Letter from Iraq

Ivy League:

We were watching the news when I heard.  “Southern Iraq goes to shit” “Dems want to pull US out of Iraq”, blah blah blah.

My Marine looked at me as he was cleaning the machine gun, god bless him, and asks “so what does this mean for us?”

“I don’t know….”

“well, do i still get to be the gunner today?”

“god bless you…”

There a thousand stories like that in the Marine Corps and everyday my young Marines wake up, put on their boots and leave the “wire” to face someone trying to kill them.  It is not conversation for a world where we focus on the exploits of pop (which, admittedly, I am a sucker for).  It is not a conversation for keg parties or nights of martinis and crudo.  But some poor kid is doing it.  And he’s the proudest kid you’ve ever seen.  I wish you could meet my Marines.

It’s been a while since I’ve stopped to consider what else is going on outside of here, outside of this place.  The dust storms crawl up on you and engulf you in swirls of golden red dirt.  It gets so bad that you can’t navigate your way 10 feet in front of you.  Helicopters can’t fly and you don’t want to breath.  The bugs.  There are beetles the size of half dollars that crawl all over the place.  The crunch when you step on them.  They remind me of the bugs on StarShip Troopers, that beautiful piece of late 90’s move making.  The termites.  They have wings.  We sprayed them with industrial raid that I know has carcinogenics which will probably make me infertile.  But their dead little bodies were strewn all over the place and they stopped crawling all over my desk.  There is the constant chill that comes everytime we leave the wire.  I go on plenty of leadership engagements to represent the Battalion and I go on plenty in an “unofficial” capacity as well.  It’s all in an effort to get people to stop killing Marines (which makes me feel very cold and stoic when it happens.  I feel actually very comfortable in calculating the next move).  I could spend page on page of emails decribing the tribal/political/economic/rule of law dynamics in Anbar between the tribes/hardcore religious crazies/former ba’athists/techocrats/shia central govt, but I wont.  I’ll save it for a bottle of good wine, maybe two, maybe a bottle of good cold gin and and vermouth.

I eat the goat they give me.  I sit with my leg over the other, not with my foot facing anyone, but like a girl crosses her legs because I have to, because showing your foot is apparently against the rules.  We meet, talk about contracts, detainee releases, contracts, security, contracts and kebab.  Then we eat goat.  Enormous platters of rice with goat fat stirred in, like some flourless gravy, and shimmering legs of roasted goat legs.  We use our hands.  Sticking our hands into enormous platters of roasted goat and rice with some former insurgent standing next to me, who is now getting 200 USD a month to stand at a checkpoint.  I eat the green stuff, the salted vegetables, the pickles that cut into the fatty grease of the rice, I eat the raw onion.  We talk.  With the tribes its like talking to your cousin from the country.  He’s into sleeping with his sister.  With the religious fanatics.  Well, I have talked to all of zero of them because they will just as soon hug you and turn you into pink mist with the same vest that will send them to allah.  With the ba’athists, its like talking to the GOP.  They are a bunch of smoking, whoring, gambling former ba’athists under saddam who cry for the “good ole days” of uday and qusay, the son;s of saddam and apparently some pretty wretched dudes. But the ba’athists like them.  Then the techocrats whine about being pressued by the shia govt.  And the shia?  They better fix their shit in southern iraq (basra) or we’re all in trouble.  I eat their goat, kebab, chicken and vegetables.  I drink their Chai.

Chai.  If you are meeting with Iraqis, you’re drinking Chai and smoking.  Drinking and sharing Chai does not mean the Iraqi is your friend.  His shit eating grin does not mean he likes you.  It means you are talking.  For the time being he is not plotting or coordinating to kill you.  The Chai comes in a glass the size of a small candle.  Like the candles you light in your bathroom.  Small.  There is only one size of glass.  I have been on countless of these chai drinking meetings and I have never seen another size.  They are all served with an obnoxious amount of sugar.  There is half a centimeter of sugar at the bottom of every candle size glass of tea.  The tea is supeheated too so you know there is extra sugar saturation.  It makes my teeth hurt to drink it.  And I have to drink it.  Cups of it, tons of it.  It’s no small wonder to me that many iraqis have diabetes.  I had a guy have a heart attack on me.  No shit, he started having a heart attack while I was talking to him.  I had to call in a medevac and air lift him to Baghdad.

The Marines are something else.  There is nothing that changes here.  The colors are something out of a Tiajuana horror film.  The dust, the heat, the lack of anything green (I am actually living in the River Basin of the Euphrates but they built all these dams and canals and now there is no River Basin).  They wake up every morning and they smell like weapon cleaning oil and they radio in that we’re departing friendly lines and we march out to meet someone to drink chai and hope that the next pile of trash isn’t the last one we drive by.  I remember the day we took a barge across the euphrates.  I was like a small child on a boat for the first time.  I had some barge operator (in the army of course) say to me “Sir, this is the first time we’ve had five vehicles on this barge.  It’s usually three”  I quickly came back to reality and realized that we had about 10 tons of extra weight on the barge.

We have sunsets.  Against the backdrop of that beautiful burning sunset is the burning trash pils we maintain.  I often think to myself “no wonder they hate us.  We’re polluting the fuck out of their air”  There was this one trash pile that was flooded.  The flooding occured when the shitter water holding tank exploded into the trash pile.  So now you have a hazard waste dump of trash and shit.  When we lit that on fire I thought we’d have the whole town of iraqis come and flip out.  for good reason too.  It smelled like someone tipped over an outhouse next to my living space for the next 12 hours.

I love the Marines.  I love them for their grit, for their discipline and I love them for their innocence.  The younger ones ask me questions about college.  I oblige their curiosity sometimes.  They ask me about girls.  I try to tell them.  They are dirty, smell bad, do stupid things and need constant supervision….but when I ask them to do their job, I have some of the oldest, most mature marines of the marine corps.  Last month the SEALs wanted to do an op.  They asked me for information.  I gave it.  They asked for support.  We offered.  They decided the mission had too many risks associated.  I balked.  Does my Corporal have a choice when I order him outside?

My goal is to not purchase a single toiletry while I am here.  So far so good although I run low on aftersave and good shaving cream.  I got a shipment of magazines.  Men’s Vogue, Gourmet and Men’s Health are my fav.  It’s not bad out here at all.  Only when I step back and think about the other life passing me by at home.


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