Sunday, February 25, 2007

second guessing

Once you have lived in the army long enough you begin to see people according to the heirarchy of rank. A subtle judgement settles between all of us, subtle implications about how well one of us will sweep a floor, or how well another will organize enough people to sweep a company area for trash, or how scrupulous a person will be about making sure his soldiers bring every piece of gear they will need, etc.

There is room for personal assesment, and certainly we talk as if rank means nothing, but the awareness of it, like a stamp of greater or less approval from an authority as vague and commanding as God, seeps into the undercurrents of our social interactions.

It is strange to wake up from this influence of rank for a second and recognize the marks of authority that used to mean something in our disappeared civilian lives: things like age, or a bad ass attitude, or being married, or having kids, or having money. All these things mean very little in terms of who is in charge here.

I am a fairly young sergeant. I often see myself directing others to do things when they have ten or more years of life experience to them. I often think there is a vast potential that the army does not access because of the aspect of superficiality that is in rank.

One specialist in particular I have had the pleasure to sit with for ten hours a day in the small cab of a truck sitting on a security detail just outside the walls of our FOB.

He's in his late thirties. A diesel mechanic by trade. Short stubby fingers, smokes more than a pack every day, drinks Full Throttle or Red Bull or any energy drink like... he doesn't drink anything else, so there's nothing to compare it to. He's a short man with a face that is just starting to show signs of middle age. He has squinting eyes.

Eventually, because sitting in an idling truck ten hours a day will bring you to it, we talked about the war. He hates Bush and hates the fact that we are in this war.

He was very educated on the subject. Some of the things he said shook down my idealist sentiments about this war and left me needing more of the facts. He sparked in me an interest to understand what we know about things like the connection between Al Quiada and Iraq (before our invasion and now after), what mistaken reasons we had to believe Saddam had WMD, who the research panels have been that have looked into these sorts of questions and what methods did they use to find things out, I realized I don't understand the relationship between Al Quiada and the Taliban, and finally what did the oppression look like during Saddam's reign vs. the violence that Iraqis now face.

Even the simple formulation of my questions embarrasses me. I have such a distrust of the media's dissemination of information that I lose any drive to keep up on such things as the preceding questions when they are taking place.

It makes me wonder how definitive the answers will be that I will find. But I feel I've come finally to a place, after seven months in Iraq, where I must find out how much we actually know about why we are here.

It would hurt me to give up all moral reason for being here. I know that.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk

As a man significantly shaped by a Great Books program, this book gives me welcome challenge. In the U.S. when we say "great books" we mean the greatest Western books. But Mr. Pamuk blurs the geographic, domestic, artistic, religious, and political lines between the West and the East, embodied by a westernizing Turkey, and particularly Istanbul.

I always come to books with a question of literature's worth. No book can answer that question conclusively, and literature itself can not answer that question conclusively. But sometimes, I read a book that has a good bit to say to the question, and for the few seconds that I'm reading that book I remember how the endeavor of literature is a shining endeavor.

Snow brought me to intersections of emotional experience with intellectual objectification: those places where knowing all the reasons for events and all the brilliant parallelisms does not protect you from the chaos of emotion in them. I take it that the lyrics of most popular music are vague and fragmented, for one, because often reason and intellectual processing leaves us no room for raw emotional experience. Pamuk creates an emotional atmosphere in his novel compelling enough to give him perfect freedom in wearing all the intellectual elements of his novel on the novel's articulated sleaves.

And the intellectual elements of the novel are many: the mystery of Islam's great hate for the West, a passionate desire to be indifferent; the process of the East trying to become Western, the trying itself counter-intuitively causing failure to truly emulate; an artist's place in a political world with two sides and seemingly no level ground in between to stay put on; the phenomenon of proximity and how that causes one entity to be influenced by another.

Snow brings you into a small Turkish town where the unemployed men sit around in tea houses. The newspapers write the news before it happens in order to have the news available in print on the day of. The place has lived through long struggles between political Islamists, Westernizing secularists, Kurds, and everyone in between. Everyone with their own ideas about what is West and what is East, where salvation lies, and how to get there. In the middle of these ideals beats a pulse of longing for simple domestic happiness and belonging, and a fervor for some sort of identity that can be claimed without feeling shame from it.

