A soldier letters to his sister in Chico share his experiences, philosophy and perspective on the Iraqi War
Garth Talbott grew up in Chico. Just another local kid who liked to swim in Upper Bidwell Park, ride bikes and do what teenagers everywhere enjoy. While he wasn’t keen on going to college, he had no desire to be in the military, either.
But three years ago he joined the Army and today, at 22, Talbott is a corporal and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Infantry Division, stationed in Iraq, trying to maintain order in a nation of chaos.
From soon after his arrival in late March and up until June 13, Talbott wrote and sent letters to his sister in Chico, Anna Talbott. His dispatches reveal a young man’s struggle with conflicting emotions, homesickness, philosophical musings and a glimpse of war’s insanity that brings to mind Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch 22 or Robert Altman’s Korean War movie M*A*S*H.
Anna has not heard from her brother in two months, and with American soldiers dying in that faraway land seemingly every day, Anna is racked with worry and guilt for the younger sibling she was really just getting to know.
She watches the national news broadcasts every night and waits by day for the mail to arrive, hoping for another letter from her brother.
In a letter written last June 13, Garth told Anna, who is engaged to be married, that he thought he would be sent home July 4.
But on July 29th, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack, the man in charge of the 82nd, announced that those under his command who’d arrived when Garth did would be staying until next January or February.
Garth joined the military three years ago out of a lack of anything better to do in the Northstate, his sister said. He’d dropped out of Chico’s Fair View continuation high school. And even if he had graduated and gotten his diploma, Anna said, college is not necessarily the goal for kids who grow up in a college town like Chico.
Anna and Garth are 10 years apart and are in fact only half-siblings. Their father, Richmond Talbott, was a local blues musician, one-time employee of Sierra Nevada Brewery and later worked for the city as a parks employee. He died of liver cancer in 1992, when Garth was 12 and Anna was 22.
An accomplished guitar player, Richmond played on Hot Tuna’s Burgers album in 1972. Friends recall him as a hard-living, but very giving man. He served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War
“I remember Garth,” said Steve O’Bryan, Chico Unified School District trustee and owner of Pullins Cyclery. “He’d hang out at the bike shop when he was a kid and I remember him having this wild red hair. Good kid.”
For years Anna and Garth didn’t see each other, even though they lived in the same small town. They had very different lives, Anna pointed out.
“I was going to Duffy’s [Tavern] while he was in junior high school,” she said.
But in recent years, just before he went into the military, they met up again and tried to make up for lost time.
And even though Garth joined the Army, against his older sister’s wishes—"I didn’t agree, but for once I bit my tongue"—their attempts to re-establish their family relationship continues today through letters exchanged from half a world apart.
Anna is trim, athletic, a vegetarian and spiritual, though not, she says, in the traditional Western sense. She is animated and her dark brown eyes get teary when she talks about Garth and her concerns for his welfare.
“I’ve really been trying to ignore the fact that he could possibly be dead or whatever,” Anna said last week. “After talking to you about this, I’ve just been a mess. But sometimes you have to confront your feelings.”
Garth asked Anna if she would try to get a couple of his letters published in the News & Review. We are honored to provide Cpl. Talbott with this forum:
Tuesday, April 8
What’s up? How are things in Chico? Good I hope. I’ve been out here in Iraq for about a week. It’s a pretty crappy country, smells really bad. A lot of the people here seem really happy to see us, though. Maybe we are doing something good? I hope so. We just left this town called Asamawa. We rolled up to this bridge and the Iraqis opened up on us from the far side of the river. It was a pretty weird experience, being shot at. We gave them hell, though. They can’t compete with us. They’re all a bunch of bad shots and we just poured so much into them; almost feel sorry for the bastards.
So that’s the war. It’s pretty hot out here, super dry. Dust and sand gets everywhere. We haven’t had a shower for about two weeks. Yeah so …
I don’t really think it’s that bad, though, it sounds like it, it’s not. I don’t really mind it, plus I’m making pretty good money right now and not spending a dime. That’s about it. I’ll probably write—not soon, but not too long from now.
