Thursday, April 8, 2010

My interpreters are safe and sound.

I received a phone call the other night from an area code I did not recognize. Expecting a wrong number, I answered the phone and was shocked to hear the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Cliburn,” the voice said. “This is Taif.”

Taif was my interpreter in Baghdad. We had said our goodbyes almost four years ago, and I never expected to hear his voice again. But we were, and it felt just as natural as it had then. Taif was in a hotel in Baton Rouge, La. and had been in the U.S. for only two days. He was finally here, I thought. What no one talks about when discussing serving in Iraq is the guilt that one feels for being happy to leave the country and return to sanity while leaving behind the Iraqi friends that are inevitably made along the way.

I had felt guilty many times for leaving the country, and I felt terrible for Taif. Speaking to him, knowing that he was in the U.S., made me happy. Hearing him describe the hell he went through after I left did not.

Taif and his family were intimidated and targeted for murder for his working with the U.S. He and his mother eventually fled to Malaysia, where he lived for two and a half years fighting through the immigration process, before being granted entry into the U.S.

Speaking with him that night brought back a flood of memories. So much has changed since the hot days I spent with him in Baghdad, but hearing his familiar Iraqi accent reminded me of just how much has not. The camaraderie that I felt while deployed overseas will never go away, and the sights, smells and sounds of Baghdad will always be just a trigger away, for better or for worse. In this case, the flashback was a good one and timely as well.

I’ve been away from Iraq long enough to lose sight of perspective at times. For the most part, I credit the maturation that I experienced overseas with the big picture mentality that always keeps me grounded. I don’t feel sorry for myself, and I don’t feel poor, no matter what my tax return says.

Sometimes, however, I forget just how different life was for me in 2006 and for my friends there every day. Hearing Taif’s voice tell the story of how he got to a hotel in downtown Baton Rouge brought me back to Earth in a big way.

Life is good for me. I just got back from a trip to Italy, where I got engaged to the love of my life. I have a good job with a well-respected global company, and I graduate in May. I’m hoping to go to law school, and my fiancĂ©e and I are planning our lives together. I’m lucky, and I’m slightly ashamed of how often I seem to forget that.

After speaking with Taif, I sent my old squad a text message about the phone call. He called me and said that he had news of his own: Abas, our main interpreter, was also now in the U.S. and living in New York. My squad leader even had his email address to share.

Abas was our interpreter longer than any other during our time there. He would routinely take three or four different taxis to our base every day to throw off anyone tracking his movement, and we worried about his safety often.

Today, everything is O.K. though. They’re both safe and sound, and the relief that I felt made me realize that I had never really quit worrying about either of them. A lot of terrible things happen in Iraq and to Iraqis, both by Americans and Iraqis themselves, but lot of good things are done as well, by good people. Taif and Abas are good people. 

It was good to hear that the U.S. had rewarded these men for their service to our country and theirs. I only hope that the government can find a little more room for the men and women who risked their lives protecting those of U.S. soldiers.

I am now out of the military, with no plans on rejoining, but a part of me will always be in Baghdad, frozen in time and worrying about my friends, both American and Iraqi.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I am not David Axelrod

I am not David Axelrod. While I voted for President-Elect Obama and, when asked, shared my positive feelings about the presidential candidate, I am not and never have been connected to the next President of the United States. This much appears obvious to most, but I have noticed a growing trend among the politically-petulant members of the voting bloc.

This is not meant to disparage those who voted for Senator John McCain as those I am speaking of are far too small to represent his voting contingent in any significant manner. This, frankly, is a knock on the state of American politics in my lifetime.

I am far too young to discuss what the discourse was like in the 1970s, 1980s, or even most of the 1990s, but I know something is amiss when I see it. Americans like to think of themselves as winners in every sense of the word: in business; in war; and in values Americans are winners. America hates losers.

Every four years, however, roughly half the American electorate goes home feeling like losers and defeat is not something most Americans are comfortable experiencing. So, what happens? Well, some decide to extend the campaign through the next Presidency in hoping they’ll be proven right over time, pointing fingers all along the way.

Too many times in the months that have passed since President-Elect’s November 4 victory, I have been cornered in one way or another over the decisions, appointments, nominations, and priorities of the man I voted for last Fall as if I am accountable for the actions of our new President-to-be.

Let me make something clear: on January 20, I will no longer be the Obama voter full of hope and admiration ready to defend my candidate at every turn and neither should any other Obama voter.

