Iraq: Questions of Me

On occasion, here and there, folks get curious and I get questions.  I encourage this, enjoy the opportunity to share my perspective and give a little depth to the complex weave of narratives at work in the Mid East today.

But one of the questions most asked, and the question I have the most difficulty answering, is far too simple to be such a pain.  Four agonizingly short syllables that I have yet to answer to any degree of satisfaction:

         What do you do?

Excuse me, right quick, point of clarification: when you ask “what do you do,” do you mean instead: “what is your position?” “What have you been trained in?” “What do you do all day?” “What have you done?” “What will you do?”?  Those are each different questions with wildly varying answers.

I wish I could say:  I am a pilot, I have been trained to fly planes, I fly planes all day, as I have and will continue to do.  Or: I am a grocer, I have been trained to sell groceries, I sell groceries all day, as I have and will continue to do.

I am not a pilot. [Yet? Give me time.]

I am not a grocer. [Only in my heart, for now.]

Instead I must answer: I am a soldier, I have been trained in civil affairs, I do different things every day but might not do so different things in the near future depending on where I am and who I am working for and what the security situation dictates.

See how that gets a little complicated?  Actually, thinking of the fluidity of my station, unsatisfactory answers are the least of my worries.

Right now I have a luxurious room all to myself on the second floor of our building.  Luxurious in that I’m the only person sleeping here.  It’s me, some plywood boards, seventeen cots, and a ton (possibly literally, come to think) of sand bags half covering the windows.

The ‘half covering’ is disappointing on a few accounts.  For one, I noticed a pretty clear line of sight from my cot to an abandoned apartment complex outside the wire.  No one’s been shot by a sniper here since, like, December, but last night I put down Gravity’s Rainbow long enough to adjust some sandbags and make myself a harder target.  Reading’s not a bad time to go, but gotta make ’em work, you know?

Also, there is no blast tape covering the exposed glass.  We tape up any exposed glass so when things go boom* fewer things go flying and slashing and cutting and annoying.  (Duct tape makes even a complex attack simple.)

Last, the Iraqi motor pool is right below my window.  So when habbibi and sadeeqi are hollering at each other I hear every throaty, guttural word of it.  Replace the Arabic profanity with Spanish and I’m back to New York, living next to Webster Hall.  Except the idling taxis on 11th Street are a far cry from the Blackhawks that hover about twenty feet above my building on their approach to our landing zone.  But to end on a positive, there’s no need for an 0730 alarm when the 0729 flight wakes me up like, well, clockwork.

That last part is important.  I had a real problem sleeping in too late in the beginning.  Not the real beginning; the first couple weeks at each base I’ve been on I always work 18-20 hour days, burning the candle at both ends to get everything set up, square away new team members, do administrative work and weapons maintenance and room inspections and chai with the Iraqis and physical training and… so on.

But at about week three, when the machine is well-oiled and running like it should, when we’re cooking with grease, I usually collapse hard, relishing my well-earned sleep.  Rest my immune system, relax my mind.  And from there on out, all I really have to do is spot check fluid level (morale, work load, timeliness) and make minor adjustments.  Which gives me time to sleep.  And sleep.  And sleep some more.

I am still only in the beginning stages of trying to learn about myself, who I am, but of one aspect I am confident: I will sleep in if given the option.

So I did.  Right around New Year’s things got so bad that I resolved against the practice, only to break that resolution the next morning (technically afternoon).  I would tell myself I would wake up earlier, but then I would go to bed later, wake up later, and be so tired from all that sleepin’ that I would be back in bed early, sleeping right through the cascade of alarms I would set for that inevitability.

Not a good situation, but no longer a problem thanks to the Blackhawks!  Before I stray too far, back to the implicit questions within ‘what do you do,’ answered in detail, to at least my own satisfaction.  [Personal satisfaction- is there ever a nobler introspective goal?]

         Disambiguated Question One: What is your position?

         Answer: I am the non-commissioned officer (AKA sergeant) in charge of a Civil Affairs Team.  CAT NCOIC, if you are acronym-inclined.

         Disambiguated Question Two: What have you been trained in?

         Answer: My training sounded like a great concept.  Our teams are supposed to go out into the towns, talk with the locals (Host Nation Population in military parlance), figure out what their issues are, and help them solve ’em.  Whether that means mediating tribal disputes, working on infrastructure, or improving services, we try to make a suicide vest look like an unattractive option by offering a life with fewer conflicts, running water, and a responsive government.  Defeating terrorism by negation.  And, I would be able to put all those fancy-schmancy Ivy League anthropology classes to practical application, probably a first for the discipline.  That was the plan.

         Disambiguated Question Three: What do you do all day?

         Answer:  Ahh, therein lies the rub.  We aren’t really allowed to leave our base and mingle with the Host Nation Population, so there goes the whole point of the job.  I usually wake up, check my email, research relevant things, write about them using smart words so officers might read it, and then blast out my commentary so I can feel like at least my words are going somewhere and doing something.

         Disambiguated Question Four: What have you done?

         Answer:  I used to do fun stuff like convoying twice a week (is that an IED? Hope not, but let’s hit the gas just in case) but since I moved to my present location the suck has set in.  Opportunities still arise, on occasion, and I seize them like a withdrawing fiend.  You need someone to take pictures at the morgue?  I have a camera!  Convoy needs a gunner?  I have a gun!  Foot patrol to investigate the scene of a bomb blast?  I have feet!  Anything beats sitting at a computer, wracking my brain for something to do that makes it look like I’m doing something.  You don’t want to have nothing to do; someone will find something for you, and nothing is far preferable to whatever that ends up being.

         Disambiguated Question Five: What will you do?

         Answer: The Zen answer would be tomorrow never comes; the future exists only in our minds.  And even though I have an active imagination, I still have no clue.  Dis-a-point-ing.  I may sit around my dusty base for the next four months struggling to make it look like I’m doing work (perception is reality, after all).  They, the ominous They, say I am supposed to go to a new team, do some new stuff, hopefully get back that adrenaline high and sense of purpose I have heretofore been lacking.  However, I have been supposed to go to a new team since October.  Every week there’s some tantalizing clue, some tidbit tucked away in a briefing, that buoys my hope ever so slightly that this team may form.


We shall see.


Waiting for Godot.

Waiting to go.

*INTERPOLATION: I realized I speak a lot in simplified terms with civilian personnel, of booms and bangs.  As far as I can tell, this is an allergic reaction to the hyper-Linnaean state of the Army, where any new thing automatically needs an acronym (which some officer will be able to claim on a future evaluation report), a task force, and an update to the appropriate toxic taxonomy.  For example, when something goes boom, the first question is: what was it? IED? MAIED? EFP? SVEST? PBIED? BBIED? IDF? SVBIED? VBIED? UXO? IRAM? MBIED? LMIED? All of those things go boom.  Hence: ‘boom.’

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