"Memoir is a written expression of learning through living." - F. Scott Service
"Memoir is a written expression of learning through living." - F. Scott Service
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Why would a conscientious objector go to war?
Faced with the terrible dichotomy of my moral opposition to war and an innate sense of duty to serve alongside my fellow soldiers, little did I comprehend the ways my tour in Iraq were destined to change me forever.
More than a military memoir.
Artful, lyrical, braided with strands of humor, courage, fear, despair, and hope, Playing Soldier speaks to the reclamation of a true, original self through elemental deconstruction and reconstruction of identity.
I’m finding that I wake up late, usually around 0300, almost every night now. Sometimes it’s from a bad dream, a dream with explosions pounding the walls of my skull, sweat breaking on my skin as I awaken with wide eyes and shaking hands. Sometimes it’s from a dream of Rita and our life together.
Normally I take a few moments to get my bearings and let the sensations recede. Restless and unable to go back to sleep, I wander outside to watch the stars glittering in the Kuwaiti night. I light a cigarette and revel in the peace of night—it’s my favorite time of day now. All is quiet, even in the warehouse, most people sleeping, the occasional snore or shift of a listless body immersed in a dream of home—of green fields or a lover’s arms.
A cough breaks the silence as I reach my bunk, pull off my boots, and slip into my sleeping bag, using my laser pen to guide my way. I pull my poncho down from where I tucked it under the edge of the mattress above me, closing the door to my makeshift sanctuary, the left side hanging limply like its partner—a blue bed sheet I had stolen from Anaconda.
I’m sealed in. I feel safe. I have my privacy.
I feel drowsy, yet I can’t sleep. My eyes close but soon they open again and I am wide awake. I hear explosions. I feel my bunk rattling. My heart pounds, my breath seizes up, and my eyes search the darkness, frantically attempting to find something solid for my sanity to grasp onto. A moment passes and I realize there were no bombs or explosions. There was no reason to be afraid. It was just another dream. I can hear the silence of Camp Doha. I wipe the sweat on my brow and close my eyes again, hoping not to dream.
The next thing I know it’s 0730. The sun has come up. I can hear the shuffle of flip-flops as men make their way to the shower trailers, scraping their way along the sandy concrete floor, fluorescent lighting from the ceiling lamps casting a cold glow upon pale skin. I hear the drowsy mumble of a waking soldier groaning with lack of desire to face another day. Deadpan looks of the lethargic killing time.
I hear the slam of a wall locker door. Life is brewing again, stubborn life, determined to endure the routine of another day, to get coffee, poke around the PX, buy things no one really needs or wants, the falsehoods of external stimulus emptying the spirit.
Who cares, it passes the day.
I sit up and pull my boots on. Hands clasped, forearms between my knees, I gaze vaguely at the floor, images passing before my eyes, my brain flooded with emotion and memory. I muse on the turns my life has made that I never would have dreamed of, the hardships I have endured, the good times, the traveling I have done. Something within me says it will be all right, that I was meant to survive this war, that I was meant to do something better than I had done before. But I am doubtful.
After gathering my necessities, I head to the shower trailer, over the gritty paved rough road and cracked sidewalk, past the leering red and white–striped smokestacks from the nearby power plant forever puking their dark smoke into the veil of Mother Earth, past the twin outdoor basketball courts with no nets, their backboards chipped by time and abuse, past a dilapidated gazebo with peeling white paint that sits at an angle to the rest of the base, the floor planks rotting from pools of water.
I am under a golden, lightly clouded sky, a cool breeze smelling vaguely of sewage and rotten vegetables from the mess hall as I stroll past a high-ranking officer’s mud-streaked SUV to the empty concrete lot, a few broken-down trailers in the middle looking lonely in all that space.
I walk up the black grated steel steps of the shower trailer and am greeted by the conflicting stench of day-old shit and shaving cream. The floor is somewhat clean today, someone, probably a Kuwaiti or Filipino worker, has at least attempted to mop. I find a stall with a yellowed shower curtain and soap-stained walls but it’s the best of the lot and I’m thankful for it.
I go to relieve myself and find a toilet overflowing with someone else’s meditations, discarded toilet paper rolls on the rotting wet linoleum. All the stalls are this way or worse. Someone’s dinner didn’t agree with them, evidenced by the smears and stains on the walls and floor. I find a lone toilet in the corner that’s seemingly untouched by human foulness. The hunt for a roll of toilet paper begins, and just as I’m beginning to accept that I might have to hold it this morning, I find a scrap on a shelf, just a few sheets but enough to conduct my business.
Turning on the shower, faintly odorous, mildly hot water sprays my tired body with decent pressure. I make sure to close my mouth, a habit from Iraq. To my surprise there is no water bubbling around my ankles today. That brings a wry smile to my face.
Thank God for small miracles.