Your brother, Garth
Saturday, April 19
There is something strange and poetic about listening to the island melody of Dean Martin’s ‘Memories are Made of This,” and watching the sun set in a dusty haze behind date palms in the midst of Iraq.
But then again, strange is the first word in my description of anything here so far. Strange and terrible, strange and beautiful, strange and frightening, usually just strange. Being from Chico, and nearly a graduate of Fair View, I was the sort of kid that liked getting stoned, swimming in Upper Park, and swore up and down that I would never have anything to do with the military.
But circumstances that I won’t go into, for lack of space, and most likely lack of interest on the part of anyone reading this, led to my enlistment in early 2000. The Army is a hideous and complex beast. Any attempt at its comprehension, let alone an explanation to someone without first-hand knowledge of it, would be like trying to drive a Peugeot across the Pacific Ocean. I’ll leave it at that.
Anna explained that early last year, Garth signed up for another three-year enlistment and volunteered for and was trained to help de-mine the rugged landscape of Afghanistan, where he’d already been stationed. He felt, she said, removing mines would be a life-saving effort, something positive out of his military service. But as the America military headed into war with Iraq, such missions were put on hold.
So I spent three years serving in a peacetime army. Somewhat peacetime at least. Afghanistan never really lived up to the classical definition of a war. So I’d call it peacetime. A peacetime Army is 90 percent idiocy, 5 percent lunacy, and another 5 percent madness. Or, a phrase from an old platoon sergeant, ‘jackassery and grabasstics.” I could go on, but I’ll just say that it’s enough to make a man pray for war. Until he’s faced with the prospect of it, that is. Once you find it looming on the horizon like some terrible sun, you become grounded in reality rather quickly.
It becomes very real that you could die at the tender age of 22, or you could wind up killing a man, robbing him of everything beautiful; that and all manner of other unpleasantness. So when this whole Iraq thing began to flare up (I guess the war has pretty much reached fruition, and basically ended for the most part), I took a very antiwar stance—partially moral, and partially in my own self-interest.
Being part of such a grotesque machine as the army, though, my political stance didn’t have much of an effect on my fate. So in mid-March, I found myself in a cargo plane headed straight toward Fertile Crescent. Most of the time here has been rather inconsequential, as far as me and my unit are concerned. Being a paratrooper, I believed, as did everyone else, that we would be pushed to the most grueling and dangerous areas; that we would be soaking up a lot of the fight. That is not so, thankfully. We had our day though. We spent the night of March 30 and the morning of the 30th first humping through farmers’ fields and date palm groves on the outskirts of a town called Asamawah.
We were moving up to take a bridge. This isn’t about a firefight, so I’ll keep details to a minimum. Suffice to say that I would hate to be those poor bastards on the other side of the bridge. There was so much fire poured into them that I can’t understand how they could even fire back. A few of our men received minor wounds. I believe a couple of boys from one of the other battalions were killed. I can’t imagine what their friends felt when they saw that. I wonder about their families.
I don’t think there’s really an explanation for any of it. I do, however, believe that something good has been accomplished here. It makes me sad to know that it was done by killing, but I don’t think there was any other way. Everywhere we go the people come out to cheer us. The men hand us cigarettes and the children just stare at us. I had somewhat of a conversation with an Iraqi schoolteacher. I asked him why huge crowds gathered around us. He said the people felt safe around us; he said we made them free.
Those were his words, not mine. Safe, ha! Safe with the invading infidels. So despite my conviction against war, I think maybe we’ve done something here, something to justify all those who are gone. No, I don’t believe there’s any justification for it, but at least maybe they didn’t die in vain. I hope all of the protestors understand that—that whatever the real motivation for this war, we’ve done something honorable. But I also hope the next time war looms on the horizon, more people protest.
CPL Garth A Talbott
Bco 307 Engineer Battalion
82nd Airborne Division
“I remember he won a kid’s triathlon,” Anna recalled about her kid brother. “And I think there was a picture of him in the News & Review. He was an athletic kid. He did the standard tall-boy thing of getting really chubby when he was about 12 and then the next time I saw him he was tall and thin.
