Nathan Lewis


If things were the other way around

20-year-old Iraqi soldiers would write home to girlfriends about the cold New York winter. About watching snow blow from frozen lakes.

A Captain would stand under a tall pine in Appalachia and call home to Baghdad on a satellite phone. He’d try to be cheerful and tell them about skunks, hummingbirds and the mountains.

Children would scribble the number and type of every enemy vehicle in Crayon.

A patrol of foreign mercenaries wiped out. The corpses hung from the Brooklyn Bridge. Youngsters in hoodies and tims laughing it up for the camera.

Graffiti on concrete barriers would tell Iraqis to go home in broken Arabic.

John Stewart would throw his shoes at President Malaki.

Elderly home owners behind every door, clutching shotguns, waiting for the house raids. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers would be shipped home in sleek metal containers draped with a corresponding flag.

There would be withdrawal timetables and multi-national water corporations bidding on Lake Erie. There’d be retired Iraqi generals on Al-Jazera talking about Canada giving advanced weaponry to insurgents. The politicians would tell you all about the need to occupy Texas in order to keep Mexico out.

Iraqi soldiers would take re-enlistment oaths under the St. Louis arch, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Two hundred thousand protestors march down Haifa Street demanding an end to the war. Iraqi veterans return to Mosques, classrooms and Parliament to speak about the murder and destruction. The war crimes.

There would be rebels in the woods called the Yellow Ribbon Brigade. Red Dawn in every town. If things were the other way around, we’d know the unjust sting of occupation.

Gods Make Terrible Generals

Up there in front the commander
gave his big game speech
Two days before the bombing started
“Going to war for God”

The Steel Warriors
Cold War weapon system boondoggle saints
A mean group that fires telephone poles
filled with cluster bombs
Atheists in the ranks squirmed like burning worms

We punched our biblical time cards
amidst a missile attack in Kuwait
Through the sand storms, the terrifying house raids
All the lonely nights wondering the range of an old mortar tube
The greasy black stains on the road next to a flattened sedan
Through all that
We prayed

Some prayed to Gods
Others for blood and fire
I prayed to the angel of chance and circumstance
Kept my mind as low as possible
Sex, food, cars, football, sex
Some prayed to Gods

My dog tags read No Religious Preference
My Kevlar never felt like a Halo
My M-16 never smelled of blonde baby hair
or Frankincense

Not Myrrh or ripe Cantaloupe
Not clouds or clean feet

It smelled of sausage and money
Spent old rolled up coke bills cut with cordite

In Iraq that same Commander told us
to run over children for our own safety
“They’ll use kids to stop the convoy”
God’s war
Words like a 69’ Camaro
burnout brake stand of hypocrisy

Handing out food to the starving kids was forbidden
Who would Jesus throw a meal to?

Holy trinity in the burnt out tanks returning to sand
We passed remnants from Father’s war
The son dispatched us
without ever knowing the feeling
We met the ghost of Vietnam
It welcomed us with a grin and laughter
Back so soon?

Standing with an armload of tired old one liners
we swaggered drunk on power and war budgets
Armed, angry and motivated
Resplendent in schools, hospitals, roads
A salad of history’s violent fools thrashing in the sand
following well worn and rutted roads
Imperialists, Crusaders, Idiots,
Conquistadors, Missionaries, Carpetbaggers
Shameless mercenaries at best

Diesel Truck Time Machine

Sunny skies
Walking to class
A skip in my step, a song in my head
Wave to friends
Search for glimpses of the river showing through the houses

Pierrepont Avenue
An old route slicing through the setup Amidst the folly and flop
Tremendous party houses hold out another year

My footsteps
Two fall per sidewalk square
Step on a crack get sent back
A truck drives by and takes me to Iraq

The sound, the smell, especially the sound
A guttural rumble v The distinct sound of a large diesel with its engine brake on
After the noise the exhaust blows through
Both senses store memories

Carried away briefly in the fumes and sound waves
Every bit of conciseness
Gone, Zap
All the way back through time
Across oceans

Back to Iraq

Guthrie’s driving and I’m riding shotgun
Its late morning and we’re lost
The officers got us lost again
Taking an exit the road disappears

Simply disappears
Tires and trash are burning
We announce our presence with a cloud of dust
Barely enough room to turn the convoy around People are running from us
Tank columns blasted their way through here weeks ago

A tall man holds a shovel and is standing above two graves
The child clinging to his leg buries his face behind trousers
Don’t stop here
I point my weapon and finger the trigger

He points back with an accusing finger.
Points at the graves
He makes the throat cutting motion and points directly at me

