"I wondered if that was why we went to the Gulf, and there in the dark it seemed certain that the war had never been about freedom but about protecting American interests in oil. The chickens all around me proved it."
The night I deployed, four inches of ice fell across the state of Arkansas. This was late December, in the dark days right after Christmas. My friends and I were home from the various colleges we’d escaped to after high school, and in the few days before we disappeared again we drank too much and woke in the cold mornings hurting in a hundred different ways. A fine mist fell through the streetlights, and already the temperature was dropping.
Four or five of us were playing pool in a dive bar when my mother walked in. She looked on the verge of crying. Two years before, she’d seen her husband deployed to Desert Storm, and she’d just received a phone call with a similar code word—in this case “Roaring Bull”—which meant my National Guard unit had been mobilized.
“I don’t know what it’s about,” she told me, near tears. “They wouldn’t say over the phone.”
When the call came for my stepfather to go to Desert Storm—still Desert Shield at the time—we knew why without asking. We’d been watching the news for months, since Hussein invaded Kuwait, and we didn’t need to decipher any code words to know my stepfather was being sent to the Middle East. The entire U.S. Army had been sent, it seemed, all except my guard unit. For the two years since the Gulf War ended, I had been telling people I wish I would have gone too, but that night, my mother crying in a shitty pool hall where sad country music played endlessly on the 60s jukebox, I would have given anything to be out of the guard.
Outside, the rain had turned to sleet. We didn’t know it then, but north of us, in the Ozark Mountains, the rain had turned to sleet hours ago. Already a layer of ice was covering trees and roads and power lines, and already electrical grids were going dark.
I drove straight to the National Guard armory, leaving my mother and my friends standing in the sleet shivering. In the turning-slick parking lot, I slid into a spot and climbed out breathing on my hands. A half dozen guard members were standing in a circle, wondering what was happening. We all looked strange without our uniforms on. Most of these were middle-aged men, going slowly bald and fat, and none of us looked like soldiers. I was still too young, my shoulders thin as knife blades, and like most young men, too assured of my own importance.
Our voices echoed in the empty space of the big drill hall as we went in. We could hear the sleet hitting the roof, harder now. We still didn’t know what was coming. We never do. One moment you’re shooting pool and getting slowly drunk, and the next you’re looking to see what’s falling from the sky. That’s the way it’s always been and, I suspect, always will be.
By the time First Sergeant Thomas called us to attention, another two dozen men had arrived. Some of them had shaved and dressed—the rest of us stood in our civilian clothes. In northwest Arkansas, Thomas told us, the ice had knocked out electricity. It would only get worse, he said. The ice line was creeping farther south every minute as the night deepened and the cold came on. By morning, he said, there would be no power anywhere.
“So we’re supposed to keep people alive?” someone asked. Thomas shook his head. “People can take care of themselves,” he said. “They have wood stoves, fireplaces, blankets.
“We have to”—and I’ll say he smiled and shook his head slightly, like even our superiors knew how absurd this was—”save the chickens.”
Tyson Foods, headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas, is the world’s second largest processor and marketer of meat in the world. Chicken and turkey houses litter the countryside of Arkansas, and when the ice came down the chicken industry stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. At the National Guard armory, our voices echoing overhead, I asked our first sergeant why the farmers didn’t just let the chickens freeze and then sell them as prefrozen, but he did not share my mirth.
“Go grab your gear,” he said. “Uniform, rucksack, sleeping bag, cot if you have one. You might want to grab your gas mask, too.”
None of us knew why he mentioned gas masks, but we drove home along the ice-slick roads to get our gear. In the living room, my mother was pacing back and forth.
“What is it?” she said. She lit another cigarette before she finished the first.
“Operation Save the Chickens,” I told her. She looked at me blankly, so I explained what the first sergeant had told us—that the power was out and all the chicken houses across the countryside had no heat. The chickens would freeze to death, and we had been called to save them.
“Chickens,” she said.
“Chickens,” I told her.
“You’re not going to war?”
“Not unless a chicken attacks me.”
She hugged me hard enough to hurt. She smelled like smoke and love. Years later it would occur to me the code word should have been “Roaring Chicken” instead of “Roaring Bull.”
