[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Mark Wilkerson's new book, Tomas Young's War, is a powerful tale of an American soldier who spent only five days deployed to Iraq in 2004 as this country's second war there was just heating up. His conflict, his battlefield, it turned out, would be at home in the years to follow and the book is a riveting account of bravery -- of heroism, actually -- on the home front of a kind that normally isn't associated with antiwar activity. We at TomDispatch consider it a must-read. Wilkerson, a veteran of an earlier American conflict -- in Somalia in the previous century -- has agreed to send a personalized, signed copy of the book to any reader willing to donate $100 or more to this website ($125 if you live outside the United States). Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]
I can't tell you exactly why I clicked on the article, but it was probably the title: "The Double-Tap Couple." To me, a "double tap" is the technique of firing two gunshots in quick succession or employing two strikes in a row, as when U.S. drones or Hamas carry out attacks and then follow-up strikes to kill first-responders arriving at the scene. But this piece was about something very different. The headline referred to the popular app Instagram where you double-tap to "like" a photo.
The article turned out to be a profile of two twenty-somethings, a married couple who go by the noms de social media, FuckJerry and Beige Cardigan. They are, says author David Yi, "micro-celebrities" of the modern age. He is "tall, with a chiseled face, handsome"; she "has big doe eyes with cherub-like cheeks." They dropped out of college and -- first he and then she -- became Instagram meme curators; that is, they find photos with wry or funny captions elsewhere on the internet and post them for their millions of followers. "Though both are social media sensations, neither is quite content with what they've accomplished," Yi tells us. She "wants to pursue her first love, fashion, but isn't quite sure what she'd want to do." He's currently cashing in with FuckJerry merchandise -- hats, t-shirts, even "Vape juice."
I read the article to the point at which FuckJerry (nee Elliot Tebele) told Yi about his long slog up the Instagram follower food-chain: "It took a sh*t ton of time to get to, and it took a long time with a lot of work." I stared at my phone in abject confusion. Something wasn't right, so I scrolled to the beginning of the article and started again. But it was just the same. Justin Bieber is a fan. Followers include the "Kardashian-Jenner family." He wears "skinny jeans and vintage Nikes." She sports a "statement coat and a pair of sparkling Chloe boots." Then I hit that quote: "sh*t ton of time... a lot of work." I still couldn't make sense of it and began studying the article as if it were a riddle. I read it maybe five times and again and again when I hit those phrases about time and work my brain would buckle.
At that moment, I was nearing the end of a month-long reporting stint in South Sudan and waiting to find out if I'd be able to talk to a teenage girl, a late millennial with more than memes on her mind. She had rebuffed the 60-something man her family had arranged for her to marry and her relatives had displayed their displeasure by beating her to the point of unconsciousness. That conversation never happened, but I'd already logged several weeks' worth of interviews with shooting survivors, rape victims, mothers of murdered sons, wives of dead husbands. All this in a country where, for firewood and water -- that is, the means of life -- women walk desperately far distances in areas where they know that men with AK-47s may be lurking, where many are assaulted and violated by one, two, or even five men. In other words, a land where few would consider meme curation to be "a lot of work."
I'd obviously hit that unsettling juncture where voices from home become dulled and distorted, where you feel like you're hearing them from deep underwater. I'm talking about the vanishing point at which your first-world life collides with your crisis-zone reality -- the point of disconnect. Mark Wilkerson knows it well. He found himself in just such a state, serving with the U.S. Army in civil-war-torn Somalia during the 1990s. That's where he begins his inaugural TomDispatch piece, a rumination on his journey from soldier to veteran to chronicler of the all-too-brief life of another veteran, in his recent and moving book, Tomas Young's War.
I eventually gave up on Yi's article, unsure why I couldn't understand the life and times of FuckJerry. After I got back to the U.S., however, I signed up for Instagram and took a look at his account and Yi's story began to make more sense to me, if only in a tragi-comic way. Later in the piece, he writes of his subjects being "caught in the maelstrom" when a competitor is criticized for "stealing" memes. It's a strange society that produces both meme maelstroms and, in distant lands, lethal ones that leave millions dead, maimed, desperate, or displaced. So before you become FuckJerry's 9,200,001st follower, let Wilkerson guide you through slivers of two American conflicts, their aftermaths, and the points of disconnect along the way. Nick Turse
One Man's War
Bringing Iraq to America
By Mark Wilkerson
Memorial Day is over. You had your barbeque. Now, you can stop thinking about America's wars and the casualties from them for another year. As for me, I only wish it were so.
It's been Memorial Day for me ever since I first met Tomas Young. And in truth, it should have felt that way from the moment I hunkered down in Somalia in 1993 and the firing began. After all, we've been at war across the Greater Middle East ever since. But somehow it was Tomas who, in 2013, first brought my own experience in the U.S. military home to me in ways I hadn't been able to do on my own.
That gravely wounded, living, breathing casualty of our second war in Iraq who wouldn't let go of life or stop thinking and critiquing America's never-ending warscape brought me so much closer to myself, so bear with me for a moment while I return to Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, and bring you -- and me -- closer to him.
In that spring of 1993, I was a 22-year-old Army sergeant, newly married, and had just been dropped into a famine-ridden, war-torn Third World country on the other side of the planet, a place I hadn't previously given a thought. I didn't know what hit me. I couldn't begin to take it in. That first day I remember sitting on my cot with a wet t-shirt draped over my head, chugging a bottle of water to counter the oppressive heat.
I'd trained for this -- a real mission -- for more than five years. I was a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. Still, I had no idea what I was in for.
So much happened in Somalia in that "Black Hawk Down" year that foreshadowed America's fruitless wars of the twenty-first century across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, but you wouldn't have known it by me. That first day, sitting in a tent on the old Somali Air Force base in Baledogle, a couple of hours inland from the capital city of Mogadishu, I had a face-to-face encounter with a poisonous black mamba snake. Somehow it didn't register. Not really.
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