Escape from Baghdad
U.S. Army Sergeant Sean ----, author of Turningtables, interviewed by Paul Woodward, editor of The War in Context, September 13, 2003
Sergeant Sean is one of the lucky soldiers deployed to Baghdad. By the time you read this, he will be on his way home. In mid-summer though, before he had any idea when he might get out, I spoke to him via email and I tried to find out more about life in Iraq for an American soldier. In particular, I wanted to learn why a sergeant in the US Army would chose to express publicly his personal perspective, as Sean had eloquently been doing through his now widely read weblog, Turningtables.
Back in January 2002, when I started The War in Context, I was hoping to reach an audience whose hunger for inquiry ran deeper than its ideological presuppositions. The nascent anti-war movement had assumed its position but it struck me that the individuals who had most at stake as the Bush administration flexed it muscles were those men and women whose lives actually constitute those muscles -- the members of the United States armed services.
At the end of June, out of the blue came an email from a Sergeant Sean ----, a member of the signals corps in Baghdad. He had recently started his weblog, Turningtables and hoped I might add a link from my site to his. I initially treated his inquiry with due skepticism -- this voice from Baghdad might turn out to be a trickster in Fort Worth. So, I questioned Sean with some insistence and studied his journal, but it didn't take long to establish that he really was an American soldier and he truly was stuck in Baghdad.
Turningtables speaks for itself. Through the eyes of an unusually reflective and observant soldier we get to see some of the many challenges now facing American forces. Nevertheless, since I imagine that, like me, quite a few readers might want to know more about what led Sean to voice his thoughts, I recently interviewed him by email and this is what he had to say.
War in Context: What made you decide to create a weblog?
Sean: I started my journal after reading an article about Salam Pax's [Where is Raed?]. I have always kept journals during my deployments and this time is no different. However this one has taken off unlike the other ones. While I was deployed to Bosnia I kept a blog before they were called blogs, but that war had long since ended and people weren't too amazed by what I had to say. In Afghanistan I kept a written journal simply because I did not have nearly as much Internet access as I do on this deployment.
WIC: How do you connect to the Internet?
Sean: I am in the signal corps. It is my job to provide Internet and telephones to other soldiers and commanders. Getting the access is much easier for me than most soldiers. Every job within the army has its perks. Mine just happens to be a really good one.
WIC: Tell me about yourself. What made you decide to join the army?
Sean: I joined the army because I needed some kind of purpose and direction. I was going no where very fast -- a dead-end job, no car. And I was living with my mother. I needed to get out and grow up.
WIC: What have been some of the highlights and some of the most challenging experiences you've had so far?
Sean: The most memorable highlights have been my tour in Germany and my deployment to Sarajevo, Bosnia. I saw much of Europe while stationed in Germany and during my deployment I met many Bosnians and experienced real life in Sarajevo. Most soldiers never see what it is really like in the countries they are deployed to. They are stuck inside the perimeter, living in tents cites.
The most challenging experience so far has been my deployment to Afghanistan last year. I was there for 8 months and we had absolutely none of the amenities of home. There were no toilets or showers for the first 3 months and all we had to eat was MRE's [meals ready to eat] for amazingly long periods of time. There were no A/C's or heaters and Afghanistan experiences the extremes of the weather.
WIC: What do you plan on doing when you leave the service?
Sean: I have been planning to go back to school and use my college fund [available through the GI Bill] when I leave the service. That was one of the main reasons that I enlisted.
WIC: How long have you been in Iraq?
Sean: I have been in Iraq for about 3 months [as of mid-July], before that I was in Kuwait.
WIC: Since you've been in Baghdad have you had many opportunities to go off base?
Sean: I actually have only left the compound once. I work a daily shift and I am required to be close to my equipment at all times in case it were to malfunction. Sometimes I would like to go out into the city to really experience it, but at the same time I really enjoy not being shot at. The one time that I did venture out I saw many things in my short trip. The upraised hands clutching the swords stick with me the most. They created a very majestic landmark. Very powerful. [Since then, at Turningtables, Sean has recounted several other trips he's made out of the compound. Photographs can be seen here.]