“I don’t think I saw him for three or four years for a period there and then I see him at Chico Natural Foods. I said to my friend, ‘Look at that guy’s hair!’ because it was so red. And he turned around and said ‘Anna?’ in this deep voice. He went from this little chubby kid to this huge man.”
What’s happening? Not a whole lot new out here. I’d imagine the weather is pretty sweet in Chico right now. So the war’s pretty much done. We haven’t been doing a whole lot lately. Just blowing up caches of mortar rounds and stuff like that. So I had this dream about Dad last night. It was really weird. I was in the Army in a war, it wasn’t this one, but that’s dreams, right? So, I’m in this bombed out building by myself, and everyone has pretty much forgotten I’m in there. And Dad walks in with a guitar and he’s smiling, and I’m totally dumbstruck. He tells me that he’s got a little time to spend with me before he has to go. I tell him that that’s my one wish since he died, just to spend one day with him. So there’s this war going on outside and me and Dad are just sitting there talking about everything, I guess, I can’t for the life of me remember what we talked about. He played guitar for a while, and I just sat here and listened. And that was it. I don’t remember how it ended. It was so weird though. I’ve never remembered words from a dream. And I’ve never had a dream that[‘s] continuous or coherent. Big gifts in small packages. I thought you would find something in hearing that though …
“We never really talked much about how he dealt with Dad’s death,” Anna explained. “He was getting extremely philosophical because he was going off to war, so that was personal. Garth was really young when I learned my dad was sick. That was my first thought, “My dad has cancer.” And my second thought was, “My brother’s only 12.”
“He was my brother and I didn’t even know him while we were growing up and then we had this whole dad-death factor that we never even discussed. I just didn’t want to bring it up.”
P.S. We had a reporter with our platoon for a few weeks. He posted all of the photos he took and the articles he wrote on the Web. It should be at The Oregonian’s Web site, and his name is Peter Sleeth.
Sleeth, who works for Portland’s Oregonian newspaper, spent six weeks with Talbott’s platoon, and last week described their conditions as “hell.”
“I mean, they are stuck there for who knows how long,” said the veteran photographer. “Vietnam was bad, but at least the guys there got rotated out every three or four months.”
Sleeth, who hopes to return to Iraq, is trying to send the soldiers he lived with American cigarettes and magazines, items he said that are in short supply and great demand.
“I got to know these guys pretty well and they are really a bunch of good kids,” he said. “Well, they aren’t really kids anymore with what they’re going through. Yeah, I remember Garth. Red hair and a real funny guy. Joked around a lot.”
Hello, from Baghdad. Received your letter yesterday. Needless to say the mail system is somewhat slow around here. But I guess if it gets to you there’s really no room to complain.
Every time I see a newspaper, I make sure to check out the weather for Sacramento. It’s sort of bittersweet torture because I can just see what the weather is like out there. Absolutely perfect. That’s OK though, haven’t really had it too bad over here. About a week ago we were living at this palace on the Euphrates River. We’ve got no beds, but we were sleeping on Saddam’s marble floors. For sleeping on the ground, we were doing it in style.
Took my first bath in a month in the river there, did a little laundry, over all it was pretty sweet. From there we moved to this, I don’t know what the hell it was, but it had this huge man-made lake. We stayed there for a few days and I managed to go swimming twice a day. Not too shabby really. So now we’re staying at some junk palace, not all that nice, but it’s got orchards. Apples, guavas, dates, grapes, figs, and some weird fruit none of us can figure out. Sort of a cruel joke, though, because none are ripe, the apples are close, but the rest are a good month away.
Yesterday however, at feeding time for the G.I.'s, we each got an apple, a carrot and a plum. I thought I was going to die. Yeah I know, you probably think ‘big deal, some fresh fruits (and vegetable)” after two months of eating food with a longer lifespan than a Galapagos fucking tortoise, it’s a little slice of heaven.