Perhaps we simply wanted to pay the chickens back.
In the first Gulf War, with the threat of Hussein’s chemical weapons and a severely slashed budget for the detection of them, the U.S. military enlisted chickens. The idea, like the canary in the coal mine, was that the chickens would detect chemical agents by dying, thus saving American lives, so “poultry chemical confirmation devices” were brought in. The official designation was Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken, or KFC for short.
The Department of Defense used chickens again during the second Gulf War, in 2003. The plan this time was to place them in cages on top of caravans so troops moving into new areas would have an early detection system—if the chickens died, turn around.
Neither operation worked. In 2003, forty-one of the forty-three chickens sent to Iraq died shortly after arriving. In the first Gulf War, the chickens, standing sentry outside armed camps, froze to death in the cold desert night.
By the time I finished grabbing my gear, the ice was an inch deep on the roads. The sound it made on my windshield reminded me of fingernails tapping impatiently for me to get on with my life. I was, for a few more months, still considering a career in the military, but only because I had no other ideas. I was majoring in history at the time, and all the history classes I had taken only taught me that we make the same mistakes again and again. The present always circles back to the past while we’re waiting for the future to get here.
At the armory, a long line of Humvees stood idling, ice falling like sparks in the red taillights. From our storage building, men were loading diesel generators into the backs of the Humvees, their voices broken by the fall of ice.
When the Humvees were loaded, First Sergeant Thomas called us to attention again and began laying out the plan: In pairs, we would be issued a Humvee with a generator. We’d be given directions to a farm and, once there, would hook up the generator to the chicken house and warm it enough to keep the chickens from freezing to death. Then we’d move to the next house, circling back through the night if need be.
I was paired with James Brighton, a guy my age who would end up in Antarctica years later. I suppose now he had a predilection for ice, but at the time I was disappointed Nikky Irby had not arrived so I could be paired with her, since the first sergeant had told us we might be out for weeks. He said to stay warm. He said to sleep when we could, and I was thinking of sleeping with Irby when someone asked where we would sleep. The ice was still falling; it would fall all that night and into the next day.
“Wherever you can,” the first sergeant said.
By the time we left it was after midnight. I was already tired. For days my friends and I had been drinking too much, shooting pool, trying to convince ourselves there was a reason to go back to school. The temperature had dropped into the teens, and the ice slanted sideways in the headlights. The Humvee rattled and clanged as we drove, and the warm air from the heater stunk of diesel. I closed my eyes, thinking of bed.
It took us an hour to get to the first farm, though it was less than twenty miles away. The trees along the sides of the road were broken. In the light of morning we’d see snapped limbs everywhere, like some cataclysm had occurred in the night while we were trying to warm ourselves.
At the farm, a man with chapped hands and face met us in his driveway. He’d been checking the temperature in his chicken houses, waiting for us to arrive.
“I’ve already lost a few,” he said, shaking our hands. Later I would learn he was responsible for the loss of chickens—every one that died was less money for him.
With the farmer directing us, James pulled the Hummer as close as he could to the first chicken house. We ran a long cord to the power supply. The farmer, whose name I’ve long forgot-
ten, hooked it in, and a minute later we heard the heat come on.
The chickens, who seemed stunned in the cold—we could see our breath even inside the houses—circled each heat source. These were chicks, newly arrived. The farmer got a new batch every six weeks or so, grew them until they were big enough to fry, then shipped them out. He’d spend a few days cleaning out the houses—mucking the fouled sawdust and disposing of any dead chickens—and then more would come in. On summer days in Arkansas, we saw trucks full of small chicks or big fryers or sometimes chicken guts from the processing plants. The smell of manure hung over farm fields because many farmers laced them with fertilizer, and my friends and I were always saying the chicken crossed the road to get the fuck out of Ar- kansas. Years ago, the state of Oklahoma sued Arkansas for nonpoint water pollution, meaning the chemicals and waste from chicken houses got into the groundwater supply and poi- soned Oklahoma wells. The chickens in Arkansas produce the waste equivalent of 9 million humans. The population of the state is 3 million.
