Wading in the Rubicon

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MAY 5, 2011 10:45AM

A Gleek in Afghanistan

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The inherent contradictions embodied in what I am about to say cannot be resolved without amusing somebody. Several somebodies, in all likelihood. Hell, probably all of you.

I am an Army Airborne-Ranger-Infantry Gleek in Afghanistan.

Yes, you read that right. I am, in addition to being a professional soldier in a combat zone, an aficionado of the campy show-tune filled television musical program Glee.

(And right now one-half of you are amused at the apparent mass of contra-posed inclinations contained in that sentence for a reason that is 180-degrees off from the reason why the other half of you are amused. This, in turn, amuses me.)

But it makes sense, and if you were here, you would understand.

For an American soldier this place is not exactly Three Cups of Tea, even if the stories in that tale were completely true. It is war, and war is not fun. War is not something you can turn on and off. You cannot shut off the lights, close the door, get in your car and go home at the end of the day when you are in a war. You are here, 24/7, for almost 365 days, and there is no let up, there are no days off, and there is no release. (Well, this is the case if you are a soldier. If you are a Marine you are here for seven months. If you are Air Force or Navy, it is six months. But if you are a soldier, minus your 15 days of leave, you are here for at least a year.) You cannot have a beer, or three, and you cannot lose focus. Because regardless of what type of war you may be in, the ultimate measure in war is reduced to the simplest terms: Life. Death.

For me, and for people like me, you are either planning for the death of somebody or you are planning on how to keep somebody bad from killing you, yours, and most especially the civilians and innocents, because in these most recent wars, that is what the enemy often tries to do. Lose focus, lose intensity, and innocent people are more likely to die. Here. Now. Not in the abstract. Not in the hypothetical future. But in hours, days, weeks, it can, and will, happen.

It will happen anyway, of course, and that weighs on your soul as well. You know, with your brain, that there will be the ones that you could not protect, no matter what you did. There will be men, soldiers, civilians, women and children, who will die because there is no way to protect them all, all of the time. We all know that, intellectually at least. But truth be told, that intellectual realization is thin gruel indeed when your heart remembers.   

And so, naturally, in this hyper-alert, hyper-emotional environment, where you have zero privacy, zero time alone, and zero time to recharge in any meaningful way, we all have our small ways of coping. Mine is Glee.

This is funny, because even though I sometime try, I am not much of a music guy, or a television guy for that matter.  My tastes are pretty well frozen at around 1989, and it is only through the three teenage daughters I have that I can even understand who “Lady Gaga” might be. But though I was raised in rural Ohio, I was raised by a transplanted New Yorker who played Broadway show tunes in the house at every opportunity, and so now, decades later, it appears that some of that stuck.

I love the complete escapism of that fantasy world represented in Glee, even as the Ohioan inside me laughs at the all-too-true stereotypes played out on the small screen. I like the few minutes I get, transported to a place which is, almost exactly, on the other side of the world from where I am, literally and figuratively. And I appreciate that while the world those actors portray on Glee is almost as divorced from the reality of the real Lima, Ohio, as I am from the reality of Bainbridge Township, Ohio, I can at least, for a moment, listen to music and be far, far away.

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"Barbara's here?"
"This is a mall in Ohio."
I love the fact that I have something in common with a soldier in Afghanistan. I'm not a huge Gleek, but a Gleek just the same.
First of all, thank you for your service to the country. What a great and thoughtful post. And since I am a "Glee" fan, I think I get exactly what you are saying. Music and humor must always be a part of our lives to some degree, and especially for those like you who find themselves in a world so strange, violent and without breaks for months. I hope you keep posting. And thank you again.
From an old man who fought his own war....I understand completely. Whatever it takes for a little escape, go for it. Oh and congrats on the EP....well deserved.
Good for you, GI.
I am your fan and will read whatever you write.
Lots of us had our own war.

(COL, USA, Ret)
Well-written and gripping. I'm not a Glee fan, but I appreciate good writing wherever I find it.
Thank you all. In the small spaces in-between, I will try.

I really enjoyed this...I've not watched Glee but I do get the need for escape of some kind, especially for a soldier continually 'on call'.
Tell us more!
Congrats on the EP also : )
Why are you there? It is their land. You are part of an occupying force. Of course they want to kill you. If someone was occupying my land, I would want to kill them.

It was never about getting Osama. Read Pepe Escobar's Pipelineistan if you want to know what its about.

If you want an idea of what the Afghan people want, read or listen to Malalai Joya. They want you to leave. They think of you as an enemy, as much as the Taliban or the corrupt Karzai government and the Northern Alliance. You are not helping and you are not fighting for our freedom or theirs. In fact, we have lost a lot of freedoms since our little adventures in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

I support our troops, like Bradley Manning and conscientious objectors.
I think it's more than that. Any show can offer escapism. High schools today are very much "war zones" in their own right, and the one on Glee is no different--enemies abound everywhere on that show. Hit in the face with a slushie--hit with shrapnel... Danger mollified with song is more acceptable.
AP, do you actually *know* any Afghans? I do, of several ethnicities, regions, and affiliations. I even know several who would disagree with you.

