Iraq: Fields of Asphodel

Down the dank mouldering paths and past the Ocean’s streams they went
And past the White Rock and the Sun’s Western Gates and past
The Land of Dreams, and soon they reached the fields of asphodel
Where the dead, the burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home.
The Odyssey (24.5-9)

A couple months in, as initial enthusiasm wanes, frustration starts to mount.  It’s inevitable.

At first I took it all so seriously, tried to make a difference, really wanted to affect change.  I didn’t join the Army to sit on the sidelines and watch entropy in action.  Now that we’re here though, coach isn’t terribly enthusiastic about letting us play; the fans rushed the field early on and no one knows where the ball went.  The grass is overgrown, goalposts hang akimbo, and I think the referee has traded his starter pistol for a Kalashnikov…

The mobilization process was one big pep rally, full of you’re doing great things for your country and you’re the force needed to bring a historic victory ‘s.  Optimism runs rampant at first, infecting all sorts of common sense and leading to hallucinations of hope.

We were no different.  Our first month here productivity jumped 40% from the unit we replaced.  We were bright eyed, enthusiastic, and it showed.  But the more we did the more things stayed the same.

It was an annoying jam.  We couldn’t bury ourselves in field manuals to discover tried-and-true solutions.  Even history came up pretty short; Vietnam offered a few parallels, a lesson or two, but the comparison also invited damned inevitability.

Kind of like our base defense plan.  They call it the “Alamo Plan,” the way we should secure the fort if barbarians are at the gate.  Each base had its own Alamo Plan that was reassuring insofar as the practiced actions would help us maintain a tactically superior position.  Less reassuring was the name.  Now, I didn’t pay much attention in U.S. History, but I think I remember what happened at the Alamo.  Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well for the soldiers there.

This probably won’t either.  There are some disturbing statistics out there on how many soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD.  But what of the soldiers coming back not with battle injuries but significantly altered outlook?  PTSD is a combat injury; now that combat is “over” and it’s only stability and support operations I think we deserve an acronym for the death of faith beyond WTF.  I propose TIRED: Theater Induced Rates of Ennui and Dissatisfaction.

I see a lot of TIRED folks around here.  The guys who have been here a few weeks or a month are only in the beginning stages, still holding on to the last scraps of possibility.  Maybe if we try to emphasize X?  Or teach the Iraqis Y?  Or spin around in a circle three times while reciting the alphabet backwards?  Maybe that will do something?  Z-Y-X-W-T-V- crap.  Again, Z-Y-X-W-V-U-T-S-R-Q-P-M- damn it.  Third time’s the charm, Z-Y-X…

The problem is, just about every solution inevitably raises another new, more intractable obstacle.  When good intentions mark the road to Hell, what the hell path are you supposed to take?

We are stuck at an impasse on a trail winding its way up the Mount of Purgatory, examining options.  We could follow the path back to the Inferno.  An option, but hardly palatable and definitely counterproductive.  On the other hand, charging forward blindly will only guarantee we stumble down the slope.

Me, playing Vladimir:  “Well? What do we do?”

The Generals, reprising the role of Estragon: “Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.”

I didn’t join the Army for that.  If only I had the foresight to pack climbing gear.  If only that metaphorical harness, rope, and carabiner held a tangible representation here in the real world.

How young I once was, when I thought I had all the answers to our foreign policy nightmares.  I can hear my impassioned undergraduate self now:  “What we really need is to incentivize support for a participatory central government so a majority of the citizenry are motivated by enlightened self-interest.  Install rigid checks and balances on the branches of the Iraqi government to stave off bureaucratic balkanization, enact harsh penalties for corruption and cronyism, invigorate economic development…”

I thought about things rationally but erred in assuming a public willing to sacrifice in the short term for greater benefit down the road, politicians who linked their personal success with that of their country.  Precious innocence; I am tempted to tie a cute little bow around this adorable memory of me.  I was a paragon of educated naïveté.

It wasn’t that I was misguided, per se; my assumptions were logical if there existed a reason to believe that, in the end, stability will reign.  Matt Damon’s character in Syriana, speaking to a Saudi Prince:  “You know what the business world thinks of you? They think a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off, and that’s exactly where you’ll be in another hundred years!”

I thought that line was hilarious until I realized a lot of Iraqi politicians agreed: get what you can, while you can, before it comes down to dust.  No way I can get a horse to drink if he can’t be led to water and lets loose a swift kick if I so much as try.

Elysium, the Land of Dreams, is a Greek concept anyways.

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