Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Voice Through the SMOG (an excerpt)

Lightening things up (hopefully), here's a small chunk from the novel.  "SMOG" is the Secure Military Operations Grid, a fictional version of the system we actually used in Iraq.  In Fobbit, commanders from places as far-flung as Basra, An Najaf and Mosul link their computers to the central hub at Multi-National Division-Baghdad Headquarters on Forward Operating Base Triumph and, among other things, participate in a twice-daily conference call with the commanding general and his staff.

The morning Battlefield Update Briefing was winding down.  Tremulous baritone voices had had their say, broadcasting from their various remote SMOG locations; the commanding general had had his usual responsive grunts of approval (or was it disapproval?  Sometimes the two types of grunts were indistinguishable); the Chief of Staff had had his requisite chime-ins, reinforcing what the CG had grunted, adding his own strenuous giddy-up-and-go admonitions.  The overall tone of the briefing was one of, “Okay, hold on, keep it together, we’re almost through with this, just pray he doesn’t single me out.”  (“He” being the Old Man himself whose raspy commanding-general voice could reach right through the SMOG speakers and choke even the most hardened artillery officer into incoherent stutters.)  Deep inside the BDU pants of the most nervous staff officers crowded around SMOG stations in the palace, assholes were starting to unpucker—if not quite all the way, then there was certainly a little more sphincter breathability in the wedged-up cotton Hanes; or, in the case of those who went commando, the sandy folds of BDU’ed butts. A couple of pent-up farts were ripped.

The next-to-lowest person on the division totem pole, the Civil Affairs officer, had just finished reporting on yesterday’s successful Beanie Baby mission to al-Khadhimiya: “the indigenous population was so receptive to our cultural handouts that they had to be restrained with a hasty-perimeter we quickly established using Force Protection measures 1 through 3.”

Now it was the chaplain’s turn.  Each day’s BUB was brought to a close with the daily homily—by order of the CG, a semi-religious man himself—and these 90-second sermonettes could sometimes get out of control, stretching to three or four minutes, which the CG allowed without interruption.  The chaplain’s voice over the SMOG loudspeaker would continue to chirp away unabated while all around the division’s Area of Operations—from Baqubah to Mahmudiya—staff officers at remote computer stations shifted their semi-relaxed butt cheeks on their chairs, many of them rolling their eyes or silently mouthing things like “waste-o-time” or “yea, though I walk through the valley of knee-deep shit,” all of them eager to get on with the day’s business.  The CG had issued plenty of marching orders during the BUB and now the staff officers’ minds were racing ahead to PowerPoint briefings, Op Orders, crisis management plans, and—in one specific case—ensuring enough lobster was procured in time for Friday night’s Bounty of the Sea dinner menu at the chow hall.

The chaplain nattered on, unleashed.  His too-kind, too-melodious voice washed out from the SMOG speakers, winding its way hither and yon across Baghdad and the surrounding vicinity, wherever men’s souls were tattered and in need of spiritual mending.  Today, it went something like this: “Do you often lie awake at night worrying about the burden of responsibility you’re carrying around?  We have all felt the weight of grief, the anguish of frustration, the gut-twist of impatience.  Maybe it’s a language barrier between you and the local sheik…perhaps it’s that young sergeant who insists on doing things ‘his way’ and tries to buck the system…or maybe you’re knotted up with problems from back home—the wife who let the car run low on oil and now your beloved ‘75 Mustang has thrown a rod, the son who is ‘acting up’ during kindergarten recess, the high-school daughter who adds a new body piercing every month.  Whatever your burden, please know that we all carry them around with us in our knapsacks.  Talk about your Load-Bearing Equipment, eh?”  The chaplain chuckled and paused, expecting that his unseen listeners would also be having a little chuckle at his joke, forgetting the Army had phased out the LBE while Clinton was still in office.  “But seriously, folks…Too many times, we hold everything inside rather than following the simple rule of ‘Let go, let God.’  I’m sure you’ve all heard that one.  Now, let’s put it into practice. Tonight, instead of trying to count sheep, maybe you should lie there and talk to the Shepherd instead.”