I scrub vigorously as if I am scrubbing the past away, as if the scrubbing will cleanse me of this life, as if I am dirty in some way beyond the usual day-to-day grime. I want to wash away the stains of the year and something inside me believes that a bar of soap will do it but I’m afraid to close my eyes when I wash my face. I’m afraid that I’ll hear the mortars again if I do, that they’ll come back and finally get me.
Two other showers come on, sapping my water pressure. Now there’s only a forlorn dribble from a sorrowful faucet, just enough to rinse a few inches of my body at a time. I grimace. All pleasures are fleeting here. Just enough to torment you with their momentary embrace. It fuels anger—the stony glaring faces that walk by me every day as I roam Doha, myself glaring back.
Painstakingly, I rinse my body. The water pressure is rapidly decreasing. I’m afraid I’ll lose it all together so I rush in the most efficient manner I can. Efficiency and speed are a matter of habit now, routine.
I get the last few drops out of my shower, rubbing them over my body, using every molecule to finish the rinse, and towel off. Lightly padding back to my sanctuary, I change on my bunk, sheet and poncho closed—at last some privacy again.
Soon it’s time to complete the morning routine—coffee and a cigarette, probably one of the most satisfying aspects of my day. It’s a time to breathe and relax, a few moments of reflection before embarking on the day’s duties, whatever they may be.
It’s peaceful watching the new day dawn, a few scattered soldiers crossing the streets, SUVs filled with civilian contractors or other more important people driving by on some errand, the sun casting sharp rays on the camp between drifting marshmallow clouds, the warm morning breeze ruffling the leaves of the occasional palm tree, the smell of the sea mingling with the stench of the power plant and open sewers.
There aren’t many people out yet as the days often begin late at Camp Doha. My mind bends toward home again while I walk. I imagine the peace of the U.S., the freedom of being a regular Joe again, the warm embrace of loving arms, gentle laughter that floats on the breeze like a melody.
The Starbucks is crowded; it’s where everyone seems to be at this hour. I see eager faces, people pushing ahead, crowding one another in their rush to get what they want. Immediate gratification is the American way.
Push away anyone trying to cross the same finish line that you are. Heedlessly breathe down someone’s neck because you are what’s most important. Talk right in my ear, I don’t mind. I always wanted to know about the guy you were dating. It’s all about the “me” in America. I’m astonished at some people’s behavior yet I do it too.
I get my coffee and stroll back to the warehouse to find everyone awake now, towels slung over makeshift clothes lines, music playing from portable boom boxes. The younger guys are talking about the hot girl they could have had last night at the nightclub on base but they’ve always a convenient excuse for why they didn’t.
Obviously she was a bitch because who could ignore the brilliant one-liner they threw her way? They boast, they brag, tell stories… and lies. Everyone knows they’re telling tall tales but it’s all a part of the scene and the others smile and go along with it.
I go to my bunk and sit, a dry look of disgust inadvertently creeping across my face as I listen. I’ve heard it all before and have no desire to hear it again. So I read Stars and Stripes1and drink my coffee, shaking my head as the news is always grim and my horoscope never makes any sense. George Bush is in hot water again.
I consider taking a nap. Why not? There’s nothing else to do. I have no responsibilities right now and am thankful for that. But I’m so used to being under orders that a restlessness has formed within me that I can’t quite explain. I’m just used to the constant activity, forever on guard for the unexpected.
I keep listening for the sound of mortars and gunfire but they never come. It’s strange, this peaceful quiet. I’m left with a nagging feeling that there must be something I have to attend to. I consider sleeping but know I won’t be able to. I only get fleeting bits here and there now— nothing meaningful.
Rest is precious in the military. You learn to take advantage of it at any opportunity, in any spot. Usually you’re so exhausted that rest comes easily no matter the circumstances, but not here at Camp Doha. Here rest is not only a privilege, it’s almost a right. I lay down, gazing at the steel grate holding the mattress above mine at bay. I’m interrupted from my daydreaming by Derek rapping on my poncho and asking if I want to go to lunch. Lunch already? Wow, how the time passes when your mind drifts.
I give an apathetic shrug. “Sure.”
I haven’t really eaten since yesterday afternoon; my appetite just not what it once was. It’s partly because the food is so unhealthy, but it’s also due to how melancholy I feel.
So I prop myself up and walk with Derek to the mess hall. I get in the line for the main entrée, the same prepackaged, unidentifiable slice of meat. The sauce is supposed to resemble gravy but reminds me more of the stains I saw in the latrine. Canned vegetables are the side, all part of the mass production of feeding thousands. I go looking for my friends, crisscrossing my way through the crowd, my pile of meat steaming in the stuffy air.
As we silently scoop up forks of rice and beef, news headlines roll by on the 37-inch widescreens mounted on the stark walls. We watch images of violence in the world, an analysis of the war effort, and George Bush’s latest gaffe—which seems to affect his confidence not at all. He is proud of America’s fighting men and women. He’s proud we are defending democracy and liberty. We make snide remarks under our breath.
