’ve been struggling to keep symptoms of depression from shutting me down completely. 

There have been lots of ideas for topics, plenty of opportunities to write, but the motivation has not been there. The sense that anyone really cares about what I have to say, or that I’m adding anything worthwhile to the non-stop torrent of garbage on the Internet, has been absent. A general apathy started to engulf me, and that’s when I know depression is setting in. I’m lucky that it’s not worse, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t keep me from getting things done. That in turn just makes me feel worse and less motivated to do even the most mundane tasks, let alone sit down to the keyboard. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days where I’m happy. The energy to do anything beyond what is necessary just isn’t there. As much as I want to be writing some days it just isn’t something that I can find the time and headspace for. When this lingers my apathy extends to a general ambivalence towards life. I don’t get suicidal (for that I’m grateful) but there are times when the idea of death just doesn’t seem like that bad of a thing. I imagine lots of people get like that from time to time, but I wonder if it’s as normal as I rationalize it to be. 

That’s a scary place to reach. The self-awareness of it all makes this feeling seem like I’m watching somebody else. My inner monologue seems more like a narration of a character that I’m imagining rather than a person who is actually living. It feels like…. like being unstuck in time.

So it goes. And so I think of Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse 5 typically is the first book to come to mind. But also Palm Sunday. I think about Vonnegut’s post-war life and his own struggles with mental health and loneliness. Vonnegut was not physically isolated, but it’s  clear that he fought with mental isolation. This is almost worse as you are close to people you love and who love you back, but you feel distant. It’s hard to describe and harder still to break out of. You want to, but the words aren’t there. You mumble responses, shrug instead of speak, alternate between averting your eyes and staring blankly at nothing at all. 

I think about what Vonnegut meant when he wrote of smelling like mustard gas and roses. I picture him at his blue typewriter with an ashtray full of spent cigarettes and a glass of whiskey, neat. He’s finished writing for the day. Getting up from one chair, balancing a cigarette and the glass in one hand he walks to another chair. Set the glass down on a small round table top, take a drag from the fag, and pick up the phone to call on someone who might understand the queer things running through his mind. The things that scare him. Things that need to be said out loud to make them less terrifying. So that they may be outside and beaten down rather than inside and beating up.

I think about what Vonnegut thought of these troubles. What did he think of how other WWII vets were most certainly dealing with similar feelings and how they dealt with them? So much time has passed, but the isolation and loneliness reach across time. Vonnegut knew this, and that’s why he talked about it so much. Staying silent creates a feedback loop of loneliness. Speaking up isn’t so much about making myself feel better as much as it is about letting others with the same affliction know that they aren’t alone, even though they feel lonely. 

There was a time when I’d cover up the loneliness with a blanket of booze. A bottle or two of wine isn’t a thing as long as you wake up for PT and outrun some people. Having to stop at the store for another 6-pack after work each weekday isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not a problem if it’s not a full case. Facebook will keep me connected to friends, no need to make new ones. And who doesn’t love getting a drunk dial from me!?

It can be a challenge to see your struggles when your head is up your own ass. Looking at the cover picture I selected for this post I don’t laugh at it like I did when it was taken (Korea, 2007 or 2008). It kind of just makes me sad. I get a pit in my stomach. In spite of all the fun I did have in Korea it was still one of the loneliest times in my life. It was an odd mixture of excitement of being in fucking Korea (!) and having my own platoon to lead, and also feeling so utterly alone at times. Anger was ever present at Camp Casey, alcohol about the only way to cope for any of us. It was just normalized. That picture is the face of so many people who served at Camp Casey. It’s honest if ugly.

The pain and the creeping feeling of isolation don’t stop, but you find better ways of dealing with them. I binge on comics and Star Wars books now instead of booze. Instead of looking at the bottom of a bottle, I look for inspiration and something to create hope. And sometimes I just need to show myself some compassion and allow for the time to work through the darkness without adding on guilt for lack of accomplishment. 

Darkness is an old friend for many of us. Simon has no monopoly on that. When I feel it creeping I reach for comfort from healthier means now. That is something to at feel good about at least. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those things and it seemed appropriate to put that on paper, so to speak. I hope to soon make a trip to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which is in the process of relocating. Check the link out for details, and if you’d like to help them here’s another link. This isn’t any kind of sponsored content and I get nothing out of it. I only feel a deep sense of gratitude for Vonnegut and his work. If this helps others find him then I’ll have done something to fight that bastard called loneliness.

Thank you for your attention.

Until we meet again.