The young veteran of our wars, a former Scout and intelligence-gatherer, is tattooed and Brylcreemed, but then he is from Texas. He’s also begun to publish in foreign policy and military affairs journals, using papers he’s been writing for rhet classes as a returning undergrad. After our first lunch he suggested we take our families on a picnic together. I asked if he had a place in mind and he said a mock Iraqi village where our troops role-play in war games to prepare them for the real thing. The village, he said, is out in the middle of nowhere and has secret rooms and a tunnel that goes from a basement into the trunk of a bombed-out car. American OPFOR soldiers and civilians, hired for their ethnicity and language, inhabit the village, wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb made in China, but there’d be a lull between training cycles soon, the place would be dead, and we should go then. He's still in the Guard and knows the place well.
It’s often pointed out that America runs its current wars with little attention to them at home beyond political flourishes about supporting the troops. A twinge of—what was it?—apprehension gave me pause, the weird coincidence of that other world put down here, of all places, an hour away. Also: I know how impromptu adventures with army buddies often go, which is why I’ve steered clear of them for the last decade while my children were small. And I have two books to write, one that must be finished before the new academic year begins. Still.
My boys and I left the house at three in the afternoon to get to Mike’s (not his real name) house by four, but we had to stop for chips, salsa, and drinks, and I nearly got us lost in the rain. Mike, his wife, their infant twins, and his sister-in-law were already in an SUV when we got there, signaling their belief in the army motto “On Time, On Target.” We’d convoy a short distance to the mock village—he said it was 20 minutes from the house—have some chicken wraps and almond cookies, the kids would run around, and we’d get home before my wife got off work at eight.
It took half an hour through piney woods just to reach Fort Polk. It wasn’t the main gate, and the narrow road was deserted. I’ve never been on a military installation so open and unguarded. Ranges appeared in clearings on both sides, and frequent signs warned of unexploded munitions, but there were no fences or cameras I could see, and I don’t know what would keep civilians from trying to harvest the brass for scrap or any unspent ordinance for other purposes.
I know vets who still enjoy being around the military, but I usually feel the mass of a whole galaxy of discipline, containment, and order. Deep down I’m nervous that if get too close I might be pulled back in, or that I’ll have forgotten some rule and get yelled at—by armed federal troops. (When a friend and I stayed the night, for economy’s sake, on Navy bases during a recent research trip, the base loudspeakers played Colors, and I had no memory of what to do. Stop the car? Get out of the car? Civilian hand on chest? Which way to face?) The twinned neuroses of inclusion and exclusion. But this excursion began to feel different—surreal, ahuman, end-of-the-worldly.
Troops in uniform sprawled lifelessly on bleachers at one passing range—how I remember that boredom and fatigue!—but otherwise there was no one but us as we crisscrossed the military reservation and Kisatchie National Forest for the next hour and a half. Blackened trees from controlled burns pressed in on the road, there was a glimpse of an old graveyard, a crossroads with two ramshackle houses and a mobile home and a sign nailed to a tree—Schoolbus Exit—which made my boys laugh enough to briefly forget their imminent mutiny. I stayed well back, so the SUV wouldn’t kick up a rock and break my windshield, and thought of my minivan’s street tires, muffler, tie rods, struts. Good dog.
Sometime later we rounded the hundredth curve, hopped a rise, sank into the dip, and found that a waterfall was pouring off a hill to the left, the torrent flowing deeply across the road and spreading into the trees at right. I hit the brakes but Mike accelerated and hit the flood with an enormous spray and splash; the tires hydroplaned, his back axle and differential disappeared in the water. I thought surely his truck would stall or even be swept off the concrete apron into the bog downstream, and in a flash I saw his babies strapped into their car seats. But the SUV powered through and then was sitting high and dry on the gravel road on the other side. “Are we going through that?” Starbuck asked. “Through what?” Wolfie wanted to know and looked up from his iPod. I got out and stood watching the water. There were no tow services, cell coverage, or other people for miles.
Backing up took time, and we were losing light. It poured again, briefly, with tropical intensity.
On the blacktop Mike finally noticed his flat tire and pulled over but had no tools, embodying the army motto Volens et potens (Willing and able), but not Semper preparate. I helped lower the spare from under the truck, but my wrench didn't fit his security lugs. I suggested we eat there on the side of the road and go get help, but Mike was intent on the picnic in Iraq. While we discussed it, a pickup stopped. The two guys who got out looked a little rough but couldn’t have been nicer. They said they saw we had little ones, that it’s easy to get a flat out here since there’s spent M-16 cartridges everywhere that’ll puncture a tire in a heartbeat, and that Mike’s spare looked mostly flat too. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere,” the younger of the two said.
