So, my first sergeant--thinking I was pro-war, I guess--invited me to write something for this reporter's column. She was embedded with us, and she recently published a pro-war piece he thought would invite controversy, so I guess he was asking me to back her up...but he also told me to be honest, and so this is what I wrote:
This led to a three-hour argument with him. Enjoy!
Well, it's been a while, but the only real impetus for an update is to let everyone back home know how I am and why I might not be around for a bit.
After eleven months here, I'm tired. I'm tired of doing stupid shit, tired of being ordered by people who would not be leaders in the civilian world, tired of being told I wouldn't make it in the civilian world as a pitch to get me to reenlist, tired of not being able to make any real plans for my life because the Army keeps changing its own, tired of the heat, tired of watching movies on my laptop, tired of communicating with interpreters who don't speak English because the private company responsible for hiring linguists for Army units dropped its sole testing standard so it could provide fresh hires and retain its lucrative contract, tired of seeing civilian workers who make four times as much as I do spend all their time at the goddamn gym getting buff on the Army's dime, tired of having the Internet go down every time someone catches a bullet, tired of the weeks of unbearably hot sunlight followed by intense bursts of rain, tired of not knowing whether I'll live to see October, tired of my personal life being in shambles, tired of being too tired to read, tired of not being able to maintain decent contact with my friends, tired of the Army Public Affairs Office purposefully downplaying certain events to keep our image intact, tired of not being able to meet deadline for my column in The World, tired of masturbating and feeling empty afterward, tired of doing it again just for something to do, tired of my roommate sleeping every waking hour when I'm not tired and then staying up all night to play his PlayStation 3 when I am, tired of not having anything to pray to, tired of seeing pictures of the three dead soldiers from our battalion and losing it every single fucking time, tired of what passes for food at the dining facility, tired of paying $3 for a chicken quesadilla from Taco Bell that pales in comparison to the chicken quesadillas one gets from the Taco Bells back in the U.S., tired of wearing my flak vest, tired of taking interpreters to the badging office and jumping through hoops erected by FOBbit pogues who have no real idea how much working for a combat unit sucks, tired of concealing certain things about myself that would be incompatible with my continued service, tired of not even having the freedom to drink a glass of tangy wine, tired of not knowing if I'll be able to talk to my family and friends at all during June, tired of the predictability, tired of the lack of predictability, tired of getting all Jimmy Cross over my own private Martha, tired of the 12-hour time difference between here and home, tired of my Netflix getting broken in the mail, tired of trying to maintain some exercise routine and then having work interfere, tired of working upwards of 60 hours a week with no weekend, tired of salivating over every few hours I get off, tired of being told I should be thankful I only have to shovel shit when I no longer have to eat it, tired of being a specialist, tired of seeing people in this stupid gray uniform, tired of seeing people in the stupid gray PT uniform, tired of trying to have anything resembling a life, tired of the Army constantly fucking me every which way it can, tired of--well, I think we get the point.
Anyway, I'm not sure how this will affect things, but my unit's beginning a long mission away from Camp Taji. I hope no one worries about me if they don't hear from me for a while, but we're not sure if we'll have phones or Internet where we're going.
Mistake No. 1 was paying for porn. Mistake No. 2 was accidentally putting it on my mom's credit card. Mistake No. 3 was forgetting to cancel it when I deployed.
I am so thoroughly humiliated.
I've gotta keep this brief since work beckons, but needless to say, writing a column for The World and editing Rachael's news stories have put me on the path to Awesome. The journey will be fraught with great resistance, but if my command assents, I'll be working with the public affairs office, writing and editing news stories for the rest of my deployment.
I'm so happy, I could cry. But I have to wait two days to get an answer from the commander. I got a glowing recommendation from SFC Hawkins, who said in a letter to the commander that I have great potential as a soldier and working for the PAO might sway me toward reenlistment or, at the very least, give a little something back to a soldier who has given so much to his unit. Still, the chances are still slim that the battery would spare me since I'm the chief paperwork guy.
Also, thanks to all the time I've spent guarding detainees recently, I'm getting swift at tying blindfolds. RAWR!
This week, I had every intention of writing about Iraq weather and how it defied all reasonable assumption. I still receive the occasional bottle of sunblock and arctic bandana in care packages sent, which would indicate the average American believes Iraqi weather stays hot year-around.
It doesn't. In fact, it gets quite cold from November to February, and the occasional torrent of rain renders Iraq -- covered in soft clay instead of dry sand, unlike its neighbors -- a country covered in mud. This was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek column delineating the different types of mud, but a funny thing happened on the way to the computer lab.
As I passed by a soldier from my unit on the walk, he informed me my roommate's father had died. Although I've never met my roommate's father, although my roommate and I had suffered a testy relationship right up until the first night we bedded down in the same room, my eyes shimmered over and grew weary with the orange light from Camp Taji's street lamps refracting in my tears.