WIC: How would you describe morale among the American troops?
Sean: The regular army soldiers, the active duty ones, are handling this deployment pretty well from what I have seen. We're getting too good at it. Everyone wants to go home but most soldiers are staying motivated about doing their jobs. Then again my unit is not a combat unit. So we are not getting shot at on a daily basis. I would assume that the morale in some of the combat units could be lower. The National Guard and reserve soldiers are feeling it a lot worse than we are. They were civilians a few months ago and now they are here indefinitely. I can only imagine how hard that must be. There is word that they could be here at least a year.
WIC: At Turningtables you've sometimes portrayed your fellow soldiers as lacking political awareness. Some people might feel like politics can undermine military discipline. What would you say?
Sean: I think that a large percentage of Americans lack any kind of political awareness. The Army is a cross section of the population of the States, and I would not expect the military to be any different from the rest of the population -- although I do think that the military is made up of a large percentage of the lower economic classes of America. Many soldiers are young people who simply do not care, or feel that their opinions do not matter. This is a common misconception through out the United States.
WIC: -- you mean the syndrome, "no one's going to listen to me, so why should I care -- why bother following a political process that I can't affect?"
Sean: Exactly! I do not feel that being aware of what is really going on in our government will undermine military discipline. We are all Americans no matter if we wear a military uniform or work behind the counter at Blockbuster, and it is our right to have a say in what goes on. We as soldiers will do our duty no matter what we may think personally. I do think there are those out there that feel soldiers should always agree with the policies of the administration and if they don't they are not true Americans or good soldiers. They should just shut up and deal with it. This is another misconception. As I said before we are a cross section of America, from its people to its views.
WIC: Some newspaper reports suggest that although most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam go, they'd also now like to see coalition forces leave. What's your impression?
Sean: If we were to leave now there would be total chaos. There would be a mad dash for Baghdad by every tribal chieftain and mullah. There would be a civil war within this country that would make our "liberation" seem like a cakewalk. The death toll would only rise and then America would receive the blame for leaving this country in ruins just as it did in Afghanistan. I think that our administration learned a big lesson in Afghanistan and I also believe that we will not leave until our administration is satisfied. I do not know what or how long that will take.
WIC: What's the most difficult thing about being in Baghdad right now?
Sean: Before being deployed I was actually happier then I had ever been in my entire life. I had recently moved out of the barracks and into my first apartment, and my girlfriend moved from California to be with me. For the first time in years I was very content with my life. I wish to get back there. I also feel that not having any kind of end date for this mission is only adding to the stress of every soldier including myself, but we are soldiers and we will do what we are told. And if that means we will stay here another 3 months or another year we will do it. That's our job.
WIC: From conversations you've had with other soldiers, would you say that they understand their mission and are confident that they can accomplish it?
Sean: There is actually much debate among the soldiers as to why we are here. Many troops have their own views and ideas just like any American, but we as soldiers all know that the number one reason that we are here is because we were ordered to be here. We can't really argue with that. American soldiers are always confident in our ability to accomplish any mission. We are a very proud bunch. Since my job is more technology-based than an infantryman or M.P. it is actually easier to accomplish my duties. There is no third party involved, and I do not have to deal with Iraqis. As tensions mount outside the walls of this compound I am sure that it would make things much more difficult if I was trying to work out there.
WIC: You mentioned in Turningtables reading a book by Noam Chomsky. Where did you get it and what interested you about his writings?
Sean: One of my best friends sent it to me when he found out about the research I have been doing online. He is a member of the National Guard and he wanted to volunteer to come over here to do "his part", but he decided to stay in school. He also had started to ask questions -- questions whose answers are very easy to find for those who look. Noam Chomsky laid it all out on the table for me like no other person had ever done. I felt as though a curtain had been pulled from my eyes and I could actually see through the haze of misconceptions. I always try to remain objective, and I do not agree with him on every issue. I continue to search for more answers to the questions we should all be looking for. It really is so surprising.