HOLY FUCKING GODDAMNED SHIT!!!! One my guys just scored a bottle of WHISKEY! Whiskey! Fuckin-A-no-shit-80-proof-pure rotgut-goddamned whiskey. Didn’t even know they made the stuff out here. I guess apparently they do. I’m taking a shot in the dark saying that us drinking was against some sort of regulations, but who cares right? What can they do, send us home?
I think I sort of derailed my train of thought there a minute. Yeah so, I guess we’ve liberated Iraq. I don’t really know how much good it’ll do in the long run. The people here seem to respond only to violence, or threats of violence. I’ve witnessed many a man hitting a child, like maybe 6 or 7 years old, with a stick. And I don’t mean a switch, which in the Western world is viewed as archaic and brutish, but a stick maybe an inch in diameter. One instance really stands out in my mind. We had just finished a patrol, and I saw four older kids beating up this younger kid. The four were probably in their early teens and their victim maybe 9 or 10. They were literally beating the shit out of him and he was crying. They would hit him in the face and kick him when he fell.
I watched this for a minute. I looked at the adults who were all around. Not one adult even looked at this scene in morbid fascination, or as something curious. And then here I am, incredulous that no one even cares. So I level my rifle on the nearest kid and yell ‘Oguf.” It means ‘stop.” All the locals look at me in fear. The kids see me and run about 10 feet. Then this little kid gets up and I’m thinking he’s going to book while he’s got the chance, right? No. He picks up a rock the size of a baseball and wings it at one of his aggressors. This rock nails one of the older kids right in the side of the head. Hard. All of a sudden I’ve ceased to be a factor in this strange and violent equation. The three that haven’t been beaned in the head by stones try to rush their sobbing victim turned assailant.
But this kid is chucking rocks too fast for them to get close. One of them takes a couple to the body and another takes one to the head, and this convinces the lot of them to make a tactical withdrawal. So all of a sudden it’s over and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the fuck was that? What the hell is wrong with these people?” And that’s just kids, boys.
I watch the women and I feel only disgust. They are treated as property. They are basically slaves. They work all day in the fields with their husbands watching. Not lifting a finger. It’s the little girls that really break my heart though. They have nothing to look forward to in life, this moment that we are on this earth, this short time that we have to seek out the wonder and beauty and awe. And the only thing in their future is toil and abuse. And the saddest part is that they’ll probably never know the difference. All of the little girls that I see are so cute and seem so happy, and all the women so haggard and forlorn. It’s like two entirely different species.
Culture be damned. It makes me want to kill the fuckers responsible for it. And the crowds gather around us and will not leave if you ask them to. It’s only when you chamber a round or level your rifle on them that they back off. They, for the most part, do not respond to reasonable attempts at persuasion, just threats of violence. They seem stupid by Western standards. By Western standards, I would imagine an invading or liberating, (whatever you choose to call it) army to be met with closed doors and empty streets, not throngs of curious bystanders.
So this makes me ask a couple of basic questions. Number one: Is this response and persuasion through violence because of three decades of rule by a sadistic dictator, or was the installment of an oppressive and violent regime the result of these cultural traits that seem so prevalent here? Number two: If the first part is true, how long will it take to change, or will we just install another oppressive government that sells oil to the U.S. at cut-rate prices?
I hope the first part is true, because otherwise many have died and many more have suffered for nothing. But either way we’ll get cheaper gas, right?
I guess I’ll wind this down. My light is running down while this killer sunset takes place. Probably because of the clear skies and the flaming oil refineries a few miles away.
I wish you and Sean [Anna’s fiancé] good health and happiness.
Much love always,
Your brother Garth
P.S. I think the flies and mosquitoes have made everyone go completely sideways; dude just walked outside completely fucking naked wearing a silver construction helmet he found. What the hell?? Oh yeah, they said we’d be back in the states July 4th.
“He said to me, ‘I feel like I can talk to you,’ ” Anna said of the motivation behind her brother’s letters. “'I don’t know what it is but I feel like we have some kind of common bond.’