I don't mean to be ungrateful, but a chivalrous code can be a veneer for less chivalrous behaviors—not everyone is entitled to protection—and there are codes within codes. Because they offered to help, for instance, we weren’t allowed to use their wrench to do the work; the younger guy insisted on taking the filthy tire off himself and putting on the spare, even if one didn’t care for how he tightened the nuts without using a star pattern to get the torque even. Mike was a little cool to them, and after they left he explained that the nearby hamlet is a well-known sundown town, and that when he trains National Guardsmen here, men and women of color are advised to stay in the van or else not get separated from their comrades. Supporting the troops has its limits.
We’d have to come back for the SUV if we were to complete our picnic mission, and now we had four adults and four kids in my van, and the chicken wraps were getting cold. Mike knelt in the floor and pointed the way: Off the blacktop road, across that set of tracks and that gravel road, onto something that looked like a dirt parking lot, then forward through a hummocked plain that stretched for miles. It serves as a drop zone and is dotted with hull-down firing positions for armored vehicles. The sun was setting on the prairie, and an advance guard of wild turkeys ran down the middle of the dirt track in front of the van. Like the infantryman he is, Mike had his military topo map folded to the area we needed, sealed with green duct tape in a Ziploc, the relevant route marked in red grease pencil on the plastic. “Turn left up here,” he said. “Here?” I asked. “Sure, why not,” he said.
We reached Tofani, the interchangeably Iraqi/Afgani village, about two-and-a-half hours later than planned. It’s a US Army Joint Readiness Training area but was deserted, as Mike said it would be. We drove in under an arched gate, past a Combat Outpost (a drab walled compound for US forces—think the Baghdad Green Zone on a tiny scale), and the village was ahead on a wide gritty street. The buildings are all earthen-colored; inside we saw they’re knocked together with conex containers, 2x4s, and plywood. Sure enough, a back panel in a file cabinet in the “Internet Club” opened to a secret “bad-guy” infirmary. One of the objectives for forces training here is to “turn” the village. Good decisions (offering food, water, and medical supplies; interacting appropriately with the locals) leads to tips on where insurgents are hiding, which leads to the opportunity for combat raids. Poor decisions (miscommunication and disrespect) have bad outcomes, such as mock death. All is watched and judged by OCTs (Observer, Coach, Trainer), who “observe unit performance, control engagements and operations, teach doctrine, coach to improve unit performance, monitor safety and conduct professional after action reviews (AARs).”
The place is creepy as hell, a last outpost of the zombie apocalypse, and we happily had our picnic there under a metal shed roof while it rained, again. Mike’s wife and I were having a nice conversation about how she got her bachelor’s degree online while he was still active duty—now she’s a teacher—when their little boy fell through the picnic table and knocked his head against the bench seat on the way down. We were something like 40 kilometers in the middle of piney woods, prairie, and bayous, but he was okay. My own boys loved the place, begged to keep the blank .223 and .50-caliber rounds they found everywhere on the ground, but many of them weren’t expended, and I didn’t want them bringing them home anyway, as much a cultural issue for me as a safety one. After supper we all strolled up Main Street, pointing out fake laundry hanging on a line, wrecked cars and buses, and blasted bicycles, and doing some window shopping at piles of pots and pans, and filthy abandoned computer monitors. In one of the buildings I found a better copier and file cabinets for the English Department but left them there.
Mike said there was another mock village nearby, the one with the secret tunnel he really wanted my boys to see, so we drove out the far side of Tofani a ways. His babies were screaming from their car seats in the back of my van, his wife trapped between them. I caught a glimpse of her face in the rearview and did him a favor and called it. A lot of backtracking later, I dropped him at his SUV, and he limped along in it and got air in the reputed Klan town. I kept his family with me in case the tire wasn’t sound, and when we were back at their house I thanked his wife and asked, out of curiosity, whose idea all this was. His, she said, with the aggravated forthrightness but good-natured acceptance of the military spouse.
My boys and I stopped at a Wendy's on the way home because it was late and we could. They loved the whole unscripted adventure, and I was glad for them. I recently read poet Mary Ruefle’s excellent nonfiction collection Madness, Rack, and Honey, and in the essay “On Fear” she brings up Kierkegaard’s idea of “striv[ing] to become what one already is,” that “education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself.” I was a soldier once, briefly, and sometimes it’s as hard to reconcile that with other parts of my life as it is to reconcile beautiful and ugly, but this was one more opportunity to study on it.