Category Archives: Politics

Thoughts from the Road – Minnesota

Fourth of July—Independence Day—a uniquely American holiday, and Veteran Van is heading west towards Minnesota. Wrapping up visits with two old LTs, now Commanders—great leaders, patriots, and mentors—who remind us of why our Armed Forces, and especially the infantry, are such bastions of courage, intelligence, and strength.

Independence: It’s a word many Americans have forgotten, and some may never know.

The infantry are independent. We hold down entire cities and provinces in hostile territories half-way around the world. We live in abject squalor and yet maintain the professionalism and will to survive and accomplish impossible missions under impossible circumstances.

Independence is strapping on a heavy rucksack and walking out with your brothers in arms to distant outposts. Independence is leaving the comforts of hometown life at an early age to confront the harsh realities of the real world. Independence is casting off the shackles of colonial masters back in the day, in good old 1776, and teaching the world, for the first time, what a free society can become. Independence is heading out in a van, loaded down with books, and seeing what kind of adventures one can stir up.

Two days before arriving in Detroit, we try to schedule a police ride-along.

“Hello. Is this ___________ Police Precinct?”

“Yes. How may I help you?”

“I’m an author and Iraqi War Vet looking to do a police ride-along with your department.”

“Oh. . . just show up at any precinct a few hours before you want to go out. They’ll accommodate you.”

“Thank you, that’s too easy. . .”

Except it isn’t. We get shuffled from one station to another before being politely told that we should really only go out on Friday or Saturday (it’s Sunday); otherwise, nothing will happen.

But that’s okay, because our old LT is now a recruiting Commander and veritable Duke of Detroit, who gives us an infantry-style patrol of the once great American city. It’s better this way.

We drive along 7 Mile Road, through back streets, commercial roads, and rows of houses. An endless urban sprawl of decrepit, abandoned America stretches out before us; miles and miles and miles. Traffic lights at four way intersections aren’t working, burnt out and collapsed houses are everywhere, the only businesses are Coney Island hotdog shacks, cell phone providers, and liquor stores. Cut off the sewage, let the black water run loose through the streets, and this is isn’t America: this is Iraq.

What happened to the American Dream in Detroit? How can a child who only knows 7 Mile Road hear those words and not laugh in unknowing bewilderment? What’s happening to all of America?

Everywhere we go there’s this defeatist attitude. People cannot seem to talk enough about how America has lost its way, how the politicians have led us astray, and that we’re doomed to reenter some kind of dark age. There’s recession, China’s on the rise, perpetual threats of terrorism and endless war, and even 2012 doomsday prophecies. When did this country of optimists get so jaded?

Perhaps if we recaptured the spirit of the Fourth of July, maybe if we re-learned independence, we as a people and a country could break through this losing streak. Independence requires discipline, non-entanglement in the affairs of others, and the courage, intelligence, and will to stand alone. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions; only challenges and how we meet them. We need to remember that we’re not entitled to anything, that greatness, like respect, is not given, but only earned. It’s going to be a lot of work, but that’s what Americans do best.

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Thoughts from the Road – New Jersey Campsite

Nearing the halfway mark of the tour, about to spend a week in the Big City—New York—the mission is in full swing.

And it’s definitely a mission. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme; in fact, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted and it weighs heavy on my soul.

It’s heavy when you sit in front of your display for hours, in front of the US flag I fought under, in front of a banner urging people to hear veterans stories, and not even a single person stops to give you the time of day. It’s hard to sell a book, a story I’ve pored years of sweat and tears into, and get little response from people on the street, in the bookstores, and even my own friends and supporters.

“Hey sir, do you know anyone who served in the military?”

“Yeah! And they’re all dead!”

“Ma’am. Do you like to read?”

“Yes, very much.”

“Want to check out this book I wrote? It’s about the War in Iraq?”

“Oh. . . I think I know enough about what’s going on over there.”

A group of cute women my age.

“Excuse me ladies? Do you support your soldiers?”

Nothing. Not even a response.

One of the greatest parts about this tour is talking to vets: Iraq, Afghanistan, Gulf War I, Vietnam, Korea, and even a few World War II. They stop and shake my hand, we share stories, but most of all we share knowing looks. They might be too broke to buy a book, but they check it out, and tell me I’m doing good things.

Older hobos and vagrants frequently stop and talk, more often than not, they’re Vietnam vets. They may be panhandling from other people, but they’re not looking for handouts from me.

“You a veteran?”

“Yes sir. And you?”

“Vietnam.”

“Thank you for your service sir.”

