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.