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Back from Iraq: ‘Writing kept me from obsessing about fear’

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After nearly nine years of fighting, the war in Iraq drew to a quiet close on the 18th of December 2011. A simple ceremony took place at the edge of Baghdad’s international airport, not far from the highway along which US troops first fought their way into the Iraqi capital. After the ceremony, the last US troops left the country. In addition to troops from several countries, hundreds of thousands of civilians worked for the Army in Iraq. One of them, Phil Nerges, worked as an inspector of services provided to base camps and convoy operations. He began working in 2004 and spent parts of the following three years there, based at four different camps. He felt disconnected after returning in 2007 and experienced difficulties adjusting to life at home. He contemplated accepting another contracting position overseas, but took a sabbatical to write instead. He noticed that books about civilian workers in Iraq tended to focus on unpopular contractors, such as Blackwater or Halliburton, or unpopular services, such as private security escorts (who carry weapons), and often labelled them as “war profiteers”. Far less has been written about the larger group of workers who make up the majority: kitchen workers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, and truck drivers. As a result, the public’s impression of these workers is based on what has been written about a vilified minority. Wondering why not much has been written about daily life in camps for those who weren’t ‘mercenaries’ or profiteers,’ a friend asked a poignant question, “America doesn’t care about the soldiers, what makes you think they’d care about you?”

Nevertheless Phil Nerges was determined to write about his experiences. Inspired by works like All for the Union: The Civil War Diary & Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, and Marguerite Duras’ The War:A Memoir; he realized the value of meditating on the madness around him. Since returning from Iraq Phil has written two books: Iraq Journal: Sketches From the Contracting Life, an in-depth, remarkably honest and straightforward account of his experiences as a contractor during the height of the Iraq War. His other book They Must Be Hungry is fictional, and is a compilation of short stories about civilian workers. Both works provide a glimpse into life among the everyday workers, separate from the people and companies they work for. The stories are written in a refreshing, no-nonsense, almost raw style, suitable for the topics discussed.

Iraq Journal
In Iraq Journal, the reader is invited to join Phil on his journey from his home in New Jersey, to the war zone in Iraq. Based on his emails home and notes taken whilst working, Phil describes his experiences but also those of other workers, resulting in a vivid account of camp life. He discusses his motivations for going to the war zone, a decision misunderstood by most of those close to him. Life in Iraq was colored by fear, boredom, rockets, doubt, heat, mortars, sandstorms, kidnappings, and recurring bouts of crud. Phil also describes the raw beauty of the land, the people, and the culture.

After four months, Phil goes home for a ten-day R&R. His life had changed significantly. He had sold his home and was without a mortgage or credit card debt. The contrast between his experiences in Iraq and people’s presumptions at home about what was happening in the war zone, suddenly became very clear. What Phil saw on the news and read in the newspapers, did not match the reality in Iraq:

‘Sometimes, I’m personally insulted by what I read in the news. I shouldn’t be, but I still am. Being lumped together with fraud and war profiteering is unfair and irritating. I haven’t witnessed anybody doing anything illegal, not that they would tell me if they were, but from what I can see, most people are just doing their jobs. [....] It’s hard to explain to the people back home what it’s like to work here. Conditions are nearly impossible at times. Some bases take mortars daily. Machine gun fire is so frequent that people stop listening to it, unless it’s directed at them. Local workers are terrorized, shot, kidnapped, beheaded, eyes gouged. The heat exceeds one hundred twenty-five degrees. Worker performance is gauged by whether or not they completed their paperwork correctly after the battle. That’s the madness of it.’

“Machine gun fire is so frequent that people stop listening to it, unless it’s directed at them”

Regardless of these inhumane and dangerous circumstances, Phil’s journal makes it clear to the reader that there was also an almost inexplicable attrac-tion to life in the war zone. After his first stint in Iraq, during which his mother passed away and his relationship fell apart, Phil decided to work closer to home. He traded one disaster for another  and started working on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi. Within ten days he was transfer-red to Key West after Hurricane Wilma  damaged much of the island.

After the Key West project finished in the spring of 2006, Phil signed up for another year in Iraq:

‘I wanted to go back to New Jersey more than I wanted Iraq, but it involved too much change: finding a new place to live, new job etc.’

The second year in Iraq was much harder for Phil. After four months at Tallil Air Base, he was transferred to Camp Scania. Mortar attacks, machine gun fire, and violence near the camp were part and parcel of life in Scania, which contributed to an overall feeling of fear, depression, insomnia and consequently exhaustion. Near the end of his contract, circumstances became so grim that Phil wondered what the hell he was doing in a war zone. His journal entries in this period underline the severe psychological impact of mortar attacks. During his first year, Phil wrote matter-of-factly when attacks occurred, but during his second year, in the last months, he started to fall apart:

‘We had a mortar attack close to 20.00 hours, ten rounds. I was in my bunk, reading. I rolled on the floor, pulled on pants and slippers, ran for the bunker, losing one slipper in the mud on the way. I cut around the back side of the bunker and a round exploded on the other side. I dropped onto the ground, curled into a fetal position, and squeezed against the sandbags, trembling like a sparrow. Someone kneeled down beside me and asked if I was hit. “I’m hiding. Get the fuck away from me” I answered. [...] He grabbed me by the collar, lifted me, and dragged me to the entrance of the bunker, then guided me inside. “You’re not going to last long acting like that,” he said. I sat down inside, wet, full of mud, missing one shoe, humiliated.’