This is a great book. Written by a man from Istanbul. A book can not convey the East to the West, but this book creates a place thick with questions that can dissect us if we let them, and an emotional solidarity that will grant us time to figure out our own pieces a little bit, and then a little bit, and then a little bit better.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Plenty of violence still takes place in Mosul. It's Northern Iraq, the safe part of Iraq, but there's still plenty of violence.

I've been out and about the last three days outside of the wire. I've seen two car bombs go off and have heard a number of mortars. Everything is always a good 400 to 1000 meters away, and the spot I've been at gives a good view of most of the city in proximity to us, so the situation has made for good observation.

Put into perspective, both the car bombs and the mortars have been very small, relatively. It's Northern Iraq and most of the explosions are smaller than the ones you hear of in Baghdad killing 17 or more people. We aren't without our horrific ones, but they are far and few between.

I've noticed a pattern, though. You never hear of sectarian death squads or really any Islam on Islam violence for the sake of the Shi'ite/Sunni divide. The car bombs I saw were fairly clearly directed at Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police checkpoints. The mortars were directed at one of the two bases in Mosul. I don't ever hear of civilians being murdered or kidnapped or blown up in public places by alleged groups of a differing Islamic devotion.

Mosul doesn't seem to be torn into disarray by religious/civil war.

It makes me wonder why Baghdad is so much the area of focus for the more extreme religious sects vying for power. Baghdad is the center of political power. That's one obvious factor. But it seems strange that the sort of violence that is so prevalent in one part of the country is nearly non-existent in another.

Mosul has nearly two million people.

Optimist that I am, it makes me think that the intensity of the fighting in Baghdad is far from a normal indicator of the actual level of religious/civil division in Iraq. No one is sure how prevalent these extremist religious groups are in the general population of Iraq. I take those groups to be any that are willing to murder innocent civilians on the basis of religious distinction, whether for religious cleansing or political empowerment.

Sectarian violence in Mosul would not effectively propagate political agendas. That fact reveals extremist Islamic violence for what it really is. The violence may wear a head covering of religious motivation, but politics and political aspirations are the real motivator.

That's ironic to me. I read all these politically heated blogs and newspaper articles that imply religion is the heart of extremist violence. Usually from the worst half, the less reasoning half, of the political left. Movies are the worst... no, pop music is the worst... no, John Mayor is the worst... I can't stand popular culture at its unthinking-mimicking-anti-war-catch-emotive worst.

I just think politics lies at least one step closer to that heart of the violence.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

bright eyes

Some months back, the band known as bright eyes released an album called "I'm wide awake, it's morning."

The first sound you hear is that of the front man taking a sip of some sort of drink out of a cup in a sound room somewhere. Then he begins his nonchalant story. The story of course leads into a little song and then the song leads into the rest of the album.

The whole thing is really good acoustic rock, with maybe a twinge of folk/country flavor. His voice is cool skater guy in a band nasal, which works very well for giving nice definition to a couple of the songs, but it's a little too distinct to hear throughout the whole album. I wish he could have mixed up his voice a little. The lyrics are good, sometimes. A lot of other times the lyrics are just par. There's a lot of personality in the album, I like the first track, though I wonder if after a couple more months I'll start skipping the first track just to avoid the little story that he begins with and that eventually I'll remember verbatim. I sort of wonder the same thing about the album as a whole. I'm glad I have it. I'll listen to it for a while, and then probably get tired of it.

If I were you, I'd borrow the CD from a friend and then just illegally burn yourself a copy. It's probably not a good buy if you only buy music you'll want to listen to all the way through many times until you get dentures and choke on a piece of meat to your death.

I'm a cop and I have no qualms with recommending you break the law here. But I would also have no qualms about busting down your door on a raid and throwing your ass in jail for copy right infringement.

That would be awesome.

scary vampire story

I met a vampire today. A real one, apparently. He drinks about three quarts of blood a week.

Actually I've known him for the last six months. But today he revealed his secret identity to me. Somehow in the course of a normal conversation about him going to Paris when we get home to stay with some girl he knows who's a professional ballerina and one of his donors. Donors? I ask. Uh, yeah, it's a lifestyle choice that I made and I don't really talk about it much... I'm a vampire.


Yeah. Three quarts of blood a week. And yes, he calls it feeding. He has about six donors around where he lives to keep him going. Without blood he has an energy deficiency. With blood his aura grows strong enough to draw donors to him, especially while he's feeding. Sometimes they cut themselves to give him blood. One donor is a nurse that just draws it out for him. And a few have him bite them for it.