Instead of the computer lab, I went to our headquarters, hugged him and offered to finish his shift so he could pack for the long flight home.
If Iraq teaches us anything, it's about loss and value in the age of instant gratification and about the true measure of distance. I was only two weeks into my deployment when my old friend Kyle Gardner died, and not being able to attend his funeral despite having my last conversation with him more than two years prior was my first taste of that frustration.
A few months later, I noticed my list of friends with whom I regularly corresponded had been whittled to a paltry few. Most, they readily admitted, were intimidated by my new experiences, felt they had a hard time connecting with me and were ashamed to share with me problems that seemed relatively minute.
So with one friend in the grave, other friendships in tatters, potential friendships precluded by the distance and 365 days dissolved into a yearlong blur of war and waiting, I'll return to America all the stronger for it.
Stronger because I know what it's like to learn of a friend's tragic death, whole decades too soon, and realize I won't see him one last time, even if that last time is never enough. Stronger because I now understand what brotherhood is, how two roommates can bicker occasionally but still empathize when the other's father dies. Stronger because I've completed paperwork for two friends' Purple Hearts. Stronger because I have a better sense of the valuable and the trivial and how my concepts of the two were backwards before I stepped off the plane into a country whose far-off horizon is hard to see in the summer sun.
Stronger because I know that Iraq isn't always scorching heat; sometimes it rains, when it does it pours and the mud won't dry back to clay for months.
Maybe I'm a morbid person, maybe I'm just constantly interested in testing my own limits, but I have a major jones for forbidden-fruit (read: shock) literature. In high school, I read Lolita, Zombie and American Psycho, the kinds of books my librarian boss had told me to stay away from. I've re-read American Psycho several times not for the shock value but for its brilliant writing, I've read Joyce Carol Oates's short stories (which are frequenty as disturbing as Zombie or moreso), I recently finished The Wasp Factory, I forced myself to finish a supposedly erotic story that made me nauseous and then I started reading A.M. Homes's The End of Alice. It's a pattern that frequently repeats itself in my film tastes, but I won't belabor the point with the long list of fucked-up French films (which really deserve their own genre categorization in Blockbuster, there's so many of them) I've sought out in my quest for the most revolting works with artistic merit.
And it's not that I enjoy reading or watching twisted art; I'm often frequently horrified by what I read, which is possibly part of the attraction: Even if it's fiction, humanity at its most grotesque serves as a reminder that my life is generally pleasant. The other half is certainly the calm before or after the storm; in Irreversible for example, there's a lot to admire besides the shocking content itself, and maybe because the long, brilliant and mostly improvised subway conversation stands in contrast to the fire-extinguisher beating and rape scene that usually bears the longest in the viewer's memory, shocking art often seems to be a source of untapped beauty.
To be sure, some of it is bad: Crash is laughable and poorly written, its film version even inferior, and In My Skin would be the most fucked-up film I've ever seen if not for the poor production values and the director's immature comprehension of her own occasionally brilliant insights. Works like The Piano Teacher, which received praise despite serving as an unintentional parody of the 3F genre, are mediocre at best. Well, disturbing content aside, I must admit The End of Alice is a memorable, worthy novel, no matter how many parents' or moral-watchdog groups worked to boycott it upon its release in the mid-1990s.
For the unitiated, The End of Alice documents a 19-year-old college student's seduction of her underage prey, a 12-year-old boy, through the eyes of her prison correspondent, a man in his late fifties imprisoned for life for the molestation and murder of a 12-year-old girl. Every vile act even considered in passing by a sadist since the Marquis himself is described, and often in great detail, through the prisms of these two main plots or some severely fucked-up subplots. Homes's only flaw is that she, like the author of The Piano Teacher sometimes seems to go too far and for no intelligible purpose, but unlike the author of The Piano Teacher, Homes has a lot to say and an often beautiful way of saying it.
Yes, she invites the reader to view a child molester and her darker counterpart as human beings and not monsters. Yes, there are graphic descriptions of acts people keep in their most private thoughts, if they keep them at all. But between these two undeniable truths, there's a narrative puzzle that gives keen insight into the nature of senility, there are existential affirmations that could not have been better articulated by Albert Camus himself, there are some hard truths about the cylic nature of child abuse and the concepts of blame laid bare, there's a vivid and honest portrait of adolescence, there's a critique of the inherent faults in the criminal justice system and the sadism that runs rampant in a place designed to cure the sadists, and, most importantly, there's a damning indictment of how society views male sexual predators versus female sexual predators.
