Sunday, December 31, 2006

Great article in the Boston Globe

More negativity from the liberal media. This piece is about the unit, largely composed of New Englanders, at the hospital I visited in Mosul.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

We come in the age's most uncertain hour

I didn't decide to stop blogging, I was just flat on my back for a few days. Frankly, I think I earned it, having spent the previous 24 hours locked in a freezing-cold steel tube with a couple dozen people who were also in some stage of being sick.

I'm back in Minneapolis now. My roommates are both gone, so it's just me and a very relieved cat, who I think probably thought I was never coming back. Everyone kept telling me that going to Iraq would change my life, and I think they're probably right, even though I couldn't tell you off the top of my head exactly HOW it's changed me.

Certainly, I'm taking a lot of pleasure in things like making a cup of tea and sitting in my study, but who's to say that's a result of having seen a war up close and quasi-personal, and not a result of having spent a few weeks on the road?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's hard to make big judgments about what's going on over there based on how much of it I saw and how equipped I feel anyone can be to profess to know the "real story." But I can make a few observations.

(I'm going to leave the politics of the war alone for the most part. I still think this was an awful mistake made for all the worst possible reasons, and anyone who can come up with a way to make it stop happening without causing an even worse disaster in the region has my vote. But, really, I knew all that already. And you'll see in the Star-Tribune tomorrow an op-ed Al and I worked on on the plane that I think captures the difficult but importance balance between wanting the good deeds and hard work of the men and women we met in Iraq to be recognized with wanting the truth about our strategic mistakes to also be acknowledged.)

The questions that I find myself chewing over are far broader than "How's it going over there?" I'm talking about questions like: What does it mean to occupy another country? What does it mean to wage war? What does it mean to serve?

That's the one thing I'd want anyone to take away from reading this blog or hearing me talk about the experience -- when you think about "Iraq," you probably think about the politics of the issue or the carnage on TV or the humanitarian crisis. Me, too. But not the troops serving over there. Depending on which ones you talk to, you could get a wide range of opinions about the wisdom of our occupation or the success we're having, but the most popular opinion about that stuff is just a shrug. The people there, pretty much unanimously, are there to serve.

Sometimes that means dying, sometimes that means killing. Most of the time, however, it means sitting on your ass in the middle of fucking nowhere. I didn't meet a lot of city kids, and more than a few had joined the military just because it was something to do, but there ain't no part of Oklahoma as desolate as Tikrit. There's no drinking, there are no girls, there is nothing to remind you of who you are or where you came from or what you're going to be in three, six, ten months when you get to leave.

And, very often, there's not much to do but sit and think about it. I met a young fellow named Smith in Baghdad. He was at the check-in desk at the JVB (Saddam's palace-turned-five-star-hotel-for-American-VIPs). That was his job. For a whole year. Smith joined the Kentucky National Guard, only to see his unit deployed to the War, only to see that deployment turn into a crash course in hotel management. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone more bored.

Or my friends from Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Carry and Johnson, whose job was to go on patrols through the cold and the wet and the dirty of Afghanistan and wait for someone to take a shot at them. Johnson's the fellow who liked to sit in the coffee shop all day drinking shitty KBR lattes and thinking. And, well, of COURSE that's what you'd do if you found yourself in Kabul! Look at what happened to this country!

I mentioned that these were some of the best jobs in the war because you got to get outside of the gates, and it was one of the only places where I got to go outside of the gates. These are some pictures from the road to the airport from the base.

Now, I'm not talking about feeling guilty about this desolation. Most of this was the Soviets' fault. But if you were a kid who grew up in Arkansas or Texas and signed up to go fight the good fight, and you ended up HERE, how do you NOT become Yossarian? The sheer existentialism of spending your days and nights so far from every sense of the word "home" would be enough to drive me totally insane. What the hell am I even doing here in Kabul, here in Tikrit, even here in Kuwait City, where people create giant camel racing tracks out of tires in the middle of the desert?

But, with the possible exception of Johnson, everyone I met would answer that question with two words: "My job."

It's strange that a guy like me would come to see this war not in political terms but in sociological terms, but that's what made the biggest impression. We send our young men and women to die in truly foreign lands, which is a bizarre thing for a country to do, but we also send them to live there, which in many ways is even stranger. And while I read the paper and wonder how the casualties listed there help create freedom and protect my kids from terrorism, I also can't help but wonder how Smith, spending his war at the hotel desk in Baghdad, feels about his role in the whole endeavor.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Well, I made it home in one piece, albeit with a nasty little chest cold (courtesy of the freezing-cold plane from Afghanistan to Germany) and a nasty little insect bite on, of all things, my right eyelid (courtesy, I suspect, of the Army-issue blanket in Tikrit).

But before I begin to think about the sum total of my experiences abroad, let's all join hands and issue a hearty FUCK YOU to the good people at US Airways, who managed to lose all my luggage between Washington and Boston. I traveled with a crew of 22 people to four different countries, toting six pallets full of luggage, wardrobe, musical instruments, stage elements, and memorabilia, and not once was a single piece lost. US Airways left 16 -- sixteen! SIXTEEN!!! -- bags from Flight 2042 in Washington. Nice work, guys. They tried to tell me the bags "didn't make it to the plane on time," which, as I pointed out, was unlikely, given that the flight was delayed an hour for reasons never explained.

Anyway. It is really super to be home, and I'm looking forward to sleeping in a warm bed tonight, getting up whenever I want tomorrow (and hopefully collecting my luggage), eating whatever and whenever I want, and living free of fear and discomfort. Which is something the folks I've met over the past couple of weeks don't ever get to do.

