Iraq: Pavlovian Paradox

I’m big on soundtracks.  They provide crucial narrative support, reinforce existing thematic elements, make or break a scene.  Like The Third Man‘s darkly whimsical zither, at once mocking the protagonist’s naïveté and building absurd suspense.

Soundtracks provide meaning, something lacking from much of my quotidian routine.  Meaning implies intentionality, organization, some reason things are the way they are.  At the end of many days – especially during the wan winter past – I need assurance that there is a reason, meaning, organization- something outside the isolation and solitude and unholy mindlessness of Iraq.

Lacking a logical alternative I have taken to prying meaning from random circumstance.  Not necessarily looking for a prophesy, or even a moral per se, just validation that this is happening and it is happening as it should.  All I ask for is a subtle confirmation that a vague layer of purpose exists.  It can stay hidden, that’s fine, I just want an occasional assurance that it’s there.

Which I got tonight, when I turned on the radio in our truck at just the right time, on just the right night, at just the right time of night, at the opening notes of The Doors’ “The End.”  At that distant Doppler wop-wop-wop of rotors cutting thick air I slid back to my bed in high school, an eight-year-younger version of me propped up on pillows tearing through Heart of Darkness like a future fiend on his first high.

To me that book was a revelation, plain and simple.  Marlowe’s pathological descent gave me a map to discover something elusive, a dark secret that was fascinating and intriguing and horrible and I wanted to know.  I wanted to know if I could know it, if I was strong enough to handle it.  No fun taking a test if you know you’ll pass.

(Of course, there are other considerations test-takers should bear in mind, such as consequence, but my teenage self never considered anything of the sort, and my twentysomething self takes heed only on rare occasion.)

Watching Apocalypse Now soon after I found a shortcut to working for some colonial outfit in the heart of Africa: the Army, itself a postcolonial outfit in the heart of Arabia.  Humvees subbed for steamboats, IEDs in lieu of arrows.  I was sold on the idea of learning the worst, and the armed forces seemed to offer an expedient approach.

This is the answer to the root question of why I wanted to go to war, a question asked by friends, family members, and even a figure as prominent as my own self conscious self-interrogator.  Granted, this question presupposes that what I did was actually go to war, which is in and of itself an arguable point (according to euphemisticians I am currently engaged in Stability and Support Operations, not war, and even if this was a war it isn’t much of one by comparative regional and historical accounts).  But war was my intent, regardless of outcome, so the judge – me, same self-interrogator, also prosecutor, an unethical alliance for sure – will allow the question.

Folks who’d been there before offered token discouraging advice before realizing it was a pointless pursuit, that my mind had been made after I closed Conrad.  Comprehending this, the same veterans could reminisce with clear conscience, knowing that what they said could not affect my decision, recalling friends made, stories suffered, friends lost.  Then they piled on with the real stuff, which basically boils down to: feel it.

Don’t ignore it, swat it away or crush it like swarming flies.  Don’t shut it out, shut it down, chase it to the bottom of a bottle.  None of that will do any good, and you won’t be left with anything worth having.  The only way is to feel it, stay vulnerable, let it wash over like a sickening tide.  It’s something to be endured and understood; the heartless takeaways are the reason you’re there after all.

(For anyone wondering what “it” is, I asked the same question and was told every time some variant of “if you have to ask, it doesn’t apply.”)

So I have tried to feel it, and I think I have done a pretty good job.  On occasion I have become more concerned with that fact that I don’t feel as much as I think I ought, but it’s not like there’s anything else I can do besides try.

Tonight I wasn’t feeling much until I grabbed the keys, donned my reflector belt, and walked out to the car to grab chow.  There are two choices for music in our Chevy: the radio or the country CD that is stuck in the player.

The stuck CD’s case has a picture of a guy with straw in his teeth and a guitar next to him on the leaned-on tailgate of a muddy pickup truck.  The stuck CD itself only has one good song, the first track, “That’s a Whole ‘Nother Bottle of Whiskey.”  I have extracted tireless pleasure from torturing our interpreters with my not-quite-there imitations of country crooning.  (AUTHOR NOTE: I do have a beautiful voice, as evidenced by my storied tenure as gentile soloist in the West Point Jewish Chapel Choir, but at times it’s far more fun to be a broken record.)

I think I’d already listened to that track at least six times earlier in the day, so rather than hear about John Corbett’s alcoholic case of the blues one more time I took a chance on the radio – usually static or retread tracks from Headbanger’s Ball – and struck gold.  Or oil.  Or napalm.  Whatever it was, I struck it.

I almost couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the distant doppler of chopping rotors that cued the start of “The End.”  A part of me heard the song beginning, clued into it, synced up while it convinced the rest of my conscious self that through the static of the airwaves intent was taking shape.

Earlier in the day a fresh rain brought out a sodden taste of moist silt.  The night was hot and humid, a mixture we tend to call muggy but muggy seems too simple.  At taste and touch the air was a jungle, varied and extreme with heady undertones of carnal demise, fevered delirium of the senses.

The radio faded in and out as I passed the antennas and transmitters that line the sun crisped road, each industrial obelisk stealing the odd micron of wavelength for a second or two.  Mesmerized by the tambourine’s wrist rattle I drove by rote memory, lost in everything.

The song was halfway through by the time I arrived at the chow hall.  Paying respect to the moment I shut off the car and stayed parked in the lot through to the end of “The End.”

It was a spooky, ethereal moment; I was in a half trance as the song reached its murderous climax, Jim Morrison urging KILL!…. KILL!…  KILL!… I half-waited for a cinematic fusillade of mortars to reign down all around, geysers of lethal flame erupting in an orgy of pyrotechnic extravagance.

None came.

So I had pizza with onion rings on the side.  I didn’t really know what else to do when my something of significance never came.  The nothing shot down my illustrious allusion in midair, sheet metal and rotors and screws and ailerons and nuts and washers exploding out to disappear into the aether without a trace of torment.  It was thoroughly underwhelming, but therein lay some shred of significance.

Back in the office, after chow, I tried to explain to my team my catastrophic non-moment.  They refused to give my holy paradox quarter.

“But don’t you see?!? It was a perfect confluence of meaning and nothing!”  There was a long pause while my team leader rubbed his chin, eyeballed my sincerity, and released an unimpressed breath.

“So, what you’re telling me is, you heard a song on the radio?”

Yes, but not just.  Anyone can hear a song, but it’s a whole ‘nother bottle to feel it.

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