December 04, 2006
Some soldiers take pictures of everything. Some just take pictures of what they consider unique -- things they don't think they'll ever see back home, like palaces, or Iraqi children, or themselves behind a .50 caliber machine gun looking like a battle-hardened steely-eyed killer. But it's interesting when there's a beautiful sunset. I see a lot of my fellow soldiers pulling out their digital cameras to capture it, though pictures rarely do a sunset justice. Don't get me wrong. A sunset is a wonderful thing to behold, and even more so when it happens to take on colors and formations that really rest upon the retina with a splendor it's impossible to deny. But we've all seen thousands. And we'll presumably see thousands more.
It reminds me of the movie Smoke, in which a guy takes a picture of a busy street corner in front of his smoke shop every single day at the exact same time for decades. When he shows a friend, the friend says "They're all the same." But upon further consideration, he realizes how poignant the photo album really is, and how each day is in fact unique, and he even sees some people he recognizes who have died in the years since the photos were taken.
Sunset out here can be like that. Most days, you don't even notice the conversion from light to dark. The light is irrelevant, its strength superfluous to what you're working on. But sometimes it catches your eye, especially one like tonight when the orange looks like melted copper spreading across the horizon in a river of floating lava, playing hide and seek with the moon across the smooth curvature of the earth.
Years from now, you'll look at the picture, and it will just seem like one of a million beautiful sunsets. But it won't be. It's a sunset from when you were deployed in Iraq, and it takes on a special meaning, carries more weight somehow. For the rest of your life, you'll probably never be in this place again, looking at the sunset from this perspective, either geographically or mentally. Others might look at it and say "Oh, that's pretty." But you'll know it was more than that. You will remember taking the picture on a particular day, and you may very well use the quality of life you had back then as a barometer by which to judge just how bad something really is.
The pictures will help you remember your combat experience, which I think is important, because once you've gone to war, what else in life can really match the endless tests of patience, courage, physical fatigue, sleep deprivation, stress, and camaraderie? I think we'll be able to handle more than we ever thought possible, conquer obstacles once insurmountable. Yes, the work is satisfying. But the experience of being here will be all the sweeter once it is an artifact of the past -- a conversation at a party, a dream sequence in the documentary of your life.
I took a lot of pictures today, in part just because I happened to have my digital camera with me. But part of it is the ever-growing anticipation that I will be departing this eyesore of a base sometime in the next few months. I want pictures to help me remember, so that I can counterpose living on this FOB with life hereafter, making it seem eternally richer. Oh, it's not so bad. You make the best of it. You have food, shelter, clothing, "recreational facilities," the internet, movies, video games, books.
But let's be honest, shall we? The "suck factor" outweighs satisfaction. The cons kill the pros. Of course you'd rather complete the mission and be in your own home with nothing but a box of crackers and a bean bag pillow than live here with every amenity under the sun. Having a bad day, soldier? Think the world is being too hard on you? Just pull out your photo album from the year you spent living on a Forward Operating Base in the Sunni Triangle.