Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My GWOT Reading List

Like most sane individuals, I've been spending the past week or so drooling mindlessly next to an air conditioner, in a futile attempt to escape the sun waterboarding us all into submission. In the mean time, I've received some emails asking for recommendations on other Iraq/Afghanistan-related books. Ask, and you shall receive. But first, as always, a few unrelated rambles.

1) I have nothing profound or new to add to this latest Wikileaks thing. It's long, accurately and contextually captures war as the worst thing humanity has to offer, and Julian Assange still looks like a lesbian from Seattle. Concurrently, my pal Andrew Exum sounds intelligent and convincing in this New York Times Op-Ed about it all, and I felt smarter and more informed after reading it. I suggest you do the same.

2) I've moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, mainly to be closer to grad school. I won't be changing the subtitle of the blog, predominantly because I love alliteration too much and couldn't think of anything equally catchy. I promise much of my social life still revolves around Brooklyn though, so I'm not a total fraud! And rants about yuppies are much more fun than rants about hipsters.

3) I've just now discovered the band Animal Collective. I know I'm late to the party, but I was deployed when they made it big, so my indie cred card remains in the wallet. (So says my indie cred card dealer, at least.) If you're looking for new alt./indie music, give them a shot.

4) My Kaboom speech from Politics & Prose in DC will air this Sunday (August 1) on Book TV, channel CSPAN-2, at 4pm and 11pm. Link to follow after it airs. If you have friends or family holding out on my book because CSPAN hasn't covered it yet, make them watch!

5) I don't know why more people don't die by poorly-installed air conditioners plummeting to the ground from apartments in the sky. It's a good thing I'm strong like bull, because that experience is not nearly as easy as it should be. Good Allah.

6) Some of my former soldiers currently deployed assure me it's hotter in Iraqistan than it is Stateside. Who am I argue? God bless them, and I treasure every email and Facebook message that tells me they're bored out of their minds. They've done enough. FOB on gentlemen, FOB on!

7) Weddings are wonderful celebrations of love and life. I'll be attending my fifth of the summer this weekend. I'm sick of them, as they hemorrhage money for all involved and inevitably cross that authentic/contrived cheese line for all involved except for those participating in said infraction. And let's face it, at best, they only have a 50% chance of working out, nowadays. It's the life equivalent of signing Ron Artest or Terrell Owens to a multiyear, guaranteed contract.

Now. Other GWOT-related books I've enjoyed. Here's a short list. I preface this by saying that yes, I've read a lot of what is out there, both to educate myself and out of pure curiosity. And sure, I keep up on the topic now to scope out the competition. Also, understand that I lean towards writings and works that trend toward "different," not an easy thing in the murky wilds of modern war tales. So, if I hurt feelings or forget/snub a particular book, I assure you all, it's unintentional. As my family can attest, I've always been a bit of a literary snob, but never a willful asshole. (Wait?! A writer that easily casts judgment on others, but comes across as hypersensitive with his own work? Say it ain't so!)


My Unofficially Official GWOT Reading List:

1) Evan Wright's Generation Kill. It's popular in COIN, Defense, and literary circles to hate on this book, but I say, "Shenanigans!" It covered the invasion from a rock 'n roll perspective, and judging from those I've talked to who invaded/were invaded, it deserves such a take.

2) Tom Ricks's Fiasco and The Gamble. More definitive accounts of the Iraq War may follow, but they haven't come out yet, and probably won't for quite some time. Personal favorite memory of Fiasco: Lt. Colonel Larry chewing out a Troop Commander for reading it in Iraq, presumably because of its "negative" title. Personal favorite memory of The Gamble: reading it right after we returned from Iraq in March 2009, and it explaining a lot of the bigger picture. Lots of "oh shit!" moments for then-Captain G.

3) Exum's This Man's Army. Not only did this book pave the way for junior officer memoirs in our era, it proves that smartass, ironic writers can grow up and do bigger and better things for their country. Ex and his book give me hope that my writing and/or academic and/or life career didn't peak last April.

4) David Bellavia's House to House. The real fucking deal. Reading this book will make anyone who wasn't on the ground in Fallujah feel simultaneously grateful and inadequate.

5) Patrick Hennessy's The Junior Officers' Reading Club. Loaded with weird British quirkiness, but that's okay. Certain experiences and gripes are universal, and this book reminded me as I wrote Kaboom that war memoirs could be funny.

6) Colby Buzzell's My War. The best of the bunch, at least so far. As raw as the soldier's experience can be described. (In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Colby a friend as well, though we became drinking buddies long after I read his book and felt this way about his work. Real talk.)