“You’re not going to last long acting like that,” he said.”

Phil wasn’t going to last much longer. In addition to wondering how many attacks in a row he would escape injury, the nature of his work also changed significantly. He describes how in the beginning, the work focused on services for the troops, activities like building camps and supplying fuel. He felt a strong sense of purpose. Later, as the news stories about tax dollar squandering by contractors increased, so did the bureaucratic oversight. Consequently, the simplest tasks now required individual reports and an extra layer of employees added to read them. One plumbing department manager instructed his staff to write a separate report each time they unclogged a toilet, which numbered in the dozens each day. The portion of time devoted to providing actual services decreased, while the portion devoted to writing reports and attending meetings increased. Phil concluded that he did not want to risk his life for this any further and decided to retire from the warrior business. Just before he left Iraq, Phil heard that Saddam was hanged, somewhere in Baghdad. He noticed no sense of victory in the camp.

Don’t Feed the Cats in Iraq
Back home, Phil looked for someone to write music for lyrics he wrote about MSR Tampa. He was introduced to Vic Ruggiero, the lead singer of the New York ska band The Slackers. The two started working on an album containing songs not about politics, but about everyday life. Phil chose to avoid writing protest songs, instead he wanted to give a voice to the workers who were in Iraq. Besides writing lyrics, Phil finished the unpublished novel he had already started writing in Iraq. He wrote a book of short stories next, first published in 2010 under the title, Don’t Feed the Cats in Iraq accompanied by an album produced by Ruggiero. They must be Hungry, Tales from the World’s Most Dangerous Highway, published in 2011, contains seven of the stories from the original Cats book plus two more written later. His short stories have appeared in Amoskeag, The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

Q & A : Author Phil Nerges

When you left for Iraq you were a fifty-four year old man without military experience, leaving a middle-class suburban life behind in New Jersey. What was it like to integrate into your new life in Iraq, a country so different from your own where you had to work with people from all over the world?

“I was fascinated by most of it. The civilian workers in Iraq were like the United Nations – mostly Arabs, but also Pakistanis, Indians, Ghurkas, Bosnians, English, Dutch, Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Italians. For the most part, the groups didn’t mix, mostly due to language differences. I had contact with some workers through my inspection work and got to know them outside of work. I was intrigued at times, by the debates about the war; some workers sympathized with the insurgents, for example, during the battle of Fallujah. They told us what they thought and that was remarkable, because of the security concerns it raised, but they were largely dependable workers. Their views didn’t interfere with their jobs. I mean that in general, of course there were exceptions. Personally I found adjusting to the noise hardest. Diesel engines constantly droned, always loud. They turned the generators, pulled the trucks. Peace and quiet usually meant something was wrong.

“Most of our allies over there are Muslim. If you demean them, what do you tell the mother of the Muslim soldier or contractor who was killed defending our country?”

This very mixed group of contractors and the army as a whole was working closely with Iraqi civilians but also Muslims civilians from other countries. In They Must Be Hungry you describe how fragile the working relationship with these workers was. When something happened, Iraqis were immediately accused. How would you, in more general terms, characterize the American attitude towards Muslims who they employed?

“It’s like it is at home, some people are prejudiced, I don’t know how to quantify it, but many people are. That was one thing that bothered me when I came home, hearing people say demeaning things about Muslims. Most of our allies over there are Muslim. If you demean them, what do you tell the mother of the Muslim soldier or contractor who was killed defending our country? We are wildly outnumbered in this world, and some people in the US seem to think it is the other way round. I don’t see any reason to antagonize our allies; my impression of Muslims improved when I went over there. So many are just caught between a rock and a hard place.”

In the story Dust Song, a contractor compares his work in Iraq with that of soldiers who fought in WWI, WWII Korea and Vietnam. His girlfriend doesn’t agree with the comparison and says: ‘’The Iraqi war isn’t the same and being a contractor isn’t like being a soldier.’ Which raises the question; where did contractors fit in?