Rubble is blasted all over
Huge chunks of concrete and steel
Something in the ditch is dead
You can smell it Spent shell casings in the dirt lay out like
the yellow brick road

Ghastly evidence of a crime
It’s everywhere and you can smell it

A few steps later I’m back on Pierrepont Ave.
Looking for friends
A golden retriever drives by with his head out the window
and smiles at me
My heart beat returns to normal

I don’t have to go down this street
Sometimes I go different ways
There’s always other ways
But sometimes I take Pierrepont and intentionally drop my guard
Wait for the inevitable reptilian brain animal panic rush

Take the route and go back
Back for one minute
Just for one second
Just for a thought
Just for a memory
The rubble, the smoke, the man with the shovel
I visit them in memory so they don’t visit me in sleep

What Not To Wear To War

Won’t be needing that Grand Mammy Pappy Christmas
sale sweater or the zip your penis onesie with plastic
bottomed feetsies.
Drape that varsity jacket over the shoulder of the road
to war, rubber neck wreck, trophies end up in a
Holler for your new team, patches and colors,
cheerleaders under the bleachers.
Thoroughly wash your wool Mexico pullover hoody
before you stand before High Horse Six, explaining
how Mr. Pinhole Burns let down the elite unit of
fools and killers.
Before the show is over, don’t be that guy wearing the
Operation Slaughterhouse VI concert tee bought at
the PX.
Save it for later and sew on your Ford Ranger Bar tab so people know you rock.
Fall out of formation before Top notices your JV
Airborne Eagle Scout Belt Fed Canned Ammo Drive
Wear the crucifix you turned upside down and
sharpenedinto a sword underneath your uniform out
of cultural sensitivity.
Clearly display your class rank, in death, Generals wear
diapers and Privates wear portable toilets.
Sport the same smile in the ruins of the empire you
wore in the ruins of Baghdad so as to not make babies
Lace up a dirty pair of old combat boots when you
attend the war photography exhibit.
Veterans and their guests get in free.

How To Make A Combat Paper Book

Inspired by Chris Arendt’s How To Make Combat Paper

  1. Play Army in the woods
  2. Put up F-14 Tomcat Jet-Fighter wallpaper above your bunk bed
  3. Agree to a pizza date with the local Army recruiter
  4. Graduate high school, watch the planes hit the towers, graduate basic training
  5. Mix 1 part nationalism with 1 part college money, stir in ½ baked optimism
    Train, get desert gear, deploy to Iraq
  6. Arrive in Kuwait, breath fumes from oil wells
  7. Drive to Baghdad, load munitions onto truck, repeat for 3 months
  8. Get flat tires, stares from Iraqis and meet friendly kids
  9. Forget to strap down box of hand grenades, take a turn too fast, spill onto busy street, keep driving
  10. Take pictures, don’t change clothes, eat meals out of metal pouches
  11. Watch traffic accidents, watch the truck in front of you burn,
    watch commanders get blown off burning truck by mortar rounds
  12. Return home, get drunk, grind kitty litter into oil stains in motorpool, repeat for 3 months
  13. Get out of the Army, enroll in college, get a job
  14. Think about steps 1-13 often
  15. Start writing, in groups, alone, in public, in the basement, repeat for 6 years
  16. Read WWI poets, read Vietnam War poets, read Iraq War poets,
    become inspired by peers of the past and present
  17. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
  18. Start your first book with a poem about shitting in the sand
  19. Send book to Harvard and your Grandparents
  20. Ask for help, receive it, be grateful, live simple, speak your mind, plant seeds
  21. Help others with steps 14-21, feel good again

Booze Attack In Iraq

Our radio squawked out something barely audible about a vehicle approaching the convoy.  My eyes scanned to my front and rear, nothing but dull green Army vehicles tearing down the highway at an amazing speed.  My eyes shifted to a huge cloud of dust off the road a distance.  As it approached I could make out an old, tri-colored caprice classic.  It appeared seemingly out of mid air and as it arched towards the highway, I anxiously kept an eye on it. We were on our second day of nonstop driving from Kuwait to the center of Iraq.   Stories of sedans packed with Iraqis wielding AK-47's and RPG's attacking convoys of tanks surfaced in my head.  If they are bold enough to attack tanks with Caprices surely our "soft" convoy of cargo trucks would be a tempting target. I tightened my grip on the SAW as the car reached a side road and began racing up the on-ramp of the highway.  The SAW is a belt fed automatic machine gun that looks like something Rambo would love to use.  When first issued, most soldiers feel lucky to receive such a powerful and prestigious weapon.  These feeling quickly fade when you carry the damn thing around 24/7.  It's heavier than a M16 rifle and you must carry a large load of ammunition. 