Homes's female predator does get off the hook easier for her actions; by book's end, her behavior is treated more of as a seduction and part of a phase while the male narrator continues paying for his life. Then again, the male narrator brutally kills a 12-year-old girl in a fit of rage and the female predator's "seduction" ends with more damage done to the seducer than her target. But, of all Homes's transcendent views on sex crimes, her most luminous is her suggestion that 12-year-olds can give consent if society is to be held accountable for its double standard. Homes seems to argue, if we can in a way root for a 12-year-old boy to lose his virginity to an older woman (which, like it or not, happens all the time in popular culture), how can we not also root for the opposite?
Each of the victims, Matt and Alice, is portrayed as being somewhat complicit in their own exploitations for the same reasons Dolores is in Lolita: Each were written by a supposed pedophile who does not want to admit his crime so fully as a crime but who would rather pass it off as an act of love.
And Homes finally seems to ask: Can't it be both?
Unlike what her critics say, I sincerely doubt Homes is in favor of lifting or even lightening statutory rape laws; on the contrary, I believe this book is neither an endorsement or a condemnation of such, but rather a criticism of society's moral and sexual hypocrisy, through which men will always be seen as the power-holders and women as the suppliant. It's a bold statement, and beyond all the shocking theatrics, justifies The End of Alice's writing more than anything else:
This is art--ugly, brutal, nauseating art--and it's the prime reason I read shock-lit, to find beauty where few others think to look.
I need to go throw up now.
(So, they finally picked up my column and requested my first entry, which the editor should be a brief introduction to me. Here it is.)
Whenever I'm asked why I enlisted I give my standard answer, an answer honed and crafted through many nights spent awake in thought here in Iraq, an answer that strikes the right notes of melancholy and confidence, finely tuned and candid: "I don't know."
I don't know.
I was born in 1983, a California baby with sun-bleached hair and a tan only two years from the womb. At the age of 8, young enough to not entirely remember my birth state but old enough to mythologize it, I became what Oregonians secretly despise: The Golden State transplant.
I was an underachiever at Bangor Elementary School, an underachiever at North Bend Junior High School and an underachiever at North Bend High School. I met journalism, my first love, at the tender age of 16 and pursued her through the following five years, first as co-editor of The Barker, then as editor-in-chief of The Southwester and finally as design editor of the Oregon Daily Emerald.
Just as I was preparing to enter my final year at University of Oregon, something changed. Stressed out from the long hours logged at the Oregon Daily Emerald, empty from the partying that began on "Thirsty" Thursday and lasted through the weekend, and bored by my carefree existence, I more or less joined the Army on a whim.
When I say I don't know, I really don't know.
One May Tuesday, I was probing the recruiter for information, and later that very night, I was taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test I'd half-heartedly completed in high school when it was a counselor's requirement but now needed desperately to pass. I scored high, had my pick of any job in the U.S. Army, went to the Portland Military Entrance Processing Station by Thursday, picked my occupation based on what I'd now term "bad intel" and possessed my first Army identification card by the end of the week.
I graduated basic training with little difficulty; worked through my so-called Biloxi blues at Fort Lewis, Wash., in the 18 months we spent preparing for our deployment; and was promoted to specialist only two months after our boots hit sand.
I thought my autobiography, even a brief sketch to introduce myself to readers, would occupy much more space, but I was wrong. Everything's concise when everything's temporary, and everything certainly has been temporary.
This deployment, as slowly as it's passed, longer still as we face extension, is temporary too, and every time I remind myself of that, it's easy to stop honing an answer to the question so often asked, easier still to stop worrying about the future, and easiest to turn off the lights, roll on my side to face the wall and fall asleep on my lumpy mattress in my less-than-sturdy bed in my housing container so far away from Oregon, from California ... from everything I've ever known.
Hope everyone enjoys their Christmas. I know I will, even here.
You tell yourself that it is a woman you hold in your arms, but watching the sleeper you see all her growth in time, the unerring unfolding of cells which group and dispose themselves into the beloved face which remains always and for ever mysterious—repeating to infinity the soft boss of the human nose, an ear borrowed from a sea-shells's helix, an eyebrow thought-patterned from ferns, or lips invented by bivalves in their dreaming union. All this process is human, bears a name which pierces your heart, and offers the mad dream of an eternity which time disproves in every drawn breath. And if human personality is an illusion? And if, as biology tells us, every single cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years by another? At the most I hold in my arms something like a fountain of flesh, continuously playing, and in my mind a rainbow of dust.
Wherever you are, Ms. I Flirt With You But I Always Wear My Parka So You Never Catch My Name, I missed your presence at the gate to the PX tonight. Alas, I suspect you won't have that guard again before I leave this God-forsaken base, so deflated are my daydreams of dinner dates in our one-star dining facility, walking hand-in-hand through the mud in the midst of Iraq's miserable winter and (eventually) breaking every last support beam on my creaky, crudely built bed in some dirty, regrettable tryst.
But know that I will always love you, and I will always remember the time you thanked me for the M&Ms.