Best Defense

The Iraq box in the back of my closet: Watch as I open it and see what emerges

Rummaging through dog-eared photos of my platoon, I find myself muttering, “I miss Iraq,” like a mantra, or maybe a prayer.



By Sebastian Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

Rummaging through dog-eared photos of my platoon, I find myself muttering, “I miss Iraq,” like a mantra, or maybe a prayer. The thought bounces and repeats itself in my mind. As the thought collects momentum, I find myself frantically pulling boxes from the closet, all packed neatly with relics of my time in the Corps, from Iraq.

Hermetically sealing my version of Iraq, each box is a time capsule of memories. The full-face mask conjures up scenes of buildings disappearing behind an advancing wall of orange tinted sand — thinking to myself, “God must hate us.” The empty tin of Skoal Citrus, licked clean of every flake of tobacco, is a product of endless hours on post, standing behind a 240B machine gun staring into the darkness. With no caffeine within reach, chewing tobacco became our lifeline. And when the supply was running low on the FOB, Marines would rummage through their packs for month-old chew.

The photos, crumpled and worn, invoke a kaleidoscope of memories: my first love who wrote a heart-crushing “Dear John” letter, my shaved head that made me look like a cheesy villain in a bad Kung Fu movie, and how everyone tried to grow grisly beards. For two months, I tried to grow a beard before my Sergeant asked, “Bae, what crawled on your lip and died?” — quickly ordering me to shave it, ending my experiment with facial hair.

The combat boots are falling apart, but I could never bring myself to throw them away. The treads are ground down to smooth edges. The right boot still sports a dark burn from when I tried to stomp out a flare from my negligent discharge, while cleaning the turret of our MRAP. In that singular moment, I wholly believed my Platoon Sergeant would kill me more than any insurgent as he tossed me around like a rag doll. I remember the heat of my burning boot as my Platoon Sergeant unleashed a barrage of profanity that would make a salty sailor blush. Even seven years later, the memory is vivid in equal parts hilarity and terror. And I swear I can still feel sand beaten into the soles, trickling out in small handfuls even now. Tracing my fingers along the sun-bleached nylon and leather, I remember all the long, winding hours on patrol in Ramadi, all the blood, spit, and grit in its treads, all the memories pounded into its sole.

At the very bottom of the box is my favorite item: My moleskin journal. The tattered spine barely clings onto the pages with cracked glue and shoddy tape. On the inside cover, I scribbled a bucket list, a combination of a promise to myself and a road map to life after Iraq. The list is both impressive in its ambitions and hilarious in its triviality, which included: traveling abroad every year, getting my undergraduate degree, finishing a New York Times crossword puzzle (which I still haven’t managed to do), playing chess in Bryant Park where I first learned the game, and going fishing with my grandfather again.

My journal was my refuge. Within its pages, I explored the morality of the war, demarcating what I believed and what I saw. I chronicled my obsession to run a 19-minute three-mile, with 19 minutes 43 seconds being the closest I ever got. I scribbled amateurish poetry and embarrassing rap lyrics. Unfortunately, there is a video somewhere of my short-lived rap career, which I pray never surfaces. Ultimately, the journal was the confusing stream of consciousness of a 19-year-old at war, myopic but honest.

In the end, I will never leave Iraq behind completely. My soul will always have remnants of Iraq pounded into its fabric, spilling out in grains here and there. This box reminds me of the precious moments squeezed in between the extremities of life and death, of war and peace, of here and there. War amplifies everything, indiscriminately turning up the volume on the good and the bad.

Sebastian J. Bae, a major contributor to Best Defense at Foreign Policy, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in violent non-state actors, counterinsurgency, and humanitarian interventions. He is the Executive Editor at Ramen IR. Twitter: @SebastianBae

Photo credit: Steve Lyon/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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