I'm probably not going to have an extended comment in this space about the politics of the war, which, of course, is the only part of the war that really interested me before I went over there. Al wrote an op-ed on the plane, and I helped out, and I think it really expresses what we both feel about the politics of this mess. So I may just post a link to that when we get it done and let that stand.

But I think the "Long Essay" portion of my final exam is going to center around these sorts of semi-existential questions: What does it mean to go someplace in the world you (as a country) don't belong? What does it mean to serve and to sacrifice? What does it mean to wage war? I'm not dumb enough to think I've got all that figured out just by getting the Reader's Digest version of the big show. Somewhere in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan, there are troops living in mud and shooting at Taliban fighters every day -- I didn't really hang out with any of those particular guys.

However, since you've read this far, I hope you'll stay tuned -- I do want to try to do some constructive summing-up (a What Have We Learned? of sorts). I'm also trying to get Owen to send me some pictures, so I can do a big photo post. And I'm still working on a video.

But, for now, I'm going to be drinking tea and sitting in my dad's recliner and feeling a little bit guilty that I made it home for Christmas.

Also, furious with the fucking airline.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Quick update

Courtesy of the free wireless at the USO Center here at the airport. I'm hopefully leaving in the next couple of hours. I should be in DC by mid-afternoon and in Boston by 7 tonight. "Should" being the operative word.

There's a lot to say, obviously, and if I'm at all awake on the plane I'll try to write something and post it from DC. But, really, I am ready for a beer and a serious nap.

Friday, December 22, 2006

lazy eyes, hey lazy feet

Massage review: I've had better. I've had cheaper. But never have I had both at once.

Show review: Best crowd we've had so far. Really into every act, excited and happy. A four-hour show, and I think the crowd was bigger at the end than it was at the beginning.


Well, there's good news and there's bad news. The bad news, as I mentioned in my last post, is that the place kind of has a bombed-out feel to it. The mountains we saw flying over from Iraq were beautiful, but the roads are lined with locals in rags and some of the most decrepit housing I've seen.

Yesterday was weird. We woke up really early, waited for hours while the plane was delayed, were on the plane, and landed in Afghanistan (dear DoD blog-readers -- please note my not mentioning where, exactly, I am in Afghanistan!), which is 90 minutes (!) ahead of Iraq and ten and a half hours ahead of Stillwater, MN, on the darkest day of the year (winter solstice). So, it was 5:00 pm when we deplaned, which was 3:30 Baghdad time and -- well, you get the picture. Add that to the fact that it was pitch black outside and also the fact that I'd woken up at 5:00 am to get the plane and had done nothing all day, and I was pretty much useless.

I did manage to call home, which was good and bad. Good, obviously, because I got to talk to my dad and my sister. Bad, though, because the phone hut was one of the most heartbreaking places I've been on this tour. It is rare, apparently and for obvious reasons, that a call home from someone stationed so far away goes well. Arguments about money, frequency of contact, fidelity -- this is what happens on the phone, not casual chit-chat. They post a list of helpful hints for having the calls go well, but a soldier a couple phones down was really going to town yelling with his wife. They both kept threatening to hang up, but neither did, at least not while I was there. And I got out as quickly as I could. I asked a couple of the guys (they provided us with escorts here, and while it's a little awkward to have a guy with an assault rifle following you around, it was a good chance to get to know the extremely likable Specialist Justin Carry and his friends who were escorting Al) about this, and they said arguments (particularly about spending) are pretty much what phone calls home consist of.

Anyway, after that, I was pretty ready to call it a night. No show last night, so I just watched some "West Wing" and passed out, which meant I was able to get nine hours of sleep. That's part of the good news.

The big part of the good news, though, is that while it's ugly and poor (average income: $100 a year), Afghanistan seems to be a much better place to be stationed than Mosul or Tikrit (Kuwait is still the sweetest beat in town). Soldiers here, at least on the (still unnamed!) base I'm on, get to go out into the communities and get to know the locals, because their missions are generally patrols, rather than logistics or combat. One guy I talked to today (he hangs out in the coffee shop on base whenever he has free time and gave me a wary look until I confirmed that I wasn't a real reporter) is having a bunch of girls' shoes sent over from Kentucky so he can give them out to the little girls who he sees running around in makeshift sandals (it's cold, slushy, and muddy here). And I don't sense a lot of conflict about the mission here. We're here to keep an eye on things, and the people who live here appreciate it.

I also visited a bazaar today, which was great. The locals who sell stuff are incredibly crafty -- I had a 12-year-old boy acting like a used car dealer, calling me by my first name, taking me by the arm, telling me he wanted to make a deal -- but they do it with a smile and seem to really enjoy the interaction with Westerners. And why not? They're ripping us off, for the most part. But I don't mind. Oh, and I'm getting a full body massage tonight for twenty bucks.

So, this is definitely the most enjoyable craphole I've ever visited, I guess you could say.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Two quick observations because the Internet here isn't very fast

1. Wow, did the Russians do a number on Afghanistan. Talk about a third world country.

2. I have probably met about 50 or 60 contractors and seen even more in the various DFACs. And practically EVERY SINGLE ONE has grown facial hair. And with most of them (as with myself), you can tell it's their first time growing a serious beard. It's kind of funny.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pretend it’s whales, keeping their voices down

They call Balad “Mortar-ritaville” because here we basically get hit with mortars on a constant basis. At least, that’s the contention of everyone at the various gift shops, where you can buy all sorts of “Mortar-ritaville” paraphernalia, including some featuring Elmer Fudd and Kenny from “South Park.” All we need is a picture of Calvin pissing on Saddam Hussein and I’ll really feel great.

