Saturday, March 14, 2009

Of The Cast, Which Are You?

From January, 2008:

How often do we dismiss imagination as childish, an utter waste of time, as foolishness – brief, immature attempts at escape from an unwanted job, a hollow marriage, unfulfilling friendships? Far too often. And what a pity. Harmless fun, mind wandering, a cheap vacation, a hope that has little to no chance of fruition, a break from the norm. Why do we catch ourselves and dismiss it? Why do we punish ourselves for natural creativity?

Probably every boy born before 1985 has dreamed of the West, of longhorns, campfires, dust, leather, and denim. The drifter’s life, a horse the closest companion, the unrestrictive walls of his home the masterpiece of endless miles of unfenced land, sage brush, and rocky, unaccommodating soil. And it has a romantic appeal, the huge hat, the strong, silent cowboy, a pair of sixguns about his waist, cutting his swath through untamed country. Every boy’s dream.

Here’s a thought that, even in my older age, pressing responsibilities, and the crushing weight of reality, refuses to die back.

If you lived out there, in that era, who would you be? There’s quite a cast of characters, albeit those derived from watching them eke out their living on the hills of Italy in innumerable spaghetti westerns. They may be one-dimensional, but dream a little.

Most men, without even pause for thought, blurt out that they are cowboys. The quintessential hero. The tall, slender guy with a swagger that steers his horse from one village to the next. Few possessions, few wants, content in the elements. The man who never dies in the movies and always gets the bad guy. The man who tracks hundreds of miles for a handful of rustled cattle. The man who makes the girls swoon when he strides past them, pretending not to notice. Somewhere there’s one that’s his – in a distant town, brown eyes, long hair, and a beautiful smile. He thinks only of her. He’ll fight, and he sure knows how, but only to defend himself or the innocent. And he’ll win, too. Many see themselves as him.

Maybe you’re the barkeep. The good listener, the indiscriminate servant of his guests. The guy who instinctively grabs the mirror behind the counter before he ducks down to avoid another brawl. When it’s over, pick up the broken furniture, scour the pockets of the unconscious (or apprehended) troublemakers for payment, and continue commiserating with the dejected, supervising the card game in the corner, and watching. Perhaps you are he.

Or the barber. Another friend to all men, men who trust you sufficiently to allow you a go at their chins with a straight razor. A listener, an observer, neutral. Up on all the town’s goings on, where the shady guys are, where to buy the best goods, stolen or otherwise. The socialite. Maybe him.

The general store manager. Another friend of many. Neutral, informed on what the townspeople need, taking pride on his work. Clean store, packed shelves, interesting stock. The smell of leather, rough cut floorboards, tools and ropes. The bare essentials. No frills. Just tools, some candy, soap, saddles and hats. Another essential character.

Or the rancher, long ago settled on some dry, dusty pick of ground, scratching out a living from inhospitable soil. Building a business with your own two hands, herds from nothing, barns, a ranch home, a bunk house. Keeping to yourself, fighting for what’s rightfully yours. Large family, beautiful wife and mother to your children. A difficult life, yes, but nevertheless rewarding. Perhaps you are he.

There are a million others – the cattle rustler, the mayor, the town drunk, the mariachis, the perpetual gambler, banker, land baron, carpenter, the criminal, the blacksmith, each with their particular appeal. Perhaps I betray my bias in writing this. Perhaps I do not.

Which character from this cast are you, and why? What is the appeal? How does it stir you? How does it steer your dreams? And where will it take you next?

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Unknown Cost

Yesterday I sat down for an interview with a local news station airing a short segment for the upcoming 6th anniversary for the Iraq War. Before being placed on camera, I asked what, specifically, was the “take” of this piece. The Iraq War, after all, is a big subject.

The reporter explained that she recently interviewed a woman whose son is a veteran of the Iraq War, and this mother lamented several things. First, that her son was now irrevocably changed, that he suffered from alcoholism, and also exhibited suicidal tendencies. Second, she expressed great disdain for the war itself and what it does to the nation’s young people. Thirdly, she felt it was a foolish and costly waste of time and that we should withdraw immediately before any more veterans suffer as her son clearly has.

