Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Turnipseed found himself serving in Operation Desert Shield/Storm in the Sixth Motor Transport Battalion of the United States Marine Corps - the legendary “Baghdad Express“ - during the Persian Gulf War. His experiences were documented in a 1997 article he wrote for GQ Magazine, and the response to the story was so overwhelming, that he expanded it into a book that he named in honor of the battalion.
“Baghdad Express“ is a candid war memoir that deftly alternates between being hilariously funny and introspective (think “Catch 22“ or Richard Hookers “M*A*S*H“ meets “Catcher in the Rye“). Reading it in the wake of the primary fighting have been completed in Operation Iraqi Freedom gives one insight into both the Gulf War and the 2003 skirmish into which it morphed. It is also a decidedly personal story, one of a young man whose own moral ambiguity was brought into sharp focus by war, and whose inner struggles mirrored the conflict around him.
Turnipseeds voice is a unique one, and his perspective, honed from equal parts of philosophy and cynicism, is that of a wisecracking misfit. The irony was never lost on him that he was part of the greatest logistical operation in Marine Corps history, as the Baghdad Express hauled truckloads of explosives and ammunition across hundreds of miles of desert. The potential for peace in his surroundings seemed about on par with the potential for peace within himself, and he could not deny the absurdities of the situations he found himself in as he struggled for daily survival.
From the onset, one knows that this is not someone who was cut out to be a soldier. But a writer? There is no question about that. Sample the flavor of this excerpt from the “Getting Lost“ chapter:
“We had to clear Jubayl of all the ammunition so that the pullout could begin; so the ammunition could be surveyed and sold to the Kuwaitis and Saudi Arabians. During the war, we had always driven in convoys. Three or four trucks, depending on how many made it back from Mishab. But when I showed up at the warehouse down at the port this time, they told me to take the lone truck idling outside.
“You‘re going up to ASP-3 by yourself today,“ said Robin, who hadn‘t left the port the entire war. “You need a map?“ I must have driven up there a dozen times. “It‘s right off the Abu Hadriyah, but it‘s easy to miss. I think the guys said the turnoff was marked by some tires and a red flag or a Toyota or something.“
I scrounged around for some load straps, then headed out to the port in my truck. The sun was just rising as I filled up at the fuel farm. The guys at the front gate waved me through without looking at my trip ticket, and I was on the road with another truck full of artillery shells.
I was driving past the on-ramps to the two-laners that went out to the airport and refineries. It was odd to drive alone. The skies were filled with black smoke, 360 degrees on the horizon, dark like oncoming night. With the sun beating down on my truck it felt like I was driving dead center in the middle of the Twilight Zone. I was lost. I had missed the exit to the Abu Hadriyah. The first exit I came to after figuring out I had blown it was a cloverleaf that went nowhere. Fifteen minutes later I came to another exit, and turned right heading north on a freshly paved two-laner. After hitting eighth gear I lit a cigarette, but hadn‘t even flicked the first ash from it when I slammed on the brakes. The road came to an end. Bam. The End. No more road - nothing but a big pile of gravel in the sand. There were tire tracks leading off the end of the road, so I figured it was safe to drive on. I pulled slowly off the highway, then eased into second gear around the construction site. It was muddy, but I made it through -
Until I was stuck.
I didn‘t even know how to back up. When a Filipino driving a water tanker came rolling through the desert behind me, I felt simultaneously relieved and like a moron. He parked his truck behind me, then jumped out of his cab.
“Hey, you stuck?“
“I‘ll push, you drive out, okay?“
I put the truck in gear, then sat on the clutch. When I felt the tanker smash into my trailer, I let out the clutch and gave it hell. I was free. A quarter-mile up the highway I pulled off to the shoulder, waiting for the Filipino to come and give me directions. When I looked back, he‘d disappeared. Vanished. I gazed across the desert: a wide-open sea without a single landmark. How could he disappear? But he did.“
Profane, edgy, funny, sharply observed, inquisitive, and passionate, “Baghdad Express“ takes a familiar premise - war being an insane situation - and juxtaposes it with the technology of the day and its Middle East desert battleground setting. It has an enormous amount in common with Michael Herrs Vietnam tome “Dispatches,“ but is very much its own work. And even though more than 10 years have passed since the events in the book took place, it doesnt seem dated in the least. If anything, the slightly amusing sense of deja vu happening all over again (in light of recent events) gives the book a framework now that makes it seem even more relevant. In every regard, “Baghdad Express“ is a journey well worth taking.