I was in Sacramento, looking at microfilm. Since Thucydides, most of the great war stories have started with these very words.
It was early May 2005. The stuff on the microfilm was really good, and I was running behind for the dinner I had planned with my parents, a quick stop in the Bay Area before I returned home to Los Angeles. I called from the library to let them know I would be late. And that’s how I found out that I really needed to call Los Angeles right now, because there was a telegram of some kind, and Ann had opened the envelope.
It turns out I had been mistaken when I’d assured her there was “no way in hell” the Army would ever call me back from the inactive reserves. I didn’t believe it until she faxed the telegram. And then—words fail me—I did believe.
I had enlisted in the Army as an infantryman in the spring of 1999, with a set of hard-to-explain plans and intentions that might be summarized around two contradictory sets of ideas. On the one hand, I wanted to live more seriously and confront something difficult, breaking free of the vaguely connected freelance-writerness of my life; on the other hand, I thought I would score some really good copy out of the experience, like a more heavily armed Ted Conover.
And there was Yugoslavia, or whatever was left of it. The 90’s were—let’s go ahead and simplify—the era of the peacekeeping military, so joining seemed like a morally worthwhile use of time. The United States Army was confronting evil, ending conflicts, soothing troubled regions. Bob Hope also used to have a variety show, and gas was a nickel.
In any case, I never performed any great moral intervention overseas. I was assigned to a training-support battalion at Fort Benning, Ga., and spent two years sweeping the motor pool. Then I got out and, at the remarkable moment of late September 2001, was moved to the Individual Ready Reserve. A few months later, I met Ann, and promptly lied to her about my military obligation. Although, as I keep reminding her, it was totally not on purpose.
When the telegram came, I was in my second year of a Ph.D. program in American history at UCLA. Ann and I had been thinking about getting married, and suddenly there was no time to wait. I drove back that night, after a hurried dinner, smelling farm fields all the way down the center of the state. I remember the telegram in my hand, and Ann on the couch in front of me. “Well, fuck,” I said. “We should get married.”
Several friends would suggest that the whole thing was “so 1941,” which I think was meant to convey romance. We’re both still trying to see it. Especially given the casino in the background of the wedding photos.
I also went to close out my obligations at UCLA, where I had been churning through quaintly formatted media. The Cal State Sacramento library had drawn me to its microfilm room with a set of Indian Territory newspapers from the turn of the 20th century, the years of American war in the newly acquired Philippines; I had wanted to read what people displaced by American expansion had to say about other people who were suddenly confronted by American expansion. Now my grad-school friends had a running joke: I had wanted to study American empire, and now, yuk yuk, I’d have a really good chance to do it. This is an example of grad-student humor. In the classroom, the undergrads in History 13B applauded like an audience at a play when the professor announced that one of their teaching assistants would be leaving for Iraq. None of them apparently planned to follow. I graded my share of their final exams in the hotel during an abbreviated honeymoon. Then I got on the plane for the trip back to Fort Benning, to join the wartime Army.
The plan was to reintroduce the basics of the infantryman’s job to the 80 or so of us who bothered to show up. After paperwork and medical screenings, we were scheduled for weapons refresher courses and PowerPoint presentations on things like the importance of brushing your teeth in a combat zone. Rather than getting our own time on the firing range, we were supposed to piggyback on soldiers still in basic training. “Who the fuck are you?” the drill sergeant asked the first time our bus pulled up to a firing range. Other days, we took the bus to an empty range, waited for the regular trainees to show up and eventually left when they didn’t. Away from the ranges, a sergeant interrupted one PowerPoint presentation to announce that a lieutenant colonel would come by shortly to welcome us back. The lieutenant colonel never showed.
After a month in Georgia, we were sent to Camp Shelby, Miss., where we would train with an understaffed National Guard unit from Wisconsin. We got off the buses in Mississippi and started over: A new set of clerks painstakingly retyped the forms we had watched other clerks type at Fort Benning. A new set of doctors and nurses took us through the same medical screening. And we watched the same welcome-back PowerPoint presentations—except at Camp Shelby, the cadre had become so bored with the presentations that they videotaped themselves reading from the slides and just played the videos for us. I say again: 1. videotapes of 2. PowerPoint presentations that 3. we had already seen. After that came more waiting.
Our Wisconsin battalion showed up a month later, and we learned that we had been assigned to a year of guard duty in Kuwait. We would protect American military facilities against attack in a place where American military facilities weren’t being attacked. Since the Wisconsin National Guard had been hit hard by the war, our infantry battalion had been cobbled together from other units and filled in with cooks, clerks and assorted technicians. And inactive reserves. Our new commander had described his battalion to reporters in his home state as “the dustpan for the state of Wisconsin.”
The dustpan trained on scraps of old narrative. One day, late in our training, we pretended to defend a forward operating base carved out of the dense Mississippi woods to simulate the deserts of the Middle East, complete with simulated Iraqis. Before the simulation—this is the Army—we got a series of PowerPoint briefings. So we would understand the simulated Iraqis, there was a presentation on the nature of the Iraqi insurgency. Reading word for word, the sergeant first class who droned through the slides assured us that the insurgents would lose steam once Saddam Hussein was captured. At this point, he already had been. And they hadn’t.
