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Making Sense of My Time at War

Vonnegut had Dresden, and I had Fallujah

A soldier reading a novel in Vietnam, 1971. Photo: Christopher Jensen/Getty Images

People tell me I remind them of Kurt Vonnegut all the time. I have no idea why. Maybe I enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five so much I absorbed some Vonnegut-isms into my daily life. You can catch me muttering, “So it goes” regularly, usually under my breath so only the ones truly paying attention will pick it up. But it had to be more than that.

Vonnegut was a Hoosier (like me!) and was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana (not like me, but that’s okay!). I moved from Illinois to Indiana as a nine-year-old. When an adult asked me if I was “ready to become a ‘Hoosier,’” I asked what that meant. Turns out, they didn’t know either—other than that it was what people from Indiana are called.

Vonnegut, too, poked fun at the silly notion that we Indianans are somehow connected because of a nominal term no one can convincingly define. When I discovered Vonnegut coined the term “granfalloon” (or “false karass”) to describe when people take on a shared identity through a meaningless connection or association, I felt relief. I finally had a word for the feeling of empty affiliation I had as a child moving to the “Hoosier State.” That being said, I do look fondly on my Midwestern roots and I believe Vonnegut would do the same.

Confetti #19 from the Vonnegut Museum. The Granfalloon of Hoosierdom. Photo courtesy of Indiana University

Vonnegut also went to war (like me), although his experience was incredibly different from mine (womp). Vonnegut was against American intervention in World War II, but when he got the boot from college, he faced the military draft. Instead of waiting, counting the clock ticks and coin flips until his name was called, he enlisted on his own.

Vonnegut and his unit were captured as POWs and sent to a prison camp in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945, Allied forces firebombed the city to smithereens, resulting in 25,000 casualties. Vonnegut survived by hiding in a slaughterhouse icebox tucked away in the prison camp, which became part of the inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five.

In light of his pacifism, Vonnegut has cynically suggested that war is inevitable—so if you’re going to fight a war, at least fight a just one. I don’t think Vonnegut would’ve considered my war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, a just war. I suspect he thought both Presidents Bush were fools, exacting power on an easy target because “there were already all these games going on when I got here.” My best guess is he would’ve applied the same opinion to Afghanistan.

Maybe that was worth fighting for? I don’t know. So it goes.

In retrospect, when I went to war, I believed it was a just war. There wasn’t a whole lot of clarity around many topics that seemed pretty significant: the attacks on 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, international corruption and aggression by the Iraq regime. At 20 years old, I could certainly get behind addressing those issues, even if they hadn’t fully been explored or explained to me. America was pretty hungry to act and I had already made the choice to join. I never really had the sense Iraq was as much a threat to America as it was to its neighbors. Maybe that was worth fighting for? I don’t know. So it goes.

My military service consisted of mostly training. Almost three years worth. In 2006, I went to Fallujah, where I lived on a pretty nice camp that had hot showers and a convenience store with snacks and pop. Occasionally, I would “go out on missions,” which largely consisted of more boredom. And hunger. And sweat.

Sometimes we would drive at night. I was supposed to be listening to the tactical radio, so I didn’t get my own set of night vision goggles. I stared at the back seat of a dark Humvee or out the black window into The Nothing. One time, driving through downtown Fallujah in the middle of the day, we were shot at. I didn’t even know because I was wearing headphones, but the convoy commander was a young, motivated captain, so he turned around and made everyone but me search the nearby buildings. I stayed in the car and yelled instructions to passing Iraqis in my own crappy version of their dialect.

In my war, there were no trenches, there were no POWs, there were no close-quarters bayonet fights, there were no Dresden-like firestorms that consumed the city. Hell, there wasn’t even a uniformed enemy for us to fight. In my war, our enemy was simply chance—the odds of becoming a casualty of a roadside bomb.

The quick, hot flash of the Dresden firebombing had been traded in for the long, slow burn of 130-degree heat in Fallujah. In both situations, it was still left to a clock tick and a coin flip as to whether or not you made it out alive.

