Review – Baghdad
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
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
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.
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.
Borealis Books, 203 pages