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"You've been extended...Any questions?"
on 27 August 2006
Somebody once said that war consists of long stretches of utter boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror. John Crawford's engaging and haunting memoir is a testament to the truth of that adage. Here he is on what it feels like to patrol the streets of Baghdad:
"We were riding a crest of hatred two thousand years old in a storm that no one who hasn't experienced it can understand. We knew what an AK-47 bullet sounds like when it zips unseen by our heads. We had heard the deafening blast of 155-millimeter rounds exploding near us. We knew the screams of the wounded and dying, and had seen the tears of men, of soldiers. I watched as we de-evolved into animals, and all this time there as a sinking feeling that we were changing from hunter to hunted." (p. 119)
Specialist Crawford's memoir is also a testament to the waste of war, the stupidity of war and in particular the stupidity of the Bush administration's harebrained invasion and occupation of Iraq. Guess what a good chunk of Crawford's time was spent doing. Guarding a gas station in Baghdad. Irony? Yes, and guess how he felt about the "hajjis" and how they felt about him.
Don't bother. He got no flowers handed out to him by the "liberated." This wasn't the Champes Elysees in 1944. The boys didn't shout and the girls didn't turn out. And when Johnny did come marching home again there were no victory parades. In fact, it appears that Crawford's young bride told him that "things would have been better off if...[he] had just never come home." Despondent and alone, Crawford writes, "In reality, I agree with her." (p. 219)
The blinding sandstorms, the 130-degree heat in full combat gear, the filth and stench, the constant fear of being targeted by a sniper or blown up by an IED, the hatred in the eyes of the Iraqi people, the substandard, "Vietnam era" equipment, the incompetent leadership, the sheer lack of discernable purpose--all of this and more is what gnawed at Crawford's soul as he and his buddies from the Florida National Guard did their time for God and country--well, for something.
Why does this seem like Vietnam all over again? Crawford writes, "We were both proud and ashamed of what we were. The stepchildren of the army, infantrymen are like guard dogs at a rich man's house. When people come to visit, the media, the USO, they lock us in the garage and tell us not to bark, but when night falls and there is a noise outside, everyone is glad we're there." (p. 65)
Crawford lets us see the Iraqi people as he saw them on the streets, in the shops: the little kids begging and crawling on him, the diseased refuges with their gaunt, desperate faces, the girls with their flirty eyes, the men with their consummate hatred, the landscape of poverty and desolation, of excrement in the streets and the blinding sun. He writes:
"Occasionally, a young woman would pass by in her school-girl uniform and dare a slight smile, prompting catcalls. Most times they enjoyed the attention and would wink back or smile broadly, as long as there weren't any men near them. The language of sex is the same in every country." (p. 88)
So this is a young man's view of war. It is somehow a lyrical tale, strung out in vignettes of color, short stories about his buds and the hajjis, preciously written in a style both ordinary and poetic. I think Crawford had a splendid editor. I also think he is a talented writer. This is a good and disturbing read.
And I think he got it right. It WILL be like Vietnam all over again. It already is. Eventually the troops will come home, another thousand or so dead, another ten thousand maimed and wounded, screwed up for life; and then the Iraqis will get back to doing what they do, which I guess is killing each other until somebody's in charge, and everything will be just as it would have been if we had left yesterday or the day before--or never arrived.