In his memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, Army sergeant and award-winning poet Brian Turner retraces his war experience, combining recollection with the imagination’s efforts to make reality comprehensible to paint a devastating portrait of what it means to be a soldier and a human being. What follows is an excerpt from the book.
The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house.
Soldiers, determined and bored and searing with adrenaline, enter the house with shouting and curses and muzzle flash, det cord and 5.56mm ball ammunition. The soldiers enter the house with pixelated camouflage, flex-cuffs, chem lights, door markings, duct tape. The soldiers enter the house with ghillie suits and Remington sniper rifles, phoenix beacons and night-vision goggles, lasers invisible to the naked eye, rotorblades, Hellfire missiles, bandoliers strapped across their chests. The soldiers enter the house one fire team after another, and they fight brutal, dirty, nasty, the only way to fight. The soldiers enter the house with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms. They enter the house with Toledo and Baton Rouge imprinted on the rubber soles of their desert combat boots. They enter the house and shout ‘Honey, I’m home!’ and ‘Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!’ The soldiers enter the house with conversations of Monday Night Football and the bouncing tits of the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders. The soldiers enter the house with cunt and cooch, cock wallet and butcher’s bin on their tongues. The soldiers enter the house with paperbacks in their cargo pockets, Starship Troopers and Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers Once and Young. The soldiers enter the house Straight Outta Compton or with Eminem saying, ‘Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity’. They enter the house with their left foot, they enter the house the way one enters cemeteries or unclean places. The soldiers enter the house with their insurance policies filled out, signed, beneficiaries named, last will and testaments sealed in manila envelopes half a world away. The soldiers enter the house having just ordered a new set of chrome mufflers on eBay for the Mustang stored under blankets in a garage north of San Francisco. The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds. They kick in the door while cradling their little sisters in their arms. They kick in the door and pull in the toboggans and canoes from the hillsides and lakes of Minnesota. They kick in the door and bring in the horses from the barn, hitching them to the kitchen table inside. The soldiers enter the house with Mrs Ingram from the 2nd grade at Vinland Elementary School. The soldiers enter the house with Mrs Garoupa from Senior English at Madera High. The soldiers kick in the door and enter the house with their arms filled with all the homework they ever did. They enter the house and sit down to consider the quadratic equation, the Socratic Method. The soldiers enter the house to sit cross-legged on the floor as the family inside watches on, watches how the soldiers interrogate them, saying, How do I say the word for ‘friend’ in Arabic? How do I say the word ‘love’? How do I tell you that Pvt Miller is dead, that Pvt Miller has holes in the top of his head? And what is the word for ghosts in Arabic? And how many live here? And are the ghosts Baath Party supporters? Are the ghosts in favor of the coalition forces? Are the ghosts here with us now? Can you tell us where the ghosts are hiding? And where the ghosts keep their weapons cache and where they sleep at night? And what can you tell us about Ali Baba? Is Ali Baba in the neighborhood? The soldiers enter the house and take off their dusty combat boots and pull out an anthology of poetry from an assault pack, Iraqi Poetry Today, and commence reading poems aloud. The soldiers say, ‘This is war then: All is well.’ They say, ‘The missiles bomb the cities, and the airplanes bid the clouds farewell.’ The soldiers remove their flak vests and turn off their radios. The soldiers smile and stretch their arms, one of them yawning, another asking for a second cup of chai. The soldiers give chocolates to the frightened little children in the shadows of the house. The soldiers give chocolates to the frightened little children and teach them how to say fuck you and how to flip off the world. The soldiers recite poetry as trays of chai and tea and cigarettes are brought into the room. The soldiers, there in the candlelight of the front room, with the Iraqi men of military age zip-tied with flex-cuffs, kneeling, sandbags over their heads, read verses from Iraqi Poetry Today. The soldiers switch off their night-vision goggles and set their padded helmets on the floor while the frightened little children pretend to eat the chocolate they’ve been given, their mothers shushing them when they begin to cry. And the soldiers, men from Kansas and California, Tacoma and College Station — these soldiers remove the black gloves from their hands to show the frightened little children how they mean no harm, how American the soldiers are, how they might bring in a pitcher of water for the bound and blinded men to drink from soon, perhaps, if there’s time, and how they read poetry for them, their own poetry, in English, saying, ‘Between time and time, between blood and blood. All is well.’ All is well, the soldiers say. The soldiers kick in the doors and enter the house and zip-tie the men of military age and shush the women and the frightened little children and drink the spooned sugar stirred into the hot chai and remove their stinking boots and take off their flak vests and stack their weapons and turn off their night-vision goggles and say to the frightened little children, softly, with their palms held out in the most tender of gestures they can offer, their eyes as brown as the hills that lead to the mountains, or as blue as the rivers that lead to the sea — ‘All is well, little ones, all is well.’
Brian Turner is the director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and the prize-winning author of two poetry collections about his seven years in the United States Army. He lives in Orlando, Florida.
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