But then, I suppose, if I was as sure of everything about the world as you are, I would know exactly what should be done, at all times, for all people.

Your wisdom is...

Midwest, I would submit, having both experienced High School in Ohio, and actual wars, that the latter is a tad more difficult.

On the other hand, one of my buddies from HS (and remember, that was the '80s), who is a ringer in all ways for Kurt, did have a much tougher time than did I. Which is, perhaps, why I also associate. I was the letterman-jock-AP student, who joined the drama club. In an ideal world, I wish I could say that I displayed the moral courage that the the writers give those actors to portray. But I did not, or at least not as dramatically, and often. But even so, even given the backwards nature of 1980s Ohio rural HS life, getting hit with a slushie is most definitively *not* analogous to catching a bit of shrapnel.

For one thing, slushies taste better.

Well told. I was a big Glee fan in the first season - I even wrote a post here about it - but I stopped watching this year, more for time-management reasons than anything else. But I can understand and appreciate how it would be a welcome distraction from the real world for you and, after you explained your family background, why it would hit home for you.
BP- you didn't answer the question. Why are you there?

You signed up, you should know why you signed up. Was it to occupy foreign lands? Who are you fighting for? Chevron, Unical, Haliburton? Don't kid yourself, you are not fighting for anyone's freedom, or liberty or any bullshit like that. You are fighting for resources and corporate profits. How does it feel to be a hired killer?

So the Afghans you know, do they support you because they fear you? Dressed in your body armor and armed to the hilt, would they dare tell you what they really thought of you? Do you toss candy to orphaned Afghan children ever pausing to ask why are they orphaned? Or maybe you are rebuilding their country, never asking why it has to be rebuilt?

You tell me GI. Your the one who signed up for that shit. And don't tell me you volunteered. Last I heard you all get paid. Why are you there? Be honest. Its not because you care about women's rights.

As I said before read or listen to Malalai Joya. There are plenty of people in Afghanistan who hate the Taliban. But the Northern Alliance is no better. Either is Karzai, and you should know damn well that the US Gov't doesn't give two shits about the Afghan people.

Why are you there?
Let’s deconstruct this AP, shall we?

I mean, not to go all Derridean on you (since I am, academically, more inclined to a Hegelian dialectic myself), but you seem to have an awful lot of anger stored up in there. You use all of the appropriate code words, “occupy”, “corporate profits”, and of course the diminutive (and therefore dismissive) “GI,” a term which has not been in popular use for at least forty years. This is a technique which seems to be intended to bait me into a disproportionate response, either offensive or defensive, so that you yourself may then demonstrate a moral and presumably intellectual superiority by retreating into a passive-aggressive rhetorical crouch in a subsequent message. Have I got that about right?

I am making a guess, and a cede, it is only a guess...you don’t know any actual soldiers, do you AP? I mean people you would call “friend,” or even a relative with whom you are particularly close. Is that correct?

If you did, perhaps you might not have been so quick to use such a simple attack method. I mean, c’mon, this is Salon. People here appreciate, and award style points, for at least a little subtlety.
Which is why I don’t pose the same questions to you, asking if you have actually returned to the government, or donated in its entirety, the tens of thousands of dollars that you and your wife have received, as Alaskans, for the rape of our national environmental patronage. Oil money that you, personally and directly, accept every single year, and which (between your wife and yourself, assuming from your image that you’re about 40, +/- a little) has topped $100,000 from the oil companies to you and your family, since Alaska started taking payments from the oil companies and passing them on.

I just leave that for you, and your wife, to decide on your own.
But as for me, a few points of clarification.

The Afghans I interact with are not wearing body armor, and neither am I, when we sit and talk. Nor are they carrying weapons, and so I am not either. I cannot speak to the issue of children, because my job does not afford me the chances to interact with kids the way that my last position did.

Though I cede, when I am on the road, or in a dicey situation, I do indeed wear my body armor, and I am, in fact, heavily armed. Sort of goes with the job description.

AP- Consider the possibility that you might not be right about everything. And, if you can, go to those places about which you are passionate about. I’ve been to Sri Lanka, and my book learning about the place is informed by my time there, on the ground. I’ve been to the West Bank, and Israel, and lived on the Egyptian-Israeli border, and my book learning about those places are informed by my time on the ground there as well. Same with Cairo and Baghdad, and a dozen other places. Going to a place, living there, and meeting the people there where they live is, I submit, optimal. Far more than bringing an individual or two to your own, American, location, or just reading books about topics and events. Have you tried that? I commend the technique to you.

But on your final point, I am afraid I cannot respond. Ms. Joya is a politician, one who knows about the distressing effects that occur when the guys with guns get involved in political matters. She would agree, I should think, that it is neither my place, nor wise, for me (one of the aforementioned guys with a gun) to inject my own opinions about the domestic political situation in my host country. Moreover, it’s not something that I would do in the United States either, and with good reason. For me it is a crime.