My wife (at the time; she’s now my ex) and I served in the military together. The Marine Corps ordered us to opposite coasts. She was in California. I was in North Carolina. To be together, we had to go to war in Iraq early. Both of us. For twice as long as everyone else in our units. In the name of love and family, we obliged.

In the boredom and heat of war, when we weren’t working, we were at the gym with everyone else. My ex was an avid runner, but the joy of being collocated could only push me to run with her for so long before I quit to lift heavy things and eat ice cream (yes, we had Baskin-Robbins on camp). She soon found another running partner, a firecracker, redheaded lady captain working in public affairs. Camp Fallujah had a gloriously long perimeter, roughly seven miles or so, and they cultivated a strong friendship on daily runs.

She had nicknames for us: Agile (my ex’s initials were AGL) and Buckles (my initials are BCL). We had a nickname for her too: M4, like the compact version of the M16 Marines carried in urban environments since nobody fixed bayonets anymore. The handle kinda fit when she was a captain, but it definitely fit when she was promoted to Major Megan Malia McClung. The three of us made plans for all the fun stuff we were going to do when we got back. Crossfit, hiking, eating, drinking.

I would see the two of them running around the base as I was leaving the gym. “Buuuucklesssss!” M4 would yell and wave her arms. I’d do a weird, uncoordinated hop-skip in reply as they trotted far out of earshot.

Like all good things, M4’s time in Fallujah came to an end and she took off to Ramadi and other bases. She would hop helicopter rides back to Fallujah and surprise us, demanding my ex go for a run. She even threw her rank of major around to get my ex, a lowly corporal, out of work.

We had two mortal enemies in Iraq: the clock tick and the coin flip.

I was at the gym when my ex delivered the news that M4 had died in an IED blast while escorting Oliver North’s crew and some Newsweek folks around Ramadi so they could get good pictures of coalition progress. My stomach sank as I thought back to our two mortal enemies in Iraq: the clock tick and the coin flip. I went back to work after stopping to grab an ice cream.

Some of M4’s colleagues, who were a rather cutthroat bunch of public affairs officers who often criticized M4’s disregard for protocol in the name of getting stuff done, managed to seize all the opportunities to share kind words about her now that she was gone. Usually in front of a camera and always in front of their superiors. My ex was the only one at her wartime memorial service who wasn’t a co-worker, but a friend. Nobody took a quote from her for the newspaper. So it goes.

When we got back to the U.S., we met M4’s parents at a few memorial events. Her mother gifted M4’s triathlon bike to my ex, which remained the only evidence of their friendship, outside of good memories. A handful of scholarships, awards, and significant buildings were named after Major McClung, the highest ranking female officer and only female Naval Academy graduate to die by clock tick and coin flip in Iraq. Now she’s posted up in Arlington cemetery, resting under a headstone stamped with her famous maxim, advice she coined during her media interview coaching sessions with senior officers: Be brief. Be bold. Be gone.

Of course my ex and I weren’t the only two affected by M4’s death. There were rumors floating around base that a prominent local leader in Fallujah, Sheikh Sattar, had vowed to find the sons of bitches who killed a woman-patriot like M4. He was a favorite of the U.S. general in Fallujah, in charge of security, governance, and economics. The general expressed gratitude at the strength and leadership of Sattar, which emboldened the Iraqi. I had heard he rounded up the group of thugs responsible for the bombing and executed them in the streets. The city of Fallujah rejoiced. They finally had a strong leader who could unite them.

This unified group became the Sons of Fallujah—a militia that sought to end the sectarian violence in the city, led by Sattar, who was a crusader, fighting violence with violence, who had popularity on his side. This militia grew into Sons of Anbar, but I guess the fancy name is Anbar Salvation Council. That’s probably what the top brass called the group from their perch in Baghdad.

In Baghdad, I got chewed out by a colonel for not saluting, a custom and courtesy Marines ignore when they are trying to do war. “Hey there, young man. You owe field grade officers a salute when you’re in Baghdad. This isn’t Al Anbar.” Al Anbar is what people called RC-West when they’ve only seen it from the bird’s-eye view of a paper map.

