BAGHDAD, IRAQ—The Iraqi people don’t have to tell me what it’s like to live in a dictatorship. I’ve spent over 16 years in the Army. “Listen up, today, your favorite color is blue. Any people you run across who are trying to kill Americans are to be referred to as ‘anti-Iraqi forces.’ You are quite fond of pistachio-flavored ice cream. If you capture a weapons cache, you will pronounce cache ‘cash-ay’ and not ‘cash’—we suspect that word may be French.”
When you live in a world where standards and attention to detail might mean your life and, of equal importance, your best friend’s life (after all, he has your back), the chain of command likes to know, way before anything happens, what our response to any given scenario might be. This is also important so that the people who plan things can know what to say when an angry and impatient superior officer looks over the top of her glasses at your fancy presentation software slides and asks, “And then what happens?”
The superior officer, a person whose training and years of experience have placed her at the top of your particular military food chain, likes to ask tough questions because she has been forced at various times in the past to answer tough questions from her superiors. The superior also knows that the planner probably took an old plan off the computer server and changed “Gettysburg” to “Falluja,” “horses” to “Bradley Fighting Vehicles,” and “muskets” to “assault rifles.”
When a briefer is asked a relatively simple question like “You say we’ll need 2,000 flatbed trucks for this operation. Do we have 2,000 flatbed trucks?,” he begins to sweat profusely, stammer something about logistics priority request reports, and shift his weight from one foot to the other. This looks a lot like tap dancing. People sitting near the briefer begin to quietly slide their chairs away from him.
Some answers to “what happens next?” don’t matter anyway. If the guy says “The insurgents surrender and come along quietly” or “The civilian populace rises up, points out where the bad guys are, and throws roses at our feet as we march into the village,” you have learned not to believe it. The local weatherman is more accurate.
One of the many wonderful things about the American military is that we usually end up successfully executing plans. Imagine driving from San Diego to Chicago with a map of Coney Island and ending up in the right place anyway. I haven’t decided whether this happens because we try the plan, the plan meets the harsh light of reality, and we improvise, or if it’s because our plans are that perfect combination of qualities: They have a way of simultaneously violating the laws of physics and being more complicated than the latest revisions to the tax code. I like to think that we just end up ignoring the parts of the plan that don’t involve key elements like when we’re supposed to start, where we’re supposed to end up, and what’s for breakfast. Everything else is improvised.
The dirty little secret about the modern soldier is that most of us are completely unsuited to being told what to do. You’re thinking that an army can’t run with its ranks full of anarchists. Well, we are not anarchists; we are iconoclasts.
Of course the best way to come up with how to do something is to find someone who has already done it and casually ask him how he did it. When he has finished telling you, shake your head with condescension while murmuring how it’s a wonder he’s still alive before you walk around the nearest corner and write down everything he just said. Always remember that we are the descendants of the World War II military that saved humankind from tyranny against impossible odds. Doing things the easy way is for losers.
When I was a lieutenant in tank school, our captain made us set our watches ahead 10 minutes and ordered us to be 15 minutes early for every class. Once, I was eight minutes late. Since being eight minutes late meant that I was 17 minutes early for class, my captain had plenty of time to scream at me about the importance of time management.
One night in Baghdad, those of us on the day shift didn’t get much sleep because of the sporadic blasts of rocket fire impacting around the base camp. Early the next morning, one of our young privates on the night shift showed up at my door wearing my helmet and body armor. I knew it was mine; it had my name and rank on it. “Sir,” the tall 19-year-old said, “make sure you wear your body armor and helmet into work today. We’ve been taking fire.” I took a long look at what he was wearing. “You’re wearing my helmet and body armor,” I said, and I could see by his eyes that a light had just come on. He said, “But, sir, I’m wearing your body armor and helmet.” Then he turned and walked away. I assumed that he would go get his own body armor and helmet and bring mine back to me so that I could travel the two miles to our headquarters in relative safety. I should know better than to assume anything because he did not. I’m thinking of putting him in for officer candidate school.
When your base camp has been attacked 60 times during the last 60 minutes by mortars and rockets, and the commander says, “Wear your helmets and your body armor until further notice,” the natural thought of the trained iconoclast is “Why do I have to wear that stuff? Do they know how hot it is?”
One day in June, the temperature was edging toward 130 degrees—what am I saying? One day in June the temperature wasn’t edging toward 130 degrees, and we reacted to the order to put on the stuff that made us more bullet-and-flying-exploding-thing resistant as if we were being told to write a book report. Soldiers never whine; we do, however, bitch quite a bit. The quality that makes us soldiers is that we go ahead and do the thousands of things that we don’t want to do and that we find a way to make the silliest plan work. Then we bitch about it.
When we were coming home from Iraq, before we boarded the most beautiful airplane I have ever been on in my life, we received a briefing from an Air Force sergeant. “Federal regulations prohibit you from carrying certain dangerous items onto the aircraft. You may not transport knives or other cutting instruments, firearms, or explosives. Of course, this does not include your assault rifles, pistols, or bayonets.” I stood and watched while a kid who was carrying an M-249 squad automatic weapon (a light machine gun) and a 9mm pistol put his pocketknife in a box. Let’s think about this for a minute. If one of us were to hijack that plane, how would that have gone?
“Take this plane to America right now and no one gets hurt!”
“But we’re already going to America.”
“All right, then.”
Craig A. McNeil is an attorney and Army reservist in Fort Worth, Texas. He served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib, Iraq, from January to December 2004.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 29, 2005