Based upon what the reporter had read online about my scattered interviews over the years, as well as what she had read on my blog and web page, she believed that I served as a good “pro” to this mother’s “con.” But in all truth, only moderately.

Foremost, my opinion on the Iraq War is not so polarized and oversimplified. I will speak neither in overwhelming favor nor in rabid opposition of it. I don’t like the war, to be honest, and I would sincerely question the moral virtue of any man who said he DID like war. Such a pronouncement approaches the realm of psychopathy, not the responsible citizen or political leader who understands the complexity, inherent tragedy, and imperfection of war itself.

Of similar import is that I am not thoroughly satisfied with the conduct, tempo, and overall prosecution of the Iraq War. Any who suggest they are have not closely examined its high cost (under ANY circumstance). Once again, I don’t like war.

I do not wish my statements (on air or online) to ever appear callus or insensitive to the high cost of war. In fact, I have always made an effort to increase awareness to such issues. Thus, I wish to submit, in addendum to yesterday’s interview, that I am extremely sympathetic to this mother’s situation, her son’s condition, and fully aware (including personally) that war, victory, and the defense of this nation demands a much higher cost than typically acknowledged. For every one man or woman that falls in combat, there are perhaps dozens or even hundreds that are injured or somehow maimed. An even higher number will return to the United States and struggle with more intangible, but every bit as real, wounds – namely PTSD and all its periphery disorders. I have been blessed to return in one piece physically, yet I, too, have confronted my fair share of emotional difficulty as a consequence of my combat service. What her son struggles with now is, though to a differing degree, are the very same issues I have encountered myself.

Though I have written about it already at length, I still only understand in part the level of sacrifice involved with war. It is definitely high, to state the obvious, and there are a number of casualties that are often ignored in final (or running) tallies. Naturally, those killed in action command the greatest attention, and rightfully so, but this must NEVER come at the expense of the those that live daily with the cost of war. This doesn’t simply include physically and psychologically injured veterans, but their families as well.

While no man or woman can truly understand the full extent of sacrifice that may be demanded of them in military service, when confronted with its gravity, the vast majority conduct themselves bravely, nobly, and with total disregard to self preservation. They serve with honor, and continue to do so until their time of service has ended. And many reenlist, not only sufficient numbers to maintain the goals of the military, but enough to drastically swell their ranks (as has happened over the past two years).

In reality, I know of no man that, while in the throes of combat itself, ruminates about patriotism, service to country and other lofty ideologies. He, more likely than not, is concerned with three things: killing the enemy, protecting this brothers (and sisters) to either side, and the far lesser consideration of staying alive. The first two take total primacy to the latter. There is immense honor in this. Yet should he survive – and most do – there is a continual cost for one’s willing service to country.

Drastically distilled, the fundamental tenet of our country is the ability to speak, think, worship and live without fear of persecution. No citizen should live in fear of leaders, authority figures, or foreign invaders. The purpose of the military, at its very core, is to ensure that final point: fear from foreign invaders. But it is far more complicated than simply dispatching the enemy. In truth, it requires the shouldering of fear on behalf of the nation.

This fear manifests as concern. The servicemember is concerned for the safety of his or her family, friends, and fellow countrymen. Yet rather than allow them all to live with a feeling of terror and impotence in the face of threats, the servicemember will fear for them. He will fear for his life and the lives of his comrades; he will fear he may never see his family again, and he will fear returning to the states missing limbs or otherwise maimed. But duty and obligation, love for family, country and freedom are a stronger sentiment still. THEIR peace of mind and their safety are of greater import. Such a calling is among the noblest acts of selflessness.

Emotionally, there are a number of other sacrifices that aren’t frequently mentioned – perhaps in part because they are poorly understood. For us, there is a total ceding of peace. A veteran will forever battle his own emotions. He will always question if a decision he made was a wrong one. He will question if certain deaths were preventable had he issued different orders or thought more creatively. He will suffer survivor’s guilt that he made it home and some of his friends did not. He will question his humanity, since the act of killing grew from a distant idea to a very gruesome reality and split-second decision. He will question his performance, the nobility of his service, and even the merit of the war itself. He will have nightmares.