The Anbar Salvation Council gained momentum, but crusading caught up with Sattar and he was executed by Al Qaeda in Iraq. So it goes.

Taking out Sattar wasn’t enough to stop the momentum and Sons of Anbar grew into Sons of Iraq. These militiamen got all sorts of positive media coverage, training from the coalition, and support from the Iraqi government. In mid-2007, we transitioned control of Fallujah from the coalition to the Iraqis, largely because of the security provided by the local militias, and my unit went home. Mission accomplished.

It wasn’t until 10 years later, long after my decompression and readjustment to a peacetime environment, that I found myself struck by news that hit me like a command-initiated, pressure plate IED. Those are the sneaky ones that make you feel safe by letting you drive over them four or five times before they blow up.

It seemed as though the Islamic State was taking back cities we had fought to control in 2006, cities like Ramadi, Mosul, Al Asad, and Fallujah. The Iraqi government was losing ground. The news rekindled an involuntary response I had long thought disappeared: the desire to reach out to old war buddies and talk about our experience in Iraq.

It reminded me of the opening chapter in Slaughterhouse-Five, when Vonnegut searched back through his experiences at war to find a story worth writing about, even enlisting the help of an old war buddy—only to continually come up short of the story he wanted to tell.

“Did you see the news?”

“Remember when you were in Ramadi and I was in Fallujah?”

“What is the point if ISIS just gets to take it back and the government won’t put up a fight?”

All those clock ticks and coin flips for nothing, and not everyone involved shared my affair with Lady Luck. I felt guilty.

I called an old Marine friend who was also in Fallujah from 2006 to 2007. We never met at war, but discovered we shared overlapping clock ticks in country through mutual friends. He had managed a network of Iraqi informants, bribing them for information on key city leaders and the location of hidden weapon caches. We met for a beer and immediately dove into current events. ISIS this, Iraqis that.

“Why did we even leave?”

“Why were we even there to begin with?”

“Was it all in vain?”

When we were a couple beers in, my friend leaned in and whispered: “Wanna know what’s messed up? All these ISIS guys are whatever is left of Sons of Iraq. They turned on the government because they felt marginalized. We trained those guys.”

Internally acknowledging I’ve heard this tune before, maybe Afghanistan, I replied, “You mean the group that came out of the snowball effect from Sons of Fallujah and Sons of Anbar? Sattar’s posse?”

My dear friend let out a belly laugh so strong it lifted me out of my current slump for just a moment, then slammed me back down. Sattar, he informed me, caused my friend massive headaches in Iraq because the tribal leader kept executing my friend’s best informants to gain favor with American generals. Innocent people. Family men. He killed so many, he was assassinated by his own people because he was out of control.

Sattar, he said, cozied up to the Americans and did whatever he could to gain power in a time of instability. That’s the rumor at least.

I thought Sattar was the savior of the lands west of Baghdad all the way to the Syrian border. He avenged M4. United the tribes. Or was he just playing the U.S.? Did he put on a show to consolidate power?

Who knows what’s true? Maybe some of it. Maybe none of it. But, in that moment, I felt like the reality I had lived for the last 10 years was busted into tiny little pieces. I couldn’t be confident in basic facts from my past I accepted as truth.

The world has a twisted sense of humor and people are really good at inventing games that just don’t really matter.

I was momentarily unstuck in time. I think Vonnegut would appreciate that.

The fact of the matter is truth, in our minds, is malleable. People, as social creatures, fly through time in odd circles, coming in and out of each other’s orbits and disrupting remote, ethereal forces that impact us from afar. It’s all a matter of clock ticks and coin flips.

I’d like to hope Vonnegut and I could be bros. If he were alive today, I think he would think my war was absurd, but he wouldn’t discount my service. We would both agree that the world has a twisted sense of humor and people are really good at inventing games that just don’t really matter.

I would ask him what’s the point.

He would say there isn’t one.

And so it goes…

Director of Data & AI @ GSA | Former IBMer, US Marine, data hunter, cage fighter, and enthusiast of economics. Sharing my veteran voice and experience in tech.

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