And so, there you have one of the small actual freedoms I’ve ceded to our national government in return for the authority to give orders to our forces. I cannot say anything about a sitting American political leader at or above the grade of state governor. (This is Article 88 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.) So, you will never hear me say anything against Obama, or any in the current administration, because that would be a crime. I can, if I wanted to, hypothetically speaking, say something like, “I believe that George Bush was an affable moron, led by the nose by ideologically misguided neophytes in military affairs,” or, “I believe that Bill Clinton was a stomach-turning philandering liar who made me want to puke every time I thought of the lies that he put his own betrayed wife up to telling the entire country” or, “I believe that both FDR and Nixon were the simultaneously the best, and the worst, possible things that could happen to our country.” I could, in theory, now say all of that, because that’s history, not the present. But as Ms. Joya would tell you, I should not get involved in current politics. Back home, or here.

This has been long, but I hope it precludes future misunderstandings. Either between us, or myself and others, in the future. For myself, I would enjoy discussing and debating Chomsky with you (I enjoyed, and used, his theories of media power, in some of my writing, but find most of his more political writing rather sophomoric), or Zinn (who really, I mean seriously, isn’t much of a historian as much as he is a polemicist who uses history, and I say that as an academic historian), and I would enjoy introducing you to the strangeness that is Michael Foucault (who, for being a heroin addicted pedophile, at least had original thoughts about power structures in society; though his French philosophic methods and theories are tough to follow in English or French, since he was constantly indulging in neologisms in both languages, or using old words in completely new ways). But first, I would ask that you climb down off that very imposing horse you’re on and engage me, person to person, instead of attempting to impose upon this person, your own stereotypes of what you think a soldier is, or should be.

That's all real purdy BP, but you didn't answer the question.
Neither did you Mike. And I asked you several. So I figured we're on equal footing. You put forward an impossible question. So did I. Shall we start over again? Try posting something reasonable (hard is fine), and I will try to answer.
Something reasonable. How about Why do you think Glee is so awesome? Or thank you for your service, even though I don't know what I mean by that.

By the way, "The Traveler used GI and he is a military guy.

I noticed I keep referring to you as BP, I guess I subconsciously thought that since you are fighting for them that must be your name. Oops.

Well BF, I don't know any Afghans. You see, I am not in their country occupying and oppressing them.

Let me guess, your many travels are due to your military career in which you are spreading freedom to the poor downtrodden unenlightened peoples of the world. Or as General Smedley Butler said you are a muscle man for big business.

As far as friends in the military, no. I don't respect anyone in the military, so how could I be friends with them. I might pity them or have compassion for them for their lack of options. Or I might admire them for realizing their mistakes and trying to make up for it, but I am not friends with any currently serving military personnel.

As far as as permanent fund dividend, I never signed up for it because I don't believe in profiting off of oil. That being said, if it is going to be exploited, then I would rather the citizens benefit than the CEOs. In fact I wish they would nationalize the oil companies, kind of like Venezuela or most other countries. Many of which you are actively trying to destroy so that your corporate overlords can profit from new markets conveniently opened up due to the prowess of the U.S. Military and its subsidiaries like Blackwater et al.

As far as my high horse, the view is good. I can see far and wide. Much better than your clouded view serving empire. I seek the truth and look for justice, you just serve your masters. Kind of like a slave.

The sad thing is that you are apparently educated and well read, so you should know better. So why did you sign up? Why do you continue to serve? Why are you in Afghanistan? Why is our military there? What are we accomplishing? Who is gaining and who is losing?

Whatever the answers are, don't play this bullshit about how you are somehow the victim always having to be hyper alert and the possibility of death is around every corner. That may be, but it is only because you put yourself there. You can leave, and should. Its not your fucking country. LEAVE! Quite wasting my tax dollars on your sorry ass. Your damn right I'm angry. Innocent blood is being spilled. Our economy and our environment is in the shitter. Of course I'm mad. I'm paying attention.

As far as engaging you as a person, NO, I don't see you as a person, just like the Afghans don't. I see you as part of the problem in this overly militarized/violent/nationalistic society.


Your final line, "As far as engaging you as a person, NO, I don't see you as a person," pretty much says all there is to say about this interaction.

I suspect that I am not alone when I doubt the utility of engaging with one who do not even acknowledge my own humanity.

One wonders, of course, where that line of rightous thought ends. When only those who are righteous get to pick and choose who amongst the rest of us is allowed the status of "a person"...and who is not.


"So why did you sign up? Why do you continue to serve? Why are you in Afghanistan? Why is our military there? What are we accomplishing? Who is gaining and who is losing?"

These questions I will try to answer in the next couple of weeks, and perhaps months. None of them are easy, all are valid, and deserving of, if not a comprehensive institutional answer, at least my own, personal one.