All this is to say we stood there not talking while the heat climbed. In half an hour our breath no longer fogged before us, and a half hour after that we unzipped our heavy coats. The farmer’s face was still red. His wife brought coffee she’d made over the fireplace, and we stood sipping as the farmer eyed the temperature gauge. Every few minutes he’d walk through the chicks to keep them moving.
“They’re coming around,” he’d say. “I can’t tell you how glad I am you came.”
We ran the generator to the first house for about two hours. It had gotten to be three in the morning. I got my cot from the Hummer and set it up in a far corner, and James and I took turns sleeping. Every so often I’d slip to sleep and wake with a jolt. The chickens crowded around the heat reminded me of humans, pecking at each other, jostling for space, trying to stay warm at someone else’s expense. It didn’t occur to me then that we are animals, and when what we have is taken away, we often revert to that animal nature.
Or so I’ll say now. The truth is, I’m not sure what I thought that long night. I only remember that everything hurt. That I wondered why the Arkansas National Guard would spend state money to help a giant corporation. I suppose I could argue we were helping independent farmers, but at the time, in the cold, I thought about the protesters before Desert Shield became Des- ert Storm, chanting “no blood for oil” in the streets of Seattle. At the time I had thought them disrespectful of the men and women who were fighting for our freedom but later wondered if there was any truth to their chants. I wondered what freedom we were fighting for. As a history major, the more I studied war, the more I knew how corrupt we can become when we let greed control us. Those who argue the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery never took an economics class. The same with the War of 1812, the Barbary Wars, the Japanese expansion into the Pacific that brought about America’s entry into World War II. In 1961, Eisenhower warned us of the military-industrial complex, which led me to ponder, while trying to sleep, about the chicken-industrial complex and what powers it wielded.
Around 4 a.m. we moved to the second house and repeated the process. More chicks were dead here, their small yellow bodies already turning stiff. The farmer scooped them up with a shovel and tossed them into a pit. Peering down into it at the dead bodies as the first gray wash of dawn shaped the far horizon, I imagined myself, much older, wandering the meat aisle at the local market, remembering.
By the time we made it to the third and then fourth house, around nine the next morning, there were chickens dead everywhere. The farmer came and went with his shovel and the pile in the pit grew. In the gray morning, the ice still fell on the roofs of the houses, and by the time we had warmed the fourth house, chickens were freezing again in the first.
At some point, seeing us shiver through the cold, the farmer brought out a little kerosene heater for us to put by our cot. It smoked and stunk and I thought it might catch the sawdust on fire, but let me say how far a small bit of comfort can go. As can kindness. In the moments we stood waiting for the heat to come on, the farmer told us how long he’d been trying to hold on to his land. Cattle prices had dropped years before, so he had switched to chickens, as many farmers in Arkansas had. And there was good money to be made, he said, only the profit margins were small. We would hear this story at every house we went to. “This may break me,” these men would say, almost all of them in their fifties or sixties, which seemed incredibly old to me then, for men to be working through such sad weather without the advantage of young bodies. Most of them were at least a little overweight. They wore the red hands and weathered faces of men who work outside, and they carried with them the stoicism that comes from being at the mercy of the weather and other forces beyond their control.
A brief history of my family and Arkansas National Guard deployment:
In 1951, my grandfather’s National Guard unit was deployed to Korea, where he worked in a hospital in Pusan. In a letter he wrote to his brother in pencil that has faded in the sixty years since, he says he wishes they could go fishing together and that he misses my mother, who was an infant at the time.
In 1957, the Arkansas National Guard was activated by Governor Orville Faubus and then federalized by Dwight D. Eisenhower. They were sent to Little Rock Central High School to protect nine African Americans integrating the school. My stepfather, who had lied about his age to join the guard and was barely older than the students at the school, was activated.
In 1968, my father’s National Guard unit was activated after a tornado hit the neighboring town of Greenwood. For close to twenty-four hours he patrolled the ruins for looters. He had a weapon but no bullets.
And in 1993, I saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of chickens, which, translated, means I saved the chicken-industrial complex millions of dollars.
