Our final step on the path to Iraq is to be certified for combat in a short series of exercises managed by the Joint Readiness Training Center. Our own internal exercise was smooth and smartly managed, but an outside opinion of our abilities will give us legitimacy in the eyes of the Army and the DOD as a fighting unit.
Our platoon trains up on a new system in anticipation of the exercise, and that training runs right up to the eve of the exercise, so that what with loading the vehicles and adding MILES gear to them and the convoy over to North Fort, it’s after midnight by the time we set up our tent. It’s a fine tent, one of the old standards, a GP Medium we later discover was manufactured in 1964 — around the time my father was in the military. (Though, being smarter than I, he was in the Air Force, and probably never came within staking distance of a tent.) The ground is frozen solid, and our first sergeant makes us move the tent after we’ve already gotten it set up, to sit more in line with the other tents, so we’re up making obnoxious noise well into the early morning. Our platoon sergeant, a man who needs his sleep, looks like he’s about at the end of his chain. But a certain delirious energy seems to come over him, and he hammers madly into the frozen ground.
When we’ve finally got the tent standing to some semblance of good order (although it’s missing its center beam, giving it the gentle arc of a circus tent rather than the crisp top edge of a military shelter), our platoon sergeant tells us this is a good start, but we’ll need to dig a small trench around the outside to draw away rainwater. Something inside me collapses a little, but he says we can do it tomorrow. We get cots off the truck, set them up, take them inside, and fall into oblivion.
A day goes by before we get around to digging the trench around the tent — there’s more training, and lots of setting up in anticipation of the “Mission Readiness Exercise.” (No one can decide whether to call this an “MRE,” which sounds like “Meals-Ready-to-Eat,” or an “MRX,” which is orthographically wrong but falls in line with such other military designations as “FTX” (Field Training Exercise) and “STX” (Situational Training Exercise).) But we are really over-prepared for this exercise, and there is quite a lot of downtime during the run-up week, so on the third day my squad leader organizes those of us not engaged in anything else to begin the mighty raingutter.
The soil around Fort Lewis is notoriously rocky — the whole area seems to be sod laid over gravel the size of tennis balls — and the work of digging even a small trench around a GP Medium is tiring and sweaty. But after three hours of breaking up the ground with mattocks and shoveling the earth and stones aside, building up a small berm and windbreak at the bottom edge of the tent along the way, we’re pretty satisfied, although Andy ends up sacrificing one of the small bones in his index finger while hammering a stake into position. Still, it would all have been worth it. It looks like this.
Right at the end, our first sergeant comes up and, in his nervous way, asks, “What are you guys doing?” We explain the concept, proudly showing him around our little engineering project. “I don’t think you’re supposed to dig up the grass,” he says uncertainly.
Several minutes of persuasive argument convince him that what’s done is done, and since this canal really is practical, there’s no reason to fill it in now. He’s just coming around when SPC Lee from headquarters walks up, sees our work, and exclaims, “Oh my God! Who dug up the grass? You can’t do that here!”
We fill it in.
Early on, first sergeant puts out the ground rules of life on the FOB (Forward Operating Base, in this case a parking lot and grassy hill behind the old railhead): eyepro and weapon at all times, nobody leaves the FOB without a trip ticket to provide a record, we’ll be pulling periodic gate guard duty — oh, and there are showers, open from 0600 to 2300.
Showers! Suddenly there’s a kind of luxury to this field exercise, a potential for the kind of civilized rhythm of life that’s absolutely not available during the more intensive kinds of field training our units have done earlier and that I’ve done since basic. Field exercises mean standing in a foxhole or lying in a hide site for hours or days on end, fighting the bugs and the cold, eating from the same menu of MREs over and over again, and waiting for something to happen — or else patrolling on foot in the hot sun and waiting for the inevitable attacks. But this exercise was to be over two weeks long, and was also intended to mimic, as closely as possible, our expected mission in Iraq. Iraq has well-established FOBs with dining facilities and laundry service and, yes, showers.
