One night in the week following the attacks on Paris, Los Angeles had a small windstorm. It wasn’t an emergency, by any means, but at one point the winds got fast and violent enough to shake the thin, loose windows of our aged building back and forth so that they rattled hard in their frames. The sound woke me up, and as has happened dozens of times since I returned from Iraq, I jolted awake, nerves electric, brain already conjuring an explanation for the sound — an explosion, maybe the building is coming down, maybe the windows are about to spray inward, showering us with glass.
Nothing like that is happening, of course. This is Los Angeles in 2015, not Iraq in 2008.
But still, any loud sound when I’m sleeping — the clang of the machines being unloaded at a nearby construction site, the sudden whoop of a police siren, a motorcycle’s ripping throttle — can do that to me. It’s just something I learned one morning on FOB Warhorse, after a long night shift, trying to get some sleep in a noisy, cavernous tent. Just after I’d gotten into the precious deep sleep, a long, metallic whine slowly penetrated my consciousness, growing louder and louder — it sounded exactly the way it sounds when a plane goes down in a cartoon:
I flipped off my cot and onto the floor, knowing all at once that lower was better. I looked over to see my bunkmate on the floor, too, both of us laughing and scrambling for Kevlar helmets and body armor. There were a couple more, and then silence.
Rocket and mortar attacks in Iraq were not really a substantial source of casualties, I think — they were harassing at best, a way for the enemy to fuck with us. Very shortly after we arrived in country, someone found a dud rocket lodged at the base of my office’s cinderblock wall. EOD was called; life went on.
There were enough attacks that the details run together now — was the one that hit the “movie theater” (a small warehouse with a little screen and a video projector) the same as the one that destroyed the housing unit of someone I knew? (No one was in it at the time.) Which one was the attack where I actually hid in one of those roadside concrete shelters? Then there are other memories — while in transit once, I got to stay for several days at Balad Air Base/LSA Anaconda, which was comparatively fancy and had not only a proper movie theater but a swimming pool as well. It was also nicknamed “Mortaritaville” by the people stationed there, and once while I was at the pool the mortar attack alarm went off, and we all jumped up out of the pool and ran into the changing rooms. As we stood there in our “ARMY” shorts, excited and shivering, I looked around at the large glass windows all around the tops of the walls, and I envisioned them blowing inward, shrapnel and glass flying toward us.
But for some reason it’s the attack that woke me up out of a dead sleep –and that loud Snoopy’s-going-down-with-the-Sopwith-Camel sound — that stayed with me. For some reason it’s that experience I live over and over again: first the loud sound, and then the certainty of impending disaster.
Rarely, now, do I actually suspect I’m under attack. Last week was an exception — maybe brought on by thinking about Paris (and, yes, Lebanon, and Kenya, and Mali, and now let’s add Tunisia to the list). Sometimes my brain imagines an earthquake, the whole side of our building falling away. Sometimes it gets very large-scale indeed, as I lie in bed in the dark wondering if it’s possible for the Earth to just fall suddenly out of its orbit and roll into the sun like a marble into a drain. I wonder if I would have time to comfort my son before we all die.
My time in Iraq wasn’t that bad, and no one should feel sorry for me. As I’ve written before,
I’ve never, as we say in this line of work, engaged the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. Had some rockets and mortars lobbed at me, but they never got closer than a hundred yards away.
And as I’ve also written before,
I wasn’t one of the soldiers kicking in doors . . . .
I didn’t do the killing myself. I never put anyone in jail myself.
[Iraq] didn’t give me PTSD; I don’t have flashbacks and I’m not depressed.
And that’s true. I found my time in Iraq deeply annoying and frustrating, and I spent much of my time there feeling incredibly angry at the pointless war and ambivalent about my own part in it. (See previous link for more on that score.) But on the other hand, things were not that bad for me. I was pretty much exclusively a “fobbit” — quite by design, I never left the FOB except to travel to another FOB. I was not out there looking for roadside bombs, and the worst thing I faced on a day-to-day basis was shitty food, an uncomfortable environment, loneliness and the anxiety that comes with being kind of bad at your job. (I got better over time.) There was a gym. There was internet access. I even had time to record an album of weird electronic music while I was there. It was almost certainly the best war experience any soldier in history has ever had, in terms of amenities. Comparatively, I was fine.
But I do still carry this one little thing with me, this inability to recover gracefully from being woken up by a loud sound. It’s a bit of a nuisance — I live in the densest and noisiest part of a dense and noisy city. But it’s only one small scar.
It’s the smallest amount of damage one could possibly have from war. But I suspect no one leaves without some damage. And if there are thousands and thousands of well-off fobbits like me, with some tiny bit of damage, some little bit of weakness we didn’t have before, you can only imagine the cumulative damage of the door-kickers and war-fighters, the EOD guys who went bomb-hunting in their big armored trucks, the low-level electronic surveillance folks who went out into the towns to hunt the bad guys on foot, the transpo contractors who drove supplies along some of the world’s most dangerous roads, the helicopter pilots, the translators. And that’s to say nothing of millions of civilians, for whom life under Saddam had perhaps not been great, but upon whom we unleashed a living hell, as they were repeatedly victimized by all the competing armies that arose in the power vacuum after the invasion, battered by our attacks on what we hoped were terrorists, and destroyed by the ruination of their local economy.
I carry the smallest possible scar from war. But I’m on the ledger, and that ledger is long — miles long. And we should read it, the whole thing, before we listen to rich politicians talk about how tough they’d be if they got a chance to sit behind the war machine and pull the trigger.
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that I got to come home. I’m thankful that almost everyone I knew got to come home, too. But mostly I’m thankful that I live in a country that, 14 years after 9/11, seems genuinely wiser, more cautious about war, and less eager to be fooled by banner-waving salesmen.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And for fun, here’s the OTHER, probably obligatory rumination on war and Thanksgiving. “You wanna end war and stuff, you gotta sing loud!”