For the veteran, the idea of deadly force and killing was initially restricted to the imagination, to movies, and books. They are a far cry from the act itself. To overcome the innate disinclination to kill requires the awakening of a second self – a violent one that is capable of accomplishing terrible things in the name of a greater good (and defense of one’s peers). It is ugly, grotesque, frequently frightening even to us, but necessary for the prosecution of war. It is also perhaps the biggest source of struggle for the veteran.

The most overt signs of this second self are a very keen sense of observation, hyperawareness to one’s surroundings, and quick, automatic responses to certain stimuli – often so rapid that they appear to bypass the brain. Military training and conditioning have been fine-tuned to maximize the creation of this character, and we, as veterans, submit to its cultivation because it keeps us alive, accomplishes the mission, and brings many more home safely than would otherwise be possible. It is the creation of a warrior, however, NOT (as some naively say), a monster, or indiscriminate killing machine.

A monster DOES kill indiscriminately, yet warriors do not. Statistically, veterans show NO indication of a greater proclivity to violence or crime than any of their civilian counterparts, which dispels the myth that the military creates hellions for war, unleashes them on the enemy, and then carelessly returns them, ill-adapted, to civilian life.

In truth, the act of killing is still so odious that it remains a reluctant response to even the most powerful and violent of attacks. No matter how just, it is counter to human nature itself. We will have nightmares, and spend the remainder of our lives questioning our actions – down to the minutiae of the situation. This element is easily turned off because it remained, at best, terribly unnatural to turn on. What is NOT easily extinguished, however, is the awareness, the alertness, the quick responses, and the knowledge that we, at one time, took the life of another. We have lost our ability to appreciate peace, because we now know war. We have lost our innocence.

This “carnal knowledge,” so to speak, is the very thing that limits a veteran’s ability to enjoy the normalcy of post-military life. We fought for peace, but now we’re forever looking for the enemy, watching, waiting, and mulling over our past actions. There is no killing machine at all, but an awakened warrior, who, having fought in war, is now no longer able to set down his arms. This knowledge is what so vexes veterans. This vast and fundamental difference between us and civilians is what drives many veterans to isolation, self-destructive habits, and tragically, suicide. Among other substances, they drink to forget the warrior, to numb the alerted senses, and to drown the visions of the past. The adoption of arms was a total relinquishment of peace. The killer was a matter of necessity and remained alive for as long as the fight, but the warrior will always be there, and will always be haunted by the war.

Though veterans WANT to fit in, many cannot. The warrior, the second self that required a wholehearted commitment for the sake of duty, country, and peers, cannot be extinguished. His character shadows the normal self indefinitely. Here is the PTSD. Here are the demons. Here also is the substance abuse. Here are the nightmares, and here is the facet of oneself that forever separates the veteran from the civilian. Poorly understood, often feared (unjustly), and often ignored even by the veteran himself, it drives a deep wedge between being us, and the enjoyment of peaceful, routine, even mundane life – the life most of us crave.

We abuse ourselves with self-doubt so you don’t have to. We are depressed so you needn’t be. We are hyperaware and edgy so you can have the freedom to relax. We watched our brothers die so you were sheltered from it. We killed so you would never experience the need. We sacrificed a clean conscience so you can enjoy one. We irrevocably lost our peace so you could live in it. Our payment to you extends far beyond our short, youthful service. And our loved ones and friends, confronted with a forever-changed man or woman, will tragically forever pay with us.

I am not an apologist for war, since it is an evil intended to defeat a greater evil. We hate it, in fact, and hate what it has done to us. Yet we willingly admit its purpose. For as long as evil men exist and carry out atrocities on others, a similar evil, though curiously girded in selflessness and duty, will be sent against them. It is us. In war, all pay, even the victors. The warrior sacrifices the peace for which he fought.

This veteran’s mother has my fullest sympathy, since her plight is similar to that which my own mother endured from me after each of my three tours in Iraq. The veteran himself also has my sympathy because I have struggled with the same things he now faces. As much as I am able, I will go through this with him, since our wound is a common one. Millions of others, from all wars, have battled this.

In many ways, my sympathy lies more with the loved ones of veterans, since their payment, unlike ours, is involuntary. We, though only somewhat aware of the full measure that would be required of us, took an oath to our country and to our constitution. And in the thick of battle, we learned that it was vast. When we returned, we discovered we still had much to pay. Those who love us, consumed with grief in our suffering, pay with us. As a nation, we all pay in part.