Many people are initially reticent to use the showers; perhaps their Army instincts kick in and they suspect a trap (anything that seems too good to be true….), but over and over I hear, “Well, I didn’t know there would be showers — I didn’t bring a towel.” I try to convince a few that even wiping off with a dirty T-shirt would leave you cleaner than not having showered at all — even if you didn’t have soap, just rinsing off would put you ahead — but nobody’s buying. There’s a collective sense of waiting to see.
I don’t wait. The evening of the second day, I march down to the shower trailers with flip-flops and towel in hand (for whatever reason, I have prepared for this contingency), take off my boots on the astroturf mat outside, and poke my head inside the door marked “MEN.”
Inside, the trailer is bright and clean. There are several shower stalls, each with its own curtain and hooks for clothes and weapons. I test the water — sweet Lord, it’s hot. Not just hot, but HOT! Just like at home, I have to adjust it with cold water to make it tolerable. I slip off my ACU’s, being careful not to drag the legs of my pants on the wet floor (we don’t have laundry service), and step awkwardly into a fiberglass cubicle of civilized life.
I return to the tent and spread the good news, and during the coming days I evangelize for showers to everyone I meet. “There’s hot water?” “Oh, yes, sister, come down to the trailer and be baptized, hallelujah! Never mind your towels — the Lord will provide you a gentle breeze with which to airdry. This is the land promised to your ancestors, a land where the founts of free liquid soap do not run dry!”
Perhaps I fall too much in love with the cleansing promise of the shower. Perhaps I come to rely too heavily on it. Perhaps, feeling there was no taint which could not be easily rinsed away, I let my guard down.
I am on my way down to the shower about a week into the exercise, after a particularly large meal at the tactical chow hall the cooks have set up for us. I decide to stop at the port-o-potty. This violates my normal policy of “always poop in the daytime” — because you never know what’s waiting for you — but I feel the need, and it’s hard to convince yourself to go through a night of discomfort, no matter how advisedly.
So there’s an element of necessity here. But I blame complacency for what happens next.
I close and latch the door and hang my weapon on the hook above the door. I feel for toilet paper — there’s a streetlight above the cluster of port-o-johns, but through the white plastic roof the light is attenuated down to a suggestion, and forms are muted, garbled, indistinct inside the cramped toilet stall. I’m feeling the urgency now, and I hurriedly but carefully lower my pants, making sure not to let my belt touch the floor — because you never know what might be there. I reach behind me and put my hand down on the toilet seat to stabilize my descent — and feel there… a lump.
Instantly I snatch my hand away, as if from an electric eye, but it’s too late. With a grim determination to confirm what I already know, I wave my hand in front of my nose. I begin to swear loudly and ornately and scrub furiously at the contaminated finger with toilet paper; I stamp furiously on the plastic floorboard of the stall; I retch. Even so, my sense of public duty doesn’t leave me entirely: with a too-large wad of toilet paper, I remove the little turdlet, still whole and largely undisturbed on the toilet seat. My gorge rises, but I fight it back and wipe down the seat as best I can. Then I gathered up my pants and weapon and, with one hand held in front of me like some blasphemous censer, proceeded directly to the shower, the need to defecate entirely forgotten.
Before I even leave the toilet, however, some part of me has already decided that there are only two ways to deal with this kind of trauma — suffer the indignity silently, hoping my own stiff spine will carry me past it, or share it, make it a story, make others laugh — and I choose the latter. I go back to the tent (after a thorough scrubdown and, eventually, a more cautious foray into a different port-o-potty) and in a loud voice I narrate my calamity, not forgetting to include some speculation on what kind of person would poop on the toilet seat and not clean it up, and of course my friends laugh and give me some ribbing.
“Your name is Shit-Hand, now. Hey, Shit-Hand!”
“If that had happened to me, Jemel, I wouldn’t tell anybody about it.”
“Well,” I say, “I figure I can either suffer alone or share at and we can at least get a laugh out of it — “
“Sounds like rationalization, Shit-Hand.”