My feelings on the fetishization/commercialization/de-seriousness-ization of war notwithstanding, the word ‘round these parts is that we should expect some fireworks. As I mentioned, a mortar attack sounds like a very distant and sparse thunderstorm, and we’ve been informed that the festivities are strictly for our amusement, since none of them ever get anywhere near where we actually, physically are at any given moment. Also, um, we’ve got the Army in between us and the bad guys. Still, there are signs everywhere telling us about what to do in the event of a warning siren – namely, dive into one of the conveniently located bunkers, the nearest of which at this moment features a little park bench in case the yellow alert takes a while to clear. This morning, someone had left the comics page there.

I also saw these cool birds.

Anyway, I woke up this morning in Baghdad, packed, and checked out of the palace, but made time to go fishing first. As I mentioned yesterday, there’s a man-made lake in back of the palace, complete with man-made fishing. That’s how I got what might be, thus far, my favorite picture of the entire trip.

That would be Sar’n Arvin and our new friend, whom I won’t name, since we did sort of consign him to an early and unpleasant death. And when I say “we,” of course, I mean Sar’n Arvin – I’m a terrible fisherman, although I did almost catch a seagull. But Sar’n Arvin had the hang of it, baiting the hook with the fish’s favorite food (breakfast burrito), and almost immediately, we had a catch.

I do wish I’d been at the reel when we got it, but I’m very pleased to have caught a fish out of Saddam’s lake. By the way, you’ll notice Sar’n Arvin dropping it into a cooler – when he catches them, he gives them to local Iraqis, who, and I kinda like this, get to eat Saddam’s fish for breakfast.

So, that was it for Baghdad. I haven’t really spent enough time in Balad to get a feel for the place, as I spent much of the afternoon wandering around the local on-base bazaar (“local” relics with “Made in Thailand” stickers interposed with bootleg electronics, for the most part, although I found a few things for other Barrs) and watching old episodes of “The West Wing” on the TV in my room. Not bad for a war zone.

The shows keep getting better and better. (It can be a little hard to remember this, given how small a role I play in the actual production of the show every night, but the reason we’re here is to do these shows [okay, the real reason we’re here is to let the soldiers look at some hot chicks].) In particular, I’ve been kind of surprised by how much I’ve grown to like Darryl Worley and Mark Wills’s music.

I’m no fan of country music, although, like most indie kids, I profess to really appreciate Johnny Cash. I actually like a lot of older country, again like most indie kids. But I can’t really get into the faux-twangy Kenny Chesney bullshit that passes for country music these days. Sticking a cowboy hat on your head doesn’t make you not from L.A. And it’s kind of tough to discern authenticity from posture.

I still probably think all that’s probably true, but I do like the songs these guys are playing. And just because they’re pretty heartfelt and emotionally bare, the choking-up factor is a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Go download “Take It All Out On Me” by Mark Wills and see if you don’t agree. Although I’m hearing it live with the Army band.

And, yes, these are really good guys.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to post some over the next few days, but there don’t appear to be many more stops in my immediate future with guaranteed Internet access. So, I’ll try to write a lot in between and put up several posts at once when I get the chance.

Oh, and it’s strange, but the end of this tour is really sneaking up on me. Tomorrow is Thursday. Then comes Friday. Then comes Saturday, and after Saturday night’s show, I get on the big plane again. So I’m hoping to see everybody, but probably not until after I’ve had 48 hours of sleep.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Quick observation

If you look at the last post and read the first comment, you'll find Dan Weissman pulling "physics nerd" rank on the United States Army.

The news from Baghdad

That would be me sitting at the head of the dining table in Saddam Hussein's palace.

Saddam, of course, had 55 palaces in Baghdad alone, and this is just one of them. This one, in particular, was used frequently by Uday Hussein as a hunting lodge (and, if you believe the rumors, a brothel). When coalition forces arrived in 2003, they discovered gazelles, lions, and other wild animals running around the grounds in a state of utter panic. Now it's almost like a hotel.

The weirdest thing about staying in Saddam's palace is that it isn't all that weird. Sure, there's a certain amount of, "Wow, did one of history's vilest criminals once pee in this very toilet?" But, for the most part, I've just been glad to have a comfy, climate-controlled room with an ethernet cord, even if I'm sharing it with the fabulous Franken brothers.

Rewind. We left Tikrit yesterday morning and took a C-130 into Baghdad. This is a smaller version of the C-17s we've been flying around in. Again, ridiculously smooth flight.

You'd think that, given two relatively light days and a free Internet connection, I would have had the chance to post my thoughts on Baghdad by now, but instead I spent a lot of yesterday napping and a lot of today visiting a hospital and an Army Corps of Engineers building in the Green Zone, and now it's very late and I'm exhausted again. This trip involves a lot of sitting around, waiting, and for some reason it's very tiring.

But here's the quick-and-dirty rundown of how I've spent the past couple of days.

Yesterday, we got in, and the "entertainers" -- that's the term for "people whose autograph someone would actually want," meaning "not Andy" -- went off to a couple of other bases. This gave me some time to wander around this place.

----- Whoa. As I typed the word "place" there, I heard a loud BOOM and my window rattled. This has happened a few times in the past couple of days. We get mortars hitting in the area pretty frequently here, apparently. They generally don't get close enough to pose any real threat. Remember, we're surrounded by all those Bremer walls. The insurgents are pretty lazy and generally don't even bother to aim properly. They just load up a shell, point it in the general direction of the Great Satan, and let fly. Then they do it again twice -- and only twice. That's because once they've sent off three rockets, our guys can triangulate the flight paths and figure out exactly where they are, and that's pretty much the end of anyone stupid enough to hang out after their third shot. Anyway, it's not completely impossible that they could hit us here in the palace, but nobody seems remotely worried about it, so I'm choosing to follow suit. -----

So, my room is pretty sweet, and I'll post some pictures of it later. But the back patio looks out onto this man-made lake Saddam had installed, complete with fish. The spawn of those fish still lives in the lake -- they throw leftover breakfast out there every morning, and it's pretty easy to catch something; last year, Ben Wikler caught what I hear was a 22-inch bass. I really liked the bird sculptures on the patio.