He has no pointy teethe or black cape or greasy slicked back hair.

Apparently the mythology of vampires was created for the sake of shrouding the real vampires in a cloud of ambiguous myth that would protect them from being known... and therefore being... oppressed by normal humans. Some of the experts on vampire biology think maybe they are homo sapiens' attempt to evolve further. Unfortunately they have a hard time getting funding from some of the big medical venture capital or grant places. I guess the vampire mythology thing is working almost too well for them.

I was interested to hear that only about half his donors are affiliated with the goth subculture. The other half were just attracted by his aura. Do you drink blood, by any chance? Because I'd really like you to drink some of mine.

How exactly does the first conversation go? But like he said, he just attracts him with his aura. He just looks at them intently and then he knows if they are drawn to be donors.

Oh yeah, and he has no gag reflex to the blood. Half a court every day. That's sicko. The guy seems a little bit odd from the get go. Low energy is a good way to describe it. But of course he hasn't fed for almost a year now.

Deployments are hard on everyone. Even vampires.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

t.v. on the radio

Most likely you won't like this band. They're a little bit difficult to digest. If you like radiohead you might like it. If you once were on a road trip in some town, in a black honda, and there was snow on the ground I think, and you were playing a song over and over a hundred times with two other guys in the car about hollywood glitz or about shining out as yourself or something, sung by some guy with a really high girly voice and two of the guys in the front seats were singing along at the top of their lungs and rocking-out while the guy sitting in the back hated that nasal voice shitty music... then you might also like it. I am fuzzy about many details of that memory, but I remember very clearly that I was the guy in the back.

The first track is probably the best. The music is electronica rock, you might say, with crazy out of whack beats and periods of static thrown in. At first you think the CD is skipping or like your radio's losing reception. Then you realize that actually you're listening to complex synthetic music that's either quite good or else quite bad, and you're pretty sure it's quite bad.

However, after listening over and over, the whole album is growing on me considerably, titled, "Return to cookie mountain".

The first track shines most distinctly as a coherent effort toward meaning something. "I was a lover," it begins, "before this war." Their lyrics are composed of scattered phrases or tangents of meaning. Sometimes this ends up creating great atmosphere with sudden moments of lucid expression like a shaft of light through the clouds. Same thing with the music: at times it breaks out into clear melodies that rush out into the perfect cold sense of rain. Overall, the sense is of a post-modern decay of stict constructs for measurable success or meaning:

"Running on empty, Bourbon and God, and it's been a while since we knew the way."

the decemberists

The Decemberists sing dark beautiful songs in their latest album, "The Crane Wife". The lyrics are darker than beautiful. The music is beautifuller than dark.

I made the mistake of reading the lyrics in the jacket on my first listen. It's hard to stomach music set in a Revolutionary-War-like setting, hearing about rural-town butchers wiping the blood off their hatchets after murdering, the rape of a farmer's wife by a soldier, and other sickening things. I wasn't expecting it. I kept a distaste and held an aversoin for the album for a couple weeks afterwards.

I finally came back to it and tried to listen more for the music than the lyrics the second time around. What has evolved from that effort is a deep appreciation for what the Decemberists make happen in "The Crane Wife" to the point of craving it. Every song distinctly carves out beautiful melodies that stick with you. Some songs go through two or three transformations in their course, redefining themselves mid stride without losing a moment of cohesion.

Because of my first impression I was also surprised to find several songs celebrating falling in love and the private home-life of husband and wife... hence "Crane Wife". Unfortunately the domestic beauty is shattered by the above mentioned sorts of war-torn events. It all adds up enough to cast emotional implications on America's current persistance to be war-involved. But any present day political implications they intend are understated enough as to not disturb the dramatic play-out of the musical world they create about an unspecified place of distant history.

Music these days is more and more difficult to classify. But this band has been part of the Indie underground and with this album has emerged into the mainstream. NPR chose it as the best album of 2006. It's becoming one of my favorites as well.

The thematic unity of the album is very tastefully done. More and more albums seem to be pursuing this sort of album lyric cohesion, telling a story with the whole of the songs, or some other tying factor. In this case I really like it. Think also, Come on Feel the Illinoise.

I'm listening to a grip of other new or atleast newer music. So, more of this to follow.