7) Sebastian Junger's War. Here's my full review, over at the HuffPo. Junger accomplished what many thought impossible - bringing a war story home to a mainstream audience. Any American who cares should be thankful for such. This promises to make any and all definitive GWOT reading lists in the future.

8) Jim Frederick's Black Hearts. This book is not for the faint of heart (pun intended!). Simply put, it's depressing as hell. But it covers a story that needs to be told, and made the Iraq that my unit found in 2007 make a lot more sense. Also, it's journalism at its finest. Frederick's dogged research shines through.

9) Nick McDonell's The End of Major Combat Operations. McDonell arrived to Iraq just as my unit left, so I found this read especially interesting. It's a great blend of personal narrative and reporting, and comes from a different perspective than most of these other books, as this was his first major foray into something other than fiction. McDonell can write. And that's all that matters.

10) Paul Rieckhoff's Chasing Ghosts. Probably the best of any of the GWOT works that is, ehh, remotely "political." Anger is a wonderful tool to utilize when writing, and Rieckhoff harnesses it quite effectively. Much like Exum, it's fun to read this and see the future Rieckhoff (now head of the IAVA) develop.

Fuck. This list is totally sexist. I've heard good things about Kayla Williams's Love My Rifle More Than You, though I haven't read it yet. I'm also aware I left off some normal stalwarts on such lists. So it goes. Some were read and discarded, while some are on my bookshelf, waiting to be picked up. Further, I'm also aware that all of these are non-fiction works. Well ... yeah. Luke Larson's novel Senator's Son is pretty good, and I've heard decent things about David Zimmerman's The Sandbox, but by and large, it's unlikely a definitive fictional work will be written about the wars until after they're over. Just the way it works; don't believe me, check literary history. Memoirs and journalistic accounts come out constantly and consistently, during and after wars, while fictionalized accounts take more time. But they also make a deeper impact. So let's hurry up and end these damn wars, I got epics to read!

What do you all think? What does this list, and subsequently my bookshelf, lack? What does it get right? I value feedback, just as my fiancee (ever the school teacher) taught me to. (Except for Kaboom haters. Fuck those simpletons. Hi-O!)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dos and Donts for Bloggers in the Machine

In early 2008, as a young Army lieutenant deployed Iraq, I wrote a blog called Kaboom, an irreverent reference to roadside bombs. I usually ran my postings by my company commander before I posted, and for the most part, the reception I received from my soldiers and superiors was positive. Then, in June 2008, I posted a piece that portrayed my battalion commander in an unflattering light – or, more accurately, I used analogies and a stream-of-consciousness rant to depict him that way – and while soldiers found it hilarious, my superiors, uhh, didn’t. Kaboom the blog quickly went the way of the dodo, though all of this e-drama did eventually lead to Kaboom the book.

So, if you’re wondering why I feel qualified to offer up a sort of omniscient Dos/Don’ts list for government and military bloggers, that’s why. I’ve succeeded at it, failed at it, and done whatever it is that falls in between. Now, on to the main event!

Do – research your organization’s online security guidelines. Even though I got shut down and yelled at a bunch for my blogging blooper (alliteration points!), the only thing that saved me from the kind of trouble that requires paperwork was my strict adherence to operational security. In Iraq as an Army-man, that meant not using real names or going into mission details. If you’re a spook working for the CIA, or the world’s ugliest clown recently hired by the Border Patrol to scare away illegals, the rules might be different.

Don’t – think that your superiors are too busy to read your blog. I was burned out, pissed off, and days away from my mid-tour leave to Europe when I mocked Lieutenant Colonel Larry. And, thanks to a mix of earnestness and ignorance, I really didn’t think my posting would get back to him. It did. Trust me, as much time as you spend each day Googling yourself, bosses do it even more. It’s the reason their computers are angled so only they can see the screen. Well, that and porn.

Maybe – use a pseudonym. It’s totally up to you, and dependent upon the specifics of your job and your goals for the blog. Just don’t think a fake name will keep family, friends, and coworkers from figuring out who you are. They know you, your sense of humor, and your idiosyncrasies, and will see through any e-masquerade in an instant. It’ll probably help keep the random creepers at bay, though.

Don’t – riddle your blog with acronyms. The Man loves abbreviated wordplay. The rest of society, minus seventh grade girls, does not. LOL! And such.

Do – Write about your coworkers. This can prove difficult with the people you don’t like/aren’t good at their jobs, but everyone else will enjoy reading about themselves in digital print. And, if nothing else, it’ll give them another distraction while on the job. It’s government time, after all.

