Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cervantes saved my life

The Things I Carried in Iraq included Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Agatha Christie, and, yes, a copy of The Things They Carried.

Tucked deep into my duffel bag when I deployed first to Kuwait then north to Baghdad were as many pounds of books as the 3rd Infantry Division-approved packing list would allow.  Months before I set foot on the plane, I started plotting my Year of Reading.  This, I knew, would be one of the few Desert-Island Moments of my life.  These are the times when bibliophiles, oppressed by obligations from work and family, fantasize about empty stretches of hours just waiting to be filled with eyes coursing over lines of text.  War would leave me happily marooned with Don Quixote and Barnaby Rudge.  As much as it tore my heart in half to leave my family, I looked forward to the obligation-free hours I could spend with the books in my footlocker.

As we all know, fantasy seldom shakes hands with reality.

In 2005, I worked long shifts at Task Force Baghdad headquarters, ranging anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week (yes, go ahead, weep for us Fobbits!).  The work was not physically grueling, but over months the constant revolutions of the hamster wheel at work left me pretty exhausted.  Each night, after I trudged home through the ankle-deep gravel of the Forward Operating Base's Life Support Area, I'd prop my M-16 rifle in the corner, untie my boots, and fall back onto my cot.  My brain would spin with reports of soldiers killed in action and photos of decapitated suicide bombers which had come to me from Army photojournalists out in the field, beyond "the wire."  After a few minutes, I'd roll over and reach for the succor of a book.

Two things got me through the war in one piece: the sound of my wife's voice on the phone during my too-infrequent calls home, and the escape route provided by novels.  That year in Iraq was when I became a Serious Reader, and not just a dabbler.  In the combat zone, I started keeping track of books I owned and books I read.  I snatched reading time like other soldiers grabbed naps.  I perfected the art of reading in the bathroom while at work.  In the moments I wasn't juggling death reports and PowerPoint briefings for the commanding general, I was buried nose-deep in a book.

Somehow, word got around to the good folks at Abe Books and they interviewed me for a special series they were doing on wartime reading (if you click on that link, you get a bonus photo of me reading a Penguin Classic in my hooch).  In that interview, I said, in a perhaps-too-giddy, overstuffed voice, that Cervantes saved my life.

At any rate, books really did provide genuine relief and comfort (as they still do).  They were the next best thing to my wife's voice.

This is a complete list of what I read that year--the good, the bad, and the obscure:

Anderson, Edward: Thieves Like Us
Anderson, Sherwood: Winesburg, Ohio
Blanc, Nero: Wrapped Up in Crosswords
Brown, Dan: The DaVinci Code
Cain, James M.: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Chandler, Charlotte: It’s Only a Movie—Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biography
Christie, Agatha: They Came to Baghdad
Collins, Billy: Questions About Angels
Crawford, John: The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell
Crichton, Michael: Timeline
Dickens, Charles: American Notes
Dickens, Charles: Barnaby Rudge
Dickens, Charles: Sketches by Boz
Dickens, Charles: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Fearing, Kenneth: The Big Clock
Gardner, Erle Stanley: The Case of the Deadly Toy
Gresham, William Lindsay: Nightmare Alley
Hamilton, Masha: The Distance Between Us
Heller, Joseph: Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest: A Farewell to Arms
Hudgins, Andrew: The Never-Ending
Irving, John: Until I Find You
James, Henry: The Wings of the Dove
Kanehara, Hitomi: Snakes and Earrings
King, Stephen: Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger
King, Stephen: Dark Tower 2: The Drawing of the Three
King, Stephen: The Colorado Kid
L’Amour, Louis: Hanging Woman Creek
L’Amour, Louis: Heller With a Gun
L’Amour, Louis: Showdown at Yellow Butte
Leonard, Elmore: Escape From Five Shadows
Leonard, Elmore: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
Leonard, Elmore: Valdez is Coming
MacLean, Alistair: Athabasca
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: One Hundred Years of Solitude
McCoy, Horace: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
McGraw, Erin: The Good Life
Mitchell, Stephen: Gilgamesh
Moore, Michael: Will They Ever Trust Us Again?
Niven, Jennifer: The Ice Master
O’Brien, Tim: Going After Cacciato
O’Brien, Tim: If I Die in a Combat Zone
O’Brien, Tim: The Things They Carried
Remarque, Erich, Maria: All Quiet on the Western Front
Snicket, Lemony: Number 12—The Penultimate Peril
Swofford, Anthony: Jarhead
Wallace, Edgar and Merian C. Cooper: King Kong
Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass
Woolrich, Cornell: I Married a Dead Man