The moment President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama, everything changes. In the time that it takes the junior Senator from Illinois to recite the Oath of Office, a transformation will take place that may be difficult to see through the naked eye. In that moment, he will go from being the man as in “you da man!” to the man as in “fight the man!”

While my respect for the man and the office will not change, it is important to note that now is the time for all those who voted for him to become the politically-astute electorate that President-Elect Obama said we could be. It is time for all of us to hold the new President accountable, and that is why the finger-pointing, accusatory statements, and general discontent must end.

I am not a member of the new President’s administration, as over 99.9% of the country are similarly not, and the only Americans who must defends themselves about the actions of the next administration are those who are members of the Obama administration.

There are far too many obstacles facing the President-Elect for any of us to fall asleep at the wheel while celebrating the election of the country’s first African-American president and tough times cannot be navigated through sheer faith.

So, in that vein, to Obama and McCain voters alike, we’re in this together. The stress and animosity that we all experienced throughout the general election must end. Let us all quit acting as proxies for political parties and instead act like Americans.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Post Office Smile

The Post Office Smile

            I have never been proud of my body, as it has betrayed me many times.  In football; in love; in health; in promotion points it has.

            Now, I am in Iraq and a nation has put more trust in my body than I ever have.  While the US government whispers sweet nothings about what my body is capable of doing, I purposely reject any notion that I even have a body.

            Instead, I focus on the bodies of others and what I want to do to them: militarily; humanely; sexually.

            From the insurgents that lay IEDs along my daily path to the women I see at Baghdad University to the interpreter girls at Camp Shield to Ali and Ahmed, and finally to the portrait of the woman inside the Camp Liberty Post Office, I focus on the bodies of others, ignoring mine altogether.

            The first time I walked into that bustling epicenter of solider communication, I noticed the portrait.  She was what I used to affectionately refer to as a “yellowbone”.  She was Hispanic, or maybe the daughter of a white father and a black mother . . . and she was beautiful.  She was posing in her DCUs with her arms crossed around her chest; a gorgeous smile stretched across her young face showed off her pearly white teeth.

            Every time I walked into that building, I admired (some would say lusted over) her image and never thought twice about why her portrait hanged in such a shoddy building in Baghdad.  It wasn’t until my last week in Baghdad, however, that I walked inside the post office to mail home souvenirs and found out.  The place was swamped and I found myself in a very long line.  AS the path of the line brought me within inches of the familiar portrait, I finally read the plaque underneath:

“PFC _________ died ___________ 2003 while convoying a shipment of mail from Baghdad to _______ . . . “

            I felt guilty; I felt ashamed.  For the past year, I had found myself lusting over a woman who had been dead for years.  I felt angry that such a beautiful face was gone, never to grace mankind with her smile again.  I left the building that day again feeling guilty, guilty that my body was intact . . . while hers was six feet deep.

My Trigger Finger

My Trigger Finger

(Expounding on Phil Aliff’s piece of the same name)

            I have never owned a gun larger than the Daisy BB gun that briefly held my interest when I was a child.  As such, the first time I fired a gun was in basic training.  To this day, after a one year tour of Baghdad, training exercises remain the only times I have fired a firearm.  I still do not know if that is a result of my humanitarian spirit trumping my primal urge to fight or my trigger finger betraying me and my fellow soldiers.

            On another hot day in Baghdad, I was presented with two opportunities to put all that training into action and take a human life.  I still have nightmares about what happened or, more accurately, what could have happened.

            We were convoying down the familiar stretch of Route Irish that connected us to all we did in Baghdad, good and bad.  It has been a relatively calm tour for the soldiers of the T-Bird 85 element and the calm was so unbelievable that we were starting to become stir-crazy.  I, like always, was a gunner, and my primary job was to keep civilian traffic out of our convoy.  As my truck reached the crest of the slowly rising hill and the on-ramp that funneled civilian traffic onto Route Irish, I peeked out over the turret.  This was a relatively blind on-ramp for travelers merging onto Irish and I had to be extra vigilant.

            Up from the ramp, at a speed that made all of nervous, came a van that appeared to pay no attention to the US Army convoy it was already dangerously close to.  My heartbeat raced as I jumped and drew my weapon down on this possible BVIED.  From every truck, radio transmissions warned me of the advance and everyone’s mind raced.

Was this the one?

Was this our time to feel the power of hundreds of pounds of explosives?