We don’t care for the dog and pony show any longer.
Everything’s provided for, my government once claimed. Your sons and daughters have everything they need to fight the enemy, yet I can’t even find a roll of toilet paper in the morning, to say nothing of larger issues such as no armor for our vehicles.
Dinner is a repeat of lunch. You’re thankful for another day ending—and frightened of the terrors the night will bring.
After I am finished writing this, I will be struggling to close my eyes, knowing another day has been ticked off the calendar.
I’m frightened because night is when the mortars come in.
Night is when I dream.
I used to love my dreams. Now I’m afraid of them, afraid I’ll wake to find that being here was just a dream and that I’m back at Camp Anaconda, in that hell on earth. I’m afraid if I go to sleep, the mortars will begin again, relentlessly marching nearer. It seems as if every night I wake up trembling, eyes wide in the dark, curling up in a ball on my side and rocking back and forth in my sweat until the sounds of explosions leave my rattled skull.
Sometimes I feel like there is something wrong with me. I don’t know what it is but I can feel something in me that’s growing, blooming. I’m scared because I don’t know who I am any more.
What is happening to me?
I have to have hope and faith. Hope for a chance to rebuild what I have lost and faith that I’ll have the wisdom and courage to do it.
It’s the only thing you can cling to when all else fails.
"I’m frightened because night is when the mortars come in. Night is when I dream."
Mr. Martin McMahon's a stocky, swarthy man, heavily muscled, with black wavy hair intruding on his thin forehead. Intense and serious, his mustached frown never turns into a smile, only an occasional “umm,” from pursed lips. When he speaks, his voice is blah, droning, but deliberate, cutting right to the point with the object of shrinking you into submission with his worldview. On a mission to educate, he knows what's best, how to refine raw material, how to oil the young gears soon to be placed into society's mechanism.
A grease monkey of the institution.
And every time I see him, he's wearing the same clothes. Khakis, brown leather shoes, and a buttoned down shirt―flamingo, sky blue, white, lemon, occasionally pink and white stripes―so thin I can see his undershirt.
In front of his guidance-counseling desk. A hard-backed wooden chair that creaks. I've been waiting under the unblinking glow of the single fluorescent light that drowns the sunshine peeking through the crooked aluminum blinds of his obligatory window. Textbooks, psychology books, manuals and references on how to guide students through the thicket of life are stacked haphazardly throughout the office―on the window sill wedged against the blinds or stuffed in a cheap, wall-length particle board bookcase. Piles of leaflets and pamphlets on the harms of drugs, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, and bullying are scattered everywhere, some used for bookmarks, some compiled like playing cards. Inert until mobilized. Ready for action. A potted fern sits lonesome in a corner. It's fake green leaves are drooping.
Mr. Martin McMahon is buried in that cramped, pale, white little office.
I watch his head bob up and down as he scours the pale yellow, open folder on his desk―my latest high school grades, attendance, and discipline reports.
That he's found my portfolio always amazes me. How come it didn't get lost in the two towers of other students' records that are perched on either corner? And why didn't they fall, slide over, and onto the floor?
I'm unburied from the left tower, soon to be buried again in the right.
We meet twice a school year to review my progress, more often if I've been disciplined in some way, like detention or in-school suspension for skipping school or causing a disturbance in class. It happens frequently. I'm rebellious.
An unmanageable squeaky cog.
For him, it's a chance to impart garden-variety words of wisdom, as he wants to make sure I'm on the right track, that I'm adequately preparing for my future. And our tedious conversations hardly vary. It's like he's a conveyor belt of students, churning them out folder by folder, sending them across the globe after he's finished molding a sculpture of achievement.
Consummation of a meat grinder.
Chu-chug, chu-chug, chu-chug.
But school doesn't interest me. The future doesn't interest me. The military doesn't even interest me anymore. I'm too caught up in the moment of being a teenager, of hanging out with friends, of bumming around town, maybe going to a keg party at someone's house while their parents are away for the weekend. I'd rather be reading a book, submerged in a moment of the pages again, like when I was a child, far away from a classroom desk, or playing Time Pilot in the pizza joint across the street, or listening to records I've either bought with my after-school, part-time job money or borrowed from my mother―Pink Floyd (I love The Wall), Cat Stevens or Jethro Tull, the Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan. Dylan's always been a crappy singer, but his poetry's beautiful and moves me to tears.
Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.
My file's closed. Neat, tidy, on the center of his desk. Mr. Martin McMahon looks up and focuses on me, weighing options, as if I'm a potential parolee. I glance around, feeling shrunken and cowed, though doing my best to seem every bit the brazen seventeen-year-old who couldn't be bothered. He leans forward, hands clasped upon my data. And staring from between the two towers, his brown eyes never waver.
“So, how are things going?”
The Author at Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq, 2004.