On a recent flight from San Diego to Newark I sat next to a Marine around my age who had done one tour in Iraq towards the start of the war, and now was about to start a second one. Even though over a million U.S. troops have been to Iraq or Afghanistan in the last five years, this is the first time I've talked to one.
And he wasn't happy about the idea of going back. I didn't feel like grilling him, but he talked only about how things had gotten more unpredictable and dangerous since the start of the war: "You never know who's going to want to kill you. Someone might come to a checkpoint five times and be all friendly each time, but then the next time will try to blow you up."
In particular, I didn't feel like asking him about the overall futility of the U.S. presence there, but elsewhere in the Middle East he was sharply critical. We were talking about evacuations of foreign nationals from Lebanon and he talked with disgust about how the U.S. military later billed the people it rescued for the costs of the helicopter flights. This bothered him not because of the principles of action-movie heroism, but for reasons I'd associate more with Chomsky: "Really the [U.S.] government should be responsible for the costs [of the rescues] since they're the ones who created the situation by arming Israel, and giving the green light without which this invasion wouldn't have happened." I mentioned our recent expedited delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel and he responded with something like "well, duh."
What made the conversation sad was how he already seemed to want to block out the upcoming Iraq episode from his life. He talked about how he had liked living in California, and said many times that Iraq was "not going to be fun." When I responded to his talk about unpredictability by saying "yeah, I read recently that now Sunnis are the ones who are more supportive of the U.S. presence since they're afraid of getting dominated by the Shi'a. It's pretty crazy how quickly the situation shifts over there," (Billmon discusses this topic with more bite.) he only said "I haven't been briefed about that yet. They'll do that soon, I guess. [He was headed to Indianapolis for two weeks before shipping out.] All I know is that you can never tell who's on your side."
I liked this guy. We had a (to me) hilarious exchange about California. He was from North Carolina, but said CA was surprisingly nice and that "all those things they said about it were totally not true."
me: Um, yeah, I like CA too. But what things do people say about it?I might be extrapolating here, but I liked how he was open-minded enough to question the (anti-CA and pro-war) prejudices he had been raised with. I hope that in Iraq he doesn't get killed or end up killing anyone else.
him: You know, about the people there.
me: Wondering how to translate 'effete' into non-ironic. You mean that they're elitist or something?
him: vague words to the effect of Well, that they're not good people then exact words that I'm not going to forget that they're practically like foreigners over there. But actually I found almost everyone to be really nice and I'm gonna miss living there.
me: Sorely tempted to remark that while I had earlier said I liked living in England, it is true that they're not just "practically like" foreigners over there. Instead I told my favorite California chill story, which I include here for completeness. I was riding a bus in SF when the driver got out, went into a fast-food store, came out with a drink, saw someone he knew, gave them a hug and chatted briefly before getting back in the bus. And the people riding the bus didn't lynch him on the spot!