But as for veterans, we are still learning the cost; and it is high. To a large extent, we are unable to even enjoy the fruits of our labor. But our country can, and it is for them that we ceded what we did. And now, we ask that they rally and help us; that they enjoy their peace and help us find some of our own.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

On Motorbikes

When a young man (or woman) joins the military, regardless of his field of interest, infantry or aviation, communications or cook, his parents still consider him ‘marching off to war.’ And with his announcement of enlistment (invariably quite poorly received) soon comes a wave of sentiment to the effect of “you’re going to go to war and die!”

Every man who enlists experiences this – most frequently from parents and other family members, but soon thereafter from other older associates, and then from one’s peers. “You joined the Army? Well, you’re going to die.” The remarks are, indeed, usually this blunt – reflective of an unintellectual leap that assumes all soldiers will, in fact, go to war, be fired upon, and immediately be gunned down.

When I enlisted I dealt with this general expression of horror – and I understand the majority of it, since military service does tend to place one more directly in harm’s way than, say, working at a law firm. Yet the presumption that we all march as a single, faceless mass to our death is a false one.

What I have found most surprising, however, has been the similar reaction from my peers when I purchased a motorcycle. I didn’t get a large one – not a Harley – but a smaller Yamaha Virago 250. Great to learn to ride on, but big enough to still take on some larger roads. Yet the assumption has been resoundingly uniform: “You bought a motorcycle? Yeah, you’re going to crash it and probably die.”

But this response hasn’t been exclusively from close friends and family. It has been everybody. For some strange reason people feel an overwhelming need to relate. When I joined the military I became accustomed to “my little brother’s god daughter’s uncle’s brother served in the Navy on a submarine. Yeah, man, I know about military service.” But this was people’s valiant (and oft times not so noble) attempts to relate, to understand, to agree that they, too, had some familiarization with the military. I understand this desire to relate to military service because it remains in America a mostly revered, respectable decision – to voluntarily lay aside personal aspirations and serve one’s country (at least in its purest definitions).

But a motorcycle? Why must one relate? I have been inundated with bad news and horror stories since I bought my little bike. “You got a motorcycle? Yeah, I just had a patient who ground his entire lower body to a nub when he skidded off his bike doing 100mph on a back road. Have fun riding.”

“You got a motorcycle? Our prayer requests in Bible study yesterday were for the surviving family of a man killed when playing on his motorcycle on his farm.”

“Motorcycle, huh… ever seen that video of Evil Knievel hitting the pavement after his jump? I think he broke every bone in his body – at least twice. It was heinous. He looked like a rag doll.”

“Yeah, my cousin bought a bike, but he crashed it on his first ride and now he’s in a wheelchair.”

“One of the neighbor’s kids used to ride, but then he wrapped his spine around a tree and died. I think he was about 20.”

“Well that’s a nice bike, but I’m too afraid to ride. I’m terrified that somebody will open a car door and I’ll go flying off. You see that movie where there’s this scene….the guy landed in an intersection and got run over. It was pretty cool. But I don’t want to ride a bike though. Too risky.”

Well folks, I want to clear something up. I do not speed, I do not perform tricks, I do not forget to put on my helmet, I do not drink and drive, and I also recognize that I am a new rider. I am petrified of other drivers, of cars, of big rocks – even the bugs that seem to attack my face shield and obscure my view. I have a healthy respect for the fact that I am sitting on a small car engine mounted on two wheels and that I am pretending to be in control of it. I recognize my limitations.

And I do not appreciate the hearty attempts to convince me that I will, as a matter of course, fillet myself on a guard rail or run my head through the back end of a semi trailer. I would like to think that I am a little more intelligent than to do this. Sure, none of us plan or orchestrate our untimely demises, but there are things we can do to prevent it.

“Dude, you just survived 3 tours in Iraq. Now you come back and buy a motorcycle? Do you have some sort of death wish?”