“It’s true, the more I got to know him. He is such a smart ass—he totally reminds me of me when I was his age. You know, this kind of annoying skateboarding, cussing, spitting person. I don’t think anyone saw that there was any kind of soft side to him. He’s very sarcastic, very loud. Just like me.”
Wednesday, June 6
This is an interesting place to be. All of Iraq is. This is an exciting and strange time, where the life and prosperity of this nation and its people hangs by tender threads. But beyond that, and I think more importantly, a place and time where odd and uplifting human dramas play out, far from politically flavored lights of the media. Unimportant to all but those involved. Held up by a hopeful trust, laughter and a need to communicate.
I don’t think my deeply ingrained experiences here will be the trying times. War is just the most violent arm of politics. A means of causing compliance when all else fails, and those in power still demand compliance. In war, a soldier isn’t a person, a human; a soldier is just a tool, a hammer or a screwdriver. His aim is to take apart the machine of the enemy. I think those memories will stay with me, but detached impersonal memories.
The angry sound of bullets moving by; of exhaustion. The grim power and simplicity of moving on a patrol, tight and narrow-eyed and aware of everything. Those are the memories of an implement. They lack the color and buoyancy of a human. I think the experiences with staying power are the flickering contacts between people from alien worlds.
We find ourselves guarding a small power station. Sharing a common wall, and rooftop, is a poor but generous family. They have extended the warmest hospitality I’ve ever known. For me, that’s saying a lot. Most of my aunts and uncles live in Maryland, and I think are part of a vanishing breed. I’ve always been afraid to ask them for anything because I know they’ll most likely step outside the bounds of reason for me.
But these people, this family next to the substation, have very little. The man of the house stays home, to protect it from robbers. Baghdad is a lawless place right now. Gunfire is a common thing at night; nighttime wouldn’t be right without it. His wife, I think she’s his wife, works at the substation and makes enough money for the family to eat. So darkness falls, we have two men on guard and the rest of us are enjoying the cooling air on the roof.
Amar walks over to our position from his rooftop bearing a silver tray with glasses of strong and succulent Iraqi tea. Some of the best tea I’ve ever had. He invites us over to his rooftop to listen to his radio. Says he has Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson. We all laugh, tell him those guys kick ass, and accept. We sit in a semicircle by his window, listening to Americas most sickly sweet pop, sipping tea that’s a borderline narcotic, and most importantly, conversing.
Here’s the part that gets me. Here’s what this is all about. This isn’t a new story. I’m sure that as long as there’s been a war, this story has followed it. This is my shining example, a fresh and still dripping recollection of why war is one of the most stupid, irresponsible, and depraved things we’ve managed to do as humans. As we’re talking, this man Amar tells us that he was in the Iraqi army. He was a conscript like most Iraqi soldiers, and he deserted when the U.S. invaded. This is a man that tells us how Saddam ruined Iraq, that when he heard the coalition was coming, he was happy.
This is a man who extends the barest and most honest friendship, who is willing to offer any of his meager possessions to us if we were to ask. This is a man who we laugh and play dominoes with. We, as a human race, need to get our priorities straight. We need to figure out what the problem seems to be. Of course it won’t happen, I’m sure this story has had little or no effect for thousands of years. I’m sure that it won’t for thousands of years to come. But the point of the story is that if Amar hadn’t deserted, if we had met as tools instead of men, we would have impersonally tried to kill each other without reserve. I would have willingly killed this man, this human brother. Instead we drink tea and laugh.
Garth A. Talbott
Tuesday, June 13
I think maybe I put too much negative emphasis on these people. Tends to happen when I write, though. Keep exploring two single lines of thought until they run to their most extreme. By no means am I saying that it was bullshit, but it’s not everybody. When I wrote that, we hadn’t been in Baghdad very long. Even the cities we were in before were still seemingly rural. I don’t know if it’s because we stayed on the outskirts of them, or if they were just rural.