WIC: Since you use the Internet you have that as a source for news, but how difficult is it for most soldiers to get news -- both about what's happening back home and what's happening elsewhere in Iraq?
Sean: For the average soldier I think that it can be quite hard to get news, especially the unbiased kind. The Stars and Stripes newspaper is always around but sometimes I feel like it is a propaganda machine. I choose to look elsewhere. But by the same token many soldiers would not care no matter how easy it was to come across news and current events. I know of soldiers right now who also have Internet access who never check out any news agencies.
While I was still in Kuwait I actually had to call home to get the news of the beginning stages of the war from my girlfriend. We were on somewhat of a news blackout simply because we did not have a source to receive it.
WIC: For someone back home who is relying on television and newspapers to learn about what's happening in Iraq, from the articles in American newspapers you've read and American TV you've seen, do you think that there are any important parts of the picture that are being left out?
Sean: Without doubt. The American news agencies play to a certain crowd and the ratings, just as Al-Jezeera plays to the Arab world. You will be hard-pressed to come across stories of American soldiers doing wrong or acting improperly during these times on CNN but the Arab new agencies will eat it up. Just looking at photographs taken by different photographers from different countries will enable you to see big differences in the way this war is viewed. There are two sides to every story, but Americans seems to forget that really easily. My girlfriend used to send me videotapes of American television and sometimes she would throw in an excerpt from a news channel. I actually watched Fox news air footage of the bombing in Iraq with background music. I guess they wanted to set a mood. So ridiculous! Most newspapers that I have read online are trying to stay very neutral and unbiased. They report on many sides of this multi-faceted event.
WIC: Before this war started, many war critics questioned the judgement of the architects of the war by pointing out that hardly any of them had active military service experience, even though many were from the Vietnam generation. As a non-combat soldier, would you say that there is a wider gap in understanding between those who have or have not served in the military, or between those who have or have not been in combat?
Sean: Are you kidding? There is a huge gap in understanding just between non-combat related MOS's [military occupational specialists] like my job and the infantrymen. I have no idea what they go through but on the same level I can quite easily imagine. I could not even begin to presume that some members of our administration have any idea what it is like for real soldiers. These are the types of things that you have to experience before you could ever understand. Reading or speaking with veterans helps but it is not the same. The unending tedium of everyday is like nothing any normal civilian could ever imagine because most would just quit long before it really even got rough. Soldiers definitely learn what they are made of in crazy situations. Just how far your body can go and what you really need to get by. Learning these things firsthand makes the rest of your life gravy. You learn to take nothing for granted.
WIC: I want to ask about the culture in your brigade. It sounds like a military/tech mix that carries some echoes of Silicon Valley culture. While it's always been the case that technological innovation often starts in a military environment and later finds civilian applications (the Internet and GPS being prime examples) and that certain aspects of the culture also migrate in the same direction (e.g. project management), I'm wondering whether you'd say that you can see any reverse migration? For instance, Silicon Valley culture is not only innovative, but also libertarian and non-conformist. Techies love to think outside the box. Is this just as evident inside military tech culture as it is outside?
Sean: Most people would be shocked and awed if they were to find out just how much the army signal corps has morphed into a military silicon valley. The digital age has revolutionized the military. We are one of the biggest businesses in history and we have an unlimited cash flow. We stay on top of the high tech pile -- and generals love all that cool shiny new stuff. We even call the people we provide services to, "customers." It's a whole new world. We not only think outside the box; we are required to. Each individual MOS [military operational specialist] within the signal corps becomes a master at their own equipment, and while there are those few who are able to jump around and become masters of the entire signal realm, most stick to their own. So many times there is no higher power to turn to when you can't solve the problem, but even if there is you can't be guaranteed that they will be able to help you. So personal experience goes a long way.