Quite the contrary. I have a life-wish. And my philosophy is this: I refuse to spend my life avoiding things that terrify me. If I am governed by my fears, I will never leave the house. I will never take risks, and rob myself of the opportunity for the serendipitous. I will readily grant that some things are inherently dangerous, but I think that would be a race car driver, a Alaskan snow crab fisherman, an underwater welder, or a heroine addict. And I will avoid such things – because I think they have poor reward for a potentially costly investment. I am uninterested by them.

But for heaven’s sake, if I want to ride a motorcycle, please refrain from telling me how many times you’ve seen people dashed to pieces against cars or road signs. I am perfectly aware of the dangers involved with what I am doing, and I am willing to accept them. I am unwilling, however, to be overwhelmed with “you’re going to die” remarks because I purchased a motorcycle. Just be glad it wasn’t a crotch rocket, a jet-powered boat, or an ultra-light aeroplane – which tend to fly into mountains. My hobbies could be far worse.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Behind Closed Doors

I have a friend who, after years of my gently inquiring about it, has yet to tell me what happened the day his four buddies were killed in one IED. I’m really not even sure why I ask anymore. It’s either curiosity, or knowledge that talking about it is some sort of reasonable step in the right direction. But he’s not the only one. There are at least a couple who, as far as I can tell, will hardly even acknowledge that they “went to war.” That door, or better put a rather lengthy chapter in their lives, is unaddressed. I get frustrated with them, though, since their silence makes my verbosity look all the more unusual – and perhaps even inappropriate. Maybe I’m telling secrets that are either best kept to myself, or are things we’re never supposed to talk about. I hope I’m not distancing myself from these guys by being different. I worry about that.

But just a few days ago I was told that I clearly still have demons. My first response: “No I don’t. You’re clearly mistaken. I’m just fine. I may have seen, experienced, and done horrible things, but look at me; I’ve escaped unscathed. I’m unaffected by all this. This is why I write so much about the guys that ARE; because I’m on the outside of it and I can see it more clearly from here.”


What is more accurate is that I have simply gone to greater lengths than these other guys to “talk around” the subjects that I don’t want to touch right now. By talking about others’ problems and concerns, telling others’ stories, I have successfully deflected attention away from mine. Not only for an audience and friends, but also for myself. “I will look at these guys and try to help them, but I will decline, at least for now, to examine my own circumstances. I’m not ready.” There are demons, I’m afraid, and I don’t know their numbers. Nor am I entirely sure of their source.

There are a few things that I do know, however. There is the matter of never feeling like I did enough. That my actions, indirectly or otherwise, led to the prolonging of a conflict I now wish I’d my utmost to end. There is suspicion that my leadership decisions needlessly endangered those in my charge, and reflected a greater concern for my popularity than a clear understanding of the mission. There is the belief that “those guys” were heroes and I just happened to land among their ranks and steal attention and respect best reserved for those that earned it. There is the issue of killing, and a similar one of death. There is the pervasive wish that I did more, and a feeling that I’m a fantastic poser. There is also an ambiguous supposition that something has been awakened that can never be laid to rest. And nor am I certain I want to. In other words, do I even want to be healed?

So despite my best efforts to divert focus away from me, the keenest observers still spot the fortress wall and bring it, once again, to my attention. And I don’t like it.

As cliché and fashionable as the expression may be, there is a room that I have not yet entered. I don’t fully know what is in it, for starters. And while I take great comfort that there are a few who will enter it with me, I am unconvinced their support will be sufficient to carry me through. I’m not even certain of what I will find. I don’t know how dark it is, and I still don’t truly know the nature of the beasts within. Once I’m fully inside, I have no confidence I will find the door again. It’s not a place I’m willing to enter right now, or if I ever will be. I question my possession of the necessary fortitude. I give the door, and the subjects it embodies a wide berth. I cannot go there yet. For some time already, and perhaps for a great deal longer, the sentry at the door, FEAR, has kept me far away.

What is equally fearsome is that there’s something in there I may discover I like. And that, in weakness, I wholly give in to it. Yet I know it to be a path of destruction. For now, I run away from it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Itch Was There Long Ago

From Jaunary, 2008

Recline. Rest and go elsewhere.