I don’t really expected the story to get any further than that, and “Shit-Hand,” thankfully, doesn’t stick, but two days later as I’m walking through the motor pool, a couple of sergeants from the NBC platoon see me and smile, and one of them holds up his right hand and wriggles it slightly. That goes around for a few days.
There’s an old feminist joke — I forget who said it first — that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards, and in high heels.
Partway through the exercise, the squadron sergeant-major decides that he and the squadron commander need an interpreter to ride along with them as they go out on their daily rounds. I’m not sure whether, up to now, they’ve had civilian language support, or whether they’ve just belatedly thought that they might like to have an Arabic speaker along. But they refuse to draw from the number of scouts who’ve taken the Arabic course at Fort Lewis, insisting on a “real” linguist from our platoon. Our troop is known around the squadron as the “exotic pets” — UAV pilots, NBC Recon guys, and us. I suspect the sergeant-major wants to take one of those exotic pets out for a while and see if it dies away from the perch.
They tell me to grab my assault pack and my sleeping bag and head over to the PSD (personal security detail) tent. The guys there are noisy and jocular, friendly. They show me an empty cot, but warn me that we might be going out on a night mission. “We kind of screwed up earlier in the day,” someone says vaguely, “so…. Sergeant-Major hasn’t decided yet.” So I drop some of my gear in the tent and we hustle down to the Strykers. (It’s evident, by this time, that the whole attempt to keep the grass intact during the “trench affair” was a completely hopeless cause from the start. The huge armored vehicles, not to mention various supply trucks, have shredded, and then obliterated, the turf on the hillside. By the end of the exercise, the area around our little compound of tents is the only part of the grass that isn’t catastrophically ruined.)
As in any new situation, I’m alert and nervous as a racing dog, but the NCOs in the PSD don’t seem terribly interested in assigned me to a particular truck. We stand around for a while, them joking and laughing and correcting each other, me holding my gear and awkwardly smiling at references I don’t understand. Finally they decide I’ll go on the sergeant-major’s truck, and a talkative corporal welcomes me inside and gives me a brief rundown on the systems and the major tasks we’ll have to cover when we go out.
The SCO and sergeant-major like to drive around to the different FOBs and visit their cav troops, which have been spread around the “battlespace” to do recon. Sometimes they escort supplies; sometimes they’re just visiting, trying to get a ground level view of combat operations and stay connected with the troop commanders. But it soon becomes apparent that their occasional drives are also a way for them to get into the fight. As one of the soldiers on the sergeant-major’s truck says, “They like to go hunting.” Several people, at various times, add: “If you’re with the SCO and the sergeant-major, you’re gonna be pulling a trigger.”
This is not good news to me. Back when I was considering joining the Army, I had a series of discussions with my recruiter about whether I would be in a combat role. As a Baha’i, I knew I should not be a combatant in the “internecine struggles” between nations. Baha’u’llah did envision the occasional use of an international force to keep the peace and suppress aggressors, but Baha’is, although not forbidden to serve in the military, are supposed to desist from the shedding of blood in all wars for the present time.
My recruiter, although careful not to say that I would never be required to fight, made a strong distinction between being in a “combat arms” MOS — infantry, cavalry, tanker, engineer, field artillery, and one or two others — and a “combat service support” MOS like intelligence or commo. (There were also “service support” MOSes even further back in the rear like supply and the people who do the administrative work.) We drove around one day, the recruiter and I. I asked him if being a linguist meant I would be a non-combatant.
“Basically,” he said. “Essentially.” I must have looked too hopeful, because he added, “I can’t tell you that you’ll never have to fire your rifle, but you won’t be a warfighter. Pretty much the only time you’d have to use your weapon is if the camp was completely overrun.”
“So, basically, never?”
I didn’t take his word for it, of course. He arranged for me to talk to a linguist from a nearby reserve battalion, and I also asked several friends who’d been in the Army. They were as one voice in assuaging my fears — no way was a linguist going to be kicking in doors or pulling the trigger, unless all hell broke loose.
