Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Things to Pack When You’re Bound for Baghdad

Side view of a B-2 Spirit.Image via Wikipedia

Below is an excerpt from a personal essay by Major Jason Armagost, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the University of Colorado. This was published in 2006 in the War, Literature & the Arts |An International Journal of the Humanities. Full text here. WLA was founded in 1989 and is published by the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy. The journal is indexed in the American Humanities Index, Literary Criticism Register, The MLA American Periodical Verse, and the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature. WLA is published using government funds; the material published is in "public domain." The Journal’s current and back issues can be accessed here.

Literature is history with the truth left in. —Ralph Peters

Missouri—19 March 2003 | The clock is punched for war in Mesopotamia. Six hours until midnight, the day before the sudden flourish of air combat. I am suited, armed, and briefed for a 20,000 mile flight. The middle 208 seconds of the journey will be over Baghdad. Tomorrow’s strikes will compose the first salvos of “shock and awe.”

Our war-birds are carbon-fiber and titanium Stealth Bombers. They idle, topped with fuel, pre-flight crews tending aircraft systems on the rain-damp tarmac of Whiteman Air Force Base. In the course of the next two days, I will stiffen my backbone against exhaustion and battle with Air Force-issued amphetamines, a half-case of canned espresso drinks, and 40,000 pounds of steel and high-explosive. And books.

The Northrop Grumman B-2A “Spirit” is a flying wing—a 60-year old concept writ lethal in composites and computers. In profile, it is racy—a falcon stooping on distant prey. From the front—a menacing winged whale; from overhead—a wedge-shaped Euclidean study in parallel form. The plane carries aloft a crew of two pilots with the necessary life-support systems—oxygen, heating, air-conditioning, and cockpit pressurization. The pilots sit next to each other in twin ejection seats.

The running joke is that the seats don’t work because you’d rather be dead than face an accident board having crashed a $2,140,000,000.00 national asset.

Satiny charcoal in composition with a smooth, blended body, the B-2 is simultaneously rounded and angular. The skin is exotic and TOP-SECRET. Wing span is 172’, two-and-a-half times the length of 69’ nose-to-tail. It is rare— only 21 were built—but not endangered. It threads the 3-D envelopes of missile defense networks. Stealth has the same effect on defenses as speed, rendering reactions ineffective because they are too little, too late, if at all. This plane will bring us home.

The payload consists of 16 weapons mounted on two, eight-position, rotating launchers in each of the three aircraft of our flight. My primary weapons are 13 one-ton penetrator bombs for hardened targets and runways. The three remaining launcher stations carry the 4617 pound GBU-37 “Bunker Buster.” These two-and-a half ton monstrosities are targeted against deeply buried, steel-reinforced, concrete command centers in a planned effort to “decapitate” Iraq’s leadership.

In the lingo of combat aviators, these bombs will “prosecute” targets. Rarely—unless talking about Saddam or his sons—is killing mentioned. We are distanced. We make “inputs” into a network of flying computers. I manage the ghost in the machine. Our enemies label us the “Great Satan”—moral descendants of the Paladins of Charlemagne, Protector of the One Church. I don’t know if those we aim to liberate call us anything at all. We are armed to strike from the air, over the land, between the two rivers.

I have brought a bag of books and journals to pass the hours of tedium. I am bound for desert places.


I have supplemented the standard equipment with my own essentials stashed throughout the seven pockets of my flight suit:

3 tubes of Chap Stick, medicated

Toothbrush, floss, and travel toothpaste

1 oz. tin of Bag Balm—cow-udder salve for dry hands

Nail clippers

Aspirin, Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, Vitamin C, Multi-vitamin,

Immodium, Iodine, Band-Aids, Saline Nasal Spray, Eye-drops

Baby wipes in a plastic sandwich bag


Swiss Army knife

Duct tape

In a stained and ratty helmet bag I have a small library of books and personal journals:

Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America

—David Petersen

The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, and Just Before

Dark: Collected Nonfiction—Jim Harrison

Winter Morning Walks—Ted Kooser

Nine Horses: Poems—Billy Collins

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997—Wendell Berry

West with the Night—Beryl Markham

Fire Road, and Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction

—Donald Anderson

The Things They Carried—Tim O’Brien

Winter: Notes from Montana—Rick Bass

Burning the Days: Recollection and Dusk and Other Stories

—James Salter

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

—Cormac McCarthy

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories

—Edited by Tobias Wolff

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness—Edward Abbey

The Art of Living and Other Stories—John Gardner

Hunting the Osage Bow—Dean Torges

The Norton Book of Classical Literature—Edited by Bernard Knox

Don Quixote—Cervantes, Starkie translation

Gilgamesh—Translated by Herbert Mason

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot—Jim Stockdale

Wind, Sand, and Stars—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, and Keep the Change