Turn on some good, soulful music and disappear into the melody. Consider the Douglas firs, frozen branches laden with a fresh dose of snow – the air crisp and frigid on another Rocky Mountain winter night. The sky is pristine. The fur on your hood freezes. What God hath wrought, these heavens. Silent, shaky, glimmering, unfathomably distant, a freely-offered light show. Simply look up.

Sit back in a hammock tied to some coastal palms and let the Caribbean surf lull you back to sleep. Wake and cool again in the waves. Walk the beach, watch each blue roil tow in schools of little fish who disappear when the crest finally breaks into turbulent brine. There are shells, too many to pick up. Admire them and stride on. Pick some shade, shield your eyes from the noonday sun and grin out at the ocean. Head inland and explore.

Guide your sailboat into the inlet; the winter’s harsh, Canadian Atlantic brightened with late summer sun, catching the waves, mirroring warmth, peace. Beauty. Walk around, run your fingers through the sea oats in the dunes and set sail again. Maybe south this time. Point a direction and go.

Breathe in deeply – the desert smells amazing at night. Resist the urge to drive your bike too fast. Raise your helmet visor and let the cool air bring tears to your eyes – flushing away the day’s dust. It feels good. Unzip your jacket a little further, let the night air chill you slowly. When you stop, remove your boots and sink your toes into the warm sand. It’s quiet, it’s alive, it’s a desert teeming with at least one life – your own.

It’s fall and the oaks begrudgingly relinquish their foliage, deep colors, casting down a few more with each brief gust. Your campfire wafts smoke sidewise whenever it blows again. Stack the stones a little higher and move a little closer. It’s warm and soon you’ll bank it and retire.

Find that old fence line, the one with frequent gaps in the rusted barbed wire. Follow it until it ends. Observe each posts – a century old, scarred, rotting, often supporting nothing but lingering pride of a bygone era of agriculture. They’ve seen far more than you. Two world wars, a depression, dust destroying their crops, despondent inhabitants departing for richer soil, long summers and no rain. These fences weathered well, all things considered. Remember their plight, allow them quiet dignity in their old age.

Carefully pick your way among the rocks – the river swift to your chest – trout scuttling by everywhere, water bone chilling out of the mountains. Find a rock and dry in the sun. Catch your next meal in the current and cook it over fire; taste cast iron and butter.

Build your raft and float your river.

Find your caboose and move into it, let the line of cars pull wherever the engineer is so inclined. Enjoy the journey, the regular clatter of the wheels across the rail joints, a welcomed intrusion enhancing repose, broken only by the shrill whistle as small town America slowly passes you by. White houses and picket fences and crops, then nothing, then a city, then nothing but the green grass again.

Build your log cabin and put your bed in the loft. Hang your hat on the tree trunk in the den. Stoke the fire against the Colorado snow, bring in the dogs and lower the lamplight. Tonight will be dark, yes, but we will be warm.

Cut your hiking staff and let use wear it smooth; trek it for miles, fend off dogs, assist you across streams. Cast worry to the hedges along the lane and simply walk.

Light a fire with sticks, gently nurse the flame, feed tinder until you have a cook fire. Kill something and roast it.

Touch the bark and then climb the tree. Collect flowers, smell others, admire them all. Toss hay for a day for pocket change, sleep off the next days muscle aches in the shade. Greet people.

Delight in the presence of your companions, sing old songs, take pictures, share secrets, carve hearts in an old beech tree, engrave mutual memories on your heart.

Explore creation and find the creator. Pursue relationships and find the progenitor of them all. Love, adventure, explore, live. Help others and in so doing help yourself. Toss your burdens at the foot of the cross and pack instead compassion and a heart for others. Let tomorrow care for itself. Experience doubt and dismiss it. Dispel fear and give it to God. Live.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

A Bad Day In Habbaniyah

Notes from early May, 2007. Habbaniyah, Iraq:

Today was awful. The temperature peaked today at about 105F sometime in early afternoon. But this was actually secondary. The primary problem was water. Currently, all water for recruits and recruit training is provided through a US contractor, whose agreement is to provide a set quantity of water per a set number of recruits. He is contractually obligated to have a certain number of vehicles per recruits supplied. Come hell or high water (no pun intended), he’s supposed to ensure that they are watered. But they rarely are. They run out of water almost daily.