The car leaned on worn out shocks as it barreled through the curve.  I snapped off the safety and pulled the weapons charging handle back, chambering a round.  The car continued to accelerate and merged right in the middle of our convoy on my side of the truck.  Nervously I leveled the SAW at the vehicle as it drifted into the next lane.  I now could see the Iraqi's in the car.  They were riding 6 deep and appeared to be all young men, looking as nervous and serious as me.  As they came closer I could see an Iraqi in the back seat lowering the window and raising something from his lap.  At the time the rules of engagement clearly stated that you must be getting shot at to return fire, or identify an armed enemy combatant.   The object was thrust out of the window and I immediately recognized it.  What he held was an unmistakable, dark, square bottle of Jack Daniels.  In English he yelled out a price of 20 dollars.  I could hardly believe it. These six guys had probably been waiting hours to ambush our convoy, not with bullets and bombs but with whisky and rum.  Judging by their smiles I don't think they realized how close I had come to turning their Caprice with worn out shocks into a piece of scrap metal, twisted and flaming on the side of the road.  Apparently they trusted the judgment of a tired and nervous 19 year old holding a machine gun enough to approach with whisky to sell.

When no rifle barrels protruded from the windows I began to relax, and just for fun; I began haggling the price down.  After several seconds of negotiations they sped up to solicit the truck in front of me.  Did they really think an Army convoy, moving at top speed and stretching as far as the eye could see, would pull over to purchase whisky?  We had been told the ground war would be brutal and bloody.  Now only two weeks old, we sped down the main Highway in Southern Iraq, facing Iraqis brandishing alcohol instead of weapons.  Did they think we were some type of crazed beasts coming to Iraq for a hell of a party? What had these brave entrepreneurs been told about us?

I would soon learn that there were Iraqis everywhere trying to sell booze to Americans.  Not only booze but narcotics as well.  Hash, downers, uppers and all types of prescription medicine could be purchased very easily wherever you found American soldiers.  There was also usually quite an extensive collection of Hukas and tobacco products that could be purchased off the side of the road.  Barefooted children would run along side our trucks holding tiny bags of hash in the air.  They would shout "Meesta, Meesta, smoke for you Meesta!" 

In situations like this the U.S Army trusts you with good judgment.  They trust you to shoot only when necessary and to not do anything stupid.  You have to learn when it's appropriate to send hundreds of burning pieces of lead at someone or when to call in an air strike.  Every soldier no matter how young or intelligent is a link in a chain.  Your responsibilities and decisions could possibly affect hundreds of lives. 

It has always been hard for me to understand how the U.S Army trusts your judgment enough with a machine gun or with a million dollar weapon system, but they won't trust you to drink a few beers in the barracks if your underage.  I still don't get it.  They teach you to drive tanks, shoot howitzers and fire rockets but no boozing if you're underage.  Why that might be dangerous! 

War Talk

Sometimes we talk about nothing but the war. Sometimes we avoid it.  Sometimes we are all in high spirits and enjoying ourselves.  Inevitably the war is brought up.  A funny story about a friend from back home will lead someone else into a similar story about one of their friends.  The story will start light and soon it will descend into discomfort and personal agitation.  Story begets story and the one betters will raise the carnage meter.  At this point the discussions usually break down into a poker game of sorrow.  The chips are dead comrades and terrible atrocities.  "I call your loss of your best friend and raise you 5 dead platoon members."    An innocent story about a goofy hick friend from Georgia can lead into an unpleasant story about an IED attack and the ensuing chaos.  Or maybe it will lead into a tale of a mortar attack, then capture, then smashed hand with mortar tube.  Tim O'Brian was right.  A true war story leaves us all silent, uncomfortable and troubled.