—Thomas McGuane

The Nick Adams Stories—Hemingway

Gray’s Sporting Journal—Aug 2001 & Nov/Dec 2002

The Iliad and The Odyssey—Homer. Robert Fagles translations

Beowulf—Seamus Heaney translation

Four leather-bound journals in various states of wear. At the bottom of the bag, amongst the books:

Stainless-steel Colt 1911A1, .45 ACP with custom night-sights and four loaded magazines—in a nylon chest holster

Four pairs of wool socks, black silk long-johns, three brown undershirts, two pairs of flannel boxer shorts

Blue, fitted-wool, logo baseball cap “YALE—Lux et Veritas

Black & white photo of my wife, son, and daughter

These things, these books, are a measure of security. A redoubt in war. They bring me comfort in their many ways. The books have all been read. That is the point. In the middle of the Atlantic I won’t be interested in the cheap plot-twists of the latest bestseller. I’m in need of art—recklessness, patience, wisdom, passion, and largess. I rifle through the titles, grab five, and return to the seat. We are over Ohio. Me, my books, and the colonel.


Walking into the local market in my uniform, I avert my eyes from those I suspect will acknowledge me for service to the country. “Thank you for what you do” is difficult to hear. I am confounded by their innocence. I smile and nod—no words.

I am embarrassed because troops are dying and I am here, buying fresh asparagus, wine, and apples. These people are kind and gracious, but I can’t tell them what I have done because I don’t know what’s buried in the bunkers of an ex-tyrant’s palace. I know I left over 36 tons of high-explosive and weapons-grade steel in Iraq. Buildings destroyed, bunkers mangled beyond recognition, airfields once bombed to submission—now in use by our own forces. It is conceivable that I killed no one. It is, however, very unlikely.

I turn back to the words. Words I would like the people in local markets to read and own. Own and live. I read and write and read. Hemingway wrote, “There are worse things than war and all of them come with defeat.” I believe that—but just because one thing is worse than another, it doesn’t make the lesser good. Just less bad.

Once more to Heraclitus, 2600 years ago:

War, as father

of all things, and king,

names few to serve as gods,

and of the rest makes

these men slaves, those free.

Even the free then, are subjects to war, and dying for freedom is easy, at least for the dead.

This is no boast. Killing’s something apart.

I sit on an overturned canoe amongst budding wild rose bushes on the bank of a mountain lake that is named on no map. My son and daughter are fishing for trout and throwing pinecones at mallards. My wife is seven months pregnant. She sleeps on a couch in our small cabin with our youngest daughter. They are warmed by the late-morning sun piercing a picture window. I look up from Victor Davis Hanson’s Ripples of Battle. My daughter beckons me to untangle a snag in her fishing line. I grab my fly rod and stride down the thorny bank to help her. The last paragraph I read before placing the opened book on the boat says:

So battle is a great leveler of human aspiration when it most surely should not be. Stray bullets kill brave men and miss cowards. They tear open great doctors-to-be and yet merely nick soldiers who have a criminal past, pulverizing flesh when there is nothing to be gained and passing harmlessly by when the fate of whole nations is at stake. And that confusion, inexplicability, and deadliness have a tendency to rob us of the talented, inflate the mediocre, and ruin r improve the survivors—but always at least making young men who survive not forget what they have been through.

* * *

A well-read man, one who can also write well, and above all a thoughtful warrior, able to look inward. I don't think we want mindless robots fighting our wars. As I read this essay, I kept thinking of that story from Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran where an Iraqi American interpreter offered to loan a senior CPA staffer a copy of Hanna Natatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, a seminal work of regional history, the staffer declined. The CPA staffer told the interpreter that everything he needed was in a small book on his desk. The book turned out to be a tourist guide to Iraq written in the 1970’s (Green Zone, Scene VI). Jason Armagost, now Lt Col Jason R. Armagost, USAF is the Commander of the 13Th Bomb Squadron. He has served as an officer, fighter pilot, and bomber pilot in the active branch of the U.S. Air Force since May of 1992. In 1999, he was competitively selected to fly the USAF's premier B-2 Stealth Bomber. Lt Col Armagost flew the lead aircraft over Baghdad in the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.

He holds a Master of Arts degree in counseling psychology from the University of Colorado and a Bachelor of Science degree in English from the United States Air Force Academy. This piece is one of the 13 essays included in the University of Iowa collection When War Becomes Personal: Soldiers' Accounts From the Civil War to Iraq (edited by Donald Anderson).

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