There are several problems. First, the recruits are extraordinarily wasteful. If you put out a water tank, they’ll wash their hands, their faces, their feet, heads, etc, rarely actually putting water into a bottle or canteen. Thus, I would estimate that at least 40% is wasted. The second problem is supply. There are no wells. All the water on this base, Iraqi, Coalition or otherwise, is pumped through various filtration/treatment systems from the Euphrates river and then trucked to points throughout the base – usually holding tanks. These tanks are associated with nearly every coalition building or unit, as well with most significant Iraqi Army buildings as well. When all the filtration pumps work well, things run relatively smoothly, although our Marines have to daily wake up this US contractor and tell him to start cracking on water. He may or may not comply.

But of late, these pumps have been breaking, such that only one of the filtration systems is operational – putting out a max 24 hour volume of 173,000 liters. That’s a little skimpy, but certainly enough to get the job done. But nobody cares to truck it. In fact, they only pump for a few hours a day. The pumps are run by Iraqis, who, though they’ve been rationed sufficient fuel to do their necessary tasks, still consistently run out – because they’re stealing it. OR the officers simply put the ACs on in their trucks and blast them all day, while their troops bake in the sun. So they’re constantly running out of fuel – meaning once again that they’re stealing it.

So the pumps don’t run enough, the US contractor doesn’t truck that which IS pumped, and the recruits, well over a thousand, go without water. And nobody seems to care except for us. We had 288 recruits this morning with no water. We had to find some. This afternoon, EVERY other training company on East Camp refused to train besides ours. And then those that didn’t train started rioting because they had no water.

Ultimately, facilities, maintenance and supply for East Camp is overseen by the US Air Force living over there. There is a LtCol in charge of it. I observed him today tell us that the US contractor who is supposed to supply the recruits with water is, in fact, doing a great job. But the recruits still have no water. And it’s 105 degrees outside.

So we stormed in their office again today and pointed out that the entire recruit training facility is out of water. The first thing said to us was this “um, well, so put them in the shade.” That was their best response. Meanwhile, this US contractor, who sadly doesn’t work for us (because we’d criminally charge him) is short 4 out of 8 water trucks (breach of contract), doesn’t pump enough (breach of contract), and is supposedly still has the good graces of the USAF. I DO NOT understand how this is. The conclusion I have reached is this: if the USAF guys have water, they don’t care if anybody else does or doesn’t. They have theirs.

There is viable speculation that this US contractor is providing kickbacks to the US military personnel for whom he supposedly works. There is no other way that a man whose job it is to provide water, but does NOT, can still be in good standing with the units they supposedly support. We are investigating the matter as we are able – unfortunately not much, since their primary customer still thinks they’re awesome.

The consequences of this whole fiasco are far-reaching. The glaringly obvious one is that our students need, but do not have water, which is severe. Secondly, they’ve discovered that if things go horribly wrong like this (as has been happening more and more often), that we will move mountains to get them what they need – so now we are swamped with requests for cold water, AC, food, nearly every amenity that you can imagine. Naturally, this disrupts training having recruits whine constantly.

Furthermore, problems of this gravity are requiring the attention of an increasing number of our personnel, pulling them away from other, essential tasks. As I have said before, we spend just as much time fighting and negotiating with our own professional colleagues as we do bickering with our Iraqi counterparts. In fact, this retarded form of diplomacy is our second most time-consuming task, save training itself. And right now the two are vying for our precious time. One productively, the other counterproductively.

Herein lies the biggest problem: Worth ethic. As we are all well aware, men worldwide are lazy. In a capitalist society this is somewhat limited, mostly because failure to work will prevent one from eating. Yet even still lazy people abound. Here, however, particularly in the US military, laziness seems to be condoned, even encouraged. Why? Because an exhibition of competence will almost guarantee that you’ll be assigned more work. The SMARTEST thing a private can do is mess up everything he does. Eventually nobody will ask him to do anything anymore. And then he’s off the hook entirely. Similarly, it’s incredibly hard to fire somebody here, and most senior leaders are too lazy to write the proper paperwork to see that these people are never put in positions of responsibility. Thus, lazy people seem to collect in the military. I’m fully aware that they’re in the civilian world as well, but I swear there are more here.