WIC: When you went from basic training to technical training did you experience a big shift into the mindset you needed to have once you entered the tech environment?
Sean: Basic training is a big rush of reality. They tear you down and build you back. They throw out all the useless stuff like individual thought and they put in all the soldier skills that you need to accomplish the mission and survive in a combat zone.
Once I hit Ft. ---- for my technical training for my MOS [military operational specialty] I still was confused as to what my job actually was. I knew what the title and nomenclature were but I was still clueless as to what I was supposed to do as a job. Actually, I didn't figure it out until a few months after I hit my first duty station.
WIC: What I'm driving at here is the idea that high tech armies need geek soldiers and geek soldiers end up thinking more like geeks than they think like soldiers. (Now I realize that there are some assumptions I'm making when I say "think like soldiers" and it might be that I'm projecting an inaccurate stereotype of the military. What I have in mind is the kind of blind obedience that means you never question a command.)
Sean: Without wanting to sound stuck up, I would say that there are those that might be a little bit too dim to even create an individual thought. Complicated things do not always amuse people who are incapable of sorting them out. So as with anything, I think a level of intelligence that is required for certain jobs and skills brings with it a double-edged sword -- they think outside the box on every issue. That's not to say, of course, that there are not highly intelligent people who drive the tanks and lead the fire teams in to combat.
WIC: Donald Rumsfeld is frequently attributed with being responsible for attempting to revolutionize the military. Since you had already served for a couple of years before he arrived at the Pentagon, did you notice a big shift or might it be more accurate to say that he has championed a transition that was already well under way before his arrival?
Sean: None at all actually. Nothing for me changed in any way with the new administration. I think 9/11 itself changed everything. My life has never been the same since that day.
WIC: Based on your knowledge of the army and the way it's evolving, would you feel comfortable and appropriately labeled, if you were described as one of Rumsfeld's soldiers? (I know that your all Rumsfeld's soldiers, but I'm using the expression to refer to the revolution in the military that he envisions.)
Sean: Donald Rumsfeld, with all due respect, had nothing to do with my development as a soldier. That honor would have to be bestowed to my direct line supervisors. They have more pull in what kind of a soldier a young man or woman will pan out to be. The technology was already in place before the current administration and I honestly think it would be in place not matter what type of administration was in power.
WIC: Where were you on 9/11?
Sean: I had just gotten back from PT [physical training] and I was putting on my BDU's [battle dress uniform]. I always watch the news in the morning before heading off to work. Me and my roommate were freaking out. The news people still weren't sure what was going on and then we saw the second plane hit and I knew that my life was about to change forever. About 5 minutes later they alerted us and then I pulled guard duty for the next month, 4 on 4 off -- it was really hard.
WIC: When you headed off to Afghanistan, what were your expectations?
Sean: That we would get him (Osama). I felt like we had a purpose and I was going to make a difference, like we were going to avenge each one of those deaths.
WIC: Did it feel like this was an open-ended mission that could end up leading anywhere?
Sean: I never thought we would end up in Iraq because of it. Afghanistan didn't surprise me but I was pretty amazed when we crossed the border into Iraq. There are just some places you just never see yourself going. Iraq is one of them.
The war on terrorism to me is kinda like the war on drugs -- it's not going to go away.
WIC: While you were in Afghanistan did you have much contact with the locals and did you get the sense that they understood why you were there?
Sean: Actually I did. The 101st employed about 100 locals to do work around the airport, from moving debris and clearing out buildings to burning shit. There was a detail formed each day to guard the locals. I pulled that once or twice. I could tell that some of those guys were really thankful to get the job and others were just collecting a check. Many of them seemed like genuinely nice guys.
WIC: Is it clear to you and those around you how the war in Iraq is part of the war on terrorism?
Sean: I'm going to have to take the Fifth on that one. But I will say that I sincerely hope that we find the WMD. I hope we find the nukes, primed and ready to attack. I hope we are saving our country and the world.