Last night, I watched the much-awaited documentary Hubris, narrated by Rachel Maddow, which laid out for us all how the Iraq war was sold to the American public. I had to watch this show, not to help me make more sense of a war that has deeply and probably permanently affected/afflicted me, but to fill in some of the blanks, and there are many, because I was very disinterested in politics at the time I was deployed. I was just a happy Reservist, enjoying my Microsoft career and my weekend drills (along with the special interpreter missions that occasionally sent me to France, ooh la la!).
After 9/11, everybody knew we’d be going to war. I was just as surprised as my Microsoft teammates and managers when I showed up for my next shift — we all kinda suspected that anybody in the military would be immediately ordered to duty or something. But that’s not how it happened — I know now that Bush and company needed time to prepare their
lies case for invading. And I just wasn’t paying attention to all that. I knew I’d be proud to serve my country in that way if called upon, but all that politics stuff was boringgg, and I trusted that those in positions of power were doing the right thing, protected by all the checks and balances our wonderful system of government puts in place. I didn’t even own a TV set, only listened to contemporary French music, not radio, got all my news via the Internet, but glossed over anything pertaining to Congress, the President, all those people up there doing Very Important Work.
Predictably, after watching this show, I had a nightmare during the night, which I’m still having a hard time shaking off this morning. In my dream, I had just had a baby. I knew that, but in the dream I could not recall ever seeing the child, nor did I have any desire to, because I was stuck in a house that was fast filling up with friends and relatives that I loathed more and more with every second that passed. I knew it was unusual, probably even wrong, for me to have such a complete disinterest in my baby, and at one point I wistfully thought that maybe, someday, I would actually meet my child and develop some sort of relationship with her, but for now, any such desire was buried under the sheer, primal difficulty of getting through each moment in this hellhole.
Three terms come to mind in describing the house: huge, poorly planned, and dysfunctional. Parts of it looked more like a hobbyist’s garage rather than a living space. There were three bathrooms, and the one that was “mine” was walled on two sides by giant windows looking out into the backyard. Normally this wouldn’t have posed a problem, but with all these people swarming the place, there was no way to use it in peace. I remember waking up in my dream, needing to use the bathroom, realizing my dilemma, and going in search of a little more privacy. It was hard to even get around in the place, it was so crowded, and of course everyone had to stop me and congratulate me on my baby, which only irritated me more.
The next bathroom was out of order for some reason. Before long, the situation was going to get serious. Finally, I said to someone who had collared me with some sort of nonsense that I only wanted one thing at the moment, and he showed me a third bathroom. I don’t know if he lived there or not — I honestly didn’t know who belonged there and who didn’t, only that I vaguely knew myself to live there with some other people whose names I couldn’t even think of.
The third bathroom had a toilet with a very small lid that kept falling into the pot when I tried to prop it open. And for some strange reason, dropping the lid into the pot caused it to start to overflow. A sense of panic overcame me — this was the one toilet I had any hope of using in this damned place, and it was overflowing. I had to find out who it “belonged” to in hopes that person would know what to do.
I looked at the palms of my hands, and they were blackened with some gooey, tarry substance that seemed to cover everything I happened to touch. You couldn’t get away from it, and as disgusting as it was, even that wasn’t my immediate concern. Cleaning my hands would have to wait — I had other, more urgent, priorities. I went back out and found somebody to help me find the person who might be able to fix the toilet problem. And of course, was stymied again by the swarms of guests who approached me with complete inanities and feigned niceties. At the dream’s climax, right before I awoke, I remember fairly screaming at those hapless guests, “Can’t you see my hands are filthy?? Now please, I just need somebody to help me!”
My therapist says it’s normal for “war” dreams not to be easily recognizable as such. Guys in my group sometimes talk about dreams where they relive actual combat events, but mine are always “coded” in a way. The common denominator is the feelings: feeling that there was something important I was supposed to care about, but just couldn’t at the moment; the feeling of being trapped somewhere with people who should have been on my side, but who I would have given anything to make disappear; and above all, the feeling that no matter what I did, I was getting dirty, real dirty.
As a Reservist, I was hand-picked to fill a hole in a unit out of Maryland, a hole created by their own book-cooking during peacetime, which became glaringly apparent when it was picked for deployment. The battalion commander was so determined to get his combat cred, though, that they resorted to “cross-leveling,” which is how I wound up deploying with a unit led by crusty old men who didn’t believe a woman’s place was on the battlefield, and who made it their mission to set me up for failure and humiliation at every opportunity. I won’t go into all the tactics they used, but suffice it to say that I wasn’t the only woman who reported similar treatment. This meant that not only did I have the enemy outside the wire to worry about, but I also had to contend with the enemies in my own tent.
Poorly planned, and dysfunctional — that was my impression of the whole process leading up to actually shipping over to Iraq, much like the house in my dream. It was appalling to see how many essential items we were having to go without and still make do on the battlefield.
It took a while for me to drop my idealistic notion that we were going to, through “shock and awe,” liberate a people from a tyrant and free the world from a dangerous nuclear threat. By the time I left there, I no longer even cared about anything of the sort — all I wanted was to get away from that place and that unit and back to my home, sweet home. The original reason I thought we went over had been long forgotten, like a child I knew I was supposed to care about, but honestly could not.
And then came the family, friends, and acquaintances, thanking me for my “service,” calling me a “hero,” sending me patriotic, tear-jerking videos, etc. Couldn’t they see how dirty my hands were? Why couldn’t I just find the person who knew how to fix my immediate, but fairly embarrassing, problem? All I wanted was relief…
I awoke from my dream in a familiar bad mood: fed up with the world and life itself. I felt like a walking, 5’5″ tall middle finger. It was only with effort that I was able to reassure myself that it really was just a dream, that I am no longer trapped in a living hell — or am I?
I’m not sure hubris is the right word for they did to bring us the Iraq war. It’s almost too noble. Cockiness, yes. Callousness. Greed. Malicious irresponsibility and deceit. I can think of many words for Bush and his crew now, in hindsight. If only it were just a bad dream, and if only we could just wake up from it…