Was this our chance to strike first and take the fight to the enemy?

            AS I leaned further and further outside the turret, fists clenching my rifle as hard as I possibly could, I finally caught a glimpse of what was inside the ominous van.  While paranoid soldiers yelled through the radio to fire, I made out a familiar scene.  As perhaps seven or eight children horse-played in the rear of the van, a man navigated the vehicle while rotated almost 180 degrees, screaming at them to knock them off.  A woman sat to his right in the passenger seat and did the same.

            To put it more accurately, what I saw was a man, a husband, a father, doing what he could to parent his children while a woman, a wife, a mother, did the same.  As I realized what was actually happening, the questions and pleads over the radio became more and more harassing.  I did not want to shoot this man, this husband, this father, but by all measures of the rules of engagement, I had every right to.

            As the anxiety of the situation reached its peak, the man finally turned around and saw me and the barrel of my M-4 carbine rifle staring him in the face.  With rashness bordering on recklessness, the man sharply swerved to the shoulder as I made one last show of force and sat down, relieved.

            I explained that the situation had been resolved and we continued our trek towards Traffic HQ.  At the entrance to the police station, traffic was blocked to allow us inside the compound.  While my truck waited its turn to enter, a familiar IP truck made its way toward the entrance from the opposite direction . . . towards the entrance and towards us.  From where I stood, I could see the IP look me in the eye, point to the entrance, wave, and continue his advance.  I yelled, I stood up, I pointed my weapon, but he kept on.  With possibly the most aggressive posture I have ever used, I made one last attempt to show how serious I was, and it worked.  The truck came to a screeching halt just a few feet from the entrance . . . and our lead truck.

            Afterwards, our squad leader and our interpreter explained ot the man in convincing fashion that he was lucky I had not shot him.

            Later, one of my comrades approached me and asked why the fuck I hadn’t shot that guy.

“Which one?” I asked.

“Both of them!” he replied.

            I told him about the van and the kids and father and family.  I told him about the IP mistakenly believing he was an ally and could pass through, but my friend was undeterred and said both should have been shot to send a message.

            Months after returning home, I still think about that day and have nightmares about what happened. 

            I dream of the exact same scenarios with variations.  I dream that I again do not pull the trigger and all my friends are killed thanks to a VBIED that I let through.

            I dream that my friend is the gunner and he shoots and kills a father and husband over one man’s negligent driving.

            I dream that I pull the trigger, get congratulated by my teammates, and am haunted for the rest of my life.

            To this day, I do not know if I made a conscious decision based on principle or if I merely froze up and could not bring myself to fire on a human being.  Both scenarios only lasted a matter of seconds but they’ll stay with me for decades.  It is because of my own experience in that situation that I will never think of another soldier’s reaction to that scenario in terms of black and white.


Album Review: Grieves' "88 Keys and Counting"

            Seattle-based Grieves is just your average tall, skinny, self-loathing and introspective Jewish rapper . . . which is to say that he’s not average at all. 88 Keys and Counting, Grieves’ sophomore effort, was released November 14, 2008 on Black Clover Records after the spectacular breakthrough effort Irreversible.

            The album’s title is reminiscent of the piano jazz album of the same name by G. F. Mlely and the intro to the piece invokes the class and soul of earlier jazz fusion efforts with a cackling old-school-sounding monologue over simple piano.

            Boo fuckin HooOn Catapults, the second track of the work, Grieves, born Ben Laub, bares his soul from the very first verse, declaring “I feel like the last lit candle in the back of my mind” over a beat that could make even the coldest hip hop fan smile with joy. The fusion of classic hip hop and classic piano is managed beautifully by producer Budo and Grieves’ introspective opinions of what Heaven and Hell mean in the grand scheme of human behavior. “Heaven is just a six letter word like crutch” and “Hell is just a four letter word like fear.”

            After one reviewer called Grieves a “wannabe Slug [of Atmosphere] emo-rapper” after the Irreversible album, Laub could have created a more traditionally hip hop album, full of bravado, misogyny and references to sex, drugs and rock and roll. What tracks like Kings prove, however, is that Grieves is unafraid of the labels: he is unabashedly emotionally honest about what you should think about him.