Unlike book logs I've maintained in the years since, these are alphabetized, so there's no accurate way to determine when in the course of my tour of duty I read them.  I do know for a fact that Catch-22 was the first novel I read.  On Jan. 2, 2005, I wrote the following in my journal:
From Fort Stewart, we are bused to Hunter Army Airfield.  Twenty minutes later, we’re sitting in the DAGC (Departure Air Control Group) terminal.  We had to weigh ourselves with all our gear on (Kevlar, rucksack, flak vest, pistol belt).  I tipped the scales at 273.5 pounds.  They need our combined weight so that we don’t overload the plane, I guess.  I’ve got $168 in my pocket.  The terminal is a large, cavernous building which looks like an airport terminal—minus the seats.  We’re strung out all around the floor, leaning up against rucksacks, using Kevlars as helmets as we wait to be called to board the aircraft, a Continental Airlines 777.  The USO and Red Cross have set up tables, giving away Krispy Kreme donuts, toiletries, water, soda, paperback books.

Finally, they tell us to gear up and form a line alphabetically.  We go into another room, a holding tank, where we sit on bleachers for another hour.  Then, it’s really time to line up and head out the door for the airplane.  We walk out onto the tarmac and there are two Georgia bubbas waving large American flags and cheering us on.  At the foot of the plane, three officers shake each of our hands.  As we enter the plane, Brigadier General Horst, the Assistant Division Commander-Maneuver, is there to greet us, wearing a silly party hat.  “Happy New Year!” he cries.  Nothing at all happy about it, I think to myself.  Horst will be the senior officer in charge of the Division's advance party as we push the division north into Baghdad for the next couple of months.

Inside, the plane is festooned with red, white and blue balloons, crepe paper and drawings from elementary students wishing us best of luck and to “come home soon after you kill the Iraqis.”

Then we settle in for the 7,054-mile plane ride which will take us about 12 hours of flying time.

On the plane, I continue reading Catch-22. One passage in particular leapt out at me:

It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it—lived forever, perhaps.  Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them.  To die or not to die, that was the question….That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.  But that was war.
Here are some other book-related excerpts from my Iraq journal:
Jan. 8, 2005:   Started reading A Farewell to Arms today, the second of my several “anti-war” novels I’m reading on this deployment.  As always, Hemingway doesn’t disappoint. Here’s one passage I particularly liked:
     “It could not be worse,” Passini said respectfully. “There is nothing worse than war.”
     “Defeat is worse.”
     “I do not believe it,” Passini said, still respectfully. “What is defeat? You go home.”
March 15, 2005:  This is my day off and I’m determined to suck every fiber of enjoyment from it, all the way down to the marrow.  I waste a couple hours at the Internet cafĂ© after breakfast, but then I get down to serious business.  I lay on my bed reading Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir Jarhead.  It’s like boiling my eyeballs in acid. Through his rough, macho language, Swofford invites me through a doorway that leads to hell; and when I hesitate, he kicks me in the ass and shoves me right into the flames.  With the Blackhawks skimming so low over the roof of my trailer, I truly believe one of the skids will pierce the aluminum siding and carry me up into the sky over Baghdad.  With the Iraqi day-workers strolling by outside emptying our garbage cans and jabbering back and forth to each other, I really believe I’m in Swofford’s world of manic Marines.  It’s a frightening, addictive book.
     Not only am I trying to finish the Charles Dickens canon while I’m over here this year, I’m alternating the Inimitable Boz with war literature.  Someone was kind enough to send me Jarhead, but I also brought along The Red Badge of Courage, The Things They Carried, The Killer Angels and a whole shelf of Patrick O’Brian novels.  I guess I’m trying to see how other writers make sense of combat.
August 5, 2005:  I got a care package full of books tonight.   And not just any old books—these were truly old books: 1943 Modern Library volumes of Aristotle, Herodotus and Plato.   Then, the cream of the crop, a Modern Library edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, still in pretty good shape, even though it was more than 60 years old.   Funny thing is, before I deployed, I debated on whether or not I should bring my own copy of Ulysses (which is nearly identical to this one).   I decided against it, with some reluctance, and packed the Don Quixote instead.   Well, now I guess I have my answer:  I should read Joyce while I’m over here and have the time on my hands.   Who knows when I’ll ever get an opportunity like this again?  [Note:  I still haven't read Ulysses.]
Oct. 12, 2005:  I’m currently reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone.  And, no, the irony has not escaped me.


  1. I enjoy seeing other people's reading lists. Not sure why, I guess I feel like I'm getting all voyeuristic into their minds.

    I like the way you mix it up, staying current but looking backwards as well, challenging yourself with hardcore cerebral lit, but still treating yourself to some mind candy.

    It's good to know that pure escapism is always there for you when escape is most needed. And in case I haven't mentioned it, glad you made it back safe and sound and I'm very much looking forward to Fobbit.

  2. My dad got a concussion with Hemingway in the Hurtgen Forest in 1944.