That was in September 2002. But no one — not the recruiter, not the linguist I had talked to, not any of my friends who had been in the military — had actually served in wartime, and certainly no one understood how Iraq would change the way America fights.
Once you get past the recruiter no one in the military lies to you. (There’s a corollary, which is that once you get past the recruiter, you don’t have to lie to anyone. You can freely admit, once you reach Basic Training — let alone your first duty station — to having done drugs, been a felon, spent time in a psychiatric ward. No one cares. That much, at least, of the military myth is true. You are a new person when you step off that bus.) No one lies. Our drill sergeants were candid about the likelihood of our having to kill. A few weeks after we arrived at Ft. Jackson, Jessica Lynch’s convoy was ambushed; our commander talked about it at least once a day for the rest of our rotation. The message for our company of cooks, fuel-pumpers, carpenters, linguists, and mechanics was unavoidable: there is no rear area anymore.
Our reception company at the Defense Language Institute, after Basic, drove home a similar message. One drill sergeant gave us a lecture on a few of the unclassified electronic warfare systems. Another brought in his Low-Level Voice Interceptor ruck, which weighed over a hundred pounds, and let people try it on. Both kinds of systems were intended to be deployed out in front of the infantry, deep in enemy country. Neither of these systems is used prominently anymore, but the idea was deeply ingrained in us: linguists cannot afford to think of themselves as semi-civilians. We may be called on to join or even lead the fight. The school’s Army battalion underlined the point with its motto: “Soldiers First!” (When I first heard this, I admit to being naive enough to think this was some kind of declaration goodwill from the officers to the lowly joes….)
There were ways, at that point, to get out of the Army. But I couldn’t find a way out that didn’t put me in conflict with some other Baha’i principle. I couldn’t honestly declare myself a conscientious objector, because we aren’t pacifists; we don’t reject the use of military force entirely, only it use as a tool of aggression to further national interests. There was also the “failure to adapt to military life” chapter, a kind of no-fault for people still in training who realized they just couldn’t hack it. But that wasn’t me either, and it felt dishonorable, a kind of re-neg, to try to go out that way. That left getting hugely fat, sustaining a serious injury, or becoming gay — another non-starter in my faith. The truth was that the time to make that moral decision not to become part of a nation’s fighting force against other nations was before, not after, enlistement. If I had been too eager to get into Arabic school, too dazzled by the large amounts of money dangled in front of me, or too entranced with the Army’s ideal of self-improvement through painful training, if those veils had not fallen away from my sight until I had already made an agreement and signed my name — well, it seemed dishonorable to try to take it back now.
But over the course of the past two years, our platoon has developed its role quite specifically, working closely with the MI company, so that by the time this exercise rolls around, we largely know what we’ll be doing. Despite being embedded in a cavalry squadron, we will probably not spend a lot of time directly in the fight; instead we’ll mostly work on the FOB, identifying targets and working our magic in support of the fighting units. I grant that pointing out targets to be killed is, morally, not that far from actually killing them — but for me, it was a key difference. Back when I was struggling with the decision to enlist, I had written to the Universal House of Justice asking for guidance. And although it now appears that some of their advice fell on deaf ears (or I wouldn’t have joined), one of their answers stuck with me — namely, that there was no objection to a Baha’i serving in the intelligence services of his country. I held onto that kind of work as the kind I could do, for now, for my country, and I prayed and hoped that the other, bloodier work would somehow never find me.
But its specter keeps creeping back, brushing against me with cold fingers. Not only does the Army Cryptologic Office bring us a new and aggressive type of electronic warfare just a week before the exercise, but now the sergeant-major has swept me up into his personal security detail. And he likes to go hunting.
