Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Home from Iraq--"What was it like over there?"

Foreign students entering American culture are usually surprised then dismayed by the question "How are you?"

The foreign students, at least the ones who have never been to America before, try to answer the question and say how they are. They soon find that is a mistake. No answer is expected.

In America, "How are you?" is followed immediately without a pause by "I'm fine." Then by a monologue such as, "I got this totally awesome new Coach purse just by friending the Coach page on Facebook, like free. So did I tell you my roommate just went totally whole foods. Grrrrross!! . . ."

The fifty-year-old-white-guy riff on this I have been hearing lately is, "What was it like over there?" After that question there is a pause and a wide-eyed look that says 'Please don't say anything awful.'

My usual answer is, "Hot."

After that answer, the person I am talking to exhales audibly, smiles, then says, "I am so busy. We just got this new contract. My oldest is going to college next year. I don't know where we are going to get the money. . . ."

I am back to work and back to commuting on the train from Lancaster to Philadelphia. I sat with a guy on the train who asked "What was it like over there?" Without waiting for an answer he said, "It must be weird to be back where people care about nothing but themselves." Then he talked for the next 15 minutes about how tough it is for his business in this economy, how he is sacrificing for the business, etc.

I have two very good friends who both recently used the same expression while we were talking. One friend is from Iraq, one is from my service in Germany in the 70s. They each said, "There is no one like you in my world." They are both blue collar, from blue collar families, with blue collar friends--except me. Even though I had not gone to college when I was in Germany, I was reading a lot and learning to be a writer. I was leaving the blue collar world I grew up in during the late 70s, even before I went to college. And by returning to the Army as a sergeant, I was re-entering the blue collar world as an outsider.

I am glad to be back in my world. But it's really clear that the two worlds are not better or worse, just different. People who never read books can be endlessly interesting and funny. People who are very smart can be duller than butter knives.

Medal Inflation (Background): Specialist Sunshine and Sergeant Oblivious

When everyone dress alike personality almost jumps out of the camouflage clothes. Two guys who served together from the beginning of our deployment, wore the same uniform, but are a stark contrast in their personalities are Specialist Sunshine and Sergeant Oblivious. On the outside, they are both over forty, both need to spend more time at the salad bar than at the main course line, both initially struggled to pass the fitness test, and both are the kind of soldiers who cause pre-emptive groans when they open their mouths to speak at a formation.

Twins?

Not even close. Specialist Sunshine never seemed to get dragged down by circumstances. At every mission change, he just kept working. As his squad leader Sergeant Oblivious deteriorated throughout our deployment, Sunshine was one of the few people who did not make fun of him behind his back. Sunshine makes jokes, keeps to himself, works hard, and ran as much as ten miles in a day to get ready for the PT test after living a very sedentary lifestyle. Sergeant Oblivious barely passed the PT test then ordered a three-foot pizza to celebrate, because he could now forget about the PT test for several months.

Sergeant Oblivious failed as a squad leader almost as soon as we mobilized. But he had friends who, like him, were on the deployment because it was the only way they could keep their jobs as Army National Guard technicians back in America. Finally, after two months in Iraq, Oblivious was so bad he was relieved of duty as a squad leader. A week later, he was watching the sergeant who replaced him struggle with some of the paperwork involved in the job (which Oblivious so bad at as to be legendary). But it had been a week since Oblivious was relieved of duty for incompetence so, in his usual way, all of the actual events had been erased in his mind and he had replaced them with a new history of his own creation. Oblivious looked at his replacement and said, "That job's not hard."

Luckily, I was not drinking coffee when I heard this. Otherwise I might have spit it across the room. Next Oblivious was assigned a security job a pay grade lower than his own. He failed within a day. Which caused a junior NCO to be stuck on five weeks of guard duty with about 2 hours notice. And, of course, none of it is the fault of Sergeant Oblivious.

Like Sergeant Rumpled, Sergeant Oblivious is also convinced that he is quite attractive to women, despite being bald, unkempt, missing a lot of teeth, and being in known across the battalion as lax on personal hygiene. Oblivious believes many conspiracies both of the global variety (he does not know WHO caused the World Trade Center Towers to fall, but someone. . .) and knows people at every level of the military are out to get him. He keeps records. He takes notes. They are in a secret code. He cannot write an English sentence.

CS Lewis, comparing military service with a term in prison, said the military can put you under the arbitrary authority of a very stupid man. That is much less true today than during than 100 years ago, but it is still possible. Sunshine had good-naturedly worked for Oblivious for almost six months. I am glad for him that Oblivious is headed for some sort of oblivion and is out of any position of authority.

But even that is a cause of some anger and envy among his peers. Because he is prone to outbursts and incompetent, Oblivious was relieved of the duties of a squad leader, but he is still getting paid as one. And he may end up in an MWR tent signing people in and out of the public access computers. He gets an all-day air-conditioned job because he is under too much stress to work outside with everyone else.

When the military rewards failure, it ties a camouflage bow on the package.

And as the believers may already have guessed, Oblivious goes to Church and will start arguments about faith. Sunshine does not believe.