Baghdad is definitely more cosmopolitan, as far as Iraq is concerned (donkey carts on freeways) and the general level of education seems a lot higher here. A few incidents stand out in my mind. When we were clearing the town of Miskaab, I was trying to push back these mobs of people. At first I tried asking them in Arabic. Nothing. Then a mixture of yelling in Arabic and a slew of English expletives and then pointing my rifle and yelling in English. Each was effective for a couple of minutes, and then not at all. Despite feeling the urge to, we weren’t allowed to fire on them (yeah I know it sounds pretty bad to say).
So this old guy comes up. He speaks a little English. It turns out he’s a schoolteacher. We exchange names and the whole mood relaxes. Everyone is glued to our conversation. He seems to be very respected, and Americans are curiosities. So in the course of our mostly unintelligible conversation, he asks why we yell at the people. I tell him we need to keep them back because we don’t know who’s friendly and who isn’t.
So he goes ‘OK,” turns around and says something and everyone leaves. From then on, every time a crowd starts to gather, I ask him to ask them to leave and they all leave. No discourtesy, no ill will.
At the palace on the Euphrates, there was a farm that bordered the wall. The owner hailed us when we were on one of the guard towers, so we went downstairs to a window. We do the standard exchange of names and whatnot, and in the course of this he finds out where we’re from and we find out that he’s a professor at the university in Baghdad. He asks if we need anything. He ends up bringing us a bunch of cold sodas and a couple of packs of smokes. Of course, there is always an element of mistrust on both sides, but that’s natural, given the situation.
So I guess my point was education, but really it’s communication. That’s not to say that there aren’t Americans who go out in the city and act like a bunch of assholes. Or Iraqis that throw rocks or shoot at our compound once in a blue moon. I feel that at least they have genuine interest and a tentative trust in us. I hope it isn’t misplaced. I think it’s kind of funny though. From what I’ve heard, they were expecting an army of savages. Nothing more to expect than rape, murder and pillaging. Instead they get us.
On a side note, I heard that the locals were told by the Fedayeen that American paratroopers had to kill a family member as a rite of passage. That made everyone feel like a bunch of scary bastards. So we went out today, blew up some bomblet type things in this dude’s orchard. He was pretty stoked. Blew up some other stuff too. We went to a local market, don’t really think it’s allowed but fuck’em. Bought some grapefruits, oranges and ice. Sodas too.
Our little house here is pretty sweet. We’ve ‘liberated” a couple of couches, tables, a refrigerator, a redneck-style horizontal freezer and a ceiling fan for the room my squad sleeps in. A couple of the dudes that know about electricity ran lines from somewhere, so we’ve got power for about four hours a day. A lot of people complain about being here, and it sort of sucks in some ways, but this is really the most exciting and interesting thing I’ve ever done.
I don’t know about the reasons behind this whole thing. I think they’re sort of shady, but what we’ve done is definitely a positive thing. I think a lot of people’s lives are going to be a hell of a lot better because of it; or we’ll just end up fighting them again in 10 or 20 years.
From what I hear, the media’s been doing the ‘negative press” thing, at least for the 82nd. I don’t know if you heard about the 15 civilians that got shot to shit by some of my airborne brethren. I guess there was this typical mob of people gathered around our guys, and someone started shooting at them, so our guys let loose. People died. Civilians. And no weapons were found. I guess what the reporters forget is that a soldier’s job is to kill his fellow man. And for whatever it’s worth, I think those guys did what they had to. Someone shot at them and they shot back.
It’s too bad that innocent people were in the way, but that’s one of the reasons we try to push them back, so fuck ’em. God, what a weird way to live. We’ve (the 82nd) had it pretty easy though. It’s been pretty chill for the most part. The good weighs out the bad. So anyways, I think I’ll sign off for now, so…..
That was the last letter Anna received from Garth. Now she waits for word that he is alive and well.
“I just talked to a kid in [Garth’s] 307 Engineering Battalion and he said no one from the 307 has been injured,” she reported last week. “Happy day, happy day!”
She picked up a photo taken at Fort Bragg. Garth holds a military sword. He’s looking into the camera with a mischievous glint in his eye and licking the blade. As she studied the photo of her brother’s comic pose, the tears welled up again.
“That to me is my brother. I hope you don’t print this one. He’s just totally goofing off and being a dork."