It's really pretty. I was amazed that everything was so intact. After all, we did invade the damn country, and then we spent eight months looking for the guy who sometimes lived here.

No show last night, but I was dog-tired and passed out around 10. Which meant I got a good ten hours of sleep before BANGBANGBANGBANG!

Me: Hello?
USO guy: Andy, we got you a spot on the bird.

The "bird" being the helicopter to the Green Zone. I guess one of the real entertainers begged off the trip, so I got to tag along. We were going to leave for the helicopter at 9. It was 8:25. I jumped in the shower. Five minutes later: "Andy -- we're leaving in five minutes!" I jumped out of the shower, THREW on clothes, started to run to the lobby -- "Change of plans, we've got some time. Ten, fifteen minutes." That's kind of how everything works around here.

The trip to the Green Zone is five minutes by helicopter, and last year they felt it was safe enough to drive, which probably says something about the conditions here today. I did film the trip for another little video project that I'll try to finish tomorrow.

----- That reminds me. A few people have asked. The music for that last little video is a song called "Flight 180" by Bishop Allen. -----

Baghdad from the air looks like a real city -- palm trees, tenement housing, gorgeous mosques. Kind of like Southern California, kind of like the Bronx. I guess you had to be there. Then you land in the Green Zone, and it's still beautiful, but you can't see anywhere because the Bremer walls limit your visibility to ten or fifteen feet. It's like living in a concrete maze. I'd probably go insane quickly.

We visited a hospital. When we came to the ER, the board of patients was completely blank. "It's a beautiful morning," the attending nurse said, and I had to agree. Apparently, the insurgents like to sleep in, cause some trouble around lunchtime, take a siesta, and get back to it in the late afternoon -- so there's usually a spike in patients around 11 and 4. What a strange war.

We did find some patients, though, including a young Iraqi boy -- maybe five or six. His dad was with the Iraqi SWAT unit, which is how his kid got into the nice hospital. He was hooked up to a ventilator with some rare neuromuscular disease that was destroying his lungs. By the way, ventilators in Iraq look just like ventilators in Minnesota, and so does the brown paste that serves as food when you're on one. Anyway, they were just trying to keep him going until they could figure out all the paperwork involved with getting him to a children's hospital in Riyadh. I did a little prayer-bow to his dad. I didn't know what else to do. He nodded as if to say, Yeah, it's okay. The resident pediatrician (also the resident anesthesiologist) was optimistic, so that's good.

I also went over to Saddam's bigger palace across the river. The gov't types have been constantly pointing out since we got here that Saddam's bling is kinda fugazi. In other words, the marble on the walls is only half an inch thick, apparently, and the intricate designs in the plaster were stamped in. Frankly, this seems a little weird to me. I am capable of holding two ideas in my head -- that he was a monstrous dictator and that he had cool stuff -- simultaneously. I'm not sure I need the constant putdowns of his sense of style.

I probably have a lot more to say about Baghdad, but it'll have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, though, here's something some of you will enjoy. In the "lobby" here, right by the giant Kentucky flag (guarding this place is the responsibility of the Kentucky National Guardsmen in the neighborhood), is a case containing some of the coins (I think I mentioned, people give out coins here) of the folks who have been by.

Yes, that's a WWE coin. Amazing what you find in palaces these days.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Emo kids in helicopters

Casey says I can be something of a downer, which I think is just ridiculous.

Mosul III; also, Tikrit

After last night’s emotional whirlwind, it was kinda nice to have a project to focus on today. That project: waking up really early to fly to Tikrit. Tikrit was – I guess still is – Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and it’s where Donald Rumsfeld told us the weapons of mass destruction were located (“and to the east, west, north, and south somewhat,” he added). In addition to being bleak and depressing, Mosul was highly militarized. There were sandbags and barbed wire and dudes in helmets brandishing assault rifles everywhere. We waited for our plane in what looked like a very old and legitimately Iraqi building. And waited. And waited. That’s where I was when I wrote my last post. As we left, they told us to don our flak jackets and helmets.

It’s hard not to look ridiculous that way, but nobody minded, especially after we heard automatic weapon fire in the middle distance, punctuated by a gigantic BOOM. Later, a Sar’n told us that a Humvee heading out of the base had spotted some insurgents setting up an IED. The Humvee stopped, the soldiers got out, and that was the end of the insurgents. And, I guess, the IED. Good for us.

We also briefly visited a post office and a hospital (that’s where I met Rich Goodman, New Englandah). In one room of the hospital, we met a few guys who’d been the victims of IEDs. They ranged in condition from “generally okay” – one intense-looking guy had his arm in a huge cast, but was busily working on some sort of writing project on a legal pad – to “not so okay” – one guy’s face was all beat up, and while he was covered with a blanket, it seemed like something was very wrong beneath it, especially once we got a look at the fear and misery in his visage.

Then a nurse came past leading a young, scrawny man in white with a beard and gauze completely wrapped around his head, covering his eyes. He was walking very slowly and hesitantly. Which you would expect if you had suffered an injury that required completely wrapping your head in gauze. The nurse isn’t being terribly gentle with him, I thought, and then I saw the two MPs with enormous rifles pointed at the ground immediately behind him. I turned to one of the other nurses.

