The Gulf Between

When these soldiers became writers, the pen becomes very mighty indeed

But the point of Swofford and Turnipseed's books is not to speak for all military men and women. They generalize to make their point: War is hell not so much when it's unfolding all around you, but once it's over--when soldiers return to headlines proclaiming their heroism, buddies offering cold Budweisers, women showing their gratitude by flashing their tits, parents rejoicing by cooking warm meals. All they really want, insist these authors, is someone to understand that you never leave all that sand back in the desert. They will forever suffer hell's hangover, even those who might not have killed, because they saw others die--friends, maybe, almost certainly one or a dozen or a hundred or a thousand enemy soldiers.

"I was doing radio the other night, and this guy called, and he had been an Army Ranger in the first Gulf War," Turnipseed says. "He was practically crying. His name was Steve or something, and he said, 'I just wanna thank you for writing this.' I had just said something on-air about one of the things that people don't realize is that soldiers' wars don't end. No matter whether you were a frickin' cook in Jubayl or a sniper on the front line, when the tornado siren goes off, you're not thinking tornado; you're thinking SCUD alarm. I said people have to stretch themselves a little bit morally and intellectually to listen to people's stories when they come home. This guy Steve calls up and said, 'I try to tell people what it was like to see all the body parts in the tanks, and they ask me why am I so angry at the Army. They just don't understand what it's like. When your day job is to kill people and people cheer you on for that, they also have to take responsibility.' I was like, 'Wow, what do I say to this guy?'"

The 34-year-old Turnipseed, born in Minneapolis and raised on the post-punk of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, does not think of Baghdad Express as a war memoir but as a coming-of-age novel set during Operation Desert Storm; it's a book, he reminds, written by a wiser (but not wise) man looking back at the boy he used to be, the loser who thought himself better than everyone else with which he served. Turnipseed marched off to war--shrugged off, actually, as he had nothing better to do--armed with his philosophy books, a portable library of Plato, Whitman, Nietzsche. He wanted only time to read and smoke Camels and drink coffee. He was no soldier, just a would-be-wannabe student who got called up and plopped down in the Saudi Arabia desert at the right time: The war to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis began when Turnipseed's girlfriend left him in an empty apartment he couldn't afford, with a life he couldn't stomach. He felt no patriotic duty, no overwhelming desire to free the poor Kuwaitis. He felt...nothing, only that at least he'd have a place to crash for a little while.

A soldier's story: Joel Turnipseed's book, Baghdad Express, features comic-book-like chapters that lighten up a serious tale.
A soldier's story: Joel Turnipseed's book, Baghdad Express, features comic-book-like chapters that lighten up a serious tale.

Turnipseed preferred the drill instructor's savaging insults to anything his own father or mother might have to offer; it would, he says, "be hard to top the shittiness of my childhood." He left for war a smug philosopher manqué who believed in the Platonic ideal that wisdom and virtue were enough, that a happy and good life awaited the idealistic young man. He returned knowing he was dead wrong.

"But the idealism of youth and the idealism that allows us to go to war somehow doesn't really matter compared to the carnage that it creates," he says. "I wrote it like a coming-of-age story, more than a gritty, sand-in-your-teeth war book. Of course, I was in a war, but I don't think of the book as being particularly of the same genre. I think of it as Tommy Stinson or Holden Caulfield goes to war kinda thing, more than I think of it as, 'Man, I was in the fuckin' shit.' Not that I didn't see any. In our unit of 260-something guys, three guys died, so that's not a bad percentage. It wasn't that it wasn't dangerous. It's hard to express how many POWs there were over there. We had 100,000 in four days of guys who are just broken, and you realize what schleps they were--they didn't want to fight. So you thought, 'They're the lucky ones, because think of all the guys out there in the frickin' desert and on the highway that are in pieces that we just drove past.' You're just, 'Wow, holy shit, this is fucked-up.' And how you convey that in prose, I dunno, I tried to do that."

In the end, Turnipseed and Swofford and all those who write war books from firsthand experience want to communicate one thing: the pain of being a soldier, usually from wounds never visible. Though they're constantly being invited on Fox and ABC to talk about the sequel to their own war, asked always about Patriot missiles and gas attacks, they're really only experts on trauma, guilt, suffering and the camaraderie of war. That they're blessed with the ability to write--Jarhead and Baghdad Express, real-life variations of Catch-22, will outlive this war and all others--make them more than witnesses. These soldiers have become tour guides through mine fields, most in our own back yard.

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