Desert Fatigues

In a new memoir, former marine Joel Turnipseed loses his personal philosophy while winning the Gulf War

In the summer of 1993, two years after returning from combat duty in the Gulf War, Joel Turnipseed received an unexpected phone call. It was from the Dog Pound. "'Hey, this is Hatch,'" Turnipseed recalls the conversation going. "I'm like, 'What do you mean, this is Hatch? Hatch who?' And he's like, 'Hatcher, Douglass Hatcher, motherfucker.'"

It was the first time that Turnipseed had spoken with Hatch--or any other members of the Dog Pound, with whom he had shared a tent in Saudi Arabia--since returning from the war. Hatch had a simple question for his fellow ex-Marine: How come you're not writing the book? "The book, my brother. You gotta write the book. You're the only one who knows how to write the book. How could you have that experience and not write the book?'"

What else could Turnipseed say? "I'm like, 'All right, I'll write the book.'"

Michael Dvorak

Several weeks later Turnipseed was on a train en route to North Philly to meet up with Hatch. He had a carton of cigarettes, a Mont Blanc fountain pen, and a stack of empty journals. When Turnipseed arrived at the train station in Philadelphia, however, Hatch was nowhere to be found. "The fucker didn't show up," Turnipseed laughs, recounting the story over coffee at a Dunn Bros in downtown Minneapolis. "Maybe he got arrested. Who knows. I've never talked to him since. His phone got disconnected. Life is hard in North Philly. You never know what happens to people."

The Gulf War reunion may have been a bust, but a decade later Turnipseed has finally written "the book." Baghdad Express, the 34-year-old's account of transporting 155mm shells and Kellogg's cereal boxes from Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, to the front lines of the war, will be published this month by Borealis Books (a new imprint of Minnesota Historical Society Press). It's more a coming-of-age memoir than a chronicle of bloodshed: Turnipseed's aptitude for dark humor and philosophical rumination proves greater than his skill at firing off M-16 rounds. His first act upon arriving in Saudi Arabia is to scrawl "Know Thyself" on his combat helmet with the o transformed into a peace symbol. And he spends his down time brooding over passages from Nietzsche and Thoreau.

"I wanted to be back in a coffee shop reading Wittgenstein," Turnipseed writes. "Instead I was always being asked to give an opinion on the state of 9mm pistols or Motor Trend's Car of the Year." His unlikely last name is bastardized at various times into "Turnipstrudel," "Turnipjew," and "Nietzschenstrudel." The most imminent danger he faces for much of the war is the possibility of getting the shit kicked out of him by his fellow Marines.

Anthony Swofford would have been a decent candidate to dish out such a beating. He's the author of Jarhead (Scribner), another recently released Gulf War memoir. In contrast to Baghdad Express, it's a swashbuckling--if ultimately cautionary--red-meat account of serving in the trenches. In an early section Swofford recounts the weeks leading up to his deployment in the Persian Gulf, in which his platoon indulges in a machismo bender of war movies, beer, and sadistic male-bonding rituals. "Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone," he writes. "And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers."

Swofford's account throbs with the menace of chemical weapons, oil fires, and battle-hardened Iraqi soldiers. He pisses his pants and prepares for death. For all the lurking dangers, however, the closest Swofford comes to becoming a battle casualty is when his unit comes under fire from American tanks. "We are fighting ourselves, but we can't fight back," Swofford writes.

Turnipseed's wartime duty was more mundane. He spends his days and nights hauling supplies and pulling guard duty. Turnipseed fires no shots and dodges no bullets. His chief complaint is lack of sleep. The only time he draws his M-16 rifle is to convince a lead-footed, non-English speaking truck driver to ease off the gas as they transport napalm down a dirt road. (For the full story on this showdown, see the excerpt titled "Cigarette," below.)

Turnipseed's weary narrative voice, then, owes to the fact that he arrived in the corps as a kind of battle casualty. Early on in Baghdad Express, he recounts the miserable childhood that led him to retreat into a philosophical shell. This is how Turnipseed describes the courtship of his parents: "When my mother got knocked up by a guy at a party, and he refused to have anything to do with her afterwards, my father led my uncles in beating the crap out of the guy. He seemed like a hero to her." In Baghdad Express, Turnipseed recounts that his childhood involved its own generous share of ass-whuppings and tumult. He attended a different school every year from kindergarten until 10th grade, which made him, as he writes, "a connoisseur of loneliness."

By the summer of 1990 Turnipseed was a homeless college dropout who had gone AWOL from the Marines. He squared himself with the military just in time for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. The news that he was to report for active duty actually came as something of a relief. "The fact was, I had no clue where I would live if I didn't get called up," Turnipseed writes.

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