The Gulf Between

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

A few things learned from the memoirs of Marines who served in Gulf War I: They're more terrified of being killed by friendly fire than enemy artillery; they're bored brainless most of the time; they harbor fantasies of being shot, but never somewhere too painful or where it might inflict permanent damage (a shoulder, say, but not a lung); and they'd rather bag a whore than fight a war (but who wouldn't?). A good many do not consider themselves patriots and do not have the slightest bit of interest in being a hero. And most are extremely pissed off they enlisted in the first place; they'd like to find the recruiter who seduced them with all that hey-dude doublespeak and shove an M-16 up his ass.

They will, when called upon, do their duty; they will quit their complaining and act with conviction, with pride, with the reservoir of heroism tapped into once the brain shuts down and instinct takes over. (Valor, according to most who have dodged a bullet and squeezed a trigger in the scalding heat of battle, exists only after reason is replaced by self-preservation; honor is something that shows up when nerves are shattered and all you have left is a rifle.) But they do not all view death, inescapable and seemingly inevitable, as The Ultimate Sacrifice made in the name of Peace and Freedom. Rather, they believe themselves little more than "cheap, squandered lives" taking part in the "comedy of combat," writes former Marine sniper Anthony Swofford in his recently published Jarhead, already heralded as a battlefield masterpiece. War is what happens when there's nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.

"War comes anonymously from the fuckin' sky or in a stupid accident," says Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir author Joel Turnipseed, a Marine Corps reservist who hauled truckloads of munitions back and forth across the desert during Gulf War I. Turnipseed may not have fired a shot in anger, or in fear, but he carried the ammo responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers and untold civilians. Something like that tends to, you know, mess with your head a bit.

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.

"We're no longer crossing sabers to see which man is best," he says from his home in Minneapolis. "There still is the romance of The Grunt, and their life is certainly fucking hard. I used to watch them do forced marches when I was in mechanics school in North Carolina. They'd get up at 6 in the morning and march till 10 in the fuckin' night wearing 85 pounds of combat gear, and you just thought, 'Hmm, be a mechanic, be a grunt? I know, I'll be a mechanic. I can read books at lunch.' I think the most important thing of all is the core intention of anybody who tries to tell a war story right is to try and get people to just imagine, 'Hey, man, this is what that life is like, and it's mostly about being very tired and about swearing a lot and experiencing something so weird it's almost impossible to describe.'"

Yes, these are just the impressions given by a few men, soldiers-turned-writers who shipped off to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Iraq the first time a president named Bush sent the military to the Middle East to dispose of Saddam Hussein. Anthony Swofford and Joel Turnipseed and Dear Mr. President author Gabe Hudson, a rifleman in the Marine Corps reserves, do not speak for all military men. Their generalizations, dark and funny and sad and tragic and tormented and cathartic, are merely their impressions, their damned and fragmented memories of too much time spent in too many places they'd rather forget--Burqan, Jubayl, Mishab. (Hudson was too late to the party, but his collection of fictional short stories are tinged with the despairing comedy of someone who was more than a bystander.)

The Army's TV ads promise a life of adventure; the Air Force's ads, thrills in the sky; the Navy's, college and a trip around the world. The Marine Corps says only in its new ad campaign, "Maybe you can be one of us." It is for some a last chance--jail or service. For others, it's the ultimate challenge--the Big Dare.

Not all Marines imagine themselves characters in tragic-comic coming-of-age stories; not all Marines read The Iliad in the battlefield, compare blank-eyed and haggard Iraqi prisoners of war to Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot, return home from battle to enroll in writers' workshops and find themselves on best-seller lists and 24-hour news networks. Not all Marines come from broken homes, like Swofford and Turnipseed; not all Marines are "fuck-ups, Uncle Sam's Misguided Children," as Turnipseed says during an interview. My brother, Captain Mike Wilonsky, commanding officer of Gulf Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines, is a man of unswerving duty and honor, a true believer who will not flinch from the Good Fight. Our parents are still together, 36 years after their six-day courtship. Mike attended Officer Candidate School while at the University of Oklahoma; he did not enlist, he was not looking for an escape. He might read Jarhead and Baghdad Express and recognize (and reprimand) some of these men, but he's not one of them.

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.

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.

"People just don't understand how fucked-up and exhausting war is, even the everyday horror," Turnipseed says. "When I was on Fox and Friends, they said, 'You must be so proud right now to be a Marine.' My answer was this: Any time you do something as difficult as be a Marine, there's always a little pride in it, but it's always mixed, because in my case, I spent six weeks carrying bombs and then woke up one morning and was carrying the bombs. When you look out at a field of guys--the first camp I went to had 85,000 POWs, many of whom were still bleeding from the ears from the concussions of the bombs--the first word out of your mouth isn't, 'Wow, cool.' You have a deep sense of shame. Every soldier has a deep sense of shame, so I said, 'Pride and shame are always mixed.' They looked at me like I just shit in my chair."

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