Despite being surrounded by chickens that would one day end up on someone’s table, dipped twice in flour and fried to a crisp golden brown, all we had to eat were MREs issued to us at the armory. MREs, or meals ready to eat, are packaged in plastic and taste like sawdust. Many of them come with a small bottle of hot sauce, so they taste like sawdust with hot sauce, which is slightly more acceptable but not much. The first few days, most of the stores were closed so we could not stop to buy a bag of chips or a candy bar or those hot dogs that grow crusty and hard after all day in the warmer but still taste better than MREs.
And since both James and I carried all the hungers of the young within us, we talked constantly about food. Late at night, trying to sleep in the Humvee or on a cot inside the chicken house, we told each other of hamburgers and bacon, of breakfast sausage, of eggs, of all the pork rinds and beef jerky in the world. I did not know then how much meat we consume in our constant hunger, or how hard on our ecosystems things like nonpoint source pollution and methane gas from animal waste are. Nor did I know that the production of meat in our country uses more water than a trillion short showers, that the cattle industry contributes as much to climate change as all the cars we own, that a vast majority of agricultural land use is for raising livestock and not for growing the grain that feeds them.
So late one night, our stomachs rumbling like approaching airplanes, James and I came up with a plan to kill a chicken and cook it. We would wait until the farmer went to sleep and then catch and cut one’s throat. We’d build a fire and put a spit over the fire and roast it like those guys in All Quiet on the Western Front with that turkey or whatever it was, and we’d go to sleep full for once, if not clean.
But for whatever reason, we never got around to the killing. The farmer never slept long enough or we were too busy or we had spent too much time with the little chicks to eat them. So we stayed hungry, eating our cold MREs, until one evening the farmer’s wife brought us sandwiches that we ate with our dirty hands like starving men.
The farmer’s power came back on after we’d been there for two days. His wife brought us coffee once again and we stood in the cold with the warm cups in our hands, amazed at such small feelings. We had unhooked the generator and loaded it back in the Humvee and the farmer stood looking off at something we couldn’t see. He offered his hand and we shook all around, and James and I climbed in the Humvee and drove back to the armory.
The power was back on in town and I thought we were through, but as soon as we pulled in, the first sergeant gave us the address of another house. I could not tell him—as a soldier, as a small boy who wanted to be a man—that I needed a hot shower and hot food and a warm bed. I needed to go home.
Instead, we climbed back in the Humvee and went higher into the hills, where the power was still out. Here trees had fallen under the weight of their own encasement. The hillsides glistened in the gray afternoon, and it seemed there was so much ice in the world even the mountains might collapse.
A farmer who seemed identical to the first met us in the driveway. I wondered how he had any chickens left alive after three days of freezing weather, but these were turkey houses. I do not know if turkeys are made of stronger stuff, if their bigger bodies offer them more protection from natural disasters such as ice falling unceasingly, or if the power had stayed on longer here.
What I know is that we were almost knocked out when we went inside the first house. The turkeys were full-grown, only a few days before they were to ship out. They filled the house with feathers, ten or twenty thousand of them gobbling in what seemed anger or discomfort. They had fouled the sawdust floor with shit so the whole house reeked of ammonia or smelling salts held under our noses to wake us up after a faint or fistfight. “It’s a little tough to get used to,” the farmer said, and I felt the world spin around me. I went outside and breathed deep in the cold. Since the Gulf War I had wondered about myself as a soldier, if I had the fortitude to fight, and here I was scared of the smell of shit. I did not think I could stay in such a place, with the fumes of ammonia rising around me. But soldiers are supposed to be made of sterner stuff, so James and I dug through our gear and put on our gas masks. Later it would occur to me that despite all the talk of chemical warfare during Desert Storm, we’d been gassed here, in America, by turkeys.
That night was the coldest yet. The clouds had finally cleared, and in the powerless dark we could see them flung across the sky so bright I wanted to cry. We had to sleep at different times because someone had to be awake to keep the generator running, and it was hard to breathe in my gas mask, so when it was my turn to watch I would wander outside and stand under the stars and try to draw air. I was bone-tired, depressed, wondering, as all of us are, about our place here on earth, so to get through the long watches I pretended we were at war. That this was a brief respite before the bullets and bombs, before the world came crashing down around us. Like too many young men I invented heroic deeds—storming machine-gun nests, shooting down a suicide bomber, saving young children in the streets. I did not imagine guarding chickens.
