Book Review – Baghdad Express

By: Randolph Giudice
Oahu Island News

If you cross Schroeder from Peanuts with the insubordinate Private Joker from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, you’ll get a sense of the odd-ball personality that powers Joel Turnipseed’s Baghdad Express.  One of the most unconventional war memoirs ever written, the book centers on the supply side of one of America’s shortest armed conflicts – that one-hundred-hour ground war known to the world as Operation Desert Storm.

A University of Minnesota philosophy student, reservist Joel Turnipseed is called to active duty when Iraq invades Kuwait in 1991. But, Turnipseed has been AWOL from the Marine reserves for three months, with no intention of going to his monthly drills, much less fighting in a war. Dumped by his girlfriend, estranged from his family, Turnipseed doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. Instead, he spends most of the time reading books in Minnesota cafés, looking for a philosophy he can apply to his life.  But answers are elusive. So for his own reasons – “I had no clue where I would live if I didn’t get called up” – Turnipseed finds himself standing in formation at Camp Pendleton in California, ready to go to war in Iraq: “In the end, as it was in the beginning”, Turnipseed writes, “the Corps was all I had.”

As a member of the Sixth Motor Transport Battalion of the United States Marine Corps, Turnipseed is soon “driving dead center in the middle of the Twilight Zone”, hauling truckloads of munitions across the Saudi desert on the famous “Baghdad Express”, a supply convoy that by the war’s end will have hauled “fifty-seven-ships worth” of supplies from Saudi Arabia to Iraq.

Armed with an M-16 and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden, Turnipseed is more interested that the Middle East was once the home of the largest library in the ancient world, than, say, the troop strength of their opposing army.  While Marines are playing football and goofing off, he’s marking up a copy of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Yet, Turnipseed is just the kind of narrator war needs.  His views of the unique Saudi scenery – “Rising refinery towers, intricate and bizarre like long-burned steel candles whose drips have accumulated while flowing down onto the desert” – or his awareness of the double-edged nature of war – “every one of us could turn out to be a hero…every last one of us stood an equal chance of turning into a psychotic with a steady trigger finger and a firing pin trained to our pulse.”

Though Turnipseed clearly suffers from bouts of self-absorption – “What was Saddam Hussein thinking?  What was I thinking?” – he emerges as a lovable geek asking universal questions about war.  A loner in an army where conformity is survival, Turnipseed is often the enemy of Marine discipline.  Only when he meets unlikely allies in “The Dog Pound”, a tent of black Marines, does he begin to feel the sense of brotherhood that all soldiers go to war to find.

Fish-out-of-water stories can have bad endings when you’re at war. But for some, war is a way of finding themselves.  When soldiers say “you’re going back to the world”, they mean you’re coming home.  Sometimes, as in the case of Lance Corporal Joel Turnipseed, you return with wisdom.

Baghdad express, by Joel Turnipseed
Borealis Books, 203 pages