Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Iraq Watch: Combat All Night, Gin in Hand

[My first column on Iraq for Inprint, for Sept. 4 issue]

One Saturday evening in August, I was a bit overwhelmed by this war we’re in. So I put away the newspaper and headed for my friend’s house, a few stops away on the J train. For me, escaping the war seemed just that easy: without family or friends in Iraq, I could study it one day, ignore it the next.

A couple hours of drinking gin and listening to Led Zeppelin passed. When Mike arrived, a booming voice, huge biceps, lively eyes, clutching a bottle of Tangueray, escape was futile.

“Who wants to take a shot from the stabilizer tube of a grenade launcher?” Mike asked. He unfurled a tube shaped like a double-shot glass, anodized green and machined to perfection. It was for a special kind of launcher, he explained, which fires a string of eight grenades to take out, say, an enemy line of concertina wire. Novel as it was, we all declined his offer. He tossed a shot back solo.

Mike (I changed his name for his privacy) is a Marine. He will deploy to Iraq in October and I could tell he was obsessed. Throughout the night, in the middle of any conversation, he spewed details about weaponry or offensive measures. At three in the morning he yelled “Frag out, bitches!” as he stood outside the building, pitching a plastic cup three stories into the air. It arced to the roof and cracked to the ground a few feet from where a friend and I smoked cigarettes.

I support and admire Mike’s decision to serve. Despite growing calls to enact a military withdrawal here and growing violence there, I have faith that the United States can make progress in Iraq.

The U.S. military can forge alliances with Iraqis, reconstruct decimated infrastructure and assist the countless internally displaced people, who have been attacked and terrorized by ruthless militias. We can also continue working towards the goal of the “surge,” by trying to pacify the fighting and build unity in Iraq’s government.

Regardless, I try to have few illusions. Many successes so far have merely corrected a string of incompetent and rash policies that the White House, the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority concocted years ago, some of which fueled the civil war. The “surge,” which comes under review this month in Washington, D.C., answered growing chaos with a promise for more violence, sending thousands more well-armed American troops to Iraq.

At dawn, we milled around Mike’s pickup truck. Sunlight shone over the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory. Moments earlier, Mike and some others had set upon a plushy teddy bear with a bright red heart sewn to its chest, tearing it to pieces. The bear’s foam entrails lay strewn in a long line down the sidewalk and all over the street.

I headed home soon after. I hope Mike will do great things in Iraq. Judging from that night, it seems that Mike is prepared to at least use his weapons for their intended purpose: to kill.

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