A reporter and photographer from the battalion’s home state joined us at the simulated F.O.B., as Mississippi locals in traditional Arab garb approached the gates, fixin’ to wage some real bad jihad. The press wore their best Anderson Cooper body armor, though we were slouching through the training with blank rounds. As reporters do, they had skipped the PowerPoint prelude in the classroom to go straight to the exciting part, and so filed a breathless story—later mailed to Mississippi and circulated around battalion headquarters—in which the Army provided tough and highly realistic training, in scenarios drawn straight from the battlefields of Iraq.
While we trained, pretended to train and waited to train, we talked about what we were doing there. The specialist in the bunk below mine was a volunteer who had already been to Iraq and thought he had signed up to go back there. Combat-zone income is tax-exempt; he was hoping to buy a new car for his wife. They had their eyes on a Hyundai. Another National Guard soldier described his job back home—union gig, security, great pay, plenty of days off—and then said that he planned to enlist in the regular Army as soon as his National Guard deployment was over. The job back home was all right and everything, but the military lifestyle was unbeatable: You never have to pay rent, he said, and you get your food and doctor visits “for free.”
A rumor—false, it turned out—began to circulate: The battalion was now over-strength and was preparing to dump the reservists it had added. That wouldn’t mean that we I.R.R. soldiers were done; it would mean we couldn’t even start yet. We wouldn’t be released from active duty till we had spent a year overseas. If this Kuwait assignment fell through, we would be warehoused at Camp Shelby until another battalion might show up needing bodies. Anxious to get on with it, I jumped to an open job in our tactical operations center, to avoid being bumped back to the waiting room.
And that was how I ended up in Kuwait, watching television on the graveyard shift in battalion headquarters. I am a shift sergeant. In theory, I supervise a radio operator and assist the officer in charge of the battalion’s tactical operations. Since the tactical operations have so far mostly involved driving around in the Kuwaiti desert and waving at camels, the job has yet to offer any significant challenges. Patrol reports come in by e-mail, describing the routes to be patrolled, and I number them; then the patrols are completed, and I file the final reports: Enemy contact, none. Battle damage, none. The Armed Forces Network edited the hell out of Scarface, by the way.
This is an improvement over the routine of my first few months in Kuwait. I started my foreign tour on loan to the Army’s training office—as (I quote the officer in charge) the office’s “detail bitch.” On one busy day, I put together a file folder set and cleaned off a senior sergeant’s desk. He had become tired of the clutter.
Saturday mornings were the training meeting, with military officers and contractors driving in from all over Kuwait to resolve common issues. At my first meeting, they argued over which budget would pay for a set of orange plastic safety cones that were needed to mark training boundaries. The military is full of men who like to play at being intensely Glengarry Glen Ross, even when the context doesn’t quite serve the drama. They tended to go something like: “You wanna go hardball on this, Jim, we can go ahead. I know how to play that game to the wall, brother, so bring it on, and we’ll see whose nuts get crushed when the game gets played. But you better just know this, and I shit you not: That 180 bucks for damn sure ain’t comin’ out of my fucking budget.” It’s more painful to watch this stuff when you’re 8,000 miles from home. It goes on for hours.
Like the specialist who volunteered for war because there would be a Hyundai at the end of it, the people having these discussions rarely seem to connect them to the larger project. I assume people notice we’re at war, across the border, a few miles up the road. But it’s one of the consistent surprises how little anyone mentions it. Serving in a rear area during wartime is like serving in an insurance company, or the department of motor vehicles.
Outside of work, life is whatever can be managed on a big square piece of dirt, ringed with gun towers and concertina wire and looking like a medium-security prison somewhere outside Barstow. Our camp sits off the grid in the middle of the desert, powered by generators and fed water by trucks. But the televisions: The televisions go on forever, like the gentleness of the Buddha. When I arrived, a recreation building and a big tent on the camp were crammed full of television sets, and a big TV hung in the TOC above my desk, and giant televisions sat in every corner of every dining facility. The PX sold television sets and DVD players, and our tents and trailers filled up with them.
And then it was a few months later, and the U.S.O. opened a new and very large recreation tent on the camp. It turned out to be, yes, full of television sets. Another month, and construction was complete on a big stage near the PX. Mounted to the back: a giant screen, where the camp recreation staff projects movies and television shows. We recently watched the Miss Hooters International competition, 30 feet high on the back wall. Somewhere in a military office in the Middle East sits the manager responsible for making sure we have enough television sets to win the war. If anyone happens to know where he is, you can tell him to stop.
And you could probably pass that message to someone else, too. When I arrived, the Baskin-Robbins station was already a major part of the dessert bar, to supplement a freezer case full of ice-cream bars near the dining facility exits. Then a few months passed, and I looked up during lunch to see the staff—on hire from Pakistan and the Philippines, the same pool of cheap labor that pumps the oil in the same desert—wheeling in a new soft-serve machine. Someone had decided that we did not yet have enough ice cream. We did. Whatever else you can say about this war, we’ll always have enough ice cream.