“Insurgent,” she said calmly.

So, get this: his hospital bed was about ten feet away from the three guys who’d gotten “blowed up.” For whom do you think that’s more awkward? For the three guys who’d ended up in the hospital, victims of enemy fire, only to share a room and a nurse with one of the bad guys? Or for the insurgent who’d tried to take down the Great Satan, only to be blinded, put in a room with three guys he’d tried to kill, and treated with incredible professionalism and at least some degree of compassion?

Al had been walking around the room meeting with the guys and giving them his coins (military brass hand out personal coins as a sort of token of appreciation to people who come to visit them – I’ve collected a few so far – and Al thought it would be neat to make his own; they’re actually very cool and I should remember to post a picture of them) when he found out that the gentleman in white was actually on the other team. “Well, he doesn’t get a coin then,” Al decided.

Anyway, all that happened in Mosul, and then we got on the C-17 (the big transport plane we used to get over here from Maryland) for what was a very quick flight to Tikrit. I love those C-17s. It’s like they don’t bother with the actual plane and just move the hangar from place to place.

Our descent into Tikrit was a no-fooling-around DESCENT. We just dropped out of the sky (they call it a “combat drop”). I think I’m going to make a playlist called “Combat Drop” – it was quite a rush and I was glad for my iPod so I could set it to music. We landed and it was really just as dusty and ugly as Mosul, except probably more so because it was just flat in every direction as far as you could see, which wasn’t very far due to the incoming sandstorm. Al told me that when they went to Tikrit last time, they staying in Saddam’s personal palace, which is in the city itself on the bank of the river and is apparently absolutely beautiful. But we gave it back to the Iraqis, and now here we are at Camp Speicher (“Spiker”).

Speicher houses about 16,000 people, including civilians. And it’s big enough that I really have no idea what’s here – all I can see from my little hooch is more little hooches and Bremer walls, the giant concrete barriers that turn these bases into a maze of impenetrable sand-colored concrete that would be awesome for a game of paintball. We did some more hurrying-up-and-waiting and then headed to our hooches for a little R&R, which I think may have prevented an insurgency from starting within the group. I’m really hoping this sandstorm kicks into high gear. Foul weather fan that I am, this one would be a nice one to add to the collection.

Still trying to find a menorah, by the way. But how would this be for a holiday card?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Oh, and I should mention

Iraq has a lot of birds. There's one kind in particular that you see everywhere. They look like mockingbirds, and I'm hoping that's what they are, because if they turned out to be grey doves, I'm not sure I could handle that.

More from Mosul

At this point, of course, I'm feeling a little better. Last night's show was really great -- everyone stepped it up a notch, although part of me still isn't convinced the soldiers in the audience were really reachable. But it was a great show, which made all of us feel a bit better.

One funny thing happened, or rather almost happened. Al does this Saddam bit wherein he dresses as "trial" Saddam (white shirt, black suit, beard) and is led up there in cuffs by two MPs. Then he hits on Leeann Tweeden and gets dragged out yelling "FUCK YOU!" It's real high-brow stuff.

Anyway, he gets up there last night and does his initial rounds of "fuck you"s to the troops, when I hear a shaky voice next to me yell, "No -- fuck YOU!" I turn, and there's this guy with long greasy hair, looks kind of like Bruno, the guy who used to work at Carlo's salon. (I think my dad might be the only person reading this who knows Bruno).

Then he yells, "Fuck you -- you imprisoned me for three years!" It was an Iraqi who had recently become an American citizen, and who had obviously had a bad time of it under Saddam.

Now. I figured he was just upset that we were doing a Saddam bit, and, well, maybe he had a point. But it's a total "heel" piece -- Al's basically up there so soldiers can yell shit at him. But, I thought, oh well, people have a right to be offended.

When the MPs dragged Al back to the dressing room, I saw the guy lurking outside and made a mental note. When I poked my head out, he was gone.

Well. Apparently, he hadn't been upset by our choice of comedic material. He had been upset because he thought Al actually was Saddam Hussein. I'm not sure why he thought the imprisoned and condemned former Iraqi president was dropping by a USO show in Mosul, but he was seriously angry and wanted to "chat" with Saddam when he emerged from the VIP lounge. Fortunately, he had been loud enough about this desire that a couple of guys took him out and explained the situation.

So, that was almost the funniest possible tragedy we could have had on the trip. I would almost certainly have gotten to be on CNN.

Oh, by the way -- I met my first New Englander today. Rich Goodman, from Revere ("Reveah"). If anyone knows his family, he's here in Mosul, doing great, having about as much fun as you can have hanging out in Mosul, and probably causing the folks around him to have fun as well. It only took me five days in theater to meet someone from Massachusetts.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


They don't have sand here, they have dust. It sticks to your boots and to your clothes and to the outside of your car and the inside of your mouth. It gets in your eye and it gets in your water and it gets under your fingernails. Kuwait's buildings were the color of sand because the people building them, I presume, used up all their creativity on the shapes. Iraq's buildings, so far, are the color of dust because the buildings are covered in dust, dust that seems to be consuming them slowly, or at least dissolving them into the rubble that is the only thing I seem to be able to look at here.

So, what can I say about my first day in Iraq? I'm covered in dust and completely exhausted. In a way, I'm glad they started us out in Kuwait. I got to stay in a hotel instead of a hut, got to shower instead of...not shower, got to meet logistics specialists and mechanics and trombone players and travel agents instead of what seem to be an endless array of 17-year-olds carrying guns the size of my leg.

