Saturday, April 27, 2019

1,000 Books: Don Quixote in Iraq

Don Quixote. In particular, this Modern Library edition, standing vigil today over my old battle-dress uniform. Oh, the memories of this book! Not necessarily the contents (though they are all well and good), but the experience of reading Don Quixote. Even now, nearly 15 years later, I can recall the stone-heavy feel of that sand-colored book in my hand. I remember the way it led my mind through the forest to the edge of an open meadow and said, “Run free!”

Like the day Reagan was shot and the morning the space shuttle exploded, I remember where I was when I met Don Quixote for the first time: in Iraq with the rattle-pop of gunfire less than two miles away.

It was the first of the major works of classic literature I set out to read during my year-long deployment to Iraq as an active-duty soldier in 2005. After my 14-hour work days in the public affairs office of Task Force Baghdad headquarters, I had nothing else to do but eat, sleep and read. This would be my “Desert Island Year” for books. I had brought an additional foot locker with me to Iraq, over and above my unit’s packing list. It was boulder-heavy with nothing but books. In one sense, I had loaded the canon.

All my life, Don Quixote had been one of those dauntingly-massive books I knew I should read, but never had—along with Ulysses, Proust and the Bible in toto. Frankly, in 2005, I found the expanse of desert and the expanse of time were the perfect marriage of conditions in which to crack open Cervantes. I revved into high gear and plowed (happily, happily) through the endless field of words. I made it to the windmills; I never made it to Bloomsday.

This morning, I recall my time spent with Cervantes in Baghdad as I continue my journey through James Mustich’s landmark volume of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Today’s featured book is, of course, the 1605 and 1615 novel by Cervantes (it was published in two parts) and it deservedly receives a full three-page treatment in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. I highly recommend what Mr. Mustich has to say about Cervantes (as well as Shakespeare and Montaigne) in this essay: “Cervantes made fiction itself a tool of inquiry, letting stories intersect, interrupt, and reimagine each other in the lives of his characters—much as they do, really, in the course of our lives. He uncovered a new world for human endeavor as surely as the seagoing stalwarts of his time explored new continents.”

Reading James Mustich on reading Don Quixote immediately sent me down Sentimental Street (which intersects Memory Lane at Epiphany Square), and this ultimately led me back to the raw pages of my wartime journal. A couple of times, my reading of Don Quixote pivoted into some interesting real-life scenes, so I thought I would share those with you. This first entry begins with Don Quixote and ends with a full-scale enemy attack on our Forward Operating Base. Along the way, a pope dies....

Not Cervantes. Dickens, I think.
But this is a nice view of my reading room (which was also my living room, dining room & bedroom)
April 2, 2005: We are stretched thin over here. So, every now and then, even as a senior non-commissioned officer, I have to do some extracurricular work (known as “pulling a detail”), since I’m so strapped for soldiers. Today, I’m sitting in the Internet Cafe, monitoring the computer users—making sure people are able to get on to the sites they need to and that if there’s a great demand for seats that people move along after they’ve been online for their allotted 30 minutes. There are 18 stations in the place but only 14 of them work. Every two hours, all the computers lock up and I must tell everyone to save what they’re working on, then go push a blue switch on the surge protector and re-set the server. No, not tough duty at all. It’s actually a nice break to be able to sit in here and surf the internet and read my book. Today, I’m starting Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It’s a huge undertaking and this deployment might be the only time I’ll actually be able to find time to read it. The first part of DQ, though, is boring. I scrape the edge of the remaining 900 pages with my fingernail, trying to loosen the dirt underneath. I tilt back in my metal folding chair and prop the book on my knee. I want everyone in the room to see what I’m reading. Yeah, proud to be a bookworm.

I was talking to a guy here today who was going on and on about how we were stuck here for 18 months, but he didn’t see the sense of it. “The Iraqi Army’s got, what, 14 battalions and an entire brigade! That’s more than we’ve got.”

“True,” I said, “but I think it’s the quality not the quantity that everyone’s concerned about.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Once we leave here, what’s going to happen? They’re gonna try our little democracy experiment for a while and when that doesn’t work, they’ll go back to the way they always did business for the last 30,000 years. Eventually, it’s going to dissolve into a civil war and some dictator guy will rise to power and they’ll be right back where they started from.”

In the afternoon, three Iraqis come in to work on the computers. Two of the men are bandaged—one guy has both arms in slings (he must do everything with his elbows or grunt at his co-workers to push buttons), the other one has a bandage wrapped around his head like a turban. There is a nasty-looking peninsula of blood on his forehead descending from beneath the wrap. He keeps dabbing at it with a handkerchief.

The Iraqis hang around for three hours, loading software, reconfiguring the “down” computers and generally doing lots of unplugging and re-plugging of power cords in an effort to get everything working. Fifteen minutes after they leave, everyone starts rapidly clicking on their mice and banging on their keyboards and groaning at the fact that everything’s locked up again. So, I fix it with another push of the blue button.