The Bus

We slept the last night in Kuwait on our trucks.  A battalions worth of Field Artillery minus the tracked vehicles all lined up and ready to go.  We were supposed to go through Turkey.  We were supposed to shoot lots of rockets.  There was supposed to be a big fight for Baghdad.  Guthrie and I weren't supposed to be smoking weed but we were.* It was April 20th and Baghdad fell almost two weeks ago.  Our meager weed supply held up longer than Saddam's supposedly bad ass Republican Guard.  "Shit man, Up there we're going to be busy, and we can probably find some hash." Guthrie reasoned.  "Yeah if we run over a land mine tomorrow we will regret not smoking the last of it and enjoying ourselves one more time.  Our last little joint burned away under a brilliant night sky while we lay on our backs in our sleeping bags philosophizing.  Guthrie put in Aerosmith's greatest hits.  Just like kids on a sleepover, we stayed up late talking about girls, stars and what we thought we knew about war.  We asked questions neither of us could answer.     Giggles and jokes didn't come easy after the smoke.  I repeatedly expressed a sincere doubt in the mechanical reliability of our truck.  "No it's all good"  Guthrie said as he ducked under the hood with a long screwdriver in his hand.  This is how we started the beast, with a screwdriver to trick the starter into operation.  We had to start the truck every 10 hours so the batteries wouldn't die.  Early the next morning we crossed into Iraq through a hole in the sand berm.  Some idiot played a Toby Keith song over the Charlie Battery radio net.  It said something about Uncle Sam putting a boot in an ass.  I felt ready, ready for whatever was going to happen to us up north.  After sitting around for 30 days in Kuwait we were all ready for something new even if it was war.  A couple miles past the border we saw something new.  There were kids everywhere running around without shoes.  They wore thin and worn out clothes.  In the distance we could see their simple earth colored homes.  They were hungry.  They asked us for food and water.  After the kids we saw more new things.  Rusted tanks sat in sand berm crypts.  Some were grossly disfigured others looked intact and almost peaceful.  They had been there since the first gulf war.  They almost looked like part of the natural landscape, rusting and slowly returning to the earth.  After an hour of steady progression north we passed the bus.  Whenever I look at the photograph I get chills.  In the distance sat a double decked bus, just like the ones in London.  It was on the shoulder of the road.  As we got closer I could see that it had been shot up and burned.  All the windows were blown out.  The driver door hung wide open.  It looked sinister.  As we blew by it at 50 mph I noticed the burnt clothing scattered around the bus.  The truck in front of us ran over a sandal and sent it flipping into the air and sailing off the road.  Our truck swerved as Guthrie snapped a picture.  Our commander reprimanded us over the radio.  He saw the flash in the mirror and watched us swerve.  He told us to focus.  I was feeling many things but focused wasn't one of them.

*I wasn't going to put this down on paper but smoking marijuana is a minor infraction in the context of an illegal war, against a defenseless country that never attacked the United States.  I'm telling the truth from now on.  It feels good.  The politicians won't so I'll start us off.

Me And My Rifle

Why did I like carrying an M-16?  I waited in line with the others in Basic Training like it was Christmas morning.  It's strange to think about now but I can tell you I was elated to receive the famous M-16.  All the movies and video games never showed me what it truly is.  During my time in the Army I finally understood what a rifle was all about.  It's a tool of death.  Never has it created something, or fixed a problem.  It doesn't spread democracy.  It doesn't spread peace.  A rifle crack is quick, sharp and final.

Now that I have acknowledged that the M-16 is far from a toy I again ask why?  I have to be honest.  I loved carrying a rifle.  After a while it fused into my skin, bones character and soul.  Am I evil for that?  Am I a violent monster?  Well let me tell you something.  I came from an average all-American family.  My mom is a schoolteacher.  Our walls are filled with pictures of little league, vacations, grandkids, high school and weddings.  I open doors for little old ladies.  Yes I can safely say that I'm American and I loved the M-16. If I am a normal lower middle-class lad, then something is wrong. 

Why did I know the difference between an M-16 and an AK-47 before I could compare a Hindu to a Muslim, or a poem to a Haiku?

Imagine, See, Hope

Imagine a high school student naive and ignorant. Imagine an Army recruiter barely breaking a sweat. Imagine a display case outside of the principle’s office proclaiming heroes of the local enlistees. Imagine watching it all start on a big screen TV in a trailer in Oklahoma.

See the sand truck tent gas mask rifle. See Burger King, Baskin- Robbins, Cinn-A-Bonn don’t stop for anyone. See barefoot kids hot road mud hut double-time diesel run. See burned out Baghdad looter no bridge havin’ Gatorade holier than God.

Hope home come soon high noon white hat we ain’t got. Hope change of clothes scene mean wiener get wet get your bags set. Hope for flat broke toke no joke better reach for the rope. Hope love dirt words wash hands stains pants lose crease set sail for dreams please.

All My Adult Life I've Been A Veteran

Imagine, See, Hope

How to Make a Combat Paper Book


Nate Lewis

I am an Iraq War veteran who now writes and makes art. I facilitate Combat Paper workshops and have two books of writing published with Combat Paper Press. I live in the Finger Lakes region of New York and my firewood is stacked neatly for the coming winter.

Press about Nate Lewis:
This is Not War Story features Nate Lewis.     Film Review
Soldier Finds Peace in Papermaking