But, in another way, a way that I'm really feeling right now, I feel a little stunned. It's so much harder here. There isn't the buoyant spirit and gung-ho attitude I saw everywhere in Kuwait. Oh, to be sure, the troops here are INTO the mission, and I don't doubt for a second their resolve or their commitment. But I get the quick sense that they're fighting for survival, not for some more optimistic cause.

Let me tell you what makes me think that. We went to a memorial service this afternoon. The -- I didn't know what to call him...casualty?...victim?...subject? -- deceased was a Sar'n, and a great one, it sounded like. Maybe it's what they say about everyone who dies here (I can't imagine a service at which Pfc. So-and-So is described as "a miserable little bastard who hated being here and was a constant drag on morale"), but the men from his unit who spoke painted a portrait of a cheerful, funny, brave, even cocksure American soldier, like you see in the movies. They didn't say how he died, but it sounded like he was with his unit at the time. He had -- has? -- three daughters, one of whom was born right around the time he deployed a couple years back. The middle one couldn't sleep without him there to tuck her in and needed her mom -- his wife -- to bring her his Dale Earnhardt blanket. I don't know why I'm telling you this. But I sat there listening to this, and listening to the roll call he failed to answer and listening to the volleys and listening to Taps and wishing I had known we were going to a memorial service so I could have found something more appropriate to wear. I wondered if the cheerleaders, in uniform as always, were thinking the same thing.

But, mostly, I felt fucking helpless. Helpless and angry. We'd been at the PX (that's the gift shop, basically) at Arifjan yesterday, and everyone had been picking through the merchandise, looking for military-themed t-shirts and jackets and knives and whatnot. You know how much I hate shopping, but even I was about to pick up some stuff until I saw how long the checkout line was. But sitting in this service, I kept thinking, Jesus...this isn't a fucking game. And so many people treat it like it was a game. Including, first and fucking foremost, the people who sent this man to Mosul to die.

I'm slowly starting to think more slowly. And maybe all that was just my reaction upon being suddenly confronted with the worst part of this whole experience. Maybe people die in wars and that doesn't make those deaths, or those wars, pointless and futile. Maybe it gives it all meaning. Certainly, the sacrifice of the man whose service I sat in on today wasn't meaningless. I don't know, and I don't expect to figure it out.

Gotta run. More later. If I can get on-line somewhere.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The New Jersey of Arabia

I've been trying to figure out how to explain Kuwait to people. Most of the interesting stuff I've encountered here has been indoors (well, except for the tank). Frankly, Kuwait's terrain is not very interesting to look at, and much of it is really kind of ugly. Sorry, but it's true. Like Miami, everything is the same color. But in Miami, that color is that strange pinkish color ("coral"), and you can look at it and sort of be glad you don't live there. Here in Kuwait, every building is the same color as the ugliest, least interesting government building in the metropolitan center nearest you (perhaps the county probate office). Yes, some of them are shaped like they were constructed out of randomly-selected blocks (a dome on top of a cone on top of a cylinder on top of a cube), but they pretty much all look like the DMV. And it's all the same color as the damn sand.

That's when there are buildings to look at. A lot of the part we've seen (the road from the hotel to Camp Arifjan) has been nothing but desert, with the occasional "campground" thrown in. Strangely, you can always see oil rigs in the distance, and sometimes you can see a flame coming off the top off a tall, thin pole (that's them burning off extra oil, I guess).

Actually, it kind of reminds me of New Jersey. Have you ever driven through Trenton? Ignore for a moment the shitstink that part of the world seems to radiate. You know the part where you look out and there's stuff going on -- lights in the distance, lots of steel and wire and the occasional truck -- but no people and no real clear sign of what, exactly, is going on? That's Kuwait. Either that or Kuwait is like a post-apocalyptic movie. At least the parts of Kuwait with the tents and camels running around with the Toyota pickup trucks and oil rigs are.

Yep, I saw camels today.

Sorry the camels are so small in that picture. It's because I took them from a Blackhawk helicopter speeding from Arifjan to a FOB (that's a Forward Operating Base -- the Army uses Arifjan as its main supply and logistics base in Kuwait, but there are folks stationed at several other "satellite" bases throughout the country).

Blackhawks are, of course, incredibly cool.

The dude next to me is Kevin Key, by the way. He plays guitar for Mark Wills. Below, left to right: Mark, his slide player Keith Barton, and Sar'n Scott, who has more fun being in the Army than anyone has a right to.

It was neat that we split up into two helicopters, because it meant I could get pictures like this one:

Although it did mean I missed scenes like this on the other "bird."

How that man could sleep through a helicopter flight (note the earplugs in everyone's ears), I'll never know.

Anyway, what was REALLY neat is that, on the last leg of the flight, Mark imposed upon our pilot to let us fly with the doors open. Let me be very clear as to what that means. You see the fellow on the left in that last picture (it's Barry Scarborough, Mark's tour manager)? See the window next to him? Imagine if that window were just...the abyss.

That's where I sat on the last leg, my restraints pulled tighter than could possibly have been healthy for my circulation.

First of all, it was incredibly cold and windy. More importantly, though, it was incredibly cool. When the pilot would pull to the right, the horizon would sweep into view until all I could see was the sunset meeting the Persian Gulf. When the pilot would pull to the left, I would be about halfway-face down staring at the water hundreds (?) of feet below me, feeling the straps keeping me on the helicopter. I guess, as Casey pointed out, I no longer have an excuse for avoiding amusement park rides.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kuwaiti ESPN

Okay, so: cricket. What is the deal with that? A truly incomprehensible sport.

What have we learned today?

We learned today that just because you don't have a driver's license, that's no reason you can't drive a huge fucking M-1 tank around Kuwait (that would be me in the blue).