I did imagine that we had deserted. The war was too long and we didn’t know what we were fighting for, so we deserted and hid here, among the other chickens. Soon someone would come looking for us and we would be found and hanged. Before they hanged us, we would say we could not die for a cause we didn’t believe in, although everyone who was on hand to see us hang would know we were just cowards.
I also wondered what would happen if I didn’t go back to college. If I just threw on a backpack and set out on the road. I had already dropped out once, right after the Gulf War, after weeks of watching it on TV. There seemed no reason to go to class afterward. At any moment, another war would kick up and this time I’d be sent, and why worry about the future when there might not be one. I wondered if we would be called again to save the chickens or some other private industry. I wondered if that was why we went to the Gulf, and there in the dark it seemed certain that the war had never been about freedom but about protecting American interests in oil. The chickens all around me proved it.
As the night grew later, I wished that we had alcohol stashed away somewhere so I could get drunk and forget. That there was food here that didn’t come from plastic or shit on its own floor. That the world didn’t stink of decomposition, that we didn’t send men to fight in the interests of money, that we weren’t shitting all over the world in which we lived.
There were more chicken and turkey houses, more farmers and MREs and long dark nights, but they all run together at this point. We were operating on too little sleep and too little food, and the whole time seems now one long scene of boredom and chicken shit and despair.
We spent two weeks working in the hills of Arkansas, saving the lives of chickens and (perhaps) farmers. As the power came back on in stages, we’d move on to the next house, always higher into the hills, farther away from the small towns that make up the region, deeper into economically depressed areas where farmers had to make tough choices if they wanted to keep their land. We heard stories of banks foreclosing on surrounding farms. Of the giant conglomerates forcing farmers to constantly upgrade their facilities or risk losing contracts. Of questionable business practices by the parent companies, and though I cannot verify the truth of those claims, the men I met were barely hanging on—we could see that in their run-down houses, their old farm trucks, their slumped shoulders, their gratitude that we had saved them, and I came to know they meant that we saved them from economic ruin, which might be, in this country, the same thing as saving their lives.
When we packed up at the last house, I came home. I slept for two days. I went back to college. I dropped out again. I left the military and got married and had kids and waited for another war to begin, knowing there was always another war waiting.
It was the only time I ever deployed, but not long before I left the military forever, my unit went to Fort Hood, Texas, for the weekend to fire missiles. This was the same base where Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major and psychiatrist, would fatally shoot thirteen people and injure thirty others and not far away from where sniper Chris Kyle would be shot and killed by a mentally disturbed former marine.
For years, my National Guard unit had not been deemed ready for active duty. Since shortly after the Korean War, it had been an evacuation hospital, and during a reorganization effort following the end of the Cold War, it had been converted to air defense artillery.
This was to be our qualification, our announcement that we were ready for war. Politicians from the state of Arkansas had flown down to witness the event. Generals and colonels and sergeants major were on hand as well as, I believe, representatives from the missile company.
Our first sergeant wanted all the men my age out of the way, so he had told us the night before we could drink in the barracks. Two dozen of us, the youngest kids, the ones who would work the front lines if we ever went to war, the ones who had, mostly, saved the chickens and stood at attention at the graves of soldiers who had died in Vietnam, got so stinking drunk that the next day our heads hurt so badly we could hardly move.
We loaded a bus before first light and drove an hour out to the firing range, a long expanse of scrub brush in the Texas countryside. Most of us were still hurting, so in a move we saw at the time as magnanimous, our first sergeant said we could sleep it off in the scrub brush as long as we stayed out of sight.
The artillery had been set up down in a little valley. On the top of the hill, a platform had been erected for the representatives and senators. From behind us, a large rocket, shaped like a ship, would be fired, and from down on the valley floor our missiles would shoot it out of the sky while the visiting dignitaries watched.
The rest of us slept in the scrub brush, too hurt to care. As the sun moved our shade, we crawled farther into the brush, and when the first missile fired we didn’t see it. I heard later there was an explosion, and the politicians cheered and the missiles streaked the sky like a sign of coming war, but I didn’t know. I had put in my earplugs so I wouldn’t hear anything. I kept crawling deeper into the brush to block out the sun. As if I didn’t want to see, like a man, or bird, with his head in the sand.