“No. . . thank you, son.” A handshake, some human acknowledgment, that’s all they want from me, and I’m more than happy to give it. We owe them, but America hung them out to dry. We demanded that the soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors of that generation go over to a jungle halfway around the world and kill for the sake of “American ideals.” They came back, many fucked in the head for what they had to do to survive, what they thought they were doing for all their loved ones and communities and nation. America called them “baby-killers” and now watch in disgust as many of them age away, take to the streets, and survive in a new jungle: an indifferent homeland.

One thing that’s been continuously reinforced throughout this entire trip is that the younger generation as a whole, my generation, does not care about the wars going on or the veterans who fought in them. If you don’t have some kind of human connection to the fight—a brother, a mother, a nephew, or cousin—then you don’t know and you don’t care. I’ve about ceased trying to sell books to people between the ages of 18 and 30—the young crowd, the hip crowd, the college crowd. These are the future leaders of America, who don’t know shit about what it really means to go to war, and you know what’s going to happen when they in turn become businessmen and lawyers and politicians and educators? They’re just going to send off the next generation to the slaughter, to kill more people halfway around the world who just want to survive and feed their own families.

But I can’t just disparage the youth, because that’s too easy. An Army buddy of mine, a brother-in-arms, who showed me a great time in his hometown and always treats me like family, is in the doghouse with his wife and in-laws because of Zarqawi’s Ice Cream.

“You did that? I can’t believe you!”

“I can’t believe I let him sleep in my house!”

“He makes the Army look bad, like you guys were a bunch of savages.”

We were a bunch of savages. You send off a bunch of teenagers to kill people halfway across the world and expect us to act like missionaries? We were just tools, so you didn’t have to get your hands bloody, so you could sleep at night and tell yourself that you’re a good person.

All the time I hear it. “I didn’t support the war.” I guess the insinuation is that you don’t have to hear about it or deal with the consequences, or even give a moment of your time to the veterans who volunteered to fight and bleed and risk insanity and give years away to a cause they can’t define or benefit from.

But you did support the war. In 2003 your Congress, your Senate, and your President decided to invade Iraq…and by overwhelming majorities. And it’s still going on. People are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers and civilians. Death is death is death.

If you want sanitized stories, if you want to keep living in a false reality and pretend like you know what’s going on, then don’t buy my book, don’t listen to the vets of Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan who did inhumane things to fellow human beings so that fat Americans can keep eating cheeseburgers and driving luxury cars. Know the consequences of going to war, what putting a machine gun in the hands of a teenager is going to do him and the society he lives in.

Don’t judge us, because you don’t know.

Listen to our stories.

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Bin Laden’s Death

I was in Iraq, never in Afghanistan, and any links to Iraq and bin Laden are pretty sketchy. Despite this, many of my friends and I’m guessing a good part of the American people, through a mixture of ignorance, folk wisdom, lazy thinking, and government and media propaganda, think things like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden are simply one and the same.

And in a way they are. Since 9/11 almost ten years ago, our country has engaged in the War on Terrorism, whose jurisdiction does certainly cover Iraq and bin Laden. I remember that day clearly. I woke up around seven and groggily met my dad in the kitchen, where he was every morning making coffee and toast. He was watching the TV silently; I looked at it too, and saw a plane smash into a huge building.

“Is that real, Dad?”

I was sixteen and saw the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as something very intriguing. I couldn’t believe the bastards had the balls to do something like this. “Don’t they know that we’re America, what we’re going to do now?” I instantly knew big changes were coming. I knew America was going to go to war and crush whoever did this. I grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s; I was taught that America is an enlightened superpower, that we would be an industrial and democratic powerhouse for centuries, the New Rome. 9/11 made me bloodthirsty. I, like almost every American, wanted bin Laden’s head, and I wanted it now.

Three years later, I was still somewhat bloodthirsty, eager to go to War. I joined the Army and went to Iraq.

Now bin Laden is dead, but it’s not as satisfying as I might have hoped. It’s been almost ten years since 9/11 and a lot has changed in America. My classmates who saw the towers fall with me haven’t joined a vibrant powerhouse economy; they’re waiters and temp workers with bachelor’s degrees not worth the paper they’re printed on. Not even Americans believe we own the new century, as China and other world powers are steadily gaining prominence in world affairs. The apathy and disconnect most Americans express for the War on Terrorism is scary. Percentage-wise, very few Americans are actively connected to this war, and the all-volunteer army ensures that many privledged classes are virtually untouched by combat losses. I joined the Army partly because I thought that my service now may prevent my little brother (who is ten years younger than me) from himself having to suffer and bleed in a foreign country. He’s sixteen now, and there is plenty of war to go around.