Big day today. First we got a look at the command center at Camp Arifjan. Strangely, all their web browsers were set to the Radio Equalizer. For some reason, that giant map cracked me up. That is the United States Army's working map of Iraq. There it is. That's the map. The map of Iraq. Actually, I can't explain why exactly it's funny to me -- it's by no means a laughable or inferior map. It's a fine map. But, yup. That's the map of Iraq. The one the Army uses. That's the map.

We did some heavy meetin'-'n-greetin' as well. Met Sar'n Day, big Franken fan and photojournalist for the Army. Doesn't he look like Patrick Murphy? He's even from Pennsylvania.

Then it was time to go look at some heavy machinery.

Here's a fun little game for you. Try to estimate the total retail value of what you see in those two pictures. Then multiply that number by, like, a hundred gazillion. Because there were tanks, Bradleys, and Humvees stretching literally as far as the eye could see. I'm seriously hoping that the next major threat to our national security is the Russian Army, because we could totally take them.

And, yes, I drove the tank. It's pretty easy, just like driving a car, according to people who have driven cars. It's actually controlled more like a motorcycle -- rotate the bar towards you, and things start getting squished at a higher rate of speed and efficiency. I'm pretty sure I almost ran the thing off the road trying to make a turn at one point, but it all worked out. I think. Honestly, I'm not sure you would notice if you ran over anything smaller than another tank in that sucker.

Oh, and then we did our first show, which went great. How great?

Even the bad guys liked it!

Actually, those are the Taliban Cheerleaders, played by Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

I'm exhausted. The show was three hours long, and then there was, I think, four and a half days of autograph signing afterwards. In the van on the way back, I actually fell asleep on Moraine Records recording artist Keni Thomas. Sorry again, Keni.

So, more tomorrow, including more pictures of me trying to look cool while driving the M-1. If you're particularly attached to my MySpace picture, I'd suggest making a copy now, because I think it may be about to be replaced.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Kuwait I

Owen (Al's brother) lives in France and showed up toting what he calls his "atheist books." Sure enough, it's a work by Richard Dawkins arguing that religion is not only silly and pointless, but even dangerous. And he's been walking around, he tells me, trying to other liberals (he noted with pride that a couple of the Army guys on the plane yesterday [?] were reading other "atheist books"). Owen kinda lives for political confrontation.

I, personally, kind of forgot I was a liberal for a while there. Not that I've become a full-fledged hawk. I've just sort of forgotten about politics. It's easy to do when you're someplace so strange. When I got to our hotel yesterday, I was pretty winded and jet-lagged and Kuwait looks less like America than anyplace I've ever been. The architecture, which I'll try to capture on "film" today, is a mixture of giant orbs and blocky rectangles thrown together, seemingly, by random drawing. Last night, along the highway, you could see lights stretching off into the distance but illuminating...well, nothing in particular. It was explained to me that these were Kuwaiti "campgrounds" -- every winter, when the temperature becomes manageable (it's in the 50s), Kuwaitis drive their Lexuses and BMWs to these "campgrounds," which actually feature tile flooring, satellite dishes, and many of the other very Western creature comforts, so they can get back to their roots. I think those roots may be Bedouin, but, to be honest, that may just be a word I think I heard somewhere once. Look, I'm tired, and it's early.

Anyway, all this by way of explaining that once I'd gotten to the hotel, tried to figure out the foreign light switches, power adapters, shower, and everything else, I was a little homesick, which is a very uncommon condition for me. I hate being home. But here I was, turning on the TV, hoping to find out if the Sox had signed Daizuke Matsuzaka or if, you know, I still had a job with Air America. I found CNN International, which was reporting on a deadly bombing in Iraq. That's when I realized my only truly "American" TV option (I'm not ready for Kuwaiti telenovelas just yet) was Fox News. So, Fox News it was.

Not just Fox News -- OLLIE NORTH! Reporting live from Ramadi! Hey, it's going really well over there! Those liberal media types don't know what they're talking about! He had a Marine with him.

"And you're handling the situation just fine? You don't need any more troops?"
"Yes, sir."
"And the terrorists are on the retreat?"
"Yes, sir."
"Good boy."

In fact, according to Ollie, Sunnis and Shi'ites are uniting to fight their common enemy -- al Qaeda! This was probably the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard, but I let it slide, because it was just nice to see a little jingoism. When you're this far from home, you do feel like an American first and a whatever else second.

Politically, there's a pretty even division between "Man, we screwed this up!" and Ollie's "The liberal media ain't givin' you the full story" position. Sometimes those two aren't mutually exclusive. One gentleman who was in the latter camp was Sergeant Major of the Army Ken Preston. He's the top non-commissioned officer in the Army and our host for this tour. You'd expect a guy in his shoes (boots) to be a real tough fellow and very imposing, and you'd be right (he immediately taught us all to say "hoo-ah"). He's also one of the nicest guys I've met over here. The whole time I was talking to him in the dining hall (or DFAC), troops and civilian contractors kept coming up to him very formally, addressing him politely ("Sar'n Major?" -- nobody pronounces the second syllable in "Sergeant"), and asking for a picture, which he was always happy to take. Although you wouldn't know it from his pose, which is very formal. I couldn't resist hopping in line.

He does that exact same pose with everybody, including people who've actually done something to merit a warm handshake from the SMA. And they all grin like I did.