Do – tell it like it is. Every entity of the government and the military has figured out by now that social media offers a brave new platform for broadcasting the party line. So what can you offer the interwebz that the public relations gurus can’t? The answer to that is simple: authenticity. Avoid posting while angry or drunk (or both), and treading that line between keeping it real and not being fired won’t be as difficult as it seems.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Same Song, New Dance?

Well, my old units 2-14 Cav, 1-27 Infantry, and the rest of the 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division are back in the Suck, deployed to the Iraqistan. About half of the former Gravediggers and Gunslingers are still with these units, so, some 16 months after we redeployed, they're back at it. Unreal. For some, it's their second or third tour. For guys like Staff Sergeant Boondock, it's their fourth. (And I'm talking full-length Army tours here, not the minimized Marine or Air Force tours that should only get half-credit). Just remember ... men like that have given up their youth so we can be fat and vapid and all that jazz.

Here's hoping this deployment, and the new set of challenges it brings, proves to be both a successful and a final one for my boys. Cheers! I'll have a beer for you all, and drink down a Rip-It for me.

On a completely unrelated note, I'll be speaking tonight at WORD Bookstore, in Brooklyn. Joe Dougherty and Philippe Dume - Sergeant Prime and Specialist Haitian Sensation, respectively - will be joining the Q and A session. The shindig starts at 7:30PM, and we hope to see some of you there!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Transworld's Kaboom cover

Next spring, the UK company Transworld will be publishing Kaboom. I'm stoked, obviously, and am looking forward to working with them as we prepare to share the book with our friends across the pond.

With Transworld's blessing, here's an early version of the cover we plan to use. I like it a lot. I liked Da Capo's cover a lot as well, but for different reasons; Da Capo's version captured the Suck and team elements of the Iraq experience. Jules Crittenden of The Boston Herald agrees, though he apparently doesn't like the book all that much now that he's cracked it, so don't send too much traffic his way. (He hasn't even gotten to the part where I vote for President Obama from Iraq. Judging by the tone of some of his political posts, The Herald may be short one editor after he reads that section).

Anyways, I believe the Transworld cover will prove equally well received. There's a distinct iconic flavor here that I hope the British people respond to, not to mention that fantastic EW quote that'll be sure to grace any and all Kaboom editions.

What does the vaunted and illustrious Interwebz think?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Ground View of the Lebrocalypse

Apologies for being incommunicado this past week. I was in Cleveland, where City Girl and I spent a wonderful week with family. I even managed to squeeze in a book event at Mac's Backs and a radio interview with Cleveland's NPR affiliate, 90.3 WCPN. But, perhaps most memorably (unfortunately), we were there for "The Decision" - Lebron James now infamous television special where he announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.

I don't think I've ever watched a train wreck so large, and I hope to never do so again. A lot has been written about James and his handlers in the past few days, and I agree with most of it - specifically any article that includes the words "robotic," "narcissistic," and "buffoonery." Nonetheless, James will go on to win some titles in Miami (albeit as a Beta deferring to Dwayne Wade), because God knows what is fair and just never applies to professional sports. Meanwhile, the Cleveland fan base has suffered yet another brutal disappointment. The local boy Lebron brought a lot of hype and excitement to Cleveland, but never really came close to a championship. (Sorry LBJ apologists, getting swept by Demon Deacon Tim Duncan and the Spurs in 2007 does not qualify as close).

Watching "The Decision" in Cleveland reminded me of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when the bad guy rips out a still-beating heart from a dude's chest - there's that brief moment of "hey! That's my heart!" before the consequence of such an action sunk in. From my vantage point, that's kind of what happened in Cleveland. People couldn't believe one of their own had just done that to them on national television, and there was a bit of momentary shock. Yeah, there were some burned jerseys and some battered effigies, but for the most part, people didn't really react. They stared glumly at one another for a minute or two, and then the bartenders all changed the television to the baseball game. Someone turned on the jukebox and people returned to their beers.

We drove by the giant Lebron James poster later that night, which is located right across from the Q, the Cavs' arena. A few patrol cars were parked in front of it, and the cops looked both bored and anxious. But I knew nothing serious would happen. Cleveland sports fans - of which I include myself, as a diehard Browns and Indians fan - don't really do angry anymore. It's more of a crippling depression, which doesn't lend itself well to the riot mentality the national media seemed to be salivating for . My cousin Danny summarized this approach best in the aftermath of Lebron's announcement. "Go Browns!" he shouted, earning some positive responses and echoes from tables across the establishment. And yeah, we know the Browns will suck next year. But at least they'll still be in Cleveland.