            You don't need to fight me off, I'm well on my way. Gonna leave these cobblestones and matchsticks in the back of my brain,

            I learned that you don't even have a single word that you can say that can make me quiver when you wave it like a knife in my face . . .  your king is dead.. 

soundset 08 photo credit

            October in the Graveyard and Dead in the Water up the emotional ante with Grieves providing the clever lyrics as well as the crooning hooks over Budo’s fantastically untraditional hip hop beats before Life in the Hive, the album’s first instrumental effort, brings it back down, allowing the listener to take a breath before delving further into what has haunted Laub since the Irreversible release.

            The album picks up lyrically with the story of Gwenevieve. Whether Gwenevieve is a real person in Laub’s life is anyone’s guess, but the raw passion with which Grieves opines about everything that makes her vulnerable and desirable at the same time is admirable. Everyone has had a Gwenevieve.

            “She said the world paints a picture that makes her want to run, pull the stars out the sky and load them into her gun,” and . . . “She fights like a lover but sleeps with the enemy and acts like she's only getting close just to empty me.”

            “ Gwenevieve, another hook for the line, in a perfect little painting of disaster in its prime, and I love it solely because it makes me feel alive when she sets the world ablaze and sees the fire in my eyes.”

            Identity Cards, featuring Luckyiam, is another atypical hip hop song about just how atypical Grieves is as a hip hop artist with the premise being that no one can issue him an ID and tell him how to live based purely on occupation. The honesty with which Laub and Luckyiam, of Living Legends fame, speak of their lives both at home and on tour is refreshing and is balanced perfectly with an unbelievably upbeat piano-driven background put together again by producer Budo.

            With two more instrumental tracks mixed between songs with titles such as Nature vs Nurture, Learning How to Fall and Greedy Bitch, Grieves and Budo tell the story of Grieves’ life since the now classic release of Irreversible, knowing when to pause to allow the listener to refresh his or her mind. The instrumental pieces The March and Exiting the Hive are the closest thing listeners get to an intermission in this most dramatic performance of hip hop theatre.

            Grieves is a hip hop artist in the truest sense of the word. Whether a fan of hip hop or a fan of indie rock, listeners will appreciate hearing an album that is as beautiful musically as it is lyrically. 88 Keys and Counting is the story of life, maybe even the story of your life.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What 4,000 Means to Me

The news of the 4,000th US death in Iraq did not come to me in any dramatic fashion like the news of 9/11, the capture of Saddam Hussein, or the date of my first deployment to Iraq had. Instead, I simply logged into my e-mail and saw it staring at me in the subject line of my most recent unread message. I was not surprised. I was not shocked. I was simply saddened to see the toll hit yet another milestone while our elected leaders in Congress await a new administration to bounce their withdrawal plans off of and the general public continues their tradition of apathy. I was saddened that it took a clean-cut, round number like 4,000 for the United States to snap out of its daze and pay attention once again to the human toll this war has wrought. Was the 4,000th death really any more tragic than the 3,999th? If 3,999 represents an arbitrary figure but 4,000 represents a milestone worthy of front-page mention, what does that say about America’s attention span?

4,000 seems so far away from the short, virtually costless war that we were promised by our Commander-in Chief five long years ago, but, even then, 4,000 doesn’t truly tell the story of what has transpired since March 19th, 2003. Numbers will never do justice to the damage this occupation has wrought upon the United States, let alone the world, but let me tell you what the number 4,000 means to me.
There are 4,000 fewer Americans alive today than five years ago due to this occupation. 4,000 families have been destroyed as sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers have been lost. Death does not discriminate: from the E-7 husband and father to the 20 year old E-3, their lives, however fulfilled or just beginning, were taken. 4,000 funerals for the fallen have been conducted, not one with the presence of the Commander-in-Chief. . . 4,000 performances of “Taps” . . . 4,000 Honor Guards . . . 4,000 dates that will forever live on in the minds of the families of the taken.

To those who have served and to those who are proud to call their family members veterans, 4,000 will never be a sufficient barometer of what our nation has lost. Each notch on the casualty list represents a name, a family, and a life. I know a few of those names, as do so many of my brothers and sisters in Iraq Veterans Against the War; it is for them that we continue our oath of service today by standing up against this illegal and unethical war to prevent a 5,000th name from being added to this list. It is in that same spirit of honor and duty to each other as soldiers, sailors, and Marines that IVAW today demands full benefits for our returning veterans, including mental health counseling, so that no more names are silently lost in the bureaucracy of government-approved casualty lists. Make no mistake: those who return home and take their own lives as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are the ultimate casualties of war.