I have to stay on a very fine line here. The other members of the PSD are too welcoming; as far as they’re concerned, I’m one of the unit now, and they are all eager to help me integrate as quickly as possible. After all, we’re leaving for Iraq in just two short months. But I don’t want to be a part of their team, which puts me in a very awkward position. I have to be as unremarkable as possible — good enough not to attract unpleasant attention from the sergeant-major, but not such a great fit that they suddenly find me indispensable. I have to be the perfect plug-and-play soldier, an indistinguishable widget, which could be removed and put back in again, oh, some other time….
In theory, of course, we are all that way. All soldiers are supposed to be able to act, essentially, as infantrymen; we are all supposed to be able to shoot, conduct basic battle drills, drive, use a radio, do first aid, and so on. But of course, infantrymen (and, in their way, the cav) conduct these drills and practice these tasks all the time. In garrison, their battle-rhythm is a constant drone; they go out to the field for a few days, come back and recover, then go out again. Even when they’re home, they’re doing tasks most of us support MOS guys just don’t do as much, if ever — cleaning the .50-cal machine gun, for example, or doing maintenance on a Stryker. They don’t do anything else. The UAV pilots are out flying; the admin guys are keeping the squadron running; the medics are giving themselves IV’s and sticking naso-pharyngeal tubes in each other’s noses. And the linguists and analysts? We probably have the highest high heels, and spend the most time dancing backwards, of anyone in the Army. But like Fred Astaire, the scouts and the grunts do nothing but what they’re famous for.
As it turns out, riding with the sergeant-major, at least this time, isn’t so bad. I don’t ever get to practice my Arabic, but I do get to practice opening and closing the Stryker door, using the combat vehicle comms system, and riding air guard. This is actually the most interesting part. The sergeant-major and the SCO decide to do a patrol along one of the main supply routes that’s been hit especially badly with IEDs, to see if they can catch anyone in the act. This in itself indicates what kind of people they are, and I admire them for it.
So we go IED-hunting. Since this is only an exercise, and not life-and-death, the sergeant-major uses it as an opportunity to teach, and to grill his crew on what to look for. We roll along, and the scouts eyeball every out-of-place marker or piece of trash on the roadside. Periodically, when someone sees something really suspicious — a coffee can nailed to a tree, a lonely rubber cone — we slow down and investigate. I am also facing backwards, pulling rear air guard from one of the top hatches, so for the most part I only get the story over the radio. With each potential IED, the sergeant-major probes the scout who spotted it, getting more information, then quizzes the leaders about procedures. I learn a hell of a lot just listening.
Ultimately, that’s the damnable thing about my moral niceness — I still kind of enjoy soldier stuff, and combat is cool when it’s all an exercise and the worst that happens is somebody’s MILES gear goes off. I like the thrill of clearing rooms; I like the satisfying thunk of firing my 203 and watching the arc of the round; I like the close, dangerous aggression of reacting to contact. But more than that, it’s interesting and intellectually challenging. These guys are technical experts, combining athleticism with terrific observational skills, expansive knowledge of their craft, and even a brisk thoughtfulness. I want to be a part of what they do — and they seem to want to invite me in to learn how to do it. But there’s that gap, that moral queasiness, that stops me. Somehow I can’t work around the feeling that I’ve already sold out the ideal of belonging to one human family, already joined one faction within the family against the others, and the best thing I can do now is try to mitigate that betrayal by trying limit the practical consequences of my decision. And so even practicing combat causes me a private distress, which I can never express in this company, among these good men doing a hard job for what they believe is right.
And all of this is not to say I won’t kill when the time comes. Anyone who joins al-Qaeda in Iraq or Jaysh al-Mahdi, regardless of patriotic sentiment, is pretty much a voluntary murderer, and I won’t count it much of a stain on my soul if I shoot one of those guys. But even so — soldiers are already looking to the next fight, and many of them would be perfectly happy if our country lost its few remaining foreign policy marbles and leapt into Iran. To me, that possibility, however remote, is absolutely intolerable. The idea of fighting draftees, many of whom are very likely my Baha’i brothers… I can’t get there.