The Pope dies this evening. Around that same time, 60 insurgents assault Abu Ghraib prison from several different directions, simultaneously ramming suicide car bombs at the front and rear gates, and firing rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s at the U.S. soldiers and Marines guarding the place.

The Internet Café shudders twice from the car bombs and it’s not until later that we realize it wasn’t a controlled detonation by one of our EOD teams. This is the real deal—a raging battle taking place right outside our gates (Abu Ghraib borders Camp Liberty). This was the Holy Shit! moment of my deployment.

A short while later, a soldier bursts into the trailer and tells everyone that the new uniform is flak vest and Kevlar helmet from now until 7 a.m. due to the heightened security. Later, after I close up the Internet Café and return to my trailer, I venture out for a shower. I feel silly wearing my tennis shoes, PT shirt and shorts and a flak vest and Kevlar, but at the same time I’m grateful this isn’t something we have to wear every day, like I’d been dreading before I arrived.

The next morning, the Pope is still dead and at Abu Ghraib the enemy insurgents have limped home, thoroughly defeated by the U.S. forces. We don’t know how many we killed, but we only sustained about 20 wounded, and only two or three of those were serious injuries. Still, it gives me pause to think about how well-coordinated the attack was. We can’t underestimate the enemy.

This is what Reuter’s reported the next day: Al Qaeda’s wing in Iraq said on Sunday seven suicide bombers spearheaded its brazen overnight raid on Abu Ghraib prison that wounded 44 U.S. soldiers. In a statement on Saturday’s raid on the notorious facility outside Baghdad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group said its fighters killed “dozens of Americans,” destroyed more than 15 vehicles and shot down an Apache helicopter, It said 57 fighters attacked watchtowers from four sides and “silenced them” as seven suicide bombers detonated vehicles laden with explosives around the facility, “Three martyrs were ... (killed) while infiltrating the infidels’ fortresses, and seven other martyrdom seekers went to heaven after they blew up the enemy...” said the statement posted on a Web site used by Islamists.

This, of course, was all bullshit.

They have doused most of the lights around camp now—for security reasons, I suppose—so it’s blind-black walking around the gravel and between the trailers. The moon is nothing but a toenail clipping. Tonight, walking back to my room in my PTs and flak vest, I heard a couple of unseen soldiers talking to each other while sitting at a picnic table in the dark.

One said: “You don’t think they’d ever try to attack this place, do you?”

Silence from the other guy.

“Well, do you?”

After a long pause, his companion answered, “Hard to say.”

June 6, 2005: Last night, while sitting on the edge of my bed reading Don Quixote, I suddenly felt the urge to start clearing my throat. Then I noticed it was getting harder to breathe, as if the air was thickening. I got up, opened my door, and was met with a wall of brown—pure brown air. It was a dust blizzard. I couldn’t even see the other trailers fifteen feet away from mine. At some point while I was deep in Cervantes, the wind had kicked up, stirring all the talcum-powder dirt around here. Now it was filtering through the vents in my air conditioning and laying a fine, powdery grit over everything in my room, starting with my nose and throat. I turned off my air conditioner and tried to go to sleep. But I woke up two hours later, burning up with the stifling heat of the heavy night air. I turned on the air conditioner, figuring I’d take my chances with the dust storm. In the morning, my throat was raspy and there was mucus flaking in the hollows of my eyes.

I hope this doesn’t last. It’s putting a damper on everything here on the Forward Operating Base. Everyone is going around clearing their throats and rubbing their eyes. Like we’re all grief-stricken and trying to hide it.

June 16, 2005: Yesterday, I turned the final, 1000th page of Don Quixote. What a journey it was, what a wonderful odyssey. Truth be told, the book only came along with me on this deployment because it got swept into the duffel bag along with a load of other classics. At the time, it was pretty far down on my list of priorities. But six weeks ago, as it sat there on my shelf, thick as a tree stump, something moved me to pick it up and crack it open. I was hooked from the start (....okay, after I got over the initial speed bump of the preface and royal certifications and printer’s edicts—the boring stuff). I don’t have the energy or the time here in this scribbled journal to delve into everything I loved about this book (I will say this: the sidekick Sancho Panza turns out to be infinitely more interesting than DQ). Suffice to say, it’s a buoyant narrative that also parodies writing and publishing. It’s must-reading for anyone serious about pursuing this lovely and damned profession of writing (and reading).

So, after DQ, I’m left somewhat bereft. What next? Knowing that nothing could begin to approach the thousand-page journey, I decided to pick up something new and light: the 128-page Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara. Very disappointing. If Don Quixote was a feast of prime rib and lobster, then this little book was a bag of Skittles. If you’re in the mood for a poorly-written and ultimately meaningless novel about sex, booze and body piercing in contemporary Japan, then by all means grab this little Zirconium diamond. Otherwise, re-read Don Quixote.

Now, it’s time to turn my attention back to Charles Dickens. American Notes is next.

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You can read more about my wartime reading habits HERE

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