A few caveats:

1) I disagree with my more intellectually-inclined friends who smugly point out that Lebron doesn't matter nearly as much as General Mattis taking over CENTCOM. Yeah, no shit, fellas. Don't break anything going out on that limb. But Lebron was more than a basketball player - we're talking upwards of $250 million a year for a local economy that has been bleeding away since the 1950's. It matters in ways that transcend a child's game played by giant people.

2) Not to get too cerebral here, but Lebron's decision to hang out in South Beach with some buddies, and rely on the older Wade to carry the leadership burden, does kind of symbolize Generation Y's overall sucktitude. Two rings in Cleveland would mean far more in terms of legacy than five in Miami, but it would've been a far more difficult road. Why go out and look for a job that's beneath us when Mom's basement is still so enticing? (Does that make any sense, or did I Stretch Armstrong that? Nevermind, don't answer that.)

3) Michael Jordan is cackling in a poker castle somewhere. His status as the GOAT (greatest of all time) has never seemed or felt so secure.

4) I can't believe I may have to root for the Hipster Anti-Christ next year. Just shoot me now.

5) Hope persists, thanks to the Durantula!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Coney Island Madness

I hope everyone enjoyed a relaxing and memorable Independence Day. City Girl and I trekked down to Coney Island for the day, in hopes of getting sunburns and riding the Cyclone roller coaster. (Both missions were accomplished). Then, while surrounded by 75,000 of humanity's finest specimens (a veteran's dream, I assure you) I watched Joey Chestnut defend his hot dog eating title by scarfing down 54 dogs in 10 minutes.

If that sounds vile, it's really nothing. Chestnut won the title last year with 68.

Anyways, the real news occurred immediately following Chestnut's victory. Kobayashi, Chestnut's main Major League Eating rival who sat out this year's event due to a contract dispute (don't ask), stormed the stage. City Girl swears she saw him throw a backpack or something, but no news outlet has yet confirmed such. Two NYPD officers quickly grabbed the little man and carried him away, allowing Chestnut to celebrate freely with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Our verbal exchange of the event follows, as witnessed from about 30 feet away, in direct vision of the center stage:

City Girl: "Some guy is getting arrested!"
Me: "Sure is."
City Girl: "Is that ... Kobayashi?"
Me: "Don't be racist. Just because he's small and Asian and crashing the hot dog eating competition means he has to be Kobayashi."
City Girl: "Think about what you just said."
Me: "Good point."

Probably not the most distinguished Fourth of July ever, but it might crack my top 5. Maybe. Meanwhile, Kobayashi, perhaps realizing he had blown a great shot at reclaiming his title, has been charged with resisting arrest, trespassing, and obstructing a governmental administration. When reached for comment in prison, he said simply "I wish there were hot dogs in jail."

In related news, some day, when historians are debating the exact moment America entered a post-empire decline, the rise of Major League Eating is as good a reference as any.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Code of the Donkey

Unlike my mother, who has exchanged letters with Tom Wolfe regarding the depth of female characters in his books, I've never been a huge fan of his work. But he totally makes up for all that, even the daddy apologist exercise that was I Am Charlotte Simmons, with this passage from The Bonfire of the Vanities:

Irish machismo - that was the dour madness that gripped them all. They called themselves Harps and Donkeys, the Irish did. Donkeys! They used the word themselves, in pride but also as an admission. They understood the word. Irish bravery was not the bravery of the lion but the bravery of the donkey ... That was what was scary about even the smallest and most insignificant of the breed. Once they took a position, they were ready to fight. To deal with them you had to be willing to fight also, and not that many people on this poor globe were willing to fight. The other side of it was loyalty ... Loyalty was loyalty, and Irish loyalty was a monolith, indivisible. The code of the Donkey! And every Jew, every Italian, every black, every Puerto Rican, internalized that code and became a stone Donkey himself. The Irish liked to entertain one another with Irish war stories, so that when Donkey Fitzgibbon and Donkey Goldberg listened to Donkey Martin, all they lacked was booze so they could complete the picture by getting drunk and sentimental or drunk and in a brutal rage. No, thought Kramer, they don't need alcohol. They're high on what tough, undeluded motherfuckers they are.

My people! Well said, Mr. Wolfe. But even beyond my ethnic biases, I really enjoyed The Bonfire of the Vanities. Definitely a magnum opus if I've ever read one, and by explaining 80s New York, I feel like I better understand modern New York as a result.