Many times during my enlistment I say this prayer:
I beg of Thee, O my Lord, to forgive me for every mention but the mention of Thee, and for every praise but the praise of Thee, and for every delight but delight in Thy nearness, and for every pleasure but the pleasure of communion with Thee, and for every joy but the joy of Thy love and Thy good pleasure, and for all things pertaining unto me which bear no relationship unto thee, O Thou who art the Lord of Lords, He who provideth the means and unlocketh the doors.
I decide to give up masturbation. Both the threat of my own mortality and the possibility of having to kill even loathsome and evil people cause me to try to get my spiritual house in order before I leave. I try to purify myself in small ways. I start saving money towards Huquq’u’llah. I go on pilgrimage. I try to make my relationships with friends and fellow Baha’is more sacred and speak about more spiritual, more significant things. The Fast, fortuitously, falls right before our deployment, and I observe it with unusual appreciation. And I decide to give up masturbation.
I realize this is a little like the old joke, I think from Mark Twain, about the kid who decides to give up stolen watermelons for Lent. But there are, and always have been, times and places where people made more of an effort to obey the Laws of God. Many Muslims I’ve met, for example, act “more Muslim” during Ramadan, not only fasting, but perhaps refraining from alcohol or attending jum’ah on Fridays. Otherwise lukewarm Christians may become churchgoers or more observant in other ways during Christmas, Lent, or Easter. And of course, at certain points in our lives — often when we are overwhelmed, but many times simply when we have a clearer insight about the true nature of our lives — we turn more wholly toward God.
A few years ago, the father of a good friend died of cancer. The cancer was massive, multi-system, and relatively sudden. He fought it while he could, but ultimately everyone knew he was going to die. He was the first person I was ever really close to who died, certainly the first person I was able to observe preparing for death. It was inspiring to watch. He set his worldly affairs in order, said goodbye to friends and, eventually, family, and prepared his soul for the transition to the next world. How, exactly, he went about this last task I will never know; it was, of course, a completely private process. Nonetheless, it was clear by the end that he was entirely at peace and ready to cross the vale.
In many ways, I see preparing to go to war as the same kind of final reckoning. The threat of both physical death and grave moral peril hang like a poisonous fog over the activity of war, and it would be foolish to enter that fog without preparing for both. The Army mandates that one put one’s financial affairs in order prior to deployment — make a will, create powers of attorney, freeze or cancel accounts — but the spiritual preparations are, naturally, the work of the individual.
So this is my way — to try to find the small, everyday means to purify my heart and draw closer to God in preparation for stepping off into the void.
At the same time, part of me resists giving up my only real vice. It is, after all, a comfort — not to mention something to do when one is bored. And another part of me, the scrappy, survival-oriented part, can’t really take all this contemplation of death and dishonor. I need, I discover, a way to laugh at death, to occasionally thumb my nose at good sense and prudence. So I take up smoking.
I don’t smoke cigarettes — I’ve known a lot of addicts, and they’re miserable people. Plus smoking is almost never jaunty or devil-may-care; smokers don’t laugh at death, they embrace it. Ask anyone in a French film.
Instead, I decide to smoke the civilized way, with a pipe. I spend a nice half hour with the young Asian woman in the tobacco shop, who recommends getting a fairly cheap pipe but points me away from the $7.50 pipe favored by Russian sailors at the Port of Tacoma: “They taste horrible — like chemicals.” I select one that I like and buy a small bag of something that smells a little like coffee and a little like old man.
This is during the Fast, so I have to wait until after dark to smoke it, but Andy and I open up one of the empty rooms in the barracks and he, an experienced smoker, teaches me the basics. While trying to light it, I inhale deeply, and discover that years of living with my father seem to have made my lungs largely unflappable — I barely cough. But smoke seems to be curing the back of my throat, so after a little while I get to the point of puffing large clouds into my mouth, then releasing them gently in satisfying billows.
The following day, I am a mess of mucous. It’s gross, and a reminder that polluting your body is, well, polluting your body. But it’s lawful, not spiritually detrimental, and — most important to forming a real vice — it has rituals. I come away pleased.