He was pretty insistent that I was going to see a different war than I had been seeing on TV (I didn't tell him I'd been watching Fox back at the hotel -- I suspect he would have found that funny). One of his senior staff, Sar'n Anderson (who wanted me to call him "Terry," but, sorry Terry, I don't know that many people I can call "Sar'n"), who does PR for the Army and is putting together a DVD of the tour that he's going to try to package for television, mentioned that he had passed along this blog's address to his family so that they could have an "unvarnished" take on the war. So, there's a lot of confidence among the people who have been here that I'm going to discover something my liberal buddies reading this didn't know about the war. (By the way, hello to Sar'n Anderson's family.)

So what don't you know about the war? Probably the same things I don't know -- after all, I'm still in Kuwait. But I'm learning a lot about the troops.

First of all, they are unfailingly, unflinchingly, and unreservedly nice. Sar'ns Preston and Anderson, both of whom probably had more important things to do than hang around with me, have been exceedingly friendly and generous with their time, their wit, and their patience. And the men and women in uniform are all just great. Sitting in the DFAC, watching Al (but mostly Leanne Tweeden) sign autographs and shake hands, watching the troops in line smiling, it just felt so unreservedly GOOD. Here's a picture from the plane, while I'm thinking of it.

Second, they are very, very well-treated. And I don't just mean because they get to see a show tomorrow night. The facilities, while sometimes sparse, are well-maintained, they've got ESPN on high-definition TVs, last night was steak and lobster night, and there's even some unintentional comedy.

Oh, sorry. Let me zoom in.

There's even a great almost summer-campy feeling of camaraderie. We spent some time at the PX last night, which is sort of the Army general store, and there was Christmas shopping being done. And the aforementioned hoedown outside.

Third, and this will have to be last, because there's a Kuwaiti breakfast buffet waiting for me downstairs and I'm very eager to see what's on it (I may try to swipe the room-service menu for posterity -- let's just say it's eclectic), but there is an absolute dedication to the mission here that is by far the most important motivation driving everyone from the drummer in the Army band to the guy I met behind the DFAC last night.

Embarrassingly, I forgot to write down his name, but he's a civilian contractor whose job is, as he put it, "IED hunter." IEDs are what kill people "over here." They're improvised explosive devices planted in the road to ambush American convoys. Camp Arifjan is the big logistics base in Kuwait, so the trip from here to the front lines in Iraq is extremely important and very dangerous. This guy was walking with a limp, although he said he thought he just had a sprained knee. Apparently, he and his crew had found an IED and were in the process of disarming it when their truck was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), blowing the truck into the air. He was hanging out in back in hopes of meeting Darryl Worley, whom he then followed all the way to what Al started calling the PFAC (the bathroom in a free-standing structure about a quarter mile away).

He was so utterly cheerful about everything. Maybe not cheerful, I guess. But not angry. I'd be angry if I signed up for a gig and got hurt on the job. But his job, he said, was to go find IEDs, and that's what he did. There's that same sense of, I don't know, chipper dedication with every soldier I've talked to. Folks here are doing a job, and they're happy to be of service.

Maybe that's what you don't know about the war. It's being fought by people who could care less what you think of what they're doing or the wisdom of their doing it in the first place. They're doing it because it's their job, and they're very, very good at it.

More on this later, although I'll add this caveat. I bet steak and lobster night is a lot more fun for the troops at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, and even more fun for the troops who get to go home and eat with their families. I haven't been to Iraq or Afghanistan yet, and compared to that, Camp Arifjan is a day at the beach. (Literally -- there is sand EVERYWHERE).

But my first exposure to the military presence in the Middle East, at the very least, makes me understand Fox a little better. It's not that the guys over here want me to go home and tell everyone that things are going just fine in our bizarre and silly adventure in nation-building. It's that they, themselves, are doing just fine, and since I asked, they're happy to tell me.

Travel day

Mine started, oh, 32 hours ago, I think, in Washington, which I think is part of the United States. It's ending in my hotel room in Kuwait, where, on the advice of the USO staff, I'm trying to stay up for a while to avoid waking up in the middle of the night. Although I think it already is the middle of the night at this point.

The USO also advised me that the military doesn't look too kindly upon dumbasses like me accidentally revealing details of our itinerary in advance. So I'll try not to do that anymore.

Fortunately, there's plenty to tell you about what's happened since I took off from Andrews Air Force Base yesterday afternoon.

The vaunted "17-hour flight" was actua
lly an 8-hour flight to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, followed by a layover of a couple hours, followed by a 4-hour flight to Kuwait's international airport. For the record, I watched exactly zero (0) episodes of "The West Wing."

Instead, I spent some time getting acquainted with my fellow travelers, and also with the shitkickingly awesome life that is traveling with the US military.

Yeah. That's the inside of our C-
17 transport right before we took off. Basically, they load it with "pallets." One contained a couple of bathrooms, one contained our luggage, and one contained the seats you see there. It's a surprisingly comfortable ride, although it's very strange to not be able to look out a window. Instead, the view from the seats is like this.

Note the absence of paneling on the walls and ceiling -- it's probably more or less the same stuff as on any airliner, but they didn't bother plastering it over because, you know, it's the military and they figure we're grownups.

Anyway, Al and I wrote sketches for a while, I snoozed for a while, I read a bit, and we landed in Germany at, I think, 3 or 4 in the morning local time. MAJOR props to the staff at the DFAC (that's the dining hall), who stayed up to wait for us and cooked us bacon and things. That probably saved some lives.

I slept the rest of the way to Kuwait.

I have to be up pretty soon, so I'm going to cut this short for the moment. I still have a full day, which included a stop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, to fill you in on, but for now, here's the quickie rundown. Crazy hotel, foreign shower, Lexus camping, steak AND lobster, mechanics everywhere, and, oh yeah, impromptu hoedown.

You think I'm kidding?