So, am I happy that bin Laden’s dead? I guess, sure. But does it mean anything? The man himself probably hasn’t contributed anything to his cause. For the last ten years he’s been a living martyr and fugitive. Knowing as little as I do about geo-politics, just using my soldier’s sense, I’d say that on the balance sheet, killing bin Laden will add up to zero. It’s a useful media stunt, it’ll be on the front pages of the news mags for the next week or two, but after that, business as usual. The decay of the American superpower and the seemingly insolvable insurgency in Afghanistan are the most important legacies of bin Laden. Killing him is great, but we need to fearlessly address not only the man, but his effects, and most importantly, what’s he’s done to us, what we’ve become.

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Iraq War Stories: A Catharsis

Welcome.

I began to write Zarqawi’s Ice Cream shortly after leaving the army…not because I wanted to, but because I had to. The process hasn’t been easy. Recalling these tales has ensured that my head remained in that world long after returning to civilian life. Is it possible to ever fully reintegrate into civilian life after two tours in Iraq? Maybe not. Nonetheless, purging these war stories from my mind and onto paper has been a much-needed catharsis to putting the past behind me. Those who have served will understand; those who haven’t might not.

The following is a passage from Chapter One: Call to Adventure. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“Goldsmith, tell me a story about Iraq.”

“What kind of story do you want to hear?”

“I dunno, a good story.”

“You want a funny story? A sad story? A war story with a lot of action?”

“Any story—your best one.”

My best story—that’s asking a lot. Should I talk about the IRAM attack or Ranger School? Should I depict the nobility of Moneyshot or relive the guilt of blowing that poor lady’s finger off? If I had to tell one story, one epic tale to sum up years of debasement and triumph, of groveling servitude and absolute power, of stagnation and explosive growth, what would it be?

“How about ‘Zarqawi’s Ice Cream’?” I say. “So late one night we—”

“Wait! Zarqawi? Wasn’t he a terrorist or something?”

“Oh, yeah! The evilest guy in Iraq, and that’s saying something. So then the ramp drops and—”

“Did I ever tell you my friend’s sister’s fiancé is going to Afghanistan next week? He’s in the Air Force.”

Nobody likes a war story. It won’t get you laid, convince the cop to give you a warning, or get you a free pint at the bar. The veteran gets excited telling his epic tale. He expects acknowledgment, understanding, love, or something deeper. All he gets is a vacant stare, an abrupt and nervous change of subject, or no response at all. Sometimes his listeners are horrified. This guy’s a monster! He can read it on their faces. Acts of heroism, cowardice, and senseless butchery are seared into a soldier for eternity. Entire lives can revolve endlessly around a single commendable or odious event. Truly lost soldiers are forever in search of the great war story.

“. . . And then Scooter says, ‘How’s it smell, bitch?’”

“Yeah? And then what?”

“That’s it. That’s the end of the story.”

“I don’t get it—why would he do that?”

“The bullets, the explosions . . . they messed with his head.”

“Oh.”

“See, we were all under a lot of stress, and . . . guess you had to be there.”

These tales provide a glimpse into the life of an infantryman, into an existence that is extraordinary yet mediocre—a world most people will never live in or understand. Warning: it is a masculine world devoid of feminine sentiment and solace. It is also a bigoted world, charged with the irrational hatreds of combat. The infantry life is schizophrenic: withering heat and biting cold, sloth and inhuman exertion, exultation and shame. The infantryman loves and hates his life with equal passion, and he is never far from death. There is unique pride in the struggle that forms the core of the infantry experience, boundless love in the brotherhoods cemented in the wilderness.

“Who do you think is the best unit?”

“I don’t know: Rangers, Eighty-second Airborne, maybe Tenth Mountain.”

“You know who I think is the best unit?”
“Who’s that?”

“The men I went to war with.”

The men in these war stories didn’t capture the world’s most wanted terrorist, get in any major battles, or wade waist deep through the enemy dead. They were never seriously wounded, didn’t storm any machine gun nests or win any flashy medals. By anyone’s standards, we were mediocre infantrymen. So what did we do? We managed to survive some of the harshest conditions on earth, suffered bouts of insanity, and weathered the assaults of our enemies. We did what our country asked of us, stayed faithful to each other, and came home again. And through it all, we never lost our humanity.

Were heroic deeds done? Absolutely. Are there heroes in this story? Certainly not. We are your sons and your soldiers. These are our stories.

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