The number 4,000 says nothing about the toll this folly has had on the Iraqi people. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, have died. Millions have become refugees, either in their own country or in neighboring countries. Families have been ripped apart. Neighborhoods have been destroyed. National monuments and cultural landmarks have been disgraced. An entire generation of Iraqis has grown up in the shadow of occupation.

No, this news did not come to me as a shock, and it wasn’t delivered in a dramatic fashion. That almost makes it worse, however, because I saw it coming for so long and, despite all the work IVAW has put in on behalf of those who no longer have a voice, there was nothing I could do to stop it. Help IVAW prevent a 5,000th story of loss today by pledging your support and demanding an end to the occupation of Iraq.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Walking Alone

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Walking alone.

I just got home from Springfield, Missouri, where I spoke to the Peace Network of the Ozarks. I had never been to Springfield and had no idea what to expect. The man coordinating the event seemed enthusiastic enough and he assured me that there would be a lot of support present, but you never know how people define support and community. I was pleasantly surprised by what I experienced this weekend. The turnout was not as high as it could have been in a perfect world, but it certainly was not an empty room.

What I felt and saw in that building Saturday afternoon was a sense of community and support that I have yet to feel in Oklahoma. I have met some amazing people in the Oklahoma anti-war community, but I have never felt as if I was a member of that community. It is more of a feeling that I imagine exists between colleagues: we aim to achieve the same goals; we went through the same training or conscientious transformation; we sometimes work together, not quite partners but not quite competitors. From the moment I sat down with the men and women of the PNO, I felt like I was a member of their community; we were truly partners.

Why this hasn't been the case is a loaded question with many different answers, but I have no idea which one is even remotely correct. In an effort to try and conceptualize what the problems could be and I how I can fix them, I am going to think out loud and brainstorm a little:

Perhaps I have not been assertive enough when it comes to gaining support for IVAW and our goals in Oklahoma. It is entirely possible that, while the Oklahoma peace community and I genuinely share a common goal, there is something lost in translation that results in each of us doing different things and thinking we are on the same page. It is apparent to me now that we are not on the same proverbial page. In Springfield and other places I have been, I am simply asked, "What does IVAW need the most? How can we help you?" It's a very fluid communication process that results in much greater gains in those other areas of the country.

I would like to say that the problem here is that there is a top-down communicative approach between the established peace community in Oklahoma and the new generation of IVAW members who also want to end this bloody war. That is not the case. I am not even included on the email listservs of the peace networks here; I have no idea what is going on. Not that I would ever want to overstate my "importance", but I am the most active IVAW member in Oklahoma. I am on the listservs for peace networks from the Delaware Valley to Houston to New Orleans to Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I did not ask to be included on any of these; it was understood that I need to be in the loop if I am going to be effective in coordinating with these organizations. So, we have established that communication is a problem. I was going to email the head of the Oklahoma peace community about this, but I have, in the past, sent several emails that were never given a reply. Maybe, if I can effectively communicate my disappointment and frustration with how things are being handled, we can re-establish our relationship as allies and this will all look silly when I look back on it later.

We do have a dedicated group of anti-war activists in Oklahoma, particularly Oklahoma City. That much is certain, and I appreciate and admire the work they have done over all the years that I was either unborn, unexposed, or uncaring. That is why I am disappointed: I see the potential of a true partnership of OKC VFP, Peacehouse, and Oklahoma IVAW. IVAW is conducting Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan in two weeks in the Washington DC area. This will be a truly historic event modeled after the original Winter Soldier hearings that shed light on the criminal nature of the Vietnam War in 1971. This is big. With such a dedicated, entrenched peace community in Oklahoma, I had expected to have a flood of ideas coming my way as to how Oklahoma can help IVAW members publicize and attend Winter Soldier, as well as how they could turn Winter Soldier into something that Oklahoma City couldn't help but know about. I have heard nothing. I have emailed; still nothing. Meanwhile, I know that the community is not sitting around on their hands. They are doing what they genuinely believe to be what is necessary to bring about peace, but I could not disagree with their assessment of priorities more, no matter what else it is they are pursuing right now. Winter Soldier is two weeks away. History is two weeks away, but without a network of committed activists in Oklahoma helping publicize it, no one here will ever know what they are missing.

I hope to have not rambled too much or spoken out of turn, but these are the honest feelings of a young, passionate, disappointed man following his heart and feeling, at times, alone on the path.

Justin C. Cliburn