He paused, allowing this to sink in to its full effect.  The division staff scattered across central Iraq listened to the static crackle across SMOG, most of their ass cheeks now squirming with frustration and impatience.

The chaplain clicked his microphone again: “Today’s Scripture reading is taken from 1st Corinthians, Chapter 15.  You may follow along in your pocket-sized King James.”  (Save for a devout supply clerk at FOB Eagle and three die-hard Catholics over in Legal Affairs, none of them carried around the little Bibles handed to them during their Welcome to Iraq in-briefing.)

“'Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.  Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.'”

The chaplain droned on, burrowing like an insect into his listeners’ ears.  Alone in his office on the top floor of the palace, the commanding general clipped his toenails, aiming (not always successfully) for the wastebasket.  Three doors down, the Chief of Staff sifted through reports, sorting them into piles according to brigade.  On the ground floor of the palace, Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad leaned closer to the computer screen of his SMOG workstation, hanging on the chaplain’s every word because, he feared, he might be quizzed later on the sermonette by the CG and he wanted to get all the answers right this time.  Two cubicles away, Major Flip Filipovich napped lightly, depending on the sudden absence of reports from the SMOG loudspeakers to wake him when it was all over.  And, two miles across FOB Triumph, Lieutenant Colonel Strong sat with the rest of his staff in front of the SMOG screen, thinking not about 1st Corinthians, but about his wife and his dog—though not necessarily in that order.

At last, the chaplain reached his crescendo: “'Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?'”

The chaplain left that word, “victory,” hanging in the air like the echo of a trumpet blast.

When the hissing SMOG silence had stretched to an uncomfortable length, the CG clicked on, cleared his throat and said, “Thank you, chaplain.  As always your words of inspiration are…are inspirational.  Now—”

“Sir, if I might—?”

“Yes, chaplain, what is it?”

A thousand butt cheeks groaned in agony.

“Sir, I almost forgot to put in a plug for this Sunday’s service at Lakeside Chapel: 8 a.m., Protestant; noon mass for our Catholic brethren.  I’m calling this week’s sermon ‘Good Grief.’  As you know—” his voice shifted into melody-mode again “—we have all experienced sorrow during our time here in Iraq, but we each handle it in different ways.  How one deals with ‘small grief’ from challenges and disappointments relates to how one handles ‘big grief’ such as the loss of a loved one or a particularly good soldier.  Be sure to come out this Sunday to hear the full prescription for Good Grief.”

Another extended pause, during which could be heard what sounded like the soft snick of a nail clipper.

“Okay, thanks again, chaplain.  Is that all?”

“Yes, sir.  Thanks for allowing me to jump back in with that.”

“Okay.  Well, if there’s nothing else, and no alibis…?”  Several staff officers clasped their hands in supplication, silently willing no one to utter a peep which would prolong the BUB with a bit of forgotten business.  “In that case, go forth and do great things.  Keep your chinstraps tight.  Nothing further.  Luck of the 7th!”

From a hundred SMOG stations came the echo of the division motto, “Luck of the 7th!”  They all clicked off and set about the day’s business.

From his concealment in the PAO cubicle maze, a groggy Major Filipovich lifted his head from the desk, then muttered, “And don’t let death sting you out there, motherfuckers.”

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about writing my own memoir/fiction about my experiences in Iraq and in the Army in general. It's FOBbit-ish too, but from a pretty different angle, I was young and female and junior enlisted. I'm thinking a graphic novel is probably a better reflection of my experiences. Lord knows life in the Army was like something from a Dilbert comic strip for me.

    Anyway, I really liked this little excerpt. Very realistic but funny all at the same time. Thanks for sharing.