“Being a contractor isn’t like being a soldier, though many of them were soldiers. But soldiers see the work that contractors do. The public doesn’t see it. I don’t think the press does either. I get the impression that the public doesn’t understand the entire contracting process. A lot of people think contractors are gun slingers even though most of them are unarmed. Contractors are performing service functions that soldiers did in the past. And to answer your question about where does a contractor fit in: they get lumped in with the companies they work for. The dishwasher and the truck driver get lumped in with the controller and the Chairman of the Board. The issue isn’t about who should cook the food or who should drive the trucks, the issue is: who will employ them, and what process should be used by the military to purchase goods and services. The rules for all that can be found in the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). That’s bureaucrat stuff, but if you want to really understand what’s going on, start there.”

Is a contractor’s life worth less?
“To who? A contractor’s life is worth everything to his family. For the government, I’m less sure. I get the strong impression that it’s politically easier when contractors get killed because the people back home don’t find that as upsetting as when a soldier is killed. Contractor fatalities are not included in the death tolls. What conclusions can you draw from that?”

This must have made the reintegration into American society even more difficult. I can imagine that many contractors who have spent time in a war zone have psychological problems. Is there anyone looking out for them?

“The organisation Hidden Wounds promotes awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They focus mainly on counselling services to combat veterans, but they are now trying to incorporate contractors too. One of the people at Hidden Wounds read my journal and encouraged me to publish it. The Social Work Department at the University of South Carolina is now training Social Workers to work with PTSD sufferers. The focus is primarily on veterans, but the treatments apply to anyone. They used one of my stories, The Writer’s Club in a graduate level class. The students were asked to pick out behaviours suggesting the protagonist suffered from PTSD. I thought that amusing because I wrote it to express the difficulty of returning home from a war zone.”

One of the more autobiographical stories in your novel The Writers Club tells the tale of Willy Saddler, a contractor who experiences difficulties when trying to re-enter society after his last stint in Iraq. Willy goes to a exhibition of expressionist paintings created by German soldiers who fought in the trenches during World War I. The paintings make perfect sense to him, which was odd because the things depicted were so twisted that they shouldn’t make sense. Willy wants to do something too, but can’t paint, so he decides to start writing in an attempt to make sense of his experiences in Iraq. Was writing therapeutic for you?

“Yes, it was. I’m not sure why. We go through life anticipating what will happen next, based on what already happened. Our memory ends up being a pair of spectacles that we view the present through. Writing, painting, whatever art form you use, moves that memory to outside of us. It doesn’t erase it, but it helps us to see things differently. More clearly, I think.”

Certain topics are revisited throughout They Must Be Hungry. Relationships, insomnia, exhaustion and fear are discussed in almost every story. A very interesting returning topic was ‘running away’. Based on your experiences in Iraq, what were people’s motivations to leave their home country?

“I can only speak for myself, but I’ll speculate. Sometimes, it was a broken or dysfunctional relationship. I think you need some type sort of disconnection to leave your country in order to work in a war zone. If you have a steady job, you can’t go. You needed to be free for a year to go over there. People tended to be unemployed, or in some state of transition. The majority, maybe two thirds of them, were ex-military, so they were familiar with the work. A lot of ex-military and contractors have trouble readjusting to life back home, so they opt to go back to the place they know best: Iraq.”

What about money?
“Money isn’t as good as people think. The majority of workers are from countries like India and Pakistan and are paid wages that would be good in their homeland, but not by American standards. Americans are paid more, but they are working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, three hundred thirty days a year. You can do well working those hours at home. This doesn’t mean you make a lot of money per hour. Police, nurses, and construction workers in the northeast would make more hourly than the majority of contractors. Whilst most soldiers actually let us know they appreciated us, a few complained about the amount of money contractors made. Also, what is a life worth? If you are lucky and don’t get killed the money is good. But death is very random. Some people get killed the week they arrive. But you know what the risks are when you go over there.”

So what kind of people end up working in Iraq?
“I would say that many people who go, have some sort of knowledge of the war zone, either ex military or with a family member in the army. My brother is in the army and he was the person who suggested working in Iraq.”

“Writing kept me from obsessing about fear. It enabled me to stay much longer in Iraq”

Your novel contains nine stories exploring the lives of civilian workers, the characters are truck drivers, food workers and support specialists who provide services to the troops. These men and women come from different backgrounds, have different jobs and their experiences varied. What can you tell me about your research methods? Did you interview people?

“The stories are based on personal observation. When you are crammed in with people, day in and day out, you hear their stories. Part of my job, and the part I liked most, was visiting different departments and meeting so many people. I would go and spend three or four hours and would speak not only about work but also about experiences. I got to know a lot of people. Also, I try to observe people and their habits closely. I read this book by Hemingway between my first and second year in Iraq. He says that when you go into a room, that you should be able to tell everything about this room when you come out. That is why I bought little black notebooks. I still have them, I just wrote everything down. I used a flashlight at night and writing kept me from obsessing about fear. It enabled me to stay much longer in Iraq.

Phil Nerges worked as a quality inspector for services provided to the Army beginning in 2004. He spent parts of the next three years, twenty months total, in the war zone.His short stories have appeared in Amoskeag, The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. His website is: http://dustsong.com/.

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