10. A fog of war

When I first wrote this a part of me was aware that I was ignoring the complex, dirty nature of warfare being waged day in and day out. My coming experiences (and posts) would inevitably bring me much closer to the reality of the war in Afghanistan; this post could’ve been retitled, “Eye of the storm.”

Weapons maintenance. Since most of us didn't use them much it mainly entailed cleaning dust off.
Weapons maintenance. Since most of us didn’t use them much it mainly entailed cleaning dust off.

So I’m standing a shift of duty. Rule number one: when you stand duty, you sit. I’m leaning back in my chair, and to complete the relaxation I put my hands behind my head and stretch. This is a good start to work. I’ve got “A Farewell to Arms” ready for entertaining, I slept well today, and with 1st Radio’s initial wave of Marines already here, so too are the first signs of going home. I lean back in my chair. Slowly stretching my back, I suddenly pinch a nerve.

I know what to do. I’ve been in this position before. It happens about fifty percent of the time I do the lean back stretch, and I’m not really disciplined enough to take the stretch out of my diet. You gotta slowly unclench all unassociated muscles, thawing the body back to a relaxed position before trying to lean the chair forward again and fully slouch to safety. It takes a fully concentrated minute to do, if you want to minimize the pain in the fifth or sixth disc.

This time there’s an added challenge though. I’ve got to employ the thaw while attempting to stay “engaged” in LCpl Ganda’s conversation. He’s a good guy. He’s in the middle of a revelation right now, and acknowledging my back pain would sound more like confirmation I wasn’t listening. I stare deeply at his chest. My arms innocently slide to my side.

“But I’m thinking about getting a couple of lines of this Buddha quote I found today on my ribs,” he continues.

It’s always a shot in the dark with the back muscles. I haven’t a clue how to work beyond the shoulder blades, and the pulsing is still there. I’ve got a few seconds available between decontractions to do some thinking. I wonder if I got a carepackage. Care!

“Uh, I don’t know about that,” I exhale. A silent victory. I’m still with him.

Thankfully he’s still working the thought out solo. “Well cuz I got the one I showed you, you know, ‘Courage is-‘”

“Yep.” I’m in the time-sensitive complex combination of muscles moment that requires me to abort all conversation.

And with that I successfully return to proper duty standing position, my hands triumphantly safe on the desk. Either he’s satisfied or he’s discovered my bluff, but he wraps up his thought. “I dunno, I’ll figure it out when we get back to Hawaii. See ya, man.”

“Have a good one,” I say. It’s empowering giving people permission to enjoy their time off.

Rule number two: Always be relatively prepared for anything. That’s why my rifle is loaded with a magazine of rounds on the rack behind me. (Wait right there, while I turn around to grab my rifle to intimidate or attack you, Talib!)

That’s not a personal choice, that’s the way it is. The likelihood of an enemy having enough mechanical power to penetrate this far into base, then suddenly dismounting to make my rifle a fair contender, is really hard to calculate, and really far from the probable side of things. It’s mostly a symbolic thing. For the two hours we take turns sitting here, it effectively allows us to meditate about the primal level of war and defense.

This is a huge base with legitimate defenses, and the world over, including the Taliban would be surprised if they came within a mile of where I’m sitting, let alone within ten miles of the base with the firepower required to get to where I was sitting. Camp Leatherneck is one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the world, including the stateside behemoths. They say from forty miles away it glows like a city on the horizon. I’m sitting here mostly to make sure we know who’s coming in and out of the compound.

The guys I deployed to support, 3rd Battalion are one half of our compound and then there’s a bunch of other Marines from another unit (and tons of civilian contractors) on the other side. One of them sits duty with one of us, so rule number three is to make conversation and make friends with them. You never know what the surpluses of their carepackages are. Maybe they get too many oatmeal cream pies. But tonight rule number three is bypassed because of the alarming size of Unknown Marine’s red mustache.

Rule number four: Catch up on reading. I open “A Farewell to Arms.” (Ms. Barkley is worried the Tenente is worried about her pregnancy.) Since I started the book a week ago, Hemmingway has done nothing but line my deployment with color and value. Whether by my delusions or a timelessness in military servitude, I feel like I understand their plights. On the flipside, the epic weight of the main characters transfer silently to my reality. I’ve already got live rounds in my rifle, all I need now is to dig a trench and I’m suddenly fighting on the lesser known (other) Eastern front of Afghanistan.

The same truths of our world house war now as it did then: politics and geography. But politics are only an articulate force of nature. The world weathers on, and the world has its storms.

I’m on the tail end of my deployment already, but it’s not over yet. Huge storms rolled in two days ago. The first night, it rained and hailed so hard it seemed as if our tent would flood in minutes. When the rain had mostly stopped, the winds picked up. The tent walls billow and whip against their guy lines.

I’m walking outside after duty is over and my heart races with excitement. The sky’s heavy overcast absorbs all of Leatherneck’s (abundant) floodlights, illuminating everything. An artificial dusk. The base is enveloped in one dimly lit cloud. I could read “A Farewell to Arms” out here, it’s so bright. And for once, when the contractor says “It’s cold outside,” my Minnesota experienced skin agrees. The winds are so strong and sharp, my ears are quickly throbbing.

Maybe this is just the storm proportionate to the arrival of 1st Battalion, but I think something big is going to happen. Probably somewhere around page 220 if I had to guess. That or a little below my shoulderblades.

Continue reading: 11. The Superbowl on AFN

Previous: 9. Emotional Warfare

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