The greatest fear, fact, and tragedy, is that laziness here ultimately results in men dying. Recruits that don’t get proper training miss out on valuable skills intended to keep them alive. When all our efforts are devoted to ensuring that they have food and water, we are further taken away from training. Yet in a matter of weeks these recruits will be on the front lines. How many more will die as a result of apathy? I can never collect numbers on this, but I am confident that it is a real number.

We’re growing weary of this. We had as much as 50% of our staff working on this problem today. And this isn’t the first, and no doubt the last time. I can predict what will happen: as these units leave (as they are slated to do), their responsibilities which they now barely perform, will be ignored altogether. And we’ll have to pick up their slack. It has happened already. We’ve already taken over the responsibilities of a USMC Colonel, and his crew of two. We now do this work on our own.

In the end, we’re losing sight of our original purpose – namely training and ensuring the tactical readiness of the Iraqi Security Forces. Now we’re facilities management guys who happen to do a little training on the side. I fear it will worsen significantly in the coming weeks.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Men In Black Uniforms

Retold with permission (and a promise of anonymity).

“Last night,” he said, “was a weird one.” He half smiled. “It was weird because it actually had details, and they usually don’t. There were faces I recognized at the time, but I couldn’t tell you now who they were. Just some people I know, I guess. Some guys and I think one or two girls.

“This time they were attacking us in black helicopters and on foot, too. They were wearing all black uniforms, which was particularly stupid, but whatever. It was a dream. They looked like commandos or something. The ones in the choppers were flying low along the street, strafing things, blowing up buildings, and shooting up whoever was in the streets firing back at them. There were some guys, I guess civilians hunkered down behind some sandbagged positions in the middle of the street, which was pretty dumb. They got hit first, and then as the choppers moved on to shoot other guys, the commandos in black started moving on foot through the streets.

“I can’t remember what I did, but remember firing something at one of the helicopters and actually hitting it. Maybe it was an RPG [rocket propelled grenade], but the bird started smoking heavily, went into a tailspin, and then blew up as it hit a building at an intersection down the road a little ways. Then we turned around and started firing on the guys on foot.

“They didn’t use smart tactics or anything, for some reason. They just sort sent a line up both sides of the street, and a few of them sprinted towards us in the middle of the road. We took cover behind the blown up sandbags and fired back, and I think we dropped them all pretty quickly. Somewhere a little ways off, another chopper crashed, too. I don’t know who shot it, but apparently somebody did. It didn’t make much sense, but I think they were some foreign country invading us. I have no idea where they came from or anything, but they were definitely the bad guys, and we were right to shoot at them.

“But the next part was even weirder. It was like the dream had fast forwarded to the end of the war or whatever and we were at a banquet. An awards banquet of all things. A whole room full of round tables with white tablecloths, fancy food, and a podium pretty nearby, where a man was speaking about all the heroism and how everything went just great.

“But somehow, I knew they were going to give awards to the people at my table. Maybe it was because we were so close to the podium. There were five of us there. Me, two other guys, and two women. I don’t remember recognizing them, but I think they were involved in the fighting, too. That’s just a guess. When the speaker started talking about all the brave men and women who stood up to this ‘terrible aggressor,’ I figured that he’d start calling some of us up for awards any moment.

“And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want an award. I just did was I was supposed to do, and what everybody should have done, too. And there are bunch of guys that didn’t make it, either. Aren’t we going to honor them? Honoring the living ones seems kind of dumb.’ And you know what I did next? I set down my napkin, lifted up the tablecloth, and climbed under the table to hide. I didn’t want to be recognized. I didn’t want an award. And it seemed like they were totally forgetting the ones that didn’t make it.

“You know what else bothered me? All the killing; shooting down the chopper; dropping every guy that ran at us: I was completely remorseless. They weren’t even human to me. That’s probably the worst part: it seemed natural.

“You’re the first person I’ve told this to, actually. I’m afraid to tell anybody else. They’ll either think I’m insane, or they’ll be afraid that I’m going to have some sort of psychotic episode and start killing people – since I guess I’m so good at it, at least in my dreams.

“Is this normal, dude? Do you have dreams like